The first slate of Premier League matches this past weekend heralded the return of European club football in earnest, ending the wretched summer weeks with only mid-season baseball and NFL mini-camps to tide over American soccer fans. Though the Rio Olympics have provided wonderful entertainment, despite the best efforts of NBC to ruin it for the viewing public, the arrival of Premier League soccer once more reminded us that NBC Sports can actually cover something well. There were a number of rather bland and tepid affairs, as there are every weekend, but the craziness of the league took only a few seconds of the opening game to show itself again. Here are five thoughts from the opening round of fixtures:
1. Hull City are your 2016/17 Champions
Just kidding. But seriously, Hull had only thirteen (THIRTEEN) senior players for the fixture, and one of the two subs they made was the backup keeper. Yet they not only defeated the reigning Premier League champions, but they did so deservingly, which is maybe the most shocking part. The Tigers—despite being picked by everyone (including their own fans) to finish 20th and go right back down the Championship—showed why they were so tough to beat at home last year and why their starting eleven could be good enough to help them stay up provided that they get someone, anyone, to fill out their bench before the transfer window closes. Otherwise, they will have to run the gauntlet that is the Premier League with a bench made up of untested academy kids and will almost certain relegation.
2. Leicester City are in trouble already
It was going to be next to impossible for the Foxes to one-up last year’s miraculous season this time around, but there were some people who believed it could be done; they should not anymore. The magic that fueled their rise looks to have run out already. It’s easy to jump to conclusions after one poor performance, but the signs of deeper trouble are evident. Particularly the loss of N’Golo Kante, the (relatively) unsung hero of last year’s campaign. He may have the look of a lost child who has wandered onto the pitch, but for a team who wants to soak up pressure and then attack on the counter, the loss of the Premier League’s best holding midfielder cannot be understated. Adding Champions League calendar/expectations and the fact that everyone will be gunning for them this year makes this loss look even more worrisome. If they can’t take the worst team’s best game (sorry Hull), how will they fare when they get the best team’s best games?
3. Have Arsenal and Tottenham done enough to stick around?
Both teams, each vying for a Premier League title in theory but a top four finish in reality, have had very quiet transfer windows thus far. Tottenham only purchased two players (granted they were shrewd buys in positions of need) and have not sold anyone. Usually, teams that don’t evolve get left behind, and Tottenham run the risk of getting left behind by the big summer spenders. Arsenal, on the other hand, are in a more precarious situation. After another season of disappointment, nothing about the club’s transfer policies have changed. Injuries have come early this year; they still have to buy a quality striker and they desperately need a central defender or two (which inevitably will lead Arsène Wenger to buy another attacking midfielder). On a more serious note, the mood surrounding the club is starting to move from apprehension mixed with hope to dread with the rising chorus of anger getting louder. The stubborn Frenchman, or one of his bosses, needs to make something happen in the next two weeks via the transfer market if they want to stay in the top four, much less challenge for the title.
4. Arsenal vs. Liverpool might’ve been the season’s most entertaining game
Speaking of Arsenal, they sure can put on a show. Scoring first then conceding four goals in a row before clawing two goals back to make a game out of what should be a blowout has to be the most quintessentially Arsenal performance in recent memory. Add the fact that they lost not one but two players to injury only compounds the fears of Gunners fans everywhere. On the flipside, the game was also quintessential recent Liverpool. They are proud owners of last season’s most entertaining game (the 5-4 away win at Norwich), and the Reds are already looking to keep that title. However, given Jürgen Klopp and his propensity of insane soccer (the Liverpool team covered a ridiculous 117.6 kilometers, or 73 miles, against Arsenal), this could only be the beginning of the madness. Liverpool fans, start researching heart medication ASAP.
5. Manchester United are the deserved early-season title favorites
God/King Zlatan has finally arrived. Jumping across the English Channel this summer (in a single bound according to Zlatan) the ageless Swedish talisman has definitely brought an abundance of talent and attitude to a team that has been severely lacking such qualities since the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Sir Alex Ferguson. Teaming up with Jose Mourinho aka the Special One and soon with Paul Pogba aka the person responsible for triggering the #POGBACK storm on your phone (created by the same marketing team that allowed their players to create this cringeworthy video ^), this Satan’s Trident of assorted ability should have the other top teams warping towards Planet Worry. When Pogba gets up to speed, and begins to link up with Zlatan and the keenly underrated Henrikh Mkhitaryan, it won’t matter how many questions there are about the backline, even with new signing Eric Bailly off to a terrific start; they will be an offensive juggernaut if Mourinho lets them loose, which he has always been loathed for doing. Should that happen, Manchester United will be the clear favorite to reign supreme atop the Premier League once more.