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Sunday, June 16, 2024

How much has your team evolved since the opening weekend of the season?

The first weekend of a Premier League season is a new dawn, a clean slate, a blank canvas for all clubs ahead of their upcoming campaign.

No one can rattle off each side’s Premier League fixture list from memory, but you will be able to recall each season’s opening set of games. After all, it is the (flawed) foundation of your early predictions and hot takes.

Cast your mind back to those sultry days of August 2023. Would Newcastle mount a genuine title challenge after thrashing Aston Villa 5-1? Would Burnley’s possession-based style make them the strongest promoted side? Were Manchester United going to kick on after 2022-23’s third-placed finish?

This season the fixture computer granted a midweek round of games in late January/early February the honour of being the reverse of the opening weekend, so that makes it an opportune moment to compare and contrast all 20 Premier League teams. Who’s progressed? Who’s got worse? Who’s changed their approach the most? The Athletic investigate…

Aston Villa vs Newcastle 

Unai Emery will be happy to see the back of Eddie Howe this season.

Newcastle’s 3-1 victory inflicted a first home defeat on Aston Villa all season, and there were obvious parallels between this game and their opening-day thrashing at St James’ Park.

Aston Villa’s performance in August was actually not befitting of a 5-1 defeat, but where Emery’s side looked most vulnerable in both games was their high line, which was exposed in slightly different ways.

On the opening day, Villa were chasing the game for most of the day which meant Newcastle could swiftly counter-attack through central areas with the pace of Miguel Almiron, Anthony Gordon and (later) Harvey Barnes from wide. In August, Howe’s men logged five through balls to penetrate Villa’s back line — their joint-most in a game this season.

In the return fixture on Tuesday, Newcastle elected to expose Villa’s back line in a more direct way with lofted diagonal passes or balls over the top: 13 per cent of their passes were long balls, their fifth-highest rate of the season.

Set pieces had a part to play in both fixtures, but the overall flow of the match was remarkably similar — Villa were left to chase the game and Newcastle repeatedly exposed their high line.

Mark Carey

Luton Town vs Brighton

“We didn’t allow them to build,” said Luton Town head coach Rob Edwards. The home side forced seven high turnovers (open-play sequences starting within 40m of the opposition goal), their most in a game this season, compared to just one on the opening day at the Amex.

Luton’s 4-1 welcome-to-the-Premier-League defeat on the opening day at the Amex saw them display real signs of life for the first hour, initially only undone by a Solly March header from a cross. The newly-promoted side had looked lively on the break but faded, made errors and their 5-3-2 became too porous, repeatedly carved through by Brighton especially on the fourth goal.

But Brighton’s 4-0 defeat at Kenilworth Road six months on owed much to Luton’s high pressing, especially for the first goal when Elijah Adebayo headed in from Carlton Morris’ knockdown, after Chiedozie Ogbene had crossed to the back post. Luton locked on in midfield, allowing an average of 13.5 passes before making a defensive action (PPDA), an approach way more intense than the 24.1 they allowed at the Amex.

For Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton, fine-tuning of the system is needed. In the absence of natural wingers, the switch to a back three has got them through two rounds of the FA Cup, and could offer a strong defensive base for the knockout rounds of the Europa League. But conceding goals continues to be a problem — only Sheffield United (one) have kept fewer clean sheets than Brighton (two) and they have the leakiest defence in the top half of the table (37 goals conceded).

While Luton have progressed significantly since the opening day of the season, it’s probably fair to say that Brighton have not.

Liam Tharme

Fulham vs Everton 

If you wanted to draw a melodramatic conclusion from Everton’s two clashes with Fulham, you could say that these games may well dictate Everton’s Premier League status.

Across the two matches, Everton had 40 shots, accrued an expected goals value of 4.9 and scored precisely zero goals.

On Tuesday, their clean sheet was enough to earn them a point, but a 1-0 loss to Fulham on the opening day means that Sean Dyche’s side have dropped five potential points given their performances arguably warranted two wins.

This is a sizeable number of points or any side in the Premier League but, with Everton’s 10-point deduction, that could be the difference between them hovering above or below the relegation zone — as they now sit one point from safety in 18th place.

In truth, Everton’s profligacy has been a theme across their whole season — no side has underperformed against their expected goals more than Dyche’s side, scoring 10 goals fewer than the quality of their chances would suggest.

The pattern was equally as clear in winter as it was on the first day — Everton have struggled to convert their opportunities despite working the ball into good areas.

Mark Carey

Nottingham Forest vs Arsenal 

The same outcome, the same scoreline, and nearly identical goalscorers — Tuesday’s fixture was spookily similar to the opening day at the Emirates.

While it was a different manager in the dugout, Forest’s approach was similar in both games as they sat in a low block and ensured there were few gaps for Arsenal to exploit.

In return, Arsenal gathered together, lit a fire, and camped out in Forest’s defensive third for long periods at the City Ground, with their field tilt of 87 per cent being their second-highest territorial dominance all season.

Their opening day share of 76 per cent remains in their top five field-tilt measures this season, underlining the similarity across both games.

Looking at their match dashboard below, the average position of every Arsenal outfielder was beyond the halfway line, with David Raya more advanced than both Forest centre-halves. This was one-way traffic, it was the domination and suffocation that Arteta dreams about — and yet…

…once again, Arsenal had a late scare with a goal from Taiwo Awoniyi in the dying moments.

It made for an interesting end to the game, and means that Arsenal have twice failed to keep a clean sheet against Forest this season. Only two clean sheets in their last nine Premier League games is also evidence that they could do with tightening up a little — with Benjamin White and Oleksandr Zinchenko clashing after the full-time whistle over their late concession.

As far as comparisons go between the two league fixtures, this one was about as similar as you could make it — with concerns each club might have had in August still there in the depths of winter.

Mark Carey

Liverpool vs Chelsea 

August’s opening day clash was the first peek into a new era for each respective team — Maurcio Pochettino’s youthful Chelsea vs Jurgen Klopp’s “Liverpool 2.0”.

In truth, the game was not high in quality with both sides looking half-baked, meaning a 1-1 draw was arguably the fairest result — and the most predictable: their seventh successive meeting that had ended level.

Chelsea dominated the ball, with a possession share of 65 per cent, which was their highest on record in a Premier League game against Liverpool (2003-04 onwards). However, they lacked the bite to truly threaten the opposition goal — sound familiar, Chelsea fans?

Fast forward to January’s fixture, and the landscape has diverged for both sides.

Liverpool’s dominance at Anfield on Wednesday evening was befitting of their top-of-the-table status, suffocating Chelsea’s midfield and pressing high with pace and purpose.

“They were much better than us and every time we recovered the ball after the first or second touch, we lost it,” Pochettino said after the game. “It was well-deserved for them.”

For context, Liverpool’s 13 possessions won in the attacking third was their highest in any Premier League game this season — highlighting just how much they pinned Chelsea back for long periods.

Despite a run of three Premier League wins prior to their trip to Anfield, Chelsea are treading water in mid-table as we enter February — with the mild sense of optimism following their August opener seemingly dwindling with each week.

By contrast, Liverpool are (so far) exceeding expectations after a transitional year was predicted by many. Recent bombshell manager news aside, the Liverpool fanbase could barely have asked for much more since that unsteady opening day at Stamford Bridge.

Mark Carey

Crystal Palace vs Sheffield United

Crystal Palace are nothing if not consistent.

If they are going to win, you can be sure that one of Michael Olise or Eberechi Ezi (or both) will have something to do with it.

That was the case on the opening day against Sheffield United, where Eze became just the fourth Premier League player to register eight shots and seven (or more) chances created since 2003-04 — alongside Frank Lampard, Nani and David Silva.

The 25-year-old did not actually have a direct hand in Palace’s goal for their 1-0 victory at Bramall Lane, but his two goals in the reverse fixture on Tuesday were superbly taken in their 3-2 win — with a thumping strike from outside the box to complement a delicate, acrobatic finish in the six-yard box.

Likewise, Olise had not recovered from injury in time to play in August’s fixture but continues to shine bright alongside Eze whenever he takes to the field. Olise’s goal and two assists made it seven assists in the Premier League to Eze — the joint-most from a Palace player for a team-mate in the top flight. The sight of both players leaving the game early with more injuries was an understandably concerning sight for Palace fans.

Unfortunately for Sheffield United, the outcome of Tuesday’s game was as predictable as it was on the opening day. No side has lost more Premier League games than the Blades’ 16 this season and they are still one point shy of Derby’s Premier League record low points total of 11.

Both sides are having seasons that are probably turning out as expected, but that doesn’t mean they are particularly enjoyable.

Mark Carey

Manchester United vs Wolves 

While Thursday’s clash had a different flow to the summer opener, the thread that connects both of these games was clear — late drama.

In August, it was the absence of a Wolves goal that caused the controversy. Gary O’Neil’s men repeatedly danced through the centre of the pitch with little challenge as they exposed United’s midfield on too many occasions for Erik ten Hag’s liking.

Their impressive display was underpinned by their 23 shots being the second-highest tally from a Premier League away side at Old Trafford in recorded history (since 2003-04).

Somehow, they didn’t convert any of them.

After Raphael Varane put United ahead, a chance for an equaliser was unfairly dismissed by the referee after goalkeeper Andre Onana crashed into Sasa Kalajdzic in the penalty area in the dying moments of the game — a decision that PGMOL chief Howard Webb later admitted was an error by the officials.

Fast forward to January, and there was similar late heartbreak for Wolves.

After clawing their way back from 3-1 to 3-3 in the 96th minute, O’Neil must have felt a sense of justice that his side were going to take at least one point for their efforts across the two fixtures — even if United had the better of the chances at Molineux.

However, Kobbie Mainoo’s delicious finish in the 98th minute inflicted further misery on Wolves in this fixture.

O’Neil must be scratching his head on how his side have come away with nothing across the two games with United.

Mark Carey

Manchester City vs Burnley

5-0, 5-0, 5-0, 2-0… 3-1.

Could Burnley’s latest Premier League result at the Etihad Stadium — the first time that they have scored against Manchester City in eight attempts — represent progress?

In any other season, potentially, but their (slightly) healthier display at the home of the champions will do little to lift the mood for Vincent Kompany’s side, now seven points adrift of safety after a concerning 4-0 win for Luton against Brighton. Burnley need to start turning decent displays into victories, like their relegation rivals, and fast.

Rewind to the opening game of the Premier League season — the first league meeting between Kompany and Pep Guardiola — and there was talk of a potential upset.

Burnley’s 101-point season in the Championship and a confident, possession brand of football left many wondering if this ultra-progressive approach would see the club slip seamlessly back into the top flight, but their first attempt to play a Premier League team at their own game has really summed up their season since.

City won the game by three goals to nil, as Burnley put up a respectable fight in the possession stakes, but created precious little at the sharp end of the pitch. Registering just 0.32 on the expected goals front, it would be the first time of 12 such occasions this season, and the first of 15 defeats.

As for Guardiola’s side, well they’re still pretty good. 

Erling Haaland’s brace on the opening day foretold another strong season, Rodri’s exhibition — he scored in both games against Burnley this season — was an accurate marker for another dominant campaign.

Burnley will probably go down. Manchester City will probably win the league. We should have seen it coming in August.

Thom Harris

Tottenham vs Brentford 

Tottenham surprised us on the opening day. Not with the result — a third consecutive draw away to Brentford since their promotion — but the manner in which they dominated a notoriously tricky game.

It was the first test of the Ange Postecoglou era and no one knew quite what to expect after an encouraging pre-season, but Spurs’ adventurous use of their full-backs set the tone straight away.

261 passes in the attacking third was the most that Tottenham had registered in over four years in the Premier League, as Emerson Royal and Destiny Udogie pushed high and the pacy centre-back pairing of Davinson Sanchez and Mickey van de Ven gave us a first glimpse of Postecoglou’s now-infamous high line.

171 days on, and with a bit more time to figure out their shape-shifting hosts, Brentford arrived at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium a different team themselves, rocking up with a certain Ivan Toney back among their ranks. And for 45 minutes at least, it looked as if they had Spurs in the palm of their hands.

But this Brentford side have experienced frustrations that no other iteration of Thomas Frank’s team have ever faced. Scoring almost eight goals fewer than their expected numbers would suggest that they should have, while conceding nine goals more at the opposite end, Brentford let this game slip in a manner unimaginable in clinical seasons gone by.

Their four-game unbeaten run against Spurs came to an end this week. A two-game winning streak against Manchester City is on the line next.

Thom Harris

West Ham United vs Bournemouth 

One of just two games, alongside Arsenal’s 2-1 win at Nottingham Forest, to have a repeat scoreline of the opening day.

While the spoils were shared, the flow of the game highlighted West Ham’s underlying issues and Bournemouth’s clear improvement. It is now five games winless in all competitions for West Ham, the second time this season they have had a run of at least four without a win. Their form has been patchy, twice winning three in a row and with a streak of four wins too. The absences of Lucas Paqueta (injured) and Vladimir Coufal (suspended) meant West Ham’s wide creativity, usually a super-strength, was limited, and their equaliser was a penalty won from a Mohammed Kudus dribble.

Bournemouth’s high pressing has been a feature under Andoni Iraola and been a big part of their resurgence. They won just one of their first 11 games, but since then have won six out of 10 and only lost against ‘Big Six’ opposition.

Bournemouth in the Premier League, 23-24

Metric First 11 games Last 10 games













Their high press led to the opening goal at the London Stadium, with Ryan Christie forcing on-loan Kalvin Phillips into a mis-hit pass, which Dominic Solanke seized on for his 13th league goal of the season.

It was their eighth high turnover ending in a goal — the most in the Premier League.

“We didn’t know when to press or when to drop,” Solanke said earlier this season, “but now it is second nature as the manager has gone through it many times.”

West Ham may be higher than Bournemouth in the table but it’s clear which club has progressed the most since the opening weekend of the season.

Liam Tharme

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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