- Opening day losses for last season's top two finishers have the Premier League contenders facing early questions and heat.
The comedown didn’t take long. Nobody expected Leicester City to repeat last season’s remarkable achievements, but most people did expect it to beat Hull City last Saturday to open its Premier League title defense. A start against a club whose owner is seriously ill and looking to sell, whose manager walked out a week before the season, that hadn’t signed a senior player all summer and that was going through an injury crisis looked like the easiest possible start for the champion. Instead, it lost, 2-1.
On Saturday, Leicester faces the other team who probably felt most disappointed after the opening round of Premier League fixtures, Arsenal. For Arsenal fans, though, there could be little sense of shock about the 4-3 defeat to Liverpool. After another summer of baffling inaction, there came another opening day defeat–the third at home in the past four seasons.
It’s become a mini-tradition, but for the couple of minutes between Liverpool’s fourth goal and Arsenal’s second, the hostility was as vitriolic as it’s ever been at the Emirates. Arsenal’s two second-half goals may not have changed the result, but they did change the mood, dampening the fury. By the end, even the booing felt wearily familiar.
It’s hard to believe there has ever been a season when so little has been expected of the previous season’s top two. Their meeting already feels in some ways decisive. Of course a team could return from losing the opening two matches of the season to achieve something extraordinary, but far more likely, particularly given the skepticism about both sides, is a descent into introspection.
Arsenal will improve. Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud are all to return after being given extended summer breaks following the Euros. It’s legitimate to ask why Wenger ended up having to play the inexperienced pairing of Calum Chambers and Rob Holding in central defense–a lack of investment, familiar bad luck with injuries, the reluctance to rush Koscielny back–but once he was in a position in which he was forced to do so, the possibility of them being savaged by the pace and incision of Liverpool was always there.
But the question is by how much Arsenal will improve. The squad, when everybody is fit–which of course at Arsenal they never are–is impressive, perhaps lacking one truly incisive striker (it's something Wenger essentially acknowledged with his efforts to buy Leicester's Jamie Vardy earlier in the summer) and a high-class central defender to play alongside Koscielny. The signings of Mohamed Elneny last January and Granit Xhaka in the summer have plugged one of the obvious gaps, at the back of the midfield, but even those signings came with a measure of frustration: why did they take so long?
Fans were told the move from Highbury to the Emirates was necessary to raise matchday revenue to allow Arsenal to compete at the very highest level. The plan was perfect, except that the economic model of football has changed twice since then, first as billionaire owners such as Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) and Sheikh Mansour (Manchester City) arrived, and then as broadcast deals became the major part of clubs’ revenues.
With the former, it was possible to have some sympathy with Wenger. What else could he have done? His refusal to blow the budget for a short-term surge seemed admirable. But the increased television deals have benefited Arsenal as much as anyone else, and Wenger remains reluctant to spend, talking about a lack of value in the market. But the problem is that the market is the market: there’s more money in it now and so prices have gone up. It’s not something from which Arsenal can opt out. Wenger’s stubbornness is increasingly baffling, and it’s that, more than anything, that is the cause of the frustration among fans.
Leicester, meanwhile, has invested over the summer with an eye to the strains of the Champions League campaign, bringing in five players and losing only N’Golo Kante of last season’s regulars. It could have been far worse, but Kante is a major loss. The temptation after the defeats in the Community Shield and against Hull is to put everything down to his absence–and with due respect to Andy King, it’s imperative for Leicester than Nampalys Mendy settles quickly and can do at least some of the prodigious work Kante did–but the fact is Leicester looked flat all around against Hull.
Perhaps that was down to Hull’s effort and organization, but the concern for Leicester must be that after last season’s astonishing adventure, everything suddenly seems a little anti-climactic and some of the edge has gone. In that context, the fact that Arsenal was responsible for two of Leicester’s three defeats last season may serve as additional motivation.
And it is needed. Of course, seasons don’t hang in the balance in the middle of August. Two defeats in a row to start the season–for either club–though, would create an early deficit and raise more doubts, both of which would take a lot to combat.