Opening weekend thoughts

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A dissection of Leicester, a few extended thoughts on the other games I watched and some quick surface conclusions from the other matches.

Hull 2-1 Leicester

So the 2016/17 season started. To be quite honest, it felt like being made to eat some soggy cornflakes after dining on michelin star food for the past 12 months. It’s weird but oddly comforting to feel like a Leicester fan again.

The loss was really disappointing, but the game itself didn’t seem to present any crippling issues for Leicester. They outshot Hull by 4, although conceding 14 shots and 5 on target to this Hull side was a little worrying. On the other hand, Colin Trainor noted that Hull completed exactly zero passes in Leicester’s box which makes this result seem a tad out of whack.

Vardy missed two excellent chances and if he can keep getting a diet of oppurtunities like he did his production should be alright this season as well. My main point regarding this game is that I don’t think this lineup is representative of what Ranieri will put out for rest of the year.

Demarai Gray’s inclusion was a surprising one and some of the vulnerablity Leicester showed at the back comes from Marc Albrighton and his good defensive work being absent. Gray is talented and plays much calmer than most 20-year old wingers but gave a rough performance on Saturday. He should tone down the shots from outside the box, and his natural inclination to cut inside also cramped up the spacing for Musa and Vardy to make their runs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Albrighton come back into the fray for the upcoming fixtures.

Andy King should also not be starting for any decent Premier League side. His aimless floating about allowed Hull to sterilize Drinkwater’s influence and also made their own attacks more potent. The lovable Daniel Amartey replaced him and did better, but the Ghanaian also looks a little hesitant at times and probably needs a bit more seasoning. Ranieri subbed off Gray and King, which suggests he saw the same issues and bodes well for Leicester under his stewardship again. I predict Amartey, or more likely Mendy, will be starting next to Drinkwater by September.

Leicester looked a little more fluid with Okazaki on the field – as was the case for all of last year. He doesn’t score but helps massively in transitioning Leicester’s attacks which will be needed even more with Kanté gone. Ranieri faces a bit of a headache here. The extremely unselfish Ahmed Musa looks really lively but it’s between him and Okazaki for the second striker spot and the team has a better balance with the Japanese international playing. There should be minutes for Musa somewhere though and if Leicester want to get daring they could occasionally play a diamond with Musa, Vardy and Mahrez.

Luis Hernandez seems to have assumed the backup CB spot over Marcin Wasilewski. This is good! Wasilewski is bad! The only issue was, Hernandez struggled mightily against his namesake Abel’s pace and tenacity. When Huth or Morgan are out, Leicester are still in a spot of bother. It’d be nice to see the multi-positional Amartey get a chance there, as he used to be a full-time CB. Speaking of Wes Morgan, Leicester’s skipper had his second consecutive poor game after playing a role in both of United’s goals in the Community Shield. This is a little concerning, because he struggled in 14/15 and so far his best performances have come exclusively with N’Golo Kante in front of him. And he’s a year older.

So overall, Leicester were ok on balance in this game. What actually worries me is the short-term schedule. Arsenal visit next week (who Leicester have never beaten) and Anfield (where Leicester haven’t won) awaits 3 weeks later. This makes Leicester’s game against Swansea a little more important. In a vacuum Leicester are probably going to finish mid-table, but if the first 4 games yields a point or so, things could snowball and get messy.

Everton 1-1 Tottenham

I was really optimistic about Everton this season but a game against this Spurs team without Lukaku or new signing Ashley Williams is a tough ask. But they were really, really fun to watch and were unlucky to only have a 1-0 lead at half time before tiring and hanging on for the draw. Their goal came from an unlikely Ross Barkley free kick that no-one got a touch on, but the forward line of Barkley, Deulofeu and Mirallas was interchanging and fluid. And the best part? They pressed a bit and defended! The trio suggested that they were a plausible option for Koeman to use at times and may be employed quite frequently if Lukaku departs.

Koeman went with a back 3 that seemed to flummox Spurs quite a bit. Idrissa Gueye made me wish Leicester had picked him up as a N’Golo replacement, especially given as he was one player that profiled quite similarly to N’Golo with high tackles and interceptions. The formation was quite handy for taking Leighton Baines out of situations where he has to defend and make decisions as well, which always helps some. Replace 19 year old Mason Holgate with Ashley Williams and Everton could get quite the defensive stew cooking, even with the return to a back 4.

It did puzzle me last year that Mirallas just couldn’t get any minutes even though he’s a perfectly fine attacking player. If Koeman can get him to consistently defend like he did against Spurs then he’s a real asset, but this effort from him is unlikely over the course of a season. See Tadic, Dusan for reference of what will happen to Mirallas or probably all of Everton’s attackers at some point this season.

Barkley is a hot and cold player but he was really buzzing against Spurs as he often is on opening day of the season.

Deulofeu was nominated as the central player on the team sheet, but Barkley drifted inside often and managed to get 4 shots off (one of these being the indirect freekick) which is a good start. Averaging 2.5 last season, at the very least Barkley has evolved into someone who can get shots off rather than being a big bundle of talent that doesn’t do any productive things (Wilfried Zaha). Barkley is frustrating, but also seems like a player who might thrive more in a structured attack with specific instructions under Koeman rather than Martinez’ sedated possession game. Put simply, Barkley is a plus-impact player when he’s played as a forward and a hindrance when in midfield. Everton should ride out his performances and see where they go.

Spurs looked mostly fine, after being overwhelmed in the first 20 minutes. Deulofeu got loose for a great one-on-one chance but failed to finish and Spurs gradually shifted into their relentless mode in the second half as their fitness prevailed. Janssen was brought on which gave them a bit more bite against Everton’s formation and allowed Kane to actually get involved in the game a bit, but England’s finest corner taker still failed to take any shots which must be a little concerning for Spurs. It would surprise, but not shock me, to find that Janssen was starting a couple of games over him before Christmas.

The other good thing about Janssen’s introduction was that it split up the Eric Dier-Victor Wanyama midfield that had been plodding slightly. Weirdly, Wanyama was the one to stay on but it did the job in allowing Spurs to push more onto Everton. Of course, this midfield isn’t by design. The suspended Mousa Dembele was as sorely missed as we all predicted, given that he’s one of the best all-round midfielders in the league. While not every team has an attack as fluid and fleet of foot as Everton’s forward line, Spurs will struggle to contain good teams until Dembele returns.

Manchester City 2-1 Sunderland

Pep arrived. The schedule computer spat out a pretty pleasant opener to the season with Sunderland at home, but they made hard work of securing the win. While an early penalty settled the game and suggested a mild rout was in order, the real hubbub was everyone noticing crazy Guardiola stuff all over the field. Only issue was while everyone lost their minds over inverted fullbacks, Sunderland were mounting quite the challenge.

The conclusion seemed pretty inevitable, Sunderland got the goal they deserved but Manchester City grabbed a late-ish winner through poor Paddy McNair. It was pleasing to see Sunderland aren’t going to resemble a bowl of soggy cornflakes until November again. It’s easy to tell that City are going to be good, but those warning that they’ll need time to get up to speed were right. A +9 shot differential seems good but this from Michael Caley suggests City were as average as the eye test suggested:

The Manchester derby in a couple weeks is going to be fascinating but I sense that neither team will be all that polished.

Saturday Miscellaneous

  • Nathan Redmond, who became the darling of the fantasy football community in preseason, was mentioned in the same sentence as Thierry Henry as a winger who can be converted to play up front. He scored Southampton’s equaliser and managed 5 shots. This is exciting.
  • I was massively pessimistic about Swansea, but from the looks of things they had a really positive day at Burnley picking up a 1-0 win and outshooting their opponents by 7 without Gylfi Sigurdsson. It is Burnley though, so I remain unsure about them.
  • West Brom appear to have changed nothing.

Bournemouth 1-3 Manchester United

Mourinho put out a weird lineup, but this is in keeping with much of the league on opening weekend. 0% of managers know or play their best lineup in August, which leads to a couple of weird results at times. Mourinho trotted out an XI that included Rooney and Fellaini, opting to leave Mkhitaryan on the bench. There were some issues, but I imagine that the majority of them would be solved by taking Rooney off and Pogba/Mkhitaryan being involved. The problems were much of what happened under LVG: slow moving of the ball, no sign of a dangerous counter-attack, general lack of shots. One noticeable thing with the lack of shots is Anthony Martial’s play. For someone who carries the ball into great positions as much as Martial does, he averaged just 1.8 shots last year. Perhaps this can be attributed to LVG’s coaching, because against Bournemouth he took 3 from decent positions.

Zlatan managed only two open play shots (both from long range) and this United attack looks like it might create a lot of headers rather than shooting chance. However Zlatan did facilitate for others very well and his passing should become a key weapon in this attack. United’s performance was convincing in most ways apart from how they scored their goals (big defensive mistake, fortunate mis-hit and a slow long-range shot).

It’s inexcusable that Bournemouth still have to start Artur Boruc. He had a part to play in each United goal and my prediction that Bournemouth would finish 10th looks shaky. While Bournemouth’s defence was bad at times, it was more concerning that they couldn’t muster anything going forward aside from their fullback cutting inside and smashing one into the top corner. One to monitor.

Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool

Word count has spiraled wildly out of control, so I’ll keep this last one really fucking brief. I don’t this result – the game itself, not the transfer calamities that surrounds them – was as bad as it seemed for Arsenal.

It was a performance with reserve centre half pairing, with one of their biggest stars missing and the other one played out of position. They still cut through their opponents at times Liverpool had to score 4 phenomenal goals to win, one of which being a 35 yard free kick that is no fault of Arsenal really. They’ll be fine. The only reason it seemed so apocalyptic was the fact it was Arsenal, and Wenger, and that opening day Arsenal losses causes Twitter to just eat itself three times over.

As for Liverpool, I’ll smugly paste in some stuff from my prediction and pat myself on the back all too soon:

 

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