With unprecedented restrictions around matches and restructuring of football’s calendar, this is a season like no other. And on the pitch, that means anything is possible.
It seems foolish to think we can still be surprised by anything in the Premier League, just four and a half years on from Leicester defying those odds of 5,000/1 to win the title. Yet what we have seen in the early weeks of this new season defies belief – and makes supporters dream of what could unfold in the months to come.
For football to continue amid the coronavirus pandemic, the game has had to make major sacrifices – from preventing fans from watching in stadiums to condensing fixture schedules to fit all the matches in, after delays caused by lockdown.
Those changes, it seems, are having an impact on the field.
How else do we explain Liverpool’s brilliant and ominous start to their title defence halted by a 7-2 thrashing against an Aston Villa side who barely stayed in the division just a few weeks ago?
Or Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City being hammered 5-2 on their own patch by a Leicester team who, a week later, lose 3-0 at home to West Ham. The same West Ham, who escaped relegation themselves, were largely frustrated in the transfer window, and had their manager working from home due to testing positive for coronavirus?
How about Tottenham’s stunning 6-1 win at Manchester United? Who could have imagined that wouldn’t be the standout result of Super Sunday – Shocking Sunday – when the final whistle blew on United’s joint-heaviest defeat in Premier League history?
Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane were combining once more in that one, just as they did on four occasions when they fought back from an awful first 40 minutes at Southampton to win 5-2. Speaking of comebacks, we’ve also seen Chelsea give West Brom a three-goal headstart and still leave the Hawthorns with a point.
When Brighton can hit the woodwork five times and concede the winning goal after the final whistle has blown, Newcastle can score with each of their first four shots on target (spread across four games), or Leeds can finish their first games back in the Premier League in 16 years 4-3 down and 4-3 up, nothing can be ruled out.
A reduced pre-season has shorn players of their usual conditioning. It’s also denied managers time to drill systems and patterns of play, and bed in new signings.
Frank Lampard has said his side are still in pre-season in these early weeks of the campaign – but instead of friendlies, each match is for Premier League points or progress in the cups. Jurgen Klopp pointed out he will have just two days on the training pitch with his players after the international break before facing Everton.
Without that six-week period of intensive fitness work, players are also vulnerable to fatigue. That’s magnified when the condensed schedule for this season demands them to play every few days. Fatigue can lead to mistakes, it can lead to injuries, and it can affect how a team presses their opposition – a reason given for Liverpool’s high line being broken by Villa.
But then it’s not always as straight forward as that. A rapid rhythm of games can also hone connections and form. Just ask Spurs’ players, who rounded off four games in eight days by scoring six at Old Trafford… after netting seven in the Europa League on Thursday.
The structure of this season may not be ideal for players and managers – but for supporters, it opens the door to so many possibilities… surprise results, surprise league placings. How many more goals records will fall?
How far does it extend? That is the key question.
Will this drama ease as players get up to speed, build fitness and develop familiarity with their systems over the months ahead? Will that favour the strongest sides and hand them back their advantage? Will Liverpool reclaim a stranglehold on the title race, and rack up another long unbeaten run?
Or will the new-found confidence of these early-season upsets build belief that shock results can happen on any given matchday in this unpredictable Premier League and inspire the lesser lights?
Could a table-topping Everton – invigorated by the arrival of star man James Rodriguez – turn this into more than just a strong start? What impact will Gareth Bale’s arrival have at Spurs? How far could Villa’s momentum take them?
Could we be on for a shock Premier League winner? Or, at least, a fresh name breaking into the European places so often claimed by the established elite? In the cups, could the biggest teams, stretched by the calendar, pave the way for unlikely trophy-lifters?
It will be intriguing to watch it play out. But Leicester’s lesson of 2014/15 is that anything can happen – especially in this strangest of seasons.
Carra: Less dominant champions bodes well for Premier League
Man City lost just two games in their 2017/18 title win. Two years later, Liverpool lost just three times as they clinched the Premier League crown. Both teams have been defeated already this season.
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher says, while those teams achieved incredible feats by winning those leagues in such dominant fashion, more defeats for the eventual winner makes for a more entertaining season…
“I want the Premier League to be a bit more like this,” he said. “When we talk about winning 100 points to win a league, it is an amazing achievement for the club that does it but it takes something away from the Premier League.
We might get a Leicester. We might get a strange top four. I just think that bodes well for the Premier League.
“I would like to see the champions getting, maybe, mid-80s. It just means they lose more games, there is more excitement, the teams finishing third, fourth, fifth and sixth aren’t too far away.
“If you think of Liverpool and Manchester City, they were winning the league losing one or two games. We may be going back to the champions losing five or six games.
“I do think this season could be unique. There is no pre-season. It is a condensed league. There is no time for coaches on the training pitch to iron out defensive frailties. We might get a Leicester. We might get a strange top four. I just think that bodes well for the Premier League.”