The game of the season thus far highlighted the enthusiasm of Jurgen Klopp, the complacency Arsene Wenger and, ultimately, two squads that will vie for a Champions League spot come April and May, but likely not more than that. Liverpool were mostly lifeless in the first half; their press was far from organized or disorienting and the Gunners were free to build up in midfield. Luckily for the Reds, Arsenal were toothless up front with unnatural striker Alexis Sanchez playing up top and Theo Walcott playing wide.
Walcott contributed enough in the first half, winning a penalty on the hapless Alberto Moreno before having his attempt from the spot saved. Walcott atoned not even a minute later after Francis Coquelin’s brilliant challenge in midfield spurred a quick counter, with the ball pinging from Alex Iwobi to a wide open Walcott on the edge of the box. With Moreno completely outside of position, Walcott was free to line up a fine strike to the far post for the opening goal.
But despite their poor half, Liverpool were level at halftime thanks to Philippe Coutinho’s marvelous free kick on the stroke of halftime. Coutinho’s golazo seemed to set the tone for Liverpool in the second half, for they came out of the changing room revved up and promptly made Arsenal’s makeshift and embarrassingly youthful center back duo of Callum Chambers and Rob Holding look foolish, though one could hardly blame the youngsters for letting in three extremely well taken goals.
First it was Adam Lallana taking the lead with a pretty finish to the far post, then it was Coutinho tapping in his brace after a typical Arsenal move and finally it was summer signing Sadio Mane charging forward with one of the best individual runs of the season before cutting inside on Chambers and unleashing a curling shot with his left foot.
To their credit, Arsenal gathered themselves and made Liverpool sweat out the final half hour of the match. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored within five minutes of coming on and Chambers headed home Arsenal’s third in the 75th minute, giving the Gunners a lifeline. But in the end Liverpool’s own shaky defense was able to hold off Arsenal’s comeback attempt. It’s hard not to question why Wenger didn’t start the game with Santi Cazorla, Granit Zhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the lineup. Cazorla’s insertion in particularly completely changed the game for Arsenal; he gave the Gunners a spark going forward and collected two assists within 15 minutes.
Had Cazorla featured instead of Aaron Ramsey, who came off for an injury that will sideline him for about a month, Arsenal might have had a better chance controlling the midfield and keeping Liverpool from going on the tear they did to start the second half. If the pressure wasn’t already on Wenger to spend money on a true center forward and a center back to partner withLaurent Koscielny while Per Mertesacker and Gabriel are injured, it sure is now.
A Swansea side that has had a transformative summer, and not necessarily in a good way, got its season off to a good start by spoiling Burnley’s return to the Premier League. Leroy Fer, who spent the second half of last season in Wales on loan from QPR before making the move permanent this summer, got the winning goal in the 82nd minute, tapping in a rebound past Burnley keeper Tom Heaton.
How the goal was made should give Swansea fans some optimism after an offseason that saw them sell off Andre Ayew, who led the club in the goals last season, and Ashley Williams, who flat out led the club since 2008. The Swans dominated the flanks all game, with strong play from Modou Barrow, Wayne Routledge and substitute Jefferson Montero from the wings as well as fullbacks Kyle Naughton and Stephen Kingsley. Montero come on in the 64th minute and created the scoring chance about 20 minutes later when he dance passed his defender on the left edge of the box and whipped in a cross for Fernando Llorente.
Llorente, who signed from Sevilla this summer, won eight aerial challenges against Burnley, showcasing his ability as a target man for a Swansea side that has been searching for a reference point up top ever since Bafetimbi Gomis’ incredible goal-scoring predictably came to an end last season. Llorente got his head to Montero’s cross, forcing the save and creating the rebound for Fer to finish off. Francesco Guidolin’s side was better than expected in its debut, and the Swans performed well even though Iceland hero Gylfi Sigurðsson only made a cameo and record signing Borja Baston didn’t feature.
Given Llorente’s positive start, how Guidolin decides to fit Baston, another striker, into his team plans will be interesting. Will he switch from the 4-3-3 the Swans played against Burnley to incorporate a second striker or will he rotate between the Spaniards?
There were barely any standout players for Burnley, with Championship standout Andre Gray failing to muster a solid chance throughout the match. Burnley were one of my picks to be relegated this season, and without a few more reinforcements that can offer something going forward, this team will struggle to score goals as they did in its opener.
Alan Pardew’s second full season at Crystal Palace started the way last season ended rather than how it began. After a flying start to last year’s campaign, Palace fell apart down the stretch without a striker to convert their mounds of possession and spells of good play into goals. In their opener, the Eagles dominated possession against Tony Pulis’ side only to concede a set piece goal to the the towering Solomon Rondon while failing to create any chances of their own. Rondon’s goal was the kind of match-stealing poach that Palace desperately need, and now that Yannick Bolasie, who had a cameo as a sub in this game, has been sold to Everton, it is time for Palace to finish the deal for rumored target Christian Benteke.
On the bright side, Palace’s top summer signing, Andres Townsend, looked fantastic in his first game at Selhurst Park. Townsend offered the kind of dynamism going forward that Palace’s attacking players showcased as the club got off to such a hot start last season, making Bolasie expendable if the fee is right. That said, neither Townsend nor Wilfried Zaha could produce the end product necessary in this match, and its quite clear Connor Wickham isn’t the man to lead the line alone if Palace are to avoid the drop this season.
For West Brom, it was more the same under Pulis, parking the bus and squeezing the most out of set piece opportunities. Rondon’s solid form from the second half of last season continued on opening day while the Baggies’ backline proved impenetrable against an opponent lacking a killer instinct in the final third.
Former Southampton manager Ronald Koeman debuted with a three-at-the-back system that gave Everton more of a defensive backbone than they showed all of last season for Roberto Martinez. With John Stones off to Manchester City and signing Ashley Williams not quite ready to play for his club, Ramiro Funes Mori, Phil Jagielka and debutant Mason Holgate were solid at the back, only veering off course once Mauricio Pochettino inserted a second striker, which opened up a gap for Erik Lamela to score Tottenham’s equalizer minutes after the substitution.
Spurs grabbed firm control of the game after getting on level terms, pressing Everton with fervor and precision, but they couldn’t find a way through to secure all three points. Koeman proclaimed his squad’s fitness levels were only at 70 percent prior to the match, and the Toffees did seem to run out of gas during the final half hour.
That, however, shouldn’t dampen the lively and hopeful hour that came before it. Everton started the game on the front foot, with former Aston Villa midfielder Idrissa Gueye dominating the middle of the park for the Toffees. With Gueye operating in the engine room, breaking up Spurs’ play and carrying things the other way, Everton’s front three of Kevin Mirallas, Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley were free to get creative in the final third, swapping places and making adventurous runs past a Tottenham backline that was a step slow all game.
Deulofeu, who started the game up top and spent the majority of the game playing centrally, showed promise in a position he hasn’t played much of in his career. His movement was fantastic and though he began to tire late in the game, he was always Everton’s most likely player to get a second. It was Barkley, though, who got the game’s opening goal from a free kick that went untouched on its way into the area. The keeper might not have been expecting it, but Barkley’s technique was fantastic and it was a goal worthy of at least a point for Koeman’s side.
This result was even more shocking than the Foxes winning the league last year. OK, so it wasn’t THAT surprising, but it sure was unexpected to see a team in turmoil with 13 fit players beat the reigning Champions in Hull’s first game back in the top flight. After Abel Hernandez and Adama Diomande’s synchronized bicycle kick got the Tigers the lead just before halftime, Riyad Mahrez’s equalizer from the penalty spot seemed to put the dream upset to bed. But Hull wouldn’t go away, with Robert Snodgrass thumping in the winning goal in the 57th minute.
Leicester were poor in this game. Summer signing Ahmed Musa was the most lively player on the pitch and created the most chances for the Foxes, but Mahrez seemed to be moping around for most of the match and Jamie Vardy couldn’t find any space behind a Hull defense that was well prepared for Leicester to play for a goal on the counter attack. It might be the only three points Hull secure all season, but the Tigers picked a pretty good team to stun. At least for now, Hull can claim to hold the Premier League title belt having stripped it away from the Foxes on opening day.
The Pep Guardiola era at the Etihad didn’t get off to a flying start, with City requiring Paddy McNair’s late own goal to secure all three points, but there was some encouraging signs for the Sky Blue. Most notably, Raheem Sterling, who had an anonymous season after becoming the most expensive English player ever last summer, looked lively from kick off, taking on his man and flying down the flank. He won the penalty that Sergio Aguero converted to open the scoring and completed a game-high six dribbles, a sign that his confidence is building after a poor first season at City and an even worse tournament at the Euros.
John Stones looked good in his City debut, stepping up and looking comfortable on the ball throughout the contest. We still haven’t seen him under pressure, but the initial returns point to Stones being the ball playing center half that Guardiola loves. It was enjoyable to see Stones step up on the ball with Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna taking up spots in the holding midfield slots and Fernandinho and Aleksandar Kolarov, a central midfielder and a left back, respectively, acting as the last line of defense. Guardiola’s innovation and outside the box thinking is talked about a lot, but that doesn’t mean it’s overrated; the man is a legitimate football genius.
Kolarov, by the way, was superb, and the manager said as much after the game. He might not play center back again this season, but his career might have a second wind once his legs go because of how well he adapted to playing centrally. It wasn’t all good for City, with Jermain Defoe nabbing the equalizer in the 71st minute and a lot of their possession not producing chances, but the framework is only now being established and it shouldn’t be long before City are flying.
The Boro made a strong debut in the Premier League with former Manchester City striker Alvaro Negredo getting off the mark in the 11th minute, allowing Aitor Karanka’s to comfortably control the game for the remainder of the game. Left back George Friend was magnificent in both of his roles, getting forward with intent and ability, dribbling past defenders and creating chances down the flank while also keeping Stoke talisman Xheridan Shaqiri in his pocket for the majority of the match.
Shaqiri would get his goal, though, with a good free kick in the 67th minute. The goal rescued a point from what was an otherwise uninspiring performance from Mark Hughes’ men. With summer signing Joe Allen only getting a cameo, Giannelli Imbula was the Potters’ most influential player in the middle of the mark, but Stoke hardly threatened the goal without a true striker leading the line.
Middlesbrough should be happy with its Premier League return and particularly with the player of playmaker Gaston Ramirez. Ramirez spent last season at the Riverside Stadium on loan from Southampton before making the move permanent this summer and he pulled the strings magnificently in the opener, assisting on Negredo’s goal before hitting the post himself and being taken off in the 88th minute.
The Saints, who are utilizing new manager Claude Puel’s diamond midfield system, look a fun side with Nathan Redmond up top along side Shane Long and Dusan Tadic. Redmond, signed from Norwich City as a Sadio Mane replacement this summer, scored on his Saints debut and nearly made it a brace if not for the offside flag. His first was enough to secure a point against a Watford side that was solid defensively and that got a wonderful opening goal from Etiene Capoue. After a down first season at the club, Capoue started off his second campaign with a controlling performance in midfield and a deciding goal.
Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Southampton’s summer signing from Bayern Munich, entered the game with half an hour to go and opened up the game for the Saints, offering more dynamic play than James Ward-Prowse. He looks to be a great signing in Saints’ midfield and it might not be too soon to consider how long Southampton will be able to hold onto a player who looks to be one of the brightest midfielders in Europe.
The Mourinho era at United got off to a negative start, with Manchester ceding possession to the Cherries in the first half, but the pace of the game picked up in the second half and Manchester’s superior talents began to make their presence known. Juan Mata scored the game’s opening goal in the 40th minute, but it was less a goal and more Cherries’ captain Steve Francis’ personal rendition of Yakety Sax, commiting two unthinkable errors in the span of five seconds to lead to Mata’s opener. Rooney’s goal in the second half wasn’t much better, for he headed home Anthony Martial’s mishit shot in the 59th minute, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s capper and first Premier League goal was a thing of beauty.
Bournemouth didn’t have enough creativity in the midfield to break down United’s double pivot of Ander Herrera and Mauroane Fellaini. Fellaini was perfect with his passing and tremendous defensively while Herrera dropped deep and create things with his long passing. Despite Mourinho saying Rooney would’t play a deeper midfield position, United’s captain frequently dropped deep to get on the ball. Whether Rooney was disobeying instructions or merely searching for space, he wasn’t stagnant in the No. 10 role and displayed much better chemistry with Zlatan than he did during the Community Shield match against Leicester.
Chelsea looked like a totally different team than the one that tried to defend the title last season. Antonio Conte’s debut at the club featured aggressive and dominant possession, a far cry from the negative brand of football Jose Mourinho’s side had regressed to by the end of his second term at the club. Most importantly for Chelsea, Eden Hazard looked like one of the top players of the world again; he scored Chelsea’s opener from the spot, getting on the board in the opener after waiting until March to score his first Premier League goal last season, and took on defenders with glee.
West Ham were lost with Dmitri Payet on the bench, sitting back and absorbing the pressure despite having safety valves providing an outlet. Credit Conte, who had Branislov Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta flying forward from the fullback spots, requiring West Ham’s wingers to track back and essentially removing them from the game. The lack of an outlet on the wings negated Andy Carroll’s impact, for his hold up play was mostly useless with nobody around him to connect with.
Of course, Chelsea wouldn’t have been able to be so aggressive with its defenders were it not for the presence of N’Golo Kante, who was tremendous in his Chelsea. Kante sat in between Chelsea’s center backs to protect them from the counter attack and showed he can pick a pass as well. Conte’s controversial exclusion of Cesc Fabregas proved fruitful as Kante and Nemanja Matic looked like a tremendous defensive duo in midfield while Oscar played magnificently in a more creative midfield role.
Although West Ham had nothing to offer going forward, Payet’s inclusion led to a couple of set piece opportunities, one of which fell kindly to center back James Collins, who thumped the ball beautifully past Thibaut Courtois in the 77th minute. Conte wouldn’t settle for the point, though, as he threw on Pedro, Victor Moses, who spent last season on loan at West Ham and former Marseille striker Michy Batshuayi on to chase a second goal. In the end, it was Batshuayi’s header down to Costa moments after coming on that created Costa’s fantastic winning strike just moments before stoppage time.