We are on course for the weirdest and most sensational Premier League season in memory. A combination of empty stadiums, lack of a proper pre-season, and some other unknown voodoo has seen the 2020/21 campaign start with some truly astonishing results – and has even begun talk of another Leicester City-style 2015/16 title win.
That might be a little far-fetched, but certainly things are unlikely to stabilise any time soon. The fixture list congestion means plenty of the top sides will drop points in the months ahead, while a heavily lopsided transfer window – more than £1 billion spent, but several clubs unable to do so – suggests more absurd score lines and improbable outcomes.
Aston Villa’s 7-2 victory over Liverpool on Sunday still feels like a fever dream, and it is impossible to get to the bottom of what’s going on at the moment. Perhaps playing in empty stadiums has subtly shifted the attention spans of defenders, the work-rate of midfielders, and the confidence of strikers… but that doesn’t explain why nothing similar is happening in other major European leagues.
Whatever the reason, and with full stadiums many months away, things are unlikely to return to normal in the near future. With that in mind, here are five outright picks that – although faintly ridiculous to suggest four weeks ago – now look like decent outside bets.
Jose Mourinho’s project is finally starting to come together at Tottenham, and despite some less-than-perfect displays against Everton and Newcastle there is a sense his players are buying into the siege-mentality approach while revelling in the tactical system.
As little as four weeks ago Mourinho’s tactics seemed out-dated, his emphasis on a conservative midblock and free-form counter-attacks jarring with the modern need for territorial dominance, high pressing, and suffocation through pre-set attacking moves. But all of that has changed in the new chaos of 2020/21.
Suddenly his defensive pragmatism makes Spurs one of the only teams not prone to the end-to-end pandemonium of the league. What’s more, if defences continue to push alarmingly high and teams continue to drift aimlessly, then a pure counter-attacking energy could flourish for a whole season.
Harry Kane is excelling as a deeper striker, picking up the ball between the lines to feed Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura in behind, and with a fit Gareth Bale a significant upgrade on the Brazilian, and his performances – leading to 5-2 and 6-1 wins in Spurs’ last two – should continue if the division cannot settle down. Perhaps tactics are cyclical, and after years of Klopp and Guardiola setting the tempo things have got out of hand, giving Mourinho the chance of relevance again.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side have got off to a perfect Premier League start that appears to suggest their summer transfer window has solved all of their tactical issues. The headline is the brilliance of James Rodriguez, who has been supported expertly by Seamus Coleman on the right and who, with licence to roam into the number ten space, is bringing the best out of Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Calvert-Lewin has already scored six league goals and doesn’t seem likely to stop, given that full-backs Coleman and Lucas Digne are pouring forward and swinging crosses into the box at every opportunity. Ancelotti’s tactical flexibility and laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the details is allowing Everton to create and score with total freedom.
And they are complimented by strength in the middle, too. Allan adds control to a central midfield that was too erratic last season, while Abdoulaye Doucoure and Andre Gomes are forming a strong defensive shield either side of the former Napoli man that shields Everton from being caught on the break. As others falter, an assault on the top four is not out of the question.
Chris Wilder was the best manager in the league last season and his genius at Sheffield United should never be forgotten. But it is beginning to look like his team have been found out tactically, with opponents no longer naively pressing high or under-estimating the intelligence of United’s positional rotation. It is a classic difficult second season.
With four defeats from four, heads will soon drop, and that spells disaster for a side that were never very good at scoring goals; there is little to fall back on should they get into a rut, and far too much pressure on young Rhian Brewster to bring a goalscoring touch.
Coupled with a lack of serious transfer activity this summer, a strong window for many of the division’s middle class, and the bonkers nature of this high-scoring season, Sheffield United’s uber-functional football might not be good enough to keep them up.
Having scored 24 goals in 114 Premier League games prior to the start of this season, it is fair to say very few people had Dominic Calvert-Lewin down as a serious contender to win the Golden Boot. But Everton’s fantastic start has changed all that and the England international already leads the charts with six.
Duncan Ferguson and Ancelotti have successfully stripped his game back, removing his tendency to run into the channels or attempt the sort of gritty work outside the box typical of a teenage forward hoping to make a name for himself out wide. Calvert-Lewin now plays with the confidence, and positioning, of a true number nine.
His aerial ability and poacher’s instinct make him ideal for a side that love to swing crosses into the box. Even if Everton fall away, Calvert-Lewin should hit the mid-20s.
There have been 144 goals in 38 matches so far this season, an average of 3.79 per game that puts us on course to smash the Premier League record of 2.82. The strangeness of the circumstances surrounding this season suggest the average won’t come down too much, and among the most clumsily open teams this year are Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal.
Frank Lampard continues to struggle to organise his team in the transition, meaning Chelsea are extremely porous through the middle as opponents look to counter-attack; his players attack with too much positional freedom, seemingly without a care in the world for what might happen if they lose the ball. Their 3-3 draw with West Brom is a perfect example of why they are unlikely to record a 0-0 draw this year.
Liverpool’s 7-2 defeat to Villa has exposed how just a tiny error in their shape sees the entire system fall apart. Consequently Klopp’s side will either beat their opponents this year or be vulnerable, again suggesting no 0-0s.
Arsenal are perhaps capable of a scoreless game, and yet Mikel Arteta is doing such a fine job at the Emirates it won’t be long before they are scoring for fun, especially with the passing range of Thomas Partey adding a new dimension in central midfield.