Premier League returns: What twists next in strangest of seasons?
With unprecedented restrictions around matches and restructuring of football’s calendar, this is a season like no other. And on the pitch, that means anything is possible.
It seems foolish to think we can still be surprised by anything in the Premier League, just four and a half years on from Leicester defying those odds of 5,000/1 to win the title. Yet what we have seen in the early weeks of this new season defies belief – and makes supporters dream of what could unfold in the months to come.
For football to continue amid the coronavirus pandemic, the game has had to make major sacrifices – from preventing fans from watching in stadiums to condensing fixture schedules to fit all the matches in, after delays caused by lockdown.
Those changes, it seems, are having an impact on the field.
How else do we explain Liverpool’s brilliant and ominous start to their title defence halted by a 7-2 thrashing against an Aston Villa side who barely stayed in the division just a few weeks ago?
Or Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City being hammered 5-2 on their own patch by a Leicester team who, a week later, lose 3-0 at home to West Ham. The same West Ham, who escaped relegation themselves, were largely frustrated in the transfer window, and had their manager working from home due to testing positive for coronavirus?
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How about Tottenham’s stunning 6-1 win at Manchester United? Who could have imagined that wouldn’t be the standout result of the Super Sunday – or Shocking Sunday – prior to the international break, when the final whistle blew on United’s joint-heaviest defeat in Premier League history?
Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane were combining once more in that one, just as they did on four occasions when they fought back from an awful first 40 minutes at Southampton to win 5-2. Speaking of comebacks, we’ve also seen Chelsea give West Brom a three-goal head start and still leave the Hawthorns with a point.
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- Brilliant Villa hit seven to demolish Liverpool
- Spurs score six as shambolic United implode
- Premier League table | Fixtures | Live on Sky
When Brighton can hit the woodwork five times and concede the winning goal after the final whistle has blown, Newcastle can score with each of their first four shots on target (spread across four games), or Leeds can finish their first games back in the Premier League in 16 years 4-3 down and 4-3 up, nothing can be ruled out.
A reduced pre-season has shorn players of their usual conditioning. It’s also denied managers time to drill systems and patterns of play, and bed in new signings.
Frank Lampard has said his side are still in pre-season in these early weeks of the campaign – but instead of friendlies, each match is for Premier League points or progress in the cups. Jurgen Klopp pointed out he will have just two days on the training pitch with his players after the international break before facing Everton.
Without that six-week period of intensive fitness work, players are also vulnerable to fatigue. That’s magnified when the condensed schedule for this season demands them to play every few days. Fatigue can lead to mistakes, it can lead to injuries, and it can affect how a team presses their opposition – a reason given for Liverpool’s high line being broken by Villa.
But then it’s not always as straight forward as that. A rapid rhythm of games can also hone connections and form. Just ask Spurs’ players, who rounded off four games in eight days by scoring six at Old Trafford… after netting seven in the Europa League on the previous Thursday.
The structure of this season may not be ideal for players and managers – but for supporters, it opens the door to so many possibilities… surprise results, surprise league placings. How many more goals records will fall?
How far does it extend? That is the key question.
Will this drama ease as players get up to speed, build fitness and develop familiarity with their systems over the months ahead? Will that favour the strongest sides and hand them back their advantage? Will Liverpool reclaim a stranglehold on the title race, and rack up another long unbeaten run?
Or will the new-found confidence of these early-season upsets build belief that shock results can happen on any given matchday in this unpredictable Premier League and inspire the lesser lights?
Could a table-topping Everton – invigorated by the arrival of star man James Rodriguez – turn this into more than just a strong start? What impact will Gareth Bale’s arrival have at Spurs? How far could Villa’s momentum take them?
Could we be on for a shock Premier League winner? Or, at least, a fresh name breaking into the European places so often claimed by the established elite? In the cups, could the biggest teams, stretched by the calendar, pave the way for unlikely trophy-lifters?
It will be intriguing to watch it play out. But Leicester’s lesson of 2015/16 is that anything can happen – especially in this strangest of seasons.
The new campaign has kicked off with an abundance of goals, 144 to date, and the second round of fixtures produced 44 – more than any other 10-game matchday in Premier League history.
The average game has produced 3.77 goals, the highest ratio in England’s top division for 90 years – a figure only surpassed three times since the turn of the 20th century.
While a level of normality is expected to return, the absence of fans and VAR intervention could, perhaps, be influencing this explosive gung-ho start.
More shocks to come this weekend?
With players returning from international duty, teams short on training ground time, high-profile debuts set to be made, and some mouth-watering match-ups, there is potential for even more drama in the Premier League this weekend…
Premier League fixtures
Everton v Liverpool – 12.30pm
Chelsea v Southampton – 3pm
Man City v Arsenal – Sky Sports Premier League, 5.30pm
Newcastle v Man Utd – Sky Box Office, 8pm
Sheff Utd v Fulham – 12pm
Crystal Palace v Brighton – Sky Sports Premier League, 2pm
Tottenham v West Ham – Sky Sports Premier League, 4.30pm
Leicester v Aston Villa – Sky Box Office, 7.15pm
West Brom v Burnley – Sky Box Office, 5.30pm
Leeds v Wolves – Sky Sports Premier League, 8pm
Will in-form Everton take Merseyside bragging rights?
The Merseyside derby has long been a battle where Liverpool have underlined their authority over their neighbours – they’re unbeaten in their last 22 meetings with Everton. But this season it could be different.
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Carlo Ancelotti, James Rodriguez, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and co have the Blue side of the city flying. They’re top of the league, they’ve won all seven games they’ve played across all competitions in their best winning start to a season in 125 years. And defending champions Liverpool turn up at Goodison Park on the back of a humiliating 7-2 defeat at Aston Villa.
On the fifth anniversary of Jurgen Klopp’s first game in charge, could Everton make Saturday a landmark day of their own?
Will Arsenal’s new man make it Partey time for Arsenal at Man City?
Talking of humiliating defeats, Manchester City’s 5-2 loss at home to Leicester was another bad one and raised questions over their chances of claiming another Premier League title in what could be Pep Guardiola’s final season in charge.
Mikel Arteta could create further doubts about his former mentor’s team if Arsenal were to win at the Etihad on Saturday evening. And he looks likely to have new £45m central midfielder Thomas Partey on the pitch to help him in this master vs apprentice battle.
- Will Arsenal make a statement at Man City?
Speaking on the Pitch to Post Preview Podcast, former Gunner and current sky Sports pundit Alan Smith spoke about how Arteta has reinvigorated Arsenal and why Partey is a significant signing for them.
All eyes on Gareth Bale’s second Spurs debut
While Arsenal are getting excited about Partey’s arrival, there’s even more of a buzz across north London where Gareth Bale is preparing to make his second Spurs debut, seven years on from his previous Tottenham appearance, when he scored in a May 2013 win over Sunderland.
West Ham United
After lifting 12 major trophies at Real Madrid, the fan favourite is back and determined to inspire Jose Mourinho’s side to new heights.
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- Kane evolving under Mourinho
And after former boss Harry Redknapp tipped them for the title on the back of their 6-1 demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford, Spurs fans can dare to dream.
Can Man Utd recover from Spurs thrashing?
The mood around the Manchester United camp was very different after that brutal bashing from Spurs. Anthony Martial’s red card 28 minutes in didn’t help, but it was a dire performance from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, who had already been beaten at home by Crystal Palace this season.
They must respond against Newcastle. A defeat would make it their worst start since 1986/87 – the year Sir Alex Ferguson stepped in to replace Ron Atkinson.
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