Welcome, once again, to the upside down. As the Premier League enters its third season of cut-and-shut schedules, relegated again to an insistent voice at the edge of larger things, it is tempting to wonder exactly when this state of flux is going to end; at what point the self-proclaimed world’s most important league will ever find its way back from the dark place. Or, indeed, if things will ever quite be the same again.
It has, let’s face it, been three years now. A competition that predicates its existence on hogging the foreground, on being not the B-flick or the short but the Premier, will once again find itself frazzled by some truly mind-boggling logistics.
In common with every other league, and indeed every other life, the last time the English top tier was able to contemplate an unclouded future was the pre-Covid lull of early 2020. The years since have brought a total shutdown, a summer half-life, a Super League insurrection, a winter of firebreak talk and cancelled dates and the enforced sale of one of its defining member clubs.
Needless to say this is all deeply off-brand. More than any other competition the Premier League voice is all about control and certainty, about days and weeks – Super Sundays, Monday Nights, a complete televisual white-out from September to May – dominated by that in-house tone of homogenised triumphalism. Like it or not, that voice has become a little wrung-out, the matinee idol presence a little stretched, bow tie askew, clinging to the balustrade.
As the league kicks into gear on Friday at Selhurst Park it is worth taking a moment to appreciate exactly how this thing is going to play out from here. Welcome to the season with a hole in it, 10 months during which the entire calendar must remain spinning in place, like a flywheel detached from its gears, while an enforced winter World Cup plays out. Stranger things have happened in the past three years of dissolution, but this is going to stretch everyone involved to their outer limits.
The first instalment, which we might call block 1, extends from 6 August to 17 September, a run of eight Premier League games and two Champions League rounds. After that we have two quick-fire international friendlies, the last warmups before Qatar.
This is followed by block 3 from 1 October to 5 November, eight more league games and four more in the Champions League. Block 4 is the World Cup itself, a quick change to Arabian Standard Time and a maximum of seven matches between 21 November and 18 December. Then it’s back to the northern winter and Block 5, three Premier League games in a week from Boxing Day to 2 January. At which point the season is free to emerge gasping and wheezing, clinging to the nearest rock, and wondering exactly what just happened.
There will be breakages along the way, and contortions to the robustness of the season. Take, for example, Harry Kane, who tends to play every game he can, as well as some he can’t. In the next five months Kane could feature in up to 34 matches under three different world orders – Premier League, Uefa, Fifa – crisscrossing the UK, mainland Europe and the Gulf. There will, of course, be teams of analysts studying how to peak through this period, when to rest those red-zoning muscles fibres. But there are also endless unintended consequences.
England’s provisional World Cup squad is due to be announced on 21 October, with three league games and two in the Champions League still to play. This has never happened before, the league season skewed like this by outside pressures. How will it affect players and selections? Are you really going to give 200% over 94 minutes against Wolves away if your knee has started to click and the Qatar 2022 final squad date is three days away?
The same goes for after the World Cup. Players discharged in the first 10 days will be thrumming up through the gears for the restart. Lose a semi-final and there will be some broken souls coming back to take up the slack. Last season Mohamed Salah scored 23 in 26 before the African Nations Cup, and eight in 28 afterwards. Never mind Covid. Never mind the post-World Cup transfer madness coming to mid-season for the first time. This already looks like the most fevered of times.
It should be a source of unrest too. Part of the great public uprising last summer was the idea the European Super League would destroy the structures of the domestic season. Take a look at the shockwaves from Qatar 2022 and it seems pretty clear the same forces in another guise – the greed of nation-state football, as opposed to the greed of the cartel clubs – have achieved the same thing from a different angle.
And while there is currently nothing in place to prevent next season becoming a return, four years on, to untroubled waters it is easy to feel a little sceptical. Another Super League brouhaha, another act of force majeure, some other ripple, some other break. Time continues to pass. It seems a reasonable question. Have we already seen the best of this thing?
This is perhaps an unduly doom-laden, fin-de-siècle view. There is still a vast hunger for Premier League product, and a ringfenced broadcast income. Even during the in-between years the standard and the level of interest has remained remarkably high. But looking forward to what might actually happen, there are still some notes of unease.
On one hand the Premier League field seems strong as ever. On the other Spurs have spent large parts of the summer as third favourites to win it. The change of ownership at Chelsea has thinned the field, in a league where Manchester City’s title dominance is in danger of becoming a little humdrum for the neutral.
The Premier League is, we hear (most often from the Premier League) never stale and never staid. Perhaps the new season can present us with something genuinely valuable, if not new champions then new challengers, a bolter from the pack energised by these outside forces.
It still seems odd to suggest a Manchester United revival might make for an appealing underdog story, although Erik ten Hag’s early clarity has already been undermined by a familiar whiff of rotten, celebrified club culture. Arsenal have recruited well but remain, in the end, Arsenal. Perhaps a team with fewer World Cup players, Aston Villa or Crystal Palace or Brighton, might make a genuine play for the top four.
Otherwise Liverpool will still be very strong. City will be challenged by an intriguing tactical retread around that startling new presence up front. But they will also benefit from the World Cup break: the Pep-Erling interface is likely to be defined by some furious work over those few weeks.
At the other end it is hard to look past at least two promoted clubs struggling, and some further oscillation from Everton, as well as Leeds who are hard to call either way.
Beyond this we can enjoy the benefits of five substitutes being used, and some younger refereeing appointments. Plus, in a note of reassuring normality, there is once again a new ball. The Nike Flight is basically the same as the previous ball. That AerowSculpt technology is still “giving a truer flight”. But the ball will also carry markings that hark back to the first ever Premier League ball in 1992.
It feels like an oddly calming note of nostalgia in strange times. Keep moving forward. This too will pass. But not without another season of living dangerously.