NO PRESSURE LIKE THE PREMIER LEAGUE
It’s been a decade since anyone retained the crown and six of the best all have their eyes on the prize
This season marks ten years since the Premier League title was last defended, marking English football out as a remarkable anomaly. None of UEFA’s other 54 registered national leagues have gone longer without a title retention. Very few have across the world.
There are number of hypotheses for the drought, but the most persuasive is that the vast rise in Premier League broadcasting revenues allows for an increased competitiveness at the top of the table, even if it has increased the gap between the Top Six clubs and the rest. The league champions might typically be expected to purchase fewer players than those attempting to bridge the gap; the Premier League title race, then, becomes an annual cat-and-mouse contest. In 2018/19, Manchester City may just have the best chance of a title defence since Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United beat Liverpool to the title by four points in 2008/09. Their margin of victory was so great that even accounting for inevitable post-triumph complacency does not make bridging the gap easy.
There is a reasonable argument that Pep Guardiola’s team might even be stronger this season than last. Aymeric Laporte will have a full preseason following his January move, Benjamin Mendy is finally fully fit after a frustrating, injury-hit first season in England, both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus remain happy to compete for one place and Riyad Mahrez is out to prove that he merited becoming City’s record signing in a squad that excelled under the Premier League pressure last season.
Guardiola must be a little concerned about the inability to sign the central midfielder that he believed was a priority in May, but City’s biggest issue might be their relative failure in last season’s Champions League. While the club’s supporters may not have a great affinity with the competition, City’s hierarchy did not appoint Guardiola purely to pursue domestic glory. After breaking records last season, City will be expected to at least reach the Champions League semi-finals alongside domestic bliss.
For Manchester United, the pressure seems to come from within. Jose Mourinho has made no secret of his demands for the club to invest significantly in the playing squad if he is to compete with Manchester City. A central midfielder, a young full-back and third-choice goalkeeper were the only arrivals.
You can see Mourinho’s point. He may have spent £380m since arriving in Manchester - and reasonably have been expected to improve what he had beyond their current performance level - but United are the biggest club in the world in terms of revenue. If the gap to City needs artificially bridging through rapid investment, Manchester United are in the perfect position to do so.
Supporters are now left in a quandary, whether to back a quarrelling manager with his new contract signed or to cry foul at his treatment of some members of Manchester United’s first-team squad. Mourinho is under no obligation to curry favour with anyone, but his preseason messages to Anthony Martial, Antonio Valencia, Paul Pogba, the club’s young players and the central defenders that he clearly doesn’t rate have hardly been motivational. Mourinho’s assessment that United were in for a “difficult season” if he did not get his way proffers an image of an unhappy club.
In fact, Manchester United are not even second favourites for the title. Liverpool’s post-season spending and dramatic improvement in 2017/18 under Jurgen Klopp gives supporters their greatest hope of meaningful success since 2013/14. Klopp used the goodwill generated by an unexpected run to the Champions League final to sign two of the club’s top transfer targets in goalkeeper Alisson and midfielder Fabinho, while Naby Keita finally arrived from Leipzig and Xherdan Shaqiri will be an able deputy. But Klopp knows that the spending only increases the pressure upon him to win trophies. Until now, Liverpool’s manager has reasonably been able to play the underdog card with at least three of his peers and has used that to engineer the siege spirit within his squad that worked so well for his Dortmund team against Bayern Munich in Germany. Now that underdog card has been forcibly removed from Klopp’s grasp. One of the hallmarks of modern football is that success only breeds demand for more success; standing still is moving backwards. Should Liverpool fail to mount a meaningful title challenge or win a trophy, Klopp will face difficult questions. If that sounds merciless, welcome to the top of the Premier League. For Tottenham, the question is whether Mauricio Pochettino can continue to make delicious meals out of the same ingredients. Pochettino spoke out in May to insist that his club must be braver in the transfer market, do their business early and add competition for places in multiple areas of the pitch, particularly given summer World Cup demands. Tottenham’s response seems to have been to stick fingers in ears and pretend everything is ok.
Tottenham are the only club to finish in the Premier League’s top three in each of the last three seasons, a model of consistency despite lacking the financial might of their rivals. But this could be a telling season in the future of this project. If Pochettino suffers for a lack of investment, he will not care for his own reputation to take an unfair denting. Having earned his place in discussions over elite managerial jobs, it is now up to Tottenham to keep Pochettino satisfied.
And then there’s Chelsea and Arsenal, on the surface two disparate clubs: dynastical leadership vs short-termism; many signings vs few; a wonderful attack vs a glut of central defensive and central midfield options. But both Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri are newly-appointed managers trying to take their clubs back into the top four, and both are acutely aware that every season spent outside the Champions league only makes the task harder. For all that which divides Chelsea and Arsenal, they are united in the common goal of redemption.
The relegation battle, meanwhile, promises to be as close as 2017/18, when three established clubs suffered relegation and the bloated Premier League rest suffered for their complacency. Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City have battled to convince transfer targets and their clubs to tie up deals but been left virtually empty-handed since the beginning of July. That leaves a manager frustrated and a club predicted to struggle.
At Wolves and Fulham, however, two promoted clubs have spent an unprecedented amount of money. Wolves’ relationship with super agent Jorge Mendes has facilitated their rapid improvement, but their owners are not prepared to sit tight and take stock of the Premier League view. Fosun International - who make up the club’s ownership structure - are eyeing Champions League football at Molineux.
For Fulham, Ryan Sessegnon’s newcontract might have been enough good reason for cheer but it has been supplemented by a string of high-profile signings. Jean Michael Seri, Alfie Mawson, Fabri and Aleksandar Mitrovic give Fulham an entirely new spine, while Andre Schurrle and Sessegnon can play either side of the striker.
But with investment comes pressure. While both Fulham and Wolves would surely take 17th place in May if it were offered to them as a guarantee now, summer business indicates higher ambitions. Do not be surprised if slow starts to the season sees trigger fingers getting itchy.