Premier League Review: Peak Arsenal – Fifty-Six Minutes
It is a curious anomaly that a Premier League season that has started with a somewhat muted feel to it than previous years should have thrown up such an eventful first weekend. One could be persuaded that the glamour, the glitz, the pomp and the circumstance count for little, and that what matters is the quality of the matches themselves, the actual football, and just occasionally a reminder or two that to err is human. Sometimes the game is at its best when there is an element of slapstick about it.
In the current Premier League, there has been no better to go for this than The Emirates Stadium for a couple of seasons. We sometimes accuse television planners of pulling out matches for live coverage solely because a big name is involved, but sometimes a considerable amount more nuance is at play behind their decision-making. Early season Arsenal are always likely to entertain, one way or another. Now in year fourteen of their own version of Groundhog Day, the club has signed an expensive forward, the manager has signed a new contract, and supporters both completely reasonable and hopelessly swivel-eyed find themselves watching on through the gaps between their fingers.
This year, peak Arsenal arrived fifty-six minutes into a fixture being played the day before the first Saturday of the season. This is believed to be a new record, and it came when Jamie Vardy scored his second goal of the evening, to give Leicester an improbable looking three-two lead. Peak Arsenal moments, however, do not merely happen in splendid isolation. They have a broader context. Arsenal had taken just two minutes to take the lead through, of course, league debutee Alexandre Lacazette, and a further three minutes to lose it again when Leicester levelled through Shinji Okazaki. Twenty-five minutes later, Vardy gave the visitors the lead before a goal from Danny Welbeck two minutes into first-half stoppage-time saw Arsenal level at the interval.
But this is the thing about Arsenal. It’s layered, and it’s complex. It’s the hope, the absolute despair, the rage and anger, the slapstick comedy, the ability to still hold their own over their local rivals (until recently), the FA Cup wins that don’t quite feel joyous enough because the FA Cup simply doesn’t quite exercise that hold over our collective psyche any more, it’s about the repitition, the clawing defeat from the jaws of victory and the clawing victory from the jaws of defeat, it’s about Gunnersaurus, Piers Morgan, and Angry Claude. It’s Arsene Wenger’s new two-year contract. It’s Sir Chips Keswick. On Friday night, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud claimed goals which meant that this was, on paper at least, a successful night for Arsenal, and who knows? Perhaps they will streak away this season and win the league. But then again, perhaps they won’t.
The low comedy theme continued into Saturday lunchtime, as Watford and Liverpool shared six goals at Vicarage Road in a match which ended with Miguel Britos bundling the ball over the goal-line from an offside position with his stomach. For all of this, though, Liverpool would not have found themselves throwing away two points in stoppage-time in the first place had their defenders played the previous ninety-two minutes as though they’d ever met each other before. Two of Watford’s goals were of a slightly dubious nature, but their overall performance merited the point that they took from the match.
So much entertainment, and the time wasn’t even yet three o’clock on the Saturday afternoon of the first weekend of the season yet. Chelsea’s contribution was having two players sent off and losing home to Burnley, who only won a single away match over the entire course of last season. By half-time at Stamford Bridge, they were three goals and one man down. By full-time, they’d pulled the goal deficiency back to one and increased the personnel difference to two. That Chelsea have had issues with something of a threadbare squad has been a murmur for some time, but even this doesn’t really account for the inexplicable and insipid performances from those actually on the pitch in a blue shirt yesterday afternoon. Next Sunday, they travel to Wembley to become Spurs’ first guests at the home side’s temporary residency. Who knows how that might turn out.
Lovers of romance, meanwhile, may have found their interest piqued by events at Goodison Park, where an otherwise drab Merseyside afternoon was at least enlivened in first half stoppage-time when Wayne Rooney scored what turned out to be Everton’s winning goal against Stoke City. In a summer of dizzying numbers, what has stuck out about the return of Wayne Rooney to Everton has been the extent to which this transfer hasn’t entirely been a matter of numbers on a balance sheet. Those numbers have received their fair share of attention, but it felt as though much of the discussion focused on his record, his playing career, his shortcomings, his strength, and just how remarkable he looked during his first spell at Goodison Park. A player whose career has been often defined by how much he earns might just have found a sort of desire that money cannot buy, yesterday afternoon.
Burnley aside, perhaps the outstanding Premier League performance of the day came at Selhurst Park, where Huddersfield Town, who’ve been tipped by just about everybody to be evacuated back to the primordial gloop from whence they recently emerged come May, struck a convincing three-nil win against Crystal Palace. They would lead the Premier League for just the twenty-four hours, but it’s unlikely that Huddersfield supporters will forget that day in a hurry. Elsewhere at three o’clock, West Bromwich Albion also had a debutant goalscorer, with Ahmed Hegazi scoring the only goal of their match against Bournemouth, whilst Southampton had a frustrating and goalless afternoon at home against Swansea City.
What the matches following these did was remind us all that, for all the fun and games, the Premier League remains a highly stratified atmosphere. In the Saturday evening kick-off, Manchester City dominated Brighton & Hove Albion before coming away with a two-goal victory from which the greatest satisfactions that Brighton supporters could take were the fact that the scoreline had remained respectable and that keeping the margin of defeat down to two goals left them above Crystal Palace in the opening day Premier League table.
Three minutes into the second half of Sunday lunchtime’s game between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur, Jonjo Shelvey trod on Delle Alli’s ankle in clear sight of the referee and made Spurs’ weekend a considerable amount easier. Two goals in nine minutes from Alli and Ben Davies then tied up a comfortable win for a Spurs team that seemed comfortably in control without ever setting the pitch alight. After the match, Rafael Benitez wore the facial expression of a man who’s just seen the scale of the task ahead of him and unsurprisingly so, what, with this being Newcastle United and all.
The afternoon ended with Romelu Lukaku scoring two ominous goals as Manchester United barged through the pack to claim what many of their supporters will claim, despite the evidence of the last four seasons, to be their “rightful” place at the top of the table. West Ham United did appear somewhat undercooked (this was, after all, a team featuring three debutants, though their opponents were, of course, starting two themselves, in the form of Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, who Chelsea inexplicably let go in the summer), but this was a confident Manchester United performance and one which earns them a deserved place at the top of the table, no matter how meaningless this table might be at this time of the year.
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