You wouldn’t exactly describe it as a shock. It was Manchester City, after all. Winners of two of the last four Premier League titles; armed with the best goalscorers in the country; with one of its twistiest, most creative talents; newly infused with the precocious abilities of England’s most promising young prospect; and powered by one of the hardest pipe-hitting midfielders in the world—all of whom brought their pliers and blowtorches to the reigning champs and went medieval on their asses. Still, it wasn’t like anyone expected City to beat Chelsea like this.
In retrospect, there were signs. In the league’s opening weekend, City were the only challengers in what we presume will be a tight title race who looked sharp out of the blocks. It was against lowly West Brom, sure, but the Citizens smashed them in convincing fashion. But more important than who they played was how they played. After spending most of his time in Manchester on the left wing, drifting in behind two strikers into his preferred No. 10 position, David Silva somehow looked even more dangerous when starting there in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Raheem Sterling didn’t quite dazzle, but his movement and dribbling confused the hell out of the Baggies’ defense. And after a slightly down year last season, Yaya Touré looked like Yaya Touré again, scoring twice (though one was later changed to an assist) and bulldozing through the heart of the pitch as often as he liked.
Chelsea’s season opener was less reassuring. They started their match against Swansea well, if a bit too open, with their combination play at times nearing the heights they’d ascended to in the first half of last season. Then Thibaut Courtois got sent off just after halftime, Jefferson Montero kept weaving by Branislav Ivanović like he was a traffic cone, Chelsea coughed up their 2-1 lead and just managed to keep a grip on a 2-2 draw before Swansea could score a seemingly inevitable winner. A late-starting preseason, a curiously inactive transfer window, and some other frustrations at the club frothed up to the surface at the same time. Chelsea didn’t come into the game against City at their best.
City unleashed their attacking stars on Chelsea and let them do what they do. The attacking midfield had about as much trouble skating their way past Chelsea’s defenders as they did against West Brom’s. Silva again was the star, Sterling again a critical supporting piece that facilitated everything around him, and Yaya again charged up near the box from deep and conducted the proceedings. Sergio Agüero also reminded everyone why, when healthy, he’s either the first or second best player in the league, wreaking havoc on the Chelsea back line, especially in the first half, and especially against John Terry. No wonder why Terry was pulled at halftime.
This is only one game in a long season that’s only just begun, but the broader implications are obvious. Even without any major changes to the squad (yet), City’s attack could be better than ever this year. The addition of Sterling, the central positioning of Silva, and the width and space those moves create should bring the best out of Agüero, Silva, and Touré. Injuries could always affect things, but at full strength City still have one of the best starting XIs in the world.
For Chelsea, don’t expect another runaway title jaunt like last season when the EPL trophy looked like theirs to lose as early as October. The team is still great, but Cesc Fàbregas still looks uncomfortable performing his defensive duties, Terry and Ivanović might no longer be the consistent defensive stalwarts they have been as they pass deeper into their 30s, and unless Eden Hazard makes it all happen himself, it’s unclear whether the supporting cast can prop the team up consistently.
Manchester United have yet to really come together despite two wins from two, Arsenal have looked good but not outlandishly so, and Chelsea are still working themselves into the form we expect them to hit. Right now City are definitely out in front, but it’s way too early to say too much else other than that.
Tottenham 2-2 Stoke City
At least so far this season, England’s upper-midtable clubs have offered the most intrigue. Swansea took Chelsea’s best shot and almost ended up knocking them out before following up that draw with a decisive win over Newcastle; Everton might be home of two of the season’s breakout young studs in Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley; Leicester could somehow spend the year not only safe from relegation but as a weekly threat to the bigger teams; and so on. But for as far as I can call it, there’s no more interesting team in England than Stoke City.
Tottenham actually dominated Stoke for almost the whole game. With under 15 minutes to go, Spurs had a comfortable two-goal lead and could’ve been up more. Then, the ragtag assortment of big-team castoffs that comprise the Stoke roster stormed back, thanks to the efforts of former Real Madrid player Joselu, former Man City player Stephen Ireland, and a tying goal by former Man Utd striker Mame Diouf.
Stoke are set up like a video-game team. While managing a well-funded though not exactly internationally renowned club—a Stoke, say—a common FIFA strategy consists of luring away ultra-gifted young and old guys who while away on the benches of superclubs despite their untapped or unexhausted abilities. With these newfound minutes, these players realize their potential and enjoy a run near the top of the table, before Bayern or Barça swoop in with a magesterial offer in the offseason and you take it and crush the competition by signing established stars. This might not work as well in real life as it does in video games (though wait until they throw former Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri and Barcelona flameout Bojan onto the pitch with those guys), but it makes for a fascinating watch.
The Premier League is so tactically and conceptually calcified that attempts at innovation in either playing style or roster construction should be welcomed with open arms. Stoke have taken the (perfectly respectable, if also perfectly boring) EPL Midtable Survival Blueprint—one their former manager maybe perfected—torn it up, and implemented something completely new and exciting. I think that more than anything else is why they’re so attractive to neutrals and why I’m hoping it takes them higher than they are expected to go. Either way, it’s sure to be lots of fun.
(Sidenote: Harry Kane’s realer than “Real Deal” Holyfield)
Crystal Palace 1-2 Arsenal
This was the perfect Mesut Özil game. It’s always a treat to watch the game’s quietest superstar float around the pitch, constantly find himself in space in the final third with the ball at his feet, and consistently scoot it to teammates through the passages in the defense he’d whittled away with his vision and subtle movement. He doesn’t often do the big showy thing, but he does so many little things to create the big showy things.
Top photo via Getty