WOLVERHAMPTON — Relaxed in the NBC Sports Winnebago in the parking lot at Wolverhampton Wanderers Molineux Stadium, the entire Premier League broadcast team had been assembled in the UK for opening weekend.
Discussions flowed from Lee Dixon liking peanut butter with marmite on toast, to summer vacations, to what formation Wolves would be playing as two studios, a gantry position and a full production team were on site to see in the new 2018-19 season in style.
From Manchester to Wolverhampton to London, an army of NBC Sports employees were on hand.
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As the 10 a.m. ET games on the opening Saturday kicked off, there was a huge buzz among the trucks, studios and many NBC Sports staff on-location for the week-long trip to the UK. The first multi-game window of the season had commenced and everyone was talking about which players they couldn’t wait to see, the teams who would impress and how much they’ve missed the action this summer.
The epicenter of this chatter before, during and after the game was on the two sofa seats facing each other in the Winnebago.
Arlo White, Graeme Le Saux and Robbie Earle were sat in those seats and had just completed a piece of pitchside analysis at Molineux before settling down to watch the 10 a.m. ET games. Their next live video hit was at half time of the Saturday rush. With a printer ticking away in one corner of the Winnebago, coffees being made and production members flitting in and out to chat with Arlo, Graeme and Earle about various plans, this was it. It was go time. They were back.
As the voices of Rebecca Lowe, Dixon and Kyle Martino hummed away in the background from the studio about 150 yards away inside the stadium, plus those of Robbie Mustoe and Derek Rae who were on the call for Newcastle vs. Tottenham elsewhere in England on opening weekend, the entire crew felt inextricably linked at all times.
With English candy packed in the upper compartments of the hot, slightly stuffy Winnebago being heavily consumed, banter being chucked back and forth (mostly by Le Saux) and a joint discussion about Wolves’ tactics and nailing down where each player would start, it was all go. As rain showers circled Molineux there was also plenty of talk about umbrellas, jackets and a route to the gantry for the match commentary. Again, this was England, in August, and the UK’s summer-long heatwave had well and truly been and gone.
Sat alongside Arlo White, Graeme Le Saux and Robbie Earle during the opening Saturday of the season, the banter flowed as we had a chat as several screens showing the four 10 a.m. ET games fluttered with the bright colors of opening weekend in the background.
Guys, you’ve all been together on these trips to the UK a few times now, what has been the key takeway from this trip so far?
Robbie Earle: Kyle Martino’s a wuss because he doesn’t like Marmite. That’s a big takeaway…
Graeme Le Saux: That my jokes haven’t gotten any better.
Earle: Kyle Martino cheats at NASCAR racing, he tampers with your car before it starts.
Le Saux: That’s underhand.
Earle: I’m just trying to think if there are any Kyle Martino lines…! And it’s great to be back. After a great World Cup everybody is buoyed about football and we’ve had a good start. The stories with Pogba captaining United, scoring a penalty. Luke Shaw scoring his goal. Seeing what the new Chelsea are like under Sarri. It’s nice to get back to Premier League.
Le Saux: It’s always great when the whole group is together because particularly at the start of the season, I think it sets the tone for the whole season. It’s such a team effort so when you have the whole team over, the talent, everyone behind-the-scenes, I think it does set the season off on the right tone and furthers the relationship. It feels big. When you have pitch side studios, a studio and everything that goes with that. It is certainly a special occasion.
What was it like watching the World Cup this summer in England? Were you longing for the PL to return?
Arlo White: There has been a combination of things that happened with England this summer and it was England going to the semifinals of the World Cup, which was absolutely incredible. And there’s been an unprecedented heatwave. I’ve never seen so many smiles on people’s faces. Nobody, really, has anything to moan about. Which is unusual! It has been a very nice place to spend time this summer. It is good to get club football back.
As Graeme said, to start with the three venues but also for me, to start with the Transfer Deadline Day and Preview show the day before, it just feels like this season you are completely across everything. It’s a nice position to be in going into the sixth year, where you have seen all of these teams being put together and we can deliver something from a standing start with the Deadline show on Thursday which was a lot of fun to do.
Looking at the new season, what is the most compelling storyline for you?
Le Saux: I would say it’s Man City, still. That’s maybe an easy option but because they set the bar so high last year, winning back-to-back Premier League titles has only been done twice before and I think they are more than capable of achieving that. But that then throws up all of the competition and Liverpool in particular have thrown a huge amount of money and shown what their intentions are. City’s standard is the story that effects everything else. I think that’s why you’re seeing a couple of goalkeepers coming in for a fortune because suddenly everyone is saying ‘we need a goalkeeper who can play with his feet.’ So they’ve set a trend and the standard, City.
Earle: I would probably just go Liverpool. Daring to dream. They haven’t won a title since 1990. They filled all the holes, virtually, that need filling. They are maybe a center back short of saying ‘that’s it, on you go’ so I think it’s kind of time. It feels like it’s time. Klopp has had a good look at the league. He’s been backed in the area he wants. The squad is deep now. Liverpool used to be the first 11 were as good as, but not much beyond that. Now they virtually have two players for every position. It is kind of time now. They’ve spent big money on a goalkeeper, you’ve got your defense. Midfield you’ve got Keita and Shaqiri is going to be great. Sturridge could be a new signing type player. It feels like ‘come on then’ it is time.
White: I agree totally with the lads but the two things for me, Spurs’ stadium. We are planning something quite special at the opener against Liverpool.
Le Saux: We are firing Arlo out of a cannon!
White: That’s my walk and talk. More of a fly and talk, really.
Le Saux: You will do well to remember your lines as you’re flying through the air…
White: Let’s end on that bombshell.
Le Saux: Literally a bombshell!
White: So there’s that… And the other thing is Arsenal, because if we said going forward they have players to cause massive amount of damage to the opposition. Look at them. They have Ozil, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey.
White: Exactly. They’ve got terrific players. Everything I’ve read in the offseason, from the defenders in particular, they are very differential. Bellerin is differential to Wenger that he was one of the greatest managers. How it is different is, we are going to be more organized. Most of the guys who have been brought in are outright defenders. Hopefully it gets back to what Arsenal are good at defensively. They haven’t been good at that for a very long time. I think they can give the top four a go. I don’t think necessarily they will be fighting for fifth and sixth. That would be, for me, one of the best stories of the season, if they can give that a go again and finish in the top four in the first season without Wenger.
Earle: It’s a great point actually, because for 21 years we haven’t seen anything different. I read a good article today about the work he [Emery] is doing. And how Wenger used to be obsessed with the clock. And he [Emery] is now saying ‘no, we will work until it’s done.’
White: So, Wenger would stop it?
Le Saux: It would be 20 minutes, no matter what happened.
Earle: There was a clock to do things. But Emery, this guy is taking a different approach.
Le Saux: As a player I always found it frustrating when a coach stopped a session when you were flying.
Earle: Yeah, when you’re flying. But for Arsenal, the important thing is that they are reportedly working on their weaknesses. Which is a really good thing for Arsenal because they are so good at all of the other things.
Is there something you’ve seen in the games you watched closely which changed your mind about either the teams, managers or players? Was there a moment you thought “well, I didn’t expect that to happen” or “he’s better than I thought!”
Le Saux: Leicester surprised me, in a positive way. James Maddison was Leicester’s standout player. It was a heck of a lot of money to spend with someone who has no Premier League experience. He is young. And it proves the point to me that you are only as good, or potentially as good, as the environment. As much as your own ability, it is about being around good players. I think he is going to have a good season. And I think for Claude Puel, they will be disappointed they lost but the performance will have given Leicester fans a lot of confidence. It was a good marker for the season.
Earle: Seeing Mourinho on the touchline, his mannerisms during the game, those are the things you pay attention to when you’re in the stadiums. More so than the game sometimes. His relationship with Pogba was interesting. Very encouraging with Luke Shaw with his goal, he goes and hugs his coaches. Those little bits I can’t see from the studio Stateside because you’re only seeing one camera. Over here, I can see it with my eyes and feel the crowd. It’s the little things which sometimes tell you as much as is happening in the game. The relationships between players, their body language and Pogba saying to Alexis Sanchez ‘who has won the World Cup recently?’ and saying off you pop from the penalty kick and then scoring it.
White: I think when Leicester come out onto the pitch, I thought they had sent their under 15’s out to play! They looked so young it was unbelievable. And if you look at the way they’ve won the title, it has been a gradual shift away from that philosophy of counter-attacking to a more possession-based game. Puel struggled to enforce that and Leicester’s fans were worried. But I think having seen them in the first 90 minutes I think they will be fine. Whether they will push for the top six, I’m not saying that, but I think it was a knife edge. And I will never get used to see Manchester United sitting off, at home, against a team like Leicester, with a 1-0 lead. Growing up in the era I grew up in, I will never get used to that. I know it is after the World Cup and he didn’t make any signings and there are some off-field issues, if you like. I just don’t know how long Man United fans are going to stand for that.
Is there an outlandish thing that will happen in the PL this season you’ve thought about in the back of your mind? Another Leicester title charge? A big team in real trouble?
White: Wolves to finish top eight. Look out for them.
Earle: Wolves nowhere near as high as people think.
White: Wolves relegated?
Earle: No, Wolves not relegated. But I think people are getting carried away a little bit. I’m a bit wary.
Le Saux: The thing is, they haven’t got a strong English, Premier League core to draw on.
Earle: I like the confidence and I hope I’m wrong, but this league is really brutal.
Le Saux: I think Fulham could be a decent side. I wouldn’t go as far as saying they’ll push for Europe. I think they will finish highest out of the three that got promoted. That is my gamble. The other thing is that I said Newcastle will get relegated this year. And I don’t want them to but I’m worried that all of the off the pitch stuff may have a bigger impact but against Tottenham they looked like they had spirit on the pitch. That gives great credit to Benitez and the ability to get the players focused.
Who has been the best dressed on the trip so far?
Earle: Not Kyle Martino, who didn’t bring his jacket to the transfer deadline day show.
White: I think Lee Dixon’s crushed cranberry Paul Smith suit kind of stole the show.
Le Saux: And his flustered paprika tie!
Earle: And his aubergine pocket square. You can’t compete with that…
White: It was the sartorial equivalent of winning the league by Christmas.
Le Saux: I would have to say Rebecca.
Who has been the loudest of the group? Who talks the most?
Le Saux: It’s probably me.
White: Yep, Le Saux.
Earle: Definitely Le Saux.
White: Try and get through an hour-long presentation on VAR with Le Saux. An absolute nightmare.
Le Saux: I’d agree. I’m not even disputing it.
Earle: ‘Let’s go to our VAR expert’ Graeme…
Le Saux: ‘I’ve look at the footage and, well, they are right.’ End of discussion.
Who has been the most excited about being in England for this trip?
Le Saux: Mustoe.
Earle: And he has done two commentaries. Back-to-back commentaries is Mustoe’s dream. But I’m the hardest working man on NBC…
Le Saux: I’m just not going to say anything.
Has there been anything else on this trip which has been a particular joy for you? One moment?
Earle: Going to Man City’s training ground was fascinating. 20 minutes hanging out with Pep Guardiola. If ever you could extend a moment to try and spend an hour in that man’s company. He is just cool. The best kind of cool. He’s got it, he’s engaging, tactical. He is almost cultish. He has got the solution to every issue and he is just a pure football coach. His life is just dominated by football.
White: What I wanted to know from him, and the cameras weren’t there, was if he made any compromises at all to the way his teams play football. When we think back to the first season, and everyone said ‘you can’t do it that way here’ and people seemed to know more than he did. Actually, he has won that hands down. He has bent the entire Premier League to his own will. He has said the only two things that he realized early on the only two things that he had to focus on, more than he used to, was high balls and set pieces. That’s it. Everything else he’s done it his way 100 percent. He sat there in front of us energized and clearly has hunger for the new season. Everyone better be on it because there will be a seat on the bench next to me if they’re not. At the absolute worst they’re going to be as good as they were last year. And I suspect they’re going to be even better. To sit there and hear that from him, I came away feeling very confident about Man City’s chances.
What about the future of the Premier League, what big changes or storylines should we be keeping an eye on?
Le Saux: VAR is the thing. There are some good bits to it but there are a lot of unanswered questions before I am comfortable with it and think it is worth introducing. I think that is going to be the single biggest change in football for many, many years.
Earle: I’m interested to see how the winter break over the two periods plays out. Will it be the benefit it is designed for?
Le Saux: Also, when you look at the Premier League at the clubs coming up, the money they are now spending, the margins are closer.
Earle: It’s the top six and then 14 teams. Pretty much.
Le Saux: Also, the money has allowed clubs to keep hold of star players as well. If you go back 10 years and clubs were almost forced to sell players. But now clubs that you would consider smaller clubs, they’ve got clout to keep hold of players and hold them to their contracts a bit more which I think is a good thing in terms of the competition.