Premier League Review: The Flawed Outnumber The Flawless
In the age of the close to flawless football team, there was something refreshingly of the old school about this weekend’s North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, because these are two teams whose flaws are so readily evident. In this case, it took ten minutes before Berndt Leno palmed am Erik Lamela shot conveniently into the path of Christian Eriksen to give Spurs the lead, and a rash tackle on Son Heung Min by Granit Xhaka five minutes from half-time led to a penalty kick, predictably converted by Harry Kane, seemed to have put the game beyond doubt. Spurs, however, are always gonna Spurs, and two minutes into stoppage time Henri Lacazette pulled a goal back to put a few nerves in Tottenham stomachs and set up a second half during which the feverish volume of the crowd seemed to pitch upward with every pass.
Shortly before the hour, Kane hit the inside of the Arsenal post, a moment that had a portentous feeling about it. With nineteen minutes to play, Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang equalised for Arsenal, and from there on it felt as though there was something inevitable about an Arsenal winner, as there so often seems to be in these North London Derbies, but this time it wasn’t to come. The nearest they came was with ten minutes to play, when Sead Kolisinac’s cross was turned into his own goa by Danny Rose, only to be ruled out for offside. This time, the video assistant only confirmed a decision that had already been made by actual, breathing human beings, but this doesn’t even really matter any more. The banter was disrupted, and the banter must never be disrupted. Arsenal will spend the next few days wondering how they didn’t win this match, considering the amount of possession they had, but them’s the rules, and Arsenal flattering to deceive should hardly come as a surprise to anybody.
These flaws are what is separating the rest from the best at the moment, though. Manchester City and Liverpool racked up seven goals between them without reply against Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley respectively. Brighton tried their best to make a game of it at The Etihad Stadium, but playing this Manchester City team is a little like playing the footballing equivalent to whack-a-mole at the moment. Turn away one attack and they’ll reappear somewhere else sooner or later, and this relentlessness is ultimately what overwhelms other teams. Liverpool’s trip to Burnley was similarly a walk in the park for the title contenders, who continued their one hundred per cent start to the season without barely even needing to break into second gear. It should go without saying that the Premier League is a risk of turning into series of exhibition matches.
None of this is to say that there isn’t entertainment still to be found in the Premier League, of course. On top of Arsenal and Spurs tumbling out of their respective defensive clown cars, we also had the opportunity to see football’s equivalent to that picture of two Spidermen pointing at each other, Chelsea and Manchester United, both tossing away comfortable looking leads against moderate opposition on Saturday afternoon. Manchester United took a first half lead and had a one man advantage for much of the second at Southampton but could still only emerge with a point, whilst Chelsea tossed away a two goal lead at home against Sheffield United in style, with a late own goal from Kurt Zouma handing the Blades a point to continue their better than anyone really expected start to the season. On the basis of this sort of evidence, it would be surprising to see either these teams qualifying for the Europa League next season, never mind the Champions League.
All of this, of course, raises the question of who might replace them. The pre-season favourites to potentially make that step up a rung were Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City, but Wolves’ season is already starting to look like it might be a tough one after they lost by three goals to two at Everton, who can’t be trusted to do anything. Three draws and a defeat from their opening four matches of the season coupled with some uncharacteristically lackadaisical defending sees Wolves hovering just above the relegation places. This isn’t a situation that’s likely to last, but the scent of Burnley last season could be about to hover over Molineux. Leicester, meanwhile, had some uncomfortable moments during the early stages of their game against Bournemouth before nudging their way to a comfortable win.
Newcastle United, meanwhile, continue to treat their own flaws as some form of weird footballing water torture, drip-feeding it to fans in such a way which prevents them from storming St James Park and emerging with Mike Ashley’s head on a spike whilst retaining that feeling that excitement is an emotion that primarily happens to other people. Last weekend, they beat Spurs away from home. This week, though, the traditional Saturday afternoon Gallowgate End booing started even earlier than usual, after Watford snatched an opening goal there after seventy-one seconds. Newcastle scrambled themselves an equaliser, but this iteration of the fog on the Tyne remains as pernicious as ever. It was a first point of the season for Watford, and they’re joined in the bottom three by two clubs with varying degrees of unhappiness at events that took place on Saturday afternoon.
At one end of the scale are Norwich City, who can have few complaints at having gone down by two goals to nil at West Ham United. Far more interesting were events at Selhurst Park, where Crystal Palace beat Aston Villa by a goal to nil amid another… how can I put this… interesting call by the referee, who adjudged Jack Grealish to somehow have dived as he laid the ball into the path of Henri Lansbury for what would have been a late and very welcome equaliser. Don’t ask me to try to explain these things. There seem to be times when the robo-ref has a mind of its own, and I’m starting to wonder whether human fallibility might even have been built into the way in which it works. It will be little comfort to Villa supporters, of course, if the video assistant turns out to be at least as flawed as so many of the Premier League’s teams seem to be at the moment. Crystal Palace, meanwhile, occupy a Champions League spot tonight. Breathe that in, for a moment.