2019 Premier League Opening Weekend Diary
“A season has a story, and there are different chapters, but without a first word you cannot start,” said Jurgen Klopp a day before Liverpool’s opening season match against Norwich City, refocusing the narrative from his side’s lack of transfer activity back to to the field. Though even with the early closing of the Premier League summer window that leads straight into the season, it’s never actually closed until clubs have their say: Alex Iwobi’s transfer to Everton was cleared a full two hours after the deadline. The 23-year-old Iwobi, who had been with Arsenal since 2004, sent an emotional goodbye over social media cherishing his final goal in a Europa League loss last season. The very next day was the business of opening kickoff, with no more room for emotions.
Everton manager Marco Silva focused instead on Iwobi’s direct, skillful wingplay before turning his attention on how center backs are currently the most overpriced position in the transfer market. It was appropriate that Iwobi link Everton and Arsenal, with each side rebuilding their attack centered around directness on the wing. 19-year-old Moise Kean joined Iwobi at Everton. Club record signing Nicolas Pepe and left back Kieran Tierney added a forward mentality to Unai Emery’s side. While the Premier League has always emphasized transitions, there is the added wrinkle that many of 2019’s newest imports into the league specialized in creating changes from wide.
In his second season with Arsenal, Unai Emery has already adapted to the sense of place and positioning within the Premier League. He’s divided the top positions between City and Liverpool, with Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Manchester United battling for the final two Champions League places. That battle for the secondary Champions League places will shape the future of each side and manager. And with the European places already seemingly decided, how does a side without competitive financial resources find optimism and hope ahead of the new season?
Liverpool, in contrast to club record signings from Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United, spent a total of just over $2 million this summer, on a 17-year-old center back who may not see first team action for a couple seasons.
Klopp implored that his side would continue to improve without new names. Supporters tried to drum up their own excitement in how Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return from injury and Naby Keita’s adaptation to the league would both be “like new signings.” The quiet summer was by design, not a lack of imagination, as Liverpool enters a distinctly third era under Klopp. He used his initial cache to get rid of players who didn’t fit his style, then bought foundational players like Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk, and Alisson. With the talent taken care of, Klopp shifted his mentality from purchasing to molding as he wants the group naturally grow together through their mid-to-late 20’s. He pointed at past Manchester United and Barcelona teams in emphasizing continuity over transfer headlines, reminding us good teams “stay together for a number of years.”
If Klopp is heavy metal, then Norwich City’s Daniel Farke appointed his rebellious style as rock and roll. He insisted that Norwich City would come out and be proactive against the European Champions, emphasizing that they won’t sit back and pray for deflected set piece goals. That ambition was grand, fueled by the hope of a new season where Norwich played to their audience and signed one player for $900,000 (Sam Byram may be an answer to a trivia question one day). Farke admitted that his side are the favorite not only to get relegated, but to finish in last place, though it seems he relishes being overlooked. The manager said he looked forward to doing things his own way and “breaking more rules” in the Premier League.
That rebellious, underdog spirit can inspire a fanbase in preseason, though reality hit hard when Liverpool went up 3-0 within the opening half hour on their way to a 4-1 win. Judging by the result, the $900,000 summer spend was no longer a defiant stance against mainstream Premier League clubs, but instead looked reckless and naive. Spending loads of money may temper one’s rock and roll attitude, but it will get results.
Even Pep Guardiola continued to spend, purchasing Rodri and Joao Cancelo for a combined $153 million. Klopp threw an early jab in which he described Manchester City as living in a “fantasia land” of nine-figure transfer windows every summer. Guardiola defended the purchases, going back to manager basics in turning the conversation to a side’s net spend. But in making Guardiola run through the minutiae of how City only “bought one player this summer [Rodri] and paid the buyback clause for Angelino,” Klopp won an early battle.
Guardiola, like Klopp, instead stressed internal improvement when asked if Manchester City could win their third consecutive title. Noting that his side are still hungry even with their talent and financial advantage, he spoke of the folly of thinking about winning the Premier League title in the opening weekend. The start of the season is the time for storylines and personalities to shape the season. Sometime in March, which is when City beat Liverpool 2-1 to reduce their rival’s lead at the top of the table to four points last season, is the time to turn on one’s title ambitions.
City’s 5-0 opening weekend win over West Ham put them on top of the table due to goal difference. Though the dominant result wasn’t the focal point as Guardiola tossed out a wrinkle in saying that VAR will change the emotional dynamic of Premier League matches for both players and supporters. In taking away what would have been a comfortable 3-0 scoreline, Gabriel Jesus became the first player in Premier League history to get a goal waived off due to video review. The Spanish manager emphasized the importance of a player’s ability to remain calm and control their emotions in the moments following a review. And despite being on the end of the wrong end of a retaken penalty due to VAR, Mauricio Pellegrini admitted that video review would ultimately result in fairer matches.
Chelsea’s 4-0 loss in their opener against Manchester United in Frank Lampard’s managerial debut was cruel. In a different Premier League life, he could have eased his way into the league against a midtable side, adjusting his diamond-midfield tactics without getting punished for goals. At least that’s what Jose Mourinho, already in midseason form in saying that Manchester City’s B team could win the Premier League, thought so in criticizing the inexperience of his former midfielder’s team selection at the expense of “the possibility to play with more know-how.” Lampard, taking a page from Mourinho, fired back that he doesn’t listen to pundits.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer experienced the rising price for center backs first-hand in a record transfer for Harry Maguire. Though with one eye towards his own job security, stressed that his side were still in development. Solskjaer added that this season is “not about a quick fix, it’s a longer rebuild.” The overpowering nature of the 4-0 win, with goals coming from Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Daniel James, was not exactly what he needed in lowering expectations for the upcoming season.
Overreactions define the opening weekend in any sport. It is the first time we, the audience, turn preseason tactical theories and hopes of a young player translating their preseason dominance into regular season minutes into the reality of the tried and tested veteran players with “know-how” grinding out results weekend after weekend. Though we can learn from Farke, who not only refused to be dissuaded after his side’s 4-1 loss, but doubled down in saying “I’m totally in love with this team.” There was no hint at a move to pragmatism, saying that his side’s only failure was in their overeagerness to be the first team to win at Anfield in over two years. A manager already knows their side’s personality and subsequent destiny. In that sense, the 38 game season can be seen as a test of will - how close a team can get to their true selves, or if they panic under pressure and change. The next nine months reveals character as much as builds it.