As it reaches its 30th anniversary, this is going to be a season like never before
When Erling Haaland and his camp were assessing where to move next, he watched a lot of Manchester City and Real Madrid matches to see how he might fit in. The discussion kept coming back to one main debate. La Liga’s comparative lack of intensity was appealing, because a few years in Spain at this age would be beneficial to Haaland’s ambitions of a 20-year top-level career.
On the other hand, that lessened intensity is a part consequence of the recent decline of the league, which led to Madrid’s offer being lower than City’s. It articulated an obvious truth.
The Premier League is the place to be, especially for a burgeoning megastar. It brings the most eyes.
Haaland’s decision has also pushed the Premier League itself to an even greater level of status, as it now reaches its 30th anniversary. It is no longer just the most competitive league, the most watched, or the most wealthy. It is, as a result of all that, the most attractive.
An English club, even if one owned by an emirate, has beaten one of the Spanish giants to a player everyone wanted.
That was unthinkable for most of the Premier League’s history.
We’re a long way from the days when it felt exciting that Nottingham Forest were able to sign an Italian from Serie A in Andrea Silenzi, as the club’s long-awaited return now sees them pay £200,000 a week to Jesse Lingard to attempt survival. That’s how lucrative it has become. That is the Premier League’s present and future.
It is the Super League in everything but name, the biggest show in town. This realisation is one of a few factors that prompted Europe’s most powerful figures to attempt their breakaway, as they are all too aware of football’s new order. When Juventus president Andrea Agnelli visits Premier League games, he is said to shake his head at the wonder of it all; the stadiums; the product. “This,” Agnelli has commented, “is what football is supposed to look like.”
This is a vision realised – a rare supremacy, even surpassing Serie A of the 1990s in terms of global profile.
And yet it is just as the Premier League reaches this peak that it is set to be pushed aside for one of the few sporting events that can still claim to be bigger. The mid-season staging of the 2022 World Cup will disrupt and distort this landmark anniversary campaign, perhaps influencing it more than any other element. It could even force surprises, since this will be anything but a normal season. It is a rare moment when international football weighs over the club game, something not really felt since the early 2000s.
Either way, the first half of the season will represent a kind of phoney war, that will be further influenced by an intense Champions League group stage of six games in eight weeks. Players will have the World Cup on their minds. Many will be subconsciously “saving themselves”. A knock in the last round of games before the World Cup, which take place less than nine days before its opening game, could see a player miss his country’s entire campaign.
On the other side, from what is set to be a bizarre Christmas schedule, where no player can play twice in 48 hours, there’s the psychological and physical effect of a competition that does mean the world. You only have to look at how Roberto Baggio dropped off after USA 94. Closer to home, there was Harry Kane’s slow start to 2021-’22 and Harry Maguire’s ongoing struggles following Euro 2020. Even those who have great tournaments tend to endure hangovers. That may mean that the 2022-’23 season is set up for those players unlucky to miss out on Qatar.
They will have a rare freshness as well as a point to prove, after five weeks of nothing. One of those is of course Haaland, which might be a frightening prospect for the rest of the league, but Liverpool have two such players in Luis Diaz and the peerless Mohamed Salah (below). This is all presuming that their teams perform to the same level, a proposition that’s no longer certain.
Just as the Premier League faces its greatest ructions, the two clubs that have dominated its last half-decade make their greatest changes in that time. Jurgen Klopp has allowed his famous front three to be broken up, and the stylistic differences between Darwin Nunez and Sadio Mane will require adaptation. That might improve Liverpool, of course, but it might not.
Similar applies to City, since Pep Guardiola has gone much further. He has undertaken the first major overhaul since arriving, albeit one he has wanted for at least two seasons. Serial champions like Raheem Sterling have gone, with more still available for transfer, so that Haaland and Julian Alvarez can reform the attack. There have been suggestions it will bring a more direct approach from City, as Guardiola seems to maximise Haaland’s pace on the break.
That will require adaptation there, too, and the wider point is that the certainties about the two have gone. They will be different, maybe not as good?
Or, at least, after moments like Haaland’s miss against Liverpool, the rest of the Premier League can dream. The much greater likelihood, even if there are complications, is that the Norwegian’s signing will bring even more goals.
That touches on another slight concern for the Premier League, as it reaches its historic peak. It is, arguably, a negative in terms of its primary selling point: the competitiveness. City are going for their fifth title in six years, which would also represent the first time the club have won three in a row.
That would make them the fifth to manage that feat in English history, with Manchester United having done it twice in the Premier League era, but the nature of this is different. It’s a state project with unlimited wealth, with that reflected by how they are pushing the outer limits of points returns. Who doubts another 90-plus season? We’re a long way from the days when Ipswich Town could finish fifth, as in 2001, and it felt at least some way logical.
The more uncomfortable truth amid so much excitement is that we know who the top six will be, a proposition made all the more unsettling by the fact United could endure their most miserable season in decades last term and still finish that high.
The main intrigue this time will be over who finishes fourth out of United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
Tottenham Hotspur, for just the second time in 40 years, should have designs on higher. A title challenge? It is possible they might even be the team to take advantage of this season’s distortions? Because, while there are so many new unknowns about City and Liverpool, Antonio Conte knows exactly what he wants.
It has almost been a vintage Jose Mourinho summer for the Italian in that regard, akin to 2004 or 2014, not that Conte would appreciate the comparison. It has still been one where he has forensically improved exactly the areas he has wanted. Signings like Ivan Perisic and Richarlison feel inspired. They can have a multiplying effect. Certainly, as illustrated by the images of Kane and Son Heung-min falling exhausted in military-style pre-season training, Conte has developed the “small war machine” he once declared as his ideal.
That was said before he won the title with Chelsea in 2016-’17 – and that is the optimism that can come with backing a world-class manager like the Italian. Thomas Tuchel’s complaints, meanwhile, make it feel more like the summer of 2015 at Stamford Bridge.
That would be outlandish. It is really just a situation they haven’t experienced before, given how late the takeover was. United have faced troubles of their own, not least in Cristiano Ronaldo, but there does feel a new focus to the team. That’s inevitable given Erik ten Hag represents the first time since Alex Ferguson that they have appointed a manager who is on an upward curve and at the forefront of the game.
Arsenal, meanwhile, feel on a wave, and those at Colney excitedly speak of only now realising just how good Gabriel Jesus is. We may see a player on a new level, and his true level.
It still speaks to the current power structure of the Premier League that both Chelsea and Arsenal are taking City cast-offs to improve their team.
This is one of a few reasons it would take so much for a team like Spurs to win it – probably more than even the disruption of a winter World Cup.
The real unpredictability comes in the bottom half, and even up. Any one of 12 clubs could go down. This is why Forest have spent so much on Lingard. They have seen what he did for West Ham United, and believe those goals can be decisive. They believe this is what survival is worth.
Frank Lampard, who feels like he could be one figure immediately under pressure, will be stressing similar on Everton’s hierarchy.
Newcastle United are unlikely to be one of the teams in trouble, given their expenditure in January, and the value of a full summer under Eddie Howe. They also look less likely to push the top six, though. The Public Investment Fund are so conscious of being overcharged they have so far underspent, something all the more acute when the ultimate Saudi Arabian owners have lavished so much money on the even more controversial LIV Golf.
It does seem like their pursuit of James Maddison could be a touchstone moment, telling a lot about their ambitions and the fall of a financially constrained Leicester City. If the latter hold out, and it stalls Newcastle’s progress, it would be a rare – and likely brief – delay in the depressing surge of sportswashing. This is something else that colours the season to an even greater degree than ever before, of course.
It is really the year when the states of the Gulf blockade take over football, given Paris Saint-Germain have kept Kylian Mbappe, City have bought Haaland and it will all end in Qatar. Discussion will only accelerate now, especially as the real effects of this winter World Cup become more acute.
It will be too little too late, and it should not be forgotten that the Premier League has been as complicit in the rise of sportswashing as anyone else. They were the first to sanction such a takeover, with City in 2008, or, arguably, even Chelsea in 2003, in decisions that have set a precedent for everything else since. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that such a landmark season will be split by sportswashing.
It has already changed the face of the Premier League m ore than anything else, from the stars it can sign, to who wins the title.