Rented A Nice Villa
What with an American election and Leicester sitting top of the Premier League, there has been a lot of 2016 revivalism in the past few days. Back then the idea of the Foxes winning the title seemed extraordinary. Should they hang on this season it would be less of a surprise and possibly more of a comfort.
Less fondly remembered is the side that ended 2015/16 rock bottom of the Premier League: Aston Villa. Derby County and Sunderland tend to dominate nostalgia about terrible top-flight seasons but Villa, who went through three managers that season, ended with 27 goals and only 17 points, a mere 22 points from safety.
Fast forward to November 2020 and Villa have 15 points from their first seven games, so can surpass the whole of 2015/16 in only their eighth game. It’s the club’s best points haul after seven games since 2001/02 and the first time they’ve won five games this early since 1998/99 when the club were early pacesetters under guitar hero John Gregory.
It’s a better record than Villa had after seven games in 1980/81 (W4 D1 L2), when they went on to win the league. Only one midlands club has been champions of England since then, but Villa only have to glance up at the top of the Premier League to know that it can still be done.
There’s a strong argument that football pundits should only make judgements once a fortnight, such is the back and forth unpredictability of the season so far. One week ago, Arsenal and Mikel Arteta were riding high, having masterminded a technically impressive away win at Old Trafford. Eight days on and the Gunners will have to navigate the international break as the Premier League’s crisis club. Four wins and four defeats from eight games is a neat encapsulation of how inconsistent they have been, and while they are mid-table in literal table terms, in an attacking sense the club are struggling almost like never before.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang played 90 minutes against Villa and didn’t have a single shot, the first time that has happened to him in a Premier League home game, and the robotic malaise that has set in can be seen in the lack of shots they’ve had in second halves this season. Indeed, if you take all 92 clubs in the top four divisions this season, no club has had as few second-half attempts as Arsenal (33).
It was one of the easiest clean sheets Emi Martinez has ever recorded at the Emirates, and the goalkeeper who Arsenal sold to Villa in September has now kept more of them there this season than Bernd Leno, who has the actual advantage of playing there every other week.
Don’t Mind The Gap
One of the outcomes from the Premier League’s unpredictability this season is the squashed nature of the table. Leicester in first are separated from Leeds in 15th by only eight points. At the same point last season there were 16 points between first (Liverpool) and 15th (Villa). In 2018/19 it was 13 points, in 2017/18 it was 14, in 2016/17 it was 12. In fact, it hasn’t been in single digits at this point since 2000/01 when, neatly, Leicester were top with 16 and Everton were 15th on eight. That’s the only previous time in Premier League history that the table has been this crunched up after eight rounds of games, although egality experts may recall it happened five times between 1979 and 1984.
And while the division may slowly spring back into some sort of sinister Big Six formation over the coming weeks and months, at the moment we’re experiencing the sort of season we were told couldn’t happen anymore.
The lesson? Don’t second guess football, because it will make you look a fool.
Which was the most terrible penalty miss this weekend? Was it Ademola Lookman’s soft play centre Panenka, a penalty so slow that Łukasz Fabianski was able to protect two points for his club while sitting down like someone who was just feeling a little bit tired? Or was it Kevin De Bruyne’s attempt for Manchester City against Liverpool, the first spot-kick to entirely miss the goal and goalframe since Riyad Mahrez did so for the same team against the same opponents two years ago?
For a season still heading towards 200 penalties, these were two of the most memorable failures for some time. And they were narrative changing penalties too, because imagine they had gone in, as I am sure both Lookman and De Bruyne have done, and you are envisaging a season where there is a historically high Premier League penalty conversion rate of 88% and people are asking things like “hey are penalties too easy behind closed doors?” Instead, for the time being, 2020/21 has slipped down to 83%, just below 2013/14’s current record of 84%. It may not please Lookman and KDB but, essentially, they were unknowingly operating to make the universe more normal, and that should be applauded.
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