Meet the new Premier League. Much like the old Premier League.
On Friday night, Arsenal welcomed the world and Leicester City into the Emirates Stadium. Always obliging hosts, and they laid on a feast of gloomy defending, conceding three textbook oh, Arsenal goals. In the long run, they needed Leicester to bottle it and Olivier Giroud to put his massive head onto it to grab a 4-3 victory.
Subsequently, on Saturday lunchtime, Liverpool picked up where the Londoners had left off. Except they got their timings all incorrect: Where Arsenal were clever enough to place the comeback after the brainfade, and so wind up with three points and also the freedom to laugh at themselves, Jürgen Klopp’s side had the comeback early on, and so left distance for one last cock-up at the very end. They brought 3-3.
Both games were, first and foremost, really funny. And were really on brand for a league that prides itself in a type of disorderly egalitarianism, at least at the moment-to-moment. Sure, at the close of the season, the teams will likely wind up about in wallet-size order. But everybody is going to have been involved in something nonsensical on the way. That is what good television is all about.
But in regards to the important business of quantifying a group’s actual ability, the very first games of a new season exist in a type of strange limbo. If a team plays well, then: hooray! They’ve had a fantastic summer, they’ve got themselves sorted — onward to temptations, to joy, to no one getting sacked.
And should they play poorly? It is fine! Because there’s still lots of time to sort things out.
Require Liverpool. They can’t shield. Some of the individual defenders are far too prone to making bad decisions, and as a unit they are critically negligent in regards to picking players up randomly pieces. We understood this already.
But most of the men and women in control of Liverpool know this also, and we all know that they know that. They had to officially apologise for tapping up Virgil van Dijk, after all, and they weren’t doing so just because they thought it may be funny. Now, presumably, they’re awkwardly shuffling around trying to pick the ideal moment to lean back in and restart the dialogue. “Since we are already talking about it — and yes, we are really sorry, we can’t apologise enough — just how much?”
Now take Arsenal. They can’t defend either, and have been exposed twice from set pieces and after on the rest. However they almost certainly are not likely to spend the entire season hoping to shield with just two left-backs and Rob Holding. Club captain Per Mertesacker and vice-captain Laurent Koscielny will come in short order, and while this might not solve the problem entirely — one’s old and slow, and the other’s semi-permacrocked, and Arsenal gonna Arsenal — we all need to at least see Arsenal failing at full strength before we can actually laugh and point.
As a member, this can be actually the knock-on impact of the transfer window remaining open until the beginning of September. There is still time for teams to get their business done, to react to an early injury, or to worry and excavate tens of thousands of pounds all over the area in a desperate attempt to fix everything in a couple of weeks. Sometimes that last strategy even functions: On the last day of last summer, Chelsea earned David Luiz and Marcos Alonso, which didn’t turn out too badly.
More commonly, the early weeks of the season may be thought of as a kind of testing lab. No strategic plan ever endured first contact with Tony Pulis, after all, which is the time when football managers find out if all of their theorising and preseason preparation has become successful. Again, last season’s Chelsea are enlightening here. Three games into the season, they bought big. Six games in, they shifted formation and personnel. And 30-odd games after, they won the thing.
So while Arsenal and Liverpool would doubtless like to have started their campaign with clean sheets, so their various calamities need not be the theme for the effort. If Liverpool can obtain their guy out of Southampton, and perhaps shed Alberto Moreno down the back of the couch, then they ought to get better. And if Arsenal can obtain their squad fit — no more, keep with us — then possibly their defence will probably — no more, no, don’t giggle — manage … oh, good. Fine. Laugh away.
But this is the pleasure of early season. When things go well, it’s amazing; if things go poorly, there’s still hope. Nothing disastrous is sure, and anything is possible. Even competence.