Premier League Roundup: Week Three
What can you really say about three weeks in the Premier League? Beyond the lights, the drama, the endless transfer sagas, the randomness of the first few games makes it hard to spot concrete trends. To compound an already lousy sample size of three, the league has witnessed several early sending offs. It’s hard to play soothsayer when a team only has 10 men on the pitch. What the crystal ball does reveal is mostly unsurprising, though with subplots novel enough to hold our attention.
Despite their sixth-place finish in the previous campaign, Manchester United’s early success is not a great surprise. Even through their recent struggles, the Red Devils have had the financial advantage to be able to compete. After three spectacular performances against inferior sides and 9 well-deserved points, it looks like they may have finally converted their comically large sacks of money into an excellent team. Racing out to a goal difference of +10, the attack is firing on all cylinders and the defense appears tight. The club's underlying numbers are also strong, with an xGd of +6.2 the best in the league. Romelu Lukaku has slotted right in to the team, and has begun repaying his significant transfer fee by shooting at a rate of roughly 1 xG per game. This is what dominance looks like:
Despite being managed by the Premier League's arch-villain and executing a “pay now, ask questions later” transfer strategy, it is becoming more difficult to dislike Man United. Their core of young, talented attackers are genuinely *fun*, a quality missing from every United team since Sir Alex retired. Their creative engine, Mkhitaryan, seems to have settled in his second season in England, and has already bagged five assists. And while most of their talent was acquired for the GDP of a small country, the rise of Marcus Rashford, an academy lad becoming a star through sheer grit and character, is a genuine feel-good story. Even Phil Jones, all rough edges and work rate, has so far impressed in Mourinho's near-perfect defense. Can they maintain this pace? It's too soon to say, and far sterner tests await, but it should be enjoyable watching them try.
Elsewhere in Big 6 land, the storylines are somewhat typical. Like clockwork, Tottenham continue to steadily press the throttle, posting good shot and xG numbers against teams below them in the pecking order. Pochettino's band of merrily underpaid young men continue to lead the league in shots outside the box, but have yet to convert one. Last season Spurs scored long shots at a range of 0.3/90, a not-obscene rate they could still maintain on their way back to the top 4. Meanwhile, Conte at Chelsea continues to show his tactical nous, with two efficient, if not dominant wins. Further north, erstwhile Spanish genius Pep Guardiola has his big crazy machine humming along. A wise man once said that "the king stay the king", and what's true in West Baltimore seems to apply just as well to English football.
Liverpool are conceded big chances away from home at Watford, but in their two homes games have maintained a potent attack that has looks to have recovered from its slowdown in the second half of last year and the lack of Philippe Coutinho. New boy Mo Salah has been a key part of their attacking success, and has quickly proven his Mourinho-shaped doubters wrong. The Egyptian has already bagged two goals from nearly 3 xG. Salah's success shouldn't take anything away from his partners and crime, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, who between them have all looked impressive, whether shooting, running, or simply scaring the bejeezus out of any defense in their path. Questions remain about Liverpool’s depth, but we can leave them until mid-season and enjoy the heavy metal football through the fall.
Arsenal fans have quickly entered crisis mode, with the club dropping 6 points. Despite a not-untalented squad, the suspicion that Wenger continues to reinforce is that he adds the least value among his big club peers. Though Arsenal's xG difference of 1.6 over their first two games was quite reasonable, Liverpool’s meat grinder press turned them into low-grade turkey. In the past, Wenger used to fail mainly against deep set defenses with elite counter attackers, but he now also seems vulnerable against strong pressing teams, like Liverpool here, who also completed counter attacks with a fearsome ruthlessness. If Arsenal hope to return to the Champions League, they may need a manager who has the knowledge and the adaptability to execute against such modern approaches.
Outside of the big six, most clubs have had a mixture of good, bad and ordinary results.
Watford look the most likely to break away from the relegation pack, going toe to toe with Liverpool and dominating Bournemouth away, was impressive. Richarlison, the club's 20-year old marquee signing who has no experience in European football, has already shown signs of strong potential. In only two starts and a sub appearance, he has returned 7 shots and 19 touches inside the box, and created 5 chances for his teammates. Sometimes, Brazilians just do good things.
Beyond that, interesting stories are few. A resurgent Newcastle have put up positive xGd, and against the early "crisis" narrative and helmed by Rafa Benitez, you'd tip them for a comfortable finish. Huddersfield Town are another surprise package, and while they have been fortuitous to take seven of nine points, they have not looked uncomfortable against their richer compatriots. Southampton are not yet clicking, having been outplayed by the aforementioned Huddersfield and a 10-man West Ham. The Saints' non-penalty finishing woes persist from last season, and if they continue to undershoot their expected totals, they may well return their xG models and ask for their money back. Leicester have oscillated between losing to good teams and walloping the bad, which feels much like last season, so it's unclear where their true talent level lies. West Ham have suffered a red card and played away three times, so we can’t say much about them either.
For my money, early front-runners in the relegation race are Brighton, Swansea, and Bournemouth. All have paired a relatively impotent attack with a shaky defense, though each has already played against a CL club. All are putting up below 10 shots per game. Swansea in particular have put up ghastly shot numbers, with 5.3p90 being nowhere near close enough to ensure survival. Brighton are shooting a touch better, but have yet to score a goal. Meanwhile, Eddie Howe has won plaudits for playing a high-risk, high reward attacking style, so if even he can't coax his Cherries to find the net, it's unclear who will.
We shouldn’t make strong predictions this early, if only for the fear of having them surfaced on Twitter down the road and ridiculed by anonymous accounts like Mo_Salah_fan89. What we do know isn't all that novel, though there is enough variation to keep us tuning in. At the end of the day, it's all been good fun, so don't mind me and just enjoy the ride.
Cheers and thanks for reading,