We’re only days into September but more than 10% of the 2019-20 Premier League season has already been voraciously consumed.
Some things, like Liverpool and Manchester City pulling away from the rest, seem only too familiar.
But others, like the longing gaze at the video assistant referee (VAR) decision on the big screen and the new goal-kick rule, seem utterly new.
What, then, are the key trends from the opening few weeks of the season?
VAR has had less of an impact than you might think
The establishment of our new VAR overlords in Stockley Park was always going to make for an intriguing period but despite some high-profile reversals in the opening few weeks, it seems the officials have been determined the league’s new system of justice should not have too major an impact.
Who can forget the 2018 World Cup, which saw 29 penalties, shattering the record for a single tournament, as VAR honed in on grappling and barging?
This season, in the Premier League, there have been only nine spot-kicks awarded (a third of them to Manchester United), which is below average for the past 10 seasons.
Indeed, back in 2012-13 when video referees were the stuff of science fiction, seven penalties were awarded on the opening weekend alone.
It’s a similar story with red cards, with the five this season being only half as many as at this stage two seasons ago, and four fewer than last term.
|How seasons compare after four weeks|
Overall, of more than 30 incidents that have been played out on the big screen so far, only six decisions by the on-field officials have been overturned.
Intriguingly, two of those have ruled out goals for Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus (away to West Ham and home to Tottenham) and those have been the interventions that have driven the most debate about the new system.
Tiny signs that the furious arguments may settle down as the season progresses were seen in matchweek four as only three incidents went to VAR and all of them backed the referee’s decision.
Good officiating or reluctance to cross to the leafy judgement palace of Stockley Park?
Maybe we need VAR for the VAR.
Brighton love playing out from the back as much as Man City
Another change for the Premier League (and football in general) in 2019-20 is the new goal-kick law.
Previously the ball had to be played outside of the penalty area before being touched by a team-mate, and in the long-ball era of the 1990s and before, this was not an issue.
A Mitre ball, pumped up harder than the surface of one of Jupiter’s moons, would be “distributed” upfield by a goalkeeper in remarkably high shorts and play would commence in the immediate vicinity of the halfway line.
Now goalkeepers can stroke a short one inside the box (I posit that this is the most unsettling visual change to football since the backpass law in 1992, it’s certainly taking longer to get used to than the one-man kick-offs) and stretch the play.
Proportionally, Manchester City’s Ederson jointly leads the way in short passes from goal-kicks with Brighton’s Mat Ryan (69%), but the Albion man heads the division in terms of raw numbers, with 22 of his goal-kicks being played to a team-mate inside the box, putting him just ahead of the north London pairing of Bernd Leno and Hugo Lloris.
At the other end of the spectrum, Watford’s Ben Foster has hit almost as many goal-kicks (two) to the other penalty area as he has in his own (three).
A few other goal-kick highlights include:
- All of Ederson’s goal-kicks are either stylistic penalty-box modernism or absolutely gigantic pitch-length knocks. Truly a man for all seasons.
- Liverpool’s Adrian really likes left-back Andrew Robertson.
- Wolves keeper Rui Patricio is one of four keepers yet to attempt a goal-kick to a team-mate inside the box, along with Sheffield United’s Dean Henderson, Newcastle’s Martin Dubravka and Burnley’s Nick Pope. Patricio also loves the right-hand touchline, hardly befitting a man in the number 11 shirt.
- West Ham’s Lukasz Fabianski tried a short goal-kick once but didn’t enjoy it and went back to the old style.
Salah really isn’t selfish
The most memorable image of last weekend was Liverpool forward Sadio Mane’s fury after his substitution at Burnley.
The apparent cause was Mohamed Salah’s decision not to pass to his team-mate, which makes you wonder if sharing the Golden Boot last season was a source of irritation rather than collegiate pride, and has led to the resumption of one of 2018-19’s most facile debates: is Salah selfish?
Given that Salah has scored or assisted 77 goals in 78 Premier League appearances for Liverpool, and that this is the first time in the club’s top-flight history that they’ve won their opening four league games for two seasons in a row, it is fantastically unlikely that Jurgen Klopp cares one bit.
Even so, is Salah selfish? Well, there’s no definitive way of judging this but a reasonable proxy is surely the ratio of big chances created by a player to the big chances he’s taken himself.
Of course, there’ll be plenty of the former where the only real option was to pass to a better-placed team-mate, and lots of the latter where he himself was in that position just described, but even so, a deviously selfish player’s ratio of created-to-taken would surely be unbalanced, and as the table below shows, Salah’s is anything but.
|Player (August 2018-now)||Big chances created||Big chances for himself||Ratio|
|Premier League only|
|Ryan Fraser||29||8||3.6 chances created to chances for himself|
|Kevin de Bruyne||17||1||17|
Hats off to the departed Eden Hazard, who managed to achieve a zen-like 1:1 rate last season, but Salah’s ratio of one big chance created for every two for himself is the same as Raheem Sterling in the same period, and few people are calling the Manchester City man greedy.
Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold appear on this list of most big chances created, naturally, but where are Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, presumed victims of Greedy Salah’s Monstrous Appetite?
Firmino’s numbers are very similar to Salah’s, with 10 chances created, and 21 for himself for a ratio of 0.48, but Mane’s are nine created and 29 for himself (0.31), meaning that in this semi-scientific study it is the supposed victim of the selfishness who is the least generous of all.
In truth, though, those numbers just reveal how stellar Liverpool’s front three are. Double up on one and the other two will destroy you. Divert all your resources to stopping them and watch as you open up oceans of space for the two full-backs.
In attacking terms this is gluttony more than greed.
It’s probably too early to look at the table. Maybe
If you believe those who can remember the old days then not only did nobody even glimpse a league table until mid-autumn but even expressing an interest in how the division was shaping up was an actual criminal offence.
The late 1980s was a world where live television coverage of England’s top flight only started in October once the clocks had gone back, on the genuine reasoning that people would only fully concentrate on First Division football once the opportunity for gardening had been reduced.
Now we luxuriate in the table at half-time on the opening day, and why not. The three highest points totals in English top-flight history have occurred since May last year so not looking at the standings early on is tantamount to missing the first act of a play.
As we learned above, Liverpool have won their opening four in consecutive seasons for the first time (and only the fifth time overall), while City have averaged 9.2 points in their opening four games this decade, last losing against Mark Hughes’ Stoke back in 2014.
Ten points from four has been enough for Pep Guardiola in each of the past two campaigns, so the two-point gap to Liverpool won’t be concerning him yet.
Elsewhere, this season was the first since the 1950s to see 15 or more teams on exactly one win after three games and the first time since the early 1980s that there had been 19 or more teams with at least three points after three games.
After getting thumped 5-0 and 4-0 respectively on the opening weekend, West Ham and Chelsea are showing signs of bouncing back.
No team has let in five in their opening game and finished in the top six since 1913-14, while the last team to let in four on the first day and win the title were Everton in 1984-85.
Tottenham, meanwhile, have already drawn as many league games – two – this season as they did in the whole of 2018-19.
What does it all mean? At this stage, I’m afraid it, er, may be too early to tell.