EPL Notes: Top sides still working out kinks as new season begins
The Premier League big guns opened the new season firing duds on Saturday.
Just about the only conclusion from an opening day when Manchester United eked out victory thanks to an own goal and Chelsea finished up clinging to a draw at home, is that United has three points and Chelsea has one.
In a lackluster game at Old Trafford, United beat Tottenham, 1-0. Neither side looked like a contending team. Indeed, there were times neither looked much like a team, period. After all this time to prepare, neither looked quite ready for the season.
United managed one shot on target all game. Tottenham hit four and were denied by a couple of good saves by Sergio Romero. Yet Spurs looked like a team waiting to see what reinforcements arrive in the club’s usual late-August spree. A bit of pace would be nice.
United has already spent big, although, it too, is hoping for some more eye-catching swoops before deadline.
Memphis Depay, the flashiest summer signing, ran around a lot to little effect.
"I said to Memphis that he doesn't have to play too eagerly and with too much passion,” United boss Louis van Gaal said at the post-match press conference.
Van Gaal did praise Matteo Darmian, a cheaper acquisition, who gave a polished low-key display at right back.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, who fulfils the Ángel Di María role of a statement signing that proves United can attract high-visibility stars, provided a brief elder-statesman cameo and made some accurate backward passes. At £15m ($23 million) Scwheini cost a lot less than the £59.7m United spent on Di María. But the German is 30 years old and has missed chunks of the last three seasons with injury. Still, United now boast a World Cup winner on its roster.
Status matters in the modern game. United’s biggest worry is that before the transfer deadline it could find itself once again playing the role of Real Madrid feeder club if David de Gea departs for the Bernabéu.
Dropping de Gea on Saturday may be Van Gaal’s way of telling Real that De Gea isn’t really that good. It could prove a risky strategy.
“As a keeper, you need the highest concentration for 90 minutes and it's difficult for David to do that in his current situation,” Van Gaal said.
Romero, starting in place of David de Gea, did not offer the same calm assurance. The Argentine saved everything but not always convincingly. His distribution, as Van Gaal pointed out after the game, was particularly erratic.
Yet Van Gaal could head out to celebrate his 64th birthday happy in the knowledge that unlike last season, when United lost on opening day to Swansea, his team had opened with a victory.
He doesn't shoot, he scores — There is an old soccer adage that if you don’t buy a ticket you can’t win the lottery. When the best chance Manchester United created on Saturday, indeed the only chance it created, fell to Wayne Rooney after 22 minutes, the England striker seemed so surprised by the sight of an open goal that he froze. He didn’t shoot. United couldn’t score. It did. Kyle Walker, racing to cover, stuck out a foot to block an anticipated shot. Since the ball hadn’t moved he succeeded only in flicking it onto his other foot and then into the net. It rather summed up a day on which United gained the result it wanted without producing the performance it desired.
Chelsea's Champagne is flat — Chelsea, last seen celebrating the Premier League title, looked strangely jaded even when things started well against Swansea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
After 22 minutes, everyone in a crowded goalmouth missed Oscar’s low free kick and it curled in at the far post. Instead of celebrating, Oscar pouted sulkily. On the bench, José Mourinho grimaced and waved a dismissive hand as if disgusted by such a soft goal.
Swansea, which had already come close several times, leveled the score. A lucky deflection put Chelsea ahead at half time.
“First half high quality, high quality,” Mourinho told Sky after the game, which sounded very much as if he was trying to convince himself an empty glass was half full.
Seven minutes into the second half, Chelsea’s normally well-drilled offside trap imploded. Willian, not even a defender, played Bafetimbi Gomis onside. The striker raced on, poked the ball past Thibaut Courtois on the edge of the penalty area. The goalie responded by kicking the striker.
Gary Cahill was behind Courtois, but in the same circumstances if there had been a goalie, who can use his hands, rather than a defender, between Gomis and goal, it would have been a clear red card. Michael Oliver, the referee, sent Courtois off. He will miss the game against Manchester City next week.
John Terry, the man responsible for organizing the offside trap, showed his visits to Arguers Anonymous aren’t working as he earned a yellow card for prolonged, pointless whining.
He may have been channeling his irritation at the shaky play of Chelsea’s central defense all evening.
Gomis converted the penalty. But with 10 men, Chelsea held on fairly comfortably.
Mourinho took that as another positive.
“With ten men we fought hard,” he said.
Then, reflecting on the difficulty of playing 25 minutes a man short, Mourinho made a remark that rather summed up the way Chelsea and United had sputtered, “In the first match of the season where the condition and the sharpness is not at the top.”
If it ain't broke, tinker — Nigel Pearson suddenly became a great manager as Leicester won seven of its nine games last season to climb from last place to finish 14th in the Premier League. Pearson’s job seemed secure.
Leicester is not the first club to find that favoring the manager’s son can be risky. After the club fired Pearson’s son, James and two other fringe players, when video emerged of what the British tabloids termed “an orgy with 10 Thai girls,” the manager also left.
Caught by surprise, Leicester thrashed around before hiring for a replacement who could not have been more different from the bluff, no-nonsense Englishman who had guided Leicester to safety. The club picked Claudio Ranieri, an Italian who has managed 16 teams in a 29-year career and had just ended a disastrous spell in charge of Greece. Ranieri is known as “Tinkerman”. He boasted last week that Pep Guardiola has copied his obsessive tactical fiddling.
For now, he hasn’t tinkered with last season’s momentum.
Leicester scored three times in the first 25 minutes and beat visiting Sunderland, horrible starters in recent seasons, 4-2.
Old-fashioned soccer — A couple of days before the kick off, Christian Benteke took a swing at his former manager, Tim Sherwood, for saying Liverpool would not supply the crosses the striker needed to score.
“I don’t believe that and I told him,” said Benteke. “Football has changed and the football now is modern and I can adapt. It is not just about crossing.”
Aston Villa used part of the Benteke money to buy Rudy Gestede, a 6-foot-4 striker who, over the past two seasons, OptaJoe calculated, had scored 20 headed goals, five more than anyone one else in the top four divisions of English soccer. On Saturday, Gestede came on as a sub at Bournemouth and scored with a header from a corner to give Villa a 1-0 victory. It was an old-fashioned cross, yet there has never been anything more modern in soccer than a winning goal.