English Premier League: 50 Things We Learned in Weekend 1 (Part One)
Forty four yellow cards and two red cards. Just 14 goals from eight matches. Not a single home victory. Slip-ups from Chelsea and Liverpool.
It was strange start to the 2011-12 Premier League season last Saturday, a pyrrhic victory for football: a game which defeated the disgraceful and ominous rioting in England's urban streets, but which reared its ugly head as ''a gentleman's game played by thugs," so the old adage goes.
In the following slideshow, I take a look at 50 lessons we learned from the opening eight matches in what will become a regular feature here on Bleacher Report. As always, debate is encouraged and constructive feedback appreciated.
1. All the Money in the World Can't Buy Footballers a Decent Haircut!
Sunday afternoon's match between Arsenal and Newcastle United at St. James's Park was ugly...even before anyone kicked a ball.
Cameroon international Alex Song had clearly asked his local barber for ''the skunk look'' earlier in the week, as he sported a daft orange mohican.
Meanwhile, you could be forgiven for thinking the scuffle which broke out between Newcastle troublemaker Joey Barton and Arsenal's new signing Gervinho, which led to the dismissal of the latter, arose out of a disagreement over hairstyles rather than because the former was outraged by the Ivorian international's theatrics in the box. Grease lightning meets Stone Cold Steve Austin is a generous description of Barton's effort, while Gervinho looks like he may a descendant of Predator.
2. Football Fans Have a Good Sense of Humour
Many Bolton Wanderers fans must have arrived at newly-promoted London club Queens Park Rangers' Loftus Road ground with apprehension that their opponents might ''do a Blackpool'' and come racing out of the blocks against all expectations. QPR fans may have been optimistic over re-discovering life in the Premier League.
But life is full of surprises, and that is why football fans need a sense of humour.
The away supporters showed theirs off with a rendition of ''we are top of the league'' towards the end of the team's 4-0 victory, despite a real sense that their journey ahead would consist of a five-hour coach journey back to the Northwest and a midtable finish. Hoops fans may not have been quite so jovial, as their miserable afternoon was compounded by influential player Clint Hill's stoppage time dismissal for a Zidane-esque headbutt on Martin Petrov (above).
3. Wayne Rooney Has Not Been Watering His Scalp Very Well
Much was made in the British tabloid press this summer about Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney's decision to undergo a £30,000 hair transplant ahead of the new season.
Would we see a dashing, almost unrecognisable man with a full head of hair emerge from the tunnel?
Not exactly! While Wayne Rooney will never resemble David Beckham, United fans are just as fond of their podgy, bald forward as they ever were of ''Golden Balls."
4. Twitter Can Temporarily Hide Twits Just as Well as Exposing Them
It's not often I agree with former Newcastle United forward and current BBC Premier League pundit Alan Shearer's opinions, but I also believe that Joey Barton is a ''s**t''.
So while it is all well making cute references to bridge architect Isambard Kingdom Brunel and quoting famous poets and politicians, pugilist Newcastle midfielder Joey Barton should keep his head down in the week, play football at the weekend and get some evening anger management classes, rather than spouting boring and uninspiring and hypocritical nonsense online and re-enacting the riots on the football field.
5. Tom Daley Has Been Giving EPL Fooballers Some Diving Classes
I will not condone Joey Barton's furious reaction to Gervinho's dive, even without the comic re-enactment of the Ivorian's dramatic penalty-box tumble after Barton was lightly slapped across the face by Gervinho.
But it was painfully evident that the F.A. will have to act quickly and introduce firm measures to reduce the shameful gamesmanship, which is now seemingly at its highest level ever. Just for one second, Barton seemed to be onto something, even if he did not show his disapproval in the right manner.
While a chosen few may enjoy the drama which surrounds acts such as tripping over blades of grass and hunting Premier League referees like packs of hounds, I expect to watch a game of football on a Saturday afternoon instead of an amateur theatre production.
6. Flavio Briatore Will Not Receive Any Christmas Cards This Year from QPR Fans
Just a couple of year ago, Queens Park Rangers was dubbed the world's most wealthy football club after Formula One gurus Flavio Briatore (pictured) and Tony Fernandes and Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal bought large shares in the business.
Unhappy not only that their team was being torn apart by a mid-table team, but also that they were suddenly paying a fortune for the pain (ticket prices were inflated beyond reason in the offseason) while the club's owner spent a measly £1.25 million in bolstering a squad short on quality, QPR fans booed departing owner Briatore to an early exit.
7. Referees Still Lack Consistency in Their Decision Making
Although it can't be easy to referee matches in the Premier League, the divisions are making it increasngly difficult for themselves and cannot always expect players and fans to turn a blind eye or managers to withhold their opinions.
New Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas complained about the amount of ''pushing and grabbing'' his players were subjected to by Stoke players yesterday, while Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson thought his new goalkeeper David de Gea should have been ''proected more'' by referee Michael Jones. Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish vented his frustration that opponents Sunderland were not reduced to 10 men when Howard Webb decided not to show midfielder Kieran Richardson a red card for a foul on Luis Suarez.
Excuses from managers under pressure to deliver or valid statements from victims of poor refereeing?
8. Premier League Players Still Can't Take a Good Penalty!
This weekend, Liverpool's Luis Suarez (pictured) and Irish forward Kevin Doyle of Wolverhampton Wanderers were the culprits.
Although the latter's penalty did not prevent his team from picking up three points, the Uruguayan's spot-kick miss cost the Reds two points on Saturday.
With so much at stake in terms of money, pride and reputation, EPL forwards really must spend some more time on the training ground hitting that bottom corner. A well-taken penalty, after all, will not be saved.
9. Football Is Quickly Becoming a Non-Contact Sport
Forty four yellow cards and two red cards. More fouls than you can remember.
Yet, watching several live matches and the highlights of all other fixtures, none of the eight matches on Saturday or Sunday struck me as being nasty affairs. Sure, the game at St. James Park was often wrought with emotion and some early-season adrenaline resulted in the odd mistimed and over-zealous tackle in other matches, but yellow cards seem to have been de-valued, and it is perhaps time to reconsider introducing a sinbin.
10: The Thirst for the EPL Is Seemingly Unquenchable
Although Wigan Athletic continue to play in a partially-full DW Stadium (above), it is not because Premier League football is on the wane, but rather because they compete for fans with several more glamorous and wealthy neighbours.
In fact, every other ground this weekend was near or at full capacity, in spite of ticket prices, which can see fans playing up to £100 for the best seats in the stands.
11. 4-4-2 Is No Longer the Premier League's Default Formation
4-3-3. 4-2-3-1. 4-5-1.
There were not many teams playing this weekend in an instantly recognisable and traditional formation of four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards.
Tonight as I write, despite spending more than £100 million in transfer fees alone on Italian forward Mario Balotelli, Argentine duo Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez and Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko, only the last was handed a place in the Manchester City starting line-up at home to Swansea. The first two were on the bench, while Tevez did not even make City's 18-man squad against a team they would be expected to demolish.
12. Home Advantage Can Be Misleading
It was a record-breaking weekend in the EPL, the first weekend where not a single team playing in their own stadium won. That equals a lot is disheartened fans.
So while Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas (above) was a picture of frustration both on the touchline during his team's 0-0 draw against Stoke City and in the post-match interview, in the context of an unusual weekend, the point his side can take away from a tricky visit to a raucous Britannia Stadium against an imposing team is actually a positive outcome, given Liverpool's inability to dispatch a lesser opponent at Anfield.
13. Goalkeepers Really Are Our Favourite Scapegoats
After Manchester United's narrow 2-1 victory over West Bromwich Albion, most of the post-match analysis focussed on new Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea, who the Sun labelled instantly as ''dodgy'' after he was slow to react to Shane Long's precise shot into the bottom corner of the net. The paper even pointed out that his initials all featured in the same adjective.
Although De Gea must do better, especially in dealing with the aerial threat many opposition midfielders and forwards will pose, he cannot be judged on his performance in one match.
14. Opponents Will Target David De Gea as Manchester United's Weakness
That said, the league's managers and scouts will have paid close attention to the keeper's nervy showing, which included some suspect positioning and inadequate command of his six-yard area from set-pieces and crosses.
Managers with lower budgets often pay more attention to set-pieces, and this could be United's achilles heel this season.
15. Ashley Young Will Play a Big Part in Man Utd's Future Success
Although his assist in United's winners was somewhat fortunate, new £18 million signing Ashley Young produced a vibrant and intelligent performance for the champions, who will possibly see the former Aston Villa winger as a replacement for Ryan Giggs, whose role may be diminished this season.
16. Manchester United Still Have the Killer Instinct
For long periods of yesterday's match at The Hawthorns, Manchester United were effectively shackled by some good compact defending and tireless closing down by their hosts, but just when it may have seemed too many Premier League novices that the title holders may be running out of time, Ashley Young slid a dangerous cross across the box which ricocheted off hapless home defender Steven Reid's leg to hand United a 2-1 win.
It is not the first time they have won a game late on, and it certainly won't be the last such scenario this season. Some teams just have that killer instinct, borne out of a winning mentality that is either nascent or drummed into their players by a vastly experienced and knowledgeable manager.
17. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones Are Solid Replacements in United's Defence
Not the most orthodox defensive wall admittedly, but luckily for Man Utd fans, the above photo shows young English defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones celebrating their team's victory rather than facing up to a free-kick.
Strong performances from the pair against tricky opponents in Shane Long and Somen Tchoyi should have reassured their manager that age aint nothing but a number.
18. Manchester United Will Put Their Faith in Youth
''Always involved going both ways. Promising.''
That was the Sun's verdict on the performance against WBA of 22-year-old United midfielder Tom Cleverley (above).
After Cleverley put in a Man of the Match performance in United's preseason friendly victory over Barcelona, Sir Alex Ferguson gave the youngster a huge vote of confidence by starting him ahead of the likes of Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick.
19. Wayne Rooney Is Still Manchester United's Best Player
He collected a simple pass from the left from teammate Ashley Young, found some space on the edge of the box, created some room for himself on his left foot and placed an accurate shot beyond the keeper.
Nothing flash, yet is was a goal beautiful in its simplicity while also hinting that England's talisman, Wayne Rooney, could thrive on Ashley Young's busy wing play and versatility. Surely a good thing for club and country and seemingly a fresh environment to revitalise Rooney's career.
20. Shane Long Belongs to the Premier League
New WBA signing Shane Long had been on the winning side in each of the four previous Premier League home matches in which he scored, until Sunday's 2-1 defeat to Man Utd.
Despite his evident disappointment at the visitor's late show, the former Reading forward, a Republic of Ireland international, showed plenty of promise on his debut and will be buoyed knowing that he still has the ability to score goals in the Premier League after a three-year hiatus.
21. Stoke City's Medical Team Is Better Than Tottenham Hotspur's
133 league appearances in eight years.
It was no surprise that Spurs decided to release former England and Real Madrid defender Jonathan Woodgate from his contract this summer, nor that another Premier League took the risk of signing him up.
And Stoke boss Tony Pulis must hope the Gods continue to bless Woodgate with some luck, given his inspiring performance at the heart of a Potters defence which kept a clean sheet against a team which scored more than 100 goals just two years ago.
22. Andre Villas-Boas Is an Expressive Manager but How Will He Fare?
He gesticulated, he crouched, he frowned, he smiled. Watching the highlights of Chelsea's opening goalless draw, it was difficult to make anything out of Portuguese youngster Andre Villas-Boas's debut on our screens as Carlo Ancelotti's replacement.
His team showed ambition, energy and passion, and he was suitably frustrated with the outcome. Let's see how he reacts to his first real setback.
23. Fernando Torres Has Regained Some Confidence
Although he drew another blank for his club, £50 million Spanish striker Fernando Torres's performance was a marked improvement on those of last season.
Torres announced his intentions in the eighth minutes with excellent control to bring down a lobbed pass, then turned away from his man, beat two players and instinctively looked for his teammate at the back post. He did enough to suggest that he could continue to fend off competition from Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka for the lone forward role.
24. Stoke Could Be a Top 6 Team with Late Recruits
Jonathan Woodgate excelled on his debut, Jermaine Pennant was difficult to contain and Matthew Etherington showed quality on the ball. With an energetic and creative central midfield player and a goalscorer with slightly more finesse, Stoke could be a genuine contender to qualify for European football this season.
For a long time seen as a one-dimensional anti-football team, Tony Pulis' men are starting to show that they are multi-faceted and can adapt their game plan if necessary.
25. Defensive Additions Can Make Immediate Impacts
Unsurprisingly given the relative lack of goals this weekend, it was the league's defenders who showed their true quality, rather than the welath of expensive forwards.
Jonathan Woodgate was the standout player in the Stoke-Chelse match, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling looked assured in Manchester United's defence, as did Roger Johnson for Wolverhampton Wanderers. But perhaps the best individual performance of the weekend was Wes Brown's debut for Sunderland at Anfield.
He handled Andy Carroll's physicality, Luis Suarez's turn of pace and Charlie Adam's expert set pueces with consummate ease and could prove to be the best of Steve Bruce's eleven summer signings.
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