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August 2015

Left At The Altar

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Manchester United started off the summer as one of the most active – and shrewd – clubs in the world. By the time the Reds crossed the pond and arrived in the United States for their Guiness-backed preseason tour in late July, the team had already signed Bastian Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich ($22 million), Memphis Depay from PSV ($31 million), Morgan Schneiderlain from Southamtpon ($38 million) and Matteo Darmian from Torino ($19 million).

But as the minutes tick by and we get closer and closer to the close of the summer transfer window, the grade on Louis Van Gaal’s report card continues to drop. Since Van Gaal sealed the aforementioned moves, which were all viewed as pretty good pieces of business, he’s had to sell Angel Di Maria to PSG ($67 million) at a $13 million loss after the Argentine spent just one season at Old Trafford, and the David De Gea situation has completely evaporated, with Van Gaal dropping the Spanish star for new-signing Sergio Romero while also refusing to sell De Gea to Madrid. Now it seems like Romero may be United’s first-choice keeper all season long while also not capitalizing on the sizable fee that they could have gotten from Los Blancos for the Spanish international.

What’s worse is that United have swung and missed on several top talents, the most damning of which was former Barcelona forward Pedro Rodríguez, who was instead scooped up by defending champion Chelsea because United, one of the world’s three richest clubs, haggled over a $30 million buyout fee that Barcelona were never going to budge on. On top of Pedro, whose presence would have added a perfect balance to the Red Devils’ attack, United have also been rebuffed on offers for Sergio Ramos, Thomas Muller, Gareth Bale and, most recently, Neymar.

While they seemed to have a real shot at snagging Ramos away from Madrid early on in the transfer for window, now it seems like United are making bids for untouchable players just so that nobody can accuse them of sitting on their hands as Pedro spurned them for the Blues and as bitter rivals Manchester City splurged for Wolfsburg talisman Kevin De Bruyne (this on top of their previous splurge for Raheem Sterling, England’s most expensive player ever, just over a month ago).

At the very least, United’s new signings have looked decent in the early portions of their respective United careers. Schneiderlin has been solid in midfield and has done a good job organizing play, Darmian has looked a capable Premier League defender and Romero has been excellent in goal, allowing just one goal in five matches between EPL and Champions League play. Memphis netted a brace and assisted on two in United’s 7-1 thumping of Club Brugge over two legs in the Champions League playoff round, although he’s still looked a bit shaky in league play as he attempts to adjust to life in the Premiership. Schweinsteiger has been less impressive as he attempts to finding his footing in a United shirt. The former Bayern man has yet to play more than an hour in any of his five appearances this season, and at his age you have to wonder if there will ever be a point where he will be a consistent member of Van Gaal’s Starting XI. 

Speaking of that Starting XI: If the start of the season is any indication, there’s little reason to believe that United will be a serious title challenger during this campaign. If the transfer window closed with the Premier League season kicked off, than maybe United would be closer to the the rest of the pack, but with Chelsea snagging Pedro and City adding De Bruyne, it would appear as if the top two finishers from last season have set themselves up for another mano-a-mano race for the title.

Through three league games, United have only mustered one goal – a decently taken finish by Adnan Januzaj, whom Van Gaal promptly criticized in the postmatch press conference, in the sides’ 1-0 win at Aston Villa. Their other two results were a 1-0 win at home against Tottenham opening day thanks to a Kyle Walker own goal and a scoreless draw against Newcastle last week despite finishing with a sizable gap in possession (66-34) and shot attempts (20-7). The flip side, of course, is that the Red Devils have yet to concede a goal in league play, which is a testament to the fine form of Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling, Darmian, Romero and Daley Blind, who has handled the switch to centerback quite well thus far.

rooneyBut with the creativity and talent that Van Gaal has in his lockerroom, as well as the amount of cash he has to spend to bring in some attackers that can get him goals, one goal out of three games is not an acceptable output. After experimenting with Depay as the #10 against Spurs and then surprising us all with the insertion of Januzaj into the line-up against Villa, it’s clear that Van Gaal isn’t 100% comfortable with his team selections. Pedro would have solved a lot of issues for LVG, as he would have instantly earned a starting spot on the right flank, allowing Mata to slide into the #10 role, where his lack of pace would be less of an issue and where his vision and passing would shine brightest, Depay to play on the left-hand side, which allows him to cut in on his right foot, and for Rooney to have a bit more support up the field.

But with Januzaj in the hole and Mata forced wide, Rooney hasn’t had much joy linking up with his midfielder partners, and the English international was struggling mightily to get off the mark as the lone striker before fetching a much-needed hat trick against Club Brugge on Wednesday. There were hopes of Rooney surpassing 20 league goals this season now that he’d have the lone striker spot all to himself, but based on current form, it seems like United will need a more creative and pacey player on the right to help Rooney reach that mark.

With the kind of money that he has at his disposable, it is entirely possible that Van Gaal has a blockbuster transfer up his sleeve as the deadline nears. If the Dutchman were able to swing a move for Schalke’s Julian Draxler or Southampton’s Sadio Mané before the final tick of the clock, then perhaps United’s season will be upswing by New Year’s.

But short of a major move in the coming days, United will be entering the fall portion of their schedule having been outshined in the transfer market by major rivals City and Chelsea. And with a lack of homegrown talents sprouting up, if the Red Devils want to return to the glory days they experienced under Sir Alex Ferguson, that has to change.

City Start Hot

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West Brom 0 – Manchester City 3

Armed with the opportunity to take the top spot in the table after less than convincing opening day showings from the likes of United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, Manchester City went the Hawthorns and put together an utterly dominant performance that left the Baggies looking like a Sky Belt side. West Brom put on a very negative performance, sitting back and giving City the ball without every troubling themselves to pressure them up the field. City easily counteracted that tactic as their midfield maestros Yaya Toure and David Silva dominated in the pockets of space between West Brom’s defensive lines. Toure netted a brace, including a tremendous strike from outside of the box, but I’d expect David Silva to be credited with the first goal as it was his flick near the six-yard box that secured the goal. Either way, both players were fantastic, and even as the rest of the TV-rich Premier League snaps up talent from all over Europe, it’s City’s duo of Silva and Toure that commands the middle of the park like no other pair when they are on form.

The other key storyline was the City debut for Raheem Sterling, who is, at least at the moment, the most expensive signing in the world for the 2015 summer transfer window. Sterling’s pace and positioning made a great chance for him near the end of the first half, but he spoiled the finish when he failed to curl the ball around the keeper. Nonetheless, Sterling and leftback Aleksandar Kolarov seemed to have a great understanding down the left hand side. The Serbian international was one of the best players on the pitch as his forays forward were always dangerous, and he nearly netted himself a goal off of a gorgeous piece of play that slid him in on goal at a nifty angle, but he just overhit the ball on the finish. Ricky Lambert worked hard in his debut for the Baggies, but with club-record signing Salomon Rondon coming over from Zenit, you have to wonder how Tony Pulis will end up balancing the playing time between his three capable forwards (Saido Berahino being the other).

All-in-all, it was a strong start for City, and they’ll have a chance to build on their top-of-the-table form in a Sunday afternoon tilt against Chelsea at the Etihad.

Newcastle United 2 – Southampton 2

This was an entertaining tie between two teams that spent most of last season flirting with positions nobody would have pegged them for – relegation for Newcastle and a Champions League spot for Southampton. Perhaps Southampton deserved better seeing as Cisse’s equalizing goal when the Magpies were down 1-0 was chested in three inches in front of the goal following a lucky deflection off the cross, but Georginio Wijnaldum’s header on a counter-attack that put Newcastle up 2-1 was all class, giving the Geordies’ $22 million signing a debut performance to remember. Southampton would draw even with a fabulous header from Shane Long that was made by a tremendous cross from dangerman Dusan Tadic. We didn’t see much of Newcastle new boy Aleksandar Mitrovic, but the return of Jay Rodriguez for Southampton after a year off due to injury was a welcome sight. Both of these sides seem to have the quality to make some noise in the league this season, and they kicked the season off with a cracker of a match.

Stoke City 0 – Liverpool 1

In what may have been the most drab of the opening day contests in the Premier League, Liverpool seemed to play as if they didn’t know they bought a $51 million striker. Christian Benteke wasn’t given much of a chance to show off why he was worth that kind of money in his debut for the Reds as his support players failed to provide him with any kind of service. Adam Lallana and Jordan Ibe were particularly poor as wide midfielders, and Brendan Rodger’s new pairing in the middle of the park – former Man City man James Milner and new captain Jordan Henderson – failed to have a remarkable impact on the game. Even lively #10 Philippe Coutinho had a performance that lacked much substance, but it was his moment of clarity and clairvoyance that provided Liverpool with all three points on the afternoon. The diminutive sparkplug smashed a screamer from way outside of the box in the 86th minute to rescue the match from becoming the first scoreless draw of the season.

The Potters were a bit worse off than I was expecting for their home opener. Stoke have injected a fair amount of creativity and industry into the side over the summer but their big-name signings didn’t quite gel against Liverpool. That said, more help is on the way as former Bayern Munich winger Shaqiri is prepared to make a move to the Britannia Stadium after initially rebuffing Stoke’s inquiries earlier in the summer. Placing Shaqiri alongside former Barcelona man Ibrahim Afellay in the attack with Chelsea loanee Marco Van Ginkel supporting in midfield, Mark Hughes’ men should enjoy a lot more entertaining performances than their no-show on Match Day 1.


Arsenal 0 – West Ham 2

In what was easily the most surprising result of the weekend, the Hammers went into the Emirates and held down Arsenal’s star-studded attack, pouncing on their chances to take three points from a title contender away from home. A hype-filled pre-season for the Gunners, which included a Community Shield triumph over Arsene Wenger’s arch-nemesis, built up to a letdown performance in their league opener during which their passing wasn’t precise and their inspiration was lacking. A fantastic free kick from West Ham’s $15 million man Dimitri Payet found the forehead of Cheikhou Kouyate and then the back of the net in the first half, and centre forward Mauro Zarate added the insurance with a tremendous strike from outside the box in the 56th minute.

What’s perhaps most dispiriting for the Gunners is that a world class keeper probably would have kept both shots out of the back of the net, but an out-of-form Petr Cech found himself out of position and off balance on both goals, perhaps succumbing to the nerves that came with his first Premier League start for the North Londoners. Once West Ham got on the board, Slaven Bilić’s side happily sat back and let Arsenal come onto them, keeping their shape for the full 90 minutes while only allowing Arsenal a couple of clear chances. West Ham’s new centreback combo of Winston Reid and recent addition Angelo Ogbonna, who arrived from Italian giants Juventus for $12 million over the summer, was fabulous, keeping Arsenal’s dangerman Olivier Giroud from causing any havoc in the box, and 16-year-old (YES, 16) Reece Oxford, who completed 95% of his passes in his top flight debut while out-shining Arsenal’s defensive midfield combo of Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin, gave the Hammers stability in the middle of the park against an Arsenal side that lives to slice teams open.

West Ham look a good side that can push for a high place in the middle of the table if their injury luck improves (they are already without striker Enner Valencia due to ankle and knee ailments). Arsenal are still a sure-fire bet for a top-four finish, but if Wenger was looking to quell the idea that they still need to buy a world-class striker and more help in defense, his side failed him on Match Day 1.

Manchester United 1 – Tottenham 0

In a game that featured the league debuts of sexy new signings like Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, it was the less heralded signings of Matteo Darmian and Sergio Romero that made the biggest difference in the league’s opening contest. Schneiderlin was fine in midfield, but Schweinsteiger couldn’t do much as a 2nd half substitute and Memphis was generally awful. Romero, on the other hand, did well to hold his clean sheet with a few fabulous saves, and Darmian looked really good on that right hand side. United did deserve a goal in this game even if Kyle Walker was credited with the own goal that got Untied the three points, but this was not a performance that Louis Van Gaal will be happy about. LVG’s famed “philosophy” is all about possession, creativity and industry, and we saw very little of that against Spurs. In fact, Tottenham actually enjoyed the (slight) majority of possession, which is a bit of a surprise for a match at Old Trafford.

This game probably deserved to end in a draw, but Tottenham’s #10 Christian Eriksen spoiled an early chance with an over-hit dink over Romero and the chances were few and far between after that. Spurs would have to be the move encouraged side even in defeat as they played one of the league favorites even away from home after a nightmare of a week scheduling wise that had them playing a mid-week friendly in Munich on Wednesday before returning to England for the first kickoff of the season on Saturday afternoon. Toby Alderweireld, who anchored Southampton’s defense last season and was bought from Atletico Madrid for $17 million over the summer, looked excellent in defense, and Spurs as a whole looked really solid at the back.

amaviBournemouth 0 – Aston Villa 1

Bournemoth’s debut in the top flight of English football was an entertaining one, and it’s already clear that this is a side that will play on the front foot as much as possible this season. Villa were in the middle of the pack in the Premier League as far as possession went, but they were on the wrong side of a 60/40 split away at Dean Court. Bournemoth bossed the midfield, kept Villa danger men Gabby Agbonlahor Jordan Ayew, a summer acquisition from French side FC Lorient, off the ball and seemed a comfortable side in their first Premier League tie, but they squandered a few tight chances and a single moment of excellence from Villa’s new center forward Rudy Gestede spoiled the home fan’s opening day celebrations.

Villa could have done more to win the ball back in this game for me, but for a team playing its first league game since selling danger man Christian Benteke, they did well to get three points away from home. The Lions went shopping in France over the summer and brought what appear to be two gems back to the Premier League. Midfielder Jordan Veretout is the obvious one. The 22-year-old cost around $10 million from Nantes, and after finishing last season as one of the best creators in Ligue 1, he looked like he’ll do the orchestrating for Villa’s attack this season. Veretout played in the middle of the park and drifted wide at times, completing 87% of his passes and keeping play alive whenever Villa did have the ball.

Villa’s other impressive newcomer was my man of the match on the day: left back Jordan Amavi. The 21-year-old Frenchman arrived from Nice for $12 million over the summer and immediately gave Aston Villa a creative and dangerous threat down the flank that also has the pace and work rate to track back and defend. Amavi was the sole source of joy for Villa for a 10- to 20-minute stretch in this match, as his eye-catching work on the ball allowed the Lions to foray up the pitch down the flanks. Amavi also mixed in a couple of juicy crosses and he was incredibly confident on the ball, and at the age of 21, he looks like he has the room to grow into one of the best left backs in the Premier League.

Bournemouth should improve once they get their new signings in tune with the rest of the squad. 10 of the 11 names in the starting XI were returning faces for Bournemoth, but it would seem as if they’ll need the inspiration and creativity of a player like Max Gradel, who spent some of his early years on loan at Bournemouth before making a permanent move there from Saint-Etienne this summer, to maintain a spot in the top flight heading into next season. Once there is some familiarity with the new faces, Bournemouth’s exciting, diverse play should, at the very least, cause a thrill during the clubs first tour of the Premier League.

Everton 2 – Watford 2

Drawing at home freshly-promoted Watford is not exactly the most convincing way to start off what is a crucial season for “the Martinez way.” Everton dominated possession as you’d expect, notching close to a 70/30 split, but Watford were the more dangerous team on tilt all afternoon, creating chances on the counter and converting their opportunities in front of goal. The Hornets kept their shape well for the majority of the game, but a Ross Barkley screamer knotted the game at 1 in the 76th minute, and an awful mistake on the edge of the box led to an another equalizing goal for Arouna Kone in the dying embers of the game. Everton look like a side without any kind of spark. Without Leighton Baines, Barkley was the only player that moved play along into semi-dangerous areas, and striker Romelu Lukaku almost never got on the ball before he was able to hold up play on the edge of the box and create the equalizing goal for Kone. Martinez has spent virtually no money in the summer, with his only two key signings being former Man United midfielder Tom Cleverley on a free and a permanent deal for Barcelona product Gerard Deulofeu, who spent the 2014 season at Goodison Park on loan. Considering the fact that the only transfer rumors that Everton are in involved in would mean the departure of wonderkid John Stones, this looks like it could be another punchless season for the Toffees.

Leicester City 4 – Sunderland 2

In what was a shockingly inviting contest, Leicester City seemed to maintain the strong form that they closed last season in, mopping up a Sunderland side that looked totally over-matched in the first 45 minutes. Riyad Mahrez was the danger man for the Foxes as the Algerian international might have had the most impressive individual performance of the opening weekend. He netted a brace (likely the only one in the league thus far if David Silva gets his way), he played key passes, he put the ball on the net, he got by defenders and he forced a few fouls. It was a complete performance that deserved a 10 grade even though he was subbed off in the 77th minute. The Foxes also got a stellar performance from midfielder Marc Albrighton, who kicked off his second season in Leicester with a magnificent one-goal, two-assist performance. With Mahrez causing trouble on the left and Albrighton running things on the right, Sunderland got completely overrun early in the game and they never really had a chance once they got down 3-0.

Norwich City 1 – Crystal Palace 3

What was a pretty up-and-down, interesting contest was marred by a bit of controversy. The Canaries had what they thought was a magnificent equalizing goal when striker Cameron Jerome raised his boot and flicked in a goal in the 70th minute, but it was disallowed as the referee deemed that he had raised his boot to a dangerous height. It’s true, his boot was pretty close to a defenders head as he went to strike it towards goal, but for me, you can’t make that call when there is no malicious intent and the kick produces such a pretty goal. But Norwich City would have to do without, and before the final whistle blew, Palace talisman Yohan Cabaye etched his name on the score sheet with a debut goal after arriving from PSG in the summer. Despite the home defeat, Alex Neil’s men looked pretty good at times, but you do get the feeling that their return to the Premier League may be short lived. Palace look to be a much improved side thanks to the addition of Cabaye, and with 22-year old English winger Wilfried Zaha looking better and better, the Eagles should be in for a fun season in Alen Pardew’s first full year managing his former club.


Chelsea 2 – Swansea City 2

In what was my favorite tie of Match Day 1, the Swans went in the home of the defending champions and played superior football to that of the Blues, though they did have to settle for a point at Stamford Bridge. Of course, a point at Stamford Bridge is nothing to sneeze at for any team in the Premier League, and the way that Swansea played should be even more encouraging for Gary Monk. You could argue that neither of Chelsea’s goals were deserved, as Oscar’s free kick snuck past Lukasz Fabianski as the Polish international waited for a touch from the onrushing attackers that never came.and as Willian’s cross flukely deflected off of Federico Fernández for an own goal.

Swansea, on the other hand, got a class goal from newly signed Andrew Ayew and a well-deserved penalty earned and converted by striker Bafetimbi Gomis to get the result. The former Marseille man impressed with his composure and savvy in front of Thibaut Courtois’ goals when a parried header fell to his feet; the Frenchman himself hit the ground, but he was able to get up while maintaining possession and then had the wherewithal to tuck the ball into the opposite corner. Courtios would later abandon his net when Gomis found his way through on goal in the second half, leading the Belgian keeper to stick a foot out and trip Gomis in the box, notching a penalty and a red card. Although he constantly found himself in offside positions, Gomis was always threatening Chelsea’s back four with his runs and it seems as if another double-digit goal campaign is in the cards for the former French international.

But as good as Ayew and Gomis were, Swansea’s goal scorers weren’t the top performers on the pitch for me. Those honors go to creative Ecuadorian winger Jefferson Montero and English midfield maestro Jonjo Shelvey. Montero was a terror for Chelsea to contain all afternoon as he used his pace and flair to fly past Branislav Ivanovic, cutting inside to create opportunities for his teammates. You could argue that both goals could be created to Montero even though he didn’t get an official assist for either. It was Montero’s cross into the box that eventually fell to Ayew on the first goal, and it was Montero’s presence that played Gomis on for his charging run towards Courtios when he earned the penalty. Because Montero was causing so much trouble for Ivanovic down the flank, William often had to drop back to fill in for Ivanovic, and given his lack of defensive awareness, he unwittingly played Gomis on and allowed him to surge towards goal without the hindrance of the offside flag.

Shelvey ran things all afternoon from the center of the park. With Chelsea playing a bit higher of a line than we’re used to seeing, Shelvey was always looking to pick out long balls to Gomis over the top, Shelvey was credited with six key passes, tied for the most in the Premier League after the first round of matches, and 12 long balls against Chelsea, which is an absurdly good performance against one of Europe’s top defensive sides. Gary Monk’s side has always played an attractive brand of football, and after seeing how well they got on against Chelsea, there’s no reason to believe this won’t be a season to remember for the Swans.

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