The most pivotal weeks of the football season were once extremely obvious.
There were dates of chronological significance: the first weekend of the season when things get started, the final day of the season when everything is decided. There were the weeks with plenty of matches: Easter and Christmas. Perhaps the traditional favourite was the first of a new year and FA Cup Third Round.
Now, things are different, and one of the most important weeks is this one.
It might be mid-September, there might be plenty more to come in the 2014/15 season, but this has become one of the season’s crucial weeks.
The new Big Week
There are two reasons. First, this is the first Premier League matchday following transfer deadline day, with a pesky international break getting in the way and delaying the start of the ‘real’ season.
For the first three weekends, reality feels partly suspended as clubs focus on transfers rather than tactics.
In this period, league results are mere subplots, which feed into the narrative that focuses on the transfer market: a 2-1 defeat for Manchester United on the opening day, at home to Swansea, was evidence Louis van Gaal needed to sign more players.
Furthermore, this week also marks the beginning of this season’s Champions League.
Since its expansion at the start of this century, the importance of the Champions League has continued to grow, to the point where the difference between qualifying and not qualifying is perhaps greater than the difference between winning it and not winning it.
When it comes to the Champions League, it is truly not the winning, but the taking part that counts.
Put simply, it’s now time for clubs to stop talking the talk, and start walking the walk.
The next step
That walking analogy feeds into another well-worn cliché: the idea that if you stand still, you go backwards. Two clubs seeking to take the next step this week are Arsenal and Manchester City, who meet in the first Premier League game of the weekend at the Emirates.
Both clubs achieved their goals last season: Arsenal qualified for the Champions League and ended their trophy drought with FA Cup triumph. Manchester City won the Premier League for a second time, having already collected the League Cup.
With Arsenal beating City 3-0 in the Community Shield last month, they’ve split English football’s four major honours in 2014. The idea they need to improve might sound ludicrous.
That’s the pressure of top-level football, however, and this game feels crucial given the wider context. Peculiarly, it feels like both teams have a problem with fixtures of this nature.
Arsenal: Big-game bottlers?
Arsenal, in particular, must take more points from matches against big sides. “For us, it’s quite simple,” Arsene Wenger said in a recent interview with Arsenal Magazine. “Last season we were very consistent against the teams who were not fighting to be in the top four, and I’m confident this season we will do much better against the stronger teams. That’s the target for us.”
It’s clearly something that’s been drummed into his players. “You saw last season we picked up a number of points against the teams outside the top four but our main target this year is to improve our form against the bigger teams,” says Aaron Ramsey, echoing his manager almost word-for-word.
Again: Now is the time to start. Last season, Arsenal managed just one victory from their eight matches against other top five clubs, a fatal blow considering they finished just seven points behind City.
They particularly struggled with 12:45pm kick-offs on Saturday for some reason, losing 6-3 at City, 5-1 at Liverpool and 6-0 at Chelsea, although earlier in the campaign they had beaten Fulham and Crystal Palace at Saturday lunchtime. “It’s not about the kick-off time,” Wenger insisted this week. Which means it’s about the type of match.
Arsenal’s start to the campaign has, in truth, been poor. Five points from three games isn’t a disaster, but Arsenal haven’t played well and needed last-minute strikes against both Crystal Palace and Everton. Against City, they must improve to stand a chance of winning.
City: Poor away to top clubs?
Top four mini-league
Manchester City find themselves in a similar situation – this is the type of match they’ve struggled in. Over the last six seasons' visits to Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool – last season’s other top-four clubs – they've won on just two of 18 occasions.
You might consider that statistic slightly irrelevant considering the fluctuating fortunes of City and Liverpool during that period, but it’s worth outlining that Manuel Pellegrini’s team desperately need to improve against bigger sides when compared with Chelsea, their major title rivals.
Chelsea might not have won the Premier League last season, but their away record at the other Champions League qualifiers was sensational – seven points from three games, despite allegations Jose Mourinho was overly defensive. In contrast, Liverpool and Arsenal collected no points, and City only one (at Arsenal) in their equivalent fixtures.
On another note, City are unaccustomed to ‘slumps’ – they haven’t lost back-to-back Premier League matches for four years, and will be desperate to bounce back from their shock defeat at home to Stoke before the international break.
Anglo-German hostilities resume
Win, lose or draw this Saturday lunchtime, the new big week of the season isn’t over – because both clubs are in Champions League action once again.
It’s a week of England vs Germany clashes and, somewhat bizarrely, all three fixtures happened last season in the group stage: Arsenal taking on Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City battling Bayern Munich and Chelsea clashing with Schalke.
Once again, Chelsea have no worries here – they battered Schalke 3-0 both home and away last season, topping their group, and will expect to repeat the trick.
Arsenal and City, however, had problems with Dortmund and Bayern – they both won in Germany, but home defeats meant they finished as group runners-up and were handed difficult second round draws.
Coincidentally, they were eliminated in almost identical circumstances in the second round, to Bayern and Barcelona respectively – losing 2-0 at home when down to 10 men.
Arsenal have the ability to outpass Dortmund, who aren’t pressing as intensely as at their peak, while Jurgen Klopp is still experimenting with a new set of new attackers.
Their 2-0 home defeat to Leverkusen on the opening day showed how Dortmund can be vulnerable to opposition pressure – they played a narrow diamond and failed to stretch the opposition.
Bayern, meanwhile, are also fallible. Guardiola is another experimenting with his system – as always – and has started the campaign with an unusual formation featuring new signing Xabi Alonso as a holding midfielder-cum-sweeper, something that has looked fine against relatively weak opposition, but might be torn apart by David Silva and Sergio Aguero.
This week may not be make-or-break, but it’s already huge. Chelsea are playing Swansea at home – surely three points for Mourinho’s side – which could leave Arsenal seven points behind, or City six points behind, at such an early stage of the campaign.
Combined with a defeat which would leave them playing catch-up in the Champions League, this could be a disastrous few days for Arsenal or Manchester City. This is football’s new big week.