Premier League Review: Oh, Arsene 

by | Aug 15, 2016

At ten thirty on Saturday night, a nation sat bewitched in front of its collective television set. Would he or wouldn’t he? If he did, would he opt for baggy, modesty covering shorts, or would he go all in, cock and balls visible as an outline through the tightiest of whities, or perhaps a luminous mankini? In the end, Gary went for the former, opting to stand before the camera with the probable knowledge that sitting down can make even the buffest of specimens look as though they’ve got three stomachs. It was the sensible choice. The salt and vinegar of the options laid before him.

That so much attention might have been lavished upon a comparative triviality may be a reflection on an opening day of the Premier League season that offered comparatively little, yet still managed to under-achieve on that particular front. The highlight of the first day of top flight football of the new season came with the lunchtime kick-off, as Hull City made a mockery of pre-season predictions by beating Leicester City at the KCOM Stadium. Hull, with thirteen fit players and a caretaker-manager in charge of a first team match for the first time, have been widely predicted to plummet like a leaky submarine this season, but on Saturday lunchtime caretaker-manager Mike Phelan managed to wring a performance to be truly proud of from the thirteen fit players and the handful of youth bench-warmers at his disposal with a thoroughly well deserved win against the champions, who became the first defending English champions to lose their opening match of the season in twenty-seven years.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this – the owners of the club should be offered no praise for this result, which came about in spite of their negligence in running the club over the summer rather than because of it in any way. This triumph belonged to the players, the manager and, above all, the supporters. The opening goal game in stoppage time at the end of the first half when, following a brilliant Kasper Schmeichel save from a Curtis Davies header, Adama Diomande and Abel Hernandez both attempted to bicycle kick the same ball. The goal was given to Diomande, but it’s likely that the magnanymity awarded by Hernandez after the match was most likely due to the surprise of recording such an unlikely win. Riyad Mahrez levelled the scores for Leicester a couple of minutes into the second half from the penalty spot, but the winning goal, a low, left-footed drive from Robert Snodgrass ten minutes later, was certainly deserving of settling the occasion.

What, though, of Leicester City? It is true enough to recognise the importance of the N’Golo Kante-shaped hole in their team. Claudio Ranieri might well be wondering how much of this was down to complacency on the part of his players. In a way, we might we postulate, he will be hoping that it is, because complacency can be bred out of players with a little skill. There was, however, a revealing moment in a pre-match interview with a handful of Leicester players when the interviewer told them that the odds against their relegation were just 14/1 in spite of having won the Premier League last season. The response of the players, guard suddenly dropped in the face of a piece of information of which they were clearly unaware, was a fascinating insight into the closed-off world of the modern professional footballer and the puncturing of their post-title bubble of glee. Leicester should improve this season, but this would not have been a great start had they finished seventeenth place last season.

The three o’clock kick-offs brought five matches, ten teams, and no-one able to score more than a single goal in ninety minutes. Everton, Middlesbrough and Southampton were all held at home by Tottenham Hotspur, Stoke City and Watford respectively, whilst Burnley and Crystal Palace were beaten at home by Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion. Spurs had to bounce back from going behind to an early Ross Barkley free-kick at Goodison Park, with Erik Lamela’s deft second half header grabbing them a share of the proceedings after the visitors, despite having to place an injured Hugo Loris with Michel Vorm on account of a first half injury. Although they were pegged back, however, this was an encouraging performance from Ronald Koeman’s team, a sign that Everton might be moving in the right direction under his tutelage. In the Saturday evening match, Manchester City had a bit of cough and splutter about them and were reliant on an own goal from Sunderland debutee Paddy McNair to seal a narrow win, by two goals to one. A win is a win, but Manchester City will have to improve upon this performance if they are to fulfil many people’s expectations for this season.

Sunday afternoon’s two matches provided greater entertainment, but it took a while to get there. The egos landed at Dean Court at lunchtime, as Manchester United strolled to a comfortable three-one win against Bournemouth. Juan Mata gave United the lead with a goal five minutes from half-time that owed as much to some Keystone Kops-esque Bournemouth defending as anything else, but the bantership of hot air that is going to follow Manchester United around all season truly left its moorings when Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic added two further goals in five minutes surrounding the hour mark before Adam Smith pulled a desultory goal back for the home team. And Juan Mata was substituted again, of course. Of course. So it goes. 

If ever there was a a perfect working example of the futility of existence unless living at the top of the food chain, we witnessed it at The Emirates Stadium in the final match of the weekend when five of the seven goals scored in a feisty and schadenfreudetastic match between Arsenal and Liverpool were scored by former Southampton players. Yes, yes, yes, the outstanding academy that the club has developed has kept the club more than solvent, and yes, there doesn’t seem to be much sign of the production line slowing significantly just yet. One cannot help but wonder, however, what the Saints might have been capable of were it not for the perpetual raids on their playing staff from elsewhere over the last few years or so. 

It was a match that took a while to come to the boil. Theo Walcott missed a penalty kick but then made amends by giving Arsenal the lead shortly afterwards, but Phillipe Coutinho equalised for Liverpool in stoppage time at the end of the first half and in the first twenty minutes of the second half we were treated to an especially early season variant of a phenomenon perhaps best described as “The Full Arsenal Meltdown”, which allowed Liverpool to race into a three goal lead, before Arsenal finally woke up and clawed something back to make a game of it at four-three. The opening day honours from a chaotic afternoon in North London, however, ended up resting with Liverpool. 

Arsene Wenger had his finger of blame ready after the match, of course, and as ever it wasn’t pointing at himself. His rationale, that his players weren’t “ready on a physical level” and that the shortening of the close season is to blame for this, overlooks the fact that this state of affairs is the same for all clubs and that perhaps pre-season fitness levels would be a little higher were it not for clubs – and yes, those clubs do include Arsenal – jetting off around the world a couple of weeks before the start of the season. Ultimately, if Premier League clubs wish to turn themselves into football’s equivalent to the Harlem Globetrotters that’s their choice, but they probably need to understand that one of the inevitable side effects of globetrotting is jetlag. It would be a bold move for a club to turn down an International Champions Cup place because it considers pre-season preparations to be more important than generating still more revenue streams. The likelihood of this ever happening, however, are probably about as great as that of Gary Lineker presenting a second successive Premier League trophy in a pair of speedos, come the end of this season. 

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