Terrific shake-up in the top four beckons

·Contributor
·6-min read
Football player kicking ball at goal
Football player kicking ball at goal

A single fixture into the new season and the English Premier League looks unpredictably unpredictable. This is confusing. The computer does not compute. The data is misleading.

The top four, or the usual suspects around the top four at least, does not look right. It’s far too early for definitive conclusions, obviously, but there’s the faint hope of the league table providing a little topsy-turvy, Lewis Carroll-esque surrealism.

It’s not quite Alice in Wonderland, but Arsenal in winning form will do nicely for now. It’s weird and most welcome. The Gunners do not look like the Gunners.

Liverpool do not look like Liverpool. Manchester City cannot look like Manchester City for the foreseeable future, with Erling Haaland leading the line. Chelsea do not know what a conventional striker looks like, let alone the composition of their attacking line up and Tottenham Hotspur might be looking like title contenders, which is equally absurd.

Ah, welcome back, English Premier League. This season promises to be utterly bonkers, particularly among the schizophrenic contenders looking to finish in the top four.

Let’s start with Arsenal, comical Arsenal, silly Arsenal, always good for a giggle, always a late gaffe or a mental implosion from a catastrophic collapse of some kind. Not now. The Gunners are young, fast, physical and experienced, a speedy line-up of contradictions.

And ruthless, too. The North Londoners haven’t really been associated with ruthlessness since pizzas were thrown and Roy Keane promised to see big, bad Patrick Vieira outside.

But in Arsenal's 2-0 win at Crystal Palace, there were no banana skins to be found. No goals conceded. No panic, just an incongruous self-belief and an underlying steeliness.

A kid called William Saliba finally made his competitive debut, three years after signing for the Gunners. He left the field a man, a man of the match to be precise, a confident centre-back, who’ll be difficult to dislodge. He never put a foot wrong. He looked just right.

The Frenchman won every aerial duel, made seven ball recoveries, six clearances and achieved a 94 percent accuracy rate. He’s 21 years old. He can only get better. So can Arsenal.

Two title winners have brought title-winning experience to an otherwise youthful line-up. Left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko and striker Gabriel Jesus covered different areas, but demonstrated the same pathological determination to prove that Pep Guardiola was wrong to flog the pair of them to Arsenal. They seem addicted to validation.

Gunners manager Mikel Arteta has signed a couple of rescue puppies, tongues flapping, tails wagging, and willing to run all day for their new master. Arsenal has speed, strength and the embryonic formation of a backbone. They will not be easily broken.

But Liverpool was almost easily beaten. Their lucky point in the 2-2 draw at Fulham was a testament to their peerless recruitment strategy – newcomer Darwin Núñez scored one and picked up an assist for the other goal – than it was to their performance.

Manager Jurgen Klopp lamented the strange, creative staleness that hung over the Reds’ midfield. His substitutions partially addressed the problem, but Thiago Alcantara’s hamstring injury will be harder to fix.

Klopp has backed his existing personnel, younger midfielders like Harvey Elliott, to mind the gap. It’s a noble gamble, perhaps one borne out of financial necessity, but the Reds’ stuttering start only adds to the intrigue. This season may not go the way you think.

It’s certainly not going to go the way Guardiola used to think. It can’t. The Manchester City manager dreams in triangles of fast passing. Possession consumes him. He treats every football like a baby clinging to a first teddy bear. He’s not going to just give it away. His instincts are to hold on, even if a Norwegian Viking is slicing through defenders and calling for it.

Haaland did just that, twice, against West Ham United and scored. Twice. That’s what he does, but it wasn’t what Manchester City did, not traditionally anyway. In Guardiola’s experimental workshop, the promise of lots of head scratching, followed by City people with clipboards screaming at Phil Foden to ‘lump it forward’, is almost too tantalising.

And then there are the imposters with no imposter syndrome. Spurs are flying because Antonio Conte has given them wings. It’s simple. They believe they can fly, soaring past Southampton like giddy Lego men singing ‘Everything is Awesome’.

The functional, straightforward and entirely expected destruction of the Saints was made more appealing by the peripheral role of key Tottenham players. Conte left five of his new signings – Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma, Clement Lenglet, Fraser Forster and Djed Spence – on the bench. They were mostly surplus to requirements.

Conte didn’t need them. Conte already had his pet project on the pitch. Dejan Kulusevski only joined Tottenham in January. But if the midfielder maintains the elegant form on display against Southampton, he’ll be a candidate for player of the season honours.

In a roving role alongside Son Heung-Min, he didn’t just control proceedings. He conducted. He found space with ease and dominated with effortless distribution. He even added to the scoreline. Tottenham knocked in four goals without the help of Son or Harry Kane. Spurs’ goal-scoring options are as diverse as Chelsea’s are limited.

As the season kicked off, Blues manager Thomas Tuchel hinted at the curse of the No.9. The fear of wearing - or even touching – the tarnished jersey runs through the squad, apparently, which suggests Chelsea staff should spend more time in the transfer market and less time watching Stranger Things.

The hunt for an uncursed No.9 could make or break Chelsea’s season. The ghost of strikers past lingers. Romelu Lukaku has gone, but Kai Havertz still looks haunted, trapped in the Upside Down, a parallel universe where objects fly in his general direction. And he misses them. He’s clumsy. He’s lost. He’s waiting to be assigned to any position other than his current one.

Raheem Sterling may fill the void, but the Blues’ ongoing inability to find a reliable target man to rival Tottenham, Liverpool or Manchester City only adds to the confusion.

Throw in the Manchester United mess and the curious case of their Portuguese Benjamin Button – with Cristiano Ronaldo still convinced that he can age backwards – and the top four seems harder to predict than Ronaldo’s next destination.

The season has begun, but the uncertainty around the top four has only increased. Long may it continue.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author who has covered the English Premier League since 2000, and has written 26 books.

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