August 14, 2018

FREE KICKS: So much has changed, yet so little has changed

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

If you look at the Premier League table, you’ll see very few surprises after the first round of games.

The top five teams from last season all won, each looking fairly impressive doing so. Of those five teams, only Manchester United and Tottenham even conceded a single goal.

While Liverpool sits on top after demolishing West Ham, you can’t help but be impressed with Manchester City’s dismantling of Arsenal at the Emirates. Hard to believe, but over the past three seasons, City has more clean sheets on the road than at home.

City wasn’t even playing with its full compliment of stars, with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne coming on as a second-half sub and David Silva not even making the matchday roster.

Liverpool’s attack continues to look fantastic and could build on last season’s success. Even more impressive is how the defence held together, anchored by Virgil Van Dijk – looking like he is worth the exorbitant fee that was paid for him – and how Naby Keita has made an immediate impression in the midfield.

It’s hard to give Chelsea too much credit for waxing Huddersfield, but a sturdy 3-0 win on the road is nothing to shake your stick at. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the game was watching N’Golo Kante play as more of a box-to-box midfielder while Jorginho played further back. Kante certainly has the energy to make runs into the box while maintaining his strong defensive presence. If he can score a few more goals this season, that only increases his value to the Blues.

Manchester United topped the table for the first day of the season, but we’re wondering if it will return there before season’s end. Red Devils fans have to be frustrated after watching the team score so early and then sit back and allow Leicester to keep possession and attack at will. Sure, it ended with three points, but seeing a team this good play so passively is an incredible letdown.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been worried about Spurs to start the season with a bunch of their players coming back late from the World Cup. Dele Alli played 80 minutes, Harry Kane the full 90 and Tottenham picked up a tough away win at Newcastle. As for Alli, could we see a return to form after some struggles at times last season and a lackluster Cup? He was playing fairly far forward and could be this side’s top attacker if needed. He’ll never be as consistent as Christian Eriksen, but he’ll have some big games.

As for the lone member of the Big Six, well more on them later.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

There was no shortage of standouts in the opening round of games, but we’ll give the award Richarlison for the degree of difficulty.

In his regular-season debut for Everton, the Brazilian winger bagged a brace in 85 minutes before being subbed off due to a cramp. But what makes it impressive is that he scored his second while his team was down to 10 men after Phil Jagielka was sent off.

And while Wolverhampton is a newly promoted club, this is a team that has some serious players in it and was playing very well at home.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

What is up with the schedule-makers for the Premier League? Why doesn’t the new season open its slate with a game featuring the defending champions? Even worse, why was City opening the season on the road? There should be a big ceremony to celebrate the previous season, similar to how the NFL does it with its Thursday night opener … Welcome back, Daniel Sturridge. The former stud scorer who has been derailed by injuries the past few seasons only needed a mere minute to score after coming on as a sub. We wouldn’t expect this often, but it’s nice to see … Southampton-Burnley was always going to end in a 0-0 draw. The hard part to believe was that Joe Hart was involved … Crystal Palace has potential to impress this season and did so against Fulham. The Cottagers had the lion’s share of possession, but it was the Eagles that fired an impressive 10 shots on target in their 2-0 win … Watford also got off to a good start, thanks to the stellar connection of Roberto Pereyra and Jose Holebas, who hooked up for the Hornets’ two goals … In case you missed it, Wayne Rooney showed he still has it. This weekend the former Manchester United captain made a game-saving block with the net empty, then made a brilliant cross field pass to assist the game-winner by Luciano Acosta. Check it out.

THE LAST WORD

We hate to judge a team off of one game, but we’re going to go right ahead and do that for Arsenal.

If anybody is going to argue that this club is in the same league as a team like City, they’re crazy.

The Gunners were playing at home, yet were still dominated in possession, shots and shots on target. This is supposed to be a team with Champions League ambitions – which it should certainly compete for – but it’s clearly a class behind.

Expensive new goalkeeper Bernd Leno was benched for Petr Cech. While there has been praise for Matteo Guendouzi, who led Arsenal with 72 touches, Lucas Torreira probably should’ve been in the starting XI.

Tactically, what’s the point of playing a press while also employing a player like Mesut Ozil, who is never going to go out of his way to pressure a defender. Heat maps show that Aaron Ramsey actually had the furthest-forward average position of any Gunner, simply because he was pressing City’s backline more than Ozil or starting striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

There is plenty for manager Unai Emery to fix at this point. The only thing is that he doesn’t have much time to do it with a date at Stamford Bridge next on tap.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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