Saturday, August 15, 2015

The European Through Ball Vol. 4

On this edition, some reflections on an entertaining day of football in Europe. Everton put in a thorough performance at St. Mary's, Spurs do what Spurs usually do, Stephen Ireland turns back the clock, Thomas Tuchel has a dream start in the battle of the Borussia's and Lyon get a lucky break to beat Guingamp.

Southampton 0 Everton 3
  • An excellent display by the Toffees was underpinned by a couple of factors. Ross Barkley was excellent running with the ball in dangerous areas, threading accurate passes through to the forwards and topping it off with a composed finish for Everton's third goal. More importantly for the Blues, it's been a while since Romelu Lukaku has looked at his best. Roberto Martinez must realize that using Lukaku out wide might be effective as a surprise tactic every now and then, but ultimately the Belgian is in the team to deliver goals. With Lukaku playing in the centre, all he had to focus on was finishing, which is what he did with two different goals. The first, a good sideways header to finish Arouna Kone's excellent cross and the second, a confident left-footed strike after a good through ball by Ross Barkley. Not many forwards are going to score a brace away to Southampton and if Lukaku can replicate this level of performance consistently, Everton may still finish in the top seven.
  • Arouna Kone has had a frustrating time since joining Everton two years ago. Now free of his injury troubles and a full pre-season behind him, the Ivorian might just have a crucial role to play in the Toffees season. Having scored on the opening day of the season after coming off the bench, Kone put in another impressive performance. He dovetailed effectively with Lukaku and managed to find good spaces to run into, always providing a good outlet for Everton's midfielders. Kone may not get the headlines, but his unheralded work-rate could prove to be effective if Everton are to win more games against the better teams. 
  • As good as Everton were, Southampton were poor on many different counts. The fact that Saints have already conceded five goals in two games is a worry. It's clear to see that being partnered next to Maya Yoshida in stead of Toby Alderweireld has had a negative impact on Jose Fonte. Southampton are now back to the original pairing of centre-backs they had when they first got promoted back to the Premier League. The partnership wasn't good enough then and it isn't now. Saints fans will hope that the signing of Virgil Van Dijk from Celtic is completed sooner rather than later or it could be hard to replicate last season's success let alone build on it. Meanwhile, the play up front was also pedestrian for the most part. Though Saints had more possession than Everton they were unable to do anything meaningful with the ball, relying excessively on right-back Cedric and Dusan Tadic to cross the ball into the box. Jordy Clasie was signed as Morgan Schneiderlin's replacement and the hope must be that once the Dutch international returns from injury, Southampton will revert to a more composed style of play rather than the harum-scarum style witnessed during the home opener at St. Mary's.
Tottenham 2 Stoke 2
  • In keeping with the game, let's start with Tottenham's positives. The interplay between Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli was excellent. The trio created chances for each other with some fantastic passes and the only pity was that Spurs didn't score more when they were in the ascendancy. Furthermore, the trio pressed from the front once again, ensuring Spurs more of the ball in dangerous areas. It must be comforting for new signing Clinton Njie that he will have the opportunity to settle into an attack that is already creating chances. With the talented Cameroonian now in his ranks, at least Mauricio Pochettino has a failsafe if he feels the need to change one of his front three, rather than the complete unravelling that took place against Stoke after the substitution of Kane.
  • It feels like eons ago when Stephen Ireland was actually the most creative midfielder at Manchester City. Today's performance coming off the bench was a reminder of the talent that Ireland possesses. Ireland's passing changed the complexion of the match completely. Passing with 95% accuracy, Ireland enabled Stoke to completely bypass Tottenham's midfield. He created a couple of great chances culminating in the assist for the equalizer and could have possibly headed in a winning goal as well. It's hard to believe that Ireland is still only 28. If Mark Hughes can coax such performances more regularly, Ireland could well be a better choice than Charlie Adam in midfield as his pass and move style is best suited to a continental style that the manager is trying to implement at Stoke.
  • While Ireland and Stoke walk away with the plaudits, it must concern Pochettino that his side were so easily overturned in the last half an hour of a match at home. White Hart Lane has to be a banker for Spurs if they want to improve on last season, but it's hard to see Spurs succeeding with the options they currently have in central midfield. Eric Dier, Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb may all turn out to be mainstays in the club's future, but dominating central midfielders they are not. Playing one of the trio is not unreasonable, but Spurs are in serious need of a top-notch orchestrator to take make them more solid in the centre of the park. As things stand, neither is the Spurs midfield acting as a base for attack nor as a shield for the defence.
Borussia Dortmund 4 Borussia Monchengladbach 0
  • In a league that is guaranteed to be won by Bayern Munich, the greatest curiosity around the opening week of the season was centred on how Thomas Tuchel's reign at the Signal Iduna Park would start. Would Tuchel be able to inspire Borussia Dortmund after the iconic reign of Jurgen Klopp? On first impressions, the answer is a resounding yes. While the pressing was reminiscent of Klopp's team at their best, the passing was more accurate and the control of the game seemed less frantic. Every single player performed exceptionally. Marco Reus led from the front, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won almost every sprint, Henrik Mkhitaryan picked up great positions, Ilkay Gundogan looked like he is finally over his injury troubles and the 19-year old Julian Weigl was so calm while distributing the ball from the base of midfield. Tougher challenges await Tuchel, but a positive start after the nightmares of last season was crucial. The new manager can be pleased with the performance of his stars.
  • After this performance it would be hard to believe that Borussia Monchengladbach finished third last season and are looking forward to the group stages of the Champions League. Lucien Favre's men, usually so organized and hard to break down, were overrun from the first minute to the final whistle. The experienced Swiss manager will certainly convince his players that this was a one-off and not every team in the Bundesliga will match the firepower of Dortmund. The bigger challenge that Favre faces is how to build on last season's achievements.  The Foals are going to need more than just discipline and organization to compete on two fronts. Realistically Gladbach are not competing for trophies, but the aim has to be a consistent top four place along with incremental success in Europe. To ensure that takes place, the club have to add some stardust to the squad.
  • It would be natural for fans of Dortmund to take this season one step at a time. Yet, if the club is honest with itself, an immediate return to the Champions League spots has to be the aim. In addition to the stars in the starting eleven today, Dortmund had Sven Bender, Gonzalo Castro, Adrian Ramos and Kevin Kampl on the bench, while Nuri Sahin and Neven Subotic are a few weeks away from full fitness. It doesn't have the depth of Bayern Munich, but Dortmund's squad is easily good enough to come second in the league while going on a deep run in the Europa League. An exciting season at the Signal Iduna awaits.
Guingamp 0 Lyon 1
  • Lyon welcomed back Maxime Gonalons in the centre of midfield after his suspension. However, it was another welcome that grabbed the headlines. Mathieu Valbuena has returned to France by joining the runners-up. The experienced attacking midfielder is a great addition to the squad and his experience and skill will come in handy as Lyon compete on two fronts. Valbuena looked at home just behind Alexandre Lacazette and once he is more settled we can expect plenty of thrills from this exciting attack.
  • Guingamp were excellent, playing with the spirit and verve that has become the hallmark of this exciting team. Regardless of the calibre of their opponents, Jocelyn Gourvennec's men always like to play on the front foot. They posed Lyon plenty of problems and were unfortunate to not get at least a point. Nicolas Benezet troubled both Jeremy Morel and Rafael on the flanks and sent in several teasing balls that troubled Samuel Umtiti and Milan Bisevac. What Gourvennec wouldn't have given for last season's top scorer Claudio Beauvue to be on the end of those crosses? In a cruel twist of fate it was Beauvue who ended up scoring the winner for Lyon against his former club. It's tempting to be downbeat about Guingamp's chances this season, but this club have a habit of fighting against the odds. Expect another season of survival for the Northwestern team.
  • Lyon's young attacking talents had another frustrating afternoon. While Messrs Fekir, Lacazette, Ferri and Tolisso get up to speed, Lyon have been saved from defeat by the excellence of their centre-backs and goalkeeper. Umtiti put in another solid performance and with the addition of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Lyon could conceivably have a long-term partnership between two French international centre-backs. However, the star in this match was Anthony Lopes. The 24-year old goalkeeper was excellent with some close-range blocks, topping it off with a superb save in stoppage time to ensure Lyon left with the three points. Lopes is the kind of solid goalkeeper who will probably will win Lyon many more points this season when the forwards draw a blank. The battle for the No.1 spot in France's Euro 2016 squad could shape up to be very interesting between Lopes and Hugo Lloris.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The European Through Ball Vol. 3

In today's edition of the European Through Ball, United win again without breaking into third gear, Bayern start the Bundesliga in typically dominant fashion and Monaco have a lucky escape against Lille.

Aston Villa 0 Manchester United 1
  • Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj were the two most technical players on the pitch. They posses the innate ability to do something extra with the ball at their feet, marrying it with a lightness of touch and vision that brings finesse to their team's play. The only moment of true inspiration in the game came when the two combined for United's winning goal. With the Red Devils creating options to overlap on the left wing, Mata picked Januzaj in the box with an exquisite pass that flummoxed the home defence. The young Belgian then sidestepped Micah Richards with a clever turn before finishing via a deflection. It wasn't synonymous with the rest of the game, but it was a winning moment worthy of a bigger match.
  • There is a sense amongst the British press that despite his tactical deficiencies Tim Sherwood will at least make Aston Villa fun to watch after the mundane reign of Paul Lambert. On the evidence of their first two matches though it seems we won't see much different from the Villains. For someone who advocated entertaining football in his stints as a pundit, Sherwood didn't seem to have any ideas to breach United's defence. The only player who caused any moments of anxiety for the visiting defence was left-back Jordan Amavi, when he galloped forward to create some attacking forays down the left. The centre of the park had wilful running and endeavour but little in the sense of penetration or possession. With time running out, Villa resorted to lumping the ball into the box to utilize Rudy Gestede's aerial prowess. This hit-and-hope philosophy clearly posed no challenges to Chris Smalling and Danny Blind. Sherwood might say a variety of things to curry favour with the press, but for neutrals and fans alike it seems Villa Park will once again be home to perspiration rather than inspiration.
  • So how did United's new signings do in their second game? Memphis Depay looked like he was slowly developing an understanding with Luke Shaw down the left, but didn't do much otherwise. He could have opened his account for United but missed a good chance after Mata found him with a through ball. Morgan Schneiderlin wasn't exceptional but seems to be adjusting to the rhythm of his new teammates, while Bastian Schweinsteiger was more at ease in the centre of the park compared to the outing against Spurs. Matteo Darmian and Sergio Romero were once again solid without the need for anything spectacular against Villa's average attack. Sterner tests lie ahead before we can start making some concrete judgements on Van Gaal's new buys.
Bayern Munich 5 Hamburg 0
  • That Bayern Munich opened their defence of the Bundesliga with a comprehensive win at home is hardly a surprise. That Arjen Robben, Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller would create and score was hardly a surprise. So the only intrigue about Bayern's season opener was how new signings Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa would fit into Pep Guardiola's tactical scheme. The Chilean was his usual energetic self providing an extra option in the box when Bayern had the ball while relentlessly pressing and tackling without it. It was Costa who caught the eye though. Comfortable on either wing, the Brazilian consistently beat his marker with pace and trickery. His comprehensive attacking display was highlighted by a beautiful curling cross with the outside of his left foot to assist Muller as well as a nice curling finish to get a goal of his own. Costa will have tougher assignments, but it seems Bayern finally have a decent backup option in case Ribery or Robben get injured when it comes to crunch time in the season.
  • Meanwhile Hamburg look like they are in for another season of strife. Surviving by the skin of their teeth last time around, Bruno Labbadia faces a tough task even if he just wants to have a slightly better season. Albin Ekdal will bring some goals from midfield and the Swede might well have more of an impact against other teams in the Bundesliga. Ideally a fully match-fit Marcelo Diaz along with Ekdal should at least ensure Labbadia gets some much-needed tenacity in the middle of the park. However, the signing of Emir Spahic to partner the erratic Johan Djourou at the back doesn't bode well, nor is the arrival of Sven Schipplock the most ideal solution to the goalscoring problems the team faced last season. It seems like staying in the league is the only realistic ambition for this proud club.
Monaco 0 Lille 0
  • Leonardo Jardim might well be right to prioritize next week's crucial Champions League playoff against Valencia. After all, it's the club's only shot of getting to the group stages of Europe's premier competition whereas the league provides plenty of opportunities to catch up. However, it was still a strange decision to start neither Stephan El Shaarawy nor Anthony Martial in the home opener after both played well in the victory at Nice. In stead the unproven Guido Carillo started, depriving Monaco of a genuine attacking threat in the box. As well as the Portuguese trio of Joao Moutinho, Bernando Silva and Ivan Cavaleiro played in midfield, they just weren't able to trouble the brilliant Vincent Enyeama in Lille's goal. By the time Martial and El Shaarawy came on, Monaco simply didn't have any rhythm to trouble Lille's defence. Tipped by many to be PSG's closest challengers this season, Jardim can't afford such selection errors too many times if Monaco are to repeat the successes of last year's campaigns in Ligue 1 and Europe.
  • You won't get a tougher start to the season than playing the champions at home and then the third place team away in your first two league fixtures. That has been Lille's lot this campaign, but the Northerners can be happy with the performances if not the points. Herve Renard's men were unfortunate to lose against PSG in the season opener and had their fair share of chances to win comfortably against Monaco. Goalscoring is clearly going to be a problem that Renard will have to grapple with for most of the season, but the dual Cup of Nations winner has at least got Lille playing with verve and intensity that was missing for the majority of last season. Lille should have a comfortable season in mid-table, but if Renard can inspire his men to perform consistently, a Europa League spot may not be out of the equation.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The European Through Ball Vol. 2

In today's edition of the European Through Ball, thoughts on Arsenal's poor loss at home to West Ham, Liverpool's stuttering win at the Britannia, Lyon's young guns draw a blank and City start their season well.

Arsenal 0 West Ham 2

  • In the build up to the start of the league season, Arsene Wenger talked about how Arsenal don't necessarily need a striker, rather emphasizing the need for the team to contribute more goals from midfield. It could well be that this was a ploy for Wenger to reduce the price of a target he has in mind (Karim Benzema seems to be everyone's guess). However, if Wenger genuinely believes he doesn't need a forward to launch a title challenge, then the evidence of this match should give him food for thought. Olivier Giroud's statistics of 41 goals in 97 matches make him seem like a decent striker. However, this is slightly misleading. Arsenal are such a creative side in midfield that 25 goals a season should be the bare minimum for a striker in this team. Giroud gives the impression of being accomplished due to his penchant for flicks and tricks when linking with midfielders but in reality his poor finishing is a big handicap for the Gunners. His inconsistency and lack of composure in front of goal was on display against West Ham when he missed some presentable chances. It's also noticeable that Giroud has very rarely scored and contributed against the toughest teams. If Arsenal do somehow win the league again, it won't be with Giroud as the starting striker in the team.
  • Next up, a signing that Arsenal actually have made. Petr Cech's signing was deemed a masterstroke by most experts. The former Chelsea stalwart is an upgrade over David Ospina and Wojciech Szczesny, though those of a short-term persuasion might disagree after his first official outing. Cech didn't cover himself in glory with either goal. However, I still think Cech will good come for Arsenal. Those who have watched Cech for the past four years will know that he is no longer amongst the very best. The simple truth is that if he was, Jose Mourinho would not bench him in favour of Thibaut Courtois. Where Cech still excels is in his ability to make the crucial save in pressure situations and making himself big in one-on-one situations. In a game where the stakes are high, Cech should be able to help Arsenal overcome their mental fragility. Cech himself admitted his mistakes and its possible there may be a few more before the end of the season. However, over the course of 38 games, there is every chance Cech will have won more points for Arsenal to make up for his errors.
  • Slaven Bilic couldn't have asked for a better debut as a Premier League manager. The Croat had his team organized superbly, with 16-year old Reece Oxford winning many plaudits for his composure. Belying his tender years, Oxford was excellent in protecting his back four. However, this observer was most impressed and excited by what Dimitri Payet bought to the West Ham team. The Frenchman was a constant menace with his pace and trickery, which crucially was also allied with excellent control. Payet's skill set gives West Ham another dimension, and on song he is the kind of player that will enable the Hammers to cause more upsets against the bigger sides. Another fascinating addition to the Premier League.
  • While West Ham deservedly get the plaudits, Arsene Wenger has to take the brunt of the blame for this loss. Opening a season at home against a team that hasn't beaten you in the last seven meetings should provide the ideal platform to start the campaign. It must be infuriating for Arsenal fans to approach the season with so much optimism and then witness a performance like this. The sad reality is that this kind of result has come to typify Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. Give Arsenal the same fixture in February when they are out of a title race and they will purr their way to a convincing win. However, when there is expectation and hope, no club drops sloppy points like Arsenal. The inability to sustain focus is ultimately the biggest reason why Arsenal's name is unlikely to be on the Premier Leage trophy regardless of whether they get Karim Benzema.

Stoke 0 Liverpool 1

  • Two successive summers featuring more than five new signings would leave even the best managers confused. Brendan Rodgers isn't one of the best so it's no surprise that there is no clear tactical identity in this Liverpool team. Rodgers has run the whole gamut in his time with the Reds. In his first season, it was possession at all costs. Season 2 saw relentless pressing from the front and fast counterattacks in a kamikaze style that almost won the league. Last season was a return to a more prosaic style in order to limit the damage of a porous defence. You get the impression that this season even Rodgers himself is unclear on how he wants the team to play. The popular opinion seems to suggest that if Christian Benteke is to succeed, Liverpool are going to have to develop into a crossing team. Let's indulge this theory with the personnel available. Philippe Coutinho is not going to hug the touchline and cross balls into the box. Considering the money spent on Roberto Firmino, it's likely that he will play in the first team. Is he a regular crosser? No. Neither is Adam Lallana, provided he keeps up the 60-minute outings that have been synonymous with his Liverpool career. Liverpool's two best crossers are James Milner and Jordan Henderson. Which would be fine, except for the fact that both are playing in the centre of the park. So despite what the punditocracy is saying, Rodgers must believe that Benteke is going to be adept at interchanging quick passes with his midfielders in the box. The challenge now becomes how do you maintain defensive solidity as neither Henderson nor Milner are traditionally deep midfielders. Its become pretty clear that Rodgers has no time for Lucas Leiva. It seems the best solution would be for Rodgers to get Emre Can to play alongside Milner and Henderson in a 4-3-2-1 rather than deploying three attackers behind Benteke. Which only leaves the conundrum of fitting Daniel Sturridge when he returns to full fitness? All this only further serves to highlight how poorly thought out Liverpool's transfer strategy has been for so long. Short term solutions have been sought at considerable expense which ironically have cost Liverpool a lot more in the long term.
  • Stoke would be right to consider the result harsh. Mark Hughes' men played well for the most part, even if they were lacking true moments of inspiration. Their defence was barely troubled and the midfield had some decent spells of possession. It's clear to see that Mark Hughes is building a team that will take the attack to most opponents. The sight of Ibrahim Afellay running the channels must have been a surreal sight for most Stoke fans let alone neutrals. To think they are now on the cusp of finally signing Xherdan Shaqiri is remarkable. Afellay, Bojan and Shaqiri. Who would ever have imagined the three of them together at the Britannia?! Exciting times in the Potteries.

Lyon 0 Lorient 0

  • The problem with unexpected title challenges is following up in the next campaign. This is the question that faces Hubert Fournier and his exciting young team at Lyon. Stutter this time around and everyone says last season was a fluke. Finish in the top 3 again and the "developing a team for the future" argument holds some water. The problem with young teams coming close without winning is that they don't have the experience and maturity to brush off such seasons from their memory. Lyon approached their first game of the season as they were already feeling the pressure of chasing PSG. A lot of their play was at break-neck pace, when a little more patience and calmness with the ball would have resulted in a routine victory. This is a team that is definitely going to thrill the neutrals, but they still have a lot of learning to do in order to sustain a serious title challenge and a good run in the Champions League.
  • The excitement around Lyon's team is based around the attacking talents of Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fakir. While Lacazette didn't really have his finest game, Fakir was Lyon's most creative threat throughout the game, making chances with cute passes and easily beating defenders on the run. However, the best youngster on display was centre-back Samuel Umtiti. Calm with his distribution and at ease physically, the centre-back made one of the best clearances of the nascent season to keep out Raphael Guerreiro's goal bound effort with keeper Anthony Lopes stranded. Compared to the rest of Europe, France seems to have the best crop of young centre-backs, and Umtiti is surely one of those in the running for a starting spot for the home team at Euro 2016.
  • Another youngster who is bound to be seen at Euro 2016 is Portugues left-back Raphael Guerreiro. Blessed with pace and technical ability to boot, it's hard to see Guerrero remaining a left-back for his whole career. Despite his position, he is clearly Lorient's most potent attacking threat now that Jordan Ayew has left for Aston Villa. Lorient will have to do everything in their power to ward off interest before selling him in the summer because Guerreiro is their best bet against relegation.

West Brom 0 Manchester City 3

  • Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and the newly arrived Raheem Sterling may get all the headlines. However, what's often overlooked is that if David Silva has a good game it usually means Manchester City win. The left-footed Spaniard put on one of his magical displays running the Blues season opener with guile, deftness of touch and audacious ball control. He formed a great understanding with Sterling, his smart passes always finding the youngster in space to run at defenders. With Silva on song, the rest of City's stars will have chances galore regardless of how well-organized the opposing defence may be. Manuel Pellegrini has to ensure this happens often enough. An involved Silva, a fit Aguero and a motivated Yaya Toure would make for an irresistible City irrespective of the exciting new signings.
  • Tony Pulis has deservedly won admirers for his work in saving a few different teams from relegation. However, one has to question such a defensive and negative approach on the very first day of the season. Of course, nobody expects the Baggies to go toe-to-toe with City. Yet, having ten men behind the ball from the very first minute in your home opener is a depressing sight. Pulis should have had it in him to keep the team defensively compact while having attacking outlets to expose City's defensive frailties. In stead, it seemed the only plan was to prevent City scoring at all costs and pray for a lucky break on the counter. In a league where greater financial resources are resulting in some exciting players arriving at mid-table clubs, Pulis' style of play and modus operandi will quickly alienate the neutrals.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The European Through Ball Vol. 1

This entry starts a new feature on the blog. "The European Through Ball" will be my reflections on the matches I watch across the continent. In the first edition, some thoughts on Manchester United's scrappy win over Tottenham, Everton and Chelsea drawing at home to start the season in entertaining fashion, a Derby de la Côte d'Azur that had everything and new season, same old Marseille.

Manchester United 1 Tottenham 0

  • When United signed Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin in the summer many hailed it as the long overdue reconstruction of their central midfield. With the German national captain still not completely match fit, it was Scheiderlin who was first on the hot seat alongside Michael Carrick. In theory, it's a pairing that should enable United to hold on to possession and dictate the flow of the game. In actuality it was anything but, as the duo were consistently hustled off the ball by Spurs effective pressing. If anything, the Red Devils ceded even more control when Schweinsteiger came on for Carrick, with his only contribution being a rash foul that resulted in a yellow card. Until everyone is up to speed, it might just be wise for Louis Van Gaal to build his midfield around Ander Herrera. The Spaniard's fluidity will at least provide better options when linking with the front three.
  • Meanwhile Spurs started with a midfield pivot of Nabil Bentaleb and Eric Dier. Playing Dier as a defensive midfielder may have been a corrective measure by Mauricio Pochettino. The Englishman was often beaten for pace when playing in the back four last season. Dier was tidy without being spectacular, but Bentaleb was disappointing. The Algerian rarely provided the right balls for Spurs attacking quartet and it was his woeful pass that led to United breaking away for the winning goal. Pochettino will likely provide the duo with more chances, but the feeling remains that Spurs could do with a central midfielder of a higher level than Bentaleb.
  • Both teams have problems to sort out as far as firepower is concerned. Wayne Rooney barely touched the ball at Old Trafford but he was hardly at fault. There wasn't much in terms of creativity behind him. Juan Mata was the only United player who looked capable of creating opportunities. Memphis Depay struggled on his first start in the league and there were few if any flashes of dribbling or acceleration by the new signing. Outside of the assist for the winning goal, Ashley Young showed little to justify his recently signed contract extension.
  • On the other hand, Spurs' front four were actually creative but failed to capitalize on their chances. To their credit, Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli and Moussa Dembele all pressed really well throughout the match. However, Spurs really have to bolster their attack with a player that can share the goalscoring burden with Kane. All the pressing in the world will be futile if Spurs can't finish their chances.
  • There was a debutant in defence for each side. Matteo Darmian fitted in seamlessly on his first start for United. The Italian national right-back was comfortable on the ball and was a constant attacking outlet on the right. He also tracked back well and was rarely beaten in a one-on-one situation. In fact, it was noticeable that Spurs attacked down United's left but switched to the right as soon as Antonia Valencia came on for Darmian. Despite it being only one game, Darmian looks a step up on the recently departed Rafael as well as the makeshift options of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
  • As good as Darmian was,the best debutant on display was Toby Alderweireld. It might have been a messy transfer including a lot of wrangling with Southampton, but on the evidence of his first start, Spurs will consider all the hassle worth it. After seeing Jan Vertonghen paired with the likes of Michael Dawson, Younes Kaboul and Vlad Chiriches, Spurs fans will be delighted to finally see another international centre back in the team. Alderweireld and Vortenghen had a natural understanding together in the heart of defence. Not only were they barely troubled by United's forwards, but also launched several good diagonal balls and passes, contributing to the attacking side of the game. If Alderweireld sustains the form he showed last season for Southampton, Spurs can expect to have a more sustainable challenge for a top four spot this season.

Everton 2 Watford 2

  • Everton came back from behind twice in the match, however the result can't be disguised as anything other than a disappointment. Starting the season at home against a newly promoted team provided Everton the opportunity to get their campaign off on a positive note. In stead, it was a Toffees performance that was laboured for the most part. The squad needs investment and refreshment and that, just to make the top ten. A repeat of the heroics in 2013/14 already look a world away for this team.
  • For all the hype around Ross Barkley he still hasn't produced a whole season of consistent performances. Barkley struggled for most of the match, misplacing simple passes along with attempting some outrageous shots. His goal was a long overdue moment of inspiration. One hopes that it kickstarts a season of consistent excellence for the talented midfielder.
  • Watford gave an excellent account of themselves on their return to the Premier League. A point at Goodison is not to be scoffed at. Quique Sanchez Flores' teams are always organized and hard to beat, but are also tactically aware to expose their opponents weaknesses. They showed excellent awareness and opportunism in scoring their goals. Flores has a squad with a good mix of physicality and finesse. Etienne Capoue, Sebastian Prodl, Valon Behrami and Jose Holebas are more than up for a scrap, while Jose Jurado, Almen Abdi, Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney provide the guile and goals. With the Pozzo family in charge, Flores can also count on strengthening in January if needed. All signs point to a good season at Vicarage Road.
  • Welcome back Heurelho Gomes! The Brazilian goalkeeper may well be remembered for his eccentricities and mistakes from his time at Spurs, but it can't be denied that Gomes is pure box office. There aren't many who do spectacular saves like Gomes. He pulled off some really good stops to deny Everton and couldn't have done anything to prevent either goal. He did provide footballing theatre when he came for crosses, fumbling a few here, parrying a few there. There might well be some dropped points thanks to Gomes, but in this observer's eyes, his entertainment value to the league is a welcome boost.

Chelsea 2 Swansea 2

  • There will be a lot of debate (most of which will be created by Jose Mourinho himself) around Thibaut Courtois' sending off and penalty, but the truth is that this was the same Chelsea seen in the second half of last season. Even before going a man down, Swansea played the better football and only the extremely partisan fan wouldn't admit that the Blues were lucky to be ahead. Chelsea may well be the team to beat this season, but it certainly isn't because they play the most dominating football. It's hard to see anything other than another season of pragmatic football at the Bridge.
  • There is no clearer argument about Chelsea's pragmatism than the continued selection of Willian. The Brazilian is almost universally praised for his work rate, speed and defensive qualities, but how much has he actually contributed in attack? 6 goals and 6 assists in 61 games are not statistics of an excellent attacking player. It's hard to see Chelsea being more entertaining or troubling the best teams with Willian remaining in the side.
  • While neutrals and supporters will always debate Chelsea's style of play, Swansea continue to play in a fashion that wins admirers. The Swans took the game to the Champions from the get go. Jefferson Montero consistently beat Bratislava Ivanovic with pace and trickery, while Andre Ayew and Bafetimbi Gomis ensured John Terry and Gary Cahill were always on their toes with their dangerous movement. Even in midfield, Jonjo Shelvey was executing some delightful through balls for his forwards. The only regret Garry Monk may have is that after playing against 10 men for half an hour, Swansea were unable to conjure a rare away win at Stamford Bridge.
  • Mourinho often spews rubbish but his claim that teams throughout the league are now signing better players is accurate. With a front three of Ayew, Gomis and Montero, Swansea can feel confident of upsetting any big team whether it be home or away. There are a few other teams who are also assembling similar levels of firepower. It certainly makes for a more exciting league, but importantly one hopes that it enables managers to be enterprising rather than keeping the standard mentality of keeping ten men behind the ball against the big teams.

Nice 1 Monaco 2

  • Where does one start in a match that had everything? 4 substitutions in the first half, a red card, chances galore, Hatem Ben Arfa, Stephan El Shaarawy, great finishes, scrappy goals and on and on. This match simply had it all. The derby of the French Riviera was a fantastic watch, a reminder that great football can be witnessed in any of Europe's top leagues.
  • Leonardo Jardim did a fantastic job at Monaco last season after a rocky start. In addition to reaching the quarterfinals in the Champions League, Monaco had a great second half to the season culminating in a third place finish they had no right to at the beginning of January. Key behind the renaissance was the flourishing understanding between Anthony Martial and Bernardo Silva. The duo were at it again as they combined beautifully for a well-worked equalizer. After impressing for Portugal at the U-21 Euros and continuing his fine domestic form, it's hard to see Silva staying at Monaco for too long. If the young Portuguese helps his team past Valencia in the Champions League playoff, expect Monaco to make a huge profit on the skilful playmaker.
  • Many fans amongst the Monaco faithful were unhappy with the club's decision to loan Valere Germain to Nice. Germain played a big role in helping Monaco gain promotion back to Ligue 1 and many fans identified with him before the big stars arrived at the club. Monaco's loss is Nice's gain. The forward showed his finishing prowess when he sneaked in at the last moment to bury an exquisite strike to give Nice the lead. If it wasn't for Nice being down to 10 men, Germain could have been the match-winner. Nice can certainly build on their 11th place finish last season if Germain keeps scoring. One gets the feeling the striker will enjoy leading the line in less pressured surroundings.
  • So, what about two of football's mercurial talents? Hatem Ben Arfa finally got to make his debut for Nice after signing in January. The Frenchman clearly looked rusty albeit much fitter during his time at Newcastle. Other than a few poorly delivered set-pieces Ben Arfa didn't contribute much to the game. It may be a while before he is anything close to his best, but Nice at least feels like the right environment to build up Ben Arfa's confidence. Confidence is not something Stephan El Shaarawy lacks. The young Italian came on in the 40th minute and was constantly involved in Monaco's attacking moves. There was a penchant for overhead kicks at every cross, with one inadvertently becoming an assist for Layvin Kurzawa's match-winning goal. Shaarawy looked energized playing away from the constant pressure of AC Milan and at the very least, he brings another dimension and unpredictability to Monaco's attack. It's going to be interesting to watch how Ben Arfa and Shaarawy's campaigns unfold the rest of the Ligue 1 season.

Marseille 0 Caen 1

  • With the departures of Andre-Pierre Gignac, Dmitri Payet and Andrew Ayew in the summer, Marcelo Bielsa lost 43 goals from his Marseille team. The responsibility of filling Gignac's shoes now fall on Michy Batshuayi. So how did the young Belgian do? In fairness, Batshuayi actually played really well. He had two shots on target that were denied by the excellence of Remy Vercoutre (why is he not keeping at a bigger club?) and held the ball up really well while creating space for attacking midfielders. Despite drawing a blank in the season opener, Batshuayi is certain to provide goals as long as others in the team create chances.
  • Replacing Ayew and Payet however, may be much trickier for Bielsa. Abdelaziz Barrada and Florian Thauvin have the guile, but lack the speed of Ayew and Payet which was so crucial to Marseille's fast break. To execute Bielsa's tactics the players need to have speed for pressing opponents and creating chances on the counter. In the current setup it's hard to identify players that can replicate the impact of Ayew and Payet.
  • Another player that is going to be missed at the Velodrome is Gianelli Imbula. The young Frenchman was the breakout star of Ligue 1 last season and his sale to Porto was a bitter pill to swallow for Marseille fans. Despite Mario Lemina and Alaixys Romao's best efforts, the midfield had neither the thrust nor creativity that Imbula provided last season. Lemina did at least create some chances with some good long-range shots, but throughout the match it seemed like there was a big gaping hole in the home team's midfield.
  • One defeat isn't the end of the world. Only last season, Marseille started with one point from their first three games. Bielsa has the ability to turn it around. However, like most of his second seasons, the bigger question is whether Bielsa can adapt? Having seen six first-team regulars depart, the Argentinian's style is not the easiest for new players to immediately switch to. Can he compromise for a slightly slower style with intermittent pressing? It's an intriguing question. The other challenge is squad depth. Will the gambles taken on Abou Diaby and Lassana Diarra pay off when they are match fit? These are the questions on which Marseille's season hang. As always there promises to be drama and intrigue at the Velodrome!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Big scores mark the start of the World Cup

New Zealand and Australia comfortably surpassed 300 in their 50 overs. South Africa lost four wickets before 100 but still comfortably passed 300 once David Miller and JP Duminy got going in the slog overs. Pakistan bowled well with the new ball, but the track looks easy to bat on in Adelaide and it would take a phenomenal effort to restrict India below 300. On the basis of what we have seen so far all talk of two new balls giving the bowling side an advantage is turning out to be a fallacy. Looks like the bowlers are in for a long slog in this tournament. This writer feels its a bit of a travesty as World Cup pitches should have something in them for both bowlers and batsmen. As a fan of global cricket its also not great to see pitches in New Zealand and Australia resemble the flat ODI pitches of the subcontinent where run rates of seven have become common. Let's hope that the pitches erode over a long tournament, though one shouldn't count any chickens as the drop-in pitches are unlikely to deteriorate like natural pitches would. A few pundits have said the team with the best bowling attack will win, but it might come down to controlling the run rate rather than taking wickets. So much for the World Cup promoting aggressive cricket.