What a lovely serving of football that was. It’s always great when there’s a solid game to kick off the weekend, and the return of Monday Night Football – which on paper promised to be perhaps the most interesting matchup of all – elongated proceedings nicely.
Without any further dilly-dallying, here are my speedy five biggest takeaways from Week 2 of the Premier League season.
1. VAR Stinks
Listen, I get it. I understand why we need VAR, and – in a vacuum – I agree with the reasons why it’s been brought in. I thought it worked brilliantly in the 2018 World Cup, and was long overdue to debut in the Prem too.
But it does stink.
Saturday evening’s game between Man City and Spurs has given the anti-VAR brigade even more ammo, after a tumultuous first week. It had been a wild, bizarre match. City had been by far the better side, more or less operating on all cylinders throughout and playing their usual gorgeous, incisive stuff. Twice they’d gone ahead… yet twice they were pegged back, both times in head-scratching fashion.
City huffed and puffed, throwing David Silva and Riyad Mahrez into the fray to little effect. Finally, in the 93rd minute, they got their just rewards. Spurs failed to deal with a corner, it fell to the controversially-introduced Gabriel Jesus (controversial to Aguero, at least, who threw an epic hissy fit).
Even Aguero’s tired of Pep’s antics Infront of the camera 😂 pic.twitter.com/snmVXg8a98
— Ahmed (@FtblAhmed) August 17, 2019
(Tweet embedded for video, not for anti-Pep rhetoric)
The Brazilian whipped it home, the crowd promptly erupted, Pep and Kun kissed (almost literally) and made up, the right team had won, and football had provided yet another dramatic, thrilling moment to add to the endless list.
Except it hadn’t.
Two minutes later, poor Michael Oliver was signalling that the goal had been disallowed, and repeatedly pointing to his headset in response to the baying City players as if to say, “Hey, it’s not my fault!” Replays showed that Laporte had handled the ball during the scramble. It was the correct decision, but also one which utterly ruined the moment, deflating any and all who were watching.
Was it the right decision? Obviously. Should we have VAR in the first place? I’d say yes. But, we’re going to see one of two outcomes now, neither of which are desirable.
Either we’ll have countless more instances where the players go wild, everyone watching goes wild, and their balloons are duly pricked by the VAR needle. Or players and fans alike simply won’t react to a goal when it’s scored, fearing an impending undoing, and thus robbing the game of its most emotional moments (positive or negative); the moments we love, essentially.
My point here is not based in logic, but emotion. And from an emotional perspective… VAR stinks.
2. Worrying Signs at Stamford Bridge
While it also ended in a draw, Chelsea vs Leicester was even more entertaining than the aforementioned City/Spurs.
Chelsea exploded out of the gates, with a level of energy and aggression almost manic in its intensity. This directly resulted in an early breakthrough, with the busy Mason Mount robbing Wilfred Ndidi (normally a rock, and one of the best non-Big Six players in the league – see here) and finishing brilliantly under pressure. Coming off their impressive Super Cup performance, it seemed Lampard’s Chelsea had turned a corner. They were thrilling to watch in that opening quarter of the game.
Thereafter, though, Chelsea declined with a consistency that was alarming.
As that intensity naturally diminished, so Leicester – the steadier, better-organised team – began to assert themselves. By the middle of the second half Chelsea could barely get the ball back. Leicester were keeping possession brilliantly, throttling Chelsea with a high defensive line, and fighting harder for every loose ball.
‘I don’t expect that 100-miles-an-hour energy for 90 minutes but I do expect that we keep possession of the ball better when we rest.’
Frank Lampard’s reaction to today’s draw with Leicester… #CHELEI
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) August 18, 2019
It was heartwarming indeed to see Ndidi redeem himself with the equaliser, but Leicester really should have won the game. Chelsea’s midfield were bypassed worryingly easily, and their defence – which had initially looked improved after last week’s messy performance at Old Trafford – was exposed time and again on the break. If Vardy and Maddison – who grew impressively into the game – had been more clinical, this would have been an easy win for the Foxes.
The game finished 1-1, but it sure didn’t feel like a draw. Chelsea’s players looked decidedly downcast at the final whistle, while Leicester’s sank to the floor in disappointment, knowing that they’d let two points slip. Considering the game was being played at Stamford Bridge, it was a striking scene.
It’s still too early to draw strong conclusions… but, to put it mildly, things don’t look great for Chelsea. Unless there’s a tactical change in midfield, or Rüdiger’s return can solve all the defensive concerns, they look strong outsiders for a top four finish right now.
3. Championship/Premier League Line Blurred
For years, the Championship has been held up as the most competitive league in England. Based on the past couple of seasons, it’s only becoming more so.
Let’s take the top six teams from 2018/19 – Norwich, Sheffield, Leeds, West Brom, Aston Villa and Derby. Now let’s take the bottom three from the Premier League, in that same season – Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield. While Cardiff weren’t terrible, are you telling me any of those aforementioned six teams would have done any worse than the relegated three? Probably not, right? Brighton were hardly world beaters last season either, finishing only two points above the drop with a rubbish -25 goal difference.
With increased investment at the top, the 46-game Championship gauntlet is producing upper tier teams of Premier League quality. While we won’t see newly-promoted sides finishing 7th every year, like Wolves, I believe we will see them competing with the mid-to-lower table clubs more aggressively from now on.
Based on the evidence of the 2019/20 EPL season so far, this would seem to be the case.
Norwich went right at Liverpool in their opening game. That didn’t work, because Liverpool are really good, but the same approach against Newcastle yielded a dominant 3-1 win. 15 shots to 12, 8 shots on target to 4, and 64% possession… which side is supposed to be the Premier League stalwart, and which the meek, newly promoted side? Norwich have by far the best player out of the two sides right now; that much is certain.
I’d actually backed Norwich to win in my Betting Tips column last week. Unfortunately I also backed Crystal Palace to win away at Sheffield United. Again, the newly-promoted side triumphed at home; not quite so excitingly as in Norwich’s case, but the Blades have now taken an excellent 4pts from their first two games.
Aston Villa are now the only promoted side without a point, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the next few weeks play out for them. They finished a hefty 13pts behind Sheffield last season, and 18pts behind Norwich, in the Championship. While it is still early, Villa invested an eye-watering £133.74m (net) in the summer. If the higher-ups don’t start to see some progress soon, Dean Smith’s bum may start getting squeaky indeed.
4. Everton – A Defensive Powerhouse?
In the 2017/18 season, Everton conceded 58 goals; comfortably the most in the top 8 (yes, even more than Arsenal). In 18/19 that number plummeted to 46 goals, tied for 5th-best in the league. Right now, including their pre-season games and their first two Premier League fixtures, Everton have kept six clean sheets in a row.
I’ll hold my hands up: I thought Marco Silva was a mediocre appointment for Everton. He seemed to achieve results in short bursts, and it only looked as if he could play one, pretty attacking style. It seems as if I was wrong (although the way they went after him in the first place was still embarrassing; I’ll cling to that).
He managed them solidly throughout last season, even whilst being given terrible striking options, and they’re off to a perfect start in 19/20 too.
The obvious counter-points are that they’ve had easy opening fixtures, and have only scored one goal in two games. Well, we’ll get a good gauge of the real Everton in the next few weeks. They’ve got one more game to get their eye in – away to Villa next week – before matchups with Wolves, Bournemouth away and Man City within their four following games. They’ll almost certainly finish in the top eight anyway, but these next few weeks may well determine their ceiling for the season.
Regardless, Everton look to have finally found what they’ve been lacking since Moyes torpedoed his career with the Man U move: stability. They’d spent money heavily since he left, but to little effect. Silva has moulded them into an extremely well-rounded team – a proper team – with solidity in all areas, thus proving the haters (Hi!) wrong.
5. Who’s Best of the Rest?
The top two were settled before the season began, and Spurs have finished in the Champions League spots for four season running. There’s essentially one spot remaining in that exclusive group, with Chelsea, Arsenal and Man U competing for it. As discussed, I strongly doubt Chelsea will be serious contenders for it, leaving the latter two to duke it out.
Arsenal have comfortably their deepest squad since the glory days.
Xhaka – who’s somehow the captain – missed out against Burnley (thank God), but was replaced by a player who immediately looks better than him in every respect. Ceballos was a revelation on Saturday, with his combination of lightning-quick feet, directness and scrappy tackling giving the whole side an injection of vigour. It looks as if he’ll give Arsenal something they’ve been missing since Cazorla went down; someone to keep the tempo up and keep everyone driving forward, but also to provide a safety valve for the defence as they play out from the back.
Pépé looks a wonderfully direct and dynamic player, Maitland-Niles continues to impress at right-back, and the two strikers are fantastic. In years past there was always a sense that one or two injuries would cripple Arsenal’s season. Suddenly they have depth across the park; a perfect response to last season’s late collapse. They’ve put together two workmanlike, professional performances in a row, and have duly achieved a perfect start to 2019/20.
Of course, we/they can enjoy that perfect start while it lasts, because Liverpool away is coming up next week… gulp.
Manchester United seem incapable of stringing two good halves together. They were explosive in the second against Chelsea, and dominant in the first against Wolves, but in both they were utterly unable to match that quality for the other 45 minutes. You could say they were a penalty away from winning on Monday, but you could say that Wolves were a mere inch on a Jimenez header away from the same result. They certainly didn’t deserve to win across the 90 minutes.
I love what Solskjaer has going with the attack, even if Lingard felt like an odd man out on Monday, and the defence has drastically improved. Whether it’s a lack of leadership, though, or simply the youth of the team, they’re a strangely schizophrenic side. Either way, it’s a mental problem rather than a dearth of talent; if Ole can crack that, Man U’s rebuilding phase might be a whole lot quicker than we anticipated.
As for Wolves, we learnt nothing whatsoever about them. The fire they showed in the second half marked a stark contrast to their frustrating passivity in the first, and – as noted – they could well have won. We already knew they could turn it on against the top teams, though. Upcoming matches against the likes of Burnley, Palace, Watford and Southampton will be far more instructive to their long-term prospects.
6. Bonus Round
Regular readers will know I adore Martin Tyler. I don’t what to linger on the subject, but he made a brilliant point about VAR during the Wolves vs Man U match. He said, “Right now, it takes away much more than it gives.”
As usual, he hit the nail precisely on the head. Of six reviews heading into that game, VAR had already taken away five goals this season, robbing us – as mentioned earlier – of those moments which truly make football.
What has it actually given us?
The armpit of an opposition striker being an inch offside, or the ball inadvertently and lightly grazing a player’s hand in a goalmouth scramble, are not what drives fans crazy. We can understand these things, and we understand they don’t actually affect the game in a meaningful way.
What does us crazy is stuff like incorrect red cards and incorrect penalty decisions – which ruin games like nothing else – and players not being booked for diving.
Just last night, Daniel James went for an unprompted flying lesson once against Wolves. He didn’t get a foul, but he didn’t get a yellow card either; a clear mistake by the referee. Instantly on the replay you could see he wasn’t touched, so why can’t the VAR official just tell the ref to book him at the next dead ball? (Karmic retribution treated him to a yellow when he dived again later, I’m pleased to say).
We have the technology, but right now it’s being used in a utterly dry, joy-destroying way, as if the game actually is being officiated by machines. VAR can enhance the game… but only if it’s used in the right way; a smarter way.