Weekend in 200 words or less
And so it begins. Leicester City stole the hearts of fans a few months ago, producing one of the great underdog stories of any sport. It was a truly remarkable moment, but equally a much required wake up call for the supposed elite clubs in England.
Leicester made a statement, but last year’s underachievers fired back with a response. The three previous champions of the past decade all hired top class managers with hopes of altering their identity and goals set by the club. Now the Premier League may still play second fiddle to the Bundesliga and La Liga in terms of personnel, but what the league now offers in return is astonishing.
A league that’s witnessed their best clubs exposed constantly in Europe welcomes the continent’s elite managers, whom aim to tactically enhance their lopsided clubs. It’s a step in the right direction, and with the league currently balanced, the arrivals of these foreign managers suggests this may be the greatest domestic club season ever.
Stunned Champions miss Kante’s grit
The fairy tale that took the Premier League by storm last season initially hit a speed bump, Saturday afternoon. Claudio Ranieri’s men were humbled by new-boys Hull City, courtesy of two wonder goals from Robert Snodgrass and Abel Hernandez. Leicester haven’t regressed over night, and frankly they still possess several star performers and traits that were essential to last season’s success.
Danny Drinkwater’s long diagonals, Riyad Mahrez’s ability to use both feet to evade defenders with his trickery, and Jamie Vardy’s pace combined with his willingness to chase after every loose ball were evident on the day, but Leicester were unable to combine all three traits in one move. Certainly not every team or individual player will hit top form on opening day, but Leicester’s loss illustrated that they’re now the hunted, opposed to the hunters.
Saturday afternoon, Leicester missed their most integral hunter, N’Golo Kante, who completed a move to Stamford Bridge earlier this summer. The champions’ back-line, specifically Wes Morgan and Danny Simpson were constantly exposed, and Andy King is renowned for his late runs into the box rather than his ball-winning skills – this was on display minutes prior to Snodgrass’ winner, when Hull City midfielder, Sam Clucas, easily bypassed King in transition.
Kante was the engine in Leicester’s midfield, harrying opponents and regaining possession in central areas to ignite possible transitional attacks. The French international’s dynamism and ball-winning skills were non-existent at the KC Stadium, and Ranieri’s side were sporadically out-muscled and out-worked in midfield.
Shinji Okazaki injected guile to Leicester’s attack, whereas Ahmed Musa’s speed and direct play enables Ranieri the option to field the Nigerian in any attacking position. Still, Leicester struggled to break down a motivated Hull City outfit containing 13 fit players, which could set the precedent for what could be a difficult season for the champions.
Ranieri will hope Nampalys Mendy could be the combative, forever-running force Leicester require in midfield, as it’s impossible to overlook Kante’s impact.
Koeman outwits Pochettino despite Spurs’ late comeback
Spurs’ collapse during last year’s run-in was supposed to be a lesson for the future, but for over an hour at Everton, one could question whether they carried their form over to the new Premier League campaign. In fairness, Ronald Koeman’s debut at Goodison Park saw the Toffee’s adopt a 3-4-2-1 without Romelu Lukaku, meaning Gerard Deulofeu played ahead of Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas.
The system successfully stifled Spurs in the opening half: Harry Kane was isolated upfront, the attacking trio couldn’t find space between the lines due to adequate protection from Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye, whereas the advanced positioning of the full-backs saw Deulofeu constantly charge laterally into vacant space within the channels.
Victor Wanyama enjoyed a positive debut in a Spurs uniform, but alongside Eric Dier, Pochettino’s side lacked creativity and penetration from midfield, and therefore struggled to build out the back. To be frank, Everton desperately missed Lukaku’s finishing, here, as Deulofeu constantly found himself in goal-scoring positions – Spurs centre-backs struggled throughout – but clearly displayed he must improve his productivity in the box.
The hosts’ profligacy served as a lifeline to the away side, but Pochettino deserves massive credit for altering his system to a 4-4-2 when Koeman’s men tired, pushing Vincent Janssen alongside Kane. Lamela’s equalizer came shortly after Pochettino’s change, as he got ahead of Mason Holgate to nod Kyle Walker’s cross past Joel Robles.
Everton continued to pose a threat on the counter, but with fewer men breaking forward due to lengthy spells out of possession, Spurs’ back-line were never troubled. Still, the hosts’ performance was positive despite dropping points, Koeman’s tactical prowess should provide optimism at Goodison Park – they should have won the game by half-time.
Pep’s City require time to hit peak form
All the pressure is on Pep Guardiola to transform Manchester City into a super power, and even though he may be capable of doing so, it wasn’t going to transpire over night. City required a late Paddy McNair own goal to defeat Sunderland, and though Guardiola’s side has encountered problems against the Black Cats in the past, many City supporters and neutrals expected more.
The hosts were always going to dominate possession for majority of the match, but their passing tempo was languid throughout, thus explaining why they failed to create chances in the final third. Guardiola’s attempt to stamp his identity into this City side, but the Spaniard also requires time to adjust to the league, and complete his summer clear-out.
John Stones and Nolito featured in a City XI that was initially a 4-1-4-1, and though there were brief spells displaying slick passing combinations and rapid counter-pressing, City’s difficulties ensure Guardiola’s men are still a work in progress. Aleksandar Kolarov’s role at centre-back was interesting, whereas Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy – natural full-backs – adopted central half-spaces to ensure City dominated the midfield zone.
However, neither full-back, in particular, Sagna, looked comfortable receiving the ball with their back towards the opposing goal, and they failed to consistently offer any sort of incision or proactive passing in Sunderland’s half. Fernandinho’s passing from a pivot role was mediocre, and until new signings arrive it’s evident Ilkay Gundogan will be a significant figure in Pep’s set-up.
Raheem Sterling’s threat was scarce until he moved to the left hand side for a brief period, whereas Nolito showcased glimpses of what he offers from the left. Then there’s Aguero. The Argentine has been the cornerstone for the club in recent seasons, but unlike former strikers Guardiola has managed, Aguero’s predominantly an excellent finisher that is deprived of an all-round game.
Guardiola was also responsible for a late winner following a tactical change that saw Jesus Navas and Raheem Sterling run at the opposition from wide areas. Where Barcelona was strictly about possession, and Bayern’s direct style resulted in several isolation phases in wide areas, Guardiola will seek a style suitable to the personnel at his disposal.
City will improve with every passing week and it’s only a matter of time before they begin firing on all cylinders.
Mourinho’s United take shape in tidy manner
Of all the performances this weekend, United’s 3-1 win at Bournemouth was probably the most convincing. Although, Mourinho’s men required a bit of fortune to take the lead in the first half via Juan Mata, United were hardly troubled throughout.
While United’s attacking play is still unsettled – Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s partnership is slowly improving – it was United’s back six that were thoroughly impressive. This isn’t much of a surprise considering the Red Devils hoisted the joint best defensive record in the league, but now each player is fulfilling their roles to a tee.
Ander Herrera was tidy in possession and pulled strings from deep with a combination of short and long passes. Meanwhile, Marouane Fellaini physical presence and work-rate has been beneficial in a slightly more advanced role.
Antonio Valencia’s advanced surges from right back have also been decisive: The Ecuadorian created the Community Shield winner, and over the weekend combined with Juan Mata to double United’s lead. Eric Bailly and Daley Blind both produced another powerful performance, with the latter’s passing playing a significant role in United building from the back, whilst easily breaking up play around the box
From a defensive aspect United were superb, and clinically took the chances that were presented to them. It was the ideal Mourinho display based around a solid defensive shape, and devastating efficiency in the final third.
More so, considering United’s depth and Mourinho’s familiarity with the league, it’s difficult to raise an argument as to why any other side should pip the Red Devils for the title. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Paul Pogba yet to feature, United could get even better over the next few weeks and may be the team to beat this season.
Conte’s Chelsea clasp to the Italian’s beat
In terms of personnel, there was one change to the Chelsea XI that started last year’s campaign at Stamford Bridge. N’Golo Kante’s arrival to Stamford Bridge forced Cesc Fabregas to the bench, but more importantly Conte’s decision to deploy a 4-3-3 resulted in an improved defensive shape.
Oscar and Nemanja Matic broke into tackles in midfield, with Kante patrolling space ahead of the back four. Likewise, Chelsea’s defensive line remained closer to goal and was within close proximity of the midfield band. There’s no doubt Chelsea missed Cesc Fabregas’ range of passing and creativity from deeper positions, but his tactical and positional deficiencies couldn’t be compromised, here.
Nonetheless, Chelsea’s attack was limp. Diego Costa comfortably dropped deep into pockets of space to receive the ball, but solely ran towards goal at every opportunity. And where Willian’s form hasn’t been great since pre-season, Eden Hazard often slowed down the attack due to limited support in wide areas.
Despite the occasional clever combinations amongst Chelsea teammates, their best chances stemmed via swift transitions – Cesar Azpilicueta dispossessing Antonio and driving towards goal saw the West Ham defender concede a silly penalty. James Collins equalized from the sole chance West Ham created throughout, as Slaven Bilic’s men were extremely poor throughout, albeit chief creator, Dimitri Payet, making a substitute cameo.
Conte gambled in the final 15 minutes by replacing Oscar, Hazard and Willian, to move to a 4-4-2 with Michy Batshuayi and Costa upfront. The Italian manager’s previous tenures have been based around two strikers constantly linking play upfront – one drops deep to lay the ball off to a midfield player, while the other forward charges beyond the defence.
Chelsea’s winner saw Batshuayi nod Matic’s lofted ball into the path of Costa – who wasn’t closed down by Collins – and the Spanish international fired the low winner past Adrian. Unless the Blues attack the transfer market and bolster the current squad, this is what we could expect from Conte’s side.
Without European football, you can’t exclude the Blues from the title race as Conte’s side will be organized defensively and extremely tough to beat.
Results: Hull City 2-1 Leicester City, Swansea City 1-0 Burnley, Crystal Palace 0-1 West Bromwich Albion, Spurs 1-1 Everton, Middlesborough 1-1 Stoke City, Southampton 1-1 Watford, Manchester City 2-1 Sunderland, Bournemouth 1-3 Manchester United, Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool, Chelsea 2-1 West Ham
- Diego Costa scored from outside the box in the league for the first time since 15th February 2014.
- Liverpool have scored more goals (43) than any other Premier League team in 2016.
- Jermain Defoe has now scored 9 goals against Manchester City, he has only scored more against Aston Villa & Wigan (10 each).
- Ross Barkley has now scored in 3 of Everton’s last 4 opening day matches in the Premier League.
- Leicester are the first reigning champions to lose their opening match of the season in the Premier League era.