It’s the start of the greatest league in the world if you believe the hype around the Premier League. If you don’t, it’s still the start of the season for one of the world’s elite league. The Premier League offers some of the biggest names in the game while seeming more than happy to pay what that costs on our behalf. It’s nice of them to do the rest of us the favor. Meanwhile, there’s a big wide world of potential Premier League fans ready and willing to attach themselves to a surprisingly wide range of clubs. The Premier League might be all about Champions League qualification, but there’s still plenty to play for up and down the table.
The Siren Wail of the Super Clubs
This is a league dominated by clubs familiar to even the casual American sports fan. Not so long ago, most of the people fitting that description couldn’t have named a Premier League club if you spotted them a United. These days? The sport of the future is here in the present in America. There’s enough video game familiarity and NBC exposure for everybody and their mom to know the biggest clubs in the Premier League. That familiarity carries with it an easy way to pick a favorite. Go with what you know, which is the real reason why so many Americans tend to be fans of the same small group of clubs.
Arsenal and Manchester United lead that list for that obvious reason. There’s nothing wrong with deciding to throw in with the club you’re most likely to see on TV or in person on a lucrative preseason tour. To a large extent, it makes more sense than getting clever with it and ending up following a club that only makes cameo appearances in your real life. Still, it does seem like every other American fan of a Premier League club has a very good and even noble reason for picking Arsenal.
This season, that’s the same old story. Under majority owner Stan Kroenke, CEO and former MLS executive Ivan Gazidis, and manager Arsene Wenger Arsenal has shown season after season that they’re almost good enough. This has led supporters home and abroad to ask why they can’t win the title rather than providing good reasons for why a top four finish still counts. It does, of course, but this is a team that set a lofty standard in their Invincibles era. That means not losing, something Arsenal struggles with. That meant 5th-place last season, forcing a managerial crisis that Arsenal addressed by doing nothing. The Europa League this season can’t count enough. To keep things the same, Arsenal needs to win the Premier League title.
A super club needs an equally super manager. That’s been the case in English soccer since before the Premier League broke away in the early 90s. England likes to play up the role of the boss, turning them into almost mythical figures. For decades, that usually meant locally. These days, it means internationally. The two Manchester clubs employ two of the biggest names in world soccer. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jose Mourinho’s United are as much about the two of them right now.
For Guardiola, this season is about showing he can put together his own super club as well as finally getting City into Champions League contention. For his old pal Mourinho, it’s about returning Manchester United’s stature as the top team in England if not Europe. Last season, Mourinho went all in on winning the Europa League and with it a Champions League place. It worked, but it almost felt beneath a club like United trading league points for Europa League success.
What happens this season is important bordering on crucial for both of them. There are enough managers with jobs they don’t really want and lucrative offers in far-flung leagues to tell the story of what happens when reputations erode.
Things have changed for the Premier League in America. What was blanket coverage courtesy of our friends at NBC Sports is now paying for the full glut of games each week. The best games on the schedule will probably be free to access for anyone with a standard cable subscription. If your interests lie with the bottom half of the table, you’re either paying for the extra online package or making do watching your heroes against bigger clubs.
Of course, this pushes emerging fandom back towards the biggest clubs. They’re the ones that are easiest to watch with access you already have. For all the complaints about super club fandom and the Premier League, it remains the pragmatic response. Did anybody really expect season after season of an American broadcaster dumping every game on the schedule somewhere in their litany of cable and internet options? Well, regardless of that expectation, the reality hits for the 2017-18 season.
It’s not always the top four, but that’s normally the teams getting into the Champions League. It’s also the line between elite success and failure in the Premier League, especially for the big clubs. The next tier can make do with the Europa League spots, but the elite deal in Champions League places. This season, there are five teams starting in the Champions League courtesy of Manchester United’s Europa League win. The pressure is on all of them to do more with that opportunity than what happened last season.
In 2016-17, only one team made it to the quarterfinals. That was defending Premier League champions Leicester City, who had fired their manager and were caught in an odd scenario. Skirting relegation in the Premier League while advancing to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. They fixed their Premier League problems to finish 12th while the rest of that league’s elite wondered what happened to them in Europe.
The Premier League is the richest league top to bottom in Europe. Shouldn’t that mean doing as good a job of beating those European clubs as we used to see not all that long ago?
It’s tough being part of the Premier League’s nouveau-riche. Sure, you have the TV money to spend but so do all of your direct competitors. There’s also those selling clubs all over the world more than happy to adjust the price to account for your increase in revenue. Playing to survive seems silly when you’ve got transfer money to spend. Silly, but not exactly fair considering how many impactful players there are to go around.
Premier League clubs are showing that it isn’t as simple as spending accordingly. It takes not just a shared vision for a squad but the availability of players to make it happen. That’s not a given. Where this leaves too many clubs is in a same as it ever was situation. They shouldn’t be battling against relegation, yet here they are with not enough points to show for their spending.
That’s not the most engaging story and the Premier League has to know that. Figuring out the bottom half of the league might not be a priority, but it says as much about the Premier League as their title contenders.
Nobody should confuse Everton with a club wondering what’s happening as they slide down the table. The blue half of Liverpool has spent a lot of money this summer and look to be the test case. Is spending enough to push into the elite in a single season? Are we about to see a new version of the Premier League that’s closer to the build for right now model normally associated with Liga MX and the South American leagues? It’s one of the interesting stories for a league well equipped to provide a lot of them.
2. Manchester United
18. Swansea City
19. Huddersfield Town