SINGAPORE: Oct 4 is a date football fans around the world will struggle to forget. First, there was some surprise when Manchester United lost 6-1 at home to Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League (EPL).
Then, fans of Liverpool barely had the time to visit online forums to mock and taunt their bitter rivals before their team was trashed 7-2 by Aston Villa a couple of hours later.
Never before have both of these two giants been humiliated – conceding six goals or more – on the same day.
While the first result was a surprise, a declining Manchester United crumbling against an improving Spurs side was less shocking than the second game.
Defending champion Liverpool was almost invincible as it won the EPL title in July in dominant fashion, finishing 18 points ahead of Manchester City in second.
On Sunday, the Reds looked more amateurish than invincible as they were torn apart by an Aston Villa team that finished the previous season in 17th place, narrowly avoiding relegation.
A SIGN OF THINGS TO COME?
The new season may be just four games old but already it feels different. Not just because there are no fans inside the 20 stadiums in the league but because, at the moment, anything seems possible.
When a team that won the league is so convincingly thrashed by a team that is counting its blessings to remain in the league, it evokes memories of 2016.
That was when Leicester City, a team that barely escaped relegation the previous season, outdid the "Big Six" – group of teams regarded as the biggest and richest in the league consisting of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea.
Despite being ranked 5,000 -1 outsiders by bookmakers, Leicester won the league, the club's first top-level football championship.
It was seen as a one-off. The usual suspects regrouped and strengthened and since then Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool have been champions. However 2021 could produce another outside winner as the Big Six have been looking vulnerable.
It is more than just last Sunday's games that can help us read the tea leaves.
First, an unusual amount of goals so far is shaking things up. While just 10 per cent of the season's games have been played, 144 goals have already been scored. At this stage, the next highest amount of 112 goals, were scored in the 2010-2011 season.
If the current goals per game ratio of 3.79 is maintained it will be the highest scoring season in England since 1930. The highest goals average in the EPL before this was 2.82 goals per games in the 2018-2019 season.
The goals are adding to the unpredictability.
It is partly the result of a wealth of attacking talent in the league. While expectedly the Big Six have some of the best forwards in the world, other clubs such as Everton and Leicester also have prolific strikers.
FAVOURITES ARE STUTTERING
But there is more to it. Besides Liverpool, Manchester City – runners-up last season – has also looked shaky winning only one of its three games this season. City looks defensively vulnerable and recently conceded five goals at home to Leicester.
Chelsea spent big in the transfer market but has already lost one game and drawn another in four matches while its North London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham do seem to have improved from last season but still have some way to go.
Manchester United, the club with the most top-flight titles in English football, has been unimpressive even before conceding six on Sunday.
On the contrary, the other clubs, who typically linger mid-table or languish in the bottom half, have been showing impressive results. Everton and Villa are the only two teams left in the EPL with a 100 per cent win record, sitting at the top of the table with Leicester just trailing behind in third place.
Newly promoted Leeds United join Newcastle United, West Ham and Southampton in the top half of the table, closer than the two Manchester clubs – City and United – to the top of the table.
These are all unfamiliar sights in the EPL even if it is still early days.
ABSENCE OF FANS A BIG FACTOR
But there are some factors that could swing this season in favour of the minnows, with the promise of more surprising results in the pipeline.
The thing is the usual advantages that the Big Six enjoy could be lessened by the COVID-19 outbreak.
For example, the big teams have bigger stadiums, world-class players and more fans, which in the past has led to accusations that these can influence referees' decisions.
Such huge crowds can influence visiting players too. Removed from the pressures of playing in front of 55,000 fans at Liverpool, 60,000 at Arsenal and 76,000 at Manchester United, smaller opponents now can perform with more confidence.
"That's a really interesting factor," former Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov t old media. "For example when you play at Liverpool's stadium, it's intimidating as hell, for sure."
The Bulgarian believes that the fans can negatively influence some players, especially those that lack confidence.
"And when the fans are not there, some players who think like this can come out of their shadow. They'll be more free, because they'll be thinking: 'Well, if I do a bad pass, there's nobody there to boo me.'"
Everton defender Michael Keane also believes that the absence of fans can remove pressure from opposing players.
"I think maybe fans not being in the stadium might make a bit of a difference,” Keane said. “It might give the strikers a bit more freedom to try things they perhaps wouldn’t if they felt there was a bit more pressure there with the fans."
This factor could be a double-whammy for the players from big clubs who usually benefit by having massive crowds behind them. They may now struggle without that backing.
"[It] reduces the focus and concentration of players," Carlos Carvalhal, former coach of Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea boss, said. "It has a huge influence in the head of players, I would say even 20 per cent… Without them it is 11 v 11 with a ball and a ref – everything balances out.”
SIZE DOES MATTER
Of course it is still early days and the favourites may soon get their act together whereas the minnows may lose pace.
In this aspect, the COVID-19 outbreak may actually work in favour of the big clubs.
The pandemic had caused the previous season to be suspended for three months, finishing in July instead of May.
This caused the new season to start in September and not August, meaning there is a month less in which to squeeze 38 games. With those games coming thick and fast, there are greater demands mentally and physically on players and more mistakes.
It also leaves less time for coaches to work with players, to organise defending and to iron out problems especially with bigger teams usually facing more games in cup competitions at home and overseas.
“Players aren’t having the same amount of training," Keane told media.
Such a demand on players will benefit the bigger clubs who not only have large squads but also those with depth.
The likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, for instance, have more world-class players on their bench than smaller teams like Villa, Leeds or West Ham in their starting line-ups.
The EPL is a marathon with 38 games to play and while the non-favourites have had an unexpected head start, the question on everyone's minds will be if they can go all the way.
One thing appears certain. With the gulf between the big and smaller clubs reducing, even if this season does not culminate in a fairy-tale ending as in 2016, sit back and expect many surprising chapters along the way.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region's sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers – The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).
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