It had been three months. Three months since the London sun peeked above the horizon and promised soccer. Three months since England’s Saturday morning train cars were filled with song; since scarves were fashionable in 75-degree heat; since stadium-adjacent pubs overflowed with both humans and excitement.
It had been three months since some of the sport’s most hallowed grounds were anything but deathly silent, and finally, this past weekend, the silence was broken. The Premier League returned. It is back. For good. Thank goodness.
But it had been longer than three months since we had seen what we saw Sunday. Much longer. Around 50 months, to be precise. And it is there, on a picture-perfect late afternoon in Manchester, that we begin our 10 takeaways from the Premier League’s opening weekend.
1. Man United, and emotions vs. analysis
What we saw on Sunday was a Manchester United team that looked like Manchester United. It wasn’t David Moyes knock-off brand United. It wasn’t Louis Van Gaal-tainted United. It wasn’t conservative Jose Mourinho first season United.
In the four years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, United finished seventh, fourth, fifth and sixth in the league. The club hasn’t spent five consecutive years outside English soccer’s top three since the early 1970s. It never finished outside the Premier League’s top three under Ferguson. The contrast between Fergie and post-Fergie eras has been stark. Under Moyes and Van Gaal, glamor turned to gloom. Everything extraordinary became ordinary.
That contrast, and that gloom, and that ordinariness are what made United’s 4-0 win over West Ham on Sunday so intoxicating. If nothing else, it was different. Or at least it seemed that way. Something intangible sprung out of the post-Fergie darkness and touched a nerve. It satiated soccer appetites.
But the gloom of years past is also what made objective and rational analysis of United an impossibility on Sunday. It was just one game, and a home game against a shorthanded mid-table team at that. As emotional fans moved to christen United as the new prohibitive title favorite, neutral observers with disciplined minds cautioned against overreaction. And in any other scenario, they, the conscientious thinkers, would have been right.
But simply warning against unwarranted exuberance and excitement isn’t fair to a fan base spoiled by over 20 years and then tortured by four.
It also ignores the fact that Sunday wasn’t merely a single data point floating on an island. It was material evidence that supported plenty of already-conceived Man United optimism. Coupled with a successful summer transfer window, with Jose Mourinho’s mastery of the second season, and with underlying stats that made their own case for second-season improvement, much of the enthusiasm stemming from United’s performance might actually be justified.
2. Interchangeability in United’s attack
United scored just 54 goals last year, one fewer than Bournemouth and 23 fewer than the second-lowest scoring team in the top six. Its attack was dull and often fragmented, with two- or three-man combos on either wing the preferred method of pseudo-penetration.
On Sunday, United’s approach with the ball was refreshingly unfamiliar, and might offer insight into how Mourinho will set up to break down non-top-six foes.
When they weren’t hitting West Ham on the counter, United’s three in the 4-2-3-1 — Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata — snuck in and out of pockets of space, eschewing traditional positioning in favor of interchangeability. The Red Devils were at their most dangerous when they overloaded one area of the pitch and overwhelmed specific sections of West Ham’s defense.
In the 27th minute, with Pogba on the ball, all four of the attackers were within 10 yards of each other:
As Pogba carried the ball forward, Mkhitaryan (most often in the middle of the three) came left, Rashford (the left winger) dropped off centrally, and Mata (the nominal right winger) made an out-to-in run into the box. It resulted in one of United’s best chances of the half.
Late in the second half, with Pogba now farther forward as part of the attacking three in behind Lukaku, he, Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial combined for the third goal by connecting through the middle:
That connectedness of United’s front six was very un-Mourinho-like. It was also very promising.
3. Arsenal’s game-changer, and the dynamics behind it
Arsenal’s 4-3 victory over Leicester will be remembered for the late comeback, but just as pivotal was the Gunners’ first equalizer on the stroke of halftime. And the multi-layer buildup to it was fascinating.
Arsenal lined up in what was reported as a 3-4-2-1, with debutant Alexander Lacazette supported by Danny Welbeck on the left and Mesut Ozil on the right. But, as always, formational listings cede to personnel, and when Arsenal had the ball, Welbeck was much closer to Lacazette than Ozil was. The German playmaker floated underneath the two, looking to pick up the ball and unlock Leicester’s defense. As is often the case, he held the Gunners’ offensive keys.
For much of the first half, the Foxes limited his touches in those pivotal areas. Their two central midfielders cut off passing lanes or closed Ozil down. But the one time they lost their shape, they were punished.
Mahrez loses 50/50 —> James foolishly chases ball —> Ozil in ton of space @ top of box, Vardy/Okazaki don’t recognize in time pic.twitter.com/peK3mQqXF7
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) August 11, 2017
After Riyad Mahrez lost a 50/50 ball, Matty James raced out of position to chase it. That left Ozil in space at the top of the box, and Shinji Okazaki, the second striker, failed to recognize the danger and cover for James. His recovery run was a fraction of a second too late; Granit Xhaka found Ozil; a couple scruffy passes later, it was 2-2.
This wasn’t Ozil’s most brilliant moment, but it was the square ball into his feet that opened up Leicester.
4. Arsenal’s shambolic defending
There were probably more negatives than positives for Arsenal despite the three points. But a good number of the negatives concern a back line full of reserves. Arsenal’s top three center backs, Per Mertersacker (injury), Shkodran Mustafi (fitness) and Laurent Koscielny (suspension), all missed out, but should return by the end of the month.
So sure, Rob Holding was a mess; sure, Nacho Monreal at times looked like a fish out of water in the middle of a back three. But the problem isn’t that they were making mistakes; it’s that they were playing at all. So the takeaway isn’t that Arsenal’s defense is a disaster; it’s that Arsene Wenger probably needs at least two of the regular three healthy and available for 32 or 33 of his side’s 37 remaining games if he wants to leap back into the top four.
There are also longstanding midfield issues that plagued the Gunners on Friday, and will probably continue to plague them, but that’s another (longer) discussion for another column.
5. Chelsea, Liverpool, and dropped points as a blessing in disguise
There is never a good time to drop points in the Premier League. But if there is … it is undoubtedly August. And especially if you’re a manager who’s already been clamoring for a few new players.
That’s what Antonio Conte has been doing, and after an ugly 3-2 season-opening loss to Burnley, he should get his wish. Depth concerns that dogged the Blues all offseason rose to the surface before the grind of the European season even began. The loss was more fluky than concerning, but if Conte can go to the club’s board on Monday and hold it up as a timely example of exactly why he needs reinforcements, could it be beneficial in the long run?
And if Jurgen Klopp can use Liverpool’s defensive issues in a 3-3 draw at Watford to get an extra £5 million thrown into the club’s offer for Virgil van Dijk, could the cost of two points now be offset by increased defensive solidity over the nine-month season?
Maybe. Losing or drawing games is rarely optimal, but in these two specific cases, a loss and a draw could prove to be blessings in disguise.
6. Ronald Koeman and funky tactics
With significant squad turnover, Everton is and will be a work in progress. The first stage of manager Ronald Koeman’s tactical experimentation, however, was particularly interesting.
Koeman lined his team up in what appeared to be a 3-5-2 — or a 3-4-1-2, or a 3-4-2-1, depending on how you arranged Sandro Ramirez, Wayne Rooney and Davy Klaassen. Here’s what it looked like on paper:
— Everton (@Everton) August 12, 2017
But on the field, it was more complex and unbalanced. When Everton had the ball, Morgan Schneiderlin served as a single pivot. On the left, Leighton Baines was fairly limited going forward. But Dominic Calvert-Lewin, a young forward moonlighting as a wing back, almost invariably pushed high up the right flank. That pinned Stoke’s left wing back, Eric Pieters, back in line with his three central defenders. It then allowed Idrissa Gana to slide into the right back position, pick up the ball in space, and initiate attacks. In possession, Everton often looked like this:
But the ploy was largely ineffective. Gana isn’t an incisive passer. With attacks stalling, Rooney occasionally dropped back into that deep wide right position to get on the ball as well, but his options were limited.
Koeman switched to a 4-3-3 for the second half, and snuck out of Goodison with three points, but the attacking output wasn’t exactly encouraging:
xG map for Everton – Stoke City.
Tragickal match, happy Ron Koeman. pic.twitter.com/UCOo4tDR5n
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 12, 2017
7. Wayne Rooney, back and better than ever
OK, not really. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. But Rooney was the best player on the field Saturday on Merseyside. Seriously. He flip-flopped between striker, free role and even right winger, but wherever he was, his soccer brain just worked slightly quicker than those around him. His first touches were elegant. And, of course, his late-arriving run on the goal was textbook:
8. Southampton, xG Kings …
But unfortunately not Actual G Kings:
xG map for Southampton – Swansea.
Oh. Oh dear. pic.twitter.com/qg4TVNpWow
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 12, 2017
The Saints made wastefulness a habit last season, and they apparently haven’t rid themselves of it. They dominated Swansea and had chance after chance to go ahead, but never found a breakthrough.
9. Huddersfield and sustainability
For exactly 25 hours, Huddersfield Town — “the biggest underdog ever in the Premier League,” according to manager David Wagner — was atop the EPL table after a 3-0 win at Crystal Palace. Man United arrived to ruin the fun on Sunday, but don’t worry, we’ve got photographic proof:
So how sustainable was the performance? Depends on which part of said performance you’re talking about. The three goals? Not very. But the Terriers were impressive defensively. They sped around the pitch like … well, terriers. They pressed high with energy and verve. They hassled a Palace team intent on playing out of the back, and won the ball in their attacking half early and often. The 3-0 scoreline flattered Wagner’s side, but the three points were fully deserved.
10. Let’s talk about zonal marking
Arsenal conceded on a corner Friday night, which of course sent Twitter into an uproar over Arsene Wenger’s infamous zonal marking scheme. But we need more than 140 characters to dissect the issue.
First of all, almost everybody in the Premier League uses a combination scheme — some zone, some man. Some sides will match up with every opponent in the box, and then place two free players on the six-yard box. Others will stick two players man-to-man on an opponent’s two biggest aerial threats, and assign zones to the rest. This is not an either-or decision. It’s a continuum.
The problems lie in the specifics. In many cases, the specifics have to do with personnel and execution. Wenger’s insistence on a primarily zonal scheme helped Arsenal concede the fewest goals from set pieces in the league last year; it only becomes maddening when he sticks with it despite having Monreal and Holding in the team in place of Mertersacker and Koscielny/Mustafi. Without towering center backs to command the six-yard box, this happens:
There are so many flaws here. Somebody must make contact with Leicester’s attackers to prevent them from having a free run toward the ball. Arsenal’s defenders have to be on the move, too, even if only slightly, because a standing jump will never compete with a running jump. And Welbeck and Monreal simply have to do a better job of attacking the ball.
Then again, why is Monreal in arguably the most exploitable area of a zonal marking scheme?
Same goes for Liverpool, who was burned on a similar near-post play at Watford. Roberto Firmino, a 5-foot-11 striker, was in one of the most critical positions in Klopp’s zonal scheme. Why?
It all comes back to the players. Zonal marking in and of itself isn’t the problem.
-If Wayne Rooney was the best player in Stoke-Everton, the second-best was Stoke’s American center back, Geoff Cameron. Cameron was the only Yank to start in the Premier League this week.
-Is Olivier Giroud the best supersub in England? In 2014-15, 15-16 and 16-17, the French striker scored 1.2, 1.2 and 1.7 goals per 90 minutes off the bench, according to whoscored.com. And he got 2017-18 off to a roaring start with a world-class headed winner against Leicester.
-Should Watford’s stoppage time equalizer have been disallowed for offside? Yeah, probably.
But rather than feeling aggrieved, Liverpool should worry about its set piece defending, which was shocking.
-Manchester City fullback Benjamin Mendy took some criticism from two old British analysts (anybody ever heard of ‘em?) for a tweet that poked fun at Lewis Dunk’s own goal for Brighton against City. Any outrage over the tweet is fairly ridiculous. But those two old English blokes do have a point: Get on the field before you start taking shots at opponents on social media.
-The best thing I saw this week … was this father-son combo celebrating Huddersfield’s second goal at Palace. This is what sports fandom is all about:
-A close second: Hours after Romelu Lukaku scored a debut brace for Manchester United, his brother, Jordan Lukaku assisted on Lazio’s dramatic stoppage time winner in the Italian Supercup. Romelu’s enthusiasm is fantastic:
Romelu certainly enjoyed it as well pic.twitter.com/jdRwvVPKOI
— Josh Wright (@_WrightJosh) August 13, 2017
It was quite a Sunday for the Lukakus.