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.

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