Premier League opening weekend review

The eagerly anticipated opening fixtures of the best league in the world (hasn’t that been trademarked by Sky now?) has been and gone, starting at Old Trafford and finishing at the Hawthorns in two very different games, and with eight other fixtures in between of varying quality.

There were certainly some shock results–I’m sure few people’s accumulator’s came in–not least with Arsenal losing at home to West Ham, and ten-man Chelsea lucky to earn a draw with Swansea at Stamford Bridge.

We also saw glimpses of brilliance and solid debuts for a number of players such as Reece Oxford, West Ham’s youngest ever player to play in the Premier League. However, going by the reaction of some pundits and fans, everyone needs to calm down a bit.

Of course, the dramatic narrative of the Premiership is better for post-match analysis by experts and back pages of newspapers spelling out doom for certain clubs is a surefire way to garner interest in the new season, but perhaps our lack of appropriate alternatives has left us, as fans, with a little too much bottled up excitement.

Just as I thought...
Just as I thought…

And yes, the opening fixtures are a chance to highlight weaknesses of title challengers and can create momentum for the inevitable “surprise package” of the season, but after all, it is but one game. Here I analyse the teams and players that fans and pundits alike have been discussing in fervour for positive and negative reasons, and give them all a “Cause for Concern/Celebration” rating out of ten.

Arsenal

Starting alphabetically, and, conveniently, with the team that gave us what was perhaps the biggest shock of the weekend, we have the Gooners. A 2-0 home loss on the first day of the season was certainly not in the script. There seemed to be a feeling of expectancy in the Arsenal camp before the weekend. Many have been tipping Arsenal for the title, which has been unheard of in the era of Chelsea and the Manchester clubs’ domination over the past ten years. Something didn’t go right at the weekend tactically, and this, coupled with Cech’s mistake for the opener, has given a lot of people a reason to believe the hype around Arsenal in pre-season was indeed just that; hype.

Kouyate's header sends the Hammers 1-0 up
Kouyate’s header sends the Hammers 1-0 up

However, Wenger’s men do have the right ingredients for a title push, if certain players live up to their potential. We’ve all seen what Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere can do and if they and players like Ozil have good seasons, this win may be but a blip in their campaign. Who knows, this could be the kick up the proverbial behind they desperately need.

Cause for Concern Rating: 6/10

Chelsea

Despite Arsenal’s recent surge of backers, Chelsea were still tipped by more pundits to win the league again. Mourinho has arguably strengthened slightly–only time will tell–but he has brought only a few squad players. Many agree with his philosophy not to have changed his first XI, especially with very little challenge to their title win last year but that may have been found out at the weekend. Chelsea looked poor, especially defensively, which is highly uncharacteristic for a José Mourinho team. Ivanovic was given the run around by Jefferson Montero–the Serbian full-back could get nowhere near the Swansea winger all game–and Gary Cahill also looked to have trouble against the Swansea frontline. Add this to Courtois’ red card and a difficult run of early fixtures, including a trip to the Etihad, and you might suggest Chelsea’s title retention will falter somewhat.

Swansea celebrate Gomis' equaliser
Swansea celebrate Gomis’ equaliser

Having said that, the Blues arguably could have nicked a win had Courtois’ rush of blood not resulted in a red card or a penalty. Although the Swans would have been deserved winners and had more shots, the dismissal changed the dynamic of the game. Chelsea’s strength in-depth and tactical nouse of Mourinho should see them through and although they might not have an easy path to the league title this year, this draw won’t concern them as much as it could.

Cause for Concern rating: 5/10

West Bromwich Albion

The last fixture saw the Baggies take on another of the title contenders in Manchester City, who I will cover next. Tony Pulis’ side were all over the place defensively and looked scared of City, who looked more like the home side on the night. For most of the first half, in fact, West Brom were camped in their own half and had very little idea going forward.

But a Tony Pulis side is yet to be relegated and I’m almost certain that record will remain in tact. In a way, WBA can shrug this off as early nerves as they were effectively expected to lose. The signing of Solomon Rondon from Zenit St Petersburg and rumours of Jose Enrique arriving at the Hawthorns should improve the areas they were lacking in on Monday night.

Cause for Concern rating: 7/10

City looked more of a unit than last season
City looked more of a unit than last season

Manchester City

Perhaps the weight of expectation on the City players’ shoulders was somewhat lightened by talk mostly of Arsenal and Chelsea in contention for the title. Either way, Pelligrini’s men were awesome last night, taking control of the game from start to finish and dispatching of the home side excellently. Well worth their three goal margin, some performances from key players would have pleased City fans after last season’s forgettable campaign. If anything, the blue side of Manchester look the strongest shouts for the title after the first round of games.

Nevertheless, it was, like I say, one game and for everything positive said about City last night, you could say the opposite for their opponents. One might argue that the Etihad side had the easiest opener out of the projected top six too.

Cause for Celebration rating: 5/10

Reece Oxford

A lot has been said about this young man; a sixteen year-old with a bright future ahead of him if Sunday’s calm and collected performance is anything to go by. He has the stature of someone a lot older than him, both in technical ability and height. A future England talent he may be.

Oxford looked comfortable with the pressure
Oxford looked comfortable with the pressure

As we all know, though, some young players’ career trajectories can often be decisively different from early predictions. Oxford needs a few more games under his belt before we truly can profess his greatness.

Cause for Celebration rating: 7/10

Consistency

My blogs have become woefully inconsistent in nature. I’d promised myself I’d write three or four times a week but, of course, that didn’t happen. Due to my sporadic and unordered mind, inspiration finds me at the most inconvenient times– when I’m without writing utensils most frequently–and, often, when it comes to actually typing up a post, my brain inevitably turns to mush.

In January, I decided to create two blogs to add to this, my main one. These were more specific, focusing on two of my core interests: spirituality and the media. My intentions of writing more started well but dwindled when I took my foot off the pedal. I’ve hypothesised that one reason for this is my self-imposed high standards for my writing. It’s the only part of my life that I have an all-or-nothing attitude towards; with most other things I’m dangerously laid-back.

My style across my three blogs was also incredibly varied, meaning I’ve set myself back in my efforts to distinguish my voice. For instance, my blog on spirituality was reasonably vanilla, mostly regurgitated tenets of the subject that I had learned. I’ve found it’s not been entirely succesful, mostly due to my naivity surrounding the topics–you have to be assured of your own knowledge for your writing to flow.

My love for writing is as changeable as the British weather. When you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s hard to produce your best work. I’ve also had to contend with my own laziness–it’s much easier mentally to play Xbox than write a thought-provoking article.

I’m going to only be using this blog from now on, covering all of my interests and consolidating my portfolio into one place for convenience. This post is my way of siganlling a fresh start to the reader but also for my own benefit.

My aims are to simplify my posts on spirituality/meditation to make them accessible to everyone and to write consistently in order to rediscover my voice.

True Detective – Season 1 review

We are very much living in the, for want of a better word, ‘era’ of outstanding TV dramas wherein the plot-lines, actors and budgets are what we would usually expect from cinema, giving us gripping adaptations of renowned books and suspense filled series full of originality.

One is oft-greeted with animated fervour upon any mention of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and House of Cards from friends, colleagues, strangers, generating either a rapturous conversation discussing EVERYTHING about it, or awkward stares and possibly loss of respect if you’ve not watched it. They will certainly urge you, almost pleadingly, to watch their favourite show, as if it were life or death. It is, of course.

It can be wondefully bemusing to hear of those who reject the hype around certain programming for the simple fact it is popular; perhaps upon consideration they allow themselves to believe this makes them “cool” but the future of their reasoning will present them with two possibilities, and two only: 1) They will remain adamant in their position of apparent social superiority and miss out on an amazing show, or 2) curiosity and being surrounded by avid viewers of the show will eventually break their resistance and they will decide to watch it.

That might sound ominously conformist, but you get the point; we are lucky to be blessed with such stellar entertainment and the reasoning of “everybody else watches it” doesn’t really wash.

There is little wonder why True Detective has received such plaudits and high ratings (it currently has a rating of 9.3 on IMDb). As an audience, we are confronted with intrigue and mystery from minute one, the scene which sets up the premise of the show. Initially, we meet the protagonists and former detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) in the present day, undergoing interviews by two current officers about a previous case, one that involves a homicidal Satan worshipper.

Dark story lines highlight the true monstrosities of the world in which we live, eschewing a pessimistic narrative and sinister implications. Not for the faint-hearted, True Detective explores paedohphilia and murder, as well as deeper psychological aspects and pessimistic existential philosophy, the latter through the brilliant mind of McConaughey’s character, Rust.

The character of Marty balances out what would be an intimidatingly dark drama; his incredulous one-line responses to Rust’s perceived kookiness adds a light-hearted feel. Marty is perhaps a more typical police officer than Rust, who is often seen as an outsider, and his character is used as a device to explore the American male and his gender role in relationships, society and the workplace.

The flashbacks provide us with a dual plot-line, as told by Rust and Marty, which adds dynamism and originality to the show as we find out more about the characters’ personalities and how time has altered their perspectives. The separate timelines offer the viewer an insight into the changing relationship of the two main characters, the apparent animosity that has developed between them and their work on the case.

The ingenuity of Rust is captivating and his abilities are showcased as the series progresses. This, coupled with the intrigue of the plot, makes for another binge-worthy TV drama. Unsurprisingly, McConaughey and Harrelson are faultless throughout, both cementing their reputations as top class actors.

So this is a plea to watch it; don’t be one of “those”people because you’ll miss out on one of the most fascinating dramas on television.

Premier League run-in: Do Man Utd and Liverpool hold the key?

Manchester City would have ruined countless accumulators this weekend with their loss away at relegation contenders, Burnley. In truth, the team that started this round of fixtures second from bottom gave a much better showing than last year’s champions, thoroughly deserving their win over a lacklustre City side.

Two losses in their last three games now see Pellegrini’s side slipping away in the title race and, unexpectedly, being dragged into the fight for top four. They are just one point ahead of Arsenal and two ahead of Manchester United, who both registered 3-0 wins this weekend, as well as good performances to boot.

However, as any fan will tell you, this is football and anything can happen. For the entirety of the season, most have tipped the Premier League crown to go to one of City and Chelsea, with the best of the rest expected to challenge for third and fourth spot. However, with City slipping up too many times and Chelsea stuttering slightly, it appears that Arsenal and United are back in with a shout.

Many will point to Chelsea’s six point advantage and game in hand as an indicator that the Blues will surely win the league but that match (against Leicester) falls at the end of April, with five games to play before, including consecutive games for Chelsea against United and Arsenal, home and away respectively.

If both teams are able to continue their current form, they have the ability to cause problems for José Mourinho’s side and put a dent in Chelsea’s title ambitions. In fact, Manchester United are to play a key role in deciding where the Premier League trophy will be heading come the end of May, as they are due to play all three teams that lie ahead of them in the table.

Arguably, as they are the furthest away from first place out of the current top four, Van Gaal’s team have the least chance of going on to win the league. But the Red Devils host both City and Arsenal in the run-in, and of course, are away to Chelsea. Should they match City’s next two results, they will have a chance of going ahead of their Manchester rivals when they play them at Old Trafford on 12th April.

Or, if they lose to City and beat Chelsea on the 18th April, they would drag the leaders down towards the chasing pack, which would result in a nervy game at the Emirates for the Blues the following week. And, in the penultimate week of the season, United host Arsenal in what could go some way to deciding who wins the league and who claims a Champions League place.

To add yet more uncertainty into the mix, Liverpool could also help to decide things. The Reds welcome United to Anfield on Sunday, as well as taking on both Arsenal and Chelsea away from home before the season is over. Brendan Rodgers’ men will be hoping to secure a top four spot themselves, and could maybe throw a spanner in the works to their fellow contenders.

With so many big games coming up, the Premiership is starting to shape up nicely for a exciting finish, especially if United and Liverpool manage to become banana skins for those above them. Perhaps mid-season expectations of predictability will be met with an unforeseeable climax.

Brendan Rodgers’ tactical prowess and Steven Gerrard’s replacement

He’s come in for some stick this season but I can’t help but admire Brendan Rodgers, not least for that charming smile he flashes every now and then. Phwoar. Liverpool’s campaign only really took off at the halfway mark and they’ve certainly not hit the heights of their title challenge of last year. Added to the sombre news that club legend, Mr Liverpool himself, Steven Gerrard is leaving the Reds in a few months, and you could forgive a Liverpool fan for being at least slightly pessimistic about their manager at the moment.

As I said, I’m fond of the Northern Irishman. To me, his tactical nous is sublime. We all know that he got it spot on last year, despite everyone writing off even Liverpool’s top four prospects at the start of the season. But what impresses me most, is his deployment of the 3-4-3/5-2-3 formation of late. Three centre-backs, mostly Sakho, Skrtel and Can; two central midfielder players of varying partnerships; two-wing-backs who patrol the entire flank; and three top quality attacking players creating and scoring goals.

Like this
Like this

The reason I love this formation so much is due to the balance Rodgers has instilled in his side and, moreover, the starring role given to Coutinho, Sterling and Sturridge since he has come back from injury. The change in formation has allowed space and time for the prolific attacking players, as well as significantly less defensive responsibility. Coutinho has been the stand out starlet for me this season because, with the freedom he is afforded going forward, he has unlocked doors.

Brendan Rodgers has realised his back four wasn’t gelling. They were leaking goals and, consequently, the creative talents of their forwards were stifled. So he shifted his tactics. He overloaded the defence and gave their attacking threat free roles. And it has worked; since the inception of this tactical shift, the Anfield club are unbeaten in all but one of their games, causing rise up the table meaning they are now back in with a real shout of finishing in the top four.

Another intelligent move from the Liverpool boss is the use of out-and-out wingers in the right wing-back position, namely Markovic and Ibe. Both have been in top form since adapting incredibly well to their new roles. Both look hot prospects for the future. The sheer pace and determination from both of them means they are able to dominate their flank and pop up in attacking or defensive positions should they be needed.

Can’s performances have been worth noting too. Playing in a slightly unfamiliar third centre-back role, the youngster looks well established and confident. His versatility will be of use to Liverpool in years to come, I’m sure. This brings me nicely onto my second point: Steven Gerrard’s replacement.

Jordan Henderson has been earmarked has “the new Gerrard” since the announcement that his captain was due to leave. Henderson has showed his captaincy credentials recently but I’m really not sure he’s up to the task of stepping into Stevie’s boots. I like Henderson. I think he’s a great player. But Gerrard’s replacement? I can’t see it.

Let’s face it, Steven Gerrard is one of the best players to have played in the Premiership and, as I’m sure many Liverpool fans will agree, there are strong arguments to say he is the Reds’ most influential player ever. As an all-round midfielder, I can’t think of many better to have ever graced these shores. His range of passing, his shooting ability, his determination; he could put in a tackle as well. At his best, he was undoubtedly world-class.

On his own, Henderson will not make anywhere near as big an impact as Stevie G. Henderson can run for days and has decent technical ability but there are few who would dare to claim his talents are at the level of his midfield counterpart. At least, not on his own. There have been rumours that Rodgers’ is in the market for another midfield player, potentially Roma’s Miralem Pjanic, to take over from Gerrard.

However, I’m of the opinion that he has already signed the player, or players, he needs. Three players to be exact: Henderson, Coutinho and Can. As I said, I can’t see Henderson being “the next Gerrard” but, with the talents of the other two next to him, Liverpool could cushion the blown of losing their talisman.

Henderson will be a great captain and his application will rival Gerrard’s; Coutinho terrorises defences with his creativity like Gerrard has done so well in the past; and Emre Can’s solidity in a holding midfield role will ensure Gerrard’s hardy attitude will not leave with him.

Okay, so it’s not ideal that it will take three players to replace him, but what else would you expect considering how successful Gerrard has been? And there are currently very few midfielders in world football who are of the same calibre that Liverpool could buy.

Sad though it is that their captain is leaving, the Reds have a very good, young team and manager to guide them through the next era of the club. Their goalkeeper and defence probably still need work but they have an awesome amount of potential in midfield and up front.

Could this be their team next year?
Could this be their team next year?

Now they’ve signed Cuadrado…could Chelsea play 5-4-1?

Following on from my pal Charlie Sammonds’ assertion that José Mourinho could revert to a 4-3-3 formation to emulate the success of his first period at the club following the arrival of winger Juan Cuadrado, I am going to put a different spin on things.

4-3-3 is now definitely an option for the Blues manager, with, as Charlie suggests, Cuadrado and Hazard on either side terrorising Premier League defences like Robben and Duff used to. And, if the midfield three consisted of Matic, Ramires and Fabregas, hopefully the side won’t be too unbalanced.

I also share the opinion that Cuadrado will probably take Willian’s place on the right side of midfield, or perhaps Oscar depending on the tactics of the game; Willian is arguably better that his Brazilian counterpart at defending.

However, I’m of the opinion that Mourinho will make no changes to his team’s current tactical style, at least initially. The 4-2-3-1 that Chelsea currently adopt is working well for them and sees them five points clear atop the Premier League.

Where the Portuguese coach may see weakness is defensively. Zouma has been brought in recently to replace the slightly off-form Gary Cahill and has impressed in the role. This miniature crisis (I’m sure other managers will be lamenting the luxury Mourinho has with his team) may have been solved therefore but, as in his nature, José will, I’m sure, be looking to improve further.

This is where the signing of Cuadrado is crucial. The Colombian is a winger by trade but effectively played wing-back during the World Cup. His pace and adaptability are key reasons why Chelsea signed him this January. Now, on the back foot, Mourinho can switch to a 5-3-2 formation seamlessly and without having to make a sub.

Numerous pundits have asserted their opinion that this is the strongest Chelsea team they’ve ever seen. I agree, on paper, but some abject performances have highlighted their defensive frailties. To show definitively that they are, in fact, the best Chelsea team ever, they need to plug these gaps and go on and win the league. This new tactic could bring a new dynamic to Chelsea’s game and make them strong enough write themselves into the history books.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 11.48.59
From this…
Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 11.49.55
…to this

Battle of the Bridge Bores–but why?

The Chelsea vs Manchester City game didn’t live up its billing. The biggest game of the season, the potential six-pointer between the two teams battling it out for the Premier League title, lacked any real spark or clear-cut chances from either team despite widespread anticipation of a proverbial ‘Clash of the Titans’.

Manchester City were far and away the better side on the night, pressing the home team high and prompting José Mourinho to bring on an extra defender in Gary Cahill, who was left on the bench in place of Kurt Zouma, a decision validated by the young Frenchman’s impressive performance.

Former Hogwarts student David Silva ran the show for the Champions as you’d expect and, in fact, ran the entire game. His passing was sublime, finding the runs of Jesús Navas on numerous occasions which gave the usually consistent Azpilicueta problems.

The first half was evenly fought and it looked as though the Stamford Bridge outfit were going to go into the break 1-0 up after a clever passing move which saw Hazard assist stand-in striker Loïc Remy for a tap-in. But, uncharasteristically, Nemanja Matic gave the ball away in the Chelsea half shortly after the opening goal and Man City punished the Blues with Silva tapping in Aguero’s effort which would have been going wide.

City came out stronger after half time and, for much of the second phase, a nervous looking Chelsea were having to defend and eventually held on to a valuable point which keeps them five points clear at the top of the table.

The events of the game didn’t live up to expectations. Many pundits were tipping the Londoners to extend their advantage over their rivals but they could only just about manage a draw. But why was this? Were Chelsea negative like some have claimed?

The simple fact of the matter is that Mourinho’s squad depth was lacking yesterday. 17-goal-man Diego Costa was out through suspension after his dangerous play in midweek; Cesc Fabregas and Felipe Luis were recovering from injuries they picked up in the same game; and, due to imminent transfers, Andre Schürrle and Mohammed Salah didn’t make the squad.

Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri were both missing for City, as well as new signing Wilfried Bony. But the effectiveness of these players for their team doesn’t match up to Costa and Fabregas for theirs.

But who did Chelsea miss more? Costa or Fabregas? For me, although Fabregas’ statistics have been off the charts so far this season, it was ‘The Guv’nor’ Diego Costa who the Blues could have done with on that pitch yesterday. Kompany and his fellow defenders had an easy time at the Bridge, but, had Chelsea’s top scorer been on the pitch, the story might have been so different.

Without Costa to bully the City defenders, Chelsea weren’t pushing up far enough, meaning they were sat too deep. And although you can’t complain that Remy scored, his hold up play was non-existent and this meant there was less space for Hazard and Oscar, who needed to step up their game to make up for the loss of Fabregas.

Despite his recent form, Oscar was nowhere to be seen, and Hazard didn’t have enough time to do anything as magic as usual. Fernando and Fernandinho were able to stifle Chelsea’s attacking midfielders, which allowed Silva to dictate the play.

A classic it may not have been, but the 1-1 draw ensures the title race is still wide open, especially with the return of Toure and Bony from the African Cup of Nations still to come. Chelsea fans will be pleased with the result, despite the lacklustre performance from their team, and, perhaps more pressingly, they will be over the moon that Frank Lampard didn’t come back to haunt them again.