The Premier League comprises 20 clubs. Like in so many other major leagues there are very few of the teams that can realistically hope to come out on top at the end of the season. Perhaps six think they have a chance, although there are probably only two at the most who could be champions. The “elite” six teams, the ones with by far the greatest revenues, they were the ones that finished in the top six places last season, and according to most, will do so again this time, and possibly for the foreseeable future with the way that money is distributed within the league.
The aim of the remaining 14 is twofold, firstly not to be involved in the relegation scrap at the foot of the table ensuring that they remain a Premier League team, and secondly (in some cases) to try to threaten the top six and break their stranglehold. Based on the evidence of last season the chances of doing the second one would seem to be remote. I’d like to think that all teams would be trying to win one of the two domestic cup competitions but sadly, their importance is in decline as far as the clubs themselves are concerned, although perhaps not in the eyes of fans, who love to see our team involved in a cup run.
A quick reminder of the table last season shows City and Liverpool way ahead with 98 and 97 points, with Chelsea 25 points adrift on 72 in third, a point clear of Tottenham (71), and then Arsenal 70. A very poor Manchester United team trailed on 66, but they were still 9 points clear of the best of the rest (Wolves on 57). I would expect the four clubs who finished outside the top six but in the top half of the table (Wolves, Everton, Leicester and West Ham) to be the ones with aspirations to get closer to the elite but is it a realistic thought? I’d love to think so but I doubt it.
Of course the start that a club gets to the season often (although not always) sets the tone for what follows. I am aware that the fixtures computer arranges the fixtures randomly (with some input from clubs and police etc.), but what odds would you have got six years ago that West Ham would face an opening day fixture against each one of the elite six in the six seasons that followed? Very long I’ll wager, although when the fifth one came up last season I said at the time that next season I reckon it will be Manchester City (if we survived in the top flight of course!)
The one game of the previous five opening day games that we won (2-0 at Arsenal) coincided with one of our best ever seasons in the top flight, although those with a good memory will recall that we then went on to lose our first two home games that season, 2-1 to eventual champions Leicester, and 4-3 to Bournemouth.
Last season of course we had an abysmal start, losing our first four games and propping up the league at that point. Ironically, Watford had a dream start and had 12 points after their first four fixtures, so it was pleasing that we recovered well to finish in tenth place, just in the top half of the table, and incidentally two points clear of Watford in 11th.
Our opponents today won 32 of their 38 games in the league (as well as winning both domestic cup competitions, including the demolition of Watford in the FA Cup final) so will be formidable opposition. I suppose facing them in the opening game is as good a time as any, but personally I will just be looking for a good performance, and hope that the players begin to gel together.
Unlike many on social media I like to refrain from commenting in advance on players arriving until I’ve seen how they settle and trust that the players in our team and squad are ones that the manager and his team want there. But on the face of it, the two big signings, Haller and Fornals would appear to be excellent acquisitions, and the return to fitness of Lanzini, Wilshere and Yarmolenko is like adding three new players as well. It would appear that we will have the capability of creating lots of chances, and hopefully we will score a lot of goals. Unlike many observers, I don’t believe that we have bad players in defensive positions; on the contrary I am generally happy. What I think we don’t do well is defend as a team, and in this I mean everyone on the pitch. I’d like to see the manager appoint a first class defensive coach, but he will run the team and coaching (quite rightly) as he thinks fit. I did read that one or two of the top teams even have throw-in coaches! You might laugh but if you analyse how often we lose possession of the ball from our throw-ins (one of the few statistics I haven’t yet seen!) you’d agree that it would be a good thing.
Of course there are new things for us to see this season. The introduction of VAR is something I have personally advocated for years. Going back to the book I published in 2016, Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, I made many references as to how I would like to see it used to ensure that we got the correct decisions more often, especially in relation to offside. I’m not entirely happy with some of the ways it is being used however, but I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve witnessed it in action in the Premier League. I’ve seen some (tongue in cheek?) comments suggesting that we’ll all be home much later, and that the classified results will now be moved to Match of the Day!
There are a number of rule changes being introduced too. Some of them are minor, and some will be more influential on games, for example the change to handball. Once again I’ll wait to see it in action before commenting, although early examples, such as in the Women’s World Cup, showed some potential teething troubles and inconsistency. I was not happy to read that the head of referees is suggesting that the Premier League will have its own interpretation of the new handball law, but once again I’ll wait and see. Surely consistency is what we want, whether or not we agree with the interpretation of the laws?
I welcome the fact that goalkeepers should have at least one foot on the goal line when the kick is taken, but hasn’t that always been the case? The problem has occurred with referees and linesmen having an inability or lack of desire to penalise goalkeepers moving off their lines before the penalty is taken (or encroachment for that matter). I suppose with VAR we can expect a rise in the number of penalties, so let’s see how consistent the officials can be.
A lot of the minor changes are just tinkering, and the one big change I’d love to see implemented is the correct timing of games, and the correct amount of time added on for injuries, goal celebrations, time wasting etc. The referee already has a lot to think about, and this could be taken out of his hands with the introduction of a timekeeper controlling the stadium clock, and stopping the time when these things happen, as happens in Rugby Union for example. Am I the only person who can see how this could totally eliminate the concept of time wasting?
When the opposing team scores and goes off to celebrate with their fans (especially at our stadium!) make a note of when the goal goes in and when play resumes. The amount of time will surprise you. See how much time is added for substitutions from when the decision is made to change a player up to the resumption of play. And don’t get me going on how long goalkeepers take to take a goal kick when their team is winning. And referees never add it on. They just seem to add a token time to reflect stoppages which bears little relation to how much actual time is lost. And one thing I don’t understand. If a referee stops his watch at any time how does he know how long he has stopped it for? The only way is to have another (stopwatch) and start that when he stops the main watch, and then stop the stopwatch when he starts his main watch again! Doesn’t a referee have enough to think about without faffing about with watches? I repeat; a timekeeper controlling the stadium clock would put an end to it all. I’ll return to this hobbyhorse as the season progresses.
Anyway, enjoy the game. I’d love to see an upset, although doubt that it will happen. On paper of course the fixtures for the rest of August are easier, so don’t get too upset if the result is not great, as long as we put in a good performance. We won’t face Manchester City every week!