The Premier League's giddy transformation from "Division One, But Shinier" into the "Yes, We Have Lots Of Money, Would You Like to Watch Us Spend It" League has delivered many things to top-flight football in England.
It has brought many wonderful footballers to the country, both at the top of the table and further down. At the peak, the big clubs are now able to ensure that when players want to leave for Real Madrid, Real Madrid will have to pay through the nose for the privilege. Further down, the league's midtable clubs can offer wages to match and even outstrip more traditionally prestigious clubs on the continent. The emblematic signing of this particular phase in English football history isn't Paul Pogba coming home, or John Stones moving for £50m, but Xherdan Shaqiri rocking up at Stoke.
It has made an institution of Sky Sports News Deadline Day, given symbolic potency to the yellow tie, and made suffering martyrs of on-the-spot reporters, many of whom have to spend 24 hours trying to find new ways to say "nothing to report from Stoke" while giggling locals dick around with bright purple sex toys. You can understand why the channel decided to move their reporters indoors, but it has rather worked against the spirit of this procedurally generated national holiday.
It has made a lot of agents very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very rich indeed.
But the one thing all this hyper-investment hasn't guaranteed, and certainly hasn't delivered over the last few seasons? A proper title race.
Last season, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho made heavy weather of their dream jobs, and Chelsea just had to hold off a game but ultimately second-best Tottenham. The season before, Chelsea embarrassed themselves and Leicester embarrassed everybody else, eventually winning the league by 10 clear points. And the year before that, Chelsea Mourinho-d their way to the title by eight points.
As somebody wise once said, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like danger. Everything looks like a warning. Everything looks like love between your brothers and your sisters, all over this land. And so when everybody has money, an awful lot of solutions look like shopping.
There is an implacable sense of churn in the hyper-monied Premier League. This has the paradoxical effect of heightening expectations but also working against them. Big-spending teams are expected to perform up to their expenditure -- "if you spend £89m on a midfielder, you have to win the league" -- but are also locked in a permanent cycle of transition, forever bedding in new players, a new manager, or both. Footballers don't adjust at superhuman speed just because they're super expensive.
It’s possibly not a coincidence that the most impressively consistent big team over the last few seasons has been the Spurs, who have done their fair share of shopping, but have a manager who clearly prefers to coach his players, not replace them. Hasn’t brought them any trophies, mind. Perhaps chaos comes with lower floors but higher ceilings. Or perhaps they just haven’t finished improving yet.
So with all this in mind, are we likely to get a proper, down to the wire, tense until the final couple of weeks title race this time around? Signs point to … maybe?
The most interesting and promising sign is that each of the Big Six -- that is, those sides for which failure to compete for the title will be embarrassing, and failure to finish in the top four will be, well, failure -- has a manager with at least one full season in the job. It’s perhaps instructive that this hasn't been the case since before Manchester City were bought by the City Football Group, bought themselves Robinho, and started stumbling towards the elite.
Mourinho, Guardiola, and Antonio Conte are all going into their second seasons, and Jurgen Klopp had half a season’s head start on the three of them. Mauricio Pochettino is going into his fourth campaign with Spurs, and Arsene Wenger his 21st with Arsenal. Nobody has the excuse that they're still trying to remember everybody’s name.
Further to this, and assuming Liverpool make it through their Champions League play-off, all six have got European football of one standard or another to deal with. It would be unfair to suggest that the last two champions of England — Chelsea and Leicester — owed their success entirely to the fact that they got at least six more midweek breaks than their competitors. But it would be wrong to suggest that it didn’t help, and it’s interesting that nobody has that advantage this time around. (Except Southampton. It's on.)
As for the player turnover, it’s a little hard to tell because the transfer window will remain open until the beginning of September and you’ll most likely be reading this in early August. But a few sides seem to be working around the problem, either by choice or circumstance. Spurs appear to be keeping faith with their side, and Liverpool -- Mo Salah notwithstanding -- may have to do the same if Red Bull Leipzig and Southampton don’t start cooperating.
Meanwhile two of United’s three signings so far come with extensive Premier League experience, and it looks like Arsenal -- though they of course have deeper issues -- will succeed in holding onto Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil for at least one more season. The two teams that look to be most at risk of bedding-in problems are Chelsea, who could really do with Alvaro Morata to take to the league like Diego Costa, and City, who have a new goalkeeper to integrate. Always fun.
In short, we don’t really know. But logic suggests that both Manchester sides should improve on last season -- United because they have a striker who specializes in scoring in the kinds of games that they drew last season, and City because they could hardly let in more soft goals. If that happens, and if the Spurs and Chelsea can keep their standards up, and if Arsenal can sort their heads out, and Liverpool find a little consistency to go with their occasional brilliance … yes, that’s a lot of ifs. But hey, it’s the beginning of the season. Here’s to a little optimism.
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