North London derby and Liverpool-United make for a super Sunday
So the first noisily trumpeted top-four clash of the new season -- Manchester United vs. Chelsea on Monday afternoon -- was a turkey: no Michael Bay-ish crash-bang-wallop; barely even quiet intrigue. Just a steady and sterile nil-nil. Let's not allow that to stop us imagining that Sunday is going to be a right old hoot, however, because if ever there's a schedule that says 'beer in one hand, popcorn in the other,' it's Liverpool-Manchester United followed by Arsenal-Spurs. Don't look at me like that! It's too early in the season to be so jaded. There's plenty to look out for in these matches.
Or not, as the case may be. Tottenham make the short journey to Arsenal with a different-looking team after spending close to £100 million this summer -- most of which the club is about to recoup with the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. Spurs have strengthened in various positions from front (where Roberto Soldado has scored two in two) to back (where the £8.5 million Romanian Vlad Chiriches has just arrived). Paulinho and Etienne Capoue already look comfortable in the midfield. The arrival of Erik Lamela from Roma gives them an almost like-for-like replacement for Bale, and there is even talk that Ajax's Christian Eriksen could arrive before the weekend is out.
No need at Spurs for the "Spend, spend, spend" posters held aloft behind Arsene Wenger's dugout on the opening weekend. Wenger has signed two players, both on free transfers, despite being linked with a host of names over the course of the summer. There is a good deal of dissatisfaction in the stands as assurances that Arsenal would spend a sizable transfer kitty have dissolved to nothing; there is only so much excitement that the return of Mathieu Flamini can generate. Though Wenger says he wants some players (particularly with injuries to Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski and a daunting Champions League draw), he has also said that buying more than three players risks instability.
"You unbalance the stability of your squad a little bit," he said, as reporters probed the differences between his side and Sunday's visitors. "It's always difficult, when you bring so many players in, to predict how well they will do. It can click fantastically well. But there is a little risk in the stability of the squad and the technical consistency."
So far Spurs have not looked to be finding the adjustment too difficult, maintaining a 100 percent record without conceding a goal. They have yet to face opposition like Arsenal, of course, but after two Europa League matches there is demonstrable strength in depth at Tottenham. That, really, is the issue at Arsenal, where the first team has suffered no major permanent losses (and Aaron Ramsey is in his best form since suffering a broken leg in 2009-10) but the squad looks thin. Theo Walcott's refusal to acknowledge as much -- "I feel that we're very, very strong" -- is understandable, but doesn't really stand up. He's right to point out that Sunday's match won't be contested on numbers, however. Both teams have a point to prove.
We could argue about which is the best derby in world soccer for days on end, and in all likelihood we wouldn't settle on either of these, but that doesn't change the fact that these clubs -- or rather, supporters of these clubs -- hate each other more passionately than they hate anybody else. And it rubs off on the players. "The Liverpool game," says United's Tom Cleverley, "with the history between the two clubs and what it means to the fans, makes it really important. Even playing in the academy, the Liverpool game was always the one you looked out for."
It is football theater. When Steven Gerrard says it's the game everyone wants to win, he's talking less about actual, real-world points and more about the symbolic victory. Expectations on both sides are raised, as is the volume inside the stadium; in that atmosphere strange things can happen. The last 10 league matches between Liverpool and United have seen five sendings-off and another 39 bookings, and this week's Twitter furore has once again stoked tensions that might merely have simmered in the absence of incendiaries such as Luis Suarez.
Meanwhile Arsenal averaged 1.92 goals per game in the past two seasons, yet scored five at home to Tottenham twice in 2012. Not since February 2009 has the North London derby ended with fewer than three goals scored. "It is because the two teams go with an offensive mind, with a desire to win," Wenger explained on the club website this week. "It is two good teams against each other, on top of that it is a derby and on top of that there is a lot of passion there, so there is always uncertainty around these games." Tottenham's new faces have already been briefed. "My teammates have told me what the derby means," said Soldado. "I cannot wait to play in this environment."
After all the fuss, Wayne Rooney remains a Manchester United player. Luis Suarez remains a Liverpool player. The long-term role of both, though, remains to be seen.
Unless Robin van Persie picks up an injury or Rooney decides he does want to play a central midfield role after all, he will be competing for the spot behind the main striker. Rooney impressed against Chelsea for his diligence and willingness to exert himself, but in accommodating him, the United manager David Moyes has to shuffle Danny Welbeck over to a wider position from which he has less impact -- a shame when he has improved so much even in the past year. And Shinji Kagawa continues to look on from the sidelines, a horrendous waste of talent. The cynic would say that Rooney's retention was primarily political; it will be interesting to see how the United front line looks on Sunday (especially since Liverpool's defense lost Kolo Toure to injury in midweek), and beyond.
Suarez we definitely won't see on Sunday, since he is still banned for biting Branislav Ivanovic. In his absence Daniel Sturridge has been expertly leading the line, supported by Philippe Coutinho. "You can see there is a great understanding between [them]," Lucas Leiva told the Liverpool Echo. Sturridge has scored four goals in three appearances this season, helping Brendan Rodgers' side maintain a 100 percent record. "When he has responsibility to step in and score goals for the team, he becomes a big player." Last season there was no question that putting Suarez up front made Liverpool the best they could be, but a wide supporting role might be what the Uruguayan comes back to. If Sturridge can perform against United, there's little reason to change things.