Winners and losers… Week 1 of the Prem

At long last, the arduous wait is over and the new season has started. Week 1 provided it’s share of surprises, especially if you’re a Gooner. Much has been made of Arsene Wenger’s men, and I’ve got them winning the league, but not on the evidence of this performance. With over 62% of the possession, it’s not as though the Arse didn’t have a chance to set up the goal. Thirteen shots with six on target and five corners… the North London club had their chances. Wenger puts the loss down to defensive lapses, and indeed, the Hammers ensured their defense held firm to hit the Gunners on the break, and so the backline that gives is the backline that gets blamed. Petr Cech was at fault for the first goal, but then his central defense crapped the proverbial bed. It had poor Arsene with head in hands.

Manchester United got out of the gate with a win but failed to look convincing in it. Chelsea endured  a torrid opening day drawing 2 -2 with Swansea and seeing ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois sent off for a last-ditch challenge on Bafetimbi Gomis. While Mourinho struggles to add players to his ranks this year, it was Swansea new boy Andre Ayew who made himself at home, notching the first of his new club’s goals on the afternoon. He’s not the only Swans newcomer making his mark, with Jefferson Montero earning man of the match plaudits. While “only” a draw, you have to seriously consider the South Wales club as a serious top-eight contender (even if I have them finishing at 11th…)

As for other big clubs… the ‘Pool squeaked out a victory on some last-minute magic from Brazilian midfield schemer Filipe Countinho, a real screamer of a shot. As for the other half of Merseyside, an uninspiriting and probably underserved draw for the Toffees, as they held of the challenge to Premier League newcomers Watford. Quique Sanchez Flores’ newly assembled group of mercenaries professionals put in a creditable display and, on the balance, might be a bit more to handle than once thought. The only positives to take from the match for the Toffeemen will be the menacing form of Ross Barkley. If the Blue half of the Mersey are to perform this year, he will need to be at his best.

This weekend did produce one goalfest, in the shape of Leicester’s four goal drubbing on Sunderland. A brace from midfield maestro Riyad Mahrez and one each for Jamie Vardy and Marc Albrighton (all of them, incidentally, scored before the 60th, with Sunderland pinging two consolations in the 66 and 70th minutes), it was a comfortable display. Black Cats manager Dick Advocaat brought in defensive reinforcements in the last two months and it does not appear, on the evidence, that it made any impact. The eye catching stat here is 15 shots by the Foxes against just nine from the Black Cats, six corners to Leicester, who, incidentally, had the lesser of possession with 44%. That is impressive. Goes to show that Ranieri’s boys know what to do with the ball even if they don’t have it most of the time. The Barcodes took on Southampton on Saturday, which ended in a 2 – 2 draw.

Other results saw Villa edge Bournemouth in their home opener. The Cherries had a number of chances but were unable to capitalize, which proved costly when Rudy Gestede came off the bench to net for the visitors. Other newcomers Norwich got a cold welcome back to the top flight with a 3-1 beating handed to them by Crystal Palace.

In all, an exciting first weekend. Man City have West Brom as their opener on Monday afternoon, and we will be well and truly underway. The Prem is back, kids!

 

Season Preview: West Ham United

West Ham United, co-owned by long time business partners, the David’s Gold and Sullivan, are in their last year at the historic Boleyn Ground before their move to the Olympic Stadium. For Gold and Sullivan, there is only one goal in mind: Premier League survival. That’s it. Proof of this is West Ham’s capitulation in the Europa League, losing to Astra Giurgiu in the qualification stage of the competition. New manager Slavan Bilic fielded a side full of newcomers and youngsters in the second leg of the showdown and they were unable to turn the tie in their favor. Bilic made all the right noises about how the competition is important to him, but really, he’s thinking about the League. Europe can wait, they have bigger fish to fry.

Bilic’s appointment raised some eyebrows in the footballing world. Gold and Sullivan made it abundantly clear that former manager Sam Allardyce was nowhere near sexy enough for them, and fair enough, the guy is a long-ball merchant and a known quantity. His old school approach was probably fine for Bolton and Blackburn, but the Hammers want the return of the golden era of  Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore. They want swagger, sexy, saucy. Allardyce, while always reliable for a hilarious quote, was never going to win over the Boleyn Ground faithful. So Bilic comes in, and he’s a bit of a local legend. He didn’t play long for the club, but in his year and some change there, he made an impression on the fans for his unflinching commitment to the cause.

As a manager, Bilic led Croatia for six years, spent time at Lokomotiv Moscow and most recently Besiktas. In both instances at club level, Bilic was sacked due to inability to fulfill the club hierarchy’s ambitions. In the latter’s case, he took over arguably the biggest club in Turkey, with the mandate to win the title there and failed to do so. It’s a tall order for any manager to lead a championship squad but the short of it is there has not been vast evidence of this being a supremely capable manager. He led the national team for his home country for six years, where they qualified for two European tournaments. He never led them to a World Cup. He failed at Lokomotiv. He failed at Besiktas.

There is no real indication that this appointment is anything other than a place holder, in my mind. The David’s Gold and Sullivan both openly courted former Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp, if for nothing other than to show the fans they were looking for that caliber of manager. Klopp decided to take a year’s sabattical, but it’s not like there aren’t other big-names available. The appointment of Bilic is strange and seems to be a bit of a publicity stunt on their part while they do a deeper search for a proper next-level manager.

You might have noticed how little I’ve spoken about transfers in this one. They have brought in some quality reinforcements in the window, even pipping Everton to the signature of Angelo Ogbonna from Juventus. Dimitri Payet is another decent addition to the squad, and you have to feel that these additions should solidify an already decent enough team. But I have a feeling there is an air of edginess about the leadership at the club and Bilic could very easily play conservative, ensure he does not tarnish his reputation any further by being fired for a poor run of results, and he will fulfill the David’s demand of keeping the Hammers in the top flight going into their new, dubiously acquired digs at the Olympic Stadium. Everything else is just details…

Season Preview: West Bromwich Albion

Tony Pulis is a man regarded in some circles as a dead-on certainty to maintain any give club’s Premier League survival. With the Baggies penchant of yoyoing between the Prem and the Championship, and the new bumper TV rights deal, you can forgive chairman Jeremy Peace for going for a sure thing, if a bit cynical and boring to watch. Pulis is not pretty but he is efficient. If he hangs around then the Baggies could eventually consolidate their Premier League status to such a degree that they can chance a slightly more ambitious manager. This is the route Stoke took, and once they had felt they were sufficiently well ensconced in the top flight, shook Pulis’s hand and said adios. There is room for a manager like Tony Pulis in the League, and there are teams willing to pay quite a bit to ensure they stay among the top 20 every year.

Pulis wants to make sure he’s got a big man up front to nod in the goals. To this end, he has recruited Liverpool failure Rickie Lambert. Lambert will have the added motivation of putting his career back on track, since he arguably wasted a year on the ‘Pool bench when he was a hero at Southampton. The man can score goals, but at 33 he has a short shelf life remaining, so this is the year to make a mark. Whatever that might be. He will be the big ‘un to Saido Behrahino’s little ‘un.

Honestly, what’s to say here? The Baggies will be compact. They will be hard to beat. They will hit their opponents on the counter and they will look to go long as often as possible. It’s a Tony Pulis squad. If they had a long throw-in specialist, it would be textbook. I predict 15th place and never really looking over their shoulder’s too concernedly.

Season Preview: Watford

At the end of last season, the Vicarage Road faithful saw their beloved Hornets promoted to the Premier League for the first time in nearly a decade, comfortably getting over the line in second place. Manager Slaviša Jokanović, the fourth manager for the club that season, was hailed as a genius but left the club almost immediately afterward once he’d failed to agree to terms with the club’s owners, the Pozzo family. Spanish manager Quique Sanchez-Flores, who has managed the likes of Valencia, Ateltico de Madrid and Getafe, is now in charge at Hertfordshire club. He is a very able tactician, this appointment should be exciting.

It’s just…. four managers. In one season. That’s not just bad luck, that’s chaos. The Pozzo’s appears to be this season’s early contenders for “villainous owner of the year,” an honor shared by Assem Allam of Hull and Cardiff’s Vincent Tan last season.

Not that they haven’t banked Flores: he has brought in an entire first team’s worth of talent in the off season. It’s nothing short of a slap in the face of the group that got them there, and it will be interesting to see how the Hornets fare. I have them going down dead last, the same as the two other times they were in the league. The club earned promotion by scoring bags of goals last term, but it won’t be as easy to do so in the big leagues. It’s a shame as Flores is a manager I’d be willing to watch regularly. Not that he’s likely to survive: it’s just as likely that he’d be the season’s first managerial casualty if the Pozzo’s track record is anything to go by.

Season Preview: Tottenham Hotspur

Oh it burns… There was a time when Everton competed with Spurs for a certain kind of player, with the Toffees managing to keep them at arms distance from 5th place. No longer. Tottenham’s idiot chairman Daniel Levy has managed to keep from firing his manager for one whole season and has reaped the benefits thereof. Manager Mauricio Pochetino has come good and is ever-so-slowly shaping the club into his image. This summer has been more about trimming the fat than adding to the numbers, with no fewer than eleven players being sold or given their marching orders, with two others (Aaron Lennon and Emmanuel Adebayor) not being given squad numbers, likely heralding further departures. Pochetino has been conservative in the market,with his major coup being to convince last season’s loan star to Southampton Toby Alderweireld to join his Spurs revolution instead. Defense has been Pochetino’s focus, as Spurs shipped more goals than relegated opposition (in the shape of Hull).

I have Spurs finishing 5th. This is largely due to the relative stability at the club and the strong feel good factor there due to last year’s standout performer (and Spurs golden boy) Harry Kane publicly declaring his love for the club and batting away offers from the likes of Manchester United. With Kane banging them in up front and defensive reinforcements keeping them from going in at the other end, Spurs should continue to see progress this year despite the lack of rank upon rank of reinforcements. If Levy the idiot can keep himself from firing Pochetino for any reason this season, then Spurs might even  apply so proper heat to the top four. Who knows. I’d love to see the wheels come off of them and for them to spectacularly implode, but Pochetino is a level headed guy and he’s liable to keep the boys ticking over just fine.