The Premier League holds a contentious reputation as “the most entertaining league in the world,” an opinion many might consider backed up by a goal-laden start to the 2020-21 campaign.
Four weeks into the new season, we’ve already seen Liverpool leak 11 goals—one third of last term’s final total—seven of which came during their recent freakish fall at Aston Villa, who only just procured top-flight survival in July. Villa sit second to Everton, the only other undefeated outfit thus far, while rivals Manchester City and Manchester United have posted one win apiece from their first three games, albeit having played one fewer than most of their peers.
It’s too early to decree emerging trends as the ‘new norm’—no matter how much fans might enjoy that in a competition as disposed to power change as the Premier League—but neither can the giant-slayings nor underperformance go ignored.
So, what are the main reasons behind this particularly open start to the English campaign, and can those bolters from the gate maintain pace over the distance?
The coronavirus pandemic has had far-reaching implications across the sport spectrum, but there’s cause to argue soccer suffered the most in regards to schedule disruptions worldwide. Europe’s 2019-20 campaign took more than a calendar year to complete, and the usual three-month summer break was reduced to a handful of weeks for many organisations.
Any pre-season preparations had to be condensed as a result, and the truth is we may never fully comprehend the impact that has had on squads and players on an individual scale. Career routines have been disrupted, quarantines have caused delays, and the mental anguish as a result of any personal loss likely won’t be taken into account when discussing a player’s form.
That’s the same across all of soccer, though, so why does the power pyramid of the Premier League appear to have taken such a hit?
It’s important to recognise the title race in England is habitually more of a free-for-all than other major European leagues. Leicester City’s win in 2016 stands as evidence of that, as does the fact there have been four champions crowned in the past five seasons, while France, Germany, Italy and Spain have been dominated by one—or, at most, two—team(s) over the last decade or so.
Villa’s 7-2 conquering of Liverpool, Manchester City’s 5-2 slaying at the hands of Leicester and Manchester United’s 6-1 capitulation at home to Tottenham Hotspur are each representative scorelines contributing to the heavier flow of goals:
In the cases of certain ‘top-six’ teams, that shortened summer run-up will have made every bit of difference.
United already looked like a team running on fumes when they concluded last season in a Europa League semi-final loss to Sevilla in mid-August. Pep Guardiola had less time to freshen City’s plans after Rudi Garcia’s Lyon outmanoeuvred his side in the Champions League’s last eight around the same time. Chelsea ended the 2019-20 campaign one week earlier, but Frank Lampard has endured growing pains introducing so many new signings to his squad in such a short span.
Managers will often have recognised patterns year-on-year when it comes to shaping their plans, but the best tacticians elevate their strategies in kind with the sport, never resting on their laurels.
That diligence dedicated to evolving a team has been hampered, resulting in less time to incorporate new players, as well as remodelling the squads already at their disposal.
Those factors go some way to explaining how Dean Smith’s Villa—who have had slightly more time to transform their prospects over the summer—could surprise a Liverpool team who have looked easier to dissect in 2020.
Analyst Simon Austin recently touched upon this as not a simple debate of attacking quality versus defence but one where ‘lesser’ teams are able to exploit certain blueprints:
It wouldn’t be a major shock for anyone to see the likes of Liverpool and City develop momentum—and quickly—as the season progresses, but there’s at least a temporary delay for certain clubs effectively still in their ‘pre-season’ phase.
No Fans? No Fuss
Another inevitable difference-maker in the fallout of COVID-19 is the attendance ban and the effect it has on teams.
The end to last term provided enough evidence away teams were enjoying better results without the pressure of fans in attendance, a trend that’s continued in the early stages this campaign.
After 40 games of the 2019-20 Premier League (two away games per team), 11 teams had won one or more road matches; that figure has risen to 16 teams after 38 matches of 2020-21, with Fulham, Sheffield United, Burnley and West Brom the only teams yet to win one away so far.
Much of the intimidation factor has dissolved as a result of supporters being forced to keep their distance. Depending on how loud one’s substitutes and backroom staff are, some travelling teams may even feel like the hosts on occasion.
Any rise in confidence is apparent among attackers given the amount of shots per game has fallen while shot-conversion in the Premier League is up to 16.1 percent, per Opta. That figure may not sound imposing on paper but represents a rise by almost half of last season’s 11 percent.
Everton defender Michael Keane has said the absence of supporters may indeed give forwards greater incentive to experiment, without that tangible pressure from the touchline should they fail, via BBC Sport’s Matthew Henry:
"It might give the strikers a bit more freedom to try things they perhaps wouldn't if they felt there was a bit more pressure there with the fans.
“As a defender it's not like in the Premier league we have forgotten about clean sheets and we don't want them.”
England team-mate and Wolverhampton Wanderers captain Conor Coady told the Independent’s Miguel Delaney a similar story of the effect felt playing behind closed doors:
“I think fans play a big factor, I'll be totally honest with you, I think we all want them back as soon as possible, we've seen other countries doing it now, and it's something we want as soon as possible. I do think that is a factor, yeah, and the sooner we get them back the better it is for everybody.”
The United Kingdom’s government has attracted widespread criticism for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a major reason why it’s behind other European countries in easing fans back to stadia.
Premier League powers have appealed to the public in an effort to reintroduce supporters at grounds, but it’s uncertain whether we’ll see crowds in any capacity for the remainder of this term.
In the short term, at least, this means greater opportunity for smaller clubs to continue pinching points at venues where their chances would usually be lower.
Transfer Window Effect
It’s a point that always looks more reasoned with the hindsight of a few games, but an extended overlap between the start of this season and the end of the transfer window has given greater context to what a successful summer of business can do for a club.
Everton, Villa and Leeds have each enjoyed brighter-than-expected starts this season, while Leicester and Tottenham’s prospects also seem to be on the rise. The latter effortlessly illustrated the contrast in impact of a good or bad transfer window during the recent visit to Old Trafford, where hosts Manchester United were exposed on an unprecedented level following a slow summer:
Spurs were helped by a first-half dismissal for Anthony Martial, of course, but the warning signs were apparent for a stagnant United lineup even when fully manned and leading 1-0 early on. Jose Mourinho has got early joy out of Sergio Reguilon and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg—new signings who both started in Manchester—who have helped impose the structure it’s taken to implement in north London.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United, meanwhile, have looked all too simple to disassemble after failing to spend in the areas they need most.
That’s not to say ample money hasn’t been invested in the current squad—on the contrary, the XI that started against Tottenham cost close to $600 million—but United’s is an example of how to spend huge amounts without necessarily getting value for money.
ESPN FC’s Julien Laurens singled out $97 million captain Harry Maguire as an example of one player performing far below expectations:
At the other end of the scale, Everton have reaped the benefits of a recognised restructure, wholly transforming their midfield with the additions of Allan, Abdoulaye Doucoure and James Rodriguez.
Villa spent a club record $36 million to sign Brentford striker Ollie Watkins, whose hat-trick against Liverpool will go a long way to repaying the fee as far as many fans will be concerned. Emiliano Martinez and Matty Cash have also served specialist needs well at goalkeeper and right-back, respectively, helping clinch three wins from their first three games.
Even newly promoted Leeds showed far more fervour for the new season with signings across the board, fattening up their squad to look at home in the Premier League.
Transfer activity will always be a natural source of drama in soccer, but a heavily disrupted summer highlighted the call for new, motivated faces this season, and some clubs have responded far more positively than others. Chelsea is a prime example of squad that has perhaps undergone too much of an overhaul, as Frank Lampard's squad has yet to fire on all cylinders.
In any other season, one would expect this initial burst of new-signing hysteria to settle in time, but the domino effect caused by the coronavirus could topple throughout the season.
Everton’s jolt must be attributed to a number of factors, not least of which is the fact Carlo Ancelotti has had almost a year to settle at Goodison Park. The Toffees stand apart from the other fast starters in that regard, and their surprising form has the potential to become the beginning of a new era among the Premier League’s finest.