Premier League Round-Up: The Season Kicks Off

Every couple of weeks we’ll check in with a Premier League Round-Up, exploring some of the developments in the world’s most watched league.  As we enter the first of this season’s international breaks, we took a look at some of the more interesting developments from the first 270 minutes of Premier League football. Also, if you missed it, we previewed the season a few weeks ago. 

  1.    Manchester United Have the Strongest Starting Eleven

Manchester United’s spending this summer on their first choice eleven reads more like NASA’s space program expenditures than the investments of a football club – over thirty million pounds for Eric Bailly and nearly thirty five million pounds for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was signed on a free, but is still getting paid whatever it takes to keep Zlatan happy without Champions League football. There are only a handful of clubs in the world that can sign two thirty-plus million pound players in one transfer window. But save perhaps Real Madrid (and even Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who broke the world record transfer fee for Gareth Bale a few years ago, balked at the fee) no other team in the world can afford United’s crowning jewel of the summer – Paul Pogba, with Juventus sending the French star to Manchester in exchange for a cool ninety million pounds.

When you outspend every other team in the world, you expect truly world class players in return. So far so good. Three wins, nine points and the rest of the Premier League has taken notice. Ibrahimovic opened his account in his first competitive match for United, a 2-1 win against Premier League winners Leicester City in the FA Community Shield Cup. He has since scored two goals in three games in the Premier League. Bailly looks strong, fast and composed at CB, a perfect fit for the physical style of English top-flight football. And Pogba looks every bit the running, shooting, passing, all-action CM he was promised to be.

The addition of three world class players (and Mkhitaryan hasn’t even started a game yet) has resulted in a revolution of United’s play. Playing alongside superstars Pogba and Bailly takes a huge amount of pressure off the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Luke Shaw and Daley Blind, players that were written off last season as not being good enough for United. All three have shown vast improvements so far this season. Yet,the most noticeable difference has been in Wayne Rooney’s play. With so many supporters calling for the club legend to take a backseat to other attacking talents, Rooney has seen a mini revitalization so far this season. He has a goal and two assists and looks brighter and more dangerous than he did under previous boss Louis Van Gaal. With opposing defenses focusing their attention on Ibrahimovic, Rashford and Martial, Rooney has more space and time to operate. If Rooney can continue his resurgence and the role players on United can hold up while the stars continue to shine, Manchester United will be a nightmare to play against.

  1. Pep Guardiola Has Brought a New Style to the Premier League

While the Premier League offers some of the most high intensity football on the planet, the English top-flight is not generally known as a breeding ground for tactical development (see Sam Allardyce’s appointment as England manager). This season will be different. Six of the top twelve or so best managers in the world currently operate in Premier League dugouts.  Perhaps the most technically gifted of the group is Pep Guardiola. Architect of the late 2000’s and early 2010’s Barcelona team that won fourteen trophies during a four year spell, Pep Guardiola has brought his possession based philosophy to Manchester City.    

In the three games City has played, the change in style is already apparent. Prior to Pep’s arrival, City deployed an attacking based 4-4-2 with a solid back four required to cover for any deficiencies in the undermanned midfield. This season, City is lining up in a 4-3-3 formation, but while in possession the two fullbacks Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta push high up the pitch, shifting into almost a 2-5-3. To cover the space vacated by the attacking fullbacks, the CB pairing of Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones split wide. And to cover the space between the CBs, back-up GK Willy Cabellero (more on the City GK situation in a minute) has played off his line, almost as a sort of sweeper-keeper. Allowing such space at the back works because Pep’s teams hold the ball.  Manchester City is averaging 67% possession while completing the most passes and having the second most touches of all Premier League teams.

This style of play requires certain personnel: CBs and a GK capable of playing with the ball at their feet, attacking full backs with the ability to put pressure on opposing wingers, and quick shifty attackers. Just ask Joe Hart whether Pep Guardiola is changing the playing style of Manchester City. The now former City and England No. 1 was deemed an ill-fit for Pep’s style due to his poor technical skills with the ball at his feet and has now been unceremoniously shipped to Torino after a decade of service to the club. Claudio Bravo, Barcelona’s former No. 1, has been brought in to replace Hart and send Cabellero back to the bench.  And John Stones, a CB more comfortable pulling a Cryuff turn than making towering clearances, was brought in for nearly 50 million pounds, a world record fee for a defensive player.   

A battle appears to be brewing in Manchester. With United spending heavily on a new core of star players and Pep transforming City’s play style, the smart money is on the Premier League trophy making its way to Manchester. And on the horizon – Saturday September 10th, Manchester United v. Manchester City.  

  1. Chelsea Will be Harder to Break Down This Year

Down in London, Chelsea is undergoing its own tactical revolution. Replacing the recently departed Jose Mourinho (recently departed can almost always be used to describe Jose Mourinho) is Antonio Conte. The man famous for righting the sinking ship at Juventus and going toe-to-toe with the mighty German national team with a group of good but not great Italians, Antonio Conte is bringing solidity back to Stamford Bridge. The start of the season has been a revelation for Chelsea supporters. Three games played. Two goals conceded. Five shots allowed on target. After putting up the weakest title defense last season in decades, Chelsea has nine points and is joint top of the table.  

What’s changed? Conte has his team playing disciplined and organized football. Chelsea has generally started games in an ostensible 4-1-4-1 formation, but either naturally with the starting personnel (Willian, Oscar and Hazard joining Diego Costa in attack) or by substitution (bringing on new signing Michy Batshuayi for Oscar to join Diego Costa as a strike partner) the formation has often shifted to a 4-2-4. The 4-2-4 formation, while generally open and attacking oriented when Chelsea have possession, requires hard running and defensive discipline from the Chelsea midfield when they lose the ball. So far this season Conte has preferred defensive strength in his midfield by pairing the hard tackling Nemanja Matic and newly acquired N’Golo Kante over assist generator Cesc Fabregas. Matic and Kante has worked tirelessly to shield a back four containing an on-his-last-legs-for-three-seasons John Terry and an error prone Gary Cahill.  

Will the new-found defensive solidity keep leading to wins? Time will tell. Chelsea will need Costa to keep replicating his sterling 2014-2015 form rather than whatever he put on show for supporters in 2015-2016. Eden Hazard will need to keep showing PSG why he’s worth tens of millions of pounds if he is ever going to get his desired exit out of London. The addition of deadline day signing David Luiz, back at Chelsea after a two-year stint at PSG, will add much needed mobility to the back line. If Costa and Hazard continue to perform like they have in the first three games and the defensive shield holds up, Manchester United and Manchester City should be looking over their collective shoulders.

  1. Arsenal Isn’t in Crisis Mode, Yet

Arsenal is a quintessential “glass half-full, glass half-empty” club. On the one hand, Arsenal is one of the most consistent teams in world football.  Since the appointment of Arsene Wenger in 1996-1997, Arsenal has never finished outside the top four. Except for United, whose supporters became drunk with success under Sir Alex Ferguson’s leadership, any other Premier League team would kill for that kind of consistency. On the other hand, Arsenal haven’t won the Premier League since 2003-2004, haven’t made it out of the Champions League Round of 16 since 2009-2010 and the supporters have generally been starved of trophies for the past decade and a half.  

If Arsenal is ever to finish outside the top four, this is the season. All of its main rivals have strengthened significantly. Arsene Wegner is infamous for refusing to open the purse strings for world class players, and this year has not been different. Arsenal was linked with but ultimately failed to land each of Alexandre Lacazette, Antoine Griezmann, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy.  Newly acquired Shkodran Mustafi will add depth and quality to the back four and Granit Xhaka adds steel and mobility to the midfield, but these are hardly the statement purchases that supporters are begging for.

So far this season, things on the pitch for Arsenal have been largely mediocre, with four points from three games and having played some good football. Defending champion Leicester was held scoreless at the King Power Stadium and Watford was outclassed at Vicarage Road. The troublesome result, however, was a home loss to fellow top 4 rival Liverpool. Arsenal’s defense was torn to shreds, conceding four goals in a 20 minute, game-killing span, before pulling two back late to make the scoreboard read a bit kinder.

Arsenal face a soft run of fixtures over the next few weeks with matches against newly promoted Hull, Burnley and Middlesbrough and the two more difficult fixtures of Southampton and Chelsea both coming at the Emirates. If Arsenal can pick up 12 points from that slate, they will be right back in the top 4 hunt. Drop a few points to newly promoted clubs, however, and Arsene Wegner’s hot seat will become a whole lot hotter.     

  1. Liverpool Can Beat Anyone in the Country. Liverpool Can Lose to Anyone in the Country

When the fixture list first came out, it was not pretty reading for Liverpool FC supporters.  Trips to Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea were coupled with a visit to Anfield by Leicester City in the first five weeks of the season. Many considered the first two months the most critical period of the season for Jurgen Klopp’s Reds.  

So far, Liverpool have acquitted themselves well in these high profile showdowns. Two trips to north London have resulted in four points and five goals.  Coupled with the results was some truly exciting football. New signing Sadio Mane has the power, pace and skill that the squad lacked last season. Dejan Lovren continues his renaissance from worst defender in the Premier League to an above average CB. Phillipe Coutinho showed why he’ll be playing for Barcelona in 1-2 years with a stunning 30 yard free kick followed by a team goal-of the season, finishing off a 19 pass Liverpool move. As the Kop sings, “Poetry in Motion”.

As any Liverpool FC supporter will know, however, the Reds never make the good times last. Sandwiched between those two results was one of the worst performances of the short season, a 0-2 loss to newly promoted Burnley at Turf Moor. If the result was embarrassing, the performance was appalling. Liverpool finished the match with nearly 81% possession, took 26 (!) shots, had 12 corners but failed to break down the world famous Burnley defense. Time and again Liverpool’s midfield of Jordan Henderson, Coutinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, et al. ran out of ideas in the final third. Despite the 26 shots, Burnley’s goalkeeper Tom Heaton was rarely troubled, with only five of those being on target as Liverpool were repeatedly forced into taking 30-yard pot-shots from outside the box.

So is Liverpool amazing or terrible? The answer is probably a bit of both. Liverpool has enough attacking talent to cut Arsenal to ribbons four times in 20 minutes at the Emirates. Liverpool has enough defensive balance to hold Harry Kane to 0 shots in a match and nearly (and probably should have) beat Spurs at White Hart Lane. Liverpool is terrible enough to lose handedly to a newly promoted team without ever really looking likely to will score.

If Jurgen Klopp wants to bring the coveted Premier League title to the starved Liverpool supporters, he will need to iron out these inconsistencies. With so many rivals for the top 4looking like truly strong outfits in the first few games of the season, Liverpool cannot drop points to bottom-half clubs. Fortunately for Liverpool, their next two games are against Chelsea and Leicester City.

-Brendan Cappiello

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