RVP reminder, Barca balancing act
It was "only" the Community Shield, granted. And, no, beating Owen Coyle's second-tier Wigan at Wembley doesn't earn you any gold stars. But it does mean you've avoided more controversy and acrimony and, perhaps, a knee-jerk reaction, of the kind that manifests itself when you stumble. And Manchester United's 2-0 win did provide two important reminders. One is that Ryan Giggs, less than one hundred days removed from his 40th birthday, can still generate magic and energy. Certainly not every game, probably not every week, and maybe not even every few weeks. But knowing he's around and can still make the difference is a boon for the club's younger players (which is basically everyone bar half a dozen guys). The other is that Robin van Persie is still around. That's right. RVP. Remember him? A year ago today there was talk of little else. His potential transfer fee, his wages, whether he could fit in at Old Trafford, whether he could stay healthy, whether he could deliver. Thirty-six goals in 48 outings for United answered that question. Yet this summer, in a soap opera dominated by Wayne Rooney and manager David Moyes -- with supporting roles for Rooney's agent, Paul Stretford, and team executive Ed Woodward -- RVP has been a minor recurring character. Now that the stage has moved back to the pitch, he's ready to be the whole show once again, as he was early last year, when he carried United on his back in some outings. It's not just one less thing for Moyes to worry about -- it's also a major added value of the kind the media rarely talks about because Van Persie is not the kind of guy who generates headlines when he's not doing his thing on the pitch. With Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale, the other two-thirds of last season's Player of the Year triumvirate, either on their way out or (at best) embroiled in long and unsettling transfer controversies, Van Persie is the one guy who has had a long, relaxed summer during which to recharge his batteries. Given the upheaval and changes at the club and throughout the top of the Premier League, Van Persie's stability could end up making all the difference come May.
In the next three weeks, one of two things will happen. Either Barcelona will pick up the centre-back they desperately need or they will go into the season seriously undermanned at the back, while simultaneously fine-tuning the integration of Neymar up front. It's a tricky -- and unnecessary -- balancing act. According to the Catalan press, there's a short list of three, all from the Premier League: Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen, Chelsea's David Luiz and Liverpool's Daniel Agger. The Luiz story has been rumbling for a while. Agger's agent confirmed the Barca bid (but without suggesting in any way his client is looking for a move). And Spurs continue to insist that Vertonghen is not for sale (which, to be fair, is a familiar refrain). Who should Barcelona pursue? It depends on what "Tata" Martino has planned. Will he simply try to ape what Tito Vilanova and Pep Guardiola did before him? Or will Martino try to bring in some of his own concepts, particularly defensively? If it's the latter -- and you suspect that it is -- Agger may be the best bet. True, he turns 29 years old in December, but he's coming off arguably his best season in a Liverpool shirt. He's quicker than Vertonghen (and you won't have to deal with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy to get him) and that's important if Martino plays a high line. And while Luiz may be a better physical and technical specimen, he's not exactly a paragon of defensive discipline, not to mention the fact that he'll be more expensive. Agger's camp has shown class in the past when interest has come in from elsewhere and won't force a move. But, as ever, there's a point where it makes sense for the club to sell. Given his age and past injury record -- before last season, he averaged 17 league starts over the previous six years -- if you're going to cash in on an asset other than Suarez, the time to do so is now.
It may take a while for Pep Guardiola to bring his vision to Bayern. Part of it is out of his hands: illness and injury have meant that Thiago Alcantara has yet to be successfully handed the keys to the team, while Javi Martinez, who was on Confederations Cup duty, is a bit behind fitness-wise. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that Bayern are simply looking to transition to something different, and sometimes it's tougher to peddle a new message to a bunch of guys who have just won everything in sight and did it in record-breaking fashion. The most noticeable innovation is the lone holding midfielder in the 4-1-4-1 system we saw against Borussia Moenchengladbach in the season opener. That part of the equation still has serious teething problems. It's not Bastian Schweinsteiger's natural position and it showed. Equally, the back four, with just one defensive shield ahead of them, got caught more often than Guardiola would have liked. As a result, Gladbach, a team that finished 44 points behind Bayern last season, had a hatful of chances, though Bayern won 3-1. Up front, Guardiola was a bit more orthodox. Mario Mandzukic was mobile and intelligent without trying to be a "false nine." In fact, given the tendencies of Thomas Mueller, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben behind him, you wonder if he isn't more useful as a "movement" striker, clearing space for runners and cuts inside from the wing, than as a traditional centre-forward or as a roving false nine. The "Men at Work" signs are still up at the Sabenerstrasse and probably will be for some time. Getting comfortable with the lone holding player and ironing out some of the defensive frailties -- which jar on a side that was rock-solid last season -- will probably be Guardiola's priority over the next few months. Given the amount of talent in the front five, that part of the equation can wait.
"Initially there will be a recognition that [there needs to be] an apology to his teammates and the club," said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers when asked what Luis Suarez needs to do next. Rodgers went on to talk about needing to "protect the fans and the players because they deserve more." Rodgers is rolling the dice on this one by talking about apologies and "protecting" supporters and his squad. First of all, it's unclear what he means by the latter. Liverpool fans are a hardy bunch and, besides, from what danger do they need to be "protected"? The notion that their star player might want to move to a different club? That horse has bolted. They know what Suarez said. He made things abundantly clear. As for this apology business, even a child figures out that a forced apology is worthless. Assuming Suarez needs to apologize and his teammates are genuinely hurt by his actions -- and that's a big assumption since they're all professionals and they're all big boys, and some of them got to Liverpool because they used the exact same tactic that Suarez is using to try to get out -- the only way it will be meaningful is if they sense repentance. Actions speak far louder than words. More to the point, if Liverpool don't sell him, Suarez will be back (after he serves his biting suspension) and he'll still be the club's best player. Does it really make sense to treat him like a child and make him apologize? If there's one thing even Suarez's fiercest critics concede, it's that the man is a professional on the pitch. He may be unhappy if he doesn't get his move, but his track record shows he'll be no less committed and effective in terms of what he's paid to do. But if Suarez takes Rodgers' talk of apologies as some kind of attempt to humiliate him, it could well be a different story. It might well make more sense -- for the good of the club -- to leave out this apology business, sell or not sell, and if it's the latter, just get on with it.
Contrasting fortunes and performances for Ligue 1's big spenders: Paris Saint-Germain were held to a 1-1 draw at Montpellier, while Monaco grabbed all three points at Bordeaux with a 2-0 win. Montpellier's goal should probably have been disallowed (Zlatan Ibrahimovic was clearly fouled in midfield), but it doesn't change the fact that PSG still don't look the part. There are shades of last season when they won games more through individuals than through a coherent system of play. Manager Laurent Blanc has his work cut out for him. Monaco, on the other hand, battered Bordeaux for much of the game, and while their goals (from Emmanuel Riviere and Radamel Falcao) came late, they were fully deserved. After their summer spending spree, a place in the Champions League is obviously the minimum objective for manager Claudio Ranieri's crew and, on Saturday's evidence, they seem by no means intimidated.
So it looks as if Arsenal might finally sign somebody. At $21.5 million and 26 years of age, Luis Gustavo looks like a pretty good deal. Manager Arsene Wenger can use him as a defensive stopper in midfield (a slot they really haven't filled since the days of Gilberto Silva) or plug him into the back four. The only real counterargument would be the fact that late last season, when the Gunners went on their run -- eight wins and two draws in the final 10 games -- they appeared to finally have achieved some defensive balance with Mikel Arteta sitting very deep. Putting Luis Gustavo alongside him would require some kind of rethinking or adjustment. Then again, if they're serious about pursuing Suarez or some other striker, odds are they'll have to change the game plan anyway. And if that's the case, why not add one of the more consistent defensive midfielders in the game?