The much-anticipated kick-off of the new Premier League season was frankly a disappointment, from a number of perspectives.
The main talking points ahead of the Man City vs Swansea game on Monday Night Football were less than intriguing, in footballing terms. Of course, if you want to talk about Wayne Rooney’s new hair or a fight predictably involving Joey Barton, then it’s been fascinating.
Question marks over David De Gea, worries for QPR, disciplinary fines for Arsenal and Newcastle, along with a general lack of goals in the Premier League all suggest that perhaps my previous article that oozed with optimism and excitement was ill judged. I’ll begin with a summary of the key football-related points raised by the other games around the league.
Premier League overview
Man United fumble to victory after Long shot squeezes in
Manchester United were fortunate to get a win on Sunday, with Wayne Rooney and notably new signing Ashley Young saving them, which is not comforting viewing for us Villa fans. Young looks decent in a red shirt, and I don’t mean aesthetically – make your own mind up about that. The England winger has settled in quickly, using his pace, skill and gift to assist in order to find himself on the receiving end of high praise. Expect him to get a lot of assists this season, whether opposing defenders are kicking it in their own net or not.
The main talking point was the young stopper David De Gea and whether he is indeed up to the task and the pressure of being Manchester United’s number one. He made a decent save in the first half, which seemed to suggest he had put the Community Shield farce behind him, but poor foot work led to De Gea failing to make a very routine save from Shane Long’s low shot, which tamely went under the Spaniard’s arms.
Despite this start to his United career, and people firing comments about his lack of physical presence around, Spanish pundit Guillem Balague has stated that people will be eating their words by the end of the season. Having seen him develop and shine in La Liga, I feel Balague’s judgement is to be trusted.
Ferdinand was hauled off after he suffered a thigh injury, which will see him sidelined until mid-September. A bad loss for United, undoubtedly, but with Phil Jones raring to go, Sir Alex Ferguson should have no problems at the back during his absence. The only issue is the loss of presence and leadership, which De Gea needs more than anything in his backline right now.
Overall, the Red Devils illustrated that they have the capacity to grind out victories, as they do every season, and the more than generous helping of luck they get each year will help too, as underlined by West Brom’s own goal. On top of that, unity in the squad looks solid as all players, young and more experienced, were offering words of advice to De Gea.
West Bromwich Albion on the flipside looked quite good, and should have little to worry about in 2011/12. Shane Long is a good acquisition up front and will take a lot of confidence from scoring on his debut. Last season’s main stars such as Chris Brunt are back again and looking decent. The Baggies look to have just about the right formula and their fans should feel that they can now cement themselves as a long-term Premiership outfit.
Chelsea’s midfield lacks creativity as Stoke battle hard
Put bluntly, I don’t like the way Stoke City play football. I’ve said it before, but I don’t think a side that considers a long-throw in as Premier League standard attacking play to be worthy of top-flight status. For Stoke, they feel happier when the ball is in the air, which doesn’t offer an attractive spectacle for viewers. Whether it’s entertaining to some or not, I don’t really care. I’d say I’m a bit of a purist in terms of how I like my football, and I like it beautiful.
Chelsea played out an uneventful 0-0 with the brutes at the Brittania Stadium, and looked completely slow and out of ideas in the middle of the park. The big positive for them was that Fernando Torres looked very sharp and in the mood, giving the Stoke backline a number of problems with his pace. A comment I heard from a friend on Sunday summed up Torres well, which is that he plays well when being riled by defenders. Shawcross gave him a kicking and indeed the Fernando of old appeared. He was not given nearly enough service, however, from the likes of Lampard, Malouda and John Obi Mikel, who were off the pace, the latter understandably so, after he found out before the match of his father’s kidnapping in Nigeria.
Perhaps Ramires deserves credit for his performance, because he looked energised and far more threatening than any other Chelsea midfielder. Still, they need an injection of youth, pace and creativity in their midfield. Modric would be the perfect signing it seems, and it is time that Villas-Boas made one of the purchases he seems to be eyeing up, or Chelsea could again have another disappointing campaign.
Aguero wows and Silva show his class, while Swansea show theirs
Swansea earned a lot of admirers last night as the ‘Welsh Real Madrid’ stepped out to make their Premier League debut against the big-spenders of football. Many people, myself included, feared it would be a real hiding for the new boys and a rude awakening to their dream arrival in England’s top flight. We were wrong. Don’t let the score line fool you.
For considerable periods of the first half, Swansea City outplayed the array of stars in sky blue shirts, playing passing football that would have suggested a top Spanish side was playing at Eastlands, rather than an unfavoured Welsh one.
They were a real credit to their club, with certain players standing out, such as Scott Sinclair on the left wing. Their best player was Dutch goalkeeper Michel Vorm, who made eleven top class saves, more than any stopper made in a single game last season. He deserved man of the match, but was only just beaten to it by the truly brilliant David Silva. The Swans have a lot to be proud about, following their first game in the Premier League. I hope they stay up and continue to exhibit that style of play. Of course, it is too early to say, but I wouldn’t back against them to stay up.
4-0 sounds like the perfect start to the Premier League campaign in which many rightly expect Manchester City to challenge for the title. With the money they’ve spent, it would be nothing short of ridiculous to think that they wouldn’t be up there, especially after what we witnessed from their star summer signing last night. The performance was good, but not perfect, largely due to Swansea’s capacity to keep the ball. Still, Man City look pretty capable.
In the end, the class (and money) showed through, after a frustrating half in which Man City had hit the bar twice through Silva and Barry and forced a number of great saves from revelation Vorm. Dzeko was hugely impressive last night, for the first time in the blue shirt of Manchester. He bagged himself a goal in fairly lucky but predatory circumstances, but it was his strength, pace and awareness on the ball that made him so formidable as Wolfsburg’s front man. All of that was on show.
David Silva was simply world-class, with his startlingly quick feet, close control and pin-point passing. He was involved in everything good for Man City and played a part in each goal, scoring one himself. His link up play with Aguero was perhaps what would have sent a shiver down the spine of any watching Premier League manager. Mancini commented after the game that ‘the two play in the same language’. This was a lovely comment and footballing poetry that is only to be attempted by windswept Italians.
As for Aguero’s individual performance, he was just different class, from the moment he came on the pitch. Looking very relaxed, immediately latched onto the ball and fired a rocket left foot shot towards goal, only to be denied by the superb Michel Vorm. Minutes later, the athletic Micah Richards put a ball across goal for the Argentine forward to tap home on his debut and the floodgates opened.
The £38 million man then assisted David Silva, muscling past a defender to retrieve the ball, flick it over the keeper and back to his teammate for a tap in. As the game drew to a close, it seemed Man City already had a new hero, but he was to make sure of it. He collected the ball thirty yards out, advanced a little and hit a truly magnificent strike that dipped into the bottom corner with power and precision. I sat open-mouthed watching him fist-pump the air, along with the rest of the world, according to the flood of tweets that followed.
This guy is something special, of that there is no doubt. We knew this already to a large extent, but it is difficult to tell whether he could fit in at City, in a new country, new league, new atmosphere, with a great deal of pressure on his young shoulders. It seems Sergio Aguero has absolutely no problems fitting in. He will be key to the title challenge that Man City will make during this campaign, especially as he is apparently two weeks away from full fitness.
Defensively, as you – and Mancini – would expect, Man City were solid. The aforementioned Micah Richards deserves the England right-back position as far as I’m concerned and Kompany, De Jong and company look assured and extremely hard to break down.
Suarez perhaps a bit too lively
Liverpool started very brightly, all thanks to Copa America winner Luis Suarez, who looked very good and showed no signs of being tired after the summer tournament (mentioning no names, Aguero). However, the Reds couldn’t win three points at Anfield on the opening day, as they rued missed chances and allowed Sunderland to cancel out Suarez’s glancing header, which broke the deadlock. Sebastien Larson’s volley to make it 1-1 was something special, mind you. Charlie Adam looked really good throughout the game and it was the former Tangerine captain’s set-piece that resulted in the goal, after Suarez had blazed a penalty high over the bar – perhaps he was a little too lively.
A lot of questions are still being asked of £35 million Andy Carroll, who has a lot to prove with 6 shots off target on Saturday – more than anybody hit in the whole of last season. He is a target man, and could become a very good player, but the price tag looks hugely inflated currently. Liverpool will need him to step up if they are to challenge again.
It finished 1-1, which is a good result for the Black Cats, who will look to build on a disappointing end to last season. Their team looks quite good, with veteran defender Wes Brown really improving the side defensively. At this stage, it really is difficult to call where they will finish this campaign, however.
A pain in the Arse-nal of a weekend
Arsenal are in trouble, is the general consensus. They have now, finally, inevitably, lost Cesc Fabregas after years of negotiation and debate, it seems. With the departure of their captain, Arsenal have lost a top class player and a leader, which is a shame for the club and the Premier League. Nevertheless, as Arsene Wenger has indicated, this is not the end for the club or for their aspirations this season.
Of course, Fabregas needs replacing, and perhaps it is fair to argue that Ramsey and Wilshere have the quality to do so, eventually. Still, Wenger needs to drop his stubborn attitude toward spending money, because frankly, it is time to accept that football is influenced heavily by the green stuff. If he brings in one or two high-class players in the right positions, he could change Arsenal’s potential to challenge for the title entirely.
Additionally, Nasri’s future is unclear after he tweeted his fury at the fans for their unfair chants about his apparent disloyalty – in spite of the fact he remains at the club. Wenger hopes to keep him, but Nasri offering his ‘congratulations’ to Cesc Fabregas does not offer promising signals about the French midfielder’s future at the Emirates. If he does decide to move up to Manchester, or even to Stamford Bridge where he is apparently sought after now, Arsenal must surely bring in at least one new face in midfield.
Moving onto the Gunners’ opening game of the new campaign, St James’ Park did not provide Wenger with a victory to ease his concerns about the near future. Instead, the North Londoners left Newcastle facing a disciplinary hearing after Gervinho slapped Joey Barton, who hit the floor like a brick, and Alex Song stamped on the floppy-haired trouble-maker’s leg.
It was a pathetic scene when it came to handbags in the Newcastle penalty area and a sight that made me feel a rare tinge of tiredness with the state of the game, due to those who play it. Senseless debutant Gervinho was sent for an early bath and Barton booked. The game didn’t improve and it ended goalless, a really dire example of Premier League football.
Both clubs were fined by the FA for failing to control their players and this compounded a terrible weekend for Arsenal, who look without class or presence in midfield. Newcastle look uninspiring in footballing terms as well. The fact they are playing a midfielder who has been explicitly placed on a free transfer tells you all you need to know. When Ben Arfa returns, he will undoubtedly be significant for the Magpies.
Wanderers Trot to victory
It seems that Bolton are carrying on from last season under Owen Coyle, who had them playing some more than decent football. The Trotters beat a weak, newly promoted QPR team that looks like it could seriously struggle this year, as they have added almost no more quality than they possessed in the Championship. A shame for their fans, who were very hopeful for the new season and have been let down by the owners of the club who hope to sell it. Still, anything can happen in football so fingers crossed for QPR and I have little doubt that their fans will enjoy the Premier League campaign. They must do better at home, though.
Gary Cahill is quickly becoming one of the Premier Leagues hottest transfer targets, with his consistent and commanding central defensive performances. More irritating news for Aston Villa fans who will wish Martin O’Neill hadn’t let him leave the club for relatively little money a during his reign. It was he who opened the scoring with a mercurial striker’s finish from the edge of the area. Bolton went on to win 4-0 away from home and will look to build on such an impressive start. Ivan Klasnic looks more impressive with every performance he puts in, and will score a lot for Bolton if he is provided with chances.
The rest of the pack
At Ewood Park, Wolves got 2-1 victory away from home against a weak Blackburn Rovers side, who I have tipped to go down. Mick McCarthy will be by far the happier of the two managers, particularly as Steve Kean was banned from driving for a year and a half after drink driving allegations were found to have grounds. Blackburn offer very little in midfield, and without the presence of Chris Samba and Ryan Nelsen at the back, are a much weaker outfit. Up front, Jason Roberts still looks decent, showing quick feet to set up Mauro Formica for the opening goal, who is also a good striker. Both could prove essential to Blackburn. Wolves, on the other hand, have their manager’s never die spirit and came back to snatch victory. New signing Steven Fletcher scored almost immediately afterwards to equalise and Sam Ward fired a left-foot half-volley low into the bottom corner to earn three points just after Kevin Doyle had a penalty saved early in the second half. The fight they have will do wonders for Wolves this year.
Delia is back with Norwich in the Premier League, and while she made the sensible decision not to attempt a rallying speech to the fans, the Canaries battled to a 1-1 against a Wigan side that looked stronger in certain areas than expected. For both of these clubs, their managers will be central to anything they do this season, with both Paul Lambert and Roberto Martinez both within the group of talented, young managers. Wigan’s side has a couple of potential heroes – Ben Watson, in particular, illustrating that he has composure and leadership, which will be much needed characteristics in what will probably be a long season for both these sides.
Tottenham and Everton are still to start their campaigns after their encounter was postponed due to the London riots. It would have been a great match undoubtedly so a shame for the Premier League opening weekend.
Given stars, but Shay-me Villa couldn’t score
This is where I become biased and engage the full-throttle Villa fan mode, so excuse the use of ‘we’ and general Villa standpoint.
After that general overview of how the Premiership stands after the first game of the season, let’s concentrate on the positives and negatives for Aston Villa.
Some home (or away) truths
Let’s begin with the negative aspects of the game of Saturday. It’ vital that Villa actually take these into consideration this season, because too many times last time out did we fail to learn from problems that were as obviously ugly as Joey Barton’s hairstyle.
First and foremost, it upset me to see that we were playing the same old football style. That’s to say we were hitting too many long balls, aiming for Heskey and hoping he would flick them on for Bent. It’s not nice to watch, for a start, and I really do believe it is ineffective. In my last piece, I wrote about the importance of crossing balls in for Bent, specifically utilising Marc Albrighton for this purpose. McLeish decided to play Agbolahor on the wing instead of Albrighton, which was an error in my view.
Agbonlahor is not a winger – he is a forward, and it would be good to see him play alongside Bent as such. That would enable Albrighton to play right, and N’Zogbia to play left, both of whom are more than capable of creating chances for the forwards. Gabby and Bent would thrive like this, I feel. Persisting with Heskey is not the way to go, if we are to be a success this season. We must use the wings, and find finishers in the middle. It’s very straightforward and would increase fluidity in our play.
The fact that Villa had just 45% possession compared to Fulham’s 55% is an indication of how other teams are able to keep the ball and move it around better. Fulham took 14 shots on Saturday, 9 of which were on target. Aston Villa took 7 shots, with a dismal 1 effort on target. The figures speak for themselves. Keeping the ball on the ground, playing the passing game, leads to more possession, more chances, and more accuracy in front of goal. Do we have the players to play this type of football? Absolutely. Swap Petrov for Ireland and give him a run in the team.
A further issue was that the defence allowed too many chances on goal. Given was at his best, but he had to be. Villa can’t afford to be as shaky and unconvincing as they were last year at the back, or we will inevitably end the season in a less than satisfactory position. The game could have gone either way. We need to see Villa taking games by the scruff of the neck for this is something we lack completely.
Craven Cottage is always a tough place to go, and I don’t think I’m alone in believing the point collected there was a good result. That is a positive, of course, but it doesn’t say much for the ambition of the manager or the players, or indeed the fans if we are willing to just accept a point at Fulham as a ‘good point’. Personally, I want to see more.
Continuing with the positives, Shay Given put in a top-class appearance, saving from close-range on a number of occasions. Cynics will say the ball was hit straight at him each time, but he spread himself well, demonstrating his unfailing and quite brilliant technique. It will do his confidence a lot of good too, not to mention that of his defenders in front of him. A clean sheet is a big positive to take from Craven Cottage.
Another encouraging aspect to take from the match was that Stephen Warnock played very well, joining his goalkeeper in the Premier League team of the week. Out-of-favour last season, Warnock, much like Given, will want to get his career back on track and prove his quality. He started well, showing astute defensive ability and an undying work-rate.
Additionally, Charles N’Zogbia looked sharp. One of the players I predicted to be a star for Villa this season, the new signing played on the wing and was linking up well with his teammates. After the game, he stated that the Villa fans had been very welcoming and he was delighted to be at the club, so to those of you at the game, give yourselves a pat on the back, or whatever makes you happy. His ability to put the ball in the box effectively was on display on numerous occasions. Often met by Emile Heskey, with whom N’Zogbia has played at Wigan, the crosses were then diverted wide or high. Wherever the headers went, they were ugly, and this needs improving. Still, the chances are being created. Positive.
One final point – Stiliyan Petrov, who I’m not the greatest fan of, as you will find out, managed to hit his first long-range shot on target since Derby County were happily setting the lowest ever points tally in the Premier League. Remember that goal? We all do. Unfortunately, Stan is not the Man anymore and needs replacing, in my opinion. Still, we’ll notch that one up on the positives tally.
Audacious Aspirations for August
Judging by the fixtures Villa have in the rest of August, I truly believe that they could and should win all of them. Some may say that as a Villa fan, things never work out as we would like them to. Admittedly, I get that feeling regularly but I don’t think it’s too audacious to think that it is well within the realms of possibility to pick up three victories from the three games that remain this month.
That would give us a really positive start to the season, which would in fact be more beneficial to the team than could be anticipated. It is important, for once, that the team takes advantage of an opportunity. All of the games are at home, and it is imperative to win as much as possible at Villa Park. Let’s make it a fortress this season, for that could be the foundation for any success that could be achieved.
Here are my predictions (hopeful though they may be) of the remaining fixtures Villa have in August:
Aston Villa 2 – 1 Blackburn Rovers (Premier League)
Aston Villa 3 – 0 Hereford (Carling Cup)
Aston Villa 1 – 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers (Premier League)
It would be far too early to even merely suggest that these opening matches show what is going to happen this season and how teams are likely to perform.
All in all, it was a very frustrating weekend that had been built up, as it should be. It felt like we were let down by the players and I was willing to write off the weekend as a disappointment.
There are a lot of things I could observe with regards to the Premiership, particularly as I had the opportunity to compare the quality of our top clubs with Real Madrid and Barcelona who played out an amazing game on Sunday night in the Spanish Super Cup. Honestly, there is no comparison. The standard of football that those two sides play is several levels above anything we saw from any side in the Premier League this weekend, as Oliver Kay of the Times indicated on his Twitter account.
Fortunately, Mr. Aguero stepped on the pitch last night and made me love the Premier League once more.
I’m really pleased it’s back. I’ll try and take the positives from the weekend and for those of you who can’t – just think, it can only get better!
One final word – John Obi Mikel deserves a lot of credit for being so professional as to play on Sunday despite his father being missing in his home country. My thoughts and hopes are sent to him and his family.