Gareth Wheeler brings you the news, notes, and commentary each week from the Barclay's Premier League.
This week's notebook is all about first impressions, times two. Back from vacation and two weeks in the books with time to make team assessments. Any assessment, however, is incomplete with Monday's transfer deadline taking centre stage. Thus far, four teams on perfect records and early disappointment for Manchester United; here's what's catching my attention.
- The panic button is already being pressed amongst some of the millions of Manchester United supporters worldwide. A home loss (Swansea), an uninspiring away draw (Sunderland) and an embarrassing 4-0 Capital One Cup defeat to League 1 MK Dons have contributed to a less than ideal start to competitive matches for Louis Van Gaal. Difficult introductions are nothing new to LVG, he only won one of his first four games after taking over Bayern Munich in 2009. His team ended up winning the Bundesliga and reached the Champions League Final, so the process and patience Van Gaal is preaching should be well received. This is not another David Moyes situation in the making for United. Van Gaal has the vision, stature, and tactical grasp essential to lead a club like United.
Angel Di Maria brings genuine top-level talent and dynamic play lacking in the team. No matter the price tag, this is not a panic buy. United will get better, yet the problems are plain to see: A) the team is weak thru the spine - look around the world and all top teams are strong through the middle. United are not. Reinforcements in central midfield, whether it be Arturo Vidal or a younger, physical threat in William Carvalho, as well as and a top quality centre-half are a must for Van Gaal, and as soon as possible. B) Poor quality in squad depth - United has a big squad but it's not very good. Expensive role players and young players not good enough fail to make the grade. Early season injuries have complicated the issue. Forget the injuries, it's well warranted to question the talent in the team. United desperately needs quality in quantity. C) Team belief - building confidence sounds simpler than it actually is. Seeing full internationals hesistant wearing red is difficult to watch and is a fall-out from failure under Moyes. The number of back-passes and absolute refusal to take on an opponent in fear of losing possession is disturbing. Belief in team movement will come in time. The bravery to win one-v-one battles with a team not big, nor quick enough is more complex. The passive nature of the product is plain to see.
While player recruitment is a must, a bigger reclamation project is at play for Van Gaal. As he puts it, he is building a new team. That takes time. Wins are expected in the meantime. Van Gaal knows that but he won't waver. Embrace yourself for a roller coaster ride.
- Arsenal was my pre-season pick to win the Premier League and I'm going to stick with it. I was impressed with the way the Gunners battled back to earn a 2-2 draw at Goodison Park. Olivier Giroud showed his worth with an equalizer out of nothing. The news Giroud will be out until late December-early January is worrisome. With all due respect to Joel Campbell, Giroud is Arsene Wenger's only true number 9. It's a significant loss for Wenger and leaves him with a big decision. It seems a no-brainer for the club to dip back into the market and bring in reinforcements. Although it doesn't seem the Wenger-way. Can Arsene get by playing a variety of attacking players, none a true target-man? Theo Walcott is working his way back from a knee injury, and perhaps Wenger has a re-think what to do with Lukas Podolski. But are useful players but natural fill roles occupied by others with the team. A false nine could work, but is a risky proposition for a team with aspirations in multiple competitions. Manchester United's available striker Danny Welbeck seems a reasonable fit and an alternative option. His pace would certainly compliment the superior ball movement in the team. Although the nature of the failed transfer of Thomas Vermaelen whom United believed they had captured may have something to do why this move is highly unlikely.
- Most impressive performance of the early season goes to Manchester City in a comfortable 3-1 win over Liverpool Monday. It was the kind of self-assured, composed performance you see from top teams mid-season, not match-day two. The addition of Fernando looks to be a savvy one, with the player looking at home and positionally sound in the central midfield. The plaudits rightfully point out the play of Stevan Jovetic in a two-goal performance goes a long way to adding depth in attack, putting a season of injury behind him. He's still just 24 years old, and looks ripe for a big season, pending opportunity. What a luxury for Pellegrini to have Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo on the bench in a match against last year's runners-up. With depth superior to anyone else in the league at all positions, there is good reason City remains favourite to repeat as Champions.
- Risk vs. Reward: Mario Balotelli for £16 million was a no-brainer for Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers is a superior leader and kept Luis Suarez on point en route to one of the top individual seasons in Premier League history. It's not Balotelli's persona that should worry; it's his form. No player is as enigmatic as the Italian marksman. His natural physical make-up makes him unmarkable at times. Yet his footballing intelligence can and should be rightfully questioned. Does he read the game to a level Rodgers tactical influence can help the player shine? And how will he pair up with Daniel Sturridge in attack? Liverpool's success a season ago came from teamwork and sacrifice. That's tough with a selfish player. I still say it's absolutely worth the risk.
- Chelsea has been there methodical best through two games. They will never run teams off the field, but they will break their opponent down thoroughly through precision and perseverance. It always seems a 12 round championship fight. Body-blow after body-blow makes staying with Chelsea over 90 minutes as difficult as it gets. The central midfield partnership of Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic look very much the part. There is still concern too much of the goal scoring responsibilities will fall to Diego Costa. The returns thus far have been right on script. A reported hamstring injury to Costa threatens to throw the team into unbalance. Dipping back into the transfer window would be a virtual certainty if Costa is set to miss any lengthy period of time. He is that important to the team.
- Spurs at first glance: big, strong and fast. An in-form Erik Lamela makes this team a different kind of dangerous from a season ago. Spurs get even bigger at the back with the signing of Federico Fazio from Sevilla. Size and strength goes a long way in the Premier League. With a top goalkeeper and a coach who looks a good fit at White Hart Lane, Spurs are trending in the right direction.
- Swansea and Southampton were two teams deemed to be in trouble before the first kick of the season. Both teams have impressed out of the gate. The Swans have a perfect record and are showing indications this team will remain strong throughout. Pace down the wings and dangerous men up top means they will be a constant threat. There is also a lot to like about Ki Sung-Yeung in the midfield, back from on-loan at Sunderland, showing wonderful growth over recent seasons. They could use another centre-half before the transfer window closes. Southampton will take a bit longer to come together with so many changes within the team. Ronald Koeman remains steadfast he will not sell Morgan Schneiderlin, and nor should he. James Ward-Prowse continues to impress and Dusan Tadic in time may be the perfect replacement for Adam Lallana. There is a good mix here and looks to improve whenever James Rodriguez is fit to play a part. Goal scoring remains a question. £12 million for Shane Long was sheer lunacy.
- Aston Villa look weak on paper and ever worse on the field. Paul Lambert has to be the most likely manager next to be facing the sack. Villa didn't register a shot on goal in a home scoreless draw with Newcastle on the weekend. Further embarrassment came Wednesday losing to Leyton Orient in the Capital One Cup. How long will it be before Roy Keane takes over as caretaker manager? An opening weekend win can only cover up so much.
- I like the move by Hull City for Michael Dawson. The centre-half may lack the top quality expected at a club like Spurs but fits the bill for Hull who are embarking on a Europa League journey. The team needs depth and capable players. The imminent arrival of Abel Hernandez up top will help too. You wonder how much more than can extend themselves without spending silly. Another midfielder/attacker would go a long way.
Team of the Week (1 & 2): 4-4-2
McGregor (Hull City)
Dier (Spurs) - Williams (Swansea) - Kompany (Man City) - Ivanovic (Chelsea)
Dyer (Swansea) - Fabregas (Chelsea) - Ramsey (Arsenal) - Lamela (Spurs)
Zarate (West Ham) - Costa (Chelsea)
Match-day 3 Game of the Week: Tottenham v. Liverpool (830am Sunday, TSN4)
Everton and Chelsea from Goodison Park Saturday afternoon is attractive as well, but the potential debut of Balotelli as a Liverpool player is must-see television. It's been a difficult week for Liverpool with back-to-back away matches at City and Spurs. This season proves to be a constant challenge for Rodgers & Co, back in the Champions League. So basically, get used to. Squad depth will be tested and the jury is out whether this group is good enough. Spurs, meanwhile, are top the table and look to continue what has been an impressive start. Tottenham have a Europa League match Thursday, so squad rotation is to be expected. These two teams both have eyes on top four this season. Success in matches as such is critical towards achieving that end. Look for how Spurs deal with the speed of Sturridge and Raheem Sterling being critical to the outcome.
Next week's Notebook will feature a complete wrap of Match-day 3 as well as club-by-club grades after the transfer window closes Monday.
By: Gareth Wheeler