Football

‘The biggest show in town’: All eyes return to the Premier League ahead of season like no other

When Erling Haaland and his camp were assessing where to move next, he watched a lot of Manchester City and Real Madrid to see how he might fit in. The discussion, however, kept coming back to one main debate. LaLiga’s comparative lack of intensity was appealing because a few years in Spain at this age would be hugely 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 consequence 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 European Super League in everything but name, the biggest show in town. This realisation 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 go wide-eyed and 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 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. That is emphasised by the fact 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. It could bring an unintended drop, even from the most professional. Many will be subconsciously “saving themselves”, in a way that is only natural. 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. There are then those who will suffer the disappointment of being told they won’t be going mid-season.

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 enjoy great tournaments tend to endure hangovers. The World Cup’s emotional intensity alone will sap players.

That may at once mean that the 2022-23 season is actually 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.

This is all presuming that their teams perform to the same level, of course, a proposition that is no longer a 100 per cent certainty.

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 recent certainties about the two have gone. They will be different, maybe not as good, but 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.

Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have overseen a summer of change

That touches on another slight concern for the Premier League, as it reaches his historic peak. It is arguably a nadir 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 that 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 feels like it will be over who finishes fourth out of United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

Mohamed Salah signed a new long-term contract with Liverpool

Antonio Conte put Spurs through an intense pre-season

Xural.com

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