Columnist

GILES SMITH’S THURSDAY THOUGHTS

With the new league season just one game old, columnist Giles Smith gives his fan’s view on what can be gleaned so far…

Decent start, then. Second in the league. And we would be top if Jurgen Klopp hadn’t sent on Daniel Sturridge to score a fourth against West Ham. What’s better though: a 3-0 away win or a 4-0 home one? 3-0 away, clearly. It’s the much rarer and more distinguished outcome. But the league doesn’t have the means to reflect that. Maybe it should.

Still, what about Palace, eh? Top four! If you’d offered them that at the start of the season, I reckon they would have bitten your hand off. Same goes for Bournemouth, tucked into the Champions League berths ahead of Manchester City, who were most people’s favourites to retain the title before it all kicked off...

Ah, those early league tables. How little they mean. And they seem to get earlier. As I frequently find myself telling anyone who will listen, ‘In my day, you know, they didn’t bother printing a table until everyone had played at least three matches.’

And as anyone who will listen sneeringly replies: ‘Yeah, right. And next thing you’ll be saying ‘Match of the Day’ only had highlights from two games, and you could get a portion of chips for 20p and smoke on the underground.’
 

How the London Underground's District Line looked in the past

Yet here we are, though. Last Saturday morning, when the season was just one Friday night game between Manchester United and Leicester old, at least one of the papers took the trouble to produce a full 20-team Premier League table, under the solemn heading ‘How They Stand’.

Well, it was happy reading for Manchester United fans, I suppose, and there seems to have been precious little of that over the last month. It made relatively good reading for Arsenal fans, too, I guess – certainly better reading than the table ended up making 36-hours later, once Arsenal had actually played some football.

But then alphabetical order is always going to be crucial at this point in the year. It’s not rocket science: if you’ve done the work in pre-season on your alphabetical order, those very earliest league tables should offer you nothing to fear. I’ve never understood why West Ham haven’t worked that out.

Anyway, one game in and there seem to be reasons to be quietly cheerful, over and above the resulting table placing. Like the contribution of our new players, including Jorginho and that penalty. As examples of nonchalance go, this will take some beating over the next 10 months or so.
 

MASTERCLASS: Jorginho's penalties

Generally speaking, my nervous system is no fan of the fancy spot-kick. Personally, I like to see them done head-high and hard off a conventional, evenly paced run-up. This is partly because I retain strong memories of my near-death experience in Munich in 2012 at the sight of David Luiz commencing his run-up just outside the centre circle - sprinting in from there, you would have to say, very much in the manner of someone who was about to find Row 74 Seat 12 at the Bayern end or even, quite possibly, Zone G in the car park.

Of course, it all turned out perfectly happily on that particular occasion (it was one of the greatest penalties of all time, in fact), but not before I – in common with a fair number of my fellow supporters, I sensed - had almost vomited with a combination of panic and stress.

To be clear, I have nothing in principle against people who want to make penalty-taking more entertaining that it usually is, by whatever means, be it bespoke run-ups or fancy shimmies or signature dinks. I just wish they would do it only when I have no emotional investment in the outcome. A midweek Carabao Cup shoot-out between Macclesfield and Bradford City? Panenka away, everybody, and to your heart’s content. Indeed, why not have a stab at that ‘pass it to a team-mate’ thing that Thierry Henry and Robert Pires had a go at, some years back – but maybe making it work this time?

Penalty for Chelsea at Huddersfield, though? ‘Please: just kick the ball into the goal. And as soon as possible.’

All credit to Jorginho, though. A small shrug of the shoulder to sit the goalkeeper on the floor then a casual stroke of the ball into the vacant part of the net. And we mean ‘casual’. He might just as well have been side-footing a piece of litter off the pitch or returning a water bottle to the technical area. It was the penalty of a man enviably at ease with himself and entirely at peace with the world, and it was (contrary to one’s instincts) a pleasure to witness it.

And then there was Kepa. For a goalkeeper making his debut after a record transfer, a clean sheet in a 3-0 victory would be pretty much the ideal turn-up. To be 100 per cent solid in your first 90 minutes as Britain’s most expensive goalkeeper would have much to recommend it. For as long as nobody is managing to score past him, a goalkeeper is a bargain no matter how much he cost.
 

Last week’s performance was all the more encouraging when taken within the context of Signor Sarri’s perfectly reasonable pre-match warning that it could be a couple of months before this team fully adjusts to the new ways and starts forming an accurate reflection of itself. A bit like the league table.

So, onwards to Saturday evening, and the first league game of the season at Stamford Bridge – an annual occasion which many of us rank well ahead of Christmas and birthdays in terms of the anticipation we feel for it.

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