November 28, 2023

Somehow, it’s that time again. Plug in the dramatic music, fire up the content creation and get ready to soak up the hottest happenings: the Premier League season is once again upon us.

What form this great abusive football soap opera will take is, of course, not yet clear. That, after all, is the fun of it.

As the 20 teams in the world’s richest league return to the pitches this weekend, however, there are plenty of questions hanging over them all. How they answer will go a long way in determining how things turn out.

The obvious question before the start of every new Premier League season is which team is likely to have won the thing in the end. Unfortunately, in the league’s current incarnation, it’s not a particularly interesting investigation. Manchester City will win it, as they have in four of the last five editions, and will likely do so seeing off a spirited but ultimately futile challenge from Liverpool. Although, this time, there is only a small caveat.

The idea that Erling Haaland’s presence will somehow disrupt City’s rhythm enough to affect the squad has been outdone. it might be an awkward marriage for a few months, but both are good enough to thrive despite it.

Far more important is the fact that Haaland is currently just one of 16 senior away players at Pep Guardiola’s disposal. That would be a risk in a regular season. This one has a big World Cup in the middle, which makes it seem like a colossal gamble.

It sounds like damning Arsenal with faint praise to suggest that Mikel Arteta’s side have won preseason – mostly because they have – but, amid all the hype and hype, recent weeks have provided some genuinely encouraging signs for the Spaniard and co-star of the documentary.

Gabriel Jesus certainly has the ability to be a transformative signing and his former Manchester City team-mate Oleksandr Zinchenko may not be far behind. Arsenal look much more complete than they did a year ago. Not one ready to challenge City or Liverpool, perhaps, but one who could end the club’s long exile from the Champions League.

The biggest obstacle to Arsenal’s resurrection lies just down the road. Not at Chelsea, where a chaotic transfer window will likely end with a stronger and yet less cohesive squad, but at a Tottenham transformed by Antonio Conte, the kind of supernova manager who comes in, pushes his players to the limit and then explodes . . The concern, when he arrived at Spurs, was that the club took an almost diametrically opposed approach.

This, it seems, was not a problem. Tottenham are very much in win-now mode. Ivan Perisic, Richarlison and Yves Bissouma have been added to turn a team good enough to enter the Champions League last year into one that can push for the title. Given the strangeness of the season, that doesn’t seem impossible. Spurs actually have a chance under Conte. He has done everything he can to get it.

In what may have been the purest distillation of modern football imaginable, Cristiano Ronaldo received a rapturous welcome on his return to Old Trafford last weekend. Manchester United fans clearly wanted him to know how much he meant to them, even though he has made it very clear that he does not wish to stay at the club.

Some 45 minutes later, having been substituted, Ronaldo was walking off the pitch at half-time, much against the wishes of his manager, Erik ten Haag, and apparently convinced he didn’t need to stay.

Believe it or not, there has been progress at Manchester United this summer. Ten Hag is a smart date. The club have made some smart signings. But it’s a strange progression, tempered by the fact that United don’t seem to have a list of recruits beyond the players the ten Hogs knew and liked and were undermined by the Ronaldo saga. As things stand, he may be forced to stay just because no one else wants to sign him. How he handles ten Hags that will define the first months of his reign.

In one sense, this season should be the best chance since 2016 for a team outside the traditional Big Six to make a run for a Champions League spot. The entire campaign will be affected by the World Cup, and it’s not far-fetched to suggest that the superpowers — stocked as they are by players heading to Qatar — might be more prone to fatigue afterwards.

Whether any team can break out of the pack, however, is a different matter. Newcastle finished last season with a big money haul from Saudi Arabia, but have been much quieter than the LIV Golf Series this summer. Leicester and Wolves seem to be stagnant. That leaves, perhaps, West Ham – bolstered by some smart additions – as the only viable contenders. More likely, of course, is that David Moyes’ side can’t keep up the pace and that at the end of a season unlike any other, everything will be exactly as it was before.

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