Hits and misses: Fans’ return, Pogba’s masterclass

Home advantage is back as fans return

Brentford supporters helped their side to a 2-0 win over Norwich
Brentford supporters helped their side to a 2-0 win over Norwich

There were only two home wins out of eight when the Premier League season commenced in front of empty stands last year. This time around, there have already been six.

Fans are back and with them comes the return of home advantage.

Newly-promoted Brentford set the tone on Friday night, with 17,000 jubilant supporters roaring them on to a famous 2-0 victory over Arsenal in their first-ever Premier League game.

Mikel Arteta’s young side visibly crumbled in the face of such vociferous support and Thomas Frank’s players took full advantage. “Nobody who was here will ever forget it,” said the Brentford boss.

Watford supporters will no doubt feel similar about their victory over the much-fancied Aston Villa. The Villans have been busy in the transfer market having lost Jack Grealish to Manchester City, but Danny Ings and the rest were left stunned as the Hornets raced into a three-goal lead at a buoyant Vicarage Road. “I think today the fans gave us one person more,” said manager Xisco.

There was no way back for Villa, and Watford and Brentford were not the only ones able to harness the momentum created by a partisan crowd in a packed stadium.

Manchester United fired four goals in just 16 minutes after Luke Ayling’s equaliser for Leeds at Old Trafford, while Everton fought back from a goal down against Southampton with three second-half strikes to win Rafael Benitez’s first game in charge at Goodison Park.

Chelsea and Leicester were also victorious, and while there were away wins for Brighton and Liverpool at Burnley and Norwich respectively, there is no doubting the impact of the fans.

The 2020/21 Premier League campaign was the first in English football league history to see more away wins than home ones, with 153 to 144. The early evidence suggests that trend is already changing.
Nick Wright

Solskjaer’s hint to majestic Pogba?

Pogba assists
Paul Pogba recorded four assists against Leeds

Did Paul Pogba, hair tinged with blue, feel freshly unburdened by the fact that the Premier League’s most expensive player now wears City colours? Determined to make a point instead perhaps?

Either way, with fans back at a raucous Old Trafford, Pogba made sure this was his afternoon as much as it was the headline-stealing and familiarly-brilliant Bruno Fernandes.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester United’s win against Leeds

Pogba made Manchester United history with four assists in one Premier League game but it was the quality as well as the quantity in an imperious display that showcased his passing range and, when Ayling’s rocket had threatened an unlikely switch of momentum, his ability – when he is in the mood – to wrestle it back again.

There was a clipped first-time pass into Fernandes’ path for the first, an inch-perfect one bent into the inside channel for Mason Greenwood, strength and quick feet in a tight space to tee up his Portuguese team-mate’s second, and then a pull-back with the sort of pace and precision that meant Fred did not need to break stride.

He had only managed three assists in the whole of last season.

Paul Pogba vs Leeds
Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba heat maps against Leeds

They drifted and dovetailed between left and centre, Pogba and Fernandes, and now Jadon Sancho is here to galvanise them on the right.

“I’m impressed with his fitness,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said. “And he’s enjoying his football… I love seeing Paul and all these boys smiling.”

Pogba’s demeanour will continue to be scrutinised given he has entered the final year of his Old Trafford contract, but as the returning faithful relished a stunning start against their old adversaries, Solskjaer might just have dropped a hint about the midfielder’s prospects with this squad and with this rejuvenated support.

“This is the real Man United. This is how I sold Man United to Edinson (Cavani), for example, that you can’t leave after one season with no fans.”

If this is to finally be Manchester United’s year’s, Solskjaer will need the “real Manchester United” to see more of the real Paul Pogba.
Kate Burlaga

Van Dijk makes seamless return

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool’s win at Norwich in the Premier League

After a long 10 months without him, the sight of Virgil van Dijk back in a Liverpool shirt in the Premier League was a welcome sight for everyone associated with Liverpool Football Club.

And it was like he has never been away, as the Dutchman, who got a much-needed 90 minutes under his belt at Carrow Road against Norwich, showed plenty of the traits which made him such a key component of Jurgen Klopp’s title-winning side and such a huge miss last season.

It was 301 days since his last competitive football, but you would not have known. He showed great composure on the ball and was a big presence in the air as Liverpool cruised to a 3-0 win against the newly-promoted Canaries.

He showed everyone just what Liverpool had missed with Sky Sports’ Jamie Redknapp saying the 30-year-old’s return has immediately boosted their chances of the title returning to Anfield. “He is such a Rolls Royce. He’s a majestic footballer. Players like him don’t come along very often. You could see the assurance he gives everyone around him. Liverpool cannot win the title without him, but the fact they’ve got him back gives them a much better chance. He’s a phenomenal player that just gives everyone that calmness and confidence around him.”

Liverpool boss Klopp was equally effusive in his praise for Van Dijk: “After that long time being out and the pre-season he had, being back on the pitch feels different, you could see all his class.”

There will surely be bigger tests and uphill battles to come as Van Dijk continues his comeback from what was an extremely serious injury, but Klopp knows how important it will be to manage his star man in the coming weeks. He showed in one game just how important he is to Liverpool and their chances of success this season.
Oliver Yew

Early days – but Chelsea have the mark

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea’s win against Crystal Palace

It is too early to call anyone potential champions. After one game, against an under-strength Crystal Palace side, especially so.

But you can certainly start to build momentum, and on that front, Chelsea’s snowball is already beginning to roll.

The Blues lifted the UEFA Super Cup in midweek and looked every inch a team already well-acclimatised to the new season against Palace, with their intensity, fitness and sharpness – the latter particularly impressive at this early stage – certainly a marker of their potential.

“To be totally honest, I see us as the number four, that cannot be the favourite in the next year,” said manager Thomas Tuchel, rather opaquely diverting the attention away from his Champions League winning-side, after the game.

But if they continue in this vain, the focus will be drawn to the Blues. Arsenal, next weekend, provides a stiffer challenge, if dampened by their opening-day defeat to Brentford.

The Blues’ armoury will be strengthened even further by then by the return of Romelu Lukaku. The one flaw in Tuchel’s Chelsea has been goalscoring, and bringing in a man with his ruthless prowess will only strengthen their hand.

That is without mentioning they are still without N’Golo Kante and could afford to leave Kai Havertz, the winning goalscorer in the Champions League final, on the bench until the final 10 minutes against Palace.

It is too soon to call them favourites, but it would take a brave man to write them off.
Ron Walker

Deja vu on opening night for Arsenal

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Brentford’s win over Arsenal

This felt so familiar for Arsenal, but it is worth remembering the Gunners conceded only three goals in their last eight Premier League games last season. Fans had reason to believe their defensive issues has been at least partly resolved, bolstered by the £50m Ben White.

So why the deja vu? Perhaps the last 18 months of Arsenal failing to meet expectation has blurred into one. Perhaps 18 months is putting it lightly.

“We’ve been saying this for years and years now, and it hasn’t changed,” Jamie Carragher said after the game.

The buzzword during and after the game was “bullied”. Arsenal were indeed tormented by a side with 10 Premier League minutes between them, and though there is plenty of time to put things right – not least in the transfer window – it does not bode well.

Mikel Arteta, who barely left the edge of his technical area, looked miffed from minute one to 90, and with Chelsea and Man City up next, he could have done without this.

They have pulled the rabbit out of the hat before, but fans need evidence of structural and sustained progression rather than the odd back-to-the-walls victory.
Gerard Brand

Savvy Bees show few signs of naivety

Brentford's Sergi Canos (centre) celebrates scoring their side's first goal of the game during the Premier League match at the Brentford Community Stadium, London. Picture date: Friday August 13, 2021.
Brentford’s Sergi Canos celebrates his opening goal against Arsenal

This is going to be fun.

Brentford and Thomas Frank will make plenty of friends this season if Friday night was anything to go by.

This was barely a hit and run. Arsenal may have dominated the ball, but Brentford’s high press and commitment to attack was bold, just as Frank had been promising all pre-season.

Bryan Mbeumo looked like he had been playing Premier League football for years, as did Ivan Toney and Sergi Canos, savvy to the weaknesses in Arsenal’s defence. Granted, they did not have to look hard.

After 10 minutes, Frank was wary of his side dropping too deep – he wildly gestured to get his side up the pitch by 10, 15 yards, and their opener soon came following a spell of pressure. He also spotted something awry in Pablo Mari and attacked it.

There were few signs of naivety here.

And the atmosphere matched the performance. From long before kick-off, this small corner of west London was bouncing.

“We’re just a bus stop in Hounslow” their fans sang throughout. Even Frank repeated it afterwards. But this win puts Brentford firmly on the Premier League map.
Gerard Brand

Has Everton comeback built bridges?

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Everton’s win against Southampton

Rafa Benitez’s arrival at Everton was hardly the dream appointment for Everton fans. There was a vocal backlash, with their new boss having led fierce-rivals Liverpool to one of their greatest triumphs of the 21st century.

At half-time in Everton’s opening Premier League game, there were likely a few naysayers in the Goodison Park stands after Michael Keane’s error allowed Adam Armstrong to open the scoring for Southampton – Benitez was fulfilling the low expectations.

But two minutes after the break, and it would have been a different story. Everton came out roaring after half-time – in fairness, they also started well in the first half too, just without goals – and rode the wave of Southampton pressure far better than they did in the opening period.

Abdoulaye Doucoure’s goal to fire Everton ahead was superbly worked by the whole team and from then, Everton did not look back. After getting caught passing out from the back before the break, they were the ones to every second ball and having runners off it.

Summer-signing Demarai Gray offered speed in attack not seen at Everton for some time, while substitute Alex Iwobi offered another vital attacking outlet. Richarlison – who competed at the Copa America and Olympics for Brazil this summer – did not seem to have missed a beat and Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s goal was the blueprint for a successful striker.

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Rafael Benitez reflects on a fascinating game which saw Everton come back from 1-0 down to beat Southampton 3-1 at Goodison Park

Whatever Benitez said at half-time, it clearly worked and the second-half performance will certainly go some way to bringing around the Everton support.

“It is not relief [to win the first game], you have a lot of games and each one is important,” he said. “This is the first one and in front of the fans. After so long, it was important for everyone to show this character and determination that we did and then to win and enjoy it a little bit.

“When you have the fans and the team working together trying to get that result, I think that’s the best thing a manager can expect from the fans and the players.”

Next up, Everton travel to Leeds and have another chance to show their progress with a further week of training under their belt. The fans will be hoping for more of the same – although with a few defensive mistakes ironed out.
Charlotte Marsh

Changed Saints impress at points, but same old story

Oriol Romeu shows his dejection during the defeat to Everton
Oriol Romeu shows his dejection during the defeat to Everton

Some may have wondered how Southampton would start this Premier League season. They have lost important players, including Danny Ings and Jannik Vestergaard, and their form in 2021 has seen them win just four Premier League games.

But there have been incomings too and they did impress. Armstrong – the new Ings – needed just 22 minutes and a woeful error from Keane to open his Premier League account with a well-taken goal. Since the start of 2019-20, only Brentford’s Toney (55) has scored more goals in the top four tiers of English football than Armstrong (45).

You can already see a good strike partnership forming with Che Adams – another Sky Bet WFL talent – while Valentino Livramento and Romain Perraud were solid at full-back with impressive debuts of their own.

But for all of these good moments – and Southampton did have bright spots – there were also some familiar errors as Southampton again found themselves on the losing end of a Premier League game. Since Ralph Hasenhuttl took over in December 2018, Saints have lost 60 points from winning positions in the league, more than any other side.

It will be a concern for Hasenhuttl and the Saints. He has already promised to replace the departed Vestergaard, although they must move quickly with only a few weeks left of the transfer window. But, above all, Southampton will be hoping their form from the start of the 2020/21 season starts to come through – and soon.
Charlotte Marsh

Sarr and Dennis a handy double act

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Watford’s win over Aston Villa

The majority of experts have tipped Watford to go down this season, but on this evidence, they have a useful outlet in new signing Emmanuel Dennis alongside Ismaila Sarr.

It is incredible, really, that Watford managed to keep Sarr when relegated from the Premier League in 2020. Gary Neville even suggested Manchester United should go for him, but he stayed and helped them bounce straight back up with 13 goals last season.

Sarr and Dennis were a superb double act on Saturday as Vicarage Road was treated to an opening-day win over Aston Villa, who were overpowered and disjointed in their first game without Jack Grealish.

The 3-2 scoreline actually flattered Villa, who must afford time for their new players to gel, but there were no such problems for Watford. Their new man Dennis looked completely at home in the Premier League, scoring early and mucking in with plenty of dirty work thereafter.

He dropped deep and linked up play brilliantly – Dennis’ passing accuracy in the opposition half was perfect (9/9) – while Sarr won nearly three-quarters of his duels with Villa men. Matt Targett, Villa’s player of the season last year, was isolated and hooked at half-time.

Villa rolled out the red carpet, but if Watford can win the midfield battle and release this mobile pair often, they will win plenty of games.
Gerard Brand

Vardy shows he is still the man at Leicester

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leicester’s win over Wolves

Jamie Vardy had scored only twice in 26 appearances for Leicester City before scoring two goals in the final-day defeat to Tottenham. It was not a major issue for the team with Kelechi Iheanacho coming to the fore and Vardy taking on a selfless role for the side, but when a player is 34 years of age, the whispering campaign tends to start.

Iheanacho carried his form into this season with a game-changing cameo off the bench in the Community Shield win over Manchester City. Patson Daka, a free-scoring forward from Red Bull Salzburg has been signed too, adding to the competition. Brendan Rodgers’ decision to start with only one striker puts Vardy under extra pressure to deliver.

But doesn’t he just revel in that? He was the difference at the King Power Stadium on Saturday. Wolves had more shots and perhaps the better chances too. But theirs fell to Adama Traore and Leicester’s came the way of Vardy. His winning goal was special. “He timed his run perfectly across the front post,” said Rodgers afterwards. “A sublime finish.”

A strike of real subtlety and skill, there are aspects of Vardy’s game that just seem to get better and better, but the really striking thing is that he retains that ability to run away from defenders at an age when others would only be coming towards the ball. “He was a threat all game in behind,” added Rodgers. “He was unlucky only to score one goal.”

One goal was enough – his 119th in the Premier League – and Vardy is up and running again. There are options at Leicester now. Even if the legend himself was unavailable then Iheanacho and Daka would be expected to seize the day. But on this day – the day that the fans returned to the King Power – Vardy gave a timely reminder who is still the main man.
Adam Bate

Potter nous and clinical boost

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Brighton’s win over Burnley

There were positives for both sides in this season opener at Turf Moor. James Tarkowski was immense for the hosts at both ends of the pitch, well, all over the pitch and Sean Dyche’s side looked aggressive, coherent, fit and dangerous on the break.

But Brighton claimed the lion’s share of praise, in addition to all three points, when the final whistle blew. Brighton boss Graham Potter turned the game around with tactical cuteness and masterful substitutions.

However, the greatest positive for Potter will be kicking off with encouraging numbers up top – equalling Burnley’s 14 attempts at goal but hitting twice as many on target as the hosts and scoring two of those.

Yes, Burnley hit the woodwork twice and both of those chances could have easily slipped in on another day, but it is at the top end of the pitch where the Seagulls have struggled in recent seasons.

Brighton could be on course for a memorable campaign if that clinical edge is maintained – with Tariq Lamptey and Danny Welbeck still to return from injury.
Adam Smith

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