Opening Weekend

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I’m going to make a go of just blogging my thoughts on the games I’ve watched this opening weekend. Here goes:

Crystal Palace 0 – Arsenal 2. I watched this opener of the Premier League season with my friend (and Arsenal supporter) Kirk. While the Gunners will face stiffer competition going forward, this was a promising start for the Premier League’s youngest side. Those watching through the lens of fantasy football are likely to disagree, but Gabriel Jesus carried on from his promising pre-season and looked extremely dangerous despite not scoring. Oleksandr Zinchenko also looks like a natural fit for Mikel Arteta’s side, unsurprisingly given their prior experience together at City. In addition, keeper Aaron Ramsdale looked sharp when called on.

Fulham 2 – Liverpool 2. For the third season running, Liverpool kicked off with a barnstorming game against a newly-promoted side seeking to play the “right” way. Fulham’s pressing was excellent, and Aleksander Mitrović will hope his two goals portend a better rate of return than in his last visit to the Premier League–even if the second of them came courtesy of a questionable penalty. Had Neeskens Kebano’s shot off the post right after the introduction of Darwin Núñez gone in, Fulham might have even come away with a win (though the post had something to say about Liverpool’s goal tally as well).

Liverpool, for their part, will be happy with Núñez’s rapid integration into the side following his introduction early in the second half. Both Liverpool goals came from his interactions with Mohamed Salah, suggesting that Núñez may follow Diogo Jota and Luis Díaz in quickly securing a regular spot in the rotation, if not as an outright starter in between Díaz and Salah. That would be a good thing, as two points dropped is not the best way to start off a title race against Pep Guardiola’s City.

Leeds United 2 – Wolverhampton Wanderers 1. While it was nice to see Americans Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson off to a solid start with Fulham, the high point of this Stoopid American’s Saturday was seeing Jesse Marsch’s United States of Leeds making good, albeit against a mediocre Wolves side. In truth, I missed the opening 20′ of this game and thus the first two goals, but was impressed with Leeds’ pressing energy. Americans Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson slotted in nicely for Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha (though I should be clear that both are replacements rather than equivalents, let alone improvements). The former played a critical midfield role in a formation that looked something like a 4-2-4 until Matheusz Klich replaced Rodrigo Moreno shortly after the hour mark. Aaronson, of course, played a major role in the Rayan Aït-Nouri own goal that won Leeds the game. Now they just need to get Christian Pulisic in . . .

Borussia Dortmund 1 – Bayer Leverkusen 0. Not a lot to say about this enjoyable game between last year’s 2nd and 3rd place teams in the Bundesliga, probably the marquee match-up of the opening weekend of fixtures. Even when it’s only for a few minutes of extra time, having an outfield player in goal is the best thing that can happen in a football match. Having said that, the loss of Sébastein Haller to testicular cancer is a major blow to Dortmund this season, and while they will be happy with this win, they do not look like a team that can challenge Bayern at the moment.

Toulouse 1 – OGC Nice 1. This early Sunday game was also extremely enjoyable. Following their relegation in 2020, Toulouse were acquired by an American investment firm, RedBird Capital Partners (recent purchasers of AC Milan), and installed Damien Comolli (the director of football in John Henry’s early days of ownership at Liverpool) as club president. Employing an iconoclastic, data-driven approach, Toulouse won Ligue 2 at the second time of asking (having finished 3rd in 2020-21) with a squad that leans heavily on Northern European recruitment.

After an exciting 5th place finish (and run to the Coupe de France final) under manager Christophe Galtier (now at Paris Saint-Germain), Nice have returned to former manager Lucien Favre, most recently manager at Borussia Dortmund from 2018-20. Favre is a much less exciting figure than Galtier, but new signings Kasper Schmeichel and Aaron Ramsey suggest continued ambition, even if neither were ready to start the game.

In the opening 25′, Toulouse focused on punishing Nice’s high line and were probably unfortunate to only score one goal. But from that point on, Nice managed to push their game beyond cautious possession into something more threatening for the remainder of the first half. The game as a whole dulled in the second half, and Favre’s first substitutions around the hour mark had little impact. But at 70′ he brought on Billal Brahimi, and 7′ later Ramsey made his debut. Almost immediately, he scored off a Brahimi assist.

With expected goals of 0.98 for Nice and 0.79 for Toulouse, a 1-1 seems fair enough; but Toulouse will surely be the happier side to have drawn. Whether this game suggests that Favre is capable of making critical in-game interventions, or is the kind of manager who needs over an hour to figure out how to tie a newly promoted side is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder.

West Ham United – Manchester City. This is actually the third Manchester City game I’ve seen this season, having attended their friendly against Bayern Munich in Lambeau Field two weekends ago and then tuned in for their loss to Liverpool in the Community Shield last weekend. Even so, Pep Guardiola managed to save what looks like a key tactical innovation for this season opener. Understanding the full impact of this latest tactical tweak, however, requires a bit of explanation.

First at Bayern (with Philipp Lahm and David Alaba) and later at Manchester City (with João Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko), Guardiola had developed the idea of inverted full-backs, who came inside as auxiliary holding midfielders rather than overlapping in attack down the flanks. In doing so, Guardiola seemed to be re-inventing the W-M formation popularized by Herbert Chapman at Arsenal in the 1930s. With one fullback joining the holding midfielder, City’s nominal 4-3-3 became a 3-2-2-3.

Last season, Guardiola largely abandoned this approach, instead dropping Bernardo Silva deeper to provide a more traditional double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1 when playing out, though Silva would often push forward when in attack. But with Silva on the bench for this opener, Guardiola opted for not one, but two inverted full-backs. When in possession, Both Cancelo (from the left) and Kyle Walker (from the right) would join Rodri Cascante in midfield, creating a trio of midfield quarterbacks as the remaining midfielders, İlkay Gündoğan and Kevin De Bruyne, pushed forward into the attack.

In doing so, Guardiola was effectively going a step further back in the history of tactics, returning to a re-invented 2-3-5, the formation that Chapman’s W-M had replaced. Taking a cue from the title of Jonathan Wilson’s excellent history of football tactics, Guardiola effectively re-inverted the pyramid, recreating a version of the oldest (and arguably most attacking) formation in football’s storied history.

West Ham started the game with significant injury concerns in the back (they played with only one recognized center back), and losing starting goalkeeper Łukasz Fabiański to injure less than a half hour in didn’t help matters. Even so, they played fairly well, managing to give City some trouble in the opening stages of the game, and again for a brief period after the second half introduction of Saïd Benrahma. Of course, that second good spell ended in the counter-attack that led to City’s second goal; but that is quite literally the risk involved in trying to attack a team as dangerous as City.

This week is relatively quiet, with only the Super Cup between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt tomorrow (on CBS Sports and Paramount+). I’m also hoping to find time to watch Manchester United’s glorious capitulation to Brighton Hove and Albion from this past weekend. I’ll be back next week with thoughts on the first full weekend of European play, as both La Liga and Serie A return to action as well.

One response to “Opening Weekend

  1. Pingback: Week 2 Notes | Stoopid American·

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