KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Alexandre Lacazette, after nine minutes of Arsenal’s 3-0 derby win at promoted Fulham, struck the first goal of the most challenging season since the launch of the Premier League in 1993 kicks off on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
Last season, before Covid-19 halted football “as we know it” in early March nine of the 20 clubs averaged 40,000 fans or more for their home games.
The test for all 20 clubs and their players is to defy the arid atmosphere of closed-door stadia and maintain fans’ eagerness to return in similar numbers whenever government and health authorities permit.
Premier League owners and directors worry about the £1bn financial impact of the pandemic; they also worry that if fans lose the habit of attending live matches they will never return in such numbers.
Therefore all the clubs, from champions Liverpool to promoted Leeds, West Bromwich and Fulham, must achieve the highest level in terms of commitment, entertainment and excitement. TV analysts’ debates about VAR are no long-term substitute for the live matchday experience.
MATCHDAY ONE: C Palace 1, Southampton 0; Fulham 0, Arsenal 3; Liverpool 4, Leeds 3; West Ham 0, Newcastle 2
The overall plot lines are clear:
Liverpool want to retain the league title after ending their 30-year drought;
Manchester City want their crown back after falling an embarrassing 18 points back;
Chelsea and Manchester United want to be title challengers, not mere top four ‘extras’; and
Tottenham and Arsenal want to regain Champions League access after seasons disturbed by managerial change.
Leeds are welcome back after a 16-year absence, particularly with the inventive Marcelo Bielsa in charge. Their visit to Anfield on Saturday midday is the perfect hors d’oeuvres for the campaign.
The opening of the new season has been muddled. Its traditional curtain-raiser, the FA Community Shield in which Arsenal beat Liverpool on penalties, is already a distant memory. That was played two weeks ago before an international break which featured two insipid England displays in a 1-0 win in Iceland and 0-0 draw in Denmark.
Much higher quality is demanded of the Premier League.
The decisions and opinions of managers such as Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Frank Lampard, Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer, Jose Mourinho and Mikel Arteta will draw high-profile attention. But the greatest responsibility in the “new normal” rests with players to live up to their average £65,000—per-week pay packets.
This includes behaviour off the pitch as well as on it. Manchester City and United were furious that talented youngsters Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were sent home in disgrace by England after breaching the ‘Covid bubble’ in Iceland.
They may be fined by their clubs but also quickly given the chance to play their way back into fans’ favour.
The same goes for Harry Maguire. The United captain’s involvement in a Greek island nightclub has cost him his England place and left the shadow of a court case hanging over his head.
At least the trio will not be under scrutiny this weekend. Both Manchester clubs start the season a week late because of their European competitions involvement in August.
Clubs have until October 5 to strengthen their squads in an extended transfer window. Liverpool expect only minor adjustments. The one uncertainty is whether Ginio Wijnaldum will extend his contract or head for Barcelona and be replaced, perhaps, by Thiago Alcantara.
Similarly, Manchester City present much the same face but with £41m Nathan Ake, from relegated Bournemouth, strengthening a shaky defence. The dream of seeing Lionel Messi playing for Guardiola in the Premier League is now only a fleeting memory.
Manchester United have transformed their style and prospects with the midfield additions of Bruno Fernandes last January and now Donny van de Beek but even more exciting are the developments at Chelsea. The Blues lead the ‘transfer league’ with £200m spent on their attack.
Last season new manager Frank Lampard was granted time and patience in the wake of a FIFA transfer ban. None of that now. Lampard will be expected to find a winning formula right from the start at Brighton on Monday night.
Goals are expected from Timo Werner, assists from Hakim Ziyech and a mixture of everything from Kai Havertz.
Chelsea spent a club record £71m on the former Leverkusen star and the West London club believe he is the ‘new Hazard.’
In north London the story is about centre-forwards.
Jose Mourinho and Tottenham depend on an injury-free season from Harry Kane while Arsenal are relieved that top-scoring captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has agreed a three-year contract extension.
Aubamayeng scored 22 goals last season. Aubameyang is central to manager Arteta’s rebuilding plans.
This cannot be said for Mesut Ozil who is in the last season of his controversial contract. Arsenal wish to loan him out but no-one will defray his £350,000-per-week wages.
Wolves may struggle to maintain the fine form of last season despite the arrival of Portuguese teenager Fabio Silva while Leicester cannot rely for ever on the goals of Jamie Vardy. They should be challenged for the European slots by an Everton strengthened by the arrivals of James Rodriguez and Brazilian midfielder Allan.
The one certainty about the Premier League is that every single match will be contested as ferociously as ever.
That is a more important selling point now than ever before.
Top 10 transfers
1, Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen to Chelsea) £71m
2, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig to Chelsea) £48m
3, Ben Chilwell (Leicester to Chelsea) £45m
4, Nathan Ake (Bournemouth to Manchester City) £41m
5, Donny van de Beek (Ajax to Manchester United) £40m
6, Hakim Ziyech (Ajax to Chelsea) £36m
7, Fabio Silva (Porto to Wolves) £35m
8, Gabriel Magalhaes (Lille to Arsenal) £27m
9, Rodrigo (Valencia to Leeds) £27m
10 Timothy Castagne (Atalanta to Leicester) £25m