If you only had one word to sum up the performances of the Premier League’s biggest clubs on the first weekend of a new season then ‘rusty’ would be the most likely choice.
So what does that say about the way teams are preparing in an era when every medical and scientific advantage is available to them?
Arsenal’s display was perhaps the worst; so many missed passes, poor decisions and even a lack of energy in the final 15 minutes against West Ham, just when you expected a traditional late bombardment at the Emirates.
But Chelsea were hugely unconvincing in their 2-2 draw against Swansea City, too. Despite Jose Mourinho’s assertion he was happy with the display in the first half there was a weariness and lack of spark about the home team’s play — not as noticeable as against Arsenal in the Community Shield but nevertheless significant —that suggested they are not yet at peak fitness.
Manchester United did enough, thanks to an own goal, to start the season with a victory against Tottenham but their performance, too, was turgid in a match that hardly opened the new season with a bang.
Even Liverpool, winners at Stoke thanks to a Coutinho wonder strike, looked rusty for long periods in a match in which they were slightly fortunate to take three points.
The overall standard, it has to be said, was below par — and although fans are remarkably forgiving having waited so impatiently for the new season to arrive, it’s worth asking the question: Why?
Why, with conditioning coaches, masseurs, dieticians, statisticians, fitness coaches and umpteen other in-house specialists employed by the top clubs are players not yet ready for the big kick-off?
The traditional view has always been that early results mean almost nothing and that until things settle down — perhaps after six or 10 matches — the Premier League table hides any number of hidden truths and cannot be trusted. But in a year when it is distinctly possible there may be only a few points separating the top four, it seems remarkable that even the biggest teams are willing to accept below-par performances in the early matches while players get match fit.
If Usain Bolt took that attitude into a major championship or Roger Federer arrived at Wimbledon with a similar mindset where would we be?
Normally you don’t have to look past a chequebook to find the answer to such questions; so could it have something to do with the modern obsession for pre-season tours which leave clubs rich but sap players’ energy and leave them jet-lagged and weary when the real season begins?
Chelsea, for instance, played PSG and Barcelona in New York over the summer, while Manchester City took on Roma and Real Madrid in Melbourne, Arsenal travelled to Singapore and Manchester United, despite complaints that last season’s mammoth tour of the United States affected performances in the Premier League, still returned to the same venue.
Liverpool, meanwhile, took in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne.
Of 20 clubs in the Premier League, even including new boys Bournemouth, who can hardly claim to have an international fan base, 18 played matches abroad during pre-season and just two stayed at home.
The two in question?
Leicester City and West Ham United – coincidentally the two most impressive performers on the opening weekend.
In West Ham’s case, of course, they also had the advantage of having already played competitive matches in the Europa League, a factor that Arsene Wenger acknowledged was crucial in their victory on Sunday.
But if it’s really that simple to gain an advantage at the start of the season why aren’t more teams arranging meaningful matches in July rather than chasing the buck in the Far East and America?
However, it’s not an argument Jose Mourinho was willing to concede despite seeing his side stutter against Swansea and lose to Arsenal at Wembley.
“I don’t think we played badly in either match,” he insisted. “Arsenal was not better than us and Swansea was not better than us. I don’t agree there was too much travelling in pre-season. We worked well and we didn’t travel so much. We came back to London with enough time to rest. The preparation was good.”
Mourinho’s conviction on that front will be tested very quickly; because Chelsea travel to Manchester City on Sunday for an early championship six-pointer that could help set the tone for their title defence.
Should they lose then maybe someone will ask why have they reached the middle of August still lacking sharpness? In an era when every tiny aspect of preparation is analysed — there is even talk of appointing a sleep coach at Championship side Brentford — it’s a question that does need asking.
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