Liverpool made a statement on Sunday as it won, 4-3, at Arsenal. It’s just not clear what that statement was. Even Jürgen Klopp seemed unsure. With 15 minutes to play, after his team had conceded a third goal and seemed poised to throw away a comfortable victory, Klopp shrugged his shoulders, spread his palms and laughed, a composite of confusion, frustration and disbelief. Arsenal’s fight back faded, Liverpool kept hold of a victory it had carved out with 17 minutes of brilliance.
Both teams started without a recognized central striker. Arsenal also began with a backup full back and an untried youngster in the central defense. Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud, who helped France to the final of the Euros, are absent after extended breaks. Since Arsène Wenger’s summer doesn’t end until he makes his annual blockbuster signing on deadline day, there is a perverse logic in star players staying on holiday when the season starts.
The first half was illuminated by 60 seconds that summed up Theo Walcott. He missed a penalty kick but in the next attack finished with dead-eyed accuracy to give Arsenal the lead.
Liverpool, predictably missing Daniel Sturridge, opted to start Roberto Firmino in the center of attack. For 45 minutes, Liverpool was punchless. Then Philippe Coutinho scored from a free kick and lit the touchpaper. Suddenly Liverpool loaded with attacking midfielders and defenders made sense.
Firmino, Coutinho, Georgino Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno surged forward in quick, clever, well co-coordinated attacks. Arsenal’s inexperienced defense caved. Lallana and Coutinho scored. Then Sadio Mané, the most menacing of the Liverpool players, slalomed through to put Liverpool three goals up.
Within a minute, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had embarrassed the Liverpool defense with a carbon copy dribble and score. Calum Chambers out-jumped the defense to head Arsenal within one and left Klopp bemused. Liverpool briefly burned brilliantly, yet its defense imploded. It is a team to watch, but not to bet on.
Manchester United’s 3-1 victory at Bournemouth on Sunday wasn’t pretty but it was impressive. United was simply too strong, literally as well as metaphorically, for the Cherries. It already looks like a team following the Mourinho method.
United is the richest member of soccer’s 0.1%. It likes to spend its wealth on the gaudiest and costliest bling. After a summer splurge, United has the three top-paid players in the Premier League as well as the top-earning goalie in the world. It may, or may not, also have broken the world transfer record for Paul Pogba. United probably overpaid Pogba’s old club, Juventus, his agent, Mino Raiola, and the midfielder himself, but that’s how bling works. Negotiating a bargain would defeat the purpose. United might not be able to beat other teams at soccer, but it can beat them at shopping. Many United’s fans loved it. So did Mourinho.
Mourinho only works for clubs that can beat their rivals with a checkbook. United is his kind of club. His trick, when it works, is to take the most expensive players and persuade them to work like underdogs. He also prefers big expensive unites to small ones. On Sunday, even without Pogba, United played bigger and stronger than Bournemouth. Marouane Fellaini, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Anthony Martial bullied the Bournemouth midfield and defense.
Juan Mata, a skillful but lightweight player Mourinho has unloaded before, snapped like a terrier. He harassed the much larger Simon Francis into not one but two errors in a few seconds and was rewarded with a tap-in goal.
Two of the big boys, Rooney and Zlatan, added scores. One game into the Mourinho era, United was alone atop the standings.
Now with added pep
Also under new management, Manchester City began the season with a 2-1 victory over Sunderland.
City opened last season with a 3-0 victory and won its first five. Yet as that promise faded, the club was drawn to the sparkle of Guardiola. On Sunday, more than 10 weeks into the Pep era and City still doesn’t look anything like Barcelona. They look a lot like the City team that finished fourth last season.
Most of the players Guardiola has signed for his revolution were, for one reason or another, unavailable. Guardiola still rang changes. He only picked one defensive midfielder but the most visible tactical innovation was the infield positioning of the fullbacks when City attacked. One thing that hadn’t changed was the positioning of the fullbacks when City defended. As John Stones went off on a sightseeing stroll in the 71st minute, Bacary Sagna was close enough to Jermain Defoe to play the Sunderland striker onside but not close enough to prevent Defoe scoring.
City still won, thanks to a penalty and an own goal. Guardiola could smile and talk of a “first step.” He knew it wasn’t pretty. Unlike Mourinho, Guardiola cares about pretty. Maybe City will play like Barcelona next week.
A visit to a team that had just lost its coach, made almost no summer signings and whose fans are in revolt, seemed the ideal start to Leicester’s defense of its unlikely league title.
It didn’t turn out that way. Hull, after all, came through the promotion playoff last season. It is used to winning. On Saturday, Hull exploited the privilege of the underdog and defended in depth even though it was at home. Leicester, unable to counter-attack, still created chances. Jamie Vardy missed badly, twice, punching himself in the face in fury after the second.
The bigger questions might come in defense. The one key player Leicester failed to keep was N’Golo Kanté. Having spent the season hunting the ball for Leicester, this summer he chased the cash to Chelsea. Last year, the space in front of Leicester’s central defenders belonged to Kanté. On Saturday, when a poor clearance dropped on the edge of the box and simply sat there, Leicester fans might have been waiting for N’Golo. Instead Robert Snodgrass raced in and bashed the winning goal for Hull.
Leicester can still be dangerous, especially if it keeps Riyad Mahrez, but without Kanté it will struggle to contend.
The new kid
The first American to leave a bootprint in the sand of the fresh Premier League season was Lynden Gooch, a diminutive 20-year-old from California making an unexpected debut for Sunderland in the late game on Saturday.
More experienced or heralded Americans, Geoff Cameron, Brad Guzan, Cameron Carter-Vickers and DeAndre Yedlin had stayed nailed to the bench or stuck in the stands in earlier games.
Yedlin is in limbo at Spurs. Sunderland, where he appeared 23 times last season, could use him. Indeed, if coach David Moyes is to be believed, they could do with just about any warm body. So Gooch, who left Santa Cruz for the Sunderland youth squad at the age of 12, made a surprise start on the left against Manchester City. With his team on the back foot, Gooch touched the ball barely a dozen times in 65 minutes, yet he made the most of those touches. Gooch created and exploited space on the wing and put a series of dangerous balls into the goalmouth.
He did enough to suggest we will see him again.