The Premier League have been saying it for almost 30 years, but the most overused cliché in football has finally come true; anyone really can beat anyone in this league.
That’s the main takeaway from a wacky opening month of the English top flight where Everton are top of the table, West Brom scored three first-half goals against Chelsea, there have been two wins by margins of five goals and 144 goals scored in just 38 games.
Surprises and shock results are all a part of the game and one of the things that keeps us glued to sport, but the level of variance from week to week has been unprecedented, making it almost impossible to discern which teams are actually good and which ones are flattering to deceive.
One week Manchester City’s attack looks slick against Wolves, the next they’re getting hammered by Leicester City, who in turn go and get soundly beaten at home by a West Ham United team that looked useless in the opening game against Newcastle. Meanwhile, one of last season’s bright lights in Sheffield United sit in 19th on zero points while Aston Villa, who avoided relegation by a solitary point, are sitting pretty in second place with a 100% record.
If there is one positive the four winless teams at the bottom of the table can take from the opening month, it’s that fortunes can change very quickly. But what is the reason behind this unpredictability?
As Jonathan Liew so eloquently put it in the Guardian this week, there is no definitive answer, but given the events of this year and what we’re asking these athletes to put themselves through, it makes sense that things would get a little crazy. “This circus of dazed, drained, haunted, weirded-out players, forced through a relentless 13-month slog and expected to play with 90-minute intensity” is how he put it.
A lack of rest and preparation ahead of the 2020/21 campaign is an easy place to start. The teams who went the furthest in Europe have been particularly caught out by this, with Manchester United only getting in one preseason game for instance. There were only six weeks between the end of last season and the beginning of this one, the shortest break ever thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, and it was even shorter for Man City, Man United and Wolves.
One might think that, having played so many games in a short space of time since the restart, the players might be more attuned to the game plan that they’ve been trying to execute, but as the German proverb says: practise makes the master. A musician does not improve their guitar skills by playing a series of live shows. They still need to hone their craft with practice sessions. There’s a reason why managers love getting a long hard slog of a preseason in.
Players couldn’t possibly be fit yet, while it has also been suggested that players going on holidays during the offseason didn’t help preparations. The short turnaround has been a bit of a logistical nightmare. Getting rid of the water break has likely had an effect too, allowing the game to flow without tactical interjections from the managers.
Something we can’t possibly quantify is how much the absence of supporters is having an impact. Speaking on the latest episode of The Fantasy Faithful Podcast, Andrew Ferguson of Fantasy Football Hub believes it is a major contributor to the league’s early erraticism.
“I personally think that the impact of the empty stadiums was very understated, both in terms of the atmosphere and the urgency of the players,” Andrew told us.
“When you watch it without the crowd noise on it reminds me of watching a training game. That real match urgency where you have 30 or 40 thousand people urging you on, it’s just not there.
“There have been massive lapses of urgency and concentration.”
The uptick in spot kicks due to the new handball rule has been widely cited as a component of the unpredictability, but Andrew doesn’t think so. “We’ve seen a lot of penalties, but I think the handball has been overstated a little bit,” he says. “There’s only been six handballs out of something like 23 or 24 penalties.”
It’s also possible that the attitude of certain teams has changed as well and their approach to games has changed thusly. “Teams are just having a go as well,” Andrew surmises. “They’re not just sitting back and (being) scared anymore with eleven men behind the ball.
“Looking at Villa and Liverpool, just absolutely incredible. Villa could have scored ten! Would you have ever have said that in my entire football life of 34 or 35 years? They really could have scored ten.”
While that wild 7-2 encounter is perhaps an anomaly given three of the goals took huge deflections and Liverpool had two key players (Sadio Mané and Thiago Alcantara) test positive for Covid-19, perhaps this is simply the new normal we’ve been hearing so much about.