The Barclays Premier League has returned to our screens again this weekend – thank goodness – and we were instantly reminded of the reasons why it is so loved. Shocks, high drama, incidents to debate during the days to come were plentiful, but who were the players that impressed the most over Saturday and Sunday?
Sergio Romero: In the media storm surrounding Van Gaal’s decision to leave David De Gea out of the side, Sergio Romero applied himself excellently in the curtain raiser to the 2015/16 Premier League campaign. Settling well into his new surroundings in the first half, he pulled off decent stops against Eriksen and Walker before raising his level further to secure all three points for The Red Devils in the latter stages of the game. Keeping out Spurs’ Danish international twice in quick succession and also Harry Kane in the last ten minutes has gone some way to filling United fans with the belief that Romero can fill the unsettled Spaniard’s boots if necessary.
Matteo Darmian: Most notably for the Italian, he was clearly a defensively sound option at right-back, something that Manchester United have not had in abundance for many a year. While Valencia; a nominal right-sided midfielder, filled in more than adequately in the position last season, Darmian is certainly an upgrade on the former Wigan man and looks like he will add another dimension on The Red Devils’ flank this season.
As the most impressive of the outfield debutants on show at Old Trafford in my opinion, the Italian proved to be proficient at both making interceptions and tackles in dangerous areas; five before he left the field after 80 minutes, and rampaging forward to deliver tempting crosses into the opposition’s area. Louis Van Gaal praised Darmian in particular, stating that he was “the best player” for United on early Saturday afternoon, not only “in possession but also when the opponent has the ball. He was very good”.
Micah Richards: Although he is a summer addition to this new-look Aston Villa side, Tim Sherwood has appointed him as the captain and if Richards’ display against Bournemouth is anything to go by, it is easy to see why. A natural leader and never afraid to be vocal, the former Manchester City defender commanded his troops to perfection, encouraging greater effort from them whilst also putting forward a fine example himself. Seven successful clearances and three completed tackles reinforce this suggestion, but his overall impression on the match was clear to see.
A frequently shaky Aston Villa defence last year was transformed into a much more stable affair when posed with the threat of flyers Matt Ritchie and Callum Wilson. Micah Richards has spent years away from the true limelight of Premier League football; whether on the substitutes’ bench or on foreign soil, but it would have seemed to many as if he had never been away.
Winston Reid: West Ham’s reliable central defender produced three last-ditch clearances deep inside his own penalty area in the vital closing minutes of The Iron’s 2-0 victory as Arsenal piled on the pressure. He marshalled the defence which was lacking a degree of mobility in the form of the ineligible Jenkinson whilst facing possibly the most technically astute opposition that the league has to offer. On more than one occasion, the New Zealand international took the decision away from his goalkeeper and intercepted balls approaching his goal, not taking a chance.
Despite the busy nature of The Hammers’ summer transfer dealings; securing the signatures of ten new players to date, it could well prove to be the case that holding down Winston Reid to a new long-term deal in March of last season will be the most crucial piece of business done in recent times.
Marc Muniesa: As one of the ever-increasing of former Barcelona players now plying their trade for Mark Hughes at Stoke City, Marc Muniesa put in an impressive performance against Liverpool on Sunday. In the absence of the always aggressive Ryan Shawcross, the Spanish defender took up the challenge of marking Benteke and although the Belgian certainly won his fair share of aerial duels, Muniesa marshalled him well.
He also demonstrated his versatility when filling in at left-back in the second half due to an injury to Erik Pieters. In this role, the tricky and pacey Jordon Ibe was the primary danger, with whom Muniesa dealt admirably. The two Liverpool players presented very different threats but neither were able to get the better of the Stoke City defender.
Cheikhou Kouyaté: The scorer of West Ham’s opening goal just before the interval, Cheikhou Kouyaté may have set his side on the path to a memorable victory in North London, but it was his overall contribution which impressed me the most. A physically imposing figure in the centre of West Ham’s midfield, the Senegalese powerhouse broke up many an Arsenal attack and while his destructive tendencies were perhaps the most important aspect, he did not lack a creative edge. Forming a promising early bond with starlet Reece Oxford, Kouyaté helped to guide him through the game whilst also linking up successfully with team-mates in attacking areas. It was almost the complete performance from a midfielder.
Reece Oxford: In what will most likely be considered as the most eye-opening performance of the weekend, 16 year old Reece Oxford dazzled onlookers with his incredible maturity and confidence in the notoriously tough cauldron that is Premier League football. Having played a role in West Ham United’s clashes in the Europa League up to this point, Oxford was again deployed in a deep-lying midfield role by Bilic despite his rise through the ranks as a centre half. He showed no signs at all of a different role fazing him and stood up to some of the most highly regarded midfielders that the top flight has to offer.
On the ball, Oxford looked calm at all times, happy to receive it under pressure. Boasting a 95% pass completion rate; the highest of any player on the pitch, is quite some figure for one so young. He also drew praise as a result of his mobility and physical presence on the field, let alone an apparent natural ability to lead. The image of him ordering team-mates into position and gesticulating with arms held aloft is one that certainly amazed me at least.
Andre Ayew: Swansea City’s Ghanaian addition made a healthy first impression on Premier League supporters with his display against last season’s champions. As favourites going into this campaign too, Chelsea were expected to achieve a relatively easy victory over the Welsh outfit but; due in no small part to Ayew’s efforts on the right of the attack, they could only obtain one point from the match-up.
The former Marseille attacker was surprisingly strong and aggressive from the outset, frequently leaving stars such as Nemanja Matic sprawling on the floor after a failed attempt to win possession. Ayew already seems to have built up a strong bond with his fellow Swansea players, joining in well with intricate attacking moves. The intelligent drag-back to outwit a floundering John Terry followed by a deft finish into the far corner to open the scoring on Saturday evening sent Swansea fans into delirium and if Ayew can match the levels he achieved here, onlookers at The Liberty Stadium could be on for a season to remember.
Riyad Mahrez: As Leicester City flew out of the traps in their latest Premier League campaign, the performance of Riyad Mahrez was perhaps the defining factor. A reliable end product is what had been lacking from his game in my view and was something that needed addressing in order to transform the Algerian from a luxury player to a potential world-beater. Continuing in a vastly improved vein of form from the tail end of last season, Mahrez grabbed two goals on the way to a 4-2 victory over Sunderland.
His first strike was a neatly finished header from a teasing Albrighton cross but the second was all his own work. Dazzling trickery on the ball; a quality which he has always had possession of, drew Lee Cattermole into a wild challenge in the 18 yard box and the left-footer dispatched the resultant spot-kick himself. Mahrez could easily have secured his first Premier League hat-trick later in the game to crown the display, but he could only be denied by the base of Pantilimon’s far post. The Foxes’ supporters must hope that this sort of application and commitment on Mahrez’s behalf is not just a flash in the pan and he can go on to put in many more performances of this nature.
Jefferson Montero: Branislav Ivanovic has been on the top of his game at right-back for as many years as I can remember, so it goes to show how well Montero played for Swansea that the Serbian looked distinctly amateur against him. The Ecuadorian ran him ragged seemingly on every occasion down Swansea’s left flank, leading to one of Ivanovic’s most torrid days in Chelsea blue. In a refreshing manner, Jefferson Montero always seemed to have one sole objective in mind when picking up the ball; attack his opponent and place the defenders firmly on the back foot.
Beating potential tacklers on either side, Montero was just as capable of taking the ball to the by-line to produce a cross for Gomis as he was of cutting infield and threatening Chelsea’s goal directly. He certainly looked to be capable of a more consistent threat than either of Eden Hazard or Willian for Mourinho’s side and his early withdrawal from proceedings marked a resurgence from The Blues. Leaving the field for cramp, Montero’s replacement; Wayne Routledge, was not able to push Chelsea back anywhere near as effectively as the Ecuadorian, which in turn helped to heap pressure onto the Swans. If he continues to dribble with this quality; producing a marvellous six successful take-ons in 71 minutes, the Welsh side have a real asset up their sleeves.
Diafra Sakho: When Enner Valencia suffered a crippling injury in a recent Europa League tie, Hammers fans could have been forgiven for wondering how badly he would be missed up front. If Diafra Sakho’s display against Arsenal is anything to go by, then Valencia’s absence will barely be noticed. After a fabulous debut season in the Premier League, Sakho continued where he left off at the Emirates Stadium and occupied the entire Arsenal back-line from the first minute.
Providing a fine platform for West Ham’s supporting players to operate from, the Senegalese forward ran his socks off and never permitted the opposition defenders a moment’s peace. As a result of the constant threat in behind combined with Mertesacker’s notorious susceptibility to pace in behind, Arsenal had to sit deeper than they would have liked and this allowed West Ham defenders with some vital respite especially when their goal was under siege for the last 20 minutes or so.
Do you agree with the selection of the Team of the Week for the opening set of Premier League fixtures? Who would you include instead and do you see the form continuing for these stars? Let us know in the comments or on twitter @TBRFootball .
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