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It’s back! The ever-changing, unignorable Premier League returns

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/08/2018 Paul Wilson
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05: Sergio Aguero of Manchester City celebrates scoring the opening goal during the FA Community Shield between Manchester City and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on August 5, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Offside/Getty Images) © 2018 Marc Atkins/Offside LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05: Sergio Aguero of Manchester City celebrates scoring the opening goal during the FA Community Shield between Manchester City and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on August 5, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Offside/Getty Images)

It was an enjoyable summer, though nothing actually came home apart from a faintly irritating argument over whether the lyrics of a certain song portray England fans as wistful dreamers or arrogant chumps. Hopefully that discussion can be shelved for four more years now, ideally even longer, for to misquote the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, here comes the unignorable Premier League, prancing up and down the square.

Whether little old ladies will stop and say “Well, I declare!” is debatable, but what is not is that within just a few weeks of the return of the domestic programme international football will be back in its box, a pleasant but distant memory already starting to fade.

Watch: Klopp: Liverpool like Rocky Balboa (Sky Sports)

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International football of the quadrennial tournament type, that is. It seems idle to pretend that what we spend the winter months watching in this country is not simply another version of international football, a compact and entertaining collation of many of the leading talents from around the world, and this is part of the reason why the sentiment “football’s coming home” strikes some as presumptuous. It is not hard to follow the reasoning. If this is the so-called “home” of football, how come the managers of last season’s top six were all from overseas? How is it that the Premier League, now in its 27th iteration, has still never been won by a club with an Englishman at the helm? Only one English player – Wayne Rooney – has been named PFA player of the year in the last dozen seasons.

Though Premier League clubs appear 14 times as buyers or sellers in the 20 biggest transfer deals of the last decade, no English player has been involved. When the new season gets under way almost two-thirds of clubs will be under foreign ownership, and – perhaps as a result – a mere four English managers will be represented. This is not the most healthy or desirable situation, and critics are quite right to warn that young English prospects such as Phil Foden and Rhian Brewster will do well to get sufficient game time to be ready for the next World Cup. Heck, now that Manchester City have signed Riyad Mahrez even Raheem Sterling might not get enough game time to be ready for the next World Cup. Yet reckless competitiveness is the unique selling point that makes the Premier League so wealthy and watchable. It does not exist to make the England manager’s job easier, nor can it guarantee a sensible, logical career structure whereby a promising local talent can make his way in the game.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 16:  (L-R) Claudio Ranieri Manager of Leicester City and captain Wes Morgan of Leicester City show the trophy to the fans during the Leicester City Barclays Premier League winners bus parade on May 16, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images) © 2016 Getty Images LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 16: (L-R) Claudio Ranieri Manager of Leicester City and captain Wes Morgan of Leicester City show the trophy to the fans during the Leicester City Barclays Premier League winners bus parade on May 16, 2016 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images) The top six has solidified and strengthened since the wake-up call that was Leicester City’s title win in 2016

Very little about the Premier League is sensible or logical, but that is sort of the point. This is not long-view football: even recently retired performers such as Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes are starting to be regarded as anachronistic by virtue of having spent their entire careers at the same club. Now that Arsène Wenger has departed, the concept of managers sticking around for a couple of decades will soon begin to be viewed through the same prism. The Premier League is all about the here and now. It might attract some of the best managerial talent around, on some of the fattest salaries, but José Mourinho is going to be in the firing line if Manchester United end up living in the shadow of their neighbours once again.

Similarly Jürgen Klopp went all the way to the Champions League final last season yet must start once more with the pressure of securing a top-four finish. Liverpool’s enormous spending – they have just revamped their midfield and added a £65m goalkeeper to the world’s most expensive defender – suggests their sights are set higher. Having been the only English team to seriously trouble Manchester City last season Klopp’s side appears to be gearing up for a title challenge, even if the record total of 100 points City chalked up in establishing themselves as champions means the bar has now been set higher than at any time since the era of Liverpool’s league dominance came to an end.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 23: Arsenal unveil their new manager Unai Emery at the Emirates Stadium on May 23, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images) © 2018 The Arsenal Football Club Plc LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 23: Arsenal unveil their new manager Unai Emery at the Emirates Stadium on May 23, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

With new managers in at Arsenal and Chelsea – the two big names to miss out on Champions League qualification last season – just staying in the top four will not be easy, although one could look at it the other way and conclude Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri face being branded failures after just one campaign if they fail to deliver the upward shift their owners demand. The two most high-profile newcomers are contrasting figures – Emery made a name for himself by winning three Europa League titles with Sevilla but has yet to show he can effect the same kind of improvement at a bigger club, while the volatile, chain-smoking Sarri has never won a thing in terms of silverware but managed to turn Napoli back into genuine Serie A contenders in three exciting seasons in the city of his birth. In terms of the top-four challenge at least one of them is almost certain to miss out. That is the nature of the Premier League, the numbers can never add up so excitement and disappointment will always be built into the constitution.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his side's first goal with Dele Alli during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at Wembley Stadium on February 10, 2018 in London, England.  (Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images) © 2018 Tottenham Hotspur FC LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his side's first goal with Dele Alli during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at Wembley Stadium on February 10, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images) England is lucky to have four or five realistic candidates going for the Premier League trophy each season.

One could say the same of a game of musical chairs, an activity English football occasionally resembles, though because of the high skill factor, the big names and huge risks involved, the Premier League almost always delivers on its promise of relentless entertainment. At least it does for followers of the most successful half-dozen teams in the country. There is no doubt the top six has solidified and strengthened since the wake-up call that was Leicester City’s title win in 2016, and there are signs that crashing the elite party has become harder than ever. Most leagues around the world only contain a few teams capable of winning the title, and in one sense England is lucky to have four or five realistic candidates going for the prize each season, though the flipside is that for a majority of clubs there is nothing on the horizon to get excited about beyond the annual necessity of mere survival.

Premier League: England is lucky to have four or five realistic candidates going for the Premier League trophy each season. © BPI/Rex/Shutterstock England is lucky to have four or five realistic candidates going for the Premier League trophy each season.

Yet survival need not always be a grim struggle, there are ways to do it in style, and any league that can send a club such as Burnley into Europe need not feel too bad about itself. Sean Dyche’s side began last season by beating the champions at Stamford Bridge and went on to claim a wholly unexpected seventh spot, with Dyche the highest placed English manager behind the six different nationalities above him. There is something deeply satisfying about Burnley doing well in the Premier League – one only has to visit Turf Moor to appreciate that not all of English football’s tradition and continuity has been swept away in the rush to embrace the new commercialism.

Now Wolves, another grand old English club, are taking their place in the top flight once more with a controversial though clearly effective recruitment model that allowed them to take the Championship by storm. While Nuno Espírito Santo’s side are unlikely to find the Premier League such a breeze, the Championship is universally recognised as a demanding test of endurance and anyone winning it by nine points deserves respect. Wolves could be pushing for the European places this season or they could be battling relegation – it is genuinely hard to say. For all its faults and inequalities, the Premier League’s capacity to surprise remains one of its most valuable assets.

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