Three weeks into the Premier League campaign, the international break has presented us with an early opportunity to take stock. And while it’s far too soon to draw definitive conclusions from what we’ve seen, we must make do with what little evidence we have got.
For the prognosis looks bleak. Given the predictably furious reaction that greeted the Arsenal social media team’s tone-deaf decision to flag up a behind‑closed‑doors training ground win over Brentford this week, we can probably safely assume that any plans to release a commemorative DVD of this stirring victory have, much like any realistic aspirations of a top-four finish, been quietly shelved.
Arteta is not alone in being under fire. In the north-east, Newcastle fans remain enraged by the apparently permanent vote of total owner indifference under which Steve Bruce continues to operate as he goes about his largely uninspiring work. Although Bruce seems even more secure in his position than a Tory frontbencher caught in breach of the ministerial code, working in the face of such naked fan opprobrium can’t be much fun.
More of which anon, but we interrupt this column to bring you a mildly intriguing statistical take. With this season marking the welcome return of crowds after lockdown, top-flight footballers have unsurprisingly expressed their delight at the sight of stadium doors being thrown open. Despite their relief at having a gallery to play to, an examination of the data suggests that some of these self‑confessed showmen are finding it considerably more difficult to score goals.
After three rounds of top-flight fixtures during the season of pandemic football just gone, teams in the Premier League had served up 103 goals, compared with 85 in the corresponding rounds of the current campaign. Taken in isolation, this lower figure may be indicative of little more than a comparatively slow start this summer, but it is worth noting that in the five seasons before the pandemic, the first three rounds of fixtures delivered totals of 82, 88, 73, 72 and 77.
More in keeping with this season’s tally, these numbers go some way towards supporting the notion that at least some of those footballers who claim to be exhibitionists may be prone to bouts of performance anxiety when playing in front of an often hostile crowd. When the crowd in question comprises fans who are supposed to have your back, it should come as no great surprise.
It has long been trumpeted that football is nothing without fans and it is a tragedy that it took a pandemic to prove it. Their presence in stadiums generates the gaiety of what we now know to be an otherwise depressingly sterile match-day experience, when games were played in spooky silence punctuated by occasional angry swearing from the technical areas. With that echoey effing and jeffing now hugely amplified by the often beered-up, boisterous and occasionally abusive occupants of packed stands, it is to be expected that some players may find themselves buckling under the strain.
Few appear to have done so more than those of Arsenal, and the understandably negative energy generated by some of the Premier League’s more perennially disgruntled supporters has almost certainly helped to contribute to the kind of nervy on-field slapstick that has dogged their early season performances. Reduced to the status of comedy punchline as they sit bottom of the table, they have registered three consecutive defeats and – stirring training‑ground victories and the Carabao Cup notwithstanding – do not have so much as a goal to their name.
As Arsenal shuffle from one defeat to the next, it is probably not lost on Arteta that he is one of few top-flight managers who has not benefited from the decision to release fans back into their natural habitat.
The Spaniard doesn’t really do “forlorn” but has been working hard on the “brooding dark-eyed fury” look that almost permanently adorns his visage. Although we can only speculate that his side would be higher up the table if they were playing in front of empty stands, the callow capitulation of his players as they recently raised the white flag against the champions suggested they are a team who may prefer not to play under the scrutiny of their own or anyone else’s fans.
Although reactions to performances this early in the season fall under the category of “kneejerk”, Arteta and his similarly beleaguered Newcastle counterpart would hardly be human if they weren’t secretly dreading next Saturday’s fixtures, scheduled to come after they have had a fortnight to stew over performances that left both sets of supporters fuming.
Next up for Arsenal are Norwich at the Emirates, in a match few could have envisaged being a bona fide early-season six-pointer when the fixture list was published. Defeat for the hosts is unlikely but far from unthinkable and would almost certainly prompt open revolt from supporters who in recent years have never seemed happier than when they have something new to be extremely unhappy about.
Having surfed into St James’ Park on a tidal wave of ill will, Bruce has never really had the support of Newcastle supporters to lose, but after three poor results and a disastrous summer transfer window, he is desperately in need of a win to appease in some small way the baying Geordie hordes.
He is unlikely to get one next weekend. Before a return to his former stomping ground of Old Trafford, the one Premier League stadium where he is assured of a warm welcome because of his stellar contributions to the Manchester United cause as a player and manager of visiting opponents, this time he will travel downbeat in the knowledge that his arrival will be upstaged by that of a rather more high-profile returnee.