Premier League review, week 1: Ferguson proves continuity is key
Finally order has returned. Forget baton wielding police officers and anarchic streets, football is back; providing weekends with a whole new level of importance. Saturday kicked-off the 20th Premier League season posing many questions: how would Arsenal cope without Fabregas and (possibly) Nasri? Could Liverpool re-emerge from mediocrity? What impact would the loss of experienced stalwarts have upon the champions, battling against even hungrier Chelsea and Manchester City sides?
In the end however, the opening weekend seemingly flattered to deceive. Those expecting goals were left disappointed, aside from the customary wake up call suffered by the newly promoted clubs – QPR and Swansea both losing 4 – 0 – the games remained tight, lumbering affairs. Arsenal’s lack of depth was again exposed; Van Persie, the lone attacking focal point, found himself supported by a midfield alarmingly lacking in creativity. “Plan B”, even if it were to exist, was not an option if one considers that the Dutchman is soon to become one of only two recognised strikers: the other being a certified first season failure. Arsene’s summer signing have reinforced this inflexibility, Gervinho adding little new to the set-up whilst Oxlade-Chamberlain, at 17, is far from ready to make a significant first-team impact.
Where’s your head at?
Regardless, it is clear the most chronic problem facing Arsenal concerns not sparsity of talent but lack of leadership and stability. Arshavin, Ramsey and Rosicky have the vision and ability to unlock any defence, but fail to exert authority on the team. The incidents with Joey Barton confirmed a group of players crying out for guidance, bereft of an experienced individual able to drive the team forward and enthuse mental stability. Now Fabregate has finally been concluded, the money must be reinvested to guide the emerging talents rather than add to them. If anything, Saturday proved the speculation over Fabregas and Nasri has far from galvanised the team, instead Wenger’s crop appear too riddled with insecurity to rise to the task.
The same fundamental issues were evident in Liverpool’s 1 -1 draw at Sunderland and Chelsea’s stalemate against Stoke. Although Kenny Dalglish has added extensively to his squad this summer, leading many pundits to cast them as possible top four material, potential does not equate to instant attainment. Sunderland gave a solid performance and can confidently look to make strides this season but Liverpool must win such fixtures if they are to become credible contenders once again. The fluidity of passing faltered after half-time, an expected consequence of so many new faces; while intuity of understanding will come in time, the extent of Liverpool’s success depends on how quickly this forms. Moreover, although the return of a fully fit Steven Gerrard can only aid this process, it also adds another layer of complexity to an already disorientating midfield selection headache. Even when these obstacles are navigated, Liverpool like Manchester City, lack the title winning experience that Manchester United and Chelsea can call upon. Only success can breed success.
A special team, not a special one
Perversely, new Chelsea manager Villas Boas faced a reverse dilemma but one borne from identical roots. The Chelsea squad boasts vast trophy winning experience and a largely settled squad history, yet a revolving management door has stifled continuity and the cutting edge that typified the Mourinho era. Last term, Abramovich falsely identified swift individual adjustments as the the solution to issues of team dynamic – questions which instead required long term perspective. Ironically, the transfer of Fernando Torres for such a large transfer fee forced Ancelloti into decisions that were to the detriment of the team and his own position, most notably picking an out of form Torres over Drogba in the Champions League quarter final. Despite a new manager for a new season, the team is still facing a period of transition and adaptation. For all the encouraging signs of a personal return to form by Torres yesterday, the team still need to adapt his style of play. Tied to this is the importance of a creative midfield force, of which there proved to be a damning absence on Sunday. Considering the advancing years of both Benayoun and Lampard, a youthful alternative needs to be found and Modric would be the perfect replacement. If this area is not addressed the team will continue to struggle against physically imposing opposition such as Stoke who are difficult to break down. Ultimately, the club is paying the price for a fractured hierarchy of authority and a history focused on securing the immediate present rather than the future.
We see then that at the heart of this weekends big stories lay the importance of continuity. Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have all struggled to maintain stability in recent seasons. It is therefore no suprise that the team with the strongest foundations, Manchester United, were the biggest winners from the opening weekend. Even following the loss of Scholes, Neville and Van der Sar, United kept faith in a progressive youth system; investing in young talent to blend in with evolving players, such as Smalling and Nani who themselves continue to learn from the experienced professionals: Vidic, Ferdinand and Rooney. Unlike Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City, the transitionary process has been correctly balanced to ensure it is mutually beneficial. At the center of this transition remains Ferguson, who’s longevity has provided him with the authority and oppourtunity to create a culture of success. Ferguson’s youthful team selection with an average age of 24 and relative rookie Cleverley in midfield, came as a shock to many. However, it should be seen as the culmination of a long term process now coming to fruition. He has ensured, unlike Wenger, that he can always rely upon a foundation of experience within the team to ease the strain caused by the process of renewal. Even though the team lost the key centre back pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand to injury, new recruit and England U21 captain Phil Jones looked more than capable. For the game against Tottenham next week Evra will be back to provide authority, whilst Jones’s probable partner, Smalling, earned invaluable experience last season. Similairly, the smooth intergration of Ashley Young is a fitting testament to United’s transfer policy; the understanding of which player is needed and at what time for both the individual and team chemistry.
Yes, Manchester City did set down a statement of intent on Monday night. However, as usual the win was secured through a handful of individual performances, this time from Silva and the awe inspiring Aguero. The delicate process of team dynamic and continuity that Ferguson has managed to master, evident between Rooney, Young, Nani and Welbeck, remains elusive. One caller on 606 referred to Young as ‘Giggs and Beckham esque’ and United’s 86th minute winner proved that for success, the more things change, the more they must stay the same.