And so it begins, again. The Premier League returns for a 25th season this weekend, with its blinding lights and obscene swathes of cash sloshing around the place. Everyone associated with it is contractually obliged to describe it as the best league in the world, that this season will be its biggest and best yet, as last season was, and the one before it. But does it matter if it’s the best?
And so it begins, again. The Premier League returns for a 25th season this weekend, with its blinding lights and obscene swathes of cash sloshing around the place. Everyone associated with it is contractually obliged to describe it as the best league in the world, that this season will be its biggest and best yet, as last season was, and the one before it. But does it matter if it’s the best? Without being bogged down by pettifoggery, the marketing executives need not worry about their league’s overall quality because for whatever it lacks in technical proficiency, it more than makes up for it in its sheer ability to capture attention the world over, from Australia to Zimbabwe down to the fans born within a five-mile radius of their elite division side. This is football not as sport but as the longest-running soap opera on TV, with quickly changing narratives and the desire of a certain section of the press to generate controversies from the most seemingly innocuous circumstances. The Bundesliga and LaLiga may have the world’s best players but they do not, and will not, beat the Premier League for its theatrical value. And it’s back into our lovingly warm embrace yet again.
The Premier League loves a character – as does any successful TV series – and nowhere is this more evident than it’s almost slavish dedication to the men on the touchline. Football the world over has gone through innumerable changes in the past decade or two, the most prominent being the deity-like status ascribed to footballers, an era ushered in by the twin dominance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi; footballers are kings and their managers are just men tasked with instructing them who can be tossed aside easily. This primarily holds true in the Premier League, too, but over the course of the past two seasons, there has been an increase in the attention afforded to the men – prowling, maniacally pointing and waving like an inspired conductor at the Teatro alla Scala – on the touchline. English clubs still struggle to attract the biggest and best stars to themselves but strangely have perhaps the greatest collection of A-list managers working in the game today. Antonio Conte; Pep Guardiola; Arsene Wenger; Jose Mourinho; Mauricio Pochettino; Jurgen Klopp and Ronald Koeman. Further down there’s Champions League winner Rafa Benitez at Newcastle, Mauricio Pellegrino at Southampton, Frank de Boer at Crystal Palace, fast rising stars in Eddie Howe at Bournemouth and Marco Silva. And of course there’s the gravelly-voiced Sean Dyche at Burnley, a man with the looks of your old P.E. teacher who continually tells the tale of how he was cruelly denied a professional career by injury in his youth. The Premier League is chock-full with managerial talent, like a UEFA coaching seminar.
The implication of having too many managerial minds, of course, is only one will win the Premier League and the remaining five or six will be left disappointed. It’s difficult at this stage to see beyond the Manchester clubs for the title. Mourinho and Guardiola were brought in last term to great fanfare, with many expecting the on and off pitch battles of their time in Spain. Instead it fell flat, with both effectively out of the title race by the end of January. Mourinho fared a little better with Europa League and League Cup triumph while Guardiola had to endure his first managerial campaign without silverware of any shape or size. No expenses have been spared this summer as both men continue to put their stamp on the team, United with the key acquisitions of Victor Lindelof, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku to beef up the spine of the team. Guardiola has gone about replacing the four departed full backs with three new ones, setting the world transfer record for a defender on Kyle Walker and then Benjamin Mendy. Goalkeeper Ederson arrived from Benfica to spell the end for Joe Hart and possibly Claudio Bravo’s City careers, with the silky Bernardo Silva bought from Monaco to offer some competition to City’s already mouthwatering attacking options. Mourinho has won the league title in his second season everywhere he’s been, and with one full season under his belt and a squad now more attuned to his demands, Guardiola would also be in the frame to conquer England. Only one man can win and this should be fascinating to watch.
Conte’s task at Chelsea is to become the first Premier League champion to retain the title since Sir Alex Ferguson’s United won back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009. It’s testament to the competitive levels of the league no-one has managed to do so since then. Conte has been vocal about his desire to avoid what he calls a ‘Mourinho season’; the disastrous 2015/16 campaign that saw Chelsea fall off the wagon so badly the Portuguese was gone by December after a half-season spent fighting with anyone and everyone in his sight. Chelsea have spent about £130m on three players this summer – the most since Roman Abrahimovich came to town in 2003, yet Conte has voiced his displeasure about a supposed lack of transfer activity. It’s instructive that a new contract went weeks unsigned and when pen was finally put to paper, the only increase was in Conte’s pay packet as club and manager decided it was best to keep the length the same; a pay rise rather than an extension. It certainly feels like a marriage of convenience, and with the added pressure of competing in the Champions League, the cracks in this union could be revealed sooner rather than later.
What is the point of Arsenal? What constitutes success for the Premier League’s longest serving manager? Wenger, with his usual grace and diplomacy, is optimistic as always about a title tilt but with the Manchester clubs and Chelsea operating on a different financial plane, does this amount to a wild goose chase? There’s also the Europa League Thursday-Sunday balance to navigate, as well as trips to far-flung places all over the continent. A deep run in European competition – perhaps an all-out assault to win it – and a return to the Champions League will be good enough to satiate levelheaded fans. The obligatory FA Cup run will be welcome, too. There’s the small matter of Alexis Sanchez and to a lesser extent Mesut Özil’s contracts to resolve. Wenger has maintained his stance the Chilean will not be sold and whatever happens with his immediate future will ultimately have an effect on how Arsenal’s season pans out.
Tottenham have so far failed to sign anyone yet, primarily because finding players already better than their starting XI is a hard task while they’re reluctant to spend silly money on substitutes, particularly after getting burned on Moussa Sissoko last summer. Stadium-induced financial austerity is also a concern and with home games to come at Wembley, Pochettino faces perhaps the most difficult season of his career in England yet. Liverpool will surely be content with finishing in the top four yet again, but with Klopp’s inspirational coaching they could be dark horses for the title depending on their ability to convince RB Leipzig and Southampton respectively to part ways with Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk respectively. Everton have spent big money thanks to owner Farhad Moshiri’s generosity and Koeman’s ambitions, still it’s difficult to see them trouble last season’s top six for the four Champions League spots. Considering they finished 15 points ahead of Southampton in eighth, the Toffees are clearly the best of the rest and could conceivably be alone in their league of one yet again.
The subplots continue further down, from Southampton, Stoke, West Ham, Bournemouth and others looking to mid-table security while the newly promoted trio of Newcastle, Huddersfield and Brighton Hove & Albion seek to avoid the drop at the first time of asking. The Premier League is back in all its glory, and we’re here, for the next nine months, to gorge on first class television. What are your predictions, hopes and expectations for the new season?