Since I started following this sport intensely a fistful of years ago, the idea of soccer loyalty has seemed thoroughly outdated. Players transfer frequently and randomly for tone-deaf amounts of money. Rosters, management, club structure — none of it is the same year after year, or even monthly in the case of the window. But even with constant turnover, the league had Manchester United, its constant.
Now that lone pillar of stability is gone, belly-up in a blaze of sideline and back-four ineptitude. The Premier League table is finally as wacky, colorful and unpredictable as the players, managers and ownership groups of which it is comprised. The season that ended in May was the first major taste of an erratic table that didn’t really include the Red Devils, with overachieving Liverpool coming stomach-wrenchingly close to winning the thing, United being terrible, Stoke City not being a perfect mid-Saturday morning nap certainty, etc.
Most major clubs transitioned in some way, and what’s most interesting about this approaching campaign is that the next 10-15 years of the table could come into clearer focus in just 38 games. Louis Van Gaal could prove to be the creative, demanding presence that United’s massive expectations need. His Barcelona-infused teams could ruin any suspense at the top for the next decade, or Old Trafford may lose patience and sack another manager at year’s end.
Liverpool might show that last year was truthful and make a run at the title again, or Brendan Rodgers‘ Luis Suarez-less crew could wilt and finish out of the top-four and quickly out of the Champions League. Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho could be revelations or loan material (I side with the former here). Dejan Lovren could solidify a porous back-line, or the Reds could leak 50 goals.
Meanwhile at Chelsea, home port of the transfer window barge, may be a runaway winner in England and in Europe, doing so in Alex Ferguson-like fashion. If not, Jose Mourinho could be out of a job by Christmas, as NBC’s Robbie Earle said last weekend in previewing the season.
Do Everton‘s fortifying re-signings and extensions of Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and others mean a top-four finish, or the same exciting disappointment when the table works itself out at the end? And are Manchester City, the deserved champions, solid enough at the back to win a third in four years and clinch “loathed-by-neutrals-for-too-much-success” status?
Every top team faces major questions before every season in every sport — that’s the nature of an offseason, especially one involving a transfer window. But one of the Premier League’s most unique qualities, is that it doesn’t try to hide itself behind a forced sense of parity. Every club’s definition of success is different. It’s not all “championship or bust” like most of our sports are in America.
City, Liverpool, Chelsea and United want the title, and anything short will have a lingering whiff of disappointment. That’s just the expectations those clubs are handed because of history, but Everton and Arsenal want the top-four, and so do Tottenham. Crystal Palace would settle for 12th, while West Ham‘s manager Sam Allardyce said the Hammers are shooting for the top half of the table.
Sunderland would be happy to stay promoted, and so would Leicester City, Burnley and Queens Park Rangers. Everyone wants to take a point or three from United or Chelsea or City or Liverpool in this eight-month race.
It’s a wonderful campaign. I’ll be following the title chase to see if Chelsea run away with it, as I suppose they will; but the tiers of success in that table, to watch expectations and hopes fluctuate week-to-week … that’s as fascinating as anything. It’s why the World Cup feels anti-climatic, and it’s part of the reason why some American college football fans thought the BCS system was flawed but fair — it makes the journey feel more fulfilling than the destination.
On Saturday, 20 boats will begin a zig-zag against the current. Some will have more muscle than others. Those at the front will clash with those at the front, the middle will tackle the middle, and the bottom will fight relegation. All will pair up and then move on to the next, and in the end, a table that’s almost always topped by the best team and caboosed by the worst will finish the way it’s supposed to.
It’s going to be a fun ride, friends.