William Saliba finally made his long-anticipated Arsenal debut in their Premer League opener against Crystal Palace and he didn’t disappoint.
Saliba joined the Gunners from Saint Etienne for a reported £27million in 2019 before being immediately loaned back to the Ligue 1 outfit for the 2019-20 season.
He arrived in north London in the summer of 2020 but didn’t get a chance under Mikel Arteta, who left him out of their Premier League and Europa League squads.
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Ten Hag can’t save zombified Man Utd while parasitic Glazers profit from failure…
Johnny Nic saw reality dawn on Erik ten Hag on Sunday. He can’t rescue Manchester United. No one can while the leeches remain in charge at Old Trafford…
You had to feel for Erik ten Hag in his post-game interview on Sunday. He’d strode out onto the Old Trafford pitch chest out, shoulders back, cutting an impressive and determined figure as he accepted the applause from fans. This was a man ready to get to work. A new man. A new era.
But when the final whistle blew, he looked physically altered by the experience of watching the full horror that is Manchester United. He looked smaller, more hunched and deflated. His eyes wore an expression that was part fear and part shock. How has mediocrity become endemic? And what the hell was he supposed to do about it? ”It takes time, but we don’t have time,” he said, perfectly expressing the Old Trafford Catch 22: a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem.
All great managers clearly back themselves to do any job. All of United’s managers in the last 10 years have, all of them have been wrong. It looked as though ten Hag realised in that moment he had been wrong too.
This club is a beast that is too big to be changed, but nor can it be slaughtered. It is a zombie, dead by some definitions, certainly all soul hollowed out like a massive baked potato, leaving only a shell. A giant football cash machine brilliant at dispensing money to the owners and seemingly limitless executives, but utterly dysfunctional in all other respects.
As the club hierarchy looked on, all in their suits and club ties, they looked considerably less concerned at the skip fire that was on the pitch than ten Hag. Why would they care as long as the cash machine keeps paying out? And even if they did care, there is precious little evidence that any of them have a clue what to do about the walking dead that United have become.
Ten Hag makes his Winners and Losers debut as Gerrard and Liverpool keep him company
However, while we should lay much of the blame for this dysfunctional monster at the club’s owners and directors, they were not the ones who had inexplicably asked Christian Eriksen to play as a false nine. It made no sense, not just because it isn’t a position he’s familiar with, but more because we all know where Eriksen does his best work and it isn’t as a false nine. And as soon as he was pushed further back in the second half, things improved marginally.
And just like last year, the manager turned to that ageing recividest CR7 to bail the team out, surely aware that it was another example of desperation. As it turned out, CR7 was peripheral, an irrelevant old lag.
What must it be like to be a great player, like Jadon Sancho, who has proved his worth in Germany only to walk through the Old Trafford love
removal machine and come out as half the player. New signing Lisandro Martínez came with the intimidating nickname the ‘Butcher’ but was laughably incapable of butchering anything as Danny Welbeck literally ran over him. United had instantly turned the butcher into a vegan.
And then there’s poor Marcus Rashford doing his best Dele Alli impersonation as a once great star whose talent has evaporated, never to be seen again. Somehow, they have ruined him. United ruins players. This is what they do. They take gifted players and turn them into lesser men.
This is a peculiar phenomenon, unique to Manchester United who remain a top six club by virtue of breathtaking spending, but with a squad that are all fur coats and no knickers. A veneer of glamour with nothing underneath.
United are corporate football in excelsis. The football doesn’t matter really, its primary function is to generate money, what happens on the pitch is a distant second to that, especially if fans all over the world keep supporting the club. The owners abuse the loyalty of fans, indeed, it is easy to imagine them privately laughing at them for being such mugs as to stick with them even as they drain money out of them and the club. They will think them all idiots to keep paying through the nose for a bag of chips dressed up as Michelin Star cuisine.
The whole thing is a deception, an elaborate ruse to trade off United’s history while ruining their future. This is how it works. They spend big on players to look like a big club and to keep eyes on them. They pull in huge amounts of money from all kinds of ‘partners’ and spend it on huge wages and pay those huge fees and that makes them look important. Players come for the big wages and stay for them. But there’s no rhyme or reason to these purchases and no strategy to make sense of them, so the team malfunctions. But that doesn’t matter. Only the image of United being a big spending club, a big force, matters. That pulls in so much revenue that the Glazers can skim off plenty for themselves.
It is all one big con. They have set up a machine to enrich themselves and nothing else matters. Everything that appears to be part of funding and running of a modern football club, that’s all part of the illusion, all part of the trick. All of this only exists for the Glazers financial benefit. They have no interest in the club apart from funding it sufficiently to maintain its money-making status. When that stops, they’ll sell up, leaving a husk of a club behind, but there’s no sign of that yet because of football’s insane economics. And they know that a hapless United is good for TV business as viewers flock to see the giant brought low. Being rubbish is great for content. Indeed, they’ve worked out that fans will still keep paying for tickets and watching on television in order to be able to keep on moaning and complaining. It’s brilliant, they’ve monetised failure. Indeed, it is quite possible that they have a spreadsheet which proves failure is better for business than success.
It is like United are an experiment. How long can you keep creaming off money from a club before the very people you rely on for the money you are going to cream off, rise up and drag you and your minions out of the place by your feet.
Obviously, they have learned that this will never ever happen because of the nature of fandom. Fans will never stay away, never stop supporting them. So how terrible the team is remains irrelevant to the Glazers.
The toxicity from the ownership and the board has stained everything, leaked over the whole place, into the dressing room and onto the pitch. It pours diesel into the petrol engine, making the whole machine cough and splutter and malfunction. But do they care? No. Why should they? They keep hitting that cash machine for another pay out and if times get tough, they can leverage money against the club’s valuation. The goose is still stuffed full of golden eggs.
They have turned United into the living dead and I think Ten Hag suddenly realised he was just another schmuck turning coin for the bosses as the giant con continues.
Kulusevski changes the Spurs narrative as Conte’s side discover unexpected style
That Spurs brushed Southampton aside on the opening weekend was no great surprise. The manner in which they did it was.
There’s a long way to go, but the early signs are encouraging. Spurs kicked off their Premier League season on Saturday with a convincing home win against Southampton, and it was a performance that told a story of how head coach Antonio Conte has reshaped this team, and about how the best laid narratives of mice and men can go missing.
Spurs had some reason for trepidation ahead of this fixture. When the two clubs met at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in February, Southampton won 3-2, the second of three successive league defeats and a result which set in motion a flurry of speculation over whether Conte would even still be there by the end of the season.
But he stayed, the rebuild has continued apace, and Spurs’ summer in the transfer market has been wisely praised as a number of briskly arranged arrivals of excellent quality have been signed on the basis of how well they will fit into a clearly defined system.
But Conte can also be somewhat mischievous at times, and when the team sheet was produced for the first Premier League game of the season, none of the club’s five big summer signings – Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma, Clement Lenglet, Fraser Forster and Djed Spence – were starting in the first XI.
And by the end of the afternoon, another narrative was looking a little shakier than it had done previously. The attacking pairing of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min contributed 40 goals between them in the league alone last season, and it is understandable that there might have been comment that Spurs may have been a little over-dependent on them.
Even though Spurs went to the top of the first (and obviously most meaningless) league table of the season with four goals, these two were not among the scorers.
The star of the show was a player who’s been living in the shadows a little. Dejan Kulusevski’s arrival from Juventus on an 18-month loan at the end of January was one of the less heralded moves of that window, but Kulusevski has become increasingly influential since his arrival.
He’d come a long way over the course of the second half of last season, but his performance against Southampton indicated that he’s not reached the limits of his capability just yet.
But before any of this could come to pass, Spurs had to get their Tottenham moment of the afternoon out of the way. A chill wind blew through the stadium when James Ward-Prowse gave Southampton an early lead, a sobering moment after all that pre-season optimism.
This might have been the cue for another round of Deep Tottenham Hotspur On-Pitch Introspection and Panickiness but instead, less than ten minutes later, they were level with a Ryan Sessegnon header, his first goal for the club.
Early nerves settled, Conte will have been more than satisfied, not only by the eventual 4-1 scoreline but also by the nature of his team’s performance. Southampton were largely ineffectual as Spurs’ confidence grew, with Kulusevski finding particular space in the gaps behind their defence.
After Eric Dier had put Spurs in front after 31 minutes with a glanced header and Mohammed Salisu had extended their lead with an own goal from two yards out that in days of yore would have found its way onto a video cassette compilation hosted by a stand-up comedian, Kulusevski added the fourth goal himself – a low-shot across goal which put the game beyond any reasonable doubt with almost half an hour still to play.
The strength of Kulusevski’s performance shows that opposing coaches preparing their teams for the omnipotent threat of Son and Kane may have to recalibrate their plans. It’s not that these two weren’t a threat against Southampton. Both had chances to score themselves. But if it was true that Spurs may have been a little over-reliant on their goals last season, the early signs this time around are that this might not be quite as much the case again.
Of course, results and league tables at this point of the season should be treated with due caution. The league table shows nothing that can’t be seen from looking at a list of results, and even results and performance levels at this very early stage can be taken with something of a pinch of salt.
Spurs supporters know this better than most. On the opening day of last season, Nuno Espirito Santo’s team beat Manchester City 1-0, and after three games they were the only ones left with a 100% league record. By November, Nuno was out of a job and Conte was on his way.
But the performance against Southampton was characterised by a number of unexpected – or at least under-reported – improvements (Kulusevski’s ability and increased importance to Spurs’ system has been no secret for Spurs supporters this year). That should, if anything, only offer encouragement. Son and Kane are still there, and both will now be likely champing at the bit to get their own goalscoring for the season kick-started.
Further goalscoring threats from different positions are A Good Thing in and of themselves. Having so many outlets for scoring goals is one of the many strings to their bow that Manchester City have had in recent years.
It’s also worth remembering that this was all achieved without the services of Richarlison, who missed this game after being suspended by the FA throwing for a flare into a stand at Goodison Park during Everton’s win against Chelsea towards the end of last season.
There’s no question that Southampton’s defence was extremely porous – the odds against Ralph Hasenhuttl becoming the first Premier League manager this season to be sacked will have been slashed – but for Spurs, a team with a reputation for flakiness and with expectation levels starting to rise, this will be considered an irrelevance.
A win’s a win, but a win in style can be something else altogether at this early point in the season.
Ten Hag makes his Winners and Losers debut as Gerrard and Liverpool keep him company
In the first of what seems likely to be many appearances in the latter column, Erik ten Hag sits among the losers. William Saliba does not.
The world’s most expensive centre-half might feel justified in saying he and his new teammate had “not played much together” and thus “weren’t on the same wavelength” at all times in defeat. He certainly had a point in claiming that “centre-back partnerships are built over time” and thus gradual improvement was to be expected from a base of conceding twice at home. But William Saliba scoffed at that idea with an imposing performance against Crystal Palace, displacing the £50m element of a solid Arsenal defensive pairing and vindicating three years of questionable career management.
Saliba had enjoyed a full pre-season with his new cohorts, unlike some of the Frenchman’s contemporaries at other clubs. But the ease with which he stepped into an established defence on his Premier League debut at 21, in an away game so difficult that Arsenal lost it 3-0 four months ago, and carrying immense expectation on his shoulders, was remarkable. He was assured on and off the ball, an excellent passing range and assuredness combining with zero fouls against the trickery of Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze and co. The best defenders seem to take it as a personal affront not only to concede, but to allow the opposition within 10 yards of goal; Saliba embodied that trait and will only get better with experience.
Forever the manager who signed Saliba and Gabriel Martinelli for Arsenal. And Stephan Lichtsteiner, Matteo Guendouzi, Nicolas Pepe, David Luiz, Dani Ceballos and Denis Suarez but shut up and be nice for once.
There was always a relatively unfair aspect to his reputation as a typical Championship bully who struggled when picking on defenders his own size in the Premier League. Aleksandar Mitrovic scored 20 goals in 71 games during relegation seasons with Newcastle and Fulham, then three more as the Cottagers went down and the Serb was often either rotated or injured in 2020/21.
While Mitrovic has never been prolific in the top flight, nor is he perennially ineffective. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk can vouch for that. Jordan Henderson, too, when he picks himself up off the ground.
With the conditions just right and the unshakable faith of his manager flowing through him, Mitrovic led the line like most suspected he was ultimately able to at this level. The questions have rarely pertained to ability but the temperament and confidence of a centre-forward enigma: one who freely throws elbows but needs an arm around him all the same.
Marco Silva is the perfect manager in that regard and he deserves just as much credit as his star striker for the towering back-post header, the penalty-inducing footwork, the pressing and the impeccable hold-up play. His tactical adjustments were crucial. Fulham averaged 58.1% possession in the Championship last season and created chances for Mitrovic at will. They had 33.1% of the ball against Liverpool and Mitrovic scored from two of his three shots.
The first Manchester City player to score twice on their Premier League debut since Sergio Aguero channelled his spiritual predecessor to silence the preposterous critics. Erling Haaland punished the West Ham defence as many times as he breached the Sky Sports swearing protocols and those hot Community Shield takes were rendered positively glacial by around the hour mark of the Norwegian’s actual competitive debut. No-one could have seen that coming. He was quicker, sharper and more composed than against Liverpool at Wembley, twice snapping into action and invading the sort of space behind the defence that many felt would not be made available to him in England.
Sprinting between Ben Johnson, Kurt Zouma and Declan Rice as Ilkay Gundogan span wonderfully for the first goal, Haaland repeated the trick and complemented his earlier penalty with a finish as cool as they come from Kevin de Bruyne’s second-half through ball. It was a centre-forward masterclass that challenged the prestige of the Premier League, so similar as it was to his regular deconstruction of Bundesliga defences both Austrian and German. His own post-match self-assessment of “a bit sh*t” was ominous when you consider this was him barely breaking into stride.
In the emerging sub-genre of former England international midfielders whose managerial careers carry a vague stench of over-promotion in terms of both roles and media fawning, with coaching acumen that either makes them the greatest minds of their generation or absolute frauds with no in between, Scott Parker has been forced to take a step back from the spotlight. Doubts remain over his aptitude in the dugout but bigger names with grander reputations have taken precedent. Bournemouth dispatched one of those with an impressive victory over Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa, who might have been lured into a false sense of security by Parker’s pre-match claim that his squad was “lacking”, “short”, “light” and generally “much weaker than it was when we got promoted”.
The Cherries scored early and late, weathering the mild winds of Villa onslaught in between by making up for any perceived gulf in quality by doubling their efforts. Bournemouth ranked sixth for tackles, joint-fourth for interceptions and first for fouls of all Premier League teams on the opening weekend and that endeavour – a hallmark of Parker’s playing days – will be required throughout this season.
Barcelona keeper Neto has strengthened the manager’s hand and reports suggest Marcos Senesi of Feyenoord will soon do the same. This scrappy, hard-fought victory laid down a marker as to their bare minimum requirement as part of the team.
He is still, critically in the minds of many a Leeds supporter, both an American person and not Marcelo Bielsa. But Jesse Marsch coaxed and coached a more focused team press while implementing four new signings, fielding the fifth-youngest XI of the opening weekend and inspiring a comeback victory through his substitutions. Most teams would struggle after selling their two best and most influential players but Marsch has proved there is life for and in Leeds after not only Bielsa but Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha, too.
It’s mad to think that Harry Kane and Heung-min Son are fighting it out to be recognised as Tottenham’s second-best forward.
The oldest outfield starter on the opening Premier League weekend by two years and four months. And while Jamie Vardy was toiling against Brentford, Thiago Silva enjoyed a late afternoon stroll at Goodison Park.
He’s really sodding good. The best player outside the Big Six and a vast upgrade on many of those in it.
Three managers used their full complement of substitutions. Thomas Frank keeps esteemed company with Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola in that regard, although his prior approach meant five changes were tactically necessary rather than basic rotation.
Brentford were poor early on against Leicester, ponderous and lacking aggression. By the time Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall had doubled the hosts’ lead at the King Power Stadium, the Bees had had two shots and little over a third of possession.
They stayed in touch until the hour mark, when Josh Dasilva and Keane Lewis-Potter were introduced. Three minutes later, Ivan Toney scored.
After Shandon Baptiste replaced Christian Norgaard with a quarter of an hour remaining, Frank waited a little longer to make his final changes. Mads Bech Sorensen and Halil Dervisoglu came on. Three minutes later, Dasilva equalised.
Mistakes were made and lessons learned, like not pairing Ben Mee with Pontus Jansson in central defence. All in all, a successful afternoon.
Erik ten Hag was appointed Manchester United manager on April 21, 109 days ago. Their pre-season commenced on June 27, 42 days ago. Their first summer friendly was on July 12, 27 days ago.
Their summer preparations have been relatively uncharacteristically settled, incomings and Cristiano Ronaldo’s future notwithstanding. Yet it took 14 seconds for that familiar sinking feeling to replace any lingering new season optimism.
Danny Welbeck and Leandro Trossard pressed all naive hope and confidence out of their hosts, Lisandro Martinez and Diogo Dalot panicked and Old Trafford had the atmosphere sucked out almost instantly.
It was as if the last few months had never happened. Manchester United slipped back into their old bad habits. Half-time, full-time and the second Brighton goal from Pascal Gross were all greeted by a chorus of boos.
The sliver of a silver lining to this menacing cloud is that it was a performance that might force a change in transfer window approach over the next three weeks. Manchester United’s eternal desperation to sign a central midfielder was common knowledge and this defeat only made it even more painfully obvious, while also highlighting their need for a centre-forward.
Ten Hag has to use this to his advantage. Or he has to realise that Manchester United’s transfer department remains an absolute mess, set the bar accordingly low with 33-year-old Marko Arnautovic and watch them still fail to clear it. That works, too. Chuck in Adrien Rabiot for good measure. That dressing room won’t know what’s hit them.
A common refrain among football supporters is that clubs should get their business done early in the transfer window. Steven Gerrard clearly agreed, completing his most recent signing this summer on July 1. Yet they were fairly beaten by a newly-promoted team that remains under construction and Aston Villa really did look little more than ordinary in the process.
Last season was his free hit. Things were never going to deteriorate to the extent that Villa were in genuine relegation trouble; Dean Smith three places above the relegation zone and Gerrard had copious funds made available to him in January.
But with everyone starting on equal footing, Villa have already stumbled behind the pack. This is their second sequence of five winless games since Gerrard’s appointment and with three months to go until their one-year anniversary, his identity and ethos is no clearer.
There is a confirmation bias factor which must be considered – particularly in light of modern trends – but Liverpool naming the oldest starting XI of the Premier League weekend and subsequently being beaten in the energy and aggression stakes by Fulham felt instructive. It was the first time since February 1994 that more than half of their starters for a Premier League game were aged 30 and over.
James Milner coming on before the hour mark hardly dispelled the sense that Liverpool need a little more fresh blood, especially in midfield.
More worrying for Jurgen Klopp will be those slow, sluggish starts. Liverpool have conceded first in each of their last five league games and while they have the requisite talent to overcome such deficits, it is a counterproductive routine to have settled into. There is a fine line between mentality monsters and basic complacency.
Jose Sa and Rayan Ait-Nouri
The two best Wolves players of last season rather summed up the defeatist feeling surrounding this campaign. Rayan Ait-Nouri’s defending was dreadful for the equaliser, if a little unfortunate when it came to the winner. Jose Sa will have provoked all the right people by being beaten softly at his near post.
Bruno Lage will welcome the Goncalo Guedes developments but it still feels as though Wolves need a little more imported inspiration.
Southampton have conceded at least three goals in 33 of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s 138 Premier League games. That’s once every four matches or so and it honestly feels like that might not be overly sustainable.
It turns out that Jan (Bednarek) plus Yan (Valery) equals minus three. When that comprises two-thirds of your defensive heart, there will be issues. When the other third loses control of their feet in the manner Mohammed Salisu did against Spurs, it is almost pointless trying to resist it.
The first half was better than most expected but Brendan Rodgers and Leicester somehow still contrived to fall back into those negative patterns for the final half an hour at home to a team still wet behind the Premier League ears.
It was a better start than most envisaged for a transfer-less team that attracted a handful of pre-season relegation predictions. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall’s goal just after half-time seemed to confirm the destination of all three points. Yet it was his removal which completed the reversal of momentum in Brentford’s favour.
Leicester invited needless pressure at 2-1 and a summer of deep breathing has not magically solved their defensive problems. There were eight players behind the ball as Dasilva shaped to equalise, including each of Daniel Amartey, Wilfred Ndidi and Jonny Evans occupying the same space within a couple of yards of the Brentford midfielder in forlorn attempts to block his effort. Too many chefs in the kitchen come to mind.
Three of Leicester’s five shots after Dewsbury-Hall’s 46th-minute strike came in stoppage time. The horse had already bolted and the juxtaposition between Rodgers making one substitution and letting a two-goal lead slip, while Frank made five and salvaged a point from a losing position, was telling.
Imagine only beating this Manchester United side 2-1 at Old Trafford. How embarrassing.
Harsh as it is to single out a substitute for 30 damning minutes in a 1-0 defeat, Dele Alli looks an absolute shadow of even his Tottenham worst and it is so weird.
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