The Premier League landscape is a view from a train window: forever shifting. By the time luggage has been safely ensconced in overhead storage, rolling hillsides can metamorphose into concrete jungles, just as champions can go from record-breakers to broken records in just 90 minutes.
Chelsea’s opening-day defeat to Burnley with nine men could have been dismissed as a mere aberration were it not for the fact the distinct whiff of discord, palpable or otherwise, has been wafting over from west London all summer. With eyes tightened and lips pursed, Blues boss Antonio Conte exudes guarded resentment.
How he must wish he had broken it off with Diego Costa with flowers and chocolates rather than by text message. Holed up back in Brazil, Costa has spent the summer arsing around on a jet ski while partying in the shirt of Atletico Madrid, his former club, whom Costa has decreed he will rejoin as soon as Chelsea stop treating him like a criminal, as he told the Daily Mail’s, Adam Crafton. He’s definitely one of the fun-loving kind.
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Stamford Bridge during the Burnley game. It is clearly easier to forgive than to forget after 40 league goals over two title-winning campaigns. And don’t even get Conte started on Chelsea’s transfer policy.
Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino is as calm as Conte is cranky. There’s a bit of the Don Draper in the final episode of Mad Men about him these days. You can imagine him sitting in the lotus position in the middle of Spurs’ training ground, holding court on how education is so much more important than acquisition. He’s morphing into Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger by the day, with his level of control at the club seemingly not far behind his north London counterparts.
Sunday’s game at Wembley Stadium between a temporarily relocated Spurs and Chelsea will probably feel more like a home match for the away side than the hosts. It will be a third time the Blues have played there in their past four proper games. A happy hunting ground it is not, with two defeats to Arsenal under the lattice arch the only real blemishes on Conte’s report card in England. To be querying him is ludicrous, yet here we are. Welcome to England, Antonio.
The tide turns quicker at Chelsea than anywhere else. Come to mention it, long-life milk could probably give it a run for its money. Jose Mourinho was sacked in December 2015, seven months after winning the Premier League title. A trophyless season saw Carlo Ancelotti crushed by owner Roman Abramovich’s iron fist in 2011 despite a league-and-cup double the previous campaign.
The last time these two sides met at Wembley, in April, it was quite the occasion for Chelsea. A 4-2 win at the semi-final stage of the FA Cup was perhaps the apex of their season in terms of demonstrating the ruthless efficiency that characterized it. Some claimed Spurs were the better side on the day, which will have amused Conte no end given his players had just stuck four past them. A beautiful bridesmaid is still a bridesmaid.
Tottenham’s record of having won just one of the five games they played at Wembley last season will worry Pochettino as much as the absence of any signings. Playing 38 games away from home can make for a long campaign.
A contest between the two best sides in the country last season retraces a title race that stretches the definition of what constitutes a race. Still, few dispute Spurs were comfortably the second-best side in the country. As much as reaffirming any heavyweight credentials, there is a sense it could be a game that illuminates a nagging suspicion about shallow depths. Both face accusations of having little of note beyond their first XIs.
Already this season, Olivier Giroud has demonstrated the importance of having quality in reserve after scoring Arsenal’s winner off the bench against Leicester City. Anthony Martial was similarly a goalscoring substitute for Manchester United. Both of those players will be fuming they are not starting. In stark contrast during two separate spells deputizing for an injured Harry Kane last season, Vincent Janssen conclusively disproved the Thomas Edison axiom: “There is no substitute for hard work.”
Michy Batshuayi is another player battling to convince people he isn’t destined to spend the second half of the season on loan at either Newcastle United or West Bromwich Albion. To be fair, a loan spell with the latter didn’t do Romelu Lukaku any harm.
After kicking off their campaign with a business-as-usual, unfussy win at Newcastle United that saw Dele Alli start this term as imperiously as he finished the last, Tottenham supporters may take umbrage at the idea to stand still is to go backward.
Treading water is unlikely to suffice this season given the early signs are both Manchester clubs have switched to front crawl after spending the majority of last term meandering in back stroke.
Having invested £230 million over the summer, City boss Pep Guardiola could probably field a second string that wouldn’t be a million miles off pushing for a UEFA Champions League place. Bernardo Silva may have proved himself to be one of Europe’s outstanding talents last season at AS Monaco, but he’s not even the best Silva at City.
This could be the first year there is more silver lining in Manchester than clouds. The younger Silva made his debut off the bench against Brighton & Hove Albion, with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane also having to settle for cameos. Yaya Toure sated himself with relaxing in the South Coast sun without having to stretch his legs (few players would look as majestic as big Yaya nailing an almond Magnum on the bench), while Ilkay Gundogan and Benjamin Mendy didn’t figure at all.
City’s remaining soft spot, centre-half, will likely be addressed with a further addition before the close of the transfer window. To find the possibility it might be Jonny Evans hilarious is like laughing at a colander because it’s got holes in it. Simon Stone of BBC Sport reported that West Brom rejected a bid from City for their captain on Wednesday.
The manner of Manchester United’s performance against West Ham United on Sunday should be similarly foreboding for the rest of the league. It was arguably the most aggressively complete performance since cavalier football was retired with Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013.
West Ham may have been flakier than a bar of Cadbury’s finest against Mourinho’s machine, but for everything to click at once suggests the graying alchemist may still have it in him to build title-winning teams. From Lukaku’s goals to Nemanja Matic’s commanding screening to everyone talking about Paul Pogba’s play rather than his price, there seems sound reason for their second-favorite status despite being so far off the pace last season.
Tottenham are the only club in any of English football’s top four divisions yet to have made a signing. Collectively, the Premier League has spent over £1 billion, with the other clubs making up the “top six” accounting for the best part of £600 million. Just below them in a league of one, last season’s seventh-placed side, Everton, have been outspent only by Manchester City. Majority owner Farhad Moshiri is showing no sign of being done despite signing cheques to the tune of over £140 million this summer.
Given Spurs chairman Daniel Levy is the only person alive to love transfer deadline day more than Sky Sports News’ talking yellow tie, Jim White, it is perhaps no surprise the north Londoners are notoriously late movers. The final few hours of the transfer window in August 2016 saw them sign Moussa Sissoko from Newcastle United for £30 million, which followed the captures of Georges-Kevin Nkoudou and Pau Lopez earlier in the day.
Given the precedent, to leave it late again seems a bit like Snow White feeling compelled to open an apple orchard. Levy would point to previous deadline day captures of Hugo Lloris (£11.8 million), Heung-Min Son (£22 million) and Erik Lamela (£25.7 million) as counterbalances, even if the latter has been out so long injured his last assist came when Jimmy Greaves glanced in one of his crosses.
If Darren Lewis of the Daily Mirror is to be believed, a deal for Paris Saint Germain full-back Serge Aurier could soon be concluded, with Kieran Trippier’s injury necessitating the need to bring in cover at right-back. It would be a shame if the first cloned footballer, Kyle Walker-Peters, is sent out to another club on loan for further testing as a consequence. His performance against Newcastle United suggested Spurs may be better to invest £20 million elsewhere.
A club-record move for Ajax’s Colombian defender Davinson Sanchez is supposedly not far off, though it’s not been without complications. According to Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf (via Daniel Boffey of the Guardian), the collapse in the value of the pound means Premier League clubs are being hit with demands for transfer fees and player wages to be paid in euros. The pound fell to an eight-year low against the euro recently, at €1.0954.
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As Boffey reported: “Spurs will have to pay more by the day. Compared with the end of the previous season, the pound is 6 per cent lower. On the sum that Ajax want (€50 million), that’s already a difference of €3 million. And the expectation is that the free fall will not stop.”
With Chelsea having been quoted £40 million for Leicester City midfielder Danny Drinkwater, per Matt Law of the Daily Telegraph, while BBC Sports report Juventus are close to tying up a £18 million move for Blaise Matuidi, it’s fair to say Brexit has a lot to answer for.
Danny Rose’s making light of the north London divide in a pitch-perfect impersonation of Ashley Cole has received poor to middling reviews. It’s mightily hard to admire a man decrying what he earns when he has been paid around £70,000 per week to watch Netflix for the past eight months while injured.
Rose has been cast as a freedom fighter by those who hate rich football club owners even more than they hate rich footballers, but given he signed a new five-year contract just 12 months ago, comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi seem a bit of a stretch. Presumably, he was advised to read it before autographing it. Despite having worse timing than Ed Balls, it doesn’t necessarily mean he speaks it.
Tottenham doesn’t pay market prices. A self-imposed salary cap prevents them signing players from the top tier. Pochettino never complains. It’s almost as if thinks his present group too perfect to be tampered with—as though the acquisition of a big name would somehow break the spell. Maybe a lack of paying power is a relief.
The idea they are some kind of sporting utopia, where financial motivation is denounced by a brotherhood united by Pochettino’s golden vision, is sweet. Noble, even. But it is one with a limited shelf life. It won’t just be Rose who watched Kyle Walker put in a man-of-the-match performance on his Manchester City debut against Brighton and thought it didn’t look too bad a gig for twice as much money.
If it is true Spurs would snub £150 million for Alli, as Neil Ashton of The Sun reported amid purported interest from Barcelona and Manchester City, his agent will be asking for wages befitting a £150 million footballer before the end of August.
In anyone can front out player pressure, though, it is Levy. Given the hyperinflated state of a market so out of control it surely has to be unsustainable, his hesitance to get involved echoes the dictum of J. Paul Getty: “Buy when everyone else is selling and hold until everyone else is buying. That’s not just a catchy slogan. It’s the very essence of successful investing.”
Levy would probably argue Getty didn’t become the richest man in the U.S. by paying Rose £150,000 per week just because he wanted it.
Conte dismissed reporters’ suggestions he selected such an inexperienced substitutes’ bench against Burnley, five of whom were untried kids, as a thinly veiled message to the club’s board following a tepid summer of recruitment.
His decision to hand the 20-year-old Jeremie Boga a debut ahead of club-record signing Alvaro Morata, who later came on to score one and set another up in vain, had this writer surreptitiously doing what’s now known in the game as a Danny Rose search. The cat rolled its eyes when I muttered something about loan spells at Stade Rennais and Granada before signing off with a ubiquitous “good player.”
Conte has made no secret of the fact a spend of well over £100 million on Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Antonio Rudiger still leaves him three or four players light, as TalkSport reported. Perhaps it’s a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees given Chelsea have 26 players out on loan.
UEFA Champions League exertions will weigh heavy on the legs of a squad responsible for a miraculous 43-point improvement in the absence of European football last season. Nine players made 30 or more starts in the Premier League for Chelsea (Tottenham also had nine), with Victor Moses starting 29.
To squeeze that level of consistency, fitness and form out of a small group is something Leicester City matched in their even more unexpected title triumph the season before, but as then-boss Claudio Ranieri will attest, it’s not so easy to juggle domestic duties with European ones.
For Chelsea’s opening league game of the season, Conte ditched his tailored black suit and tie for a tracksuit, which did little to dispel the memory of when Mourinho’s descent from sharp to slovenly coincided with a period of waning powers. He may well pitch up on Sunday in full kit because of the scarcity of options in Chelsea’s midfield. With Cesc Fabregas suspended and Bakayoko injured, N’Golo Kante may have to do the job of two men, which shouldn’t be a problem given it’s a feat he’s regularly credited with performing.
The news Angel of the North sculptor Antony Gormley has been approached by Manchester United to do some preparatory sketches of Matic is unlikely to alleviate Conte’s mood any, either.
With neither Eden Hazard nor Bakayoko back in contention until after the international break, the decision to allow Ruben Loftus-Cheek to spend the season at Crystal Palace looks a little trigger-happy. Selling Nathaniel Chalobah to Watford seems to reduce the role of a vaunted Academy to that of a factory churning out saleable goods.
It is a topic of much debate among Chelsea supporters with regard to the person making the final call on incomings and outgoings. As the novelist, John le Carre once said: “A committee is an animal with four back legs.”
It is hard to shake the feeling both Spurs and Chelsea are at a crossroads. Despite Pochettino’s protestations to the contrary, Conte had a point when he channeled his inner Rudyard Kipling to argue there is a natural limit to a club’s aspirations when they can’t or refuse to compete financially, per the BBC:
“If [Spurs] don’t win the title, it’s not a tragedy.
“If they don’t arrive in the Champions League, it’s not a tragedy.
“If they go out in the first round of the Champions League, it’s not a tragedy.
“If they go out after the first game that they play in the Europa League and go down against Gent, it is not a tragedy.
“For Chelsea, Arsenal, City, United and, I don’t know, Liverpool, it is a tragedy.
“You must understand this. You must understand the status of the team.”
Pochettino’s biggest selection headache for Sunday could well be whether to pin Rose’s diatribe to Spurs’ dressing room wall or Conte’s.
Maybe there are some advantages to having a small squad after all.
reference: the independent