The two big surprises seven matches into the 2016-17 season are Spurs and Liverpool. No one thought Tottenham would beat the crap out of Man Shitty 2-0 this past weekend at Spurs house White Hart Lane.
The two nil whitewash shocked the English futebol world. Spurs are in second place with 17 points.
The knock me in the head is how well the Reds are doing. Liverpool and Arsenal are tied on points with 16 a piece however the Gunners are a plus nine while the Reds are a plus eight
The Guardians Barney Ronay wrote So: how’s it been for you? As the Premier League takes a breath, sucks on half an orange, and smears some soothing embrocation across a vivid set of autumnal bruises, this seems like an ideal moment to sit back and review a particularly frantic opening act.
For the first time in some time the Premier League feels like a slightly different place this year. With seven games gone and an international break now upon us the season already has a distinct tone and texture. Above all there has been a quickening of the pulse. The volume remains the same. What has changed is the tempo, the physicality, the sense of an evolved, thrillingly concussive style reaching a new pitch.
Teams have always run and closed down (Emile Heskey was a pretty hot gegenpresser; so was Ian Rush). But not perhaps with such panache, such a concerted sense of purpose, or indeed with such fanfare among the tactical cognoscenti. Trends, styles and counter-styles tend to come and go. For now this seems to be the pattern. We may be less than a fifth of the way in, but it already looks like being an exhausting, exhilarating season. Welcome to the new, slightly more painful frontier.
In outline, not much has changed in English football’s top tier. The post-Leicester City world looks a lot like the pre-Leicester City one. Manchester City are top. Sunderland, kings of the stuttering, belching false start, are bottom again in autumn. Premier League teams had scored one more goal combined than the current tally of 196 at the same stage in each of the last two years. Despite some early alarm over the anti-grappling rules the number of set-piece goals is holding steady. Shots per game, proportion of counterattacking goals, number of draws, points gap between the top and bottom teams: none of this has shifted.
And yet the league does seem different. A paradox of Leicester’s brilliantly-executed title victory was the fact it masked an essentially mediocre season elsewhere. Arsenal conjured up the most jeeringly-received second-place finish in recent memory. The champions Chelsea disintegrated. Manchester United congealed into a weekly theatre of pain. Manchester City spent half the season killing time. Tottenham had a moment of uplift. West Ham and a few others had good seasons. Otherwise the general tone was disappointment, teams not so much being built as allowed to moulder grandly. Had it been one of the usual cast cantering away with the title after Christmas the season would have been written off by now as a forgotten boredom.
This year feels like the upswing. What stands out, as had always seemed likely given the wave of new TV money and the presence of a hardcore of elite coaches, is the sense of progress in train, of teams and systems being furiously nailed together on the hoof. The current top seven teams are all at a bullish stage in their development. Mid-table has plenty of hopeful recent arrivals. The bottom three are all flailing middleweights, West Ham’s current haplessness a particular source of grim fascination.
In the middle of this a certain style has taken hold. Tottenham’s defeat of Manchester City on Sunday afternoon feels like a high point of this newly jacked-up Premier League, a brutal, engrossing blend of relentless forward movement. Tottenham didn’t just press City, they surrounded them, crowding the space, cutting off the angles, always looking to win the ball and launch a counterpunching attack.
It was exhausting to watch. Mauricio Pochettino was exhausting to watch, a manager who has adapted his Bielsa-ish dogma about football as a game of running into a blueprint for this engaging young Tottenham team. Not that City are likely to be outrun often. Their best win of the season, the 2-1 at Old Trafford, was built around a period of crisp, targeted early pressing that disrupted United’s ponderous central block. Counter-measures will be taken. They will be back.
Liverpool are a natural point of comparison here. When the international break ends it will be almost exactly a year since Jürgen Klopp arrived at Anfield. His first game was a breathless and incoherent 0-0 draw at Tottenham, a case of two teams basically running into each other. Twelve months on Liverpool look a genuinely alluring prospect, a team with a wonderful fluency in attack and a driving sense of togetherness.
These are early days both in the season and the evolution of the main contenders. But whoever finishes ahead of Liverpool will do so bloodied and blistered and breathless. City travel to Anfield on New Year’s Eve. How Pep Guardiola – who saw this coming, who understands the process as well as anyone – plans to counter the sheer dripping hunger of Klopp’s forward press will be fascinating to see.
The sense of fury, of a new kind of muscle-ball in train extends further down the league. Arsenal have bulked up. Below them teams like Watford, Bournemouth and Burnley have succeeded not by defending like titans or becoming stodgily hard to beat but by playing with a similar blend of movement and aggressive team-defence.
It isn’t hard to see where this has come from. This same kind of Total Physicality, not just energy but brilliantly drilled team movements, has been part of Diego Simeone’s success at Atlético Madrid. The ability to analyse and pick apart an opponent’s movement with the help of data and panoramic replays has helped. Just as Leicester showed that it is possible to win a league title simply by repeating more or less the same set of movements with supremely single-minded craft and skill. The baseline for success now is a willingness to work ceaselessly, to dominate the space where the game is played.
The last time there was a similar uplift in intensity and physicality in the Premier League was just over a decade ago. José Mourinho’s Chelsea MK1, the Liverpool of peak Steven Gerrard, Alex Ferguson’s last great Manchester United team: all of these had powerful runners and played at a relentless pace. The bar was raised elsewhere as a result. There is a certain circularity here given the relative ponderousness of Mourinho’s current United, the sense that his own methods have perhaps ossified while a new urgency has arrived elsewhere.
It remains to be seen whether the same bruising intensity can be maintained through the slog of winter and spring. On another front Monaco’s canny, counter-attacking defeat of Spurs at Wembley suggests it might not be so easy to run through gnarlier European opponents. It does, though, promise to be an engrossing, unceasing spectacle between now and the next pause for breat