Wimbledon 2022: How Novak Djokovic and Elena Rybakina wonThis season’s Premier League promises to be like no other. For one, there’s the truncated schedule due to the World Cup in Qatar. This means that between 13 November and 26 December, there will be a break in play as international footballers jet off to represent their countries. This could be a double-edged sword for club teams, especially the bigger ones, like Manchester City, where most of the squad are internationals and their countries have qualified for the World Cup. On the other hand, those that stay will get an additional five weeks of rest and training. So, expect a season of two halves, extremely different from each other, with very different circumstances.
Having said that, the main contenders are likely to remain the same: defending champions Manchester City and last season’s runner’s up Liverpool still look stronger than any other team in the league. However, due to the World Cup, the league has begun a week early and all clubs have had a truncated pre-season, and differing levels of conditioning may throw up surprising results. As the season began with a bang last weekend, here were some of the initial talking points.
A season for the classic number 9: Ever since the pomp of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, at the turn of the last decade, the cutting edge of international football has been marked by the gradual phasing out of the traditional striker. The big guy up front whose only job is to score goals is a tactical anomaly these days, with a greater focus on pressing, passing and a mobile attack that comes at the opponent’s goal from different angles. However, both Liverpool and Manchester City, the two lynchpins of the modern style, have signed old school number 9s this season, and this points at another tactical shift.
On the opening weekend, both Darwin Núñez and Erling Haaland showed that they’re right at home as the focal point of their respective attacks. Núñez terrorized the Fulham defense when he came on as substitute in the second half, scoring a goal and setting up Mohamed Salah for the second. Fulham had their own all-action number 9, the superb Aleksander Mitrovic, who outfoxed both Trent Alexander-Arnold, and more amazingly, Virgil van Dijk.
Man City lay down marker: Manchester City’s serene opening victory over West Ham wasn’t all about Erling Haaland, though the big Norwegian scored both goals, and could have had a hattrick. It was also about the defending champions finding a different way to win. Manager Pep Guardiola is trying something risky this season, trying to fit a pure striker in his team of silky attacking midfielders. But on this showing, City may end up winning the title again, for a third year in a row.
There will be the big disruption of the World Cup, when as many as 16 of the City squad may head to Qatar. But Haaland won’t be one of them. This means that Guardiola will have more time with his striker to hone his gameplay. A rested and refreshed Haaland for the second half of the season already looks like a scary prospect for City’s competitors.
Liverpool’s stuttering start: When Liverpool played every possible match that they could last season, many were worrying about the toll that would take on the players. Especially when you factor in the fact that the FA and League Cup winning Reds missed out on their two biggest trophies right at the death: the Premier League to City by a point on the final day, and the Champions League to Real Madrid by a solitary goal the following week. Would Jürgen Klopp manage to turn those near misses as motivation for this season?
That may well be so, but in their opening game against Fulham, Liverpool looked badly off the pace, in a way that they haven’t over the past few seasons. They were harried and hassled by a spirited Fulham, and nearly all the seniors, from van Dijk to captain Jordan Henderson to the ultimate false 9 Roberto Firmino looking rusty and undercooked. With Sadio Mané having decamped for Bayern Munich, Liverpool aren’t just short of a world class striker, but also a leader. Add to that the injury problems that have already ravaged the midfield, and this may be a difficult season.
Man United look down, Spurs look up: Manchester United could be forgiven for hoping that they had Liverpool’s problems, instead of their own deep dysfunction. It’s been nearly a decade since United won the league, and in the interim, they have just three trophies to show for all the money the club have spent. While fans have been desperate to see the green shoots of a new dawn under new manager Eric Ten Hag, what they got on the opening weekend was more of the same, stale old Manchester United. The Red Devils may have signed new players, but the problems seem the same.
In stark contrast, manager Antonio Conte may have quietly turned Tottenham Hotspurs into the team that could breach the Manchester City-Liverpool duopoly at the top. Over the summer, Spurs have bought some excellent players, and the squad look well drilled and ready for the challenge. In earlier seasons, they had to depend far too much on the genius of Son Hieung-Min and the goalscoring exploits of Harry Kane to carry them. On the evidence of the 4-1 pummeling of Southampton, this season, opponents will also have to fear the brilliant Dejan Kulusevski.