Weakling’s Weekend

Nothing new under the sun: Tottenham shot themselves in a foot again.

Premier League kicked off with a… bang? No. Hell no. On Saturday, freshly rebuilt, strong, angel-less Manchester United faced off against Tottenham and it was so damn boring I had to put matches into my eyes to avoid falling asleep. Red Devils looked more like quiet lambs out there, conceding lots and lots of ground to the visitors in the first 20 minutes. Despite four new players in their starting 11 and the massive investments they put into this club recently, MU looked like time was going backwards and David Moyes’ era came back to life. In other words: the goalkeeping was decent. The defending was solid. Central midfielders – Schneiderlin especially – worked their socks off, no question. But going forward, the brand new lineup with Mata and Young out wide, Depay as #10 and Wayne Rooney back into the striker’s boots – that didn’t work at all. 0 (zero) shots on Vorm’s goal in the first half. Period.

Going to Old Trafford, Pochettino’s Spurs had somewhat easier task than their opponents. First of all, Tottenham did not make nearly as drastic changes in their team as MU – only Toby Alderweireld was set for his début as team’s new first-choice centre-back. Secondly, they had a lot of information to draw conclusions from: last time around, they drew United at White Hart Lane 0-0 only to succumb in Manchester 0-3. Thirdly, the man who inflicted that 0-3 defeat on them – Marouane Fellaini – was absent, serving his 3-game ban he received at the end of the previous campaign. And, apart from that, David De Gea missed the game too, as van Gaal decided to keep the Spaniard in a shop window for Real Madrid to step up. Add several glaring match fitness problems stemming from MU’s extensive world tours this summer – and the match looked like a contest in which the bookies’ favourite might run into serious trouble.

They surely would’ve been in dire straits had their rivals took the chance that presented itself less than 5 minutes into the game. The flourishing cooperation of Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane kicked in like it used to on spring, only in a different order than usual. This time, it was Kane, who provided his Danish teammate with a smart and precise ball over the top, creating what undoubtedly was the best scoring chance of the entire match. Eriksen had plenty options to choose from: going around the keeper, blasting the ball with power or using his superior positioning over Smalling to dribble past him one more time and set up even better chance. Instead of that, he chipped Romero with a rather awkward shot which, ultimately, chipped the crossbar too. It was a costly miss: fifteen minutes and five other failed shots later, United were already in the lead…

Now, to elaborate on a decisive moment. In June, Tottenham have signed new right-back. Before arriving at White Hart Lane, the man in question – Kieran Trippier – used to be hands down the best Burnley player. He was also a star in 2013-14 Championship season and did decently in Premier League. Prior to the opening of this season, he put down an excellent show against AC Milan in the Audi Cup, earning himself Man of the Match award. But when it came down to selecting a team to face MU, it was Kyle Walker, who started the game ahead of Trippier. I’m not saying that the ex-Burnley right-back would’ve dealt with Rooney’s chance better that Walker did. Hell, in fact, he probably wouldn’t even be there to make that last-ditch challenge. But then, again, even if he wasn’t there, Rooney would still need to put it past Vorm into the net. And Walker? The lad did Wazza’s job by himself.

By the time ball rolled into Spurs’ net, the game was pretty much over. The horrible string of defensive calamities really got into Tottenham’s head and they’ve pretty much ceded the initiative back into United’s hands. However, van Gaal’s lads, playing with four new guys in the starting 11 and with Daley Blind demoted to the role of a centre-back – they weren’t too keen on getting the attacks going either. In the end, the game boiled down to multiple fouls in the middle of the pitch as well as dozens of failed through balls or failures to communicate that effectively killed the joy of watching it all. Ultimately, it wasn’t until 80th minute when the visitors regained their focus and started to pile up the pressure on MU – but it came too late to catch Smalling and Blind by surprise, as they were gaining confidence with every tackle, every interception they’ve made to preserve the clean sheet.

As usual, nothing motivates a strong team more than other strong team collecting 3 points already. Newly crowned champions from Chelsea had a home game against Swansea ahead of them and one objective: to win. Despite failed transfer venture aimed at Everton’s centre-back John Stones, despite health problems of Diego Costa, even despite a blow to their confidence received in a 0-1 Community Shield loss to Arsenal – they were all set to repeat the success from the previous three seasons, in which they’ve won all three home games against the Welsh team. José Mourinho again didn’t dare to make any serious adjustments to his starting 11, fielding pretty much the exact team that won him the Premier League medal few weeks ago. This time around, the lads jumped on a lead early and everything looked ready for yet another Blue Jersey triumph.

In reality, things didn’t get even close to such level of smoothness. Shortly after conceding Oscar’s freekick goal, The Swans composed themselves and it turned out that CFC’s defence isn’t as impregnable as everyone imagined. Especially down The Blues’ right wing, things did not look good at all. Deployed against ‘The Mighty’ Branislav Ivanović, Jefferson Montero was quick to make himself a star of the evening. Ecuadorian winger would repeatedly run straight at his Serbian shadow, outpacing and outdribbling him to create massive problems to Terry and Cahill. Surprisingly enough, Montero’s counterpart in Chelsea’s shirt – Eden Hazard – was kept very quiet by the ex-Tottenham right back Kyle Naughton – coincidentally, all this on the same day when the current Spurs right-back had a nightmare against MU. As a result, Swansea actually were the better side at Stamford. Hell – they could’ve even won!

Overall, the game shaped up to become an excellent, fast-pace show. Looking at the fray, one would only ask himself whether Mourinho was right when he argued the common opinion that Chelsea keeps playing boring football. Although second-best out there, Jose’s lads have sought to score and attack as much as Swans did. The main difference, however, was that Ki Sung-yueng and Jonjo Shelvey kept playing better and better the longer this match lasted; and, at the same time, both Nemanja Matić and Cesc Fàbregas kept playing worse. Already after 15 mintues, there was no CFC midfielder in sight to close down Shelvey when he sent through Gomis with a pitch-perfect pass. The French striker messed up just as he did earlier by misheading a free cross from a corner. Luck and Thibaut Courtois in goal were keeping the home side alive by this point.

It couldn’t last forever, though. Not even rapidly changing result could stop the bleeding. Even two strange blooters for the champions didn’t matter. André Ayew’s equalizer pretty much underlined all problems: the Ghanian had enough time and space to literally fall on the ground with ball, get his initial shot blocked, stand up and put away the rebound. And in the second half? When Shelvey sent through Gomis again, there was nobody to chase the striker. Willian started the trouble by strolling at the back and ruining an offside trap when it really mattered; then, Cahill wasn’t even close to catch up with SFC’s striker. Courtois, not thinking clearly, fouled Gomis instead of allowing him to score, which resulted with a goal anyway, but with Chelsea being down to 10 men. Other than that, John Terry saw a yellow for a stupid argument with one of the goalline referees. So much hurt in a heartbeat.

If anything went well for the champions on Saturday, it was their attitude in the final stage of the game. One man short and with 2-2 on the scoreboard, they’ve shown an extreme stubbornness in avoiding defeat. Asmir Begović, the man who was expected to warm the bench for the entire season, came in, saved several difficult shots and proved himself as more than ready replacement in view of the game against Manchester City next weekend – a game he will now certainly participate in, as Courtois shall be suspended. As for Swans – Garry Monk’s players somehow managed to neutralize both Hazard and Fàbregas, but when it was time to deliver a winning blow, they came short of firepower. If only they could field Wilfred Bony, who’s rotting on a City’s bench… Still, even without the Ivorian giant, the Welsh team has shown a potential to become at least this season’s Southampton.

After Saturday dust has settled, it was time for Arsenal to make their own claim for this season and confirm that this years’ excellent spring wasn’t just a coincidence. The challenge did not seem particularly tough: it was just West Ham visiting Emirates. Just West Ham – team that failed to beat Arsenal for eight years straight; team that lost 9 out 10 previous league games to Gunners, scoring only 7 goals and conceding 27. And, apart from that: team that found itself in a major transitional stage, with new manager on the bench, two new signings on the pitch and one sixteen years old lad in the midfield. According to bookmakers, Arsenal were 4/13 to win while The Hammers’ victory was rewarded with a repay as huge as 21/2. Those facts, combined with new, world-class goalkeeper in the home side’s goal, were supposed to secure an easy victory for Arsène Wenger’s team – at least, on paper.

Set-piece nightmare; Kouyaté was more than happy to haunt Gunners.

Alas, this weekend, football escaped the logic and common sense too many times. Reece Oxford, a teenager who just became the second-youngest player in the history of Premier League – he started his EPL career by keeping Mesut Özil in his pocket for 90 minutes. Dmitri Payet, attacking midfielder responsible for dozens of assists in Marseille last season, looked like a football prodigy out there, getting an assist and later, flooring Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who must’ve had a gigantic headache after trying to handle the Frenchman’s pace. Solid backline consisting of James Tomkins, Winston Reid, Angelo Ogbonna and Aaron Cresswell allowed several dangerous moments in front of Adrian’s goal, but they were always in time to make last-ditch tackles. Eventually, Kouyate scored a nice goal from a set-piece situation, exposing Wenger’s lad at the back – and from then on, the game revolved around Arsenal’s infamous lack of ability to bounce back from difficult situations.

Giroud upfront instead of Walcott did not help. Neither did Ox – the man architect of a victory against Chelsea just six days earlier. Santi Cazorla had literally one successful dribble that could’ve mattered if he made a pass instead of hoping to copy Diego Maradona’s skills. Nacho Monreal and Aaron Ramsey misplaced a lot of simple passes, depriving team of counterattack possibilities. A strong, tall striker upfront worked as a cosy alibi for the home side, who aimed multiple long balls at his head, hoping for some flick-ons. That was pretty much the entire strategy: very little flair, very little finesse from Gunners and, with Özil out of play for the entire game – this was all they wrote. Eventually, Petr Čech has made the most awkward save attempt of his career and it ended with a sensational 0-2 to Slaven Bilić’s boys. Vintage Arsenal – a team that never disappoints to disappoint.

Out of four big title contenders, three already proved to be in a mediocre shape. Are Citizens watching and laughing? Well, it depends whether they beat West Bromwich today…

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