Wyes, once again, upwards. As the Premier League enters its third season of cut-and-shut schedules, again heralded by a voice insisting on the brink of bigger things, it’s tempting to wonder exactly when this state of flux will end; at which point the self-proclaimed world’s most important league will find its way back from the dark place. Or, indeed, if things will ever be the same again.
It’s been three years, let’s see. A competition that has its presence on the front, not on B-flick or short, but Where did you go, will once again find itself thwarted by some truly mind-blowing logistics.
As with any other league, and indeed any other life, the last time England’s top flight could contemplate a war-free future was the pre-Covid lull of the early 2020s. The years since have brought a total shutdown, a half-life, a Super League riot, a winter of cease-fire talks and canceled dates and the forced sale of one of its defining member clubs.
Needless to say, this is all deeply un-branded. More than any other competition, the tone of the Premier League is all about control and certainty, about days and weeks – Super Sundays, Monday Nights, a complete white-out of television from September to May – dominated by that internal tone of homogenized success. is Like it or not, that voice has become a little thin, the presence of the matinee idol has become a little long, the bow-tie process has taken over the balustrade.
As the league kicks off at Selhurst Park on Friday, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how things will play out from here. Welcome to the season with a hole in it, 10 months in which the entire calendar must be spinning in place, like an airplane out of gear, when the winter World Cup is forced to loom. Strange things have happened in the three years of the demolition, but this will stretch everyone involved to their outer limits.
The first part, which we can call block 1, extends from August 6 to September 17, consisting of eight Premier League games and two Champions League rounds. After that we have two rapid-fire internationals, the last warm-up before Qatar.
That is followed by block 3 from October 1 to November 5, eight more league games and four more in the Champions League. Block 4 is the World Cup itself, a quick change to Arab Standard Time and a maximum of seven matches between 21 November and 18 December. Then it’s back to the northern winter and Block 5, three Premier League games in a week from Boxing Day to January 2. At which point the season is free to go out huffing and puffing, cling to the nearest rock, and wonder what exactly happened.
There will be bumps along the way, leading up to the intensity of the season. For example, Harry Kane, who tends to play every game he can, as well as some he can’t. Over the next five months Kane could play up to 34 matches under three different world leagues – Premier League, UEFA, Fifa – spanning the UK, continental Europe and the Gulf. Of course, there will be teams of analysts studying how to peak during this period, when to keep those red-zone muscle fibers. But there are also far-reaching consequences.
England’s provisional World Cup squad will be announced on October 21, with three league games and two in the Champions League still to play. Never before has a league season been disrupted by external pressures like this. How will it affect players and choices? Are you really going to give 200% over 94 minutes against Wolves if your knee has started ticking and the final group stage of Qatar 2022 is three days away?
The same applies after the World Cup. Players ejected in the first 10 days will have to shake hands to start over. Lose a semi-final and some broken souls will come back to pick up the slack. Last season Mohamed Salah scored 23 goals in 26 and then 8 goals in 28 before the Africa Cup of Nations. Never Covid. Never mind the post-World Cup transfer madness that comes mid-season for the first time. This already seems like the hottest of times.
This should also be a source of dissatisfaction. Part of the huge public uproar last summer was that the European Super League would scrap its domestic season structure. Take a look at the shock waves from Qatar 2022 and it’s pretty clear that the same forces in another guise – the greed of nation-state football, as opposed to the greed of cartel clubs – have achieved the same thing from a different angle.
And while there’s nothing in place now to prevent a return next season, four years on, in uncharted waters, it’s easy to feel a little dubious. Another Super League brouhaha, another act of force majeure, another ripper, another break. Time goes on. That seems like a reasonable question. Have we seen this best before?
This is perhaps an irresponsible, fin-de-siècle view. There is still a huge hunger for Premier League product, and a ringing broadcast income. Even in the intervening years the standard and level of interest has remained very high. But there are still some notes of uneasiness in anticipation of what might actually happen.
On the one hand, the Premier League field looks as strong as ever. Spurs on the other hand spent large parts of the summer as third favorites to win it. The change of ownership has shaken up the field at Chelsea, in a league where Manchester City’s title reign is in danger of becoming a minor for neutrality.
The Premier League is, we hear (often from the Premier League) never standing still or standing still. Maybe the new season can offer us something truly valuable, if not new champions, then new contenders, a boost from the pack energized by these outside forces.
It still seems strange to suggest that a Manchester United revival could lead to an interesting underdog story, although Erik ten Hag’s early clarity has already been marred by a familiar ghost of the club’s notoriously corrupt culture. Arsenal scored well but in the end, Arsenal stay. Maybe a team with fewer World Cup players, Aston Villa or Crystal Palace or Brighton, might make a real play for the top four.
Otherwise Liverpool will still be very strong. City will be challenged by an impressive tactical backlash around that impressive new presence up front. But they will also benefit from the World Cup break: the Pep-Erling relationship is likely to be defined by some furious work over the next few weeks.
At the other end it’s hard to look past at least two more struggling clubs, and some further change from Everton, as well as Leeds who are hard to call either way.
Apart from this we can take advantage of the five substitutes used, and some younger referee appointments. Plus, on a note of confidence in normalcy, there’s a new ball once again. The Nike Flight is basically the same ball as before. That AerowSculpt technology still “gives true flight”. But the ball will also carry markings dating back to the first Premier League ball in 1992.
It feels like a wonderfully soothing note of nostalgia at odd times. Moving forward. This too shall pass. But not without another season of dangerous life.