For better or worse, the self-proclaimed Most Entertaining League in the World reasserted that status in Week 3, in the form of two of its strongest trends over recent years. One is celebrated, the other… not-so-much.
We saw evidence of the former – ‘No easy games‘ – in huge home upsets for both Man U and Tottenham.
The latter – ‘Nobody can defend in the Prem (but let’s not make a big deal out of it)‘ – was made abundantly clear as a sizable 29 goals were fired in across the 10 games. Only two clean sheets were kept, with one of those being secured at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium*.
Not that I’m complaining, by any means. Its increasingly attacking nature (my stats and analysis here) are what made the Prem the world’s dominant league, which brought in the money, which brought in the players, which kept the viewership shooting up, and so on.
Let’s get stuck into it all, shall we? Here are the five biggest takeaways from Week 3 of the Premier League season.
(*Not by the team which had a World Cup-winning keeper, an England international left-back, one £42 million centre-back and another who has 90 appearances for Belgium. By the other team.)
1. Top 4 Scrap Actually Looks Exciting
Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham all lost this weekend. And how important I think those results are goes in that order, from least to most.
Arsenal always lose at Anfield. The players go there knowing they’re in for a whooping, which is duly delivered time and again. In the past four such matchups, Liverpool hold an aggregate score of 15-3. Emery admittedly freshened things up this time, by switching to a narrow formation against the team with both the best full-back pairing and winger pairing in the league. So, that was something different.
I really wouldn’t read anything into this result, though. Arsenal aren’t challenging the top two, and aren’t supposed to be able to match Liverpool away. Taking care of business against worse teams is where they need to improve, and they did just that in their opening two victories.
The home defeat for Manchester United is slightly more concerning.
While they were frequently ridiculed last season (and rightly so), Man U only lost three home games in 2018/19, and two of those were to Spurs and Man City. The only eyebrow-raiser was Cardiff, and that happened on the last day of the season, once they were already locked into 6th. Basically, this kind of thing doesn’t happen often.
There are two caveats, though.
Firstly, Palace are an exceptional road team, finishing 6th in the away form table in 2018/19 (they actually got 9 more points away from Selhurst Park than in it). Secondly, Man U got extremely unlucky. The xG result for this game was 2.24 – 0.68, and if Rashford’s penalty was a couple of inches to the right the result probably would have been different.
Based on this and the Wolves draw, we do know that Man U haven’t suddenly transformed into the incisive, cutthroat Red Devils of old. But again, I wouldn’t overreact to this loss.
Finally, we have Spurs. Hmm.
I predicted they would drop off heading into last season, but it seems I might have been a year early. The squad still had a formidable togetherness back then. This – combined with having one of the league’s best managers in place – had helped the team to outperform its actual talent in the league for years, and carried them all the way to a European final.
The squad was too small a couple of years ago, but it was well-constructed. Now, the squad is a mess. Veteran leader Vertonghen has been benched for the clumsy Sánchez (how he didn’t get a red late on Sunday is beyond me). Right-back continues to be a problem. Alli’s seemingly chronic hamstring problems have Poch worried. They’ve brought in Christian Eriksen’s successor without actually being able to sell Eriksen.
Whatever the cause (and it must be newfound dressing room instability), Spurs have looked terrible to start the season. The opening day fightback against Villa didn’t begin until the 73rd minute, after which Kane brought them home. Their unusually abject performance against City could have been written off as an aberration… right up until they lost at home to Steve Bruce’s Newcastle – i.e. the team that just got dropped 3-1 away to newly-promoted Norwich.
(We’ll ignore the stonewall penalty Spurs should’ve had for now. That’s tackled in the Bonus VAR section at the bottom).
I truly admire how Spurs have done things over the past few years, but it was never sustainable. Now, it might finally be catching up to them. Eriksen was the only player who looked remotely capable of breaking Newcastle down on Sunday, and has been their second-best player throughout this whole run. If they do lose him, the future might start looking pretty bleak pretty quickly.
2. City Are Basically Undefendable
You’ve probably already heard the stats about City’s visit to Bournemouth last season. If not, they had 82% possession, the Cherries had 0 shots, and City only managed to scrape a 1-0 win. Based on their setup on Sunday – everyone except Wilson behind the ball at all times, basically – Bournemouth were hoping for a repeat.
It was not to be. City broke the deadlock in the 15th minute, courtesy of a Sergio Aguero finish which typified his understated brand of genius. The man has an understanding of angles, and the exact amount of power with which to strike the ball, which I’m not sure I’ve seen elsewhere.
When you stick nine or 10 outfield players in front of the ball, it’s supposed to be hard to get past them. That’s, y’know, why managers do it. Newcastle did it to Spurs on Sunday, and – barring a half-chance for Kane – it was almost impossible to create anything.
Well, that doesn’t stop City. In fact, it barely slows them down. The level of understanding this group possesses has now resulted in a level of incision which can slice through the most compact team defences. Given the excellent distribution of Ederson and Laporte, they can even start attacks from deep without the opposition realising they’ve begun.
Just look at this goal, for God’s sake.
At the 0:48 mark of that video, the ball is with a centre-back behind the halfway line. By the 0:58 mark, after three passes, it’s in the back of the net.
‘City are good at passing and scoring goals’ isn’t breaking news. But it’s still worth just stopping to appreciate the level of football they’ve reached as often as you can. Because of this, even when the result is in no doubt whatsoever (usually the case), City are a must-watch whenever they’re on.
3. Smaller Teams Who Aren’t Terrible!
In last season’s Premier League Power Rankings (first 19/20 edition coming soon), I had a tier called ‘Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter’, with a ridiculous seven teams in it. That’s over a third of the league, and they were all rubbish!
In such a rich league you shouldn’t have absolute pushovers, who meekly hand their three points over to whoever wants them that week.
Last year’s Huddersfield were the worst team we’ve had in a while, but Fulham weren’t much better. The season before, Huddersfield, Southampton, Swansea, Pulis’s Stoke and West Brom (pre-Moore) all stank. The year before that we had the likes of Hull, Middlesbrough and Sunderland (yep, they used to play in the Premier League).
I don’t want to jinx it, but we might finally be stinker-free. Every team has their interesting facets (barring Brighton, perhaps), or at least one exciting player to redeem them (see: Crystal Palace with
Christian Benteke Wilfred Zaha). The current bottom team are Watford, who have plenty of watchable players, and had a solid 18/19 season.
Partly, this is due to a particularly strong promotion class. Norwich are thrilling, Sheffield Utd have given a very good account of themselves, and Aston Villa just shelled out well over £100m on new players. In addition, mid-table sides seem to have strengthened well, with West Ham’s Haller looking a thrilling addition to the league.
Coming into the weekend I’d have listed Newcastle as my only ‘must not watch’, and wouldn’t I have looked a silly sausage. The long and short of it is that – for the first time in a while – we might finally have genuine competition, of a high level, from the mid-table downwards.
4. Norwich are Must-Watch TV
They’ve had a mention already, but the Canaries really deserve a special shout-out.
We’ve had teams come up and keep doing what brought them success in the Championship. Wolves did it just last season. But when what you ‘do’ is attack, attack, attack… it makes things a whole lot more interesting.
Norwich scored 93 goals last season in the Championship; the most of any team since Bournemouth’s title run in 2014/15. They haven’t missed a beat with their step up, scoring six goals already (T-3rd most in the league).
Thrillingly for the neutral, however, their all-out attacking nature has seen them concede plenty of goals too! One way or another, in Norwich’s three games so far, there have been a total of 14 goals scored. That’s the most in the league, and it’s bananas. Pukki looks like a Fantasy Premier League star, and young winger Todd Cantwell is willing (and usually able) to take on anyone and everyone who stands in his way.
For better or worse (from a purist’s perspective), they’re the most Premier League team in the Premier League right now. Keep doing what you’re doing, Norwich.
5. Everton are Must-Avoid TV
And at the other end of the spectrum, we have… Everton!
In Week 2’s Takeaways, I praised Everton’s transformation into a potential defensive powerhouse. Marco Silva’s history made this especially surprising. Well, that took a step backwards on Friday night, as they were sliced open extremely easily for the first goal (the second came deep into injury time, when they were pressing for the winner).
More worrying, though, is that they seem to have forgotten you need to score goals too. They’ve now registered just one in three games, and that was at home to Watford… who have shipped three to both Brighton and West Ham in their other two games. It’s not like they’ve been peppering the goal and simply getting unlucky, either: they’ve managed a grand total of six shots on target this season.
Their entire squad is made up of forwards – how is this even possible?!
All in all, we’ve seen a grand total of three goals in Everton’s three games. Snore. Oh, and next Sunday they play Wolves… whose fans have seen a mighty four goals in their three fixtures thus far. LIVE, on Sky Sports! I’m going out on a limb and saying you can probably find more entertaining ways to spend your afternoon.
Bonus: VAR Still Terrible
Should #THFC have had a penalty?
Lo Celso puts Kane through and Lascelles appears to tumble, cutting across the path of the forward!
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) August 25, 2019
In what world is this possibly not a penalty?
Is it even conceivable to have a more obvious penalty than one player hurling his entire body into the path of another player’s lower legs?
When this happened in real time, I said to myself, “That’s a pen.” The endless replays confirmed that it was definitely a pen, over and over and over again.
Cut to: Mike Dean touching his earpiece, then signalling no pen.
Truly we have reached the pinnacle of sporting technology.