LONDON – Thirty-seven un-played Premier League rounds leave lots of room for wild interpretation. Without more data points, analysts are free to imply clubs are in trouble or, at the other end of the spectrum, unstoppable. It’s like taking a player who hits two bombs on baseball’s opening day and saying he’s on pace for 324 home runs, only without the wink and chuckle. In the soccer world, round one results are a pundits chance to seem prescient.
I’m going to be annoyingly prescient all week, but as I do, keep a couple of pieces of recent precedent in mind:
Last year, Manchester City was unstoppable, posting a 4-0 on the season’s opening night. With Kun Aguero and Samir Nasri (soon to arrive), how could that attack be stopped? The Citizens would go on to win the title, but not without a Manchester United face plant over the season’s final weeks.
And 12 months ago, Arsenal was in crisis, held to a 0-0 at (the then-named) St. James’s Park. Cesc Fabregas was gone. Nasri was soon to follow. Arsenal was not only going to fall out of their Champions League spot, the thinking held, but they might have trouble finishing in the table’s top half.1 Nine months later, Arsenal finished third.
The best example of early season overload may have come two years ago after Chelsea beat West Brom 6-0 on opening day. Seven days later, Carlo Ancelotti’s team posted another 6-0, this time at Wigan. According to most, nobody was catching Chelsea that year. Then they were caught. Manchester United would comfortably win the title, the Blues finishing tied for second with City (nine points back).
For most people, those examples are unnecessary. Unless an opening match result shows the continuation of some long established pattern (difficult to do, given roster and management turnover), most of us know not to put too much stock into one result.
That’s why you should pause if you read any of these thoughts, most likely shoved down writers’ throats by overzealous editors:
- Manchester City looks vulnerable.
- The logic: The champs gave up two goals at home to a newly promoted side.
- The problem: Two-fold. First, Southampton played well. Manchester City’s ability to outscore them should be seen as a positive. Second, not all goals are created equal. Southampton’s second goal came off an aberrational Jack Rodwell error made worse by Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott being up to play a corner kick.
- The prognosis: No reason to worry about City. They may not be favorites, but there’s no reason to think they’ve taken an absolute step back.
- Some ol’ Arsenal! They’re not going to score goals without Robin van Persie.
- The logic: Arsenal dominated possession and play. Again. And again, a team managed to get a point from them, with Sunderland taking a 0-0 from the Emirates. That wouldn’t have happened last year. Robin van Persie would have saved them.
- The problem: Arsenal had plenty of chances to score. They played very well. They just didn’t convert. Occasionally, that happens to every team. It even happened every once in a while to Arsenal when they had “RVP”. Judging Arsenal by how they played (and not the final score) provides a lot of reasons to like the Gunners’ 2012-13 prospects.
- The prognosis: Let’s wait until Arsenal has a couple more matches like Saturday’s before drawing conclusions.
- Brendan Rodgers is out of his depth.
- The logic: Liverpool lost 3-0 at West Bromwich Albion, which … I guess no team is ever allowed to do.
- The problem: Liverpool wasn’t that bad before having a man sent off early in the second half. For there on, they were terrible, but they’re not the first 10-man team to ever play like the match couldn’t end soon enough. Steve Clarke, Kenny Dalglish’s assistant last year, took his former club apart, and … and I covered most of it here.
- The prognosis: Like Arsenal, check back in in two weeks when (coincidentally) they’ll be coming off a metting with the Gunners.
- Oh, wow! Fulham are much better than we thought.
- The logic: The Cottagers scored five again visiting Norwich City despite sitting Clint Dempsey.
- The problem: Norwich’s defending was inexplicably stoic. Long balls over the defense for Damian Duff? Mladen Petric finding nylon from 26 yards? A defender so clumsily giving away a penalty like Michael Turner did on Saturday? Fulham will probably go their next 37 games without experiencing such fortune.
- The prognosis: Fulham was one of the more underrated teams coming into the season, but Saturday exaggerated their quality.
- Oh, wow! Swansea City are much better than we thought.
- The logic: Five goals on the road at QPR to start the season? That has to mean something!
- The problem: Bolton won 4-0 at Loftus Road to open last season. Those same Trotters began this year with a derby loss to Burnley … in the Championship.
- The prognosis: Unknown, though the Michael Laudrup era couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
- Pressure’s on Manchester United to win at Goodison on Monday.
- The logic: Every single time Manchester City win, Manchester United is now obligated to do the same.
- The problem: 38-match seasons.
- The prognosis: A long, long campaign … if this angle’s being rolled out on week one.
1 – It sounds insane now, but I remember talking to multiple writers on both sides of the Atlantic who, during Arsenal’s early season downturn, had written off the Gunners’ chances to make Champions League. Back when Arsene Wenger had yet to replace Fabregas or Nasri, anything seemed possible, though some outlooks were more paranoid than others.