It's getting close now. Very close. So close you can almost smell it; a sharp cocktail of sweat, designer aftershave and simmering testosterone. And shouting, which you might not think has a smell but definitely does. The Premier League is nearly upon us. Brace yourself. Hold your nose.
With less than a month to go, this coming season seems more pungent than most. In part this is due to last season and the complete collapse of the natural order. Leicester City won the league. Still looks weird. Leicester City are the defending champions. Still feels odd. Leicester City, therefore, are the team to beat, or at least the team to try and buy players from. This season is the sequel to the last in more than just a literal sense: the upstart rebels have blown everything up and now the established order have to pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and — OK, fine — strike back.
Of course, they won't all be able to. There are only four Champions League qualification places, there is only one title, and there are at least six teams who will, to a greater or lesser extent, be expecting to achieve the former and compete for the latter. At least two of Arsenal, Chelsea, the Manchesters City and United, Tottenham and Liverpool will be qualifying for the Europa League next season, and only one squad will be putting the lid of the trophy on their head and grinning for selfies. And that's without taking into account Southampton, who seem to thrive whenever somebody steals their manager and best players, or Everton, who just nicked Southampton's manager and started throwing money around. Or Leicester City, who are champions, and so probably deserve a place in the conversation.
That is, from a sporting perspective, an intoxicating, enticing smell. Warm bread, or freshly mown grass, or petrol. And this pleasing aroma should only be enhanced by what is a ridiculous collection of managerial talent across those six clubs. Leaving aside Mauricio Pochettino, who is very much in the early stages of his managerial career, we've got 23 league titles across five managers, plus four Champions League titles in Manchester. (Not to mention Claudio Ranieri, who actually has the thing at the moment.) And beyond that, we've got an intriguing mix of styles, from the high-pressing, hyperactive scampering of Jurgen Klopp and Pochettino, through the possession fetishisation of Pep Guardiola (we assume) and Arsene Wenger, and onto whatever pragmatic flavors Jose Mourinho and (perhaps) Antonio Conte manage to squeeze out of their underachieving squads.
Then there's the personalities involved: we've got six proud, prickly men, with 14 other proud, prickly men behind them, and a situation perfectly contrived to ensure they grate against one another. And that's when the smell starts to turn a bit. Because English football loves its managers. It adores them; it adores playing with them; it adores picking them up and smashing them against one another until something breaks, then crying about something being broken.
This isn't just team against team or footballers against footballers (or, whisper it, luck against luck); this is one man against another one man (always a man, of course), a battle of wills and press conferences and mind games and shouting at fourth officials. Whoever is best at all of that is the winner. Or, perhaps, the winner is retroactively understood to have been the best at all of that, because he has to have been the best at all of that, because that's what management is. Footballing silverbacks, knuckling around their technical areas and press rooms, beating on their chests and making sarcastic comments about one another's injury records.
Luckily for some, this fits perfectly into the rhythms of Premier League hype and counter-hype, into the machinery that exists around and is parasitic on the sport. A manager SLAMS a contemporary after a game on Saturday, his RANT runs all day Sunday on Sky Sports News, the DISGRACE thinkpieces land on Monday, the target of his ire HITS BACK on Tuesday, somebody else WEIGHS IN on Wednesday, there's a wave of MIND GAMES counter-thinkpieces on Thursday, it all gets reheated in Friday's previews, and then bang! Games again! And oh, look, somebody else has said something silly, and round we go again, until the world runs out of patience and capital letters.
Let us leave aside the question of blame for the moment; it's almost certainly down to some unholy combination of the written press, internet media, television companies, shirt sponsors, Nike, Adidas, Alex Ferguson, late capitalism, and you, you poor addicted sap, so just sprinkle the responsibility around according to taste. (And you can remove yourself from that sentence if you've stopped caring and thinking about the Premier League completely, but you'll have to think long and hard about having made it this far into the piece.)
Let's instead think about survival. This forthcoming Premier League season could well be an extraordinary thing, perhaps the best since ... well, OK, the last one. It could have a title race between three, four, or maybe five brilliant teams. It could have inexplicable and deeply amusing failures. It could have both. But the simple presence of all these super managers in this league, at this time, means it is going to be a noisy, exhausting, frustrating slog. Getting through an ordinary football season already requires that we navigate a river of ancillary, distracting, alpha male bullshit; now take all that and multiply by six. We're into Augean Stables territory.
(Maybe by more than six, since at least one of those managers — hi Jose! — actively encourages and invites this sort of thing.) Does he find it useful? Amusing? Or is he trying to block out the existential howl of the universe? Ultimately it doesn't matter, since there's no way a football manager — that is to say, a person doing an incredibly stressful job under intense scrutiny and appalling pressure — can go an entire season without saying something mildly intemperate. And mild intemperance, even just a hint, is all that the CAPITAL LETTERS requires. Even Klopp's persistent grinning starts to look sarcastic after a while.)
So we strongly suggest that we, the broad mass of the footballing public, invest in coping strategies to minimize or ameliorate the impending cerebral static. Perhaps you could take a week off every now and then; promise yourself seven days free from press conferences. Or maybe you and a friend could keep an eye on one another, and agree to share the workload; you pay attention to all the nonsense one week, he or she takes the next. Or perhaps you could just try to keep in mind that deep down, at heart, no football manager is ever as important as they like to pretend or we like to think, and that most of what goes on between football managers is just stress, as expelled through the mouth, and no more thought through than if they went into their post-game press conference and responded to every question by shouting "Aaaargh".
Because this season's going to be a bloody mess. The footballing watching public is about to be exposed to unprecedented levels of slamming and blasting and mind games — sorry, SLAMMING and BLASTING and MIND GAMES — and, frankly, we're worried. Stay safe out there, people. Stay calm. Or take a deep breath and try and hold your nose until May. That'll take your mind off things.