It would not be an overstatement to call this Premier League season the most anticipated one in years. Coming off the collective disaster on the part of all the league’s biggest clubs last season that allowed something that three years ago you probably would’ve called Lysester City run away with the title, all of the big boys have come back, to quote esteemed journalist and rapper Benzino, on a fucking horse. In what has long been a tactically unsophisticated league, England is now home to arguably the greatest collection of managers that has ever been amassed. To ensure their new coaches have every chance both to actualize their visions and to succeed, most of the richest teams have lavishly spent acquiring new talent. This is now the league of Guardiola vs. Mourinho: First Blood Part II, of Paul Pogba and his record-breaking transfer fee, of Zlatan Ibrahimović and his universe-shattering ego, of Mesut Özil’s brilliant mind and Riyad Mahrez’s magical feet, of Dimitri Payet free-kicks and Harry Kane tap-ins. And, at least for one glorious opening weekend, it was all pretty terrible.
Take what was easily the most entertaining match of the first round, Arsenal vs. Liverpool. This probably should have been the best-played game of the opening weekend, for the exact reason why it’s understandable that some of the other teams struggled to varying degrees during their season-inaugurating matches: Liverpool and Arsenal are two of the very few teams fighting for the top spots in the table that enter the season with managerial continuity. While José Mourinho is busy reminding Manchester United’s players that running at opponents and passing the ball forward is actually good and Antonio Conte is trying, like an adoptive owner of an abused puppy, to rebuild a level of trust and faith between the dressing room and the coach’s office while simultaneously teaching Chelsea a new way of playing, Arsène Wenger and Jürgen Klopp can focus their time building on principles they’ve already implemented. This is no little thing in a sport with such small margins, especially when the year-to-year changes of philosophy we’re seeing—going from Manuel Pellegrini to Pep Guardiola is a big deal—are so stark. While other teams are still tip-toeing around at the beginning of the EPL campaign, trying to find their bearings, Arsenal and Liverpool and Tottenham should come out of the gates sprinting.
This didn’t quite happen in Arsenal vs. Liverpool, though the result was insanely entertaining anyway:
In the first half, Liverpool didn’t play much like the Liverpool we expected, with too few of the lung-busting runs and forced turnovers and lightning-quick counters that make Klopp teams tick, while Arsenal controlled things. Right before halftime and for the next 20 minutes or so of play, this dynamic switched entirely. Liverpool began imposing their style on the game while Arsenal suffered, thanks to a typically and hilariously erratic/dominant performance by Philippe Coutinho. (Seriously, nobody goes from not doing anything to single-handedly deciding the outcome of a match the way Coutinho does. It’s why opinions can vary so widely on whether he’s Liverpool’s best player or a total luxury better served with a super-sub role, and no one can really tell which side is right.) Arsenal mustered a nice though ultimately insufficient comeback later on in the game, and by the final whistle we had seven goals, a couple of them true beauties, an action-packed 90 minutes, and some justifiably humiliated defenders to show for it all.
Wenger’s comments after the game, where he placed some of the blame on the overall poor spectacle (at least on his team’s side) on the lingering effects of the summer’s Euro 2016 tournament, were always going to sound a little like excuse-making, but he’s not wrong. This is a league-wide problem, as evidenced to some degree by the largely unimpressive play of the opening weekend.
With the Euros and the Copa América this summer, what is always a shockingly brief offseason was barely an offseason at all for most of the world’s best players. To give returning players the time away from the game they needed to rest up for the coming season, most good teams only enjoyed an abbreviated preseason with their regular starters. This meant the guys who were ready—“ready”—for the start of the season weren’t yet up to the fitness levels required of an all-action EPL match, let alone sharp enough to play their best, let alone familiar enough with their new teammates within the structure of their new manager’s strategies to put together performances befitting the stage and their talents.
It’s why Manchester City squeaking by Sunderland felt so underwhelming—it was obvious from a glance at the crowd that everyone in attendance thought they’d be showing up to drool over a reanimated 2011 Barcelona team and were a little bemused to instead find themselves witnesses to an experimental, herky-jerky exhibition of an ornately conceptualized machine whose movements never quite synced up—and why Everton vs. Tottenham didn’t live up to its billing. Hell, Arsenal’s starting lineup looked more like what they’d put out for a late-preseason friendly than what they’d prefer to bring to a heavyweight bout against the likes of Liverpool, but extended post-Euros vacations prevented Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny, and Özil from making the squad. Mourinho’s United looked pretty solid against Bournemouth, but with Chris Smalling and Pogba not available and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the bench, the presumed real Red Devils XI still hasn’t played a single minute together in preseason or otherwise.
Because of all this managerial change and roster renewal and summer international play-induced fatigue, the Premier League as it hopefully will be—the one we all so breathlessly awaited during those interminable, like, 18 days since last season—won’t come together in earnest for at least another month or so. This means the league will probably continue to kind of suck for a while as teams try to find their best lineups and playing styles and all that. Now, this isn’t necessarily all that bad, seeing as it’s been lots of fun to watch Leicester lose to Hull, City struggle with Sunderland, and Arsenal and Liverpool try to top each other with demonstrations of sorry defending, and seeing as it will be equally fun if West Ham smashes Chelsea this afternoon. I for one am ready to love everything about this EPL season, warts and all.