Two weeks into the new Premier League season, a glance at the standings suggests a return to big business as usual. Only four clubs have won their first two matches. Three of them are the trio of oligarchs who had won 11 straight league titles before Leicester so rudely interrupted last season.
All three are under new management, having hired the most prestigious coaches on the market. The fourth pacesetter, Hull, does not have a manager at all.
In the transfer market, the two Manchester clubs have attempted to crush the competition under sacks of money. Net spending for both clubs is close to $200 million. Chelsea has spent half that amount, although that was on only two players, and, because of the sales of Mohamed Salah and Papy Djilobodji, is fourth in net outlay behind Arsenal (a stat which may surprise the Emirates Wenger haters).
Hull has bought one player, Mohamed Diamé, for $7 million, but more on Hull later.
So far, results suggest the wealthy threesome are all gaining immediate returns for their investments. On Friday, United beat Southampton 2-0. On Saturday, City won 4-1 at Stoke and Chelsea fought back to win 2-1 at Watford.
United already looks like a José Mourinho team: big, hard working, organized and ruthless in exploiting errors.
The new manager has supervised a high-priced spine transplant. The early evidence is that the operation has been a success.
At the heart of the defense, Eric Bailly is quick, tough and skillful. Ahead of him Paul Pogba, the luxury import from Italy, is flashier than a pimped-up Ferrari: powerful and fast and determined to show his value with every ostentatious touch. On Friday, his attacking intent repeatedly drove United forward. Southampton tacklers just bounced off. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored both goals. His movement, positioning and control are already shaping the way the team attacks. His finishing is breeding confidence in teammates who know if they create chances, Zlatan will score.
Yet there is always a perverse side to Mourinho and his teams. This was his first home match as United manager. In the last 20 minutes, against an overmatched opponent, United could have gone for the throat. Instead, it parked the bus. Yet the home team had done enough to ensure that the demanding Old Trafford crowd went home justifiably happy.
City is still a long way from a Pep Guardiola team, even if the final score at Stoke had a Barcelona look to it.
For the second straight league match, City took the lead with a Sergio Agüero penalty (he also missed two the spot kicks in a 5-0 victory in Bucharest in the Champions League on Tuesday). The final score flattered City. In the last four minutes, as Stoke pressed, Nolito, a summer buy who was on for just 20 minutes, scored twice on the breakaway. Of the 10 players City bought in the summer only John Stones has so far made a league start. He already looks like an upgrade in central defense, which was not a big ask.
Unlike Mourinho, Guardiola works in the long-term. He wore a broad and mischievous smile as he said: “I am a little bit surprised, in the short time, with the level we played here and in Bucharest.”
Antonio Conte at Chelsea has only two new players, so far. At Watford, N’Golo Kanté, ran around industriously as Chelsea chased shadows. Michy Batshuayi came on in the 73rd minute. Just seven minutes later (and 12 minutes into his Premier League career), he received a gift that will make him feel at home, poking a rebound into an empty net.
That goal and Chelsea’s late winner were both set up by Cesc Fàbregas. In just 12 as a sub he gave his best Chelsea display in more than a year. That might have something to do with the arrival of Conte, or it might say more about how Mourinho managed the Spanish midfielder.
Chelsea was largely outplayed but still won. That’s a trick Conte’s Italy team managed against Spain and almost pulled off against Germany in the Euros this summer.
Mourinho is winning well. Guardiola and Conte are winning.
Crazy Costa—Once again, Chelsea won with a late goal by Diego Costa. Once again, the striker probably should not have been on the field.
There is a theory that Costa is a cunning provocateur who knows just how far he can go. Yet in the first two matches he has misbehaved in pretty much every possible way. Both at West Ham and at Watford he received a first yellow card for the pointless offense of dissent. At West Ham, he might then have been sent off for kicking goalie Adrian, at Watford he escaped punishment for a dive that would have scored 9.5 in Rio.
Maybe referees simply cannot believe what they are seeing. Maybe Costa isn’t that dumb. If referees won’t punish him, he can keep being naughty.
Possession is not eight tenths of the result—On Friday at Old Trafford, Southampton had almost 60 percent of the ball and never looked like winning. On Saturday at Burnley the numbers were even more one-sided.
Liverpool enjoyed more than 80 percent of possession and completed some 760 passes in 90 minutes. The Reds set all sorts of records for statistical domination – while losing a match.
Burnley deservedly won, 2-0. It completed fewer than 130 passes. It only had two shots on target, but they were good ones. Liverpool had 26 shots, but 17 were from outside the box, and only five were on target.
"We have never been bogged down with all the stats about possession,” Sean Dyche, the Burnley manager told the BBC.
To Hull and Back—For the first 104 years of Hull City’s history its only claim to fame was that it represented the largest city in England never to have had a top-division soccer club.
The Tigers are starting their fourth Premier League season in eight years. This was one was widely expected to end the same way as two of the previous three, in relegation. That was before manager Steve Bruce quit on the eve of the season because the club was dormant on the transfer market. That inactivity looked particularly damaging because the squad that squeaked out of the Championship has been crippled with long-term injuries.
The club is surrounded by confusion. The owner, Assem Allam, who has been feuding with fans, reportedly wants to sell and is also reportedly ill.
Yet Hull might have got lucky. Bruce is a specialist in taking teams up to the Premier League but not at keeping them there. Mike Phelan, the deputy who has taken his place for now, was an assistant at United for 14 years while that club won 13 trophies.
Phelan insists his club has only 13 fit senior fit players. So far he has used just 12 as Hull has won its first two games. On Saturday, a week after beating the champion, Leicester, Hull went toe-to-toe with Swansea and won, 2-0. The solitary replacement, Shaun Maloney, scored the first, six minutes after coming on.
It is difficult to imagine Hull emulating Leicester over 38 matches. Yet the Tigers are showing they aren’t as badly wounded as they would like their foes to believe and that their claws are sharp.
Olympic Legacy—As the 2016 Games ended in Rio, Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president, made glowing boasts about the legacy for the city. Anyone inclined to believe him might have wanted to tune in to West Ham’s first Premier League game at its new home on Sunday.
The Hammers eked out a 1-0 victory with a late goal after Bournemouth was reduced to 10 men.
The home team desperately missed Dimitri Payet, who has still to start a game this season. It won only because referee Craig Pawson, having shown Harry Arter a yellow card for the fashionable offense of dissent, was then prepared to show the Bournemouth player another yellow, for yanking back Cheikhou Kouyaté in the 77th minute.
It was a dreary first league game in an arena fans of other clubs (except, perhaps, Manchester City) call “Taxpayer Stadium”. Until the naming rights are sold, its official name is The London Stadium or the Stadium at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It was built for the 2012 Games and has been pretty much given to West Ham rather than allow it to rust with disuse.
In theory it holds 60,000 for soccer, 70 percent more than Upton Park. If West Ham can keep filling it once the novelty wears off, it will give the club financial muscle to compete at a higher level. Atmosphere could be an issue. The stadium will continue to be used for track and field to fulfill the promises London made to win the right to host the game. Part of that space has been used to make the field 4 meters wider and 5 meters longer than the Boleyn Ground. That should lead to more goals, though there was precious little evidence of that on Sunday.
Despite retractable seating, a huge green carpet surrounds the field. Visiting teams will welcome the vast expanse of green carpet between the field and the passionate West Ham fans. Because those passionate fans stood throughout an exhibition game and a Europa League match safety cut capacity by 3,000 for Sunday.
The 57,000 who were allowed in were present at a memorable occasion and an utterly forgettable match.