Premier League Review: The Football Broke Out
The Sunday newspaper headlines made it perfectly clear whose performances were those that mattered from yesterday lunchtime’s tete-a-tete at Old Trafford. In a sense, the match between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola is a reasonably interesting contest. Two men with a history meeting this way in our backyard has a dramatic feel to it, and it’s a story that has been repeated through the ages over a variety of different mediums. But in the context of the Premier League it is a sub-plot, no matter how the press may attempt to spin it.
For forty minutes from the kick-off of the match, Manchester City played football worthy of the highest praise, strangling the life out of Manchester United with sweeping, attacking football that was rewarded with two goals. At that pace it is, perhaps, unsurprising that it couldn’t fully be sustained over a whole ninety minutes. Manchester United found a route back into the game as half-time approached – and yes, we need to talk about that, Manchester City – and might well have snatched a point on another day.
But we do need to talk about Claudio Bravo, whose nervous, fumbling, studs-out debut for Manchester City turned the goalkeeper’s name to the opposite of onomatopaeic. Few talked, a couple of weeks ago, about the possibility of changing goalkeeper two weeks into the new season being something of a gamble. Joe Hart had shortcomings. Of that there is little question, but he was never a shambolic mess for Manchester City yesterday, and Claudio Bravo (sic) needs to improve upon this. Other than that, however, Manchester City looked close to faultless yesterday afternoon. The watching rest of the Premier League likely took a collective sharp intake of breath when the full-time whistle blew at Old Trafford, yesterday.
But neither were Manchester United terrible, either. We love to polarise these days, but United put in a solid ninety minutes – the histrionics of taking off two new signings at half-time notwithstanding – and might have snatched a point had Zlatan Ibrahimovich not glanced Rarcus Mashford’s low shot in off a shin pad from an offside position. Against many Premier League teams, their performance would have been sufficient to take three points. But this was not ordinary opposition. Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that managers are stealing back page headlines that should really belong to two very good football teams.
Another team that seemed to click into gear this weekend was Tottenham Hotspur. Third place in the Premier League at the end of last season for the first time since the dinosaurs ruled the earth and Champions League qualification should really be been a cause for celebration, but the circumstances under which the season ended left a bittersweet taste which has lasted through a slightly groggy feeling, if not a full-blown hangover. Yesterday afternoon, however, Spurs blew away a few cobwebs with a convincing four-nil thrashing of Stoke City. It was the second time that Spurs have beaten Stoke by this scoreline in 2016, and was particularly notable for being the first time that they’ve scored more than once in a league game this season and marking a return goalscoring activity for both Delle Alli and Harry Kane.
Stoke City, though, had another dismal afternoon at the office. True enough, had Victor Wanyama been sent off for a couple of industrial challenges whilst on a yellow card – his substitution was no great surprise – while the game was still competitive the texture of the match might have ended up somewhat different, but Stoke have been a combination of ineffective in attack and defensively profligate all season, a trend which is threatening to metastasise into something altogether more troubling for Mark Hughes, who was sent from the stands yesterday, not a strong look at a time when a calm hand at the tiller may be just what’s needed in the Potteries at the moment.
For Leicester City, meanwhile, reality continues to bite. The defending champions are now starting to look a little like what we might have expected them to this time last year. It is, perhaps, a reflection on the priorities of modern football that Anfield’s new stand got more attention than the champions of England but considering what happened on the pitch, perhaps Claudio Ranieri will not be overly concerned by that. This was an accomplished performance by a Liverpool team that may not win the league this season – an end game which would, let us not forget, see Liverpool sail through the title-free period that Manchester United went through between 1967 and 1993 – but they promise to at least entertain on their way. Leicester City supporters, meanwhile, should enjoy being the champions while they can. It seems vanishingly unlikely that they’ll be able to come anywhere near repeating that feat again this time around.
Arsenal, meanwhile, continue to treat their season like a combination of Chinese water torture and Christmas Day. With ninety-three minutes on the clock at The Emirates Stadium yesterday afternoon, Arsenal Fan TV was doubtlessly drooling at the thought of the words of wisdom that would pour forth from its great and good, only for a tussle between Jose Fonte and Olivier Giroud to result in Santi Cazorla belting a penalty kick past Frazer Forster to give Arsenal a first home league win of the season. Southampton decried the decision – the apparent lottery of who gets a penalty kick when this kind of thrashing around goes on from corner kicks is one of football’s great unresolvables – but they’d taken the lead thanks to a slice of luck when a shot ricocheted first off the woodwork and then off Petr Cech before bouncing in after eighteen minutes and had found enough chances to regain the lead once Laurent Koscielny had hauled Arsenal level eleven minutes later.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, for West Ham United. Sweeping into the Olympic Stadium was supposed to be the catalyst towards hurling the club towards the top end of the Premier League table, but just two wins in eight matches in all competitions have not been the start to the season that anybody would have particularly expected. By five and twenty to four yesterday afternoon, however, it felt as though the Slaven Bilic’s team had finally found its rhythm, with two Michail Antonio goals catapulting them into a two-nil lead against Watford. This, however, proved to be a false dawn. Two Watford goals pulled the visitors back before half-time, and two more killed the game off long before the final whistle. This was in part due to a somewhat less than inspirational performance from goalkeeper Adrian, who got in a tangle with James Collin to allow Troy Deeney to level just before half-time and, with the team’s confidence having ebbed away to nothing in the second half, getting a palm on shots from Etienne Capoue and Jose Holebas without diverting euther of them to safety doesn’t meet the requirements for near perfection required in the Premier League these days.
By the end of the day, West Ham were in seventeenth place in the Premier League, but the team’s slow start to the season on the pitch seems to pale in comparison with growing unhappiness at the club’s move to Stratford. Reports of persisent standing at matches being dealt with quite differently at the new stadium in comparison with the Boleyn Ground coupled with letters to season ticket holders in some areas of the ground threatening life bans have added to an already tetchy atmosphere at the new ground, with fighting breaking out more than once already this season. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Match of the Day seemed to gloss over this discord, but the club seems to be an unhappy place at the moment. Goals for Watford from Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney, meanwhile, may have reignited supporter hopes that these two will be able to rekindle the form they showed through last season.
Elsewhere, the jockeying of positions continues apace. Crystal Palace, who had hitherto been considered a club bordering on the precipes of CRISIS, won two-one at Middlesbrough, whilst Bournemouth turned up the heat on the West Bromwich Albion manager Tony Pulis with a one-nil win against his team at Dean Court. Contained therein is the fundamental contradiction of Pulisism. He’ll do the initial job, but such is the nature of football support to expect more beyond seventeenth place in the table once that has been achieved. Those bookmakers who make Pulis odds-on to be the next to leave his post could well be onto something. Burnley and Hull City, who might have been considered relegation candidates before the start the season (and might yet turn out to be), cancelled each other out with a goal apiece.
And finally, in Sunday’s match, Swansea City and Chelsea played out a knockabout two-all draw at The Liberty Stadium. It was a match that swung to the visitors, back, and then back again before ending deservedly level. Diego Costa gave Chelsea a deserved first half lead before two goals in four minutes from Gylfi Sigurdsson and Leroy Fer turned the match on its head. Costa struck again with nine minutes left of the match left to play, and the likelihood is that both managers will have ended the afternoon reasoanbly content to have earned a point, although Chelsea’s failure to win means that Manchester City now have the only one hundred per cent record in the division. On the basis if what we’ve seen so far, they are deserved leaders of the Premier League, at this stage of the season.
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