It was noticeable in the build up to this weekend’s Premier League fixtures that some vital component of the usual swirling, screaming mix seemed to be missing. Typically, the domestic season is not so much welcomed back after the international break as torn into, devoured with the twitching fervour of a lover home from war or Sunday hair of the dog. Yet in the days between England’s ground-out 1-0 victory over the Swiss and Liverpool and Spurs’ early kick-off at Wembley, the tribal noise that tends to enshroud our domestic weekends felt weirdly muted. You can’t imagine this was due to any lack of desire to fight and argue and generally smug it up – these are the urges that power elite football in this country now, our top division a 20-man bar fight taking place in real time over the span of nine wonderfully violent, toxic months. Instead, it was as though there was simply nothing to fight about, no competing narrative punches really landing in an opening month that largely failed to draw or raise any blood.
Not that this impression of tepidness, of a season waiting to ignite, will extend down to those on the pitch. Tell Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser this campaign is yet to really get going and he might just bite your face off. In the swooning microclimate of Fraser’s brain the last month has been one long hot-air balloon ride to heaven, “Nessun Dorma” booming on loop from purple skies as he flies with flocks of flamingos into the dying September sun. Of all the Premier League’s players, it is its all-time smallest who has most stolen the breath, a 5-foot-4, £400,000 Scottish winger enjoying a rare personal humidity that has seen him lead little Bournemouth into fifth with a tally of three goals, two assists and a highlights reel that already harbours a litany of genuinely startling moments, the fever dream of a man who has learned to use simple gifts in the most devastating way possible.
There is something reassuring about seeing Fraser time his latest searing blindside run to perfection, or using his low centre of gravity to leave yet another centre half on his arse with the red alarm sirens blaring deep in the enemy cutback zone. It’s a fuzzy kind of reminder that for all the high-wire tactical finesse and training ground alchemy sought by the modern game’s great schemers – Pep Guardiola was described as a “celestial being” by Match of the Day commentator Steve Wilson on Saturday night – matches in the World’s Toughest League™ can still be won by a small man running in straight lines very quickly at just the right moment. Which isn’t to demean Fraser or his style of play. It’s more that he feels emblematic of a Bournemouth side that this year seem more intent on finding the soft neck meat of their opponents, an approach that relies heavily on working Fraser into those critical spaces of the pitch so coveted by xG and xA stats.
Against Leicester City on Saturday in the weekend’s best game, Fraser wasn’t so much at the heart of his side’s 4-2 victory as lurking constantly at the peripheries, to the extent that at times it felt like the haywire midfield scrimmages were a kind of proxy war being fought on his behalf. His two goals were both the result of his teammates goading Leicester defenders into shoving matches then finding him haring 30 or 40 yards from deep into the territory left behind, the reformed Domino’s pizza obsessive they call "Wee Man" stealing in for his joyous pillage. There is something cruel about Wes Morgan being asked to combat play like this; for the last year or so Claudio Ranieri’s totemic title-winning captain has basically just been a man who’s always falling over somewhere in the background, but Fraser will embarrass quicker, better defenders this season.
With Burnley, Crystal Palace, Watford and Fulham to come in the next four games, Bournemouth will be hoping they can turn any absence of narrative to their advantage. You wonder what their players might have to do to attract bids from the league’s bigger fish, marvel at manager Eddie Howe’s ability to construct a formidable force from men deemed so deeply unfashionable despite their goals and wins. Maybe there is something wider we can learn here, too, about our ability to discern the game from afar, to understand with human nuance the depths of any Premier League player’s screaming ambition, the extent to which their talent might be heaven-dealt or strived for. The division’s history is rich with the ghosts of other Ryan Frasers, players who’ve started seasons like a bullet before tailing off. What is it that happens in the brains of the Ritchie Humphreys, Diafra Sakhos and Amr Zakis to briefly elevate them so far beyond the limits of their own ability? And what is it that hauls them back down to mean, their talent curling up like an autumn leaf?
Maybe this is a question for another day. The last thing that the Premier League needs at this stage is a killjoy. And of course, Ryan Fraser might not end up like those wasted players at all, instead extending his breakout moment indefinitely, exploring the outer reaches of his own prowess, guiding the club for which he has so much affection on to the highest planes of their history. So unstrap a few more sandbags. Feed the Pavarotti impersonator another sausage. The alarms are sounding and the flamingos are taking flight. Little Ryan’s in the cutback zone again.