The Briefing: PL era of entertainment, Southgate’s selection maze, bleak for bottom three


Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday during this season The Athletic will discuss three of the biggest questions to arise from the weekend’s football.

This was the weekend when Chelsea’s start to life under Mauricio Pochettino stumbled again, Tottenham Hotspur pulverised Burnley, Newcastle United slumped to their third defeat in a row and Mohamed Salah briefly became a footballer again, rather than a walking piece of transfer speculation.

Here, we will ask whether this is the most enjoyable time to be a Premier League watcher, if Gareth Southgate will throw caution to the wind with his attacking options, and worry for the three newly promoted sides…

Are we in the age of fun in the Premier League?

Sometimes you can forget that all of this is supposed to be fun.

It doesn’t feel like it a lot of the time, particularly when you pay as close attention to the machinations of football as much as we do. But then you get a game that pulls you out of all that and reminds you to strip all the extraneous stuff away, and just enjoy it all.

A game like Arsenal versus Manchester United on Sunday, in fact.

Rashford scores for United (Shaun Botterill/.)

United did their best to play spoilers, particularly in the first half, but even they couldn’t help but contribute to this frantic basketball match in disguise. It was end-to-end, free-flowing, slightly unhinged, not very controlled a lot of the time — everything a neutral wants to see. There wasn’t a fight or a ‘disgraceful incident’ of some description, but you can’t have everything.

In fact, most of the big Premier League games are like that now. Just this season Tottenham versus United, Liverpool vs Newcastle and Chelsea vs Liverpool (well, the first half at least) have all been fairly breathless affairs, giving us neutrals something to get giddy over. Only Manchester City vs Newcastle was a bit of a dud, broadly because City controlled it without too much bother, but even then there was the individual performance of Phil Foden to marvel over.

It’s been like this for a little while, too. Gone are the days when you puffed your cheeks out at the prospect of another Chelsea vs Liverpool game and turned the TV on out of grim duty, rather than excited anticipation.

Maybe it’s got something to do with the managers. Most of the big clubs now are led by men who prioritise attacking football, in one way or another. Erik ten Hag is possibly the exception, but of the teams who will be competing for the top four, we have Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mikel Arteta, Ange Postecoglou, Eddie Howe and Mauricio Pochettino. Then just outside that group, there’s Roberto De Zerbi at Brighton and Unai Emery at Aston Villa. Hell, even David Moyes’s West Ham are dancing like nobody’s watching this season.

Newcastle have their moments of playing like Sean Dyche-era Burnley, but they scored 68 goals last season and their four games so far this term have featured 14, so you’d struggle to call them dull.

It’s true elsewhere, too. Only two teams kept a clean sheet this weekend: Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Arguably only the latter played ‘defensively’, and even then it worked, with their 1-0 win at Chelsea. The 10 Premier League games featured 41 goals; it’s not quite Boxing Day 1961, which saw 66, but it’s not bad.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that this will be just the third season since 2003-04 and the first since 2011-12 when none of Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Rafa Benitez will be in charge of a Premier League club. This is not to say those managers were not capable of putting on a watchable game, just that they prioritised defence and control. The current crop might enjoy control too, but it’s more attacking and also features a dollop of chaos.

This is not intended to be a marketing spiel for the Premier League, which needs no help in bigging itself up. But the football itself is, for the most part, great fun, which at a time when a lot of stories surrounding the game are not, is more important than ever.

Southgate’s selection headaches

As a rule, people — fans, the media, pundits — think about international football in a very different way than international managers.

Our opinions tend to be governed by club form: if a player is doing well domestically they should do well internationally, ergo they should be in the national team. That’s why there’s always a generalised frothing on social media whenever the latest England squad is announced: “If Southgate can’t see that Player X deserves a place, he should be SACKED”. That sort of thing.

Bellingham scored a late winner for Real Madrid against Getafe on Saturday (Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/.)

Southgate thinks more of England as a self-contained entity: if you do well for him, it doesn’t matter massively if you’re doing badly for your club. It was essentially why he didn’t pick players like Raheem Sterling for the upcoming games against Ukraine and Scotland: England scored 11 goals in two games the last time they played, so why make big changes?

All that said, he’s got a few very interesting decisions to make in this international break. James Maddison is in the form of his life in midfield for a brilliant, attacking Tottenham side: Southgate has picked him in two of England’s last three games, but off the left alongside Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka, rather than in the advanced role he’s been excelling in so far.

Then there’s Jude Bellingham, who has five goals from four games and has been winning games on his own for Real Madrid, basically playing as a No 10. Throw in Kane, Saka and Marcus Rashford, who to one extent or another have all started the season very well, and there’s a plethora of brilliant attacking options available to Southgate.

He’s generally a pretty pragmatic manager, prioritising solidity in defence. And given his record with England, he might well be right.

But true pragmatism is actually just making the best of the resources available. This is a moment when England not only have all these terrific attackers, but all of them are playing near the top of their form. It would be wonderful if Southgate took the handbrake off just a little bit.

Is it looking bleak for the three promoted teams?

Sheffield United picked up their first point of the season on Saturday. And it wasn’t just their first point: it was the first point won by any of the three promoted clubs, with Luton and Burnley having lost their first three games, as did the Blades.

The last time none of the three promoted clubs won any of their first three games was in 2004-05, when Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace collected six points between them, all draws. The only other time was in 1993-94, when Newcastle, West Ham and Swindon Town only managed two draws. Never before in the 31 previous Premier League seasons have the promoted trio failed to get a single point from their first three games.

Luton manager Rob Edwards has his work cut out already (David Rogers/.)

In other words: for the collected promoted clubs, this is the worst opening to a season in the history of the Premier League.

The flaws in all three are relatively clear. Luton’s squad is basically an excellent collection of Championship players, just in the wrong division. Sheffield United sold their two best players and didn’t replace them until the season had started. Burnley look like they’re trying to do exactly what they did to get promoted, with only slightly better players but against much better opposition, which isn’t working so far. They will have to find a way of winning that doesn’t involve dominating possession, pronto.

This is not to write them all off already: it’s far too early for that. Sheffield United showed some promise against Everton. Luton can be extremely awkward and will probably pick up a few points simply by being a pain in the arse to face. Burnley could grow into it, and have been given an extremely tricky start to the season — Manchester City, Aston Villa and Tottenham — even if they were all at home.

But the only season in Premier League history when all three promoted teams have gone straight back down was 1997-98. You fear that 2023-24 has a chance of being the second.

Coming up

  • Thought the transfer window was over? Think again! English clubs still have the chance to offload their unwanted players to Belgium (window closes on September 6), Greece (September 11), Turkey (September 15) and a few other European countries. Happy deadwood week!
  • The other big one is, of course, Saudi Arabia, whose clubs are permitted to recruit new players until September 7. The big continuing rumour is of course whether Al Ittihad will succeed in their very persistent attempts to recruit Salah, but there will be others too, no doubt.
  • England are in action: they will face Ukraine in Wroclaw, Poland on Saturday in a Euro 2024 qualifier, then a friendly at Hampden Park against Scotland next Tuesday, September 12.
  • The pick of the other internationals sees France face the Republic of Ireland, an extremely spicy local affair between Turkey and Armenia, Luciano Spalletti takes charge of his first Italy game as they face North Macedonia, the side who prevented them from qualifying for the World Cup, and next week Germany will face France in a friendly.

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