Premier League Review: The Song Remains The Same… Mostly
Anybody with hopes that this Premier League season would be refreshed by the summer break didn’t have to wait long for that feeling to start ebbing away. By the forty-third minute of the Friday night live televission curtain-raising extravaganza, Liverpool led Norwich City by four goals to nil and it felt as though nothing much had changed since May. Except a couple of things have, and they could turn out to be significant.
Liverpool eased off in the second half and Norwich even pulled a goal back through headline-writers’ friend Teemu Pukki, and their greatest concern of the evening came with the injury to goalkeeper Alisson which may leave him out for six to eight weeks. Andy Lonergan is the current favourite to cover his place, but what effect might this have on Liverpool in the meantime? We may find out in the European Super Cup final this week against Chelsea. More on them later.
Manchester City continued that theme of everything staying very much the same as last season in putting five goals past West Ham United on Saturday lunchtime. This match saw the first contentious use of VAR of the season, and kicked off an argument on social media which was as though it hadn’t been used before in the Women’s World Cup, or last year’s Champions League, or the last men’s World Cup. It’s a circular argument that no-one can win, and the options available to football supporters is as follows:
- Accept that it’s definitely here to stay and keep our fingers crossed that its usage will be refined and improved.
- Refuse to accept it, and walk away from football whatsoever. Take up, I don’t know, fell-walking or something.
- Refuse to accept it, and drop down to a level of the game at which its use at least won’t directly impact upon you. That’s the Championship at the moment, but you may wish to explore lower.
- Kind of accept that it’s hear to say, but caterwaul about it relentlessly regardless.
Manchester City were awesome by the way, and Raheem Sterling is almost unrecognisable compared to the player he was just a couple of years ago, and he was quite a player then.
For just over an hour on Saturday tea-time, meanwhile, Tottenham Hotspur made their supporters sweat at home against newly-promoted Aston Villa. This, it had rather felt, was supposed to be the big home-coming. Sure sure sure, they’d already started playing there last season, but there remains something special about the start of the first full season in a new stadium. They raced from the traps for seven minutes, before allowing themselves to be undone by a long ball for the impressive John McGinn – who yes, we were cheer-leading for in the Championship last year – to roll the ball in to give Villa the lead. There followed an hour of Spurs pushing and pushing for a goal, frequently to little effect, before the Tanguy Ndombele capped an outstanding performance by levelling the score and breaking the dam. Two late goals from Harry Kane sealed an eventually comfortable but for a very long period very uncomfortable win.
Saturday’s other truly eyebrow-raising result came at Vicarage Road, where Brighton & Hove Albion, not a team of whom great things are expected this season, put Watford to the sword with a degree of precision most unfamiliar to those witnessed their ponderous football last season. A first half own goal from Abdoulaye Doucouré was all that separated the two teams until well into the second half, but this masks the fact that, under new manager Graham Potter, Brighton played with a purpose simply not seen during most of last season. Late goals from substitutes Florin Andone and Neal Maupay sealed the win. Unusually, considering the club’s busy transfer window, Potter started a team with no new starters, though vindication for at least one new signing came with Maupay’s goal. If that’s a sign of things to come for Brighton, rumours of their imminent relegation might have been over-stated.
The other big winners of the day were Burnley, who shook off the gloom that hung over the club a little last season with a three-nil win against a rather ragged-looking Southampton. Ashley Barnes scored two goals in eight minutes to put the game beyond Southampton, and Johann Berg Gudmundsson added a third to complete three goals in thirteen minutes in the pouring rain at Turf Moor. Meanwhile, the only newly-promoted team of the weekend to pick up a Premier League point was Sheffield United, for whom Billy Sharp rescued a point against Bournemouth. Chris Mepham gave Bournemouth the lead just after the hour, but when Sharp stabbed the ball in. He’d been on the pitch for six minutes as a substitute, and it was his first career goal in the Premier League, after 240 in the Football League.
Wilfried Zaha underwent a very swift redemption in coming on as a substitute during Crystal Palace and Everton’s otherwise unedifying draw at Selhurst Park. Zaha, of course, wanted away to Arsenal, but there was an element of “look at what you could have won” about his team lining up against Everton, who also made a bid for him that was rejected. The home crowd were forgiving, and gave him a rapturous welcome when he was introduced midway through the second half, which may be somewhat better than his behaviour over the summer may have deserved, but he did at least put in a performance worthy of his rousing introduction. It’s not difficult to see why Crystal Palace would be afraid of losing him, even if they may be becoming increasingly resigned to it.
On the 30th April 1949, Wolverhampton Wanderers beat Leicester City by three goals to win the FA Cup. These two clubs have both been through a lot in the seventy years since then, but they’re both in the top flight and are both widely believed to be on the up again this season. Yesterday afternoon, they merely cancelled each other out, with the big difference being Wolves’ sense of grievance over the disallowing of a second half goal. Leander Dendoncker got the ball over the line with eight minutes of the second half played, only for the Robo-Ref to stick its long-lens beak into proceedings and pull play back for a handball against Willy Boly in the build-up. Remember, there’s no such thing as intent any more and repeat the mantra for the good of your own mental health: Accept that it’s definitely here to stay and keep our fingers crossed that its usage will be refined and improved.
If there was a genuine highlight the the match between Newcastle United and Arsenal it was probably this, but Arsenal came away with the feeling of a job nearly almost kind of well done. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the only goal of the game at a thoroughly sodden St James Park, rain which might be considered pathetic fallacy in solidarity with the empty seats of those who are now boycotting Newcastle United. It wasn’t the absolute thrashing that some Newcastle supporters may have been anticipating, but there wasn’t much positive that they could take from the day, and Arsenal – with their new faces also starting on the bench – barely needed to get out of second gear.
At Old Trafford, however, came the story that will exercise the commentariat over the course of the next few days. Considering their slowly deflating whoopee cushion of a season last time around, Manchester United’s performance was an improvement on what was anticipated from them, but this doesn’t quite tell the full story of an match during which Chelsea hit the woodwork twice during the first half. Had they taken either of those chances, the complexion of the game might have ended up considerably different. Chelsea fell to pieces a little in the second half, and that automatically puts Frank Lampard under pressure, regardless of whatever anybody has said about “transitional seasons” (which sound fine until a ball is kicked, it can sometimes feel), but Manchester United were not as good as the full-time score suggested whilst Chelsea weren’t as bad.
Chelsea clearly missed the still injured N’golo Kante and Kurt Zouma’s idiosyncratic performance at centre-back wasn’t one that Lampard won’t be wanting to see again this season and Manchester United did put in a highly accomplished performance. Paul Pogba played with sparkle, whilst Daniel James marked his Premier League debut for the club with a goal. They came to life with the opening goal – a Rashford penalty – and took their chances as Chelsea folded before their eyes during the second half. It was difficult, however, to shake the feeling that neither of these teams will be getting particularly close to Manchester City or Liverpool this season. Shades of grey do not look particularly good on modern football.