Saturday, June 25, 2022

Match recap: Arsenal starts fast, Man Utd’s away-day blues, Liverpool’s rotation woes

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You know the drill: each team plays every other team twice. But there are more nuances — who you play and when you play against them can make or break a season, writes Daniel Storey

In the last 35 Premier League games last season, only Manchester City and Liverpool have picked up more points than Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. There were stumbling blocks in early December, April and May, but Arsenal played catching up from September.

Read Daniel Storey’s transfer window previews for all 20 Premier League clubs here

That was partly due to the equipment. There’s no excuse for the defensive chaos at Brentford on opening night, but Arsenal have met Chelsea at home and Manchester City away in their first three league games – two of the top three favorites to win the title – and lost both games on aggregate from 7-0.

Arsenal have escaped elite opponents early on this season. They start the season again on a Friday night and have to be wary of a repeat of Brentford at Selhurst Park, but Arsenal play two promoted teams plus Leicester and Aston Villa at home in their first five games. Last season, they won those two corresponding games and lost just two points in eight games against the eventual bottom four.

Arsenal must therefore start quickly. Momentum, both good and bad, has so often emerged under Arteta. If they can pick up 13 points from their first five games, a hardly unrealistic goal, they will at least settle in the top four. That prepares them for games against Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City between September 3 and mid-October.

Based on the first six league games, Fulham even had the toughest start to the season according to last year’s table. Their six opponents finished 2021-22 at an average position of 7.2; Next up is Crystal Palace with 7.7.

But of the promoted side, Bournemouth face the toughest start. They host Aston Villa on opening day, who have already proven they will continue to invest heavily under Steven Gerrard. Their first two away games will be at the Etihad Stadium and Anfield respectively, where Bournemouth must try to avoid the kind of hammering that can shatter promotion optimism. In between, they meet Arsenal at home. Bournemouth have lost seven and drawn two of their ten Premier League games against Arsenal.

Ending the season doesn’t get much easier when Scott Parker’s side need points to stay up. The final two home games of the season come against Chelsea and Manchester United, with away games at Selhurst Park and Goodison in between. It puts tremendous pressure on the September and October fixture list: Nottingham Forest, Brighton, Newcastle United, Brentford, Leicester City, Fulham, Southampton.

It’s not just that Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola both landed their key signings of the summer before July. It’s not just that they ended up 18 and 19 points clear of third place respectively and will likely maintain that gap. Because that’s not all: Liverpool and Manchester City start the season gently.

journalist Nick Harris did the math the strength of the first six games of each Premier League team. Liverpool and City are likely to have below average numbers – they can’t play themselves – but Harris’ table has the pair 18th and 19th in the table; only wolves have an easier start. City are slightly easier (the average league position of their first six opponents is 0.3 higher and they only meet a Big Six team at Tottenham on 10 September).

That counts. Liverpool and City lost points early on last season against Big Six opponents (Chelsea for Liverpool, Tottenham for City). We know that when one of the racquets builds up steam, it becomes almost impossible to stop them. Any hopeful title challenger may already be playing a catch-up game.

It’s no secret that this season will be the most relentless in top-flight history. These clubs in the Champions League will play 16 league games, six Champions League group stage games and at least one EFL Cup game between 6 August and the break for the World Cup on 13 November; 23 games in just over three months.

It clearly depends on both the strength of their Champions League group stage opponents and their ability to qualify early (last season Liverpool won all six of their group games), but Klopp may have more reasons than Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Thomas Tuchel to let his team rotate in their Champions League autumn games.

Of the six games played directly after the midweek European games, Liverpool meet Big Six opponents in four: Chelsea (a), Arsenal (a), Manchester City (h) and Tottenham (a). That compares unfavorably to Manchester City (three Big Six games), Chelsea and Tottenham (two each). If the league title can be won and lost there – Liverpool won just four of their ten league games against Big Six opponents last season – Klopp gives something to think about.

There was not a single reason why Ralf Rangnick failed at Manchester United, nor a definitive account of that failure, but away form was a handy indicator. United have lost each of their last six away league games in 2021/22, conceding 17 goals and scoring just two – once in a 4-1 defeat at Manchester City and once in a 3-1 defeat at Arsenal. As of February 20, they never led away from home once.

Ten Hag needs to change that form very quickly. Manchester United play six of their first ten league games away from Old Trafford and two of those four home games are against Liverpool and Arsenal. As if that wasn’t enough, United took just four points from their equivalent six away games last season, losing at Manchester City, Everton, Crystal Palace and Leicester, drawing at Southampton and beating Brentford.

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