So, it wasn’t such a disaster staging a World Cup in the middle of the season — at least from a playing point of view. It turned out to be a great season and an even better World Cup. The players were battle-ready for their countries and carried on valiantly for their respective clubs.
The English Premier League (EPL) saw a genuine race for the title as well as for the final top four. Manchester City’s treble suggested a team for the ages. Manchester United stirred, Liverpool dozed, Arsenal revived, Tottenham crashed and Chelsea crashed and burned. Newcastle arrived, Brighton reached Europe for the first time and there was never a dull moment from top to bottom.
It was also a sad farewell to Leicester, miracle champions of 2016, but welcome to Luton, miracle comeback kids. You wouldn’t get either with a Super League.
NEW SEASON PREVIEW
Now, there is a Big Eight, if ever there was one. Having seen off one major challenge from the Gulf, the EPL is facing another: Saudi Arabian clubs are on a shopping spree. We thought Cristiano Ronaldo was a one-off, but he has become an unwitting Pied Piper: Dozens of big names are having their heads turned by life-changing deals.
Most — but not all — are in the twilight of their careers and even the big boys are helpless to stop the exodus, as both Liverpool and Chelsea will attest. But even CR7 will feel like a pauper after the Kylian Mbappé offer. The whole of Europe breathed a sigh of relief when he gave it short shrift.
The EPL still glitters with a galaxy of stars, topped up by cherry-picking from the rest of the world, that will ensure another fascinating campaign. Although City scaled a new peak last season, the title is far from a foregone conclusion. With so much to play for throughout the league, dull moments will be rarities.
Saudi riches have already enabled Newcastle to turn the Big Six into a Big Seven, and Aston Villa could make the joust for top four (Champions League) places a Big Eight. More than enough to keep us glued for the next nine months.
(Editor’s note: Bracketed numbers below denote final position from last season)
MANCHESTER CITY (1)
The so-called best team in the world is being dismantled. Treble euphoria has given way to a growing unease as Ilkay Gündogan and Riyad Mahrez have left, and Bernardo Silva and Kyle Walker could soon follow. Having won everything, they are looking for fresh challenges and Pep Guardiola will not stand in their way. Should fans be worried? Only Gundogan has been replaced. City moved quickly for Mateo Kovacic but the German midfielder’s goals will be missed. City have so far been linked only with Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol, 21, even though they are well stocked at the back. Pep seems to be putting his faith in youngsters filling the gaps. He has called the coming generation “extraordinary”. They will need to be. For all City’s superiority, there are other questions. Will Erling Haaland suffer second season syndrome? Can a creaking Kevin De Bruyne last another campaign? What City want most of all is a bolt on the exit door. While City have spent just £30 million (RM173.5 million), second-placed Arsenal have shelled out £200 million and are still looking. The bookies still make City firm favourites, but there are enough doubts to give an expensively revamped Arsenal hope.
They led for 248 days. And by eight points at one time when they were briefly made favourites. But in the end, City swatted them aside. Manager Mikel Arteta realised the gulf between the two and has spent lavishly to plug it. More than half has gone on Declan Rice, for whom City half-heartedly offered £90 million. But the Gunners’ UK record £105 million bid won the day. Chelsea’s Kai Havertz (£65 million) and Ajax defender Jurrien Timber (£30 million) also arrived to help make the difference. Arteta, a former Gunner who learnt to coach at Pep’s knee, has been given backing that Arsene Wenger could only dream about. But he still has to outthink his tutor. Havertz could be the key. Underwhelming at Chelsea, Arteta thinks he can locate the top player in him. If so, the Gunners’ firepower will be significantly bolstered. And last season’s stars, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka, should only get better. Before the season kicks off, you feel Arsenal have already halved the five-point gap.
MANCHESTER UNITED (3)
When Manchester United took off on their pre-season tour a year ago, Cristiano Ronaldo was not on board but his “baggage” was. It weighed them down for half the season. This time, when they flew off, there was more unwanted cargo — a giant spoke in the coming season from the never-ending saga of the club sale. Like Aretha Franklin’s will, the family is fighting over every cent. And in this case, the Glazer siblings are undermining manager Erik ten Hag just as CR7’s tantrums did. Already he has had to abandon hope of landing top target Harry Kane, among others who are out of reach. Only Mason Mount and André Onana had come in with only two weeks to go to kick-off. Meanwhile David de Gea has been shamefully discarded. But then a £73 million deal was announced with Atlanta for Rasmus Højlund, a 20-year-old Danish No 9. He sounds like the City superstar and even looks a bit like him, but with just 10 goals in 34 games, seems more like a Haaland-lite. And it is still more than City paid for the real thing — must be a Viking tax. Last season, United recovered well after a dodgy start, reaching two finals, winning one (the Carabao Cup) and qualifying for the Champions League. Ten Hag wanted to build on that but for months did not know whether he had to shop at Harrods or Daiso. Højlund suggests he settled for somewhere in between.
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4)
After trying to run the world of golf, Newcastle’s head honchos face a tricky second season. Chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan and director Amanda Staveley have made more headlines dealing with LIV Golf and the PGA Tour than with football. All went well last season, but the Champions League will pose a new challenge — and further test Eddie Howe’s management skills. But fans have become restless over the lack of signings. Only two midfielders, Italy’s Sandro Tonali and Ashley Barnes have come in. Hardly what the Toon Army expected from the mega-rich Saudi Public Investment Fund but even they have to meet Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.
The best signing of last season was Jürgen Klopp — for another two years. After getting to within a whisker of the Quad, Liverpool regressed in 2022/23. A reaction was understandable but they stumbled on and off the field. The FSG owners aborted an attempt to sell and lost their Midas touch in the transfer market. But they seemed back to regain it with two top acquisitions in Alex Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai for less than the price of Rice! Only to find the best-laid plans undermined by the Saudi splurge. Jordan Henderson has gone and Fabinho looks set to follow and perhaps Thiago. Losing all three would be too much churn even if the fees extracted are sizeable. But at least they can afford a more extensive rebuild. Not that the midfield cupboard is bare. Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and precocious Spaniard Stefan Bajcetic are augmented by Trent Alexander-Arnold who is loving his roving role. Still, losing even one of the three stalwarts was not part of the plan.
ASTON VILLA (7)
One of the great historic clubs, Villa had been languishing for years. But no more. Since Unai Emery took over from Steven Gerrard, they have been transformed. They had a meteoric rise after the Spaniard joined and the man who flopped at Arsenal has the best record of any Villa manager in points per game.With three astute signings in the transfer window, they now look capable of jousting for European places. Youri Tielemans, Pau Torres and Moussa Diaby will add squad depth and push for starting places while Jao Felix could be next. They also have the legendary “Monchi” as sporting director. If Saudi money turned the Big Six into the Big Seven with Newcastle, Emery’s inspirational coaching has Villa in the Big Eight.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (8)
As ever, it all hinges on Harry Kane. At the time of writing, Bayern Munich are readying a third bid and Kane is listening. But is Spurs chairman Daniel Levy? New manager Ange Postecoglou talks the talk but could he fill a Kane-sized hole even with £100 million? Already he has brought in James Maddison, who will add spark and goals from midfield, and made Dejan Kulusevski’s loan permanent. And he is replacing the slowing Hugo Lloris with Italian stopper, Guglielmo Vicario. But with or without Kane, can the EPL’s first Australian boss make Spurs less Spurs-y?
As much as Chelsea fans miss Roman Abramovich — the Blues have gone from European champions to a lowly 12th in the EPL since the oligarch was forced out — Russian influence has not been entirely lost. Last season was right out of Leon Trotsky’s constant revolution playbook. And it came from new owner and all-American capitalist Todd Boehly and his Clearlake equity company. Trotsky toppled governments; Boehly trades players like commodities: Only three of the 14 to take the field when Chelsea beat Manchester City in Porto remain. There were four managers last season too. Big names (Mount and Havertz) have been sold off as Boehly realises he has to meet FFP regulations. He got lucky with the Saudis buying three. But among the myriad arrivals are some exciting names, including Christopher Nkunku, Mykhailo Mudryk and Enzo Fernández. It is scattergun and chaotic out of which new manager Mauricio Pochettino is expected to bring order. But there is hope: His appointment is the first major decision the new owners have got right in 18 months.
HATS OFF TO THE MIRACLE MEN
Last season’s relegation scrap involved nine clubs at one time. As desperation to avoid the drop grew, there were twists until the final whistle was blown. Expect a repeat this time to include one of the EPL’s most unlikely members — Luton Town. To say the club was promoted from the Championship only tells a fraction of the story: They have been promoted from five divisions. Since they were last in the top flight, the fan-owned Hatters from just north of London were regular commuters between hell and back. They have been broke, docked points, fined and out of the league altogether. Even today, one entrance to their ramshackle ground is through what was once the upstairs bedroom of a terraced house.
Who said football was just for fat cats?
This article first appeared on Aug 7, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.