Sport, much like many aspects of modern life in 2014, is increasingly about instant gratification. Compose a well-crafted, funny 140-character dispatch? Immediately scan to see how many times it’s been re-tweeted. Unhappy with the results of a reality television competition? Rush off to Facebook to lodge your anger with the rest of the world. Post a cool #Selfie? Your mood sinks if it doesn’t receive a few orange digital hearts within seconds of being uploaded to Instagram.
Mind, that’s not how everyone’s brain functions, but it does apply to a lot of people caught up in the web of social media.
Using this framing is how I looked at the 2014-15 Barclay’s Premier League (EPL) first round of games, which commenced Saturday morning. The tendency here is to rush to judgement and try to form sweeping opinions based off 90 minutes of mid-August club soccer. That’s especially true this weekend in America with a) many new fans curious to watch the EPL thanks to the World Cup earlier this summer and b) the fact we’re still a few weeks away from gridiron football — college and NFL — dominating our weekend television sports viewing patterns.
These simple statistics serve as a sobering reminder that the EPL, while fun and full of competitive matches and compelling results, doesn’t conclude until May 24. After this weekend, 97 percent of the league is left to play, Monday’s Burnley/Chelsea match notwitstanding.
And on the subject of instant gratification, the 10-month, 38-game grind of EPL season lends itself to some very strange payoffs each week for fans. Take Liverpool and Arsenal — both teams with realistic ambitions of winning the league and, at worst, finishing in the Top Four. Both clubs won, Arsenal needing a stoppage time tap-in from Aaron Ramsey to beat manager-less Crystal Palace 2-1, while Liverpool needed a late goal to best Southampton 2-1 at Anfield.
Yes, the in immediate seconds following each winning goal there was some temporary euphoria for fans of either clubs. Once those feelings wore off, the elation morphed into a sense of relief: we’re expected to win these games. For a team hoping to win a title, there is little joy to be had outside a few fleeting moments, in August. For the contenders and their fans, it’s always on to the next one, trying to pile up three points in the bank each week. There isn’t a playoff to fall back like in North American sports if things go wrong. You’re only as good as your record and will be punished for taking a week off. In turn it produces a lot of nervy 90 minutes on early Saturday and Sunday mornings, followed only by a sense of mild relief or, if the result doesn’t go your way, six days of lingering frustration.
At the extreme end of this equation is defending league champion Manchester City, which barely broke a sweat in a 2-0 win at St. James’ Park vs. Newcastle United, making it nothing more than another ho-hum result for fans who’ve kept their eyes on the bigger picture.
By the same token, take a team like newly promoted Leicester City. There are zero expectations for the Foxes this year. If the club doesn’t end up in the bottom three and relegated, champagne corks will be popped, prompting a celebration. In turn, fans of Leicester can celebrate each point gained– take Saturday’s late draw with Everton — like they’ve won the league. Each result for a team like this is a precious joy. True, Leicester and its fans are never going to win the league, but they can have fun in this pressure-free setting … at least until the relegation picture becomes much clearer in 2015.
So allow this to serve as a reminder it’s a long, loooooooooong season in club soccer before we determine a winner.
If you’re a newfound American fan from the World Cup, buckle up and enjoy the rollercoaster ride of emotions in your stomach each weekend. Chin up, we get to do this 37 more times. Pass the Pepto.
Round 1 Kneejerk reactions:
Yes, it’s silly to make projections off one league game. However, a player who makes an impression in week one is going to build up more goodwill and trust in the fans since so many people are tuned in to watch, compared to someone putting in a good shift in the middle of October.
* Confusing: multiple tweets/reports said Newcastle United looked “good” losing 2-0 to City, yet the Magpies didn’t register a shot on goal.
* Give it until September, but Fernando’s strong debut for City will trigger a slate of columns that the “Makélélé role” is back into vogue.
* Last season Liverpool benefited from missing out on the Champions League and keeping its key players much fresher via a lower game log. The Reds caught a break this year thanks to Big Phil Scolari deeming Philippe Coutinho unworthy of Brazil’s World Cup squad. As we’ve seen players who played in Brazil are being eased back with extreme caution (ie Arsenal’s German contingent). Meanwhile Coutinho enters the new season fresh as a daisy and looking like a star player in whatever formation Brendan Rodgers wants to use in a given week.
* Why he was playing center forward in the 90th+ minute is anyone’s guess, but Tottenham actually might have done some smart, savvy business signing 20-year-old English defender Eric Dier from Sporting in Portugal. How good will Dier be long term? Impossible to say, but given the premium clubs are paying for a) central defenders and b) English players, $6.5 million on Dier might be a coup, something you rarely say at White Hart Lane.
* Leicester City’s home uniforms looked exactly like Everton’s, not a problem … except the home game of the year it hosts Everton. (Of course it pales in comparison to Aston Villa, Burnley and West Ham each using a variant of claret and blue, but I digress.)
* American international Geoff Cameron wasn’t in the 18 for Stoke City’s 1-0 loss to Aston Villa. Cameron made 37 league starts for the Potters last season, so his exclusion for Phil Bardsley at right back is a surprise. Manager Mark Hughes said it was a break due to playing in the World Cup knockout stages — almost seven weeks ago, at this point. There was a report earlier this month that numerous clubs were looking to sign the 29-year-old. However it shakes out, it’s something to watch until the window closes in early September.
A quick word on Manchester United:
No matter what result Manchester United lodged this weekend in the season curtain-raiser vs. Swansea City at Old Trafford it was going to trigger a slate of hyperbolic columns one way or the other. If United won and or impressed, everyone would write Louis van Gaal has the Red Devils, “back.” Since United lost 2-1 — looking fairly limp in the process — the narrative has turned toward van Gaal’s hunt for “better players.” Why it took him nearly two months to figure out Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera weren’t enough, is anyone’s guess.
Yes, on paper, fielding an attacking trident of a (healthy) Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata would be the envy of most other teams. That sort of talent can mask a lot of other issues, like trying to play Ashley Young as a wingback requiring defensive tracking back and marking. Van Gaal started youngster Jesse Lingard at the other wing back position. Fortunately for Lingard, nothing disgusting landed in his mouth like Young, but he didn’t exactly impress. That’s the tight rope supposed “genius” van Gaal walks: if Lingard stars, everyone bows to the Dutchman; if he struggles all LVG has to do is say he needs more players.
United’s three-man central defensive partnership is also counting on Jonny Evans as its best player. Yes, the level of central defending is deteriorating, but considering Evans as a “star” is a Rubicon I don’t exactly want to cross.
United needed more players in the midfield and defense before the loss to Swansea and still need them today. Granted, the Netherlands deep run into the World Cup played a part here, but for the second straight summer United is leaving its transfer dealing right up until the end, a stark contrast to its rivals which took care of transfer business quickly. If nothing else, expect Daley Blind to make the move from Ajax to Old Trafford, solving at least part of the problem.
How its done:
Newcastle United offered up this classy pregame tribute to Liam Sweeney and John Alder, Mapgies fans who were killed on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Fans should be applauded for moments like this, not for running onto the field like a moron and trying to take a free kick at we saw Saturday.
Goal of Week: Nathaniel Clyne vs. Liverpool
Dusan Tadic’s backheel is better than the goal itself.