After a summer that saw the end of dynasties, revolution, mass spending sprees, disaster, confusion and a general sense of change, nothing this season can be predicted anywhere near as confidently as last season. Sir Alex Ferguson finally rode off into the sunset, Manchester City hired an actual football manager and launched another transfer market offensive, Chelsea brought back their prodigal son, Tottenham bought a new football team, and Arsenal signed a world-class player.
Even at the lower reaches, the spirit of reformation was alive. Sunderland hired Paolo di Canio to carry out a mass purge of an underachieving team, Newcastle United kept their manager to lay waste to their underachieving team, Southampton and Norwich City made suspiciously good buys, Cardiff City spent big, Ian Holloway returned with a real football team, Aston Villa improved drastically, Liverpool and Everton rang the changes and Stoke City replaced Tony Pulis with Mark Hughes. The hope in the hearts of the men involved shone through, and the spirit of change won out.
This weekend, the first after the annoying early international break and the first one that feels like an actual standard round of games in the Premier League, the results were laid bare for all to see. And what a sight they were.
Manchester United laboured at home against a newly-promoted side, prevailing thanks to a dodgy penalty. Manchester City and Chelsea weren't as good as they should've been and fell behind to their rivals. Everton frustrated a big side. Arsenal took the lead, surrendered it through clowncar defending, blundered through a spell of disastrous play thanks to the woodwork and some shocking refereeing decisions and stole a win. The sides that lacked narratives all drew with each other 1-1. And at Stoke City, Mark Hughes had replaced Tony Pulis.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as the chant from the home fans at the Britannia went. Same sh*t, different day, manager, players, owner, philosophy, kit, club name and official sponsor.
Are we stuck in a rut? Have club identities ingrained themselves so firmly in recent years that this is what football is going to be like for the rest of our days? Steve Sidwell's boot, stamping on a human face, forever? It's always odd how, as globalisation of the Premier League really took hold, fan identities did not diminish but rather became entrenched, as Liverpool, Arsenal, and United fans from Aceh to Alberta all somehow picked up the exact same idiosyncratic collections of paranoias, delusions and playground crushes.
Maybe now, that same process has left us with team identities that can never be destroyed. Paolo di Canio appears to be embarking on some Damned United road to hell at Sunderland, and the darker book version, not the film. Determined to install a new authoritarian regime, erasing every trace of the decadence before him. Yet despite all that, at half-time against Arsenal, Modibo Diakité asked Mesut Ozil for his shirt. What did he think was going to happen? Had he been reading the news? Does he know who his manager is? But the spirit of Wearside, the slovenly, happy-to-be-here lethargy, simply overtook even his survival instincts and forced him into the move.
People have made much of the fact that David Moyes has not had a good game yet at United. They forget that United had no standout performances domestically last year either, the only good display all year coming at the Bernabeu, and even that had the resemblance of a drunk man crossing the street by simply closing his eyes and hoping for the best. Maybe they'll never play well ever again. Maybe Ed Woodward was sent by god to frustrate and deny any seemingly routine moves to improve the club's midfield so their malaise will last for all eternity. And maybe they'll win the league every year by doing it because everybody else is somehow worse for no reason, too. At this moment, what would the odds be on the three promoted clubs going straight back down, the three relegated clubs coming straight back up and everybody finishing in exactly the same positions as last year? It's beginning to look like a decent bet.
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Further to the discussion as to whether the reactionary forces of Paolo Di Canio's Sunderland and Hellas Verona would prevail over the left-wing leanings of Livorno and Chris Hughton's Norwich, both Di Canio and Hughton suffered defeat at the weekend while their Serie A counterparts notched impressive wins. It seems we have our conclusion already: like food, football, and pulling off wearing massive puffy jackets for no real reason in warm weather, Italians are simply better at extremist politics than the English.