Monday 23 April 2018

10 questions for the Premier League weekend: Will United continue to be boring?

As the Premier League returns to action for the second weeked of the 2015/16 season, we ask some key questions: Can Wayne Rooney really lead United's attack, how many times will we hear about Eva Carneiro and how does Brendan Rodgers actually get all of those players in the same team?

1. Can Rooney fire - and make United more attack-minded?

United stuttered to an unconvincing 1-0 win over Spurs last weekend with Louis Van Gaal's side looking ponderous, overly patient and impotent in attack, where Wayne Rooney was left isolated and alone like a larger version of Tom Hanks in that film.

The Da Vinci Code, I think it's called. While his friend WIIIIIILSON (James) waits for his chance to break through, Rooney needs more support if he is to get close to the 25 goals Van Gaal thinks he can score.

He linked up well with the attacking midfielders late in the game but needs to take shots if he wants to put the ball in the net. And Van Gaal needs to convince everyone that his team can be more entertaining, more of the time.

There's ominous, bone chilling news for the home team on Friday night too: Aston Villa haven't beaten United at Villa Park since 1995 when they recorded a 3-1 victory.

A somewhat unremarkable performance against newcomers Bournemouth on opening day suggests that this trend will continue, but if they can take advantage of the kinds of mistakes United made in the midfield last weekend, their pace on the counter attack might present problems.

The pressure is on Wayne Rooney to deliver for Manchester United on Friday at Villa Park

2. Is Jose Mourinho playing mind games (or is he losing his mind)?

Mourinho's tried and tested smoke screen of deflection - this time taking the spotlight away from his team's inability to win by cursing the evil medical stuff for attempting to protect an injured player - failed to hide how average Chelsea looked in their first Premier League game of the season. To an extent.

If I know Sky Sports, that whole Eva Carneiro situation will be mentioned about twenty hundred times during the build-up, match and post-match chat for Manchester City vs Chelsea on Sunday, as football continues its descent (ascent?) to WWE sport soap opera.

"Jose, do you think the Eva Carneiro situation may distract the players?", Geoff Shreeves will say before the game. "This is ridiculous question, this is football," will come the reply and then the lights will drop, pyrotechnics will flare, Shawn Michaels's entrance music will hit and we'll all realise that this is what Sky wanted all along.

Man City looked absolutely brilliant last weekend and it will be interesting to see if they can keep the momentum going as they come up against last season's champions. Sterling fits in well, though had a quiet, tentative debut, Kompany looks solid again and David Silva put in a virtuoso performance as chief puller-of-strings. Chelsea, and Mourinho, are the very best at nullifying these kinds of players though.

Expect plenty of drama in the post-match fall out.

Eva Carneiro and Jose Mourinho

3. Can Arsenal recover from their opening day disaster?

There wasn't a single person on my Twitter feed or amongst my friends some people I know who thought for a second that Arsenal wouldn't absolutely destroy West Ham last Saturday but by Jove that didn't happen. All that pre-season enthusiasm, all that hope - it was just SO Arsenal.

We've all been through the Arsenal stages of Premier League before (optimism, anger, jealousy, despair, joy, repeat) so we shouldn't have been surprised. Arsene Wenger really needs to nail this game if he doesn't want to find himself having to explain yet again that his team is honestly much better than this, it's not his fault, they'll do it next year etc.

If Crystal Palace beat Arsenal on Sunday lunchtime, those lost six points and the psychological impact that the media circus and #WengerOut brigade would enjoy might leave the Arsenal title charge wishing for what could have been, once more. Alan Pardew looks to have built an exciting, sparkly, flair focused team capable of annoying the bigger boys at the top of the league too. Beware, Gooners. Beware.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger

4. Are Everton making progress under Roberto Martinez?

Roberto Martinez had an interesting battle of defensive ideology with Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football last week and while he comes across well when discussing the philosophies of his tactics on TV, I can't help but wonder whether he genuinely believes Everton are going places or if he's just talking the talk.

Everton (on paper) look no better than a mid-table side again this season and the 2-2 draw with Watford last weekend suggests it's just going to be a standard league campaign this time. Southampton, their opponents in Saturday's early game, already look far more powerful, exciting and capable of pushing the top five than Everton, who are turning into some kind of Wigan Part 2: Revenge of Martinez.

Or maybe Lukaku will score a hat-trick and I will eat humble pie, which I have heard is delicious.

Roberto Martinez appeared on Monday Night Football alongside Jamie Carragher Last August

5. How does Brendan Rodgers get all 27 of his new signings in the same starting XI?

Philippe Coutinho's wondergoal saved Liverpool from a dull 0-0 draw against a resilient Stoke side last time out, and he continues to be the only one of Brendan Rodgers' signings who no-one can really say hasn't been a success. Sturridge has been great in the few games he's managed over the last two seasons, but too many have proven ineffectual or to be Mario Balotelli.

Coutinho excelled when Adam Lallana made way and he was moved to the left on Sunday, and while James Milner and Jordan Henderson looked OK together they were much better when Emre Can came on to provide some defensive backbone. So does Lallana play? Where does Firmino go? Why is Danny Ings there? The answers to these and many more, as Eddie Howe continues his excellent work at Bournemouth and tries to find holes in Liverpool's defence at Anfield.

Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho (second left, front) celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the Barclays Premier League match at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent

6. Is it going to be one of those years for Sunderland?

Oh dear, Sunderland. The defending in their absolute capitulation to Leicester was so bad that it doesn't even warrant speaking about and quite how a Premier League team was able to turn up so utterly under-prepared and disorganised for the opening game of the season must have fans pulling their hair out. Or if they have no hair... their skull? I don't know.

Either way, Alex Neill had Norwich playing some excellent football on their way to promotion last season but the Premier League is clearly a step up and literally a different league. Nathan Redmond impressed in particular against Crystal Palace but Norwich will need to work out whether attractive football is going to be enough to earn them the points they need to survive the drop. If they play against the Sunderland of last week, it'll probably work.

Dick Advocaat has issued a warning to his Sunderland team

7. Are Swansea actually quite good?

Jose Mourinho may have attempted to deflect attention away from his players after that 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening but either Chelsea aren't as strong and powerful as last season or Swansea are really, really good.

New signing Jordan Ayew definitely suits the Premier League and looked dangerous throughout, but in truth the entire of Garry Monk's side was a match for the champions. There are doubts over Bafetembi Gomis and whether he is good enough to lead the line for a Premier League club trying to make the European spots, but the consensus seems to be that Swansea are on the up. Is there room in the top five?

Garry Monk feels Swansea deserve more credit for their display at Stamford Bridge

8. How long until we can call Reece Oxford a star?

And at what subsequent point in the next year will media outlets trawl through his personal life and try to ruin everything for him, as they have so loved doing to many other English football stars?

Reece Oxford had World Cup winner Mesut Ozil in his pocket just days before he received his exam results after one game - on his debut, as a 16 year old - but If he plays this weekend he will face a different kind of midfield battle than the one Arsenal offered.

Whether West Ham's 2-0 win was a fluke or not will be answered at the same time we discover if Claudio Ranieri's first game at Leicester was similarly fortuitous. Slaven Bilic has won the fans over, Ranieri has a lot to prove.

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic and Reece Oxford as he is substituted against Arsenal

9. Are Spurs any better than last season?

The top three seems like it's nailed down (OPINION ALERT) as a variation of Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal (despite that opening day loss) but the competition for fourth is as open as it has been in the Premier League for years. Man Utd, Spurs, Southampton and Swansea look most likely but there are always surprises. Mauricio Pochettino needs to get points in the bag quickly to prevent the usual Managerial Merry-go round from threatening to set up camp outside Daniel Levy's office.

Another manager who's been under his fair share of pressure in seasons gone by is Mark Hughes. He needs his new and improved Stoke-alona side to gel quickly too. Against Liverpool they looked solid at the back, powerful in midfield and creative upfront - if it all clicks they *gulps* have a geniunely good team and maybe, might, possibly - maybe - be considered outsiders to challenge for that bit of space between 8th and 4th. Maybe. Please don't remember that sentence. I'm sorry, football!

Mauricio Pochettino, pictured, hopes to keep Hugo Lloris

10. Will Tony Pulis get his tactics right?

Tony Pulis will hope he gets his formation and tactical set up correct in this match having led his team to the slaughter against a rampant Man City side. That the changes he made were made early in the first half will be of little comfort because they were done so with the team 2-0 down. Has Pulis lost his magic, lucky touch? Do West Brom fans think that? Does anyone think that? So many questions.

Fans of both Watford and West Brom might be eagerly anticipating this match but as an advert for The Best League In The World, Watford vs West Brom doesn't exactly light my fire. There's something romantic about Watford, starved for so long of top flight football, playing their first Premier League home game in many years but in the same way that Tinder is romantic. If it wasn't them, it would be... Middlesbrough. Or Leeds. There's just so much choice!

Rickie Lambert attempts to bring the ball under control

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