There is something faintly reassuring about Sam Allardyce being appointed to rescue a club that looks destined for the drop. It has happened a few times before and no doubt will happen again. In this season of all seasons perhaps this is what we all need, some familiarity, a return to what we perceive of as normal. West Bromwich Albion become Allardyce’s eighth Premier League club and he arrives with the ‘Never Relegated’ tag writ large on his massive forehead. After a long and tortuous journey around English club football the Dudley-born Allardyce is returning home.
Slaven Bilic can consider himself a little unfortunate to be jettisoned after gaining a point at the Etihad but it appears that his fate was already sealed before that gutsy draw with City. As he said in his farewell statement – “it has been a difficult year for so many.” It has indeed been difficult and also a very different year for football and the Premier League. A season that started late and has been shoehorned into the tightest of schedules, began with a bang. There was a glut of goals, with over 100 in the first 28 games and during this extraordinarily fast start to the season teams scored at least three on 19 occasions. Added to which, there has been a plethora of penalties, initially at a dizzying rate of one every two games and we are on course for well over 150 for the season, smashing the previous record of 106 to smithereens. Then, of course there was a vat of VAR controversies, with hairline offside decisions and marginal handballs adding to the sense of the abnormal as we all wait in suspended animation for the lords of Stockley Park to deliver their judgement.
The dizzying madness continued beyond those opening weeks as in the fourth round of games previously all-conquering Liverpool became the first Premier League champions to concede seven goals during their title defence. It was also the first time that the Reds had let in so many in a game since 1963 – before Jurgen Klopp was born. And that crushing defeat came against a Villa side who had escaped by the skin of their teeth last season. On the same weekend, Tottenham’s 6-1 victory proved that fortress Old Trafford had long since crumbled and had been transformed into a safe haven for away sides with Palace having already plundered three, and soon afterwards Arsenal broke a famine of five years, stretching back 29 games, by winning an away game against a top six side.
United’s solitary victory in their opening six home games was a very squeaky 1-0 over poor old Bilic’s West Brom in a maelstrom of baffling VAR and penalty decisions. By contrast United have been imperious away from home, winning all six, scoring 19 in the process and in so doing becoming the only English top flight club to score at least three times in the opening half a dozen away fixtures since the advent of the Football League in 1888. Adding to the abnormality of this unprecedented run they have conceded the first goal in every single of those games. As for the aforementioned Arsenal, the expected renaissance under Mikel Arteta has not quite materialised. Having lost four games on the trot at home before drawing with Southampton this week, they find themselves in a distinctly uncomfortable and rather embarrassing fifteenth place.
Both Arsenal and United are among the nine clubs to have collected more points away than at home, which may well be as a result of the first ten rounds of matches being played behind closed doors. By comparison last season only one club – Southampton – secured more points away than at home. Those empty cavernous stadiums have provided a surreal backdrop to the unreal action on the pitch. Last month a sliver of a silver lining appeared as a few thousand were allowed in to the majority of grounds. It was a glimpse of reality after months of emptiness but it was still a tad surreal to have 2,000 people dotted around stadiums that are nearly always full to the brim with tens of thousands in attendance. Having just re-opened their doors and adapted to the logistics of ensuring a Covid-safe environment, London clubs had to slam their doors shut again as the capital was moved to Tier 3 earlier this week.
It is nigh on impossible to predict what will happen in the coming months regarding restrictions especially when the government appears to be making it up as they go along and vacillating between imposing draconian rules and allowing more individual freedom. Like other industries and sports, football has been left floundering between the devil and the deep blue sea and fans have been forced to watch all the strange goings on from afar. Maybe only when Manchester United start winning the odd game at Old Trafford, Arsenal lift themselves into the top half and Allardyce’s WBA grind out results, edging away from the danger zone will it feel a bit more normal.