Three weeks of a lot of old and new in the Premier League
The Premier League is back again tomorrow
After that strange, anticlimactic phenomena that is a week of international break, the Premier League kicks right back into gear this weekend. It does not do so from zero but from three matchweeks of action already played in this 2021-2022 season of pregnant rebirth. A short period of time, a sample of total action that is small but also substantive. There are some revelations, as well as some harden enigmas. Beyond all that, however, what we’ve had is a lot of fun; the vibrancy has been felt, the grins detected on faces; in new but familiar places.
Places like all those once-empty stands but once again filled, with sporting joy and despair; with unmitigated, uncut feeling. The intense sensations of all kind that competition, that football here, brings. Who would’ve told Tottenham Hotspur fans a mere month ago that they would lead the Premier League? Better yet, who would’ve told them that and that Arsenal would be bottom, in the very last place? That has never happened before in the history of the football, of the world.
It’s been exhilaratingly enjoyable. Not because Spurs are first and Arsenal last, that in and of itself is kind of whatever (reverse the roles and would’ve been equitably noteworthy), but because how refreshing, captivating so much seems to be. These two unexpected developments, these two anomalies, are a good example of it. But even the ordinary, the expected, such as Chelsea’s Tuchel-driven excellence or Manchester United’s constant cloud of unconvincingness, have been enthralling also. With the noise of crowds any old crap seems more interesting than last season, it seems.
The very first of weekend of action was the best and brightest example. In their ever-stunning stadium, Tottenham welcomed the champions Manchester City. The buzz was palpable, despite the fact that they, the home team, were likely gonna get paddled by not only a superior squad but one that wanted to add Tottenham’s star, Harry Kane, to their troops. That interest, that provoked uncertainty, meant Kane would not play nor be at all called upon for Spurs on the day. A probable defeat veered to even greater probability because of this. But, oh, hey it turns out Nuno’s Tottenham aren’t half bad. Despite how embarrassing a process it became for Tottenham to settle on a new manager over the summer, Nuno has meant what, on reflection, he’s meant for almost every team he’s coached in the past: immediate improvement. This duo, of Spurs and Nuno, isn’t meant to last a decade. It isn’t meant to least half that long either. It will probably eventually suffer a decay not as traumatic as a Mourinho decay, but a deterioration all the same. Hopefully, for them, not this season nor the next. But we will see.
On week 1 one what we saw, was a win, signed by Heung-min Son; a defeat of Manchester City, a stellar Tottenham display of attack and defense. A Man City of the mediocre, stuck in between gears variety. Even that was mildly refreshing after the almost unstoppable rampage that they went on in the second half of last season. City were once again kind of dorky. Conceptually inefficient. That was much more encouraging, a much more welcomed start than the two subsequent demolition jobs they’ve delivered since, at the expense of Norwich and Arsenal. Against a thus-far-serious-team, Guardiola’s boys struggled. So there’s hope for the Premier League title war that we hope to get in the final stretch of the season.
That Man City would go on to humiliate Canaries and Gunners alike was to be expected, was written on the Premier League menu (in bold letters), but not so that Tottenham would add two more wins for a total of 9 out of 9 points. The only team of the 20 to do so this season. Everyone else has already drawn or been defeated – not Spurs. Not necessarily with scintillating brilliance, not much of that at all, but Spurs went and gave shape to two solid wins against Wolverhampton and against Watford. All spiced up with unexpected nuances such as Dele Alli and Oliver Skipp starting all three games. The defense has finally been repaired after the late-era Pochettino decay and the Mourinho circus of horrors, and Son has proved that he is “contortable” enough to fill Kane-shaped holes on request. It’s an interesting sight so far at Tottenham.
For Arsenal, after only three weeks, the horse already feels beaten to death, even if the substance of nuance goes way deeper still. To put it mildly, diplomatically… they’re goddamn terrible. They should get players back from injury, they should play teams that they have a chance of beating (unlike, you know, Brentford), and things should steady at least somewhat. But burden of proof so far weighs heavy in the conclusion that they’ve been horrific. Mikel Arteta is as handsome and seemingly eloquent as ever, but his verbal deflection of responsibility will grow more tiresome than Unai Emery’s countercultural “Good Evenings”. Odegaard should flow back into things, Aubameyang should comeback from the hole of catastrophe he’s fallen into, Leno should regain respectability under the posts, Tomiyasu and White should assimilate, stabilize – themselves into the team and the team by virtue of them. Or they will all go down with the fallen, as that Starset song goes.
“Tell me to stop and not sign (past their peak) players by mere virtue of not letting Manchester City have them and no, I don’t think I will”. That’s where we are kind of at with Manchester United. Still incredibly flawed, yet not. I said on my podcast last week that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is Schrödinger’s manager. He’s both a great manager and a terrible manager at the same time. And because of that, nothing makes any sense. They’re good but bad, and now with an overwhelming, hardly manageable constellation of attacking superstars.
- Bruno Fernandes
- Jadon Sancho
- Paul Pogba
- Mason Greenwood
- Anthony Martial
- Marcus Rashford
- Edinson Cavani
- Cristiano Ronaldo
Only three spots starting spots available for them in the lineup. Three unless Solskjaer wants to go back for the nth time the to the dry as hell well of playing Paul Pogba in the double pivot. Please, no – let’s not, ok? It’s gonna be delicate to balance. The biggest trend of thought amongst Big Brain thinkers seems to lead us to the conclusion that the good players will play well together because they are good players and good players find instinctually an understanding for each other that makes everything click. A fallacy if there ever was one. Of course, there is truth to that, like in any old cliché. But complexity is a real thing. Unbalances of chemistry are real. Super teams that don’t work are real. The hints of Alexis Sánchez flavor come through in the Cristiano signing. In many ways, they are incomparable. Ronaldo might be not only second-best to Messi but second-best to any footballer ever. At his peak, at his brutally long-sustained peak, Ronaldo was that level of guy. Really. He’s in the conversation at the very least. And just like in that one, he’s at the center of the Manchester United conversation. How will all this work? Will it work at all? Even within very level-headed analysts, the dissection of him always falls along emotional lines, for some reason. He makes people get so involved, so absorbed as to lose perspective of what his figure represents in actually. He’s (or has been) too good to properly assess, in many ways. And that’s just the footballing side of things. There’s also the unsettling baggage that will pursue him until it is one day resolved one way or the other. Or it may never. And that’s part of the story, for better or for worse. A hard route to navigate.
But in terms of technical football, even if not with a disturbing aspect to it, it remains also complicated. Given how Juventus have gotten steadily worse over his 3 years there, the pro-Ronaldo will tell you that it was the team’s fault; the anti-Ronaldo will tell that it obviously his fault. At 36 years of age, he’s been one of the best ever, he’s still a prolific producer of offense and goals, but not all that he once was. Yet, with still the same gravitas for everything to happen in consequence of him. That is an ambitious and dangerous mix. Both. One way or the other, it is showtime; the pressure is on. This team, and Solskjaer, must finally deliver ultimate goods. Or, at the very, very least, be in contention until a bitter end.
It is not that same story for a team, a project, that has one of each: a Champions League and a Premier League. Liverpool have done that. That legacy is secured. The meaning carved in stone. But this team has been dynastically good. Do only two trophies, though, represent that truthfully enough? Manchester City have the three Premier Leagues in four years – plus a slew of too many Carabao Cups to count. It’s a little fuller. And again, this is only in terms of accurately having the greatness represented with the passing of time. The fact that it may not be it, the end, as it dangerously felt through the middle of last season, is a greatly encouraging sign. Liverpool are still good, are still a contender. Sure, they have only beaten Norwich, Burnley and drawn with Chelsea. But there was a most definite swagger to them. A capability to beat anyone and everyone. That marauding power they showed from 2018 through 2020, even if not in complete full flow. The additions are relatively scarce, yet they lost so much of what they were, of who they still are, that just getting that back is fresh air they needed to breath. Virgil van Dijk is in and of himself a forest of trees in more ways than one.
Liverpool will not be the perfect machine they once were – or were close to being. Though the winning of the Premier League title will not need it, Man City and Chelsea seem much more enthralled in a battle of seeing who comes close to football perfection this year. Manchester United might stumble into the title at week 38 of the season, but it seems inevitable that they will not feel like the best team. And with Lukaku, it is Chelsea, more than the Ferrán Torres-lead Manchester City, who will feel like will ultimately be the best team. Tuchel and the boys already feel like such, after breezing past Crystal Palace, humiliating Arsenal with just a 2-0 score, and not being defeated by a numerical disadvantage of players on the field for 50 minutes at Anfield. What this last year has shown us is just what a coaching virtuoso extraordinaire Thomas Tuchel is. We saw it in that crazy first season of his at Dortmund (a team that even felt like they were better than peak-Klopp Dortmund), we saw it in parts, in periods, in moments, at PSG. But ultimately the Neymar-Mbappé vortex was only so durable with him as the coach. Now, at Chelsea, we are really seeing how good he is. The defense is staggeringly good; so is the midfield; even more so is the attack. Even Lukaku is hyper-aware of this. He’s playing for perhaps the best team on the planet and will routinely get frustrated that the passes he receives from Mason Mount and the like aren’t always perfect. It’s fun to watch. They’re depth is like no other. They feel more resilient than City, more rugged. And they’ll maybe win the Premier League.
A Premier League in which, in these three games, we’ve had much more than the usual suspects, much more than the colloquially known as the “Big-Six” (the big six stadiums bar Newcastle and West Ham is all it really means).
Speaking of which… West Ham! It felt like a sort of regression was on the cards for them this season. But that sense is gone and they’re here, to stay. All the lack of refreshing was made irrelevant by just Michail Antonio starting, with the swag the number 9 brings to a back of a shirt, and looking as good, as sharp, as forceful, as ever. Then they went and added three seemingly excellent players in Kourt Zouma, Alex Kral and Nikola Vlasic. But even without them, the spark, in this new season, was still there for this team. And against 10 men and all of that, but they wrecked Leicester with gusto and ease. For as much as a star as Antonio has been and was on that night, it’s been everything that has clicked. Even Jesse Lingard’s replacement. It seemed like the most logical thing in the world for J-Lingz to come back and stay on as a Hammer. But he went away, and Benrahma was back into what was supposed to be his spot to start with. The man known as Saïd had a catastrophically bad first season, but surprise, surprise, he’s back to his Brentford form. But now in the Premier League. Whatever ailed, whatever impeded that the previous campaign, is gone. The craft and ability of a sensational player on display, perhaps even superior to that of Lingard’s if the consistency throughout the season is maintained. That will the test for Mr. Benrahma. But this team, the team he will be tested with, rocks. Controlling offensive tempo with their characteristically rapid and overwhelming bursts onto enemy territories, Moyes’ side are direct, is rustic and a combination of throwback and modern that just works.
The stories are many and varied. Only three weeks gone, but the content and nuance are rich. Norwich again facing they’re own existential abyss. Yes, they’re a good team, but also yes, they’re gonna lose every single game. All 38. Probably not, but that’s the feeling. And if not, just watch Brandon Williams get his lunch stolen by Ricardo Pereira in their 1-2 defeat to Leicester in matchweek 3. On the other hand, another of the 0-of-out-of-9ers, Wolves, give the opposite sensation. Because they, apart from the hitting the net part, have been excellent. Transformed, ignited, propelled into a new paradigm of play by Bruno Lage. Hopefully, they score soon enough before presidents and executive board members become trigger-happy. And speaking of happy: Marcelo Bielsa, with Daniel James’ signing finally completed. Leeds should get just that added layer to their ravishing lasagna. Can a lasagna, a metaphorical one no less, be ravishing? I don’t know. But here we are. As are Burnley. They are all that they are, once again. Kinda convincing, kinda not, but still being themselves. Relegation, whatever happens, feels still like it will eventually be headed away from them by James Tarkowski or someone. Because with new, we have old. With different, we have the same. But beyond it all, what this Premier League season feels like from top to bottom is fresh and honestly engaging.