The second week of the Premier League’s 2016/17 rendition exited the weekend without as much flair or drama as its predecessor, but it did give supporters another 90 minutes to assess their teams and gauge what level of expectation their favorites merit thus far. It can be an easy swing on the Pendulum of Hysteria in both a positive (Hull) and negative (Crystal Palace) direction, but it can’t be overstated just how early it is. We haven’t even left August yet and the transfer window is still very much open, with a number of teams (excluding Arsenal) still hoping to do some major business in the next ten days. Still, a couple of games can be enough to start sorting clubs into their respective castes (Champions League contenders, Europa League contenders, Mid-Table, and Relegation Battle), while still maintaining enough optimism that this year could finally be their year. Here are four thoughts on this weekend’s action –
1. Newly promoted clubs are acquitting themselves nicely
The three clubs to have joined the Premier League this year – Championship winners Burnley, runners-up Middlesbrough, and playoff-winning Hull City – have combined to be the surprise upstarts of the new season, if such a thing can be said after just two matches. Hull have been easily the most impressive of the three, and for that matter out of the entire league, shocking pretty much everyone (including their own supporters) by taking a full six points thus far, including a major scalp with the defeat of the reigning champs Leicester City last week. With a healthy squad of only thirteen senior players right now and no full-time manager, the odds say that this form cannot continue much longer, but after last year’s insanity all bets are well and truly off. As for the other two squads, Middlesbrough were able to just barely hang on against Sunderland in the Tees-Wear derby this weekend. That, combined with their positive first week result, has jump-started their campaign in just the right manner.
And after a hard-fought home debut loss last week, Burnley were able to rebound at home to decisively defeating Liverpool 2-0. Despite allowing their opponents to have the lion’s share of possession, they were hardly ever troubled by a “superior” opponent and if Andre Gray can find the scoring touch that made him the Championship’s top scorer last year and avoid tweeting more grossly homophobic remarks (this statement below is a good start), then ending their yo-yo history between the top two flights looks like a real possibility.
— Andre Gray (@AndreGray7) August 20, 2016
2. Liverpool continues its Jekyll and Hyde ways
Oh, Liverpool. How you tug on the heartstrings of those who worship you.
After last week’s thrilling, yet heart-stopping 4-3 win away at Arsenal, the Reds laid an absolute egg this week away to Burnley. All the attacking verve they displayed just one week prior was non-existent, and the frailties at the back continue to plague them. The loss of Sadio Mané was big, to be sure, but a front three of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge should be able to muster more than hopeful 30 yard strikes. Eighty percent possession and 26 shots sound like they would be enough to at least draw a match against a newly promoted opponent, but it was not the case on Saturday. And for a team that harbors hopes of finishing in the top four, it was a performance that sent their supporters tumbling back into reality. Unless they are able to consistently overrun lesser teams and avoid dropping valuable points, especially away from Anfield, those dreams of a return to the Champions League will remain only that.
3. Antonio Conte wills Chelsea to another three points
Despite spending large parts of their first two games looking vulnerable, Chelsea have managed a couple of come-from-behind victories to claim all the available points. Granted, they were lucky to have Diego Costa still be on the pitch to score both winning goals (he could have easily seen a second yellow card in both games), but there is a new determination about Chelsea that seemed to be lacking all of last year.
So what’s changed?
Not the team, which is pretty much the same, except for the superb N’Golo Kanté in midfield and the Belgian Panzer tank Michy Batshuayi off the bench. It’s the fiery Italian manager, Antonio Conte, who has made the difference. He simply refuses to let Chelsea lose. It is evident, even after such a small sample, that he has a profound psychological impact on his players. Eden Hazard is returning to his 2014/15 form, Diego Costa is snarling and scoring instead of just snarling, and the subpar back four doesn’t look as porous as last year. Down a goal at Watford on Saturday, Conte made three second half substitutions, and all three paid off as the aforementioned Batshuayi scored the first goal and Cesc Fàbregas assisted the winner, while Victor Moses ran the channels and put in some good crosses. His tactical mindset can’t be questioned (he is Italian after all) but his hunger to win and passion on the touchline, and I assume in training, looks to have whipped the overpaid stars of Chelsea into shape once again.
4. Who wants 4th place?
Through these two weeks, the Manchester clubs and Chelsea have established themselves as the firm favorites for the top three spots. In all likelihood, and despite what we saw last year from the London outfit, they will continue to jockey amongst themselves for the top slot. That leaves just one Champions League spot up for grabs, and a handful of realistic and romantic teams vying for that coveted place. The most likely candidates are Arsenal and Tottenham, seeing as how the Gunners have finished in the top four every year since 1996 and Spurs have essentially kept in place the same squad that finished third last season. Still, neither team has started the season particularly well and if no business is conducted by either club before the transfer window closes, there will be several teams looking to sprint past them. Namely Liverpool and Leicester City, who have made it no secret that they will look to challenge for European places, with a Champions League place being the ultimate prize.
However, there are a couple of bubble Europa League teams that are an extended hot streak away from achieving top-four glory. West Ham United, with their fancy new stadium and lovable Croatian manager, have quietly brought in quality depth throughout the squad this summer, and if Dimitri Payet avoids a sophomore slump, they could well be in the race for fourth. The long shots this year could be Everton and Stoke City. Ronald Koeman has already brought his stern Dutch style to the Toffees, and if Everton add Joe Hart and keep Romelu Lukaku through the rest of this transfer window, Europe could be calling for them again. As for Stoke City, they seem to be their own worst enemy. Capable of beating anyone or rolling over quietly on any given weekend, the Potters boast a surprisingly talented squad and an unrivaled home-field advantage. If they can put together a couple decent runs of form, the Europa League and beyond is a definite possibility (no pun intended).