We made seven knee-jerk reactions to Matchday 1 of 2023-24 despite, as we admitted then, not being fans of a small sample size. But, you know what, we enjoyed stepping out of our comfort zone for a short while so much that we’ve done it again, but only because we’re safe in the knowledge that there’s a massive spreadsheet waiting for us to analyse once this article is out of the way.
So, here are six hastily-made conclusions to the second round of Premier League fixtures that will presumably come back to bite us.
Spurs Are Back
The jubilant atmosphere after full-time at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday suggested there will be a fair few Spurs fans who are now very much of the opinion that their team is onto something special under Ange Postecoglou. The fact they had just seen their team beat Manchester United at their new ground for the first time was one thing; the performance that accompanied it was something else.
Spurs dominated possession (55.7%) but more importantly, they dominated territory. They played on the front foot and as well as playing out from the back, they kept the ball high up the pitch. Four of the top nine players for successful passes in the final third in the Premier League this season are Spurs players (James Maddison, Yves Bissouma, Son Heung-min and Destiny Udogie).
The most exciting thing for many Spurs fans is simply the difference between Postecoglou’s Tottenham and the team that came before. The difference between how much more of the pitch they dominated on Saturday and how much higher up they played compared to Antonio Conte’s last game in charge – the 3-3 draw at Southampton in March – is stark.
More realistic observers – including Postecoglou himself – won’t be reading quite as much into this result against a United side who are still lacking a coherent midfield and were terribly wasteful in attack (no goals from 2.07 xG), but the signs for Tottenham were undeniably positive nonetheless.
You Have to Fear for Everton
Is it too early to start worrying? It’s hard not to be just a little concerned about Everton after the way they’ve started this season. Two games, two losses, no goals scored and five conceded. It makes for grim reading.
The Sean Dyche era just hasn’t been very Sean Dyche-y. We haven’t seen the defensive resilience that his Burnley side were known for and which many Everton fans were probably hoping he would bring, while the best and most convincing performance of his entire time at the club was a 5-1 away win over Brighton at the end of last season. That wasn’t at all Dyche-y.
This season, Everton have only managed 0.48 expected goals from set-pieces in their first two games, which is the 12th most in the league, while the defending against Aston Villa at the weekend was genuinely atrocious at times. Apparently putting a pair of former Burnley centre-backs together in Michael Keane and James Tarkowski doesn’t necessarily mean the team will start defending like peak Burnley. Far from it, in fact, based on the evidence at Villa Park.
There is some hope, though. They have created decent chances in both of their games, and their 3.4 xG is the ninth-highest in the Premier League in 2023-24, ahead of the likes of Manchester City (3.1), Tottenham (3.0) and Arsenal (2.9). If Dyche can finally shore up his Everton defence and they can start taking some of their chances, there might not be quite so much cause for concern. It’s a pretty big ‘if’, though.
Arsenal Are Playing Like Champions
Okay, so they’re not really. In all honesty, Arsenal look someways off the team that pushed Manchester City all the way in the title race last season. After a summer outlay of the best part of £200 million on new players, some people might have been expecting a little more of them at the start of the new campaign.
Mikel Arteta’s side have won two from two, but very nearly let Nottingham Forest back into their opening game of the season after going two goals up and then required a Martin Ødegaard penalty to win at Crystal Palace on Monday night. They had the better chances and just about deserved the win, but it wasn’t vintage Arsenal by any stretch.
But that is exactly the point. Arsenal are one of only three teams boasting a 100% record, and they have done it without playing anything like their best. They’ve also done it while bedding in new signings in Kai Havertz and Declan Rice and playing without a host of injured first-choice players, with Gabriel Jesus out and Oleksandr Zinchenko only fit enough to play a few minutes at Selhurst Park. Oh, and they played the final half hour with 10 men.
It was an impressively controlled performance in the end, and they saw out the game with real assurance. Arteta’s substitutions showed an acceptance that they just had to try and protect their lead, as he introduced a bunch of defensive players, but they all did what was asked of them. The four subs completed all but one of their 25 passes to relieve pressure on the defence, while Palace were restricted to just 0.97 xG all game. It was the kind of win that champions would look back on proudly.
Ward-Prowse Will Break Set-Piece Records
It wasn’t the only thing that David Moyes bought James Ward-Prowse for, but his set-piece delivery would certainly have been a major consideration. It took Ward-Prowse fewer than seven minutes of his West Ham debut to get his first assist from a set-piece for his new club.
Dead balls were a key part of West Ham’s game before Ward-Prowse arrived, but they’ll only become more important with him around. They scored 10 goals from corners last season, the joint-fifth most in the Premier League, while this season, 38% of their expected goals have come from set-pieces – a higher proportion than any other team in the top flight.
Ward-Prowse currently sits seventh in the all-time Premier League list for assists from corner and free-kick situations, with 25, eight behind leader Chris Brunt on 33. The record for the most set-piece assists in a single season, meanwhile, is held by Steven Gerrard, who got 11 for Liverpool in 2013-14 (just ahead, curiously, of Nicky Shorey’s nine in 2007-08 for Reading. Bet you didn’t expect to see the name ‘Nicky Shorey’ in this article).
It does feel like Ward-Prowse could break both records playing for West Ham, where everything will be set up for him to create chance after chance from dead balls.
Szoboszlai is the Signing of the Season
Last week, James Maddison was our signing of the season. This week it’s Liverpool’s Dominik Szoboszlai.
The Hungarian midfielder had a great deal on his shoulders this weekend. Liverpool had been playing for a second successive week with Alexis Mac Allister doing an impression of a proper defensive midfielder, and then, after he got sent off, manager Jürgen Klopp brought on Wataru Endo, who is clearly a very good footballer, but there are doubts as to whether he was signed to play in the first team just yet. Szoboszlai, very suddenly, was the main man in a midfield two alongside Endo – and he stepped up.
With Bournemouth pushing for a route back into the game, Szoboszlai did a fantastic job of taking the ball upfield and making sure his side played in the opposition’s half. His 14 progressive carries was more than any other player on the pitch, and the third most by any midfielder or attacker in any Premier League game on MD 2.
He has very quickly become a crucial member of the team at Liverpool, having played a part in 11 open-play shot-ending sequences this season, which is the joint-second most in the squad behind Luis Díaz (13). Szoboszlai has been involved only in the build-up to a shot on five separate occasions, which is more than any other teammate. The speed with which he has looked at home at Anfield is incredibly impressive, and he could be key to Liverpool’s hopes this season.
Don’t Fear Losing Your Best Player
This weekend’s results suggest Premier League teams should stop being scared of losing their most important player.
Spurs, as mentioned above, did alright without Harry Kane. Brighton are top of the league having lost Moisés Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister this summer, scoring more goals (8) and racking up more expected goals (6.23) than any other team. West Ham beat Chelsea without Declan Rice, and although it wasn’t the most convincing performance, they will rightly take a great deal of confidence that there is life after their former captain following that result. Brentford, meanwhile, ran out comfortable 3-0 winners at Fulham, having scored twice against Spurs a week earlier, all without their banned talisman Ivan Toney up front. Only Brighton have more expected goals in the Premier League this season than Brentford (6.15).
Good succession planning is a better approach than holding on to a player who doesn’t want to be there, and these sides have all reinvented themselves well. So far at least, the signs suggest they should never have worried about doing without the best player.