The Premier League is back. The Premier League of Late Goals as we used to call it, Alan, is back. A weekend in which everything felt fresh and exciting, and at the same time like a familiar pair of worn slippers, took a slightly surreal turn in its final chapter when Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler desperately tried to convince us something interesting was going to happen in the final moments of Stoke City’s game with Liverpool.
Normally a stat would suffice, but sensing the pull Songs of Praise starting on the BBC may have on his audience, the man on the mike instead chose to coin a moniker no one in the history of the universe has ever used to describe the Premier League.
"We used to call it the league of late goals, Alan [Smith]," said Tyler, addressing us as he might address one of those Amish kids off '80s Harrison Ford film Witness, who’d never be allowed a Sky dish and wouldn’t know any better.
With the job done, as the notion of giving Songs of Praise a flick was dismissed in favour of googling "the league of late goals," Tyler’s words then took on a strange and unnerving prophetic power. In an act out of keeping with everything that had preceded it, in the 86th minute, Liverpool schemer Coutinho struck from 30 yards with a searing strike as honest and true as the Premier League is indeed a League of Late Goals.
It was that kind of weekend.
Throughout the close-season, Brendan Rodgers had insisted Liverpool’s return to the scene of the club’s heaviest defeat for 52 years, just 77 days on, was an ideal start. Now he’s at least partly exorcised the spectre of a 6-1 humiliation, it’s a stance he’ll stick to. There was nothing expansive about a game whose prettiest feature prior to Countinho’s intervention was Stoke’s new centre-circle, but as seasoned managers will attest to a man, winning ugly can be beautiful too.
A trip to Stoke may no longer be the top-flight equivalent of facing a lion in a loincloth, but even with the addition of half of Barcelona’s surplus, the side Mark Hughes has assembled is nonetheless still a physically hard examination of an opposition’s gumption.
In terms of application, which won’t mask the issues of Christian Benteke looking isolated, James Milner and Jordan Henderson perhaps being too similar in the centre of the field and Adam Lallana again flattering to deceive, it will have been a cathartic experience in the Potteries.
Arsenal never tire of being Arsenal
Given that 90 per cent of sentences written about Petr Cech since he moved from west to north London also contain the line "final piece in Arsenal’s jigsaw," there was a sense of the inevitable that his debut would prove an unmitigated disaster. And so it proved at an expectant Emirates, as Slaven Bilic made light of criticism of West Ham’s meek Europa League exit this week to mastermind a perfect away day for the Hammers.
It would be churlish to take anything away from what was a stunning West Ham performance, personified by the immaculate 16-year-old (16-year-old) debutant Reece Oxford at the base of their midfield, but Arsenal will draw comfort from the fact Bilic’s side are so far ahead of them in terms of match sharpness.
For all the hyperbole, Cech was never going to be a one-man solution for Arsenal. If anything, that he was at fault for both Cheikhou Kouyate and Mauro Zarate’s goals, either side of half-time, will awaken those in front of him to the fact their goalkeeper doesn’t wear a cape and they will probably still need to defend at various points over the course of the season.
It was not all doom and gloom for debutants though. West Ham’s Dimitri Payet, along with Oxford, deserves honorary mention for a Premier League bow as impressive as Cech’s was dire.
"If Messi was in front of me, I’d be more fazed than Reece," Bilic said of Oxford, via the Daily Mirror.
"We are a little short in that position and I wanted someone to sit in front of the centre half. He has a presence, he’s mobile and quick and he can turn and pass the ball, not just square balls. We have others around making it a lot easier for him.
"He’s also a very cool guy. Not fazed or impressed. I tried to help him. We’ve been preparing him for this for the last two weeks. But the biggest help apart from his ability, coolness and quality physical, and technical were the boys around him."
Chelsea out of sorts
A sluggish pre-season for Chelsea coupled with inertia in terms of player recruitment, has led some to question whether Jose Mourinho’s side could fall short this season given their relatively small squad size. To qualify that statement, everything is of course relative.
Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Swansea, in what was arguably the weekend’s most engrossing fixture, saw Chelsea’s back four repeatedly picked apart by Garry Monk’s fluid and easy-on-the-eye Swans. Branislav Ivanovic will not have endured a more troublesome afternoon than posed to him by Jefferson Montero in some time, while Jonjo Shelvey outshone Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic.
"Jonjo’s still a young player which you forget about with him because he looks a lot older," Monk said, via the Guardian.
"His vision, his technical ability is excellent and it’s just trying to get him to a level where he can perform to that for every single 90 minutes, week in and week out. He is maturing but we need to push him, keep on top of him and make him the best player he can be."
And yet, for all Jose’s talk of relative paucity in terms of cash outlay, it will take more than a dropped couple of points on the opening day to convince otherwise that any side that finishes above Chelsea this season won’t win the title.
Big-match focus: Something to build on for United and Van Gaal
A jovial, if off-key, rendition of the Beatles hit "When I’m 64" concluded Louis van Gaal’s press conference, as the birthday boy revealed his age to the assembled media, but after a perfunctory rather than polished Manchester United victory over Tottenham, "We Can Work It Out" for now remains a more apt leitmotif for the job in hand.
The Dutchman was happy to concede there was an element of luck attached to a game decided by history-maker Kyle Walker, whose inadvertent winner was the first time an own goal has been the opening goal of a new Premier League season.
For the large part it was a contest that barely stifled a yawn, with United pedestrian at times in possession but overall worth a victory that saw Tottenham retreat so far into their shell after conceding they resembled a decapitated tortoise for all but the closing stages.
After an outlay of £230 million it’s no surprise Van Gaal’s famous philosophy is dissected with relish after each and every performance that lacks the joie de vivre of Sir Alex Ferguson’s more stimulating sides. However, it’s Mauricio Pochettino’s beaming assessment of his team that deserves as much scrutiny.
Pochettino declared himself "very disappointed and frustrated with the result but happy with the performance," after reducing United to just one shot on target all afternoon. Statistically he may be sound, but this owed at least as much to Spurs’ stymied ambition as it did a grand master plan. They may have won the first and final rounds, but in a war of attrition what goes on in between is just as important.
Save for a pair of decent, if over-engineered, stops from debutant United goalkeeper Sergio Romero in the final stages and an early Christian Eriksen chance lobbed onto the roof of the goal, there was little to suggest the away side possess the necessary wherewithal to seriously challenge the top four.
Harry Kane showed cute touches and his rangy physicality caused makeshift centre-half Daley Blind—who has a lot to learn if he is to successfully ape the role Javier Mascherano performs for Barcelona—a few problems when the two went head-to-head. But with a lack of runners willing to go beyond him, it could be a long and lonely campaign up top if Spurs don’t invest significantly and quickly. On Saturday’s evidence the same could be said of Wayne Rooney; together they’d make an interesting pair.
At the back, an all-Belgian central defensive partnership should add cohesion sorely missed last term, with new boy Toby Alderweireld impressing on his bow alongside Jan Vertonghen. In midfield though, Spurs, and in particular Nabil Bentaleb, who was arguably more at fault for the goal than Walker, were profligate all afternoon. The heart of Pochettino’s team brims with youthful vigor and exuberance, but lacking an authoritative figure it can and will be bullied.
Tottenham then, a pacifist decrying a judge’s scorecard on the grounds they only touched the canvas once.
David de Gea’s continued hankering for Madrid has become the summer’s transfer saga ad nauseam, but if nothing else, his subsequent omission gave us the sight of the Spaniard, Victor Valdes and Anders Lindegaard sat in a row wearing club blazers; like three naughty schoolboys forced to attend an end-of-term disco in school uniform after being caught smoking.
Erratic distribution aside—19 completed passes from 36 attempted—De Gea’s replacement, Romero, can be pleased enough with a clean sheet on his first club league start since December 2014.
Of the five debuts handed out by Van Gaal it was Italian full-back Matteo Darmian though who most enthused his manager. Looking defensively sounder than either of his predecessors in the position, Antonio Valencia and Rafael, he not only stifled Eriksen’s influence but offered buccaneering forays of his own on the outside of Juan Mata.
In dovetailing with Michael Carrick, it was an effective if understated performance from Morgan Schneiderlin. Brought in to provide the type of pugnacious dynamism United have lacked since Roy Keane said what the rest of us were thinking on MUTV, the Frenchman’s athleticism should complement the considered promptings of either Carrick or Bastian Schweinsteiger alongside him.
Schweinsteiger, afforded a fanfare reception when introduced as a second-half substitute, plays with the aristocratic air of a man who feels his face should adorn a postage stamp. Whilst his lack of match sharpness culminated in a booking when Nacer Chadli beat him for speed, there was enough to suggest the German will be a significant player this season, as he wasted little time in dictating demands on his new team-mates.
Finally, there was Memphis Depay. At his own behest, United’s new No. 7 hinted at his precocious talent in the first half before fading in the second. The Dutchman was employed primarily behind Wayne Rooney, with Mata looking on wistfully to the right of him, and it was his perfectly weighted ball to Ashley Young that ultimately led to United’s winner.
His highlight though was the sheer incredulity that enveloped his face when his manager hooked him. If only big characters can flourish at Old Trafford, then this kid should be just fine.