Somehow, it is that time again. Cue the dramatic music, crank up the content generator and get ready to absorb the hottest takes around: the Premier League season is upon us once again.
Quite what form this edition of soccer’s great hubristic soap opera will take is, of course, not yet clear. That, after all, is the fun of the thing.
As the 20 teams in the richest league in the world return to the field this weekend, though, there are several questions that linger over everything. How they are answered will go a long way to determining how things play out.
The obvious question before the start of every new Premier League season is which team is likely to have won the thing at the end. Unfortunately, in the current incarnation of the league, it is not a particularly interesting inquiry. Manchester City will win it, as it has four of the past five editions, and it will most likely do so by seeing off a spirited but ultimately futile challenge from Liverpool. Although, this time, there is just one small caveat.
The idea that Erling Haaland’s presence will somehow disrupt City’s rhythm sufficiently to impact the team has been overblown; it may be an awkward marriage for a few months, but both are more than good enough to thrive despite that.
Far more important is the fact that Haaland is currently just one of 16 senior outfield players at Pep Guardiola’s disposal. That would be a risk in a normal season. This one has a great big World Cup in the middle, making it seem like a colossal gamble.
It sounds like damning Arsenal with faint praise to suggest that Mikel Arteta’s team has won the preseason — largely because it is — but, amid all of the hype and exaggeration, the last few weeks have produced some genuinely encouraging signs for the Spaniard and his fellow documentary stars.
Gabriel Jesus, certainly, has the capacity to be a transformational signing, and his former Manchester City teammate Oleksandr Zinchenko may not be far behind. Arsenal looks like a much more complete side than it did a year ago. Not one ready to challenge City or Liverpool, perhaps, but one that could end the club’s long exile from the Champions League.
The biggest obstacle to Arsenal’s resurrection sits just down the road. Not at Chelsea, where a chaotic transfer window will most likely end with a stronger and yet somehow less coherent squad, but at a Tottenham transformed by Antonio Conte, the sort of supernova coach who comes in, pushes his players to the limit and then implodes. The worry, when he arrived at Spurs, was that the club had an almost diametrically opposed approach.
That, it seems, was not a problem. Tottenham is very much in win-now mode. Ivan Perisic, Richarlison and Yves Bissouma have been brought in to turn a side good enough to get into the Champions League last year into one that can push for the title. Given the strangeness of the season, that does not seem impossible. Spurs has one chance under Conte, effectively. It has done all it can to take it.
In what may have been the purest distillation of modern soccer imaginable, Cristiano Ronaldo received a rapturous reception upon his return to Old Trafford last weekend. Manchester United’s fans clearly wanted him to know how much he meant to them, even as he has made it very obvious he does not wish to remain at the club.
Roughly 45 minutes later, having been substituted, Ronaldo was leaving the stadium at halftime, very much against the wishes of his manager, Erik ten Hag, and apparently convinced that he did not need to stick around.
There has, believe it or not, been progress at Manchester United this summer. Ten Hag is a smart appointment. The club has made a couple smart signings. But it is a curious progress, one tempered by the fact that United does not appear to have a list of recruits beyond players ten Hag knew and liked and undercut by the Ronaldo saga. As things stand, he may be forced to stay merely because nobody else wants to sign him. How ten Hag handles that will define the early months of his reign.
In one view, this season should be the best chance since 2016 for a team outside the traditional Big Six to make a run for a place in the Champions League. The whole campaign will be affected by the World Cup, and it is hardly ridiculous to suggest that the superpowers — stocked as they are by players headed to Qatar — may be more susceptible to fatigue in the aftermath.
Whether any team can emerge from the pack, though, is a different matter. Newcastle ended last season on a Saudi-bankrolled high, but it has been substantially quieter than the LIV golf series this summer. Leicester and Wolves seem to be stagnating. That leaves, perhaps, West Ham — bolstered by a couple of smart additions — as the only viable candidate. More likely still, of course, is that David Moyes’s team cannot last the pace either and that at the end of a season unlike any other, everything will be precisely the same as before.