In the grip of a prolonged pandemic the world is pretty messed up right now; unfamiliar and peculiar.
Just going to the shops can feel like the start of an apocalyptic film, the opening scenes that signify semi-normality before it cuts to eight months later and people are fighting in torn clothes over a jerrycan of petrol.
In April an American president suggested that injecting bleach might rid sufferers of the coronavirus. Earlier this month in the UK a high-ranking Government minister was arguing that a scotch egg constituted a substantial meal. Millions meanwhile are losing their jobs and millions more are wearing masks, fearful of their shadow.
The world is pretty messed up right now.
So, amidst all this madness it is perfectly understandable, even inevitable, that football has also gone a touch bonkers. Frankly, it would be weird if it wasn’t weird and with no fans in stadiums and with a fixture list so condensed that players are flogging themselves into an early grave that’s certainly the case.
Yet even within these broad parameters of the new norm, the game has been ridiculously out-of-kilter this season. It’s just not been feeling itself at all, as illustrated by some crazy score-lines – will we ever be able to process Liverpool losing 7-2 and United getting thumped 6-1 on the same day? – along with a record-breaking glut of goals in the opening weeks.
Don’t think for one minute, however, that things are beginning to settle down. In 2020, the year that has tested our patience and tried our sanity, the oddities continue….
West Ham are fifth
Let’s start with the high-flying Hammers, who are by no means the craziest side around right now but who demonstrate perfectly the key theme of 2020/21 – that little makes sense anymore.
As a new season honed into view West Ham sold arguably their most exciting youngster Grady Diangana to West Brom for a measly £18m. It was a nonsensical sale that prompted club captain Mark Noble to publicly condemn his employers. They then let Felipe Anderson leave on loan and all while struggling – and mainly failing – to bring in any new faces during the transfer window.
Subsequently, with the charisma-vacuum David Moyes in charge, everyone put two and two together and duly marked them down as relegation candidates because surely a campaign of toil and crisis awaited them.
But ten games in the happy Hammers are fifth, and what is especially weird is that nobody is making a big deal about this; nobody is saying “Hang on, how the hell are West Ham so high in the table?” After all, they haven’t done anything spectacular. They have barely caused a stir.
Games lost this season:
David Moyes – 4
Zinedine Zidane – 5
— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) December 1, 2020
The stats only muddy the waters further. They have the third lowest possession figures in the top-flight and according to whoscored.com they don’t have a single player in the top 25 performers of the season to date. Plus, once again, they have David Moyes in charge.
Trying to work out how West Ham are genuine European contenders this season leads only to the warm embrace of a straitjacket.
Crisis? What crisis?
The two most cheapened words in the footballing lexicon are ‘crisis’ and ‘legend’.
The latter is thrown around willy-nilly, dedicated to players not remotely worthy of the title. As for ‘crisis’, the state reserved only for big clubs enduring a sustained slump, is there even such a thing anymore?
Take Arsenal. They’re surely in ‘crisis’ mode under Mikel Arteta, right? How can that not be the case when they’ve completely forgotten how to create chances; when they have collectively scored the same amount of goals as Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin; when, after ten games, they have accrued the fewest number of points since 1982.
Arsenal (9.5) haven’t managed more shots per game than any of Europe’s bottom clubs across the top five leagues [@WhoScored]
Sheffield United – 9.5
Crotone – 10
Huesca – 10.2
Schalke – 10.6
Dijon – 10.1 pic.twitter.com/rlQFY1AwHA
— AFTV (@AFTVMedia) December 1, 2020
Yet a quick peek at the table tells us that the Gunners are currently just five points adrift of the top four, despite languishing in 14th. At this same stage last term they were cruising along in fifth but just a point closer to Champions League qualification.
What about Manchester United? They’re absolutely, positively, definitely in ‘crisis’ because that’s what we’re repeatedly told, with calls for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s head a weekly occurrence in the media.
The Reds are presently higher than their city rivals for the first time in yonks. They are also six points better off than at this juncture last season.
Blades are blunted
Certain teams were always going to be adversely affected by the absence of fans and before a ball had been kicked many were predicting Sheffield United would be one of them.
Last season the Blades surprised one and all by inhabiting the top six for a large portion of the campaign and though their football was wonderfully created by Chris Wilder they were also reliant on a packed Bramall Lane, urging them to over-achieve.
Nobody though, could have anticipated how dramatic the drop-off would be.
“I haven’t got the sack for 20 years!”
Chris Wilder was bullish when asked if he feared for his job at Sheffield United… pic.twitter.com/X46LpK2wmd
— Amazon Prime Video Sport (@primevideosport) November 23, 2020
After ten games in 2019/20 Wilder’s men had lost on just three occasions, amassing 13 points. They had scored nine times.
This time out they are yet to register a win and lie rock bottom. They have found the net a paltry four times.
With close to the same starting eleven this is an astonishing and sudden decline.
Plenty of pens
Common consensus tells us that Manchester United have hogged all the spot-kicks this season. In actual fact, they have been awarded four while Leicester have had twice that amount.
All told, the Premier League has seen 47 penalties given from 98 games to date – one every 187 minutes – and though this astonishing rise can partly be attributed to the more stringent penalisation of handball courtesy of VAR that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The rest can be explained away by….well, there isn’t really an explanation. It is a curious quirk entirely in keeping with a very strange year.
Though still a record figure by some considerable distance we are at least seeing evidence of the sheer number of penalty kicks slowing down. After five rounds a penalty was being awarded on average every 148 minutes.
Son and Kane top the league
Against the odds, Tottenham are unquestionably putting together a title challenge this year and Jose Mourinho deserves a good dollop of kudos in facilitating this.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg meanwhile, a rather prosaic midfielder whose switch from the south coast to North London in August prompted a stifled yawn from most, is also worthy of acclaim having completed more passes than anyone else in the top-flight so far. In a short period of time he has become invaluable to Spurs.
And yet, compared to Son Heung-min and Harry Kane, even the Dane’s steady influence and Mourinho’s all-seeing eye pale in significance. Between them, the strikers have scored 16 of Tottenham’s 21 league goals. The brilliant South Korean on his own has contributed 43% of his side’s goal-haul.
Where once Pep Guardiola dismissed Tottenham as ‘the Harry Kane team’ now it’s a deadly duo lifting them to heady heights.