Same old, same old?
The same old warnings need wheeling out at this time of year: one game tells us very little, two will tell us a fraction more, but it will be some weeks before there’s enough solid evidence to make more confident conclusions on team quality. Certainly we know more than before, but most of that revolves around guesses about personnel. It’s nice to see new players get onto the pitch and get off the mark, and bravo to Nathan Redmond, The Zlatan, Sadio Mane and others for becoming hit transfers overnight. The most obvious team example this time round was Arsenal, who started against Liverpool with inexperienced centre backs, no Ozil, no Giroud and a team that was arguably half full of reserves. Conceding four makes their defence look poor but this was a tough fixture to try and win from an undercooked start. They have the excuse that they will be stronger and better in the near future, something that Liverpool cannot claim with the same certainty. Contrarily, it’s possibly wiser to be more concerned as a Liverpool fan. The propensity for high scoring, high variance games has immediately reared it’s head again.
Under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool league matches averaged nearly 3.2 goals per game last season, and during the back half of the season that went up to 3.6 goals per game, the highest rate in the league. That’s fine if you’re regularly coming out on the right end of the results, but Liverpool’s record was 13-9-8 under Klopp, and that needs to improve. Winning seven goal thrillers is fun, but conceding three goals from five shots on target is a little too familiar.
There were other aspects of the weekend’s games that felt usual for all that the thinking and method behind their construction was different. Widely–and rightly– castigated for averaging around eleven shots per game under Louis van Gaal, Manchester United once more managed eleven shots in beating Bournemouth, but scored three times. United managed to score three times in the league on eighteen occasions during van Gaal’s two years but on only four occasions did they manage it from more than twelve shots, so this has become quite a hallmark. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the only attacker new to the club that started, and United’s attacking efficiency resembled Uncle Louis’s tenure once more. It will take a while to shake out his old ways and he will have been shaking his head from his Portuguese villa at the impetuous rashness Ibrahimovic showed in shooting and scoring from such a distance. Mourinho’s teams, although widely recognised as defensively orientated, have most often been strong shooters and comfortably dominated shot counts, so it will be interesting to see the metamorphosis as his methods gradually take hold.
At the Etihad, we found Manchester City controlling their fixture against Sunderland. They started with their back up keeper, too many full backs, who then ended up in midfield, relentless passing, John Stones recast as a centre back par excellence. To the sound of a million keyboards clattering an eked out victory against Sunderland achieved a new status as a foundation game in the history of football. I jest of course, but Pep Guardiola’s reign will no doubt draw analysis and interest at a level beyond what we’ve seen before in the Premier League. If Klopp was a taster, then Guardiola is long awaited main course.
Over here in stat land, there was a familiar tone to the shot numbers. Sixteen shots to seven is broadly in line with last season’s average (16 to 8) but to get only four on target (to three) was a low mark that again reflected a problem they suffered from in the second half of last season, where they ranked 12th/20 for a shots on target to shots rate. With Guardiola rewiring the whole method, it could be a few games before they hit fifth gear.
Tottenham’s point away to Everton felt much like their 1-1 draw there last season. That game was an equally mixed performance and being heavily favoured beforehand, was the kind of match that a title contender needed to win. This time round and with Everton thoroughly in transition, it looked a good time to visit Goodison, but Ronald Koeman outthought Mauricio Pochettino, at least to start with, and that was enough to secure a point. Stoke spent much of last season getting points despite miserable shot rate and once more hit that mark with one on target, for one goal and a draw and as if to firmly state that we are what we are, West Brom won one nil.
These are just anecdotes, a small window into what the rest of the year promises but it shows how it takes time to rebuild teams in a manager’s image. There is also the spectre of the transfer window that hangs over the entire league, and leaves us without satisfactory resolution until it closes. Only in the weeks that pass after that will we start to truly understand the personalities of the teams of 2016-17.
One of the least logical aspects about football–and this faces steep competition– is the date the transfer window closes in comparison to the start of the season. A situation that means that the season starts without a final squad settled to compete truly detracts from the opening few weeks. So we find Yannick Bolasie thought to be on his way to Everton, thrown on to attempt to salvage a point for Palace. Did Romelu Lukaku have a bad foot or was he earmarked for transfer? Will Arsene Wenger ever not use the opening games as pre-season?
Early season games always have an added factor for variance due to differing fitness levels and now a newer trend of players deployed during summer tournaments getting added time off. When we consider that nine points are at stake and 8% of the season takes place prior to the trading ending, then surely, even if a club struggles to balance its entire squad prior to the 1st of September, it can endeavour to bring the fundamental core of its first team to the first game and hit the ground running.
Has Guardiola settled on his squad? There’s talk that incoming business is done and we will probably find that it’s mostly outs from here on in. What of Chelsea and Arsenal? Both have huge gaps to fill in defence, yet start the season undermanned. Regardless, we won’t find out who is intended to stay at each club until the season is well underway. Hull haven’t even got a whole squad. Surely these issues should be solved prior to league kick off?
It’s untidy, and maybe the barriers to solving this are hard to overcome, but in the interest of providing the best product, the best competition and the best sport, the coming years need to see moves to start to change the circumstances, so that when the season starts, we can concentrate on what happens on the pitch and not the circus that surrounds it.
Thanks for reading
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