Sports FOOTBALL Ready, ready, stop: the two-half Premier League season is...

Ready, ready, stop: the two-half Premier League season is here

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TThe Bible arrives quickly in the mail as soon as the promotion is guaranteed. The Premier League handbook is 666 pages this season, and for newcomers to the faith, every word of it can be gospel. For example, there are 15 separate rules for floodlights (which must provide an average illumination of at least 1000 lux, measured at 96 precise points on the field). There must be at least 50 journalists in the press box (compared to 40 at the Championship). Positions for TV commentators must be at least three meters wide and one meter deep. Kit providers must be informed in writing of the Premier League’s minimum price ban. And so on and so forth, a bureaucratic epic that at least demonstrates the extent to which this product is curated, demarcated, thought out to the smallest degree.

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Order out of chaos: this is the essence of the Premier League, in many ways the essence of football. You plan, plan, and train in the distant hope that nine months from now some truth will finally come out of the hand-to-hand combat. But that never happens. There is always some possibility or circumstance that was not foreseen in advance, some indomitable force that only becomes apparent in retrospect. Given a sufficiently long time period, chaos always wins.

Everyone knew that this season would come in seven years. The decision to postpone the World Cup in Qatar was announced by FIFA in 2015, but for much of the intervening period, colossal turmoil was just a blur on the horizon. Also, of all the atrocities of Qatar 2022, match disruptions have always been at the bottom of the list. Now the consequences are unavoidable. For the first time in the history of English football, the national campaign will be split in half by the men’s World Cup.

Once we get used to the weirdness of it all – a slightly easier task in a post-COVID world – the main question is how this can be. According to one point of view, the biggest clubs will suffer the most, in which a whole galaxy of the best international stars spend a month in the desert heat. Manchester City lose all defense. Nottingham Forest, with the likely exceptions of Neko Williams, Brennan Johnson and Wayne Hennessy, had a great winter break. Alternatively, you could argue that the deepest teams will be able to do the best, aided by the new rule allowing teams to use five subs.

Manchester City are in contention for their third consecutive Premier League title and fifth in six seasons. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

It’s a roundabout way of admitting that we really have no idea what’s going to happen next. Has there ever been a season with a lot of unknowns, new and moving parts, teams in motion and teams in transition? Even the relegation battle seems wildly open: Forest are spending heavily, Bournemouth are barely spending, and Fulham are unrecognizably different from the side that was relegated in 2021 and is still, oddly enough, made up of the same substance.

Forest looks like the most likely of the three to keep his head above the water, with a smart coach in Steve Cooper and a play style full of energy and purpose, quick switches and lightning-fast counterattacks. Leeds have invested heavily since the loss of Rafinha and Calvin Phillips, but remain a fragile trifle: close-knit and well-trained, but still prone to violent mood swings. Everton, despite a messy pre-season, can’t be as bad as last year. But at some point they will need functional midfield.

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Usually at least one well-established club drags to the basement. Southampton have been defying gravity for years now, an atrophied side only holding together by the energy of Ralph Hasenhüttl and a host of academy graduates from major clubs. Brentford is still enjoying the view but needs everything this season to succeed. Brighton, Wolves and Crystal Palace should be safe. West Ham would be an exciting prospect if they can add Filip Kostic at left-back to sign Gianluca Scamacca to score his crosses, though Kostic has been reluctant to join so far.

Leicester have been unlucky with injuries in the past couple of seasons and could challenge the top six again if they can keep their first team fit. Aston Villa look attractive, with competition in all positions and plenty of academic prospects on the cusp of maturity. Newcastle is perhaps the most unknown of all. A calm summer on the transfer front suggests they’re happy with a mid-table consolidation season, even if the Saudi takeover fans can expect a lot more.

And so on to the first six, where the feeling of chaos is more acute than ever. How will Liverpool and Manchester City deal with the transition to a more traditional one-man scheme? Erling Haaland – machine or man? Could Darwin Nunez be worth £85m? Is Tottenham Real? Is Gabriel Jesus really going to score 25 goals for Arsenal in a season? Is it smart to try to play Ajaxball with Cristiano Ronaldo in front? And what exactly are Chelsea these days?

The era after Roman Abramovich brings only confusion and discontent to SW6. New owner Todd Boeli has secured the necessary A-list contracts – Raheem Sterling and Kalidou Koulibaly are serious players – but it’s still interesting where goals come from. Manchester United looked impressive in pre-season under Erik ten Hag. Ronaldo was absent. These two facts may not be related. Yet a decade of accumulated dysfunction will take much more than one summer to reverse. Meanwhile, Arsenal have maintained their full potential for the 14th consecutive season.

Can Antonio Conte and Harry Kane become Tottenham title contenders after finishing fourth last season?
Can Antonio Conte and Harry Kane become Tottenham title contenders after finishing fourth last season? Photo: MB Media/Getty Images

For the defending champions, Haaland’s signing is an undeniable positive: City will still play much the same, only the odds that once fell on Sterling or Gabriel Jesus will now fall on Haaland to score them. Even 90% of City will win the Premier League this season. In fact, there are only two caveats to be made.

Firstly, Pep Guardiola’s team will lose about 16 players at the World Cup: almost the entire starting lineup minus Haaland and Riyad Mahrez. Liverpool, by contrast, can only leave with nine or ten, with Mo Salah, Luis Diaz, Naby Keita and Andy Robertson resting. In a busy season when mental and physical stamina will be vital, this may be enough to bridge the gap.

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Another unknown is Tottenham. As fantastic as it sounds when describing Matt Doherty as a potential Premier League champion, Antonio Conte has done a lot of strange things in his coaching career. The Spurs have stepped up in every area, from defense to attack to fitness. The midfield lineup of Rodrigo Bentancur and Yves Bissouma looks really exciting. Obviously it’s hard to imagine that they will actually win because… Tottenham. But of the teams looking to break the duopoly, they are the best looking right now.

By the way, feel free to come back in May and have a good laugh about it all. The point is that a league crippled by greed and inequality, the same relentless capitalist impulses that have ravaged so much of our society, should feel balanced and predictable. That this is not the case is perhaps a testament to the Premier League’s enduring instinct for self-preservation, a league that, for all its overblown grotesqueness, will somehow find a way to never be boring. The spotlights are set. The portals have been measured. Kit providers notified. Let chaos reign.

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