Finally, after what seems like forever, football is back, a Summer without and international is always a long-hard slog.
Anyways, to this weekend's games, I was fortunate enough to watch the big four contenders in England from London and Manchester and the first El Clasico of the season. Without further ado here's my thoughts on how each team performed in their games, in timeline order:
Newcastle 0 - ARSENAL 0
With all the Arsenal related news over the past week concentrating on off the field activities I was interested to see how Arsenal would perform, especially how Ramsay would slot in that midfield and how Gervinho would perform.
The truth is that nothing much has changed play wise for the gunners, plenty of possession but no great attack threat, at least not in the way of clear cut chances. Several times you saw play develop and players get in positions ideal to shoot and you just wanted to scream "for crying out loud just have pop!" There always a pass too many, Gervinho in particular suffered from this. I thought that Ramsay did ok but didn't impress majorly but his work rate was good to watch, Rosicky actually was the best player in the first half and you would be forgiven to forget there were certain players missing from the midfield. In the second half though Rosicky tired, he clearly has not got the stamina and of course the squad was desperately short and there was no one that could come in to replace him effectively.
Whilst Arsenal played well enough there was no cutting edge and van Persie cut at times a lonely figure, particularly in the second half. It was no surprise to see Walcott coming in for Arshavin, the surprise was that he didn't start instead of him, the Russian is looking a shadow of his former self. However, Walcott is a quick player that needs space, personally I don't think the team's style suits him. I would like to see Wenger revert to the Henry-Bergkamp days, but with Walcott-vanPersie playing their respective roles, Walcott would be so much more dangerous and Robin could act more as the playmaker he can be rather than the lone striker he isn't.
In short, not a great game, not a lot learnt, nothing new to see here.
Stoke 0 - CHELSEA 0
The main interest in this game was to see how the newly signed and much discussed André Villas-Boas set up his team and how different would it be. Well, no great surprise that Chelsea line up in a familiar 4-3-3 formation, the surprise coming from a courageous decision to leave Drogba and Anelka on the bench, Villas-Boas clearly not afraid of big decisions.
The game proved him right though because Torres was a revelation, back to his old self. He worked hard and was very involved in the game, and was ultimately unlucky not to get a penalty. However, Stoke played with three centre backs and very narrow in defence. You would think in a 4-3-3 formation with full backs like Cole and Bosingwa that Chelsea would explore the flanks better than did, and indeed they played very high up, the problem for the blues was two fold though: Kallou rarely went wide and Malouda found space his delivery was poor, and they both drifted inwards which played into Stoke's hands. The team from North London did improve in the second half and pressed harder but there was still a lack of creativity in midfield and whenever Torres was forced to come wide to get into space to get the ball there was no one filling in for him in the centre, you would normally expect Lampard to be making his usual forward runs but you saw little of that, when he did Anelka nearly scored. Lampard is a quality player, can pass the ball well and can score from outside the box and is an expert on forward runs, but when there's little space he's not the player to take people on and create something out of nothing, they are desperately lacking in creativity in midfield.
In essence, more of the same from Chelsea, but you know they will do well, their defence was well and truly tested and they prove to be excellent. Key for them will be Lampard's fitness and will Villas-Boas get the balance of their wing-play right, Chelsea do not currently have the equivalent of a Hulk-type figure, if there is one in world football at all, and of course will they sign a creative midfield player.
West Brom 1 - Manchester United 2
There's been all this talk of United rebuilding a team but really what has happened is that Alex Ferguson has added more quality and more options to an already well-oiled machine. Young and hungry players that can do very well for them.
Indeed Ashley Young, who I have been praising for years now, has slotted in marvelously and he looks like he's been a Man U player for years. His link-up with Rooney is already first class, as is normally the way with intelligent players. United for 30 minutes were very very good, and whilst it wasn't a Barcelona tiki-taka sort of football they did take some lessons from the Spaniards penchant for playing without a recognised fixed striker. Despite lining up 4-4-2 with Rooney and Wellbeck up front, they both dropped deep all the time and interchanged, with Young and Nani appearing in the centre. Rooney especially could be found at times near the half-way line or deep on the left. It meant a very fluid and mobile attack and the goal came naturally. Then for no reason apparent United dropped the pace (fitness perhaps?) and to give credit to Hodgson West Brom actually played some good football and Tchoyi in particular grew into the game.
Second half United could never re-capture the more fluid moments of the first thirty minutes and Tchoyi and Long caused a lot of problems, and when Vidic and then Ferdinand came off injured the players seem to lack a bit of confidence. West Brom scored a decent goal and De Gea could have done better, indeed he is a favourite target for the media in England, but I actually think he saw it late, a minor error nonetheless.
As is the way with United every single season they never give up and Young's persistence was rewarded with a deflected goal.
What is new about Manchester United is the new and the returned from loan players. They gave the team an injection of energy and they look very strong, Cleverley looks ready and Wellbeck strong and quick, but it is Young that has made the biggest impact. The team to beat.
REAL MADRID 2 - BARCELONA 2
A very strange game, from multiple aspects. From the outset it was clear that Barça were treating this game as more of a run out and testing players almost like a semi-serious friendly. Mourinho, perhaps in a studied psychological move, lined up the exact same players that were beat 5-0 last season. I think he wanted to accomplish two things, one to show the world that the team is better now that he's in his second season (he has always lauded the fact his teams were better second season on) and two get his players to show some pride and he wouldn't have let them forget how comprehensively they were beaten that day.
And improved they were, with a high defensive line an much more aggressive pressing forcing the blaugrana to having to uncommonly kick the ball up field which favoured the Real defenders. For 35 minutes they were a different team, a Team in every sense of the word attacking and defending together and producing some real good football with the goal coming as no surprise. Remember though, that Barça had no Pique, no Puyol, no Busquets and no Xavi. Against the run of play and instants after Villa was marginally flagged offside Messi found Villa onside and he quickly turned onto his right foot (what was Ramos doing giving him so much time and space?!) and unleashed an unstoppable strike of beauty that ended in the back of the net. The Madrileños were shell-shocked and minutes later a quickly taken free kick got Messi near the area and with a bit luck thanks to a Khedira slight deflection taking the ball into his path, Messi who had been otherwise anonymous wrestled the ball off the defenders with balance and finished with usual grace. Somehow Barça were in front.
Same story in the second half, but Real did manage to score. The usual dance of substitutions followed and the game suffered, very fractured and the players looked tired. In the end a just result for the hosts' effort.
In summary, Real are going to be a lot more dangerous and already you can see that they seem to have the semblance of a team now. Barça looked by and large unfit, but they will have their usual season, like Manchester United, not a rebuild, but with the added new players in Fabregas and Sanchez they should be once again improved.
MANCHESTER CITY 4 - Swansea 0
Initial thoughts on this one, Man City are not a team, they are a collection of individuals hyped up the press similarly to the England team. And the first 20 minutes of this game against the newly promoted team of Swansea did little to dissuade me from this view. But boy, was I proven wrong!
Swansea passed the ball well and assuredly if with little penetration, and their main striker Graham was poor not managing to hold the ball, and Dobbie in the hole supporting Graham found if very difficult against the powerhouses of Touré and de Jong being out muscled time and time again. In front of the defence Augustine and Britton were excellent and saw a lot of the ball but found it difficult to link with the attackers. Sinclair on the left tried hard and he's quick and smart but Richards was more than a match for him, on the other side Dyer similarly did well but he had little options and sometimes was the most advanced player on the pitch, Clichy was quick enough to keep up with him and force him inside where Dobbie was always well marked and invariably the ball went all the way back to the defenders and the goalkeeper, who by the way was excellent, Michal Vorm will be a name to remember.
Soon enough Mancini got his players to start pressing higher up the pitch and as they started winning the ball they found Silva in enough space to create problems and soon enough he started controlling the game creating opportunities. City care little for possession, but they are patient and strong, very very strong (Richards, Kompany, Lescott, de Jong, Toure, Dzeko is there a stronger group of players in the Premiership?) which means they can defend extremely well and then unleash their creative elements, and when you have someone as good as Silva and even Adam Johnson you are always in with a chance. The goal came from a wonderful shot from Johnson and Vorm could not punch it far enough and it fell kindly for Dzeko.
Then, a whirlwind happened. One of those rare moments you live for to watch in football. A supposedly unfit Agüero was brought on, at that time probably more at the bequest of the press and the fans than anything but my word did he have an impact. A great burst of acceleration and he got in at the end of a cross after a good run from Richards into the box. The right back was ball watching and he finished with ease. Moments later he miscontrolled a pass from Dzeko but unlike like other players would he didn't give him up and chased the ball up to the line and crossed it back in where Silva arrived unmarked to slot it in the empty net. An impressive few minutes from the newcomer, a goal and an assist.
But the best was yet to come, a good interplay with Touré saw him umarked 20/25 yards from goal but unmarked he let fly a spectacular shot, as good as any as you are likely to see anywhere and an early contender for goal of the season. A shot destined only for those predestined to be great, outside of the reach of mere mortals, reminiscent of similar strikes from a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.
The press in England rarely notice football outside this island, and give little notice that if Man City paid £38m for Aguero there was a damned good reason for it, and whilst everyone was looking forward it I think few believed he was this good. A star is born it was claimed, well, a star he was already but he didn't lose anytime in showing his credentials. Rarely have I seen such an incredible debut.
To sum up Man City, a patient pragmatic side that play unspectacular at times but have spectacular players capable of moments of utter magic. If Mancini can convince Tevez to stay, you would have to agree that with a trio of players in Silva, Tevez and Agüero they can compete seriously in any competition.