Premier League Puzzle
As the 29th season in the top tier of English football progresses, we’ve been surprised each match week with results that even the most seasoned experts could not predict. Most would say that Manchester City and Liverpool were streets ahead of everybody else in the league, and it would usually have been a real surprise if either of these drop points in any given fixture, but it’s mid-November and neither team are in the top two.
This Premier League campaign is the most open we’ve seen in years. The empty stadia are clearly having an effect on results, with some unexpected outcomes already and the #1 spot changing hands almost weekly. It’s proving difficult to predict what will happen in fixtures, so it’s important to see what the professionals have to say in order to make sure you pick the right selection in your fantasy football team, or to give you the best chance if you’re placing a bet.
Empty grounds are clearly having an impact on the teams who usually have fortress like qualities at home in front of the fans. Old Trafford is usually a stomping ground for Manchester United and for decades it’s been known to strike fear into the opposition before a ball is even kicked. This season, without the physical and intimidating support of the Red Devils' fanbase, United would sit 19th in the table with a -8 goal difference if we looked at home games alone. For comparison, the Reds were 4th last year based solely on home matches.
We’ve also seen more goals this year than we’d usually expect. 2020-21 has been the highest scoring season in 60 years of top flight English football, with each match averaging a whopping 3.67 goals (as of the end of September). The weekly goal gluts are welcomed by many, as it makes the game more exciting, however it has also led pundits and professionals to question the standard of defending of top teams, and integrity of the game.
It’s not only the players who are being questioned this season. It’s also the technology. The Video Assistant Referee, widely referred to as VAR, was introduced to the Premier League in 2019/20 and received a mixed response. Change is often difficult to acclimatize to, and this was seen time after time in post-match interviews, where managers would vent frustration at the system for disallowing decisions where their striker had a foot or knee offside.
This year it has escalated. Fans and managers alike still malign the marginal offside calls, with many calling for a common sense approach and favoring the attacking player. This isn’t the biggest irk of the football world though. That lies with the handball rule.
This season saw the re-clarification of the handball rule by the Football Association, who have stated that ‘any goal scored or created with the use of the hand or arm will be disallowed this season even if it is accidental’. This has been interpreted very literally by VAR, and as a result 41 penalties have already been awarded after only eight matchdays. There have been occasions where penalties have been given to the surprise of players in both attack and defense, such as when the ball has glanced off an arm even though there was clearly little the defender could do about it. This has led to VAR being put under the microscope by the media and former officials.
As a result of the abundance of penalties this season, having world-class penalty takers is proving fruitful, and there’s no better example than spot kick supremo Jamie Vardy. We thought the Leicester dream team of 2015-16 would never be replicated, but fast forward five years and history is repeating itself. Leicester sit top of the table largely courtesy of Jamie Vardy’s goals, which despite the ‘one season wonder’ expectations from many fans during the title winning campaign, haven’t dried up since they lifted the Premier League trophy.
Other teams with dead-ball specialists are reaping the benefits too. Southampton are in the top four and, for the first time in their history, topped the Premier League earlier this season. This is an unpredictable and meteoric rise for the south coast club, who lost more fixtures than they won last season and succumbed to the Premier League’s largest ever defeat only 12 months ago. James Ward-Prowse has been integral to this success, but even his biggest fans wouldn’t have thought he’d have so much scope to influence games. He has registered key passes and scored three goals already this campaign.
The Premier League is turning out to be one of the most intriguing in history. Rumors of Ottawa's new football team have now materialized into reality, but for fans of the newly instated Atletico Ottawa it's still worth turning to England's league for some action.
The biggest surprise this season in what is already shaping up to be the most intriguing in Premier League history is the enigmatic Aston Villa. Villa have been imperious at times this campaign, defeating perennial top four teams Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. It wasn’t a fluke that they have won these fixtures either. They’ve dominated. The Villans put seven past current champions Liverpool, who only conceded 33 goals in the whole of the previous season, as well as achieving a clean sheet and slotting another three past Arsenal at the Emirates.
Villa’s form is unpredictable. The same team which dominated the league’s best has also lost at Villa Park to Southampton and Premier League new boys Leeds United. It is this kind of form which has even the greatest coaches of the game scratching their heads, as teams look to find consistency in their performances.
With four different Premier League winners over the past five years, the casual fan or independent viewer would say it’d be no surprise to see another new name on the Premier League trophy at the end of the season. Bookmakers and football fans, however, will be astonished if the champions are anybody other than pre-season front runners Liverpool or Manchester City. The North West clubs are both still the top two favorites to win the competition but, with both sides recording losses and outsiders winning unexpectedly, it may be time for another underdog to seize the moment and lift the biggest prize in English football.