Premier League: What We've Learned So Far
While it’s true that we’re only three weeks in to the 2016 English Premier League season, any supporter will tell you that’s more than enough time to take stock of where things stand in the current EPL landscape.
With Matchweek 4 approaching, read on for the main storylines from the first three weekends in the world’s greatest club football league.
The Big Three Are Back
As with any season, the opening month of this campaign has brought its share of surprises -- Hull City, anyone? -- but after the seismic shocks we experienced last year, this season has brought a return of the status quo with the country’s biggest clubs standing above the rest.
After 2015-16 seasons that were below standard (Manchester City), a little shambolic (Manchester United), or downright ugly (Chelsea), the three clubs that had passed the EPL title back and forth every year without interruption since 2007 spent the offseason retooling from top to bottom, and the results have been immediate and the retribution swift.
One glance at the league table, and you’ll see the only three clubs with a perfect record still intact are City, United, and Chelsea.
Pep Guardiola’s City are admittedly a work in progress to some degree, but no team possesses the ball better (a league-high 62.2%), and none have looked as effortless going forward this season. Although Sunderland and Stoke aren’t exactly top-end opposition, nine goals in three games is still impressive, with the now-suspended Sergio Agüero and new boys Nolito and Raheem Sterling (the jury’s still out whether he actually played for City last year) on the end of seven of that tally.
City’s forward depth will be tested in the weeks to come with Agüero serving a three-match ban for elbowing West Ham’s Winston Reid in the throat, especially after the transfer-deadline-day sale of Wilfried Bony to Stoke, but the chance to get newly-acquired German wunderkind Leroy Sane acclimated to England may prove a blessing in the long-term.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Greater Manchunia, the Mou Revolution is in full effect. Jose Mourinho’s new-look United have conceded just once in three matches -- least in the EPL -- while Zlatan “Cantona 2.0” Ibrahimović has been the difference-making center forward Man U have lacked in recent years.
The fact that Ibra’s tied for the league lead with three early goals may not come as much of a surprise, but few could’ve predicted the rebirth of Marouane Fellaini as a useful Premier League player. The Belgian midfielder/carnival worker, who was miscast as a last-roll-of-the-dice attacking option under Louis Van Gaal, is now back in a more natural state as a deep-lying midfield anchor and currently ranks second in the league in passes completed.
Then there’s Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. No EPL title defender had ever landed as low as their 10th-place finish last season, but it’s hard to see this side slumping to mid-table this time around.
Conte’s bunch has improved each week, culminated in their out-and-out 3-0 thrashing of Burnley last weekend. With two goals apiece, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard are starting to resemble their 2014-15 league-winning vintage, while the back three of César Azpilicueta, Branislav Ivanović, and a suddenly rejuvenated John Terry have gelled and should continue to improve with the somewhat comical return of David Luiz after two years away in Paris.
While it would be foolish to crown City, United, or Chelsea at this point in the campaign, there’s no denying that each -- as expected -- have greatly improved from last season. The coaching and personnel changes have been much more hit than miss, and it’s likely that each will at least contend for honors, a claim none were able to make last year.
So much for another “Year of the Underdog” -- right?
Well, maybe not entirely.
The New Boys Have Fight
Before you think the EPL adage “Anyone Can Beat Anyone” is a thing of the past, look no further than the newly promoted clubs for inspiration.
Hull City, Middlesbrough, and Burnley have each acquitted themselves well to start the new campaign, with Leicester and Liverpool the first of the big names to fall at the hands of the former Championship sides.
Hull have been the surprise package of the season so far, especially as they entered this campaign with the least amount of fanfare possible after the untimely exodus of manager Steve Bruce at the end of July and the increasingly ugly fight between the supporters and outgoing owner Assem Allam.
Yet the Tigers -- I can still call them that, right? -- have been able to overcome the problems off the field with sound play on it, with wins over the Foxes and Swansea and a tight 0-1 home defeat to Manchester United.
28-year-old Norwich castoff Robert Snodgrass has strung together a series of impressive displays, highlighted by a spectacular goal in his Man of the Match performance against Leicester, while possibly even more surprising has been the play of veteran central defender Curtis Davies, who boasts the highest WhoScored.com player rating of anyone in the EPL through three matches.
Hull boss Mike Phelan has yet to shake off the “interim” tag officially -- and might not be doing so in the foreseeable future -- but he’s performed wonders with a side that only had 13 fit senior players to open the season.
Meanwhile, Aitor Karanka and Boro have a surplus of talent on hand and have responded accordingly, as the Midlands club is yet to taste defeat in the league this season. This might be the first top flight campaign for MFC since 2009, but with EPL regulars Alvaro Negredo, Stewart Downing, and Brad Guzan in the side, experience isn’t lacking.
(Note that I didn’t say “positive” experience. Guzan leaked a jaw-dropping 58 goals in 28 matches last season for a doomed Aston Villa side, while in Manchester, “Negredo” might as well be Spanish for “turd,” though both have played well this campaign.)
Along with the more-seasoned heads, EPL debutant Christhian Stuani has been brilliant. The Uruguayan -- who, at 28, isn’t lacking experience in European football’s top leagues -- netted twice to help Boro secure all three points against Sunderland on Matchweek 2.
MFC will be favored to keep their unblemished record intact for at least another week, as a wobbling Crystal Palace side comes to Riverside Stadium this weekend.
And then there’s Burnley, the club everyone likes to count out but no one really wants to play.
Liverpool found out why in Matchweek 2, losing 2-0 despite having 86% possession, the most ever for a defeated side in EPL history.
Sure, the Clarets were shellacked 3-0 the following week at Chelsea, but that LFC match reminded us what can happen when Sean Dyche’s boys dig their trenches deep inside their half of Turf Moor.
The More Things Change…
…the more they stay the same for Arsenal and Liverpool.
For the Gunners, the normal concerns over defensive cover and striking options were, erm…“addressed” in the form of Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas “Eighth Choice” Perez for a combined $66.5 million, but as you can imagine, neither signing has calmed the baying from North London for poor Arsene Wenger’s head.
Not helping matters is the fact that both weren’t signed until the final day of the transfer window. With half of his squad still less-than-match-fit after prolonged commitments at this summer’s European Championships, Wenger played who was available in August -- and saw his make-shift side earn just four points in three matches.
Not the early-season return Arsenal fans were hoping for.
Speaking of not learning from past mistakes, Jurgen Klopp and company still haven’t figured out how to preserve a lead or how to beat teams they are better than.
Both tropes plagued Liverpool constantly last season, and both have been central in each of the Reds’ matches so far.
After seeing a 4-1 second-half lead nearly evaporate against the Gunners to open the campaign, LFC looked sterile in the aforementioned follow-up defeat at Burnley and then couldn’t close up shop at White Hart Lane after going ahead against Spurs.
Not having an actual left back on the roster -- yes, we see you, Alberto Moreno, and no, you don’t count -- won’t help matters.
Both clubs have shown glimpses of good things this season -- Arsenal were devastating going forward in a 3-1 away win over Watford, while LFC have spent more time in the opposition third than all but two sides league-wide -- but after conceding 11 goals combined in their first three games, things will need to tighten at the back if a push for a title will materialize.
Good Time to Be Blue?
Along with City, United, and Chelsea, the only other undefeated side through three matches is Everton. After a dour 11th-place league finish a season ago, former Southampton manager Ronald Koeman has apparently fixed some of the Toffees’ shortcomings that were so prevalent under Roberto Martinez, primarily in defense.
After conceding 55 goals last year -- tied with Stoke for 14th-worst in the EPL -- Koeman sold arguably his best defender in John Stones for $63 million and promptly/improbably upgraded the position by adding Welsh folk hero Ashley Williams for a mere $16 million. (That’s #GoodBusiness, friends.)
Williams and Ramiro Funes-Mori have stood firm in central defense, but it’s been stellar play from Idrissa Gueye in front them that’s been a big reason the Toffees have conceded just twice this year. The 26-year-old Senegalese midfield shield leads the league in tackles per game at 5.7 and -- stop me if you’ve heard this already -- is being touted as Everton’s version of N’Golo Kante.
The Toffees have been good at the back and so-so going forward, but while only one of their four goals has come from open play, they do lead the league in shots on target at 7.3 per match, and you’d imagine Romelu Lukaku’s return to sharpness after dealing a heel problem to open the season will only improve their clinical nature in front of goal.
Here’s the thing about Everton, though. Their two wins have come at West Brom and at home against Stoke -- not exactly power players -- but while they did pick up a quality point against Spurs to open the season, they won’t face another club that finished in last year’s top half until October 15th at Man City.
Everton’s next four league games are at Sunderland, home to Boro, at Bournemouth and home against Palace -- not exactly Murderer’s Row -- so while it’s entirely possible the Toffees could be flying high by September’s end, we might not know how much of a contender they really are until that visit the Etihad a month from now.
More Fight at the Bottom Than the Top
Yes, it’s early, but the eye test strongly suggests that at least eight teams look primed to be sucked in to the relegation battle this season.
Crystal Palace and West Brom can’t score, Watford can’t defend, Bournemouth have lost some of their pluck, Burnley and Hull still don’t have enough EPL-quality players, Swansea look a bit of a mess, and Sunderland is still very much Sunderland and probably always will be.
(By the way, current bottom club Stoke -- who have yet to score in open play and have looked as dreadful as any of the group listed above -- doesn’t merit mention in this conversation yet. This version of Mark Hughes’ club is more talented than the group that finished ninth in 2015-16, above the likes of Chelsea and Everton. This is a good football team that’s just off to a slow start. Trust me.)
In the end, Alan Pardew and Tony Pulis are too adept on the touch line to let their sides actually drop -- Pulis has famously never tasted relegation -- and Watford have enough talent to overcome their defensive shortcomings.
As for the other five though, drastic improvement is needed, or it will be a long, nervy nine months ahead.
Stats to Ponder
As mentioned above, the collective formerly known as “Sexy, Sexy Stoke” have yet to score from open play this season. Part of the reason? Shot selection. 54% of their attempts on goal have been from outside the 18-yard box, the second-highest amount in the league, while they have zero -- zero -- shots from inside the six-yard box and have hit the target a league-low 1.7 times per match. (In other words, move closer, lads.)
Hull City’s early season success has been predicated on taking advantage of limited opportunities. The Tigers have had the ball for only 16% of their matches in the opposition third -- the only side under 21% this year -- and have spent a whopping 40% in their own third, but they’ve still managed more shots per game than eight other clubs, including Arsenal. Not surprisingly, they’ve allowed the most shots against per game at 23.3, a far cry from the 6.3 shots that league leaders Chelsea limit their opposition to.
For all the hype around Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing and heavy-metal football, the Reds are currently last in the league in interceptions per game at 9.7. Granted, much of that’s due to the amount of possession they’ve enjoyed in their first three matches -- 57.8%, fourth-highest in the EPL -- but it begs the question of how effective a counter-attacking team can be if the opposition lets them have the ball, a tactic Leicester will surely employ at Anfield this Saturday.