Arsenal nearly got away with it vs. Liverpool, Pep Guardiola rings changes
We're getting that usual sense of deja vu at the Emirates. Arsenal lose their home opener, as they've done in three of the past four seasons, and Arsene Wenger is back under the spotlight. It's the usual story: Arsenal are flush with cash, he chooses not to spend it and the team as a result aren't as good as they could (should) be.
But there's probably more to it than that after the Gunners' 4-3 home defeat against Liverpool.
For a start, the Arsenal side that went out there may not look much like the Arsenal side that will play most of the season. Wenger's top three central defenders (Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Gabriel) were all out. So too was his most creative (and, arguably, his best) player, Mesut Ozil. As well as his top goalscorer from last season, Olivier Giroud, and the guy who, in Wenger's mind, is his first-choice back-up at center-forward, Danny Welbeck. His big summer signing was in the squad, albeit on the bench -- though, to be fair, when Granit Xhaka did come on, he was far from impressive.
You can make the point that Wenger should have planned better and have more depth in his squad, and we'll get that in a minute. But it's tough to spot that much quality to the opposition and get away with it.
The other aspect is that it was an odd game which Arsenal dominated the first half. But for breaks that didn't go their way, namely Theo Walcott missing a penalty and Philippe Coutinho turning a soft foul into a magisterial free kick goal, they could have been leading 2-0 at half-time. And we might be having a wholly different conversation right now.
Of course, Liverpool came out at halftime like a bat out of hell, scored some tremendous goals and went up 4-1 and at that point, the damage was done. Those late goals from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Calum Chambers did little to alleviate the Arsenal fans' disappointment. But the fact remains that for 45 minutes, plus the stint at the end when they scored twice, Wenger's side looked good, despite all the absences and despite that makeshift Chambers-Rob Holding centre-back partnership.
That doesn't exonerate Wenger from blame, but it does suggest that even with second stringers in the lineup, Arsenal aren't the horrendous sinking ship some people think they are.
That still leaves the question of why you go into the season the way you did. Wenger knew that Koscielny would be coming back late from the Euros and that it would affect his preparation. He knew in early August that Mertesacker would be out for a while. And he knew a week ago, when Gabriel suffered his ankle sprain, that the Brazilian would reportedly be out until late September.
Should he have signed that additional centre-back the minute the extent of Gabriel's injury became clear? Social media is full of folks calling Wenger a fool for not immediately pulling the trigger on Valencia's German international Shkodran Mustafi, but you can also see the counterargument for not doing so.
Wenger is the type of guy who tends to be loyal to his players, believing that they can come good even if they go through a rough patch. Sometimes he's vindicated (think Nacho Monreal and Aaron Ramsey), sometimes less so (Jack Wilshere and Walcott come to mind). But that's just the sort of manager he is. Signing Mustafi, for a reported fee north of $30 million, would have pushed Mertesacker and Gabriel down the depth chart. And it would have left Holding to play in the League Cup and lay out the cones in training.
The benefit of hindsight says Wenger got this one wrong; he may panic buy and yet pick up Mustafi. But there was a logic to his thought process and in a game of slim margins, he nearly got away with it.
This is how he operates. This is what he does. And he's honest about it. If he's still there, it's because his employers are evidently OK with it. And if that's the case and you're unhappy with it, rather than hammering Wenger and expecting him, in his late sixties, to turn into somebody else, take it up with the owner instead.
But remember what happened the last time fans tried to stage a public protest against Wenger. Those who held up the white "Time for Change" signs were drowned out by those who sang Wenger's name. Until you get some consensus, you won't stand a chance at pushing the owner's buttons.
Guardiola rings the changes at Man City
Pep Guardiola certainly offered up a host of talking points in his first "real" game as Manchester City boss. The overall result -- a 2-1 victory over Sunderland, marked by a late winner -- is less important than the performance and Guardiola's choices.
Two moves stand out. The defensive organization was something we simply haven't seen in England. Nicolas Otamendi was on the bench and Aleksandar Kolarov (usually a left-back and more of a ball-player than a speedster) partnered newcomer John Stones at centre-back. Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy were at full-back while Fernandinho shielded the back four. But that was out-of-possession: When City got the ball, Sagna and Clichy effectively advanced into central midfield while Fernandinho dropped between the centre-backs. This meant the two French full-backs were tasked with all sorts of playmaking duties, with decidedly mixed results.
You wonder if it's sustainable: It's one thing to ask Dani Alves to do that, quite another to push Sagna (who turns 34 in February) in that role. As for Kolarov, he's obviously much better on the ball than Otamendi, but again, there's a reason he hasn't played in central defence before this season.
Guardiola's other big call was dropping Joe Hart for Willy Caballero. Guardiola simply said that "Caballero had a very good preseason." He's not that naive; he'll need to offer a better justification than that. The theory doing the rounds was that Guardiola's system requires a keeper who is comfortable on the ball and can do the "sweeper-keeper" thing, which is hardly Hart's strength. Caballero isn't exactly the second coming of Manuel Neuer, but he's better at it than Hart.
If that's the case, though, you wonder why this is only happening now, in mid-August. Surely it didn't take that long for the club to figure out what Hart could and could not do? At this stage, securing another keeper won't be easy and you'll pay through the nose. Given his wages, finding Hart a home won't be straightforward either; it means that if he's dropped, he's facing time on the bench which, politically, isn't great for a new manager.
Guardiola has achieved more than enough for City fans and the critics to trust his judgement. At the very least, he's shown that he's confident and unafraid when it comes to following his philosophy. To paraphrase Billy Joel, if he keeps this up, he'll walk away a fool or a king.
Barca win but Sevilla full of intrigue
Barcelona beat Sevilla 2-0 in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup, which suggests Luis Enrique's eighth trophy (counting the piddling ones) is just around the corner. Without Neymar (who is busy with Olympic pursuits) and newcomers Samuel Umtiti and Andre Gomes on the bench, Barca showed a bit of ring rust in the first half, but it's nothing to really worry about. Playing against a Jorge Sampaoli team can be a shock to the system and, indeed, by halftime possession was roughly even, which doesn't usually happen when Barcelona are on the pitch.
The problem with Sampaoli's brand of football is that all that running and high press can sometimes rob you of lucidity in the final third. And when you lose the ball, a good passing side can cut you open with two or three passes, which is what ultimately happened as Luis Suarez and Munir struck twice in the second half.
We'll get a better sense of Barcelona and how Luis Enrique integrates the newcomers in the next few weeks. But, in the meantime, Sevilla under Sampaoli promise to be one of the most interesting and entertaining stories in Europe this season. Watch this space.
Mourinho gets off to a winning start
Jose Mourinho's Manchester United got out of the blocks with a win, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored on his Premier League debut (just as he had done on his La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 debuts), whatever tension there might have been with Juan Mata was either overblown or forgotten, and Bournemouth were never a threat in a 3-1 away victory.
Bournemouth were awful, but it's encouraging to see United play with the sort of bravado and confidence that was often missing last year. Seeing Wayne Rooney operating closer to Ibrahimovic -- it often was effectively a 4-4-2 -- was a good alternative solution and you wonder if it might be something we'll see more often when the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba start getting into the lineup. Rooney will continue to divide opinion in some quarters, but he's more useful up the pitch than in a central position where he can clog the playmaking channels.
That's just one of many solutions available to Mourinho. At some point, he'll need to figure out how all his pieces fit together and it may not be as simple as some expect. What's unlikely is that we'll see what we saw in the Louis van Gaal era: a constantly changing lineup. Once Mourinho finds what he likes, he tends to stick to it.
Don't read much into Bayern vs. Dortmund
Bayern Munich won the German Super Cup with a 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in what was the first look at Carlo Ancelotti's team in a (somewhat) competitive game. You have to call it that because neither team looks up to scratch in terms of fitness at this stage. And while Ancelotti played something close to what you'd expect his first XI to be (minus Douglas Costa, Jerome Boateng and Arjen Robben), Thomas Tuchel left out everyone who was involved in the Euros this past summer. Raphael Guerreiro, Lukas Pisczek, Julian Weigl, Andre Schurrle and the injured Marco Reus all missed out.
That's why you don't read too much into it. But what we saw was a Dortmund side that was all over Bayern in the first half and could have scored several times. Then, when Tuchel's crew began to understandably run out of steam, Bayern put the game away with Arturo Vidal and Thomas Mueller.
Still, I can't wait to see these two line up again at full fitness and with everyone back -- particularly Dortmund. Not many sides in Europe are as packed with young talent as Tuchel's crew.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.