The normal order of things was restored to my life with the return of the Premier League over the weekend. First up in the lunch-time kick-off, champions Leicester were defeated by a newly promoted Hull squad that had no manager, only 13 fit players and have been largely written off by everyone. In many ways the result wasn’t the earth-shattering shock that perhaps it should have been, as ever since winning the title, the general consensus of opinion seems to be that Leicester will struggle this season as they will have to get used to going into matches as favourites and more teams will look to sit deep against them and deny them the space in behind that their success last season was built upon. Ranieri himself said before the match that the Foxes should be rated as 6,000-1 for the title this time around, trying to downplay expectations.
After taking an early lead through a penalty Manchester City had to rely on a late own goal to overcome a resolute Sunderland side and it would seem that Guardiola has a relatively long-term project on his hands in order to start to mould City’s style of play to the way he wants. Although his use of the full-backs coming into central midfield to create an overload was fascinating and suggests he may provide all of us armchair tacticians with some fascinating innovations during his time in the Premier League.
The biggest challenge in watching Match of the Day on Saturday night was trying to survive the sight of Gary Lineker presenting in his boxer shorts as a result of vowing to present the show in his pants if Leicester won the league. Mercifully he decided to get dressed after a couple of matches; the look of relief on Alan Shearer’s and Ian Wright’s faces said it all.
By all accounts Manchester United cruised to victory at Bournemouth in the early Sunday game and probably looked like the best team over the opening weekend; despite record signing Paul Pogba not yet being available for selection.
The atmosphere at the Emirates before the opening game was subdued, despite finishing second last season, in what was actually a highly disappointing season, it is probably fair to say that the failure, yet again, to address the deficiencies in the squad and team so far in the transfer window, means expectations going into the season were lower than they have ever been in the Wenger era. With Mertesacker and Gabriel injured and Koscielny not judged available to start, unlike the majority of his France team-mates, it meant that the only available centre backs were the raw duo of Chambers and Holding.
For the first 44 minutes of the game however Arsenal played ok, aided by Liverpool’s decision to abandon their gegenpressing style and instead sit deeper; although without Giroud and Özil, another two bafflingly offered extended breaks, there was a lack of cutting edge, with Alexis, playing through the middle, largely being stifled by Liverpool’s two imposing centre backs, Lovren and Klavan.
When Walcott gave Arsenal the lead less than two minutes after wasting a penalty opportunity, there was actually some cautious optimism around the ground that maybe things weren’t going to be quite as bad as we feared. However it wasn’t to last long, on the stroke of half-time the highly impressive Coutinho rifled home a brilliant free-kick and the teams went in at the break level.
Quite how things changed in the opening 20 minutes of the second half is still puzzling as Liverpool looked like a team transformed; pulling Arsenal’s inexperienced defence all over the place and scoring 3 excellent goals in the space of 18 minutes through Lallana, Coutinho and Mane and putting themselves in a commanding 4-1 lead.
Despite a comeback, which was probably as much down to Liverpool putting ‘the cue on the rack’ as anything Arsenal did to improve their play; the Gunners once again fell to a an opening day home defeat for the third time in four years. Any optimism and goodwill that had been built soon evaporated in a chorus of boos and chants that Wenger doesn’t know what he is doing.
Quite where this defeat leaves the Arsenal manager, in the last year of his contract, is unclear. After the match he admitted that the team were ‘not ready physically’ for the start of the Premier League season, which begs the questions of why not and when will they be ready? Neither of which Wenger seemed capable of answering.
Perhaps more worrying is the feeling that this was all too predictable, the failure to bring in another top-class central defender when Mertesacker was injured in July, has left the manager with nowhere to go to explain the defensive shortcomings. With further injuries to Iwobi and Ramsey and the ongoing inactivity in the transfer market, it feels like this is going to be a very long season for Arsenal fans, with a genuinely real fear that we may be looking at a start to the season every bit as disastrous as 2011/12.