Now that we’ve had two weekends of Premier League fixtures, I think we can draw some slightly more informed conclusions about what the season may entail. It’s never really wise to do something like this until we’ve seen a month or two of the season, but every sports writer seems to do it every season and it is good fun to speculate about where the season may go from here.
Solskjaer needs to pick a line-up and stick to it
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made two changes to the team that hammered Leeds on the opening day of the season. Why? This was the second game of the season. They had won 5-1 the previous weekend. Why did he feel the need to make any changes at all? If this was January or February, a period of the season when games are coming thick and fast and you really do need to use your squad to make sure that you don’t have players collapsing left right and centre because you’ve played four games in ten days. But this is August, the beginning of the season. They had a full week to recover from the Leeds game, so there was absolutely no reason for Solskjaer to change the line-up. And it showed with United’s performance, especially in the first half. Even though Solskjaer only made two changes, it was disjointed and just plain poor from the Red Devils. Fred has been at the club since 2018 and still looks lost in the midfield, while Donny Van De Beek stays trapped on the bench. Nemanja Matic is 33 now and doesn’t have the energy that he once did and can’t get around the midfield and dominate it for his team. A team that looked so sorted and so settled in the first game looked lost and disconnected for a good portion of the second. They were lucky to come away with a draw at all. If this is the season for United and Solskjaer to finally break through that glass ceiling they have been playing under for three years, then these are the games they need to win. Solskjaer needs to work out what his best team is. There will be a time to rotate later in the season when the schedule gets far more congested. The second game of the season was not the game to do that.
This is going to be a seriously competitive race for the top four
West Ham showed last night against Leicester that they are not going to be a one season wonder. They will be competing for European places again, maybe even pushing for those lucrative Champions League spots. For me, there are six teams that will be pushing for those top four places. You will have the usual suspects there but Leicester City and West Ham will also be there keeping them all honest. And we saw last season how close both these clubs came to taking a Champions League spot on far more modest budgets without so many superstar players in their squads. It was fantastic to see and really showed the best aspect of the Premier League; its unpredictability. This is only a good thing for the league in my opinion. More teams pushing for the most lucrative will make the whole league more competitive as the bigger teams have to take games against everyone in the league seriously, they need to pick up points every way they can. It makes it more entertaining to watch and keeps us fans coming back for more. Add to that the fact that if Everton and Tottenham sort themselves out, they can also push for European spots, and we are going to have a hugely entertaining season up and down the table.
Arsenal and Chelsea are teams moving in opposite directions
I think most expected Chelsea to beat Arsenal on Sunday. I did think we would win the game, even though our recent record against Arsenal isn’t too great. It is important to remember that Arteta didn’t have several first team players available due to injury and a Covid outbreak, but the result and the manner of it just showed what different trajectories these two teams are on. We all know how Chelsea ended last season, claiming their second Champions League title. Arsenal ended the season outside of the European places, having fallen as low as 15th during the season.
It’s important to remember that both clubs were in a similar situation where both managers were under pressure and in danger of losing their jobs. Mikel Arteta claimed a 3-1 win over Frank Lampard’s Chelsea in late December which many saw as saving his job. A month later Lampard had been sacked and Thomas Tuchel was hired. Arsenal limped to eight in the league and went out of the Europa League with a whimper. Chelsea finished in the top four, reached the FA Cup final and won the Champions League. Over the summer, Tuchel identified the one area of his team that really needed improving and the board backed him up by bringing in a world class player. Arsenal have actually spent the most in the league during this window. And yet, they have endured their worst start to a season for years. Two games played, two games lost with four goals conceded and none scored. Chelsea’s record by contrast shows the potential beginnings of a title challenge. Two games won, five goals scored and none conceded. At the turn of the Millennium, Arsenal were one of two dominant teams in the country. By the time Roman Abramovich had bought Chelsea, they had won two League and Cup doubles. They would go on to claim another Premier League title, going unbeaten throughout the whole season. They would even reach a Champions League final before Chelsea. But they have slid back and are looking extremely unlikely to qualify for the Champions League. A lot of money has been spent this summer. But it is almost exclusively on younger players with potential. There is no experience coming in that can lead the dressing room. Roy Keane made this point on Sunday after the game with Chelsea had finished and I think it is a very relevant one. Every other big club has leaders in their dressing room that drive the team on. I can’t think of anyone in the Arsenal squad who is capable of leading that dressing room.
Arteta has now been in charge for a good 18 months. He has had time to build his squad and implement his ideas. If the results don’t turn around soon, we could be see the first managerial departure of the season.