When Antonio Conte buried himself among Chelsea supporters early on Monday and ran like he would give Usain Bolt competition, it bookended a Premiership round that began with another Italian starting with a splutter.
No champion team has lost the opening match of the Premiership, as Leicester City did on Saturday, but before going ‘dilly ding dilly dong’ on Claudio Ranieri’s team, who will also have to deal with the Champions League, consider this: Aston Villa won their first round last term.
So, one round does not a fairytale unmake. First impressions showed that the newcomers --- managers and players from Ahmed Musa at the Foxes to Vincent Janssen at Spurs --- have settled in. It also showed that Liverpool mean business since Steven Gerrard’s backpass in 2014 prolonged their wait for a league title.
Four goals between the first-half stoppage time and the 63rd minute rekindled memories of what happened at Belo Horizonte in Brazil a little over two years ago in a match of somewhat greater consequence. Between the 11th and the 26th minutes, Germany scored four times. It is difficult to recover from such a blitz --- Brazil are still trying --- so, credit to Arsenal for making it 3-4. But so brightly did Liverpool burn in those 15-odd minutes that it seemed, to use what Arsene Wenger had said in another context, like they were playing ‘Playstation football’.
Their inability to score another meant the 4-4 draw between the teams in 2008-09 wouldn’t be revisited but Arsenal showed they could again be the marker for consistency. Not every time will Calum Chambers and Robert Holding play as central defenders and this isn’t the first time they lost an opener --- Gooners will tell you all about defeats to Aston Villa, West Ham and, some years back, to Liverpool --- but get this: Wenger’s team has always bounced back. Nothing on view yet to think something’s changed, Wenger’s flip-flop on the physical readiness of his players notwithstanding.
Philippe Coutinho’s free-kick was his 13th goal in all competition from outside the penalty area. He got another one as a red hurricane hit the Emirates Stadium and papered over the frailties of left-back Alberto Moreno. And to think that had Britain not been part of the European Union when he joined Liverpool, Coutinho wouldn’t even have been eligible! Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane too got goals but just as important was how newbie Georginio Wijnaldum settled in.
Vital signs okay for United
With high-profile manager changes at Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, all of whom have also added a string of new players, settling in was important at a number of other clubs. Stating he was slightly nervous but in a good way, Jose Mourinho helped United start with a win.
At a stadium called Vitality, a venue where he and United hadn’t done too well last time, the team began well enough in their quest for a title, Mourinho’s words and he rarely minces them, even though it took a shock backpass to get it going. Sometimes, you are a little lucky, as Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola said after their win on Saturday. Like Jesus Navas at Manchester City, Juan Mata did prospects of a future at United no harm by making good on that backpass.
Then Wayne Rooney scored and Zlatan Ibrahimovic added the Premiership to competitions where he had a goal on debut and that’s a list that includes the Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1 and the Champions League.
“Look, the first thing I can tell you is that, at his table for breakfast and for meals, he is surrounded by the young ones, the kids,” The Guardian quoted Mourinho as saying. “Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford … these are the guys who are with him at the table. He knows what he can be for them. But, for the team, you have to forget the passport, that he is 34 years old. The body and mentality are not those of a 34-year-old guy. He’s at the top of his qualities.”
How influential Ibrahimovic is we will come to know with time but like he did with Didier Drogba at Chelsea, Mourinho is trying to get around the problem of getting a quality striker to England. As to how difficult that is, look no further than Wenger’s struggles to get one. And in getting Anthony Martial to play wide, is Mourinho looking to get out of him what he did with Samuel Eto’o at Inter? These will just be some of the things to look forward to.
As will Paul Pogba’s debut. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the 112th nationality to play in the world’s most watched football league, too will have a greater role to play but already Mourinho has spoken of this being “almost the complete performance.”
On the other side of Manchester, Guardiola has already stamped his influence. For Joe Hart and Yaya Toure, it hasn’t looked like good news. Toure has been left out of their trip to Europe too and Hart is said to be looking at options. For Guardiola the perfectionist, football isn’t a simple game of 11 v 11. He believes in the goalie being the first line of attack, indeed he is coming from a club that has Manuel Neuer, and though Willy Caballero, 34, isn’t really what the German shot-stopper is, Guardiola thinks he is better than England’s best.
Only one competitive match old, Guardiola is also trying to get City full backs to contribute to the midfield. Not everyone’s going to be Philipp Lahm but there’s no harm trying. Fernandinho’s ability to slip into central defensive positions as the full backs move up too is something that the astute Spaniard seems to be working on.
Given a ticker-tape welcome, Guardiola isn’t the only one seeking multi-taskers. From Wijnaldum through Mane and Martial, it’s an asset coaches seek when they build rosters. When your hand is forced, as Mike Phelan’s was at Hull City, it comes in very handy. Phelan got central midfielder Jake Livermore to play in the heart of the defence and wide left Sam Clucas in central midfield.
Phelan didn’t use any substitutes perhaps because it went swimmingly but also because he wasn’t really spoilt for choice. “They were smarter than us,” said Ranieri said the 1-2 defeat.
The Conte effect?
Even Chelsea started with a win. Going by what happened last season, that’s saying quite a lot. With only one change in the starting line-up, N’Golo Kante for Cesc Fabregas, they looked a different team. If it’s the difference a manager can make it should worry United fans who think long-term. But that’s another story, for another time.
“I liked the great intensity of my players,” said Conte. “We know we can improve through work but, today, it was very important to start with a victory. When a new manager arrives in a new club, he tries to bring with him his philosophy of football. We are working only one month together but tonight I saw the right intensity. It’s important to bring something different from last season.”
Mourinho and Guardiola said pretty much the same things. But in a week that has perhaps seen an expulsion denied (Diego Costa), a dodgy penalty (Demarai Gray), Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri celebrating somewhat differently and Adnan Januzaj hoping this loan move works, it is fitting that Klopp has the last word.
“…I’ve no idea about the title. If you celebrate too early, life always gives you a knock,” he said.