Football fans should find comfort in the calmer tides of the Premier League. There has been no Big Project rumbling, not just yet anyway. The commentators of each game have pushed through without swearing, shouting or crying, which is always a good start. As far as Premier League starts go, it has been both an inherently exciting time, but also a relatively plain one. Those who were in poor form last season have picked up exactly where they left off, and those who found themselves rising up through the ranks are, more or less, continuing to do so. A small blip on the horizon forms the inevitably hectic January transfer window. But until then, there is little in the way of updates, and even less in the way of change.
Hanging on like a leech on the leg of the last swimmer out of the murky brown sea, Arsenal hasn’t made much of an impact in their post-Arsene Wenger era. That is not an issue contained in this season alone, nor one that Mikael Arteta is solely responsible for. Arteta is more comparable to a doomed ship captain than a Premier League manager, and his lack of success probably comes from the stunning mediocrity of his team and his tactics. Give it time, the fans say. His tactics will work. A 3-1 thumping of Spurs would look far more convincing had the opposing team been any better than a local village’s five-a-side Sunday Parish team.
While the dearly beloved and personally bequeathed “Mighty Titans of Europe,” Aston Villa, may be lighter to the tune of one Jack Grealish, they’ve patched up the squad as best they could. It’s a bit like needing a new engine on a car, and instead just scrapping it and buying a new one. Only this car might injure itself intermittently (Ings), retire (Young), injure itself intermittently (Buendia), or not gel with the rest of the squad (Bailey). Bailey has opted for “injuring himself intermittently” after being heavily involved with the comfortable 3-0 win against Everton. Dean Smith has crafted a range of hopefully strong signings to fill the Grealish-shaped gap. Only time will tell as they challenge for fifth place. Inevitably, the claret and blue will hit mid-table and hold there for the seasons to come. Why change the success of last season? 12th place or bust.
A true underdog story was the expected result for the buzzing little irritants, but Brentford are forming themselves as a dark horse in the league runnings. Their success in beating Arsenal 2-0 in the opening game of the season and holding Liverpool to an exciting 3-3 draw are examples of their strong abilities. It is also a warning. Brentford is a team that will inspire exciting new methods of football, but it is up to manager Thomas Frank to not “Sheffield United” his time at the top. One season living the high life, and a second that sees the other 19 teams adapt to the strategies that had stumped them the first time around. Brentford may be a breath of fresh air for football, but they’ll be gasping for points by the end of next season. Hopefully, anyway, otherwise the Premier League will buckle under the mighty bees.
Speaking of dark horses, the work Graham Potter has provided for Brighton over the few weeks of rest between one season to the next is inspiring and terrifying. How he has turned this relegation-fighting team into a top-five contender in only one season is exceptional. But the effect of it is similar to that of Brentford or Sheffield United. Are they up to the task of repeating what West Ham also could not do? Probably. Potter has a strong team of footballers there, none of who are particular household names just yet, and what few quality assets he has at the club will be siphoned off in the January transfer window for the Big Six*
*Well, four, really.
Sean Dyche’s five-year contract extension may come as a surprise since he’s battled both relegation and dieticians telling him not to pour gravel down his gullet for the better part of this season. A slow start indeed. Jordan North may want silverware at the club this season, but reality waits for no man. They’re unstoppable, Burnley. Somehow, through some unknown power beyond our conception, they will survive another season in the Premier League. Even if they don’t, Dyche will stick around for a long, long time. He is irreplaceable. Not because he has worked wonders in recent years, but because nobody else could handle the stress of Nick Pope and his injury-a-season antics.
Chelsea? Title contenders? You wouldn’t believe that if you’d looked at them in 2016. But five years of gruelling work and one less Frank Lampard have morphed Chelsea into a go-getting team without much patience for failure. Thomas Tuchel may be on fine form, but he may have peaked too soon. Other teams are biting at his heels, and difficult fixtures lie ahead. Will the Tuchel Empire fall this season? Probably not, no. Thrashing the fresh faces of the Premier League should see him steady, and with some sloppy results for Manchester City and Liverpool elsewhere in the league, it may be Tuchel time after all.
When Arsenal legend Patrick Vieria took over as manager from the retiring Roy Hodgson, there was an unquestionable feeling of doubt in the air. What can such a great footballer do at a club with a less-than-stellar run? A team who, like Brighton, fought desperately to avoid relegation in the final weeks of the Premier League. A decent signing in the form of Celtic striker Eduoard should prove useful, so long as Crystal Palace can actually get the ball up the other end of the pitch. They are struggling with that so far, except against the apparently “new and improved” Tottenham. It is still early doors and Vieria seems like a man with a plan. Whether that plan is “a relegation battle,” is something we’ll simply have to wait and see.
A strong start for Everton may give football fans the wrong impression. Drawing with Leeds and losing to Aston Villa are not signs of a team on the up and up. Eventually, Benitez will realise his project is doomed, like renovating a house that was built on a graveyard, filled with the demons of his time at Chelsea. The ghost of his Liverpool success will hang over his head, but more importantly, will rattle the minds and pockets of Everton fans. If he did it once in Anfield, surely he can do it again at Goodison Park. That being said, some convincing wins here or there are proving Benitez to be the underusing manager of the season, which has happened to him once before in his single-handed revival of Newcastle United just four seasons ago.
Hiring a man who (quite rightly) refuses to learn English and sits on a bucket for most games is the most Leeds-like decision to be made. Marco Bielsa has steered Leeds clear of any desperate dealings in previous seasons with willpower so large it could eclipse the sun. His anger towards the players, the people of Birmingham and, presumably, himself, has given him enough energy to create a stellar squad of future England call-ups, solid line-ups for every game and as good a chance at any of staying in the Premier League for years to come. But this season has been a shaky start for the Argentinian and his wunderkind. All they can hope for this season is survival, which is what former champions of the league appear to be hoping for too.
Should Brendan Rodgers abandon ship and hope like he did with Celtic, this would be the season to leave on. A flagging start sees the FA Cup winners barely breaking through the mid-table positions. They are no longer leaders or runners-up of the pack. Too far behind to gun for the big victory, and too far ahead to get themselves relegated, they are already in the purgatory of the mid-table. Rodgers and his squad are capable of much stronger results than that, but it is a simple case of bad luck for this team. Jamie Vardy has not lost his ego, Kasper Schmeichel has not had his hands taped together. Something is wrong with the structure. When difficult results are pulled out of encounters with relegation fodder squads, it is hard to see a way out for Leicester, but easy to see one for Rodgers.
Nothing but nice words for Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp has such likeable energy to him that the horrendous tackles James Milner made in the Manchester City match are immediately forgivable. The Liverpool squad could destroy a match so badly it was abandoned, but flash a smiling Klopp on screen and all is forgiven. He is the impenetrable shield of that team. A shame he’ll be leaving them soon. If not soon, then when? Artists always peter out after hitting their peak, and his was two seasons ago. His squad is stronger still, with Sadio Mane and Mo Salah offering a decent pairing whenever they’re able to get the ball into the back of the net, but the results are slimmer than usual. Tight draws with three of the new “Big Six” (Chelsea, Manchester City and Brentford, naturally) will prove troublesome for their top-flight antics this season, especially if they wish to put a stop to the reigning champions’ inevitable rise to first place.
Reigning champions carry the torch of quality, except by opening the season with a loss to Tottenham. While Manchester City has spent big money in the transfer window, the names they have signed are big, but the quality is diminished. Jack Grealish may be the wonder child of English football, but he will dovetail in this season. He is now surrounded by players who know what they are doing. It is hard to stand out as the chosen one, captain material and all-around encyclopaedia of football when the rest of the squad have years of practice and knowledge too. Pep Guardiola may have saved Grealish from mid-table mania, but is it a better career for him to be cleaning the boots of Phil Foden than it is to have his boots cleaned by Matty Cash?
Ten years ago, it would be unbelievable and crass to suggest Manchester United would not be winning or at least challenging for the Premier League top spot. But they are in freefall. They have yet to find their footing after Sir Alex Ferguson departed to play golf, chastise former players and make documentaries with his son. Jose Mourinho claimed his best accomplishment with the squad was a second-place finish. Four years on from his tenure at the club, and it seems he was right. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has yet to breach such success. He dare not touch the sun. Or, rather, he dare not touch a trophy. That’ll not change, and for all his earnest intentions and solid playmaking abilities, Manchester United does not inspire much confidence or change. Good.
In hindsight, the past 14 years of Newcastle fandom has been feral. They are unhappy, and more power to those trying to unwind with a viewing of the football. Newcastle fans stutter into the stadium just to see their team take the lead, but, through reasons only a higher deity can provide, lose anyway. Has Steve Bruce been the problem? Is Mike Ashley a modern-day representation of the Devil himself? No, and probably not. It is the expectations of fans that have strangled the Newcastle United success story. Even their glory days had them chalked up as “2nd Best in England,” which is no place at all in the modern game.
Firm holders of 20th place, there is little reason to talk of Norwich City. Their best efforts have squandered them. An embarrassing state of affairs. Despite this, it is still relatively easy to argue the strengths of their team. An experienced set of individuals who have tasted Premier League competition time and time again, but have yet to rise to the challenge. They will not do so this season, unless the challenge is to beat Derby’s record for lowest points in a single season. They’re on track for that. Managerial change, January signings or a points deduction for every team couldn’t help Norwich now. It’s a wonder as to why they bother showing up these days.
A squad prime for poaching in the seasons to come, Southampton are soon to be sold off as spare parts. Ings here, James Ward-Prowse there. It’ll not be long before Southampton slump into a permanent 15th place or find themselves grappling with the realities of relegation. A shame, too, since their football last season was relatively interesting and emotive. But emotions do not win football, and Adam Armstrong does not score goals.
Having to drag the former manager of Wolves into your squad of over-payed, under-played elite is no small task. Daniel Levy should know that, yet his decision to hire Nuno Espírito Santo inspires little confidence in his ambitions for Spurs. The players do not inspire much either, though. An out of form Harry Kane leads this uncomfortable charge with Son Heung-min and Dele Ali behind him, a formation which would have worked five years ago when they weren’t trying to hold back the tears and terrors of realising that they’re still at Tottenham Football Club.
The first managerial casualty of the Premier League, and an odd one at that. Watford is relatively comfortable for a newly-promoted side. Not quite challenging for a top spot, but not letting themselves be dragged into a relegation battle either. Not yet, anyway. Experienced players have set the course well enough, and bringing in Claudio Ranieri to take over as head coach is either inspired or desperate. They know how well he can gel in the league, but they should be aware of how low he can go. Just compare the Premier League winning season with the sacking that took place just one season later.
David Moyes’ magic last season is unrepeatable. To bounce from so low in the table to that agonisingly close-to-top-four high is a hard range to manage. West Ham will slingshot themselves around the table once more this season, with a strange pattern of relatively convincing wins against big teams, yet ineffectual losses against clubs they squashed last season. It is the beautiful game in motion, although you get the feeling that Moyes is nonplussed about this situation. He squandered his “Big Six” chance, and he is better for it. Just look at him now, a man whose club couldn’t even sign Jesse Lingard.
A team so forgettable, so unloved by those who waver on the fence of support for neutral teams, Wolves are apparently still in the Premier League. Despite a 13th place finish last season, it is hard to decide on what Wolves stand for. Their survival in the league feels happenstance, and their quality is carried solely by midfielders and strikers who should be at bigger, better clubs. They are not long for this squad. Adama Traore is not going to want his legacy as a striker to be just a series of mid-table finishes. He is more than that. Wolves are not. But it is early doors, they have time to create a space for themselves as potential top ten finishers. Winning the league is impossible, so is extracurricular league competitions in the FA or UEFA tournaments, but they’ll stutter on, just like the rest of them.