Top ten kneejerk reactions to the opening weekend

Date published: Tuesday 13th August 2019 8:14

10) Crystal Palace are down
To secure a point against Everton is no mean feat, particularly without your best player for over an hour. Marco Silva’s side will bloody bigger noses and bully smaller teams than Crystal Palace, whose struggles at home have been well-documented. Roy Hodgson ought to be pleased with a draw.

But those familiar foibles linger. In terms of the opening Premier League weekend, only Leicester had fewer shots on target, only Wolves and Aston Villa – who were both away against similarly difficult opponents – had less possession, and only Burnley had a lower pass-completion percentage.

Palace were 18th in a Premier League home table last season, outscoring only Huddersfield. They surely cannot hope to replicate such impeccable away form – 6th in that table – to keep them afloat. Even with Mamadou Sakho, James Tomkins, Gary Cahill, James McCarthy, Victor Camarasa and Jeffrey Schlupp still to come into the fold, Wilfried Zaha is being asked to shoulder an almighty burden as a possible last hurrah. It won’t end well.

 

9) Sheffield United are not
As newly-adopted Steel City son Seb Stafford Bloor will tell you, Sheffield United are a contradiction. The manager is a 51-year-old, proud Yorkshireman. Their most recognisable, identifiable player is a 33-year-old journeyman striker born in, you guessed it, Sheffield. Their only season of Premier League survival was the inaugural campaign in 1992/93. Yet this is a forward-thinking club whose success has been based on tactical ingenuity as much as hard work.

Bournemouth learned that lesson on Saturday. The Cherries and Eddie Howe can consider themselves seasoned veterans at this level, with a relatively expensive squad, yet United stood their ground, played their way and earned their point. Come May, they might be preparing a delicious slice of humble pie for Danny Mills.

 

8) VAR will be unfairly blamed for all the world’s ills
Obviously. Hawk-Eye technology ought to be making itself useful and solving world hunger, really. But VAR will continue to be misinterpreted by the masses as the season goes on.

Take the new rulings on handball, for example, where even an accidental instance of handling in the build-up to a goal requires it to be automatically disallowed. That one is on the International FA board.

The suggestion that ‘daylight’ or ‘the benefit of the doubt’ ever existed with regards to official offside legislation has already become laborious, too. VAR has only highlighted how much that law has shifted from its initial purpose but, again, the technology itself is not the guilty party. Blame the rule itself.

And on the subject, VAR does not, has not and never will remove that initial elation of celebrating a goal. The amount of fans who possess the wherewithal to suspend their joy in the moment for fear of it being disallowed is minuscule. Those who can block their own instinctive reactions to consider all possible outcomes while collective sh*t is being lost around them are probably wasted spectating football.

The opening weekend saw just two decisions overturned through the use of VAR – and correctly so, following the interpretation of the relevant laws. The subsequent indignation was disproportionate and, as the weeks pass, will thankfully die down. If there is one universal truth when it comes to VAR, it’s that the entire discussion surrounding it is really sodding boring (he concludes after five paragraphs discussing VAR).

 

7) Burnley will finish in the top half
Absolutely no-one learned their lesson. Those charged with predictions foresaw Burnley’s demise based on three successive defeats to end the season, followed by a summer that saw Jay Rodriguez join as their only new signing worth more than £2.5m, and the fear that an eighth year of the same management could see things turn rather stale. It was backed up with data and analytics which stated in no uncertain terms that the Clarets simply could not expect to survive unless they improved their shot quality and restricted the amount of chances they gave away.

It’s just a shame that Sean Dyche eats xG for breakfast with worms on the side. Burnley beat Southampton by three actual goals despite an expected goals tally of 0.89 because of course they f**king did: they’re Burnley. They finished 7th two seasons ago despite scoring less than a goal a game (36), ending with a negative goal difference (-3) and failing to win from December 12 to March 3. And their Premier League finishes since promotion in 2016 read: 16th, 7th, 15th. So 6th is the obvious way to go before a drop to 14th in 2020/21.

 

6) Manchester United will be the league’s top scorers
Three sides have scored 40 or more Premier League goals since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s triumphant return as a Premier League manager last December. Manchester United scrape past that meaningless marker while Liverpool (56) and Manchester City (52) saunter, but there is cause for cautious optimism at Old Trafford with regards to closing the interminable gap.

They cannot hope to maintain such a prolific streak throughout the season, scoring four of their five shots on target against Chelsea. But Solskjaer has stumbled across a simple calculation that will, more often than not, equal a fair few chances each game. The pace and movement of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Daniel James should make for a potent combination with Paul Pogba’s range of passing.

Contributions from Alexis Sanchez – yes, I know – Juan Mata and even Harry Maguire should see United make fools of more defences than just Chelsea’s. It will take just 69 (nice) goals to clear the lowest of post-Sir Alex Ferguson seasonal Premier League bars. That should be their initial target but, going forward, they are capable of much more. At the very least, they will be this season’s entertainers, with the most goals scored in either their or Aston Villa’s matches. After the years of Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, that would be a welcome change.

 

5) Harry Kane will score 30 goals (and win nothing)
“It’s a good start personally. It’s the first time I’ve scored in the first game in the Premier League,” said Harry Kane, having waited long enough for his north London bus to turn up. Six seasons passed without the England international finding the net on the opening day, meaning his double against Aston Villa has effectively given him a headstart.

Save the predictable platitudes and vague niceties about how he ‘will take each game as it comes’, and that ‘the three points are the most important thing’. Kane has had his personal property stolen by Mohamed Salah and injury in the last two seasons, and wants his Golden Boot back.

The ankle ligament problem that should have ended his campaign in April might be a belated blessing in disguise. Kane was far from his best in the Champions League final but played just 150 of a possible 240 minutes for England in the UEFA Nations League finals in early June, then enjoyed a full holiday, wedding and pre-season. He has had to sprint from well behind the start line at the start of recent seasons but will finally benefit from the same consistency and match-fitness as his rivals from the beginning.

Provided the usual September ankle knock doesn’t sideline him for too long, Kane might justifiably be aiming to become the highest-scoring 26-year-old in Premier League history. Watch out, Kevin Phillips. It’s just a shame it will be his contribution to another trophyless season.

 

4) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will score 30 goals (and win something)
The word Jose Mourinho used was “genius”. Describing a touch that “looks simple, but it is not simple,” the Portuguese praised Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for what was one of few genuine moments of brilliance in Arsenal’s opening win. The Gunners were neither at their best nor their strongest against Newacstle, but they have a striker capable of deciding such matches.

It has been said before on these pages, but Aubameyang scores goals almost without anyone noticing. His tally of 33 in his first 50 Premier League games was beaten only by Alan Shearer (41), Andy Cole (41), Salah (35) and Phillips (34), yet has been greeted with almost no fanfare. It perhaps jars against the senses to see a striker move to England in the twilight of his career and thrive instead of struggling. Or is Arsenal, the land of Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie, simply too difficult a place for a forward to gain notoriety outside of north London in the social-media age?

Whatever the answer, Aubameyang’s output is only likely to increase. His partnership with Alexandre Lacazette should blossom, his combinations with Nicolas Pepe could dazzle and his stock will only increase. Unai Emery, who endured his first full season without silverware since 2011/12 last campaign, ought to be eternally grateful for Arsene Wenger’s parting gift.

 

3) Frank Lampard won’t last the season
Young does not necessarily mean inexperienced. Eddie Howe is the second-youngest manager in the Premier League and started his coaching career in 2008. Marco Silva is third; he’s already managed six separate clubs in three different countries.

But for Frank Lampard, correlation implies causation. He retired from playing three years ago, earned his coaching badges one year ago and hardly succeeded in his first role at Derby. The Rams finished 6th without him in 2018, again with him in 2019 and will probably do so once more in 2020, yet the stars aligned to promote a completely unqualified candidate to one of the most desirable managerial roles in football.

The inclination is to not read too much into what was essentially a freak result in his debut match at this level. But these are kneejerk reactions and it’s time to accidentally kick the damn coffee table onto the dog: he will be on the wrong end of an awkward Roman Abramovich phone call before May.

This is nothing against Lampard; he has shown promise, is undoubtedly intelligent and, given time, could be a superb coach. He is just completely out of his depth. Few managers would thrive with years of knowledge behind them in these circumstances. Chelsea are shorn of their best player with no means of properly replacing him, and have a squad light on options in defence and attack.

The media will continue to fight his battles for him but mitigation has an expiration date. Roberto di Matteo made 158 appearances for Chelsea as a player and only lasted eight months as a manager, winning a Champions League in between and losing his job with the Blues third, four points behind Manchester City. The parameters for success might be different under Lampard, but the potential for failure is even more pronounced.

 

2) The chasing pack will finish further adrift
On that note, Chelsea might be the only caveat here. But for all the hype surrounding Wolves, Leicester, Everton, West Ham and the rest of those looking to break up the Premier League cabal, the glass ceiling will be double-glazed and shatter-proof.

It happens every season: one team is always backed to crash the party. The gap from Wolves in 7th to Manchester United in 6th last campaign was nine points, with fourth-placed Tottenham a further five points ahead. But each of the non-elite sides that made up the top half have strengthened over the summer.

Yet this venue is for VIPs only and security is as strict as ever. Manchester City and Liverpool absolutely will not be caught, nor will Tottenham. Arsenal and United invested more than £100m into their squads. Wolves have Europa League football to contend with, Leicester have lost Harry Maguire and are dependent on Jamie Vardy, Everton are without Idrissa Gueye and West Ham are West Ham.

As aforementioned, Chelsea might let the sides down. They are the only top team to have weakened over the last few months. But they will only be caught because of their own fallibility as opposed to the strength of the best of the rest. Champions League qualification will be further out of reach than ever before.

 

1) Manchester City will have at least a ten-point cushion by January
Has anyone noticed that Manchester City are currently in the midst of the second-longest run of consecutive wins in Premier League history? The transition between the 14 straight victories that earned them the title last season and their burst out of the blocks this campaign has been seamless: 37 goals, 11 different scorers, four conceded.

Such remarkable form stretches back from the start of February. But City have actually dropped as many points since May 2017 (30) as Manchester United have since December 2018, and less than every other club in those times except for Liverpool.

They are playing an entirely different sport, with only the Reds capable of keeping pace last campaign. With a much more streamlined squad, injuries already starting to take their toll and numerous competitions adding yet more pressure, the European champions cannot be expected to replicate such brilliant domestic form.

Each of the last three seasons have seen the Premier League leaders enter the New Year with a gap of at least six points. Liverpool will keep it at least vaguely respectable but City will be marching towards their third straight title as 2020 is beckoned in.

Matt Stead

 

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