The bible arrives quickly in the mail as soon as the promotion is guaranteed. This season’s Premier League Handbook is 666 pages long, and for new adherents of the faith, every word could very well be gospel. For example, there are 15 separate rules on spotlights (which must provide an average illuminance of at least 1000 lux, measured from 96 precise locations in the field). The press booth must accommodate at least 50 journalists (instead of 40 in the Championship). Television comment positions must be at least three meters wide and one meter deep. Kit suppliers must be informed in writing of the Premier League’s ban on minimum prices. And so on, a bureaucratic epic that, if nothing else, demonstrates the extent to which this product is cured, delimited, traced to a minimum.
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Order out of chaos: this is the very essence of the Premier League, in many ways the very essence of football. You plan, plot and train in the distant hope that after nine months, some truth finally emerges from the mess. But it never ends like that. There is always some eventuality or circumstance that was not anticipated, some indomitable force that only becomes apparent in retrospect. Given a long enough timeline, chaos always wins.
Everyone knew this season was coming for seven years. The decision to move the World Cup to Qatar was announced by FIFA in 2015, but for most of that time the colossal turnaround was simply a vague blur on the horizon. Also, of all the atrocities of Qatar 2022, the game stoppage has always been a little low on the list. Now the consequences can no longer be deflected. For the first time in English football history, a domestic campaign will be split by a men’s World Cup.
Once we’ve gotten used to the weirdness of it all – a slightly easier task in the post-Covid world – comes the basic question of how this can happen. One school of thought says the biggest clubs, with a galaxy of big international stars battling for a month in the desert heat, will suffer the most. Manchester City lose all defence. Nottingham Forest, with the likely exception of Neco Williams, Brennan Johnson and Wayne Hennessey, has a great winter break. Alternatively, you could argue that deeper teams will be able to cope better, encouraged by the new rule that allows teams to use five substitutes.
This is a roundabout way of admitting that we really have no idea what’s to come. Has there ever been a season with more unknowns, new and moving parts, teams in flux and teams in transition? Even the relegation battle looks very open, with Forest overspending, Bournemouth underspending and Fulham unrecognizable from the team that was relegated in 2021 and still curiously made of the same substance.
Forest looks like the most likely of the three to keep his head above water, with a smart trainer in Steve Cooper and a playstyle full of energy and purpose, quick exchanges and lightning-fast counterattacks. Leeds have invested heavily following the loss of Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips, but they remain a fragile little thing: cohesive and well-trained, but still prone to wild mood swings. Everton, despite a chaotic pre-season, can’t be as bad as they were last year. But at some point they will demand a functional midfield.
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Typically, at least one established club is dragged into the basement. Southampton have been defying gravity for years, a stunted team held together only by Ralph Hasenhüttl’s vigor and a hodgepodge of leftovers from big club academies. Brentford are still enjoying the view but will need everything to get their way this season. Brighton, Wolves and Crystal Palace should be pretty safe. West Ham will be a quietly exciting prospect if they can add Filip Kostic at left-back to the signing of Gianluca Scamacca to score his crosses, although Kostic has so far been reluctant to join.
Leicester have had bad luck with injuries over the past two seasons and could once again challenge the top six if they can keep their senior squad in shape. Aston Villa look attractive, with competition in every position and a handful of academy prospects on the cusp of maturity. Newcastle is perhaps the greatest unknown of all. A quiet summer on the transfer front suggests they are content with a season of mid-table consolidation, even if fans gorged on Saudi takeover money can expect much more.
And so on for the top six, where the sense of chaos is more acute than ever. How will Liverpool and Manchester City handle the transition to a more conventional single-target setup? Is Erling Haaland a machine or a man? Could Darwin Núñez be worth £85 million? Is Tottenham a real thing? Will Gabriel Jesus really get 25 goals a season from Arsenal? Is it sensible to try to play for Ajax with Cristiano Ronaldo up front? and what exactly are Chelsea nowadays?
Abramovich’s post-Roman era brings only discontent and discontent to SW6. New owner Todd Boehly has made the necessary A-list signings – Raheem Sterling and Kalidou Koulibaly are serious players – but you still wonder where goals come from. Manchester United were impressive in the pre-season under Erik ten Hag. Ronaldo was absent. These two facts may not be related. And yet, a decade of accumulated dysfunction will take much longer than a summer to reverse. For the 14th consecutive season, however, Arsenal remains at full potential.
For the defending champions, the signing of Haaland is an absolute positive: City will still play the same way, only the chances that were once Sterling or Gabriel Jesus will now go to Haaland, who will mark them. Even a 90% City will win the Premier League this season. There are really only two notes of caution to be sounded.
Firstly, Pep Guardiola’s team will lose around 16 players for the World Cup: virtually the entire starting lineup minus Haaland and Riyad Mahrez. Liverpool, on the other hand, can escape with just nine or 10, with Mo Salah, Luis Díaz, Naby Keïta and Andy Robertson resting. In a tight season where mental and physical stamina will be a vital point of difference, this could be enough to fill the gap.
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The other unknown is Tottenham. As fanciful as it may seem to describe Matt Doherty as a potential Premier League champion, Antonio Conte has made a lot of strange things happen in his coaching career. Spurs have strengthened in every area, from defense to offense to fitness. A midfield from Rodrigo Bentancur and Yves Bissouma looks genuinely exciting. Obviously it’s hard to see them actually winning the thing, because… Tottenham. But of the teams struggling to break the duopoly, they currently look like the best placed.
Feel free to come back in May and have a good laugh about it all, by the way. The point is that a league marked by greed and inequality, by the same relentless capitalist impulses that have squandered so much of our society, should look serene and predictable. Which isn’t perhaps a testament to the Premier League’s enduring instinct for self-preservation, a league that, for all its bloated grotesqueness, will somehow find a way to never be boring. The spotlight is ready. The porches were measured. Kit suppliers have been notified. Let chaos reign.