The Absolute State of Things: The Premier League, 2019/20
There has been a curious irony about this summer’s media coverage of the Premier League, which has been that considerably less of it has been about the top two than it has been about the clubs who finished in the positions below them at the end of last season. Perhaps there is just little left to say about them. Superlatives can start to sound repetitive after a while, and when teams have had seasons of the sort they’ve just had, there’s little else to talk about. Manchester City won the domestic treble by the skin of their teeth, though such was the quality of their football that it never felt in doubt. Liverpool were pipped to the Premier League, but satisfied themselves with the Champions League instead.
The loss of Leroy Sane after he suffered anterior cruciate ligament damage is a blow for City, even if that blow is “only” the sudden cancellation of Bayern Munich’s interest in the player. He is likely to be out for several months at least, and the most appropriate thing to say right now is get well soon, Leroy. Not that he’ll see these words, but you know. Otherwise, they’ve signed a two further outstanding players in Rodri, from the rapidly dissolving Atletico Madrid team – a replacement, possibly featuring Kieran Trippier is on the way, and if that doesn’t sound odd enough, they recently put seven goals past Real Madrid in one of The Pre-Season Global Reach & Merchandising Cup – and Joao Cancelo joining from Juventus, with Danilo as a part-make-weight in the deal. I don’t know how anybody can be said to have made up significant ground on this team of all talents.
Last season, Liverpool won a club record number of points and were the European champions. It just so happens that there was one team an iota better than them in the division. The obvious thing to say is, why not stick when you’ve come that close? They only had to make one more mistake over the course of a 38 game season and Liverpool would have blind-sided them. It’s surely not already inconceivable that they could, is it? Of course, the same could be said for Liverpool, but the fact remains that there was practically nothing between these two teams last season. Not changing
With both clubs only having made relatively minor changes over the course of the summer (yes, Manchester City have still spent more than £120m (though Danilo makes up £34m of that), but the core of each team remains fundamentally unchanged this season), there isn’t really much to say apart from wonder aloud whether seasons like the last are exceptions, or whether they’re becoming the new rule. We’ll have a better idea within a few weeks of the start of the season. Far more interesting are the four clubs just below them, all of whom have had curious seasons, though not necessarily for the reasons that they might have wanted.
Arsenal started the summer slowly and were briefly the subject of a flare-up of demonstration against the owners on the part of the supporters. So many players have been linked with them that it feels difficult to remember who’s joined and who hasn’t. Arsenal, it has rather felt, hadn’t fully grasped their post-Wenger identity yet. They’ve signed Nicolas Pepe for 75% more than they claimed their entire transfer budget for the summer was, and this morning they also brought in David Luiz from Chelsea, so who knows? And then there’s Dani Ceballos, on a well-advised sabbatical from the hot mess that is Real Madrid. They could end the season anywhere between third and sixth – no, I don’t think they’ll go any lower than that – but it doesn’t look as though they’ve done enough to close the gap on the top two. Lazacette, Pepe and Aubemayang would make for an exciting front three, though. It’s as though Aaron Ramsey never existed.
Spurs, meanwhile, did finally spend some money on some players, but there remain signs of cracks in the armour at the club at present. Christian Eriksen wants away, though today’s reports seem to indicate that he would prefer to play in Spain now rather than go to Manchester United. There have also been questions marks hanging over both Danny Rose – Rose was the subject of two rejected bids from Watford, today – and Toby Alderweireld, whilst Kieran Trippier has gone to Atletico Madrid, in one of the summer’s more surprising transfer moves so far. The (highly sought-after) manager has made further comments almost openly questioning his role within the club.
This started to feel like a team that was on the point of entropy, as though it was at the point of breaking up, but new players have arrived. The new arrivals are Giovani Lo Celso, on loan from Real Betis, Tanguy Ndombele, about whom great things have been said, from Lyon, and Ryan Sessegnon, who lost his way a little at Fulham last season – who didn’t? – but who remains a player worth developing. No-one around Tottenham Hotspur seems to have been disproportionately disappointed by losing last season’s Champions League final, and anoher top four finish would probably suffice, for this season. And of course, it’s time to get settled into that new stadium.
Manchester United, as is their wont, have been flailing around, occasionally throwing money around and showing themselves as what they are: a football club without a director of football. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James both offer the prospect of pace and dynamism in a team that hasn’t had a great deal in years. £80m on Harry Maguire is a lot of money, but he’s a very good defender. If that’s too subjective for you, he’s a very expensive defender. The most expensive defender of all time, as it goes. The players signed so far go part of the way, but if they’re going to make up anything like the thirty-two points that they were behind Manchester City last season or the thirty points that they were behind Liverpool, Manchester United surely need considerably more than this.
There also remain problems that haven’t simply evaporated with time. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sunny disposition cannot disguise United’s slump over the latter stages of last season, whilst The Paul Pogba Situation (which is not, as we might have hoped, a jazz-rock band) seems to deflating like an old balloon into an uncomfortable state of detente. Will he stay or will he go? Like whatever, dude. Still, at least they’ve finally offloaded Romelu Lukaku to Inter. It’s entirely possible that he would have ended up being a disruptive influence at Old Trafford had he stayed.
Chelsea are taking leaps into the unknown. The transfer embargo remains in place, and the decision to replace Maurizio Sarri with Frank Lampard’s Frank Lampard is a fascinating window onto something about which we all speculate a lot: how important is experience, and how important is it to “get” a club? There was little in Lampard’s one season as a Championship manager with Derby County to suggest that he might be an elite-level European football manager, but Chelsea have taken that leap nevertheless. It might be considered that during a transfer window is a good time to try Lampard out, while expectations for the team are modest. Or perhaps this was always promised to him. Whatever. Chelsea’s inertia in the transfer market has given Lampard the chance to fully acquaint himself with his players. Eden Hazard is obviously a huge loss, but everybody knows Chelsea’s habit of winning things when it looks like everything might be falling to pieces.
Below the top six, the scent of blood is in the air. Everton, Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and others have already identified that Manchester United finished bottom of the Top Six Super League with 66 points, and may well be considering that a plausible points total for them to get to. Everton’s summer has been primarily fuelled by two shiny new trinkets, Moise Kean and reducing Goodison Park to a pile of rubble and building a steel and plate glass enorm-o-dome on the banks of the River Mersey. Last season they were a curate’s egg, as capable of beating Manchester United at home by four goals as they were of losing to Spurs at home by the same margin. However, they have convinced André Gomes that a permanent move from Barcelona is a good idea, whilst the arrival of Fabian Delph for £8.5m from Manchester City after 57 appearances throughout the four middle years of his career, and he could be an outstanding addition that brings considerable experience to the team.
Leicester City may have sold The (Now Official, For The Next 12 Hours At Least) Most Expensive Defender In The World this week, but they have signed Ayoze Pérez and committed Youri Tielemans to a long-term contract and, whilst there remain people who would prefer that we all believe that Brendan Rodgers is a dunderhead who understands more about his own sense of self-importance than he does about football, his appointment seems to have been a decent fit for the club, and Leicester seem to be moving in the right direction despite the slab-shaped hole currently showing in the centre of their defence this morning. They did, however, miss out on Lewis Dunk.
In a calcified Premier League, Wolverhampton Wanderers were the surprise package of last season. They’ve already started the tournament that offers the greatest threat to that seventh placed finish last time around. How will the club manage the twin challenges of the Europa League and trying to improve further upon last season’s seventh place? They have a small-ish squad and have had a relatively quiet summer, but how much will that turn out to matter? Morgan Gibbs-White and Rúben Vinagre are two of the most exciting young players in the Premier League, whilst they retain the services of Diogo Jota, one of the most inventive player of last season. Last time around, Wolves proved themselves against the bigger clubs but failed to impress themselves upon the relative flotsam and jetsam. If they can unpick the latter of those, then sixth place wouldn’t be beyond them.
Below these three sit the comfortably numb, those clubs who will be thinking that they can challenge Wolves Leicester and Everton, and can therefore challenge for a place in the top six, without being overly concerned that they’ll get dragged into a demeaning relegation scrap. Watford‘s chastening FA Cup final experience in May will likely have tempered the wildest hopes and dreams of some, but Tom Dele-Bashiru is highly thought of and has signed for Watford rather than taking a Pardewesque six year contract at Manchester City, while the signing of banter’s Danny Welbeck on a free transfer following Arsenal’s decision not to renew his contract sounds like a gamble worth taking, should he finally be able to go a season without injury whilst showing some of the form that excited so many, earlier in his career.
West Ham United have made two ‘statement of intent signings’, in the form of the £69m dropped on Pablo Fornals from Villareal and Sebastian Haller from Eintracht Frankfurt, whilst the further development of Declan Rice might help strengthen the spine of a team that feels a little more stable than it has over the last two or three seasons. Southampton spent too much of last season either stuck in the relegation bear-pit or looking over their shoulders, but the arrival of Che Adams from Birmingham City adds a little more punch in attack, and the feeling is that Ralph Hasenhüttl has got the club moving in the right direction again after the asset-stripping that followed their earlier successes knocked the club off course a little.
Bournemouth remain dependent on Eddie Howe’s ability to get blood out of stones. Even though they’ve spent almost £45m this summer, three of the four players they’ve brought in have been from the Championship whilst the other is Harry Wilson, who is registered to Liverpool but is now on his fourth spell out on loan. Burnley, it rather feels, can get back to normal this season after the enormous distraction that the Europa League seemed to be on their already stretched resources. They steered clear of relegation with a little to spare, but will not be wanting to cut things that fine again.
The three newly-promoted clubs have gone about their new challenge in somewhat different ways. Aston Villa have already spent all of their Premier League television money for this season but haveat least also cleared away much of the driftwood that seemed to characterise the club’s spell in the recent wilderness to offset this. Jack Grealish, the John McGinn and Conor Hourihane was the midfield triumvirate that got the club into the Premier League in the first place, and they have enough fluidity and invention to keep them there, whilst the permanent signing of Tyrone Mings offers some continuity in a team that is otherwise going to look very different to that which staggered over the line at the play-off final.
The two clubs promoted automatically have been a little more frugal with their spending. Norwich City have spent much of the last decade failing to make their minds up whether they should be playing the Championship or the Premier League, but after two straight mid-table finishes last season’s title win was a definite surprise, no matter what some might say, and they bring quality up with them, in particular Teemu Pukki, whose performances in front of goal last season were the most sprakling of any player in the Championship, and a host of young talent, including Max Aarons, Jamal Lewis, Ben Godfrey and Todd Cantwell. Norwich’s summer in the transfer market has been quiet – a couple of loans and frees, and £750,000 spent on West Ham’s Sam Byram – so they presumably feel that last season’s team has enough about it to stay up this time around.
Somewhere between Aston Villa’s expansiveness and Norwich City’s frugality sit Sheffield United. A quarter of the clubs in the Premier League will have managers making their debut as a coach at this level at the weekend, but Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder might have been the best coach in the country over the last four years years, taking Northampton Town to the League Two title in 2017 before decamping to Bramall Lane, where he took Sheffield United up from League One, consolidated their position in that division, and then took them up again last season. They’re the pre-season relegation favourites, but they broke their club transfer record twice this summer, then broke it in bringing Lys Mousset from Bournemouth for £10m, and then broke it again with the signature of Oliver McBurnie from Swansea City. There’s plenty of potential and a manager who has proved himself repeatedly over the last few years, but this really is a step into the unknown for them, this time around.
Norwich City and Sheffield United are expected to return from whence they came this season, but Aston Villa’s spending should be be enough to keep them comfortably clear and it’s plenty possible that Norwich, Sheffield United, or both could survive. It’s rare that all three promoted teams do manage to stay up, but neither of these two teams look quite as ill-prepared as Fulham and Cardiff City this time last year. And Cardiff probably should have stayed up. As such, the remaining teams are probably all likely to be looking over their shoulders come the end of the season, and anywhere between none of them and three of them will drop.
Brighton & Hove Albion had gone as far as they could with Chris Hughton, and the departure was done with considerable appreciation for everything he’d achieved. Great things are said of Graham Potter, and Brighton will definitely look look different next season. Bruno, the captain who was the subject of a mural in the North Laines in the town centre, has retired, whilst Antony Knockaert, whose father’s death brought the entire club together, has gone on a year-long loan to Fulham. For better or worse, this Brighton team will not be the same.
There is a possibility that Brighton could get tied up in a relegation tangle with Crystal Palace, this season. Palace have held onto Wilfried Zaha, though it’s difficult to shake the feeling that this could be something of a pyrrhic victory. A move to Arsenal was all lined up, but Arsenal’s bid was just too low. The same went for Everton’s bid. He now has to get all of that behind him and play for Palace this season. Meanwhile, they’ve also lost their brightest player, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, to Manchester United. He has not been adequately replaced, and matching last season’s twelfth place looks like a tall order.
And then there’s Newcastle United. Rafael Benitez left the club earlier in the summer. Newcastle United’s replacement for him was Steve Bruce, which is like swapping a nice glass of rioja for a bottle of Sarsons. Then Bruce’s departure from Sheffield Wednesday became dragged out and, to be honest, didn’t show Bruce in the best possible light. They also lost their two top scorers from last season, Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez. The transfer window has seen them hurl £40m at Hoffenheim for Joelinton, a striker who has spent the last two years out on loan at Rapid Vienna, where he scored sixteen goals in sixty matches, and the return of Andy Carroll may go some way towards definitively proving – or otherwise – the theory of evolution.
All of this, of course, will be taking place under the watchful eye of the Robo-Ref. So far those in charge have been seeking to reassure those who believe that VAR has “gone too far.” As Mike Riley of PGMOL said last month: “We don’t want VAR to come in and try to re-referee the game. We actually want it to protect the referees from making serious errors, the ones everybody’s goes, ‘Well, actually, that’s wrong.'” How this will be interpreted in actual game-play is, of course, open to question. All we can say with a reasonable degree of confidence is that yes, mistakes of some form or another will probably be made, because human beings are involved at some stages in the process, and that no, it’s not going anywhere, and one day our great-great grandchildren will laugh at us over this complete mish-mash when they have fully automated officiating with extremely angry, firearm-toting referees. Or, as they’ll be called by the year 2100, “deciders.”
But there’s other unhappiness in the air, as well. Talk of a European Super League remains a hum in the background, and with the reaction to it – as it always, always is – highly negative, there’s a chance that the likelihood of it happening has receded a little, for now. Or perhaps the idea that clubs run by plutocrats are ever going to take into account the wishes of supporters is wildly over-optimistic. Few seem to have any illusions that club owners are interested in anything other than their own very narrow band of self-interest any more, and in that feeling of tired resignation we can see the hopelessness of the position of supporters these days. Gate receipts are less important than they used to be because they make up a smaller proportion of overall revenue than ever. Domestic television revenues are now making up a smaller proportion of the overall rights market. We matter less than we ever have done before in material terms to football clubs.
None of this is to say that we don’t have any uses at all, though, especially if we can be weaponised, and these days the relationship between clubs and supporters doesn’t even have to solely be about the football. Club owners now have their Sportswashing Armies Of The Night, who swarm across every discussion of their clubs on social media, only too happy to toe the party line on whichever self-serving piece of propaganda these particular warlords and carpet-baggers want to disseminate, or to seek to discredit every latest report on their heroes that isn’t the stream of hagiography that many seem to want these days as bias, conspiracy, or otherwise a plot to uphold existing hegemonies. To be the supporter of a professional football club these days frequently requires us to leave our consciences (and, to an increasing degree, our sanity) at the front door to some extent or other whomever you support, these days. But that’s the modern world for you.
And then, of course, there’s the racism and other assorted forms of shittiness that seem so popular at the moment. The Football League’s opening weekend saw its first allegation of the season made, against two Fulham supporters during their team’s trip to Barnsley, and it’s doubtful that there will be too much of a wait before the first allegations are made in the Premier League. The racists have become emboldened, and there continue to be reports of attempts to infiltrate club support bases. Will the silent majority stand up and isolate these people as they should do? Probably not. We’ll keep telling ourselves that it’s a tiny minority, that they’re not like us, and that they’re not “real fans” because the alternatives are somewhat unpalatable, all the time apparently oblivious to the evidence of our own eyes and ears. Some well-meaning individual or group may start a campaign against the hate, but it’ll only take a few minutes before the snarklords eat into it, rendering it a meme and nothing more. Again, though, that’s the modern world. There’s no place for sincerity any more, not when hate can be monetised through the manipulation of social media and people’s emotions.
So, there you go. Melodrama. Racism. More money than it can possibly be healthy to share amongst so few people. VAR correctness gone mad. Proxy wars between Middle Eastern nations. Welcome to the Premier League in 2019. It’s a beautiful day, now football’s here again.