Anyone who has read this blog at this point in any of the last few seasons will know how infuriating I find Interlulls (©Arseblog) in general but most specifically this one in early September. The season has literally just started to get going and we are all settling back into our regular football-watching routines only for it to be taken away from us and put on hold for a fortnight in which we are condemned to watch barely competitive Euro qualifiers.
I have ranted at length in the past about the need to restructure the international game to make it more competitive and thereby more watchable (https://football-nerd.org/2018/09/07/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-what-is-the-point-of-the-european-nations-league/) and there is no need to rake over ongoing frustrations, however suffice it to say until someone at FIFA/ UEFA is brave enough to recognise the need for change, it will continue to be an irritation.
The evidence of just four matches is nowhere near enough to start to form any solid conclusions on how the Premier League is shaping up, but worryingly for those of us not in the blue half of Manchester or the red half of Merseyside, everything so far suggests another two-horse race between Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. In fact much of the smart opinion seems to suggest that the gap between those two and the rest will be even larger than last season’s 25-point chasm.
Liverpool have been perfect so far, winning all four league games scoring twelve goals and conceding a miserly three, they also carried off the European Super Cup which although largely a glorified friendly was nonetheless something of a statement for the Anfield club’s intentions for this season and the future.
The only blemish on City’s early season copy book was a 2-2 draw at the Etihad against Tottenham in controversial circumstances. The issues with VAR over the opening weeks of the season have been both well documented and widely debated but it feels very much as Martin Samuel & co alluded to on Sky Sports’ excellent Sunday Supplement show that it is highlighting issues that weren’t a problem in the first place and not dealing with those that it was intended for. The ruling out of Gabriel Jesus’ stoppage time winner against Spurs for brushing Aymeric Laporte’s arm on the way through was simply an incorrect interpretation of the laws of the game. Rather than remove an injustice it not only created a new one but ruined one of those glorious moments that make football so magical.
Even at this early stage of the season, Arsenal look as though any aspirations they have for a return to the promised land of Champions League qualification will have to be achieved in spite of their ongoing defensive fragility which has seen them concede 51 league goals in each of the last two seasons. Despite tangible investment at the front end of the team, most Gooners would have hoped for, if not demanded, an improvement at the back. On the evidence of the games played so far with 6 goals conceded already that doesn’t look like happening any time soon.
Given the transfer ban and his exalted status at the club Frank Lampard was always going to be afforded time, yet the results so far are suggesting a squad that isn’t necessarily robust enough for the rigours of a battle at the very top of the Premier League. The humbling at Old Trafford on the opening weekend and last Saturday’s surrendering of a two goal lead at home to newly promoted Sheffield United bookending a draw at home to the admittedly impressive Leicester, and a far from convincing 3-2 win at Carrow Road; suggest there is plenty of work for the fledgling manager to do to even come close to replicating the ‘achievements’ of the much-maligned Maurizio Sarri.
Including their poor finish to last season, at least domestically, Tottenham have picked up just 16 points from their last 16 games. Rumours of unrest in the camp with some senior players reportedly seeking a move, albeit ultimately in vein, ahead of last Monday’s European transfer deadline and evident frustration from Mauricio Pochettino in which he described the squad as “the most unsettled group” he has worked with in his six seasons with the club; doesn’t so much hint as scream loudly from the rooftops that everything is not as rosy as it is painted at Spurs’ shiny new home. It may be to oversimplify things but it begs the question of whether reaching the Champions League Final may have been the peak for this incarnation of Tottenham.
Looking towards Old Trafford, it increasingly feels as if the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager on a permanent basis may have been rash to say the least. That opening weekend victory over Chelsea has been followed by two draws and a defeat at home to Crystal Palace. The noises coming out of the club and from eminent pundit and former player Gary Neville suggest that: “Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is trying to play the long game. He needs support from up-above. He needs really strong leadership over two to three seasons to be able to have the four or five transfer windows he needs.” Already 7 points off the pace one wonders how patient the powers that be and the United support will continue to be.
With the two clear title favourites and the rest of the ‘Big Six’ in transition to put it kindly, will this open the door for a surprise gate-crasher into the top four? Wolves seem to be struggling with a relatively small squad and their, admittedly admirable, commitment to having a proper go at the Europa League. They are one of only two teams not to have registered a victory so far. The other, Watford, seem a shadow of their former selves, a side that in recent seasons has consistently done enough to all but secure survival in the opening half of the season, now looks like it might be in for a regulation scrap this time around. With the visit of Arsenal and trips to Manchester City and Wolves to come after the International Break, the Hornets will need to turn their form around and quickly or else Javi Gracia may become the next managerial casualty of the Pozzo family ownership.
Marco Silva’s Everton continue to the be the model of being consistently inconsistent despite former manager Sam Allardyce’s assertion this week that: “I think Everton should break into the top six and if they’re going to break in, this is the season to do it.” Once again the Toffees have spent big with Moise Kean and Alex Iwobi coming in from Juventus and Arsenal respectively and sit sixth in the table level on points with Arsenal, Crystal Palace and West Ham; but in true style despite beating Watford and Wolves at home they also lost at Aston Villa.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the potential candidates to shake up the natural order of things is Brendan Rogers’ Leicester City. Astute investment in the squad to the tune of £90 million, an unbeaten start and 8 points from a possible 12 might not quite be enough to have Foxes fans dreaming of a similar fairy-tale to that of 2015/16 but is a return to European competition a realistic prospect?
Away from the Premier League any true football fan can’t help but be appalled at what has been happening in the North West of England, a true heartland of the game, where two-time FA Cup winners and owners of a proud 134 year history, Bury, were expelled from the Football League. Near neighbours and long-standing rivals Bolton escaped a similar fate at the 11th hour.
The fact that a quarter of the teams in the EFL have faced bankruptcy or winding-up in recent years, Mrs Football Nerd’s and my beloved Leyton Orient most definitely amongst them, suggests that below the rarefied atmosphere of the elite, the game in its homeland might not be in quite as rude health as we have been led to believe. It also begs the question amidst rumours of financial strife at Oldham and Macclesfield amongst others, of who might be next. As much as we point to the unrelenting commercial growth of the Premier League as a positive for football in this country a future without the grassroots of the game is not something I want to experience.