By J Hutcherson (Oct 5, 2021) US Soccer Players – In the bizarre future some at the highest level of the game are trying to chart, October would be a month dedicated to internationals. Instead of three breaks in the fall schedule acting as speed bumps for the opening stage of domestic league seasons in Europe, there would be a long layoff for clubs to wonder why they didn’t fight harder for common sense. Sure, most clubs would probably prefer no release windows. It’s not their product, after all. Still, in a world where national team soccer exists, there has to be space for it on the calendar.
With the October window officially underway, where does that leave the fine folks in England’s Premier League? Seven games into the season, there are some quick and easy takeaways. Liverpool is undefeated but in 2nd-place a point behind Chelsea. Defending champions Manchester City in 3rd through 6th-place Brighton all have 14 points. Clubs that did well last season but find themselves in trouble are 9th-place West Ham and 13th-place Leicester City. That’s created space for the likes of Brighton and Brentford to wonder if things are changing just out of the European spots.
Since this is the era of the ascendant Premier League, 6th and 7th-place could turn into European spots should another Premier League club win the Champions League. Sure, it’s going to be a Europa Conference League playoff place for the 7th-place finisher, with Spurs currently tied for 1st in group G in that tournament while struggling in the Premier League. Tottenham in 8th-place tied on points with 7th-place Brentford is the same problem as last season. Money spent and expectations unmet for a club that held onto Harry Kane.
Leicester City’s situation may be the most illustrative for clubs worried about the strength of their squads. Jamie Vardy is doing his job, tied with Liverpool’s Mohamed Saleh at the top of the goal scoring chart with six. Why Leicester City is down the table is due in no small part to its -3 goal differential. A 2-2 draw at 14th-place Crystal Palace is only an indictment of what Leicester is doing because they were up 2-0 from a Vardy goal in the 37th. A game under control suddenly wasn’t, with Palace scoring in the 61st and 72nd minutes. While it’s worth the mention that Palace drew 1-1 with Brighton at home the week before, that was a derby with a late gut-punch equalizer from the club higher up the table.
While the Premier League may want to see that as parity, clubs can’t afford to think that every game is a must-win in tough situations. That’s not expectation management. It’s a delusion about the reality of this league. Clubs pay considerable amounts of money to underline some games while circling the ones they expect to win, and for good reasons.
Just beneath Palace in the table in 15th and tied on points with them at seven is Watford, the club that fired its manager Xisco Munoz and sent the expected message. 15th isn’t good enough. Never mind that the clubs around them likely feel the same way about their places in the table. Watford is the one taking action first. In comes Claudio Ranieri as head coach, last at Sampdoria in Serie A.
“The Board feels recent performances strongly indicate a negative trend at a time when team cohesion should be visibly improving,” Watford’s statement announcing the Munoz decision read. “The Hornets will always be grateful to Xisco for the part he played in securing last season’s promotion and wish him well for his future career in football.”
Perhaps the key takeaway should be the reminder that Watford is a promoted club within three points of 11th-place Arsenal. Yes, they’re also within three points of 17th-place Southampton, in turn, a point above the relegation places. Still, there’s the question of reasonable scope, especially in a top-heavy league.
Watford has lost to Brighton, a surprise club in the top-half of the table, Spurs, a disappointment but still in a position to change things, Wolverhampton, we’ll give them that as a measuring stick, and most recently 1-0 at Leeds. Another promoted club leans into easy comparisons, especially in a game where Watford sitting back and letting Leeds play meant hoping shots didn’t fall. They didn’t. Leeds finished with four shots on goal from 20, but that’s the indicator that events could’ve shifted quickly.
Turning to Ranieri sends a specific message since it was his Leicester City changing what we thought we knew about Premier League dominance in 2014-15. Whether or not that Leicester season is what clubs keep in mind when balancing ambition with reality, Leicester’s present is raising the kind of questions none of them will want to address. Does that once again speak to the standard issues for being ambitious in the Premier League? It does.
Outside of the clubs with no problem inserting themselves into conversations about record transfer fees and release clauses across Europe and anywhere else is where most of the Premier League exists. They’re well aware of the financial limitations and competitive imbalance that exists when a handful of clubs consistently spend more. It means a different game plan, realizing that holding onto key players for more than a season or two can become very difficult. Every matchday can turn into a shop window, the Red Bull Salzburg in Europe scenario from a few seasons ago when Jesse Marsch’s club turned into something completely different after the January window.
To put that as plainly as possible, Chelsea’s only loss so far this season came at home to Manchester City. Liverpool’s three draws were home to Chelsea, at Brentford, and home to Manchester City. While it should be clear where this is going, Manchester City’s loss was at Spurs, but it came in their season opener. That’s the theme already this season. It’s disruptive moments more often than not caused by the usual suspects and usually benefiting them.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- As MLS heads into week 28, what do we really know about the Western Conference?
- The Chicago Fire’s Soldier Field story continues
- Figuring out the 2021-22 Champions League group stage
- Preview: Honduras vs USMNT
Logo courtesy of the EPL