Saturday August 13th, 2011

Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League:

1. Reruns and retreads. After the remarkable match between the two clubs at St. James Park last season, it was inevitable that ESPN in the UK would be unable to resist picking Newcastle vs. Arsenal as its opening day live match. It was also equally inevitable that the game would fall far short of matching the excitement of that 4-4 draw.

The lackluster contest offered a chance to take the pulse of two teams that are still disentangling themselves from difficult summers.

On Saturday, Newcastle looked as punchless and pedestrian for 90 minutes as it had when it fell 4-0 down in the first half last season. Only this time Arsenal could not punish its woeful foe. Arsenal dominated possession and, as ever, passed well. But without Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere, it barely managed a shot on goal.

Once again Arsenal damaged its chances at St. James park with a dumb red card. On his Arsenal debut, Gervinho looked exactly what he has always been, a smart, quick, talented striker who does not score nearly enough. How well Arsenal goes this season depends on how quickly he develops an understanding with Robin van Persie, the fragile striker who carries so much of the scoring responsibility for Arsenal. But for that to happen Gervinho will need to spend time on the field. His game ended after 78 minutes when he allowed Joey Barton to provoke him into swinging a hand. His Arsenal education will now be further delayed by a suspension. It was not the striking start Arsenal needed.

2. Joey Barton shows it pays to be a jerk. Arsenal omitted Fabregas and Nasri, two midfielders its coach, Arsene Wenger, has insisted will not leave. Newcastle started Barton, after losing patience with his persistent provocation last week and ordering him to clear off and not led the door hit him on the way out. It would be a brave door that struck Barton, but Gervinho had not got the memo. After the Ivorian dived in the penalty area, Barton grabbed him by the shirt hauled him to his feet and screamed in his face. It was an assault, but Barton did not break the cardinal rule and strike Gervinho. The Arsenal man, threatened and manhandled, was not as smart. He slapped Barton, who went down as if he had been struck with a double-headed ax. Barton, and Wojciech Szczesny, who had run all way from the Arsenal goal to join the melee, received yellow cards. Gervinho saw red. Indeed, the talent for provocation was just about all Barton had to offer all afternoon. It's an unpleasant but valuable talent. Alex Song was fortunate to be on the field after the officials failed to spot his angry stamp on Barton earlier in the second half. Barton had even tried to force the issue by trotting to the sideline and talking to the fourth official, presumably asking if he had seen the incident. He's nasty but he isn't dumb.

3. A red dawn delayed. Such is Liverpool's aura, and wealth, that it can still attract big-name players even when it isn't playing in the Champions League. Such is the charisma of the club, and its manager Kenny Dalglish, that it only takes a couple of summer signings for pundits to start seeing a sixth-placed club as a title contender. Liverpool's lineup on Saturday contained only three players who started the opening game last year. Almost its entire midfield and attack was made up of players bought this year. The signs were promising, the final result disappointing. Charlie Adam set up Luis Suarez for the opener after 12 minutes. But Suarez had already missed a penalty. Badly. Andy Carroll also put the ball in the net, but the goal was disallowed because he had pushed Anton Ferdinand. Stewart Downing hit the bar with a powerful shot, but was unable to influence the final score and that result was a home draw. Sunderland spent much of the first half huddled in defense, but finished with more shots on target. From one of them Seb Larsson volleyed the equalizing goal. So the new-look Liverpool started the season by dropping two points at Anfield.

4. The veneer quickly cracks. Even though Blackburn's players aren't paid much by Premier League standards, what they are earning isn't chicken feed. That might explain the tabloid tales that Venky, the new owners of the club, are trying to unload their best-paid players. Of course, if they succeed, the owners need to find replacements to placate the suspicious fans and give the club a chance of staying in the Premier League, the chicken that lays the golden egg. The upshot is often a gamble on a the type of midpriced overseas player Alan Sugar, chairman of Tottenham at the time, once dubbed "Carlos Kickaball."

How many English fans have ever heard of Mauro Formica a 23-year-old Argentine before he made his league debut on Saturday? Formica was bought for £3.5 million ($5.7M) in January -- shortly after the Venky takeover -- but only made his league debut on Saturday. He had played 76 games over six seasons for Newell's Old Boys scoring 17 goals. He has played once for Argentina. These are not particularly inspiring numbers. Formica seems an appropriate name for a player whose job is to cover over the cracks and was bought because he was more affordable than the alternatives. Well, he provided a nice finish to give his team the lead after 20 minutes. But Stephen Fletcher and Stephen Ward scored to give Wolves a 2-1 victory. A home defeat to one of its main relegation rivals on opening day is not a good sign for Rovers. Still, the new Formica looked nice.

5. Life's a riot. There was a time that the authorities stopped games because they deemed the players rioters. Then games were stopped because the fans rioted. On Saturday, the Premier League season opened with one game -- Tottenham vs. Everton -- postponed because of riots which did not involve soccer in any way.

In Britain, there was a long tradition of holiday street games played by mobs of local young men. And, given the chance, mobs of young men have a taste for misrule. Their games were accompanied by drunkenness, property damage, theft and, of course, bans. In the 1840s, as the authorities stepped up efforts to end the tradition, the militia and army were even brought in to stop games.

When soccer moved into the stadiums and the mobs of local young men moved onto the terraces, they frequently brought a taste for violence, destruction and, of course, alcohol with them.

Last week's flash riots in England provide a wide menu of possible causes. You can select, according to political taste, from social injustice, racism, gangsterism, criminality, psychotic violence, etc. But the difference between simple street crime and a riot is a crowd which gives the participants, including the looters and arsonists, a feeling of anonymity and protection. That safety in numbers is provided by the participation of the rowdy youth that has always been ready to throw bricks and punches in the street -- especially if they think they might be able to get away with it. The sight of clumps of teenagers running away from police through the London streets, offered an instant flashback to anyone who went to soccer games in the 1970s and 1980s.

This time, it wasn't soccer that provided the opportunity for the riot. Maybe that will offer some belated sense of vindication for all those soccer administrators who spent so many years bleating that their sort was being blamed for society's problem. On the other hand, maybe it's a sign of how successful those administrators, led by the Premier League, has been in distancing itself upmarket and away from its traditional fan base of young, poor, males. Now it really is society's problem.

Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.

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