How many games does it take to draw a semi-accurate English Premier League (EPL) picture? Five? Ten? Twenty?
Perhaps a more pertinent question is: Are we too hasty to draw conclusions from limited and incomplete evidence? Of course we are, but we’ll continue to do so anyway because that’s the nature of the sport.
Staring at the league table for inspiration is a trippy experience. Firstly, it looks a bit wonky; secondly, it’s largely an accurate ranking of each side’s preparation and overall cohesiveness; and, last but not least, it’s not inconceivable that anyone could remain exactly where they are.
Take Saturday’s battle of the bottom, a game that encapsulates all of the above points. Watford and Wolves were two radiant lights of endeavour last term; now they don’t have seven points to rub together between them. What seemed to be a credible foundation built by two exciting managers has now crumbled amid the unpredictability of the competition.
One has already gotten the sack.
Quique Sánchez Flores, stepping back into the Hornets hotseat vacated by Javi Gracia, is tasked with building it all back up again. The project looked to be ahead of schedule as Arsenal were played off the park in 45 brilliant second-half minutes. Then Bernardo Silva decided to kick the scaffolding from underneath them and left the effort in tatters.
Flores’s counterpart this weekend may have more time before he’s sent to the hangman but in this league nothing’s indefinite.
Nuno Espírito Santo’s Wolves have misplaced their bite in the early weeks and have looked lame against almost everyone they’ve come up against. The go-to defence is the curse of the Europa League, but another plausible point is that all tactics, no matter how spunky, have an expiry date if not jigged around a little.
In an amusing exchange in July, Nuno made it clear that’s something he’s reluctant to do.
“Everybody knows how we play; everybody can see. It is the most important thing, an identity,” he said. “When things don’t go so well, what are you gonna grab? Stick to it. It is like Coca-Cola, they never change the recipe. Diet, full sugar, no caffeine, maybe. But the recipe is always there.”
Relegation may not be an immediate fear for either of these sides but dropping points could see their ambitions at the other end of the table sail away.
Together with Everton — who have been equally disappointing — Wolves were supposed to be the “top six” challengers we were promised. It seemed their destiny to disrupt the hierarchy.
Instead, so far it’s fallen to West Ham, Leicester City and Bournemouth to challenge for the top spots. The former two in particular are looking impressive and have appeared to be the better teams when matched with those they seek to dethrone.
Indeed, the “top six” seems as arbitrary a term as ever. Chelsea have pretty much written off the season and adopted a stoic, come-what-may attitude. Tottenham Hotspur are listless, while Manchester United and Arsenal are full value for what is figuratively — and pretty much literally — a mid-table clash on Monday evening.
So, are the Premier League standings lying to us? It’s really hard to make the argument that they are. The Hammers’ victory over United had an inescapable feeling of routine to it.
Manuel Pellegrini’s team weren’t some plucky underdogs that gave every iota of effort they had. They simply went about their task diligently and by following their game plan were able to overcome their more illustrious opponents. Their play represented an instinctive understanding that the side across from them were merely their peers.
Across the league, games like that seem to have become the rule rather than the exception.