Ten kneejerk reactions to the opening Premier League weekend

Date published: Tuesday 17th August 2021 5:25 - Matthew Stead

Jack Grealish

The Premier League’s opening weekend lends itself to the hottest takes, such as Southampton’s relegation and a breakout Paul Pogba season.

 

10) Trevoh Chalobah will be England’s next debutant
It is a Crooksism but the tendency to highlight the virtues of a defensive player only when they score is unavoidable and pervasive. Trevoh Chalobah might have broken through that barrier and received due praise regardless but his debut goal against Crystal Palace, combined with the perennial focus on Chelsea’s talent production line, guaranteed glowing column inches and gushing pundit prose.

The 22-year-old will not retain a regular starting place beyond the next fortnight or so; Thiago Silva promptly reprises that role upon his return. But Thomas Tuchel has been sufficiently satisfied with Chalobah’s seamless adaptation to this stage and so his foot is in the door. It is only a matter of time before Gareth Southgate revisits interest in a player he called upon to train with the England squad ahead of the 2018 World Cup. The only defenders to make their Three Lions debut since November 2019 are Conor Coady, Reece James, Ben White and Ben Godfrey. There is room for a fresh addition, even as flavour of the month.

 

9) Brighton will finish in the top half
For a moment there it seemed as though Brighton supporters should actually have been careful what they wished for. The safety net provided by Chris Hughton was cast aside for something greater, more meaningful and conducive to growth in 2019. But the transition was not seamless. You can throw a small net over the club’s four Premier League seasons: finishes of 15th, 17th, 15th and 16th, points totals of 40, 36, 41 and 41 and goals scored columns of 34, 35, 39 and 40. Hughton and replacement Graham Potter have opposing tactical ideals but whether the focus was on defence or a more expansive style, Brighton never seemed to move the needle too far. They have won nine games in each of their four Premier League seasons, infuriatingly incapable of breaking through that ceiling.

It has been enough to survive each time but the onus is on progression and a comeback win against Burnley is indicative of that. Brighton won one game from behind in the entirety of last campaign: that euphoric first match back in front of fans against Manchester City in May. But this victory was inspired by the manager’s substitutions and the players’ indomitable spirit instead of any fan emotion. Two points separated the Seagulls from Burnley in 2021/22; the gap felt more substantial on Saturday. While their respective levels of investment mean that should be a given, it has rarely been the case in practice.

Brighton have valuable players throughout their spine and even the lack of a reliable goalscorer should not prevent them from finally cracking a top half that, beyond an established six or seven teams, has an interchangeable cast. Since 2016, Stoke Burnley, Newcastle, Sheffield United, Wolves and Leeds have all come tenth or higher. There is no guarantee of being able to build from there but Brighton have the foundations in place for something tangible.

 

8) Burnley and Southampton will be relegated
The numbers are rough estimates but they tell a story that can be spun in two different ways. Either Burnley and Southampton have mastered the art of shopping for own-brand items and living on a stricter diet than most, or theirs is the sort of inherent tightrope gamble that many clubs accept to live within their means. Four current Premier League clubs have a net spend of £50m or lower over the past five seasons; the Clarets and Saints have been top-flight sides throughout that period, unlike Brentford and Watford.

It already feels as though Burnley and Southampton might have struggled to strike that balance this season. The former have infused the squad with as little fresh talent as possible in recent years. Jay Rodriguez was the latest signing in the starting XI that fell to Brighton; he joined in July 2019. Sean Dyche otherwise named four players he bought in 2017, three purchases from 2016, an addition each from June 2015 and January 2012 and academy graduate Dwight McNeil. ALK Capital do not seem to have opened any recruitment doors.

That is still an upgrade on the apparent asset-stripping occurring on the coast as Southampton have sold their top scorer and best centre-half in the same summer that they lost one of their most senior players. Danny Ings, Jannik Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand will be difficult to replace and Ralph Hasenhuttl was already working close to the edge in terms of depth at times last season. He and Dyche are talented coaches but those tides will be tough to fight without a paddle.

Southampton players

 

7) Brentford and Watford will be fine
Norwich understandably struggled to carry their share of a historic weight as the three promoted clubs almost all won their opening Premier League fixture for the first time. The Canaries might justifiably point to the standard of respective opposition as to why they could not quite emulate the feats of Brentford or Watford, who both displayed their top-flight credentials in different but similarly stinging circumstances.

The Bees were phenomenal against Arsenal – organised, fluid and uninhibited by their relative lack of experience. The Hornets stunned a supposed European hopeful in Aston Villa, overwhelming their visitors and possessing the sort of individual brilliance that can be harnessed to immense danger in the right team dynamic. The chasm between the Championship and Premier League can be bridged with patience, foresight and investment, especially if the top flight already contains a few sides clinging on to that status through reputation and longevity alone instead of proper planning and vision. Brentford particular seem more suited to this level; Watford have plenty more capacity to surprise.

 

6) Everton will qualify for Europe
Many clubs, if not most, had more impactful and outwardly impressive transfer windows. Few were quite as focused, specific and tailored to the existing strengths of the squad in question. Rafael Benitez had a budget imposed upon him through the mismanagement and financial excess of his predecessors. He identified an area for improvement and acted on it within the constraints placed upon him. Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray were cost-efficient purchases for rivals to scoff at and some Everton supporters to lobby against, but it is always better to spend £1.7m on necessary signings who have an obvious place rather than much more on luxury buys who do not.

The results were immediate. Southampton were put to the sword and the cross as Goodison Park witnessed an aerial bombardment designed to exploit the new Dominic Calvert-Lewin meta. Richarlison should excel by his side and Alex Iwobi even embraced the challenge, while Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure will compete with most midfields and the defence is solid enough even without Benitez’s more conservative and pragmatic stylings offering a little more protection. He feels a more natural fit with these players, if not the supporters just yet.

 

5) Liverpool don’t need more signings
It will never be accepted. Standing still is moving backwards, particularly when the only two clubs definitively expected to do better have either broken the British transfer record or have edged remarkably close to the new mark. Manchester City will keep trying to unite Harry Kane with Jack Grealish and Chelsea should be forgiven for relishing the arrival of Romelu Lukaku. Liverpool have instead quenched the never-ending thirst for signings – and reacted to a recent defensive injury crisis – with £36m fourth-choice centre-half Ibrahima Konate. Every other advance has been to write out a spate of new contracts for the existing squad.

That will never appease sections of the fanbase or a media built on transfer rumours but it makes sense in this context. If Liverpool can avoid such a freakish cluster of concurrent injuries then there is no issue in the squad that requires an imported solution: the starting defence is sensational and every position has at least one solid back-up; Georginio Wijnaldum is a significant loss but one outcome of Curtis Jones developing, Naby Keita emerging, Thiago acclimatising or Fabinho adjusting seems likely; Mo Salah can carry that attack with Harvey Elliott and Takumi Minamino as possible wildcards now Diogo Jota is fit enough to provide serious competition and variation.

The collective mood and mentality seems genuinely more important to Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool than to most other managers and teams and it is worth trying to continue fostering that instead of risking friction with too many new faces in an established set-up.

Roberto Firmino and Virgil van Dijk

 

4) Tottenham will finish in the top four
Newcastle finished third when Andy Cole won the Golden Boot and set up the most goals in the 1993/94 season. Kevin Keegan was defending his sale to furious supporters on the steps of St James’ Park 18 months later. Harry Kane became the only other man to ever lead the division for goals and assists outright last campaign. Perhaps Daniel Levy will soon be inviting beleaguered fans to a newly-instated VIP cheese room to explain his reasoning for finally letting the club’s prize asset go.

Beating Manchester City has not quelled talk of Kane’s departure. It has had rather the opposite effect. But lost in the renewed clamour to smuggle England’s captain to the Etihad was a professional, dedicated, organised performance from his teammates to overcome the Premier League champions in north London. Nuno Espirito Santo engineered victory with neither Cristian Romero nor Bryan Gil starting, the new coach instead dusting down a squad that had been marginalised and misused, finding treasure in another man’s trash: Japhet Tanganga, Davinson Sanchez, Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn were considered expendable yet each have a role to play in a quietly exciting future. Add Kane to that mix once the distractions are removed with the closure of the transfer window and Tottenham are suddenly a genuine force again, even without their actual best player. Erik Lamela is in a better place now.

 

3) Aston Villa and Jack Grealish will both be worse off
This is not to say Aston Villa will be relegated and Jack Grealish will be a catastrophically bad signing for Manchester City. The one thing Dean Smith could not buy to replace his talisman was time and it will take plenty for a new attack to gel, for players to adjust to not giving the ball and the responsibility to their captain. And Pep Guardiola’s ideal and meticulous instructions cannot be absorbed after a few training sessions; Grealish will find his role in the team and calibrate, just as long as he absolutely does not become a two-time Premier League winner and Champions League finalist who regularly scores and assists. That would be awful.

But the grass will be greener for neither. Villa handled the situation impeccably, putting a contractual escape route in place, insisting it be met instead of courting any sort of saga, signing numerous fine players to share the workload even before he left and clearly explaining each thought process to the fans. That does not change how vast a hole Grealish has left and how much it has irrevocably altered the entire team dynamic. Villa have reiterated that they were 18 months behind in terms of where they would have needed to be in their project to keep their crown jewel; this will set them back much further before they find the right track again.

As for Manchester City, they signed a phenomenal player but not one they necessarily needed. He will do well enough – win trophies, score goals, win free-kicks – but offers only a brilliant variation to what they already had rather than a legitimate alternative. His honours list will benefit but his light will be that little bit dimmer. It’s not a bad personal trade-off, in fairness.

 

2) Paul Pogba will be named PFA Player of the Year
He could have done more. The blame for five underwhelming and inconsistent seasons has to be apportioned appropriately and one of the bigger slices belongs to Paul Pogba himself. It has not been a question of attitude or application, rather an inability to bring the best out of less talented teammates. He lowered his own level more often than he raised that of those around him. Anyone expecting the Frenchman to single-handedly drag Manchester United to glory had misunderstood his career to that point – and some are still wilfully obtuse in that regard.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has built a platform and is happy for Pogba to stand upon it as long as he has him. Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire and Edinson Cavani improved the collective standard; Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane will hope to do the same. A Pogba unencumbered with that weight of individual expectation is free to express and enjoy himself. “Manchester United need one outstanding season from Paul Pogba because he’s going to leave next summer,” was Gary Neville’s belief and whether the midfielder extends his deal at Old Trafford or not, he finally has the sort of worthy team he was promised in 2016. One year of his French national team alter ego is better than nothing at all.

 

1) Mikel Arteta will be the first manager to go
The process is a whole lot harder to trust when a newly promoted team with vastly inexperienced players and a manager in only his second senior role seems so much further ahead in theirs. What Brentford lack in history, prestige, transfer fees and wages, they made up for in a performance that thoroughly and painfully explored Arsenal’s limitations. It was not about the bounce of supporters being back, the novelty of top-flight football or the brightness of those Friday night lights. Brentford beat Arsenal because they were better in preparation and execution.

That run of form from Boxing Day onwards spared Mikel Arteta. Only the Manchester clubs earned more Premier League points from December 26 to the end of the season and a five-game winning streak to close the campaign was the longest the Gunners had managed since October 2018. It offered an illusion of progress that has been almost immediately undermined as soon as the pressure was back. There is a lack of confidence on the pitch and seemingly an absence of clarity off it. Chelsea and Manchester City await before the international break and it could genuinely be worth changing tack then if things have not significantly improved. Arteta might not be the problem but he certainly does not appear to have the solution.

Mikel Arteta

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