If you looked at the Premier League table without any context, you would be forgiven for thinking that English football had entered a time warp, landing back in some kind of ‘bonus’ 1980s campaign, in which a smattering of the decade’s most successful sides are battling it out for top spot.
A top three of Everton, Aston Villa and Liverpool wouldn’t have been out of place then – albeit when Villa were Champions, Everton were still languishing down in 15th, and when the Toffees won the league in ‘85, the Villains had fallen to 10th.
But alas no, we’re very much living in 2020, perhaps the strangest year planet earth has faced since the second World War – and football has very much followed suit.
We saw a final four in the Champions League consisting of two sides with a combined existence of just 61 years, Juventus appoint a manager who had just nine days worth of managerial experience, and Lionel Messi try to force a move away from Barcelona, after suffering an unprecedented 8-2 defeat in Europe to Bayern Munich.
Now, the Premier League is up to its old tricks again. With just 48 days separating the end of the 2019/20 campaign and the start of the 2020/21 season (almost half of the 89 days given to 18/19), clubs have had shorter, less refined pre-seasons than normal, with some teams playing just two friendlies before the Premier League’s kick-off.
This has no doubt affected preparations going into this term, with managers having less time than usual to implement new tactics and system changes, as well as trying to integrate new players during a particularly difficult transfer window.
It’s not just the bizarre early season table that will catch the eye, though, with a series of freak results sending vibrations throughout world football.
On opening day, newly promoted Leeds went toe-to-toe with Liverpool at Anfield, only to cruelly lose 4-3, before Marcelo Bielsa’s men beat Fulham by the same scoreline a week later. Also that weekend, Crystal Palace defeated Manchester United 3-1 at Old Trafford, whilst Spurs ran out 5-2 winners away to Southampton on the Sunday afternoon.
These bonkers results pointed towards a few things, but perhaps most notably the lack of fans. It seems that without fans, teams traveling away from home have far less fear, and far more confidence. After the first five gameweeks, we have seen 93 goals scored by away sides, compared to just 66 last season, with two less games played so far.
Other eye-catching results included Spurs’ 6-1 demolition of Manchester United, both Chelsea and West Ham coming from three goals down at half-time to draw 3-3 against West Brom and Tottenham respectively, as well as Leicester embarrassing Manchester City at the Etihad by five goals to two, and Aston Villa’s pumping of Liverpool in a 7-2 hammering.
To best surmise this point, only Everton, Aston Villa and Sheffield United are yet to ship at least three goals in a game, with 12 sides shipping three or more goals in multiple matches.
So, what does all this mean? Well, it would appear the Premier League is more open than ever for a team(s) to do something special, but only time will tell how long that window will remain ajar for.
Over the past two seasons, the league has been dominated by Liverpool and Manchester City, with the pair holding incredibly high standards throughout. Liverpool romped to the league last season, but Manchester City’s 81 points would have won them the title in seven other seasons.
Likewise, Liverpool’s monstrous runners-up total in 2018/19 of 97 points would have been enough to win the league in all but three seasons – including their 2019/20 exploits.
But this season has proved more of a challenge for the two juggernauts, with City currently sitting 11th (albeit with a game in hand on most teams in the league), and whilst Liverpool are third, they have already conceded 13 goals in just five games, a total reached after 15 games last season.
Both teams will almost certainly improve, but both are missing key players through injury, with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Virgil van Dijk missing – two players who proved pivotal in both sides’ lofty standards – meaning it may take a little longer than expected for the two to be battling it out at the top again.
Take a step back from the Premier League, though, and you’ll notice that none of the other top five European leagues – as well as Scotland, Turkey, Holland or Portugal – are topped by the current reigning champions.
Elsewhere, Manchester United are hiccuping their way through the early season, whilst Frank Lampard’s new-look and very expensive Chelsea side are struggling to gel and are showing the same defensive frailties that dogged them at times last season.
This is what the neutral wants the Premier League to be – open, full of optimism and a division where anyone can beat anyone. Maybe, after three seasons of Mancunian and Liverpudlian domination, it’s time for somebody else to step up and set the bar, but of course, only time will tell.
Whilst the return of fans seems to drift further and further away each week, and with the Champions/Europa League starting up again, perhaps the issues that have hindered the biggest sides in the league so far could well remain for a little while longer, all whilst some of the more unfancied sides take full advantage.
On Friday Night Football, Aston Villa host Leeds, with a chance for the home side to top the Premier League table for the first time in nine years, or their newly promoted visitors could enter Champions League places in this frenetic early season table.
If not Villa, Everton will most likely top the Premier League for a third successive gameweek, as Carlo Ancelotti appears to be working his magic again on Merseyside.
To add to the two early pacesetters, despite suffering defeats, both Wolves and Leicester are enjoying some early season promise, whilst Arsenal’s only two losses have come at the hands of Liverpool and Manchester City.
Down at the other end of the table, last season’s surprise package Sheffield United and Sean Dyche’s normally impressive Burnley are both winless and currently sit in the bottom three, whilst Manchester United are sat 15th with a minus three goal difference, and without a home point so far this season.
One would imagine the Premier League table will level out and return to some sort of normality over the next month or so, but it would be difficult to suggest there won’t be at least one team who shock us all – whether or not that’s at the right end of the table remains to be seen.
This should prove to be the Premier League’s most exciting season for a while. Whether it’s a new team gate-crashing the sacred ‘top six’ again, an unexpected Champions League entry, another unprecedented Leicester fairy tale or the awakening of a sleeping giant – let’s just hope those teams who are making early headway dare to dream.