Saturday, August 17, 2013

2013-14 Barclays Premier League, Opening Day

Van Persie has his first of the season and United are
on their way to their first league win of the Moyes era

What: The opening day of the 2013-14 Barclays Premier League Season

Where: Various grounds across England and Wales

When: 17 August 2013

Saturday was an unofficial holiday in England. After three months of waiting, the 2013-14 Barclays Premier League season kicked off at seven grounds in England and Wales. Even though Manchester United ran away with the championship last season, managerial changes at the three top clubs makes the title race wide open this year.

2013-14 will be an important season in the United States as well. NBC bought the rights to the Premier League from FOX and will be making every single game available to their subscribers on NBC, NBC Sports Network or online. How the Premier League does ratings-wise will have a big impact on the battle between NBC Sports Network and the newly-launched FOX Sports 1, each of which will be battling for the No. 2 spot behind ESPN in the sports network ratings.

I watched two games on Saturday and caught the end of a third. Luckily for me, there wasn’t a stinker among them. I don’t really have much to offer on Liverpool-Stoke as I only saw the very end, though I was impressed by new signing Simon Mignolet’s double-save – first on Jonathan Walters’ penalty and then on Kenwyne Jones’ follow-up – to briefly send the Reds top of the League with a 1-0 win. Here’s what I saw in the other two games:

Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 3

Arsenal got off to a dream start at home with an early goal by Olivier Giroud – the same man who scored twice to lift Arsenal to a 3-2 win over my beloved Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup in January. However two goals from Christian Benteke – one a penalty, one a rebound off a missed penalty – and a late insurance goal from debutant Antonio Luna gave Aston Villa all three points. Making matters worse, Arsenal finished the game with only 10 men when Laurent Koscielny received his second yellow card at the 63-minute mark.

After barely edging Tottenham for the final Champions League spot last season – a spot they still have to secure over two legs against Fenerbahce, starting Wednesday – I’m sure there are some Arsenal fans freaking out about losing, at home, to a team that was six points from relegation last season. Chances are, Gunners fans will blame one of two people for the loss:

1. The referee (Anthony Taylor)

Taylor made three key decisions: he awarded Villa a penalty when Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny dove at the feet of Gabriel Agbonlahor; he awarded another when Koscielny tackled Agbonlahor in the box in the second half; and he sent off Koscielny two minutes later for a challenge on Andreas Weimann (second yellow). The first decision was close, but probably correct. The second decision was close, but probably incorrect. Koscielny got ball first, but Taylor had a tough angle on the incident. With the speed at which the play happened, it’s understandable (if not correct) that Taylor might get a call wrong. The third decision was correct – Koscielny deserved a yellow for his challenge on Weimann – though if Taylor had got the previous decision correct, Koscielny would not have been on a yellow card to begin with. Still, it was irresponsible of Koscielny to come in so rashly, especially after he was just booked. Taylor made a bad decision and it may have impacted the game. But bad decisions are part of the game; Taylor alone was not the reason Arsenal lost.

2. Arsene Wenger

After Arsenal conceded their second goal, fans started to boo. Initially, it appeared as if they were booing Taylor, but it became apparent that the boos were actually directed toward longtime manager Wenger. Wenger took criticism for his inability to land a big name to improve the squad, particularly in attack. Losing players like Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas in recent years has been difficult for the fanbase, especially when neither has been adequately replaced. Yet I’m sure that Wenger would have liked to keep some, if not all of those players and that he’s been trying to get his hands on talent any way he can, notably making a reported bid of 40 million pounds for Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. But when other teams have more money than you – and more recent success – it can be difficult to convince them to sign. Wenger is finding this out. Perhaps it is a case of Wenger making his bed and having to sleep in it (had he won more over the last eight years, he’d have better luck in the transfer market), but Wenger was not the man to blame for the loss against Villa. Really, there’s only one person to blame... 

3. Nobody

That’s right. Saturday was just one of those days for Arsenal. How many more times this season will they concede two penalties and have a man sent off? Once? Twice? They were victims of a bad call, and that call had an effect on the rest of the match. As I mentioned above, Koscielny was sent off for his second yellow, and once Arsenal went behind 2-1, they had to become more aggressive, leading to Luna’s breakaway goal with five minutes to play. None of these things suggest larger problems for Arsenal. They had more possession than Aston Villa (54% to 46%) and more shots (16 to 9). Saturday was simply a freak day when everything went wrong for Arsenal.

This doesn’t mean I’m predicting that Arsenal will win the league. But if 2013-14 ends up being a disaster for Arsenal, it will be for reasons other than the ones we saw on Saturday.

Swansea City 1 Manchester United 4

This game taught me a few things and also confirmed some things I already knew. I learned that Swansea’s defense could be leaky this season – they had trouble closing down on Man U when they had the ball in the Swansea penalty area. Van Persie had far too much space for his opener, but he is a difficult man to contain – after all, he did score 26 times in the league last year. Antonio Valencia went unmarked at the far post on United’s second goal, redirecting Patrice Evra’s cross in front of goal and leaving a simple finish for Danny Welbeck.

Manchester United also confirmed their class in this one. Van Persie took a brilliant second by picking the ball up in the Swansea half, making space and firing home powerfully with his left foot from just outside the box. United’s fourth may have been the best of the bunch, as Wayne Rooney played Welbeck in before the 22-year-old sent an exquisite chip over Swansea keeper Michel Vorm.

My biggest takeaway though, was that United seem as if they will be just fine under new boss David Moyes. This was a comprehensive victory away from home, in the pouring rain. It was classic Man U football – mercilessly seizing upon an opponent’s weakness, yet still playing with class when they had to. It all added up to a 4-1 win that ensures Man U will start this season in the same place they ended the last one – on top of the league.

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