Premier League promises cash-rich clashes atop table, drama down below
We're off again.
When Manchester United host Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday it will mark the start of the 116th English championship. Or, if you're the kind who counts in Premier League years, it will be season 24.
Twenty-two clubs have been crowned English champions; five have won the Premier League. Odds are, four of those five previous winners (the fifth, Blackburn, dropped out of the elite four seasons ago) will likely occupy the top four spots this season. It's just the nature of the beast, and not just in England. The rich stay rich. Success breeds money, which breeds more success, which breeds more money ...
Circle of life, according to some. Circle of hell, according to others.
And so, on paper, you envision a top four featuring Chelsea, Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs in some kind of order. It's not a particularly bold prediction. Manchester United have finished in the top four in all but one season of the Premier League era; Arsenal's streak runs to 19 years. Chelsea have missed out once since the arrival of Roman Abramovich in 2003 and Manchester City made it five on the bounce last season, again -- and not coincidentally -- following the advent of a wealthy benefactor.
It's crass to talk to about money, but it's impossible to ignore the commercial success of the league. It has fostered super clubs at the top (and you can probably include Tottenham and Liverpool in that count: six of the top 13 clubs by revenue are English) and bottom-half-of-the-table teams capable of raiding talent from Champions League-caliber sides from other nations. It's no wonder that, over the summer, the head honchos of both Bayern Munich and Barcelona highlighted how difficult it was to compete against the lure of the Premier League pound.
And the cash will keep coming, owing largely to the domestic arms race between Sky and BT Sport, which, from next year, will see the value of the TV deal jump some 70 percent.
Curiously though, with so much money at their disposal, many clubs are being somewhat more circumspect. As of Aug. 4, based on data provided by Transfermarkt, clubs had spent €293.2 million ($318 million) in net terms outside the Premier League (mostly abroad, but also in the English lower leagues). That's considerably less than last season, when the figure stood at €475.7m ($516.5m). Obviously, the transfer window doesn't close until Sept. 1 and the non-Premier League net spend will no doubt increase. Yet despite the bonanza of the new TV deal 12 months away and the weak euro, it's unlikely that we'll reach, let alone pulverise, last year's numbers.
That speaks to something else perhaps. To some degree it's the impact of financial fair play (more so the UEFA version than the Premier League version, which has had limited effect so far owing to the nature of the regulations). But mostly it could be that owners are being a bit more aware, particularly outside the top six. They're businessmen and businessmen don't like losing money in the pursuit of a seemingly impossible goal: gate-crashing the elite half-dozen teams with more or less legitimate top-four ambition.
Yet we're entertained. Maybe because many neutral supporters have evolved beyond caring only about which elite multinational brand with a football club attached knocks off which other elite multinational brand with a football club attached to win the title.
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We care about more than that. And if there is such a thing as Premier League stardust, maybe that's where it lies. In the storylines that exist outside the elite and the ability to package them and make them compelling beyond their geographic and historical fan base.
We care about the fates of many Premier League managers old and new. Like Southampton's ability to withstand annual raids on their squad and discovering whether Ronald Koeman will suffer a sophomore slump. Whether Mark Hughes' de-Pulisification of Stoke will continue to yield success at a rate greater than his predecessor, Tony Pulis, and at the same time, whether the Pulisification of West Brom will help avoid the drop.
We want to know whether Everton's Roberto Martinez ultimately chose the correct half of Merseyside. Whether Tim Sherwood can prove to the haters that Aston Villa can be better without Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph. Whether Newcastle's Steve McClaren, after a string of failures, can regain his mojo and keep club owner Mike Ashley out of the headlines. Whether Crystal Palace's stunning second half of the last campaign really was down to Alan Pardew and whether new arrival, midfielder Yohan Cabaye, can keep it going.
We're going to tune in to see if the old Dutch master Dick Advocaat can really be a difference-maker for Sunderland. And to figure out if, once again, Swansea's model of trusting a capable, in-house manager in Garry Monk can defy the odds. We'll want to know how Claudio Ranieri's English is after 11 years away and if his outer calm outperforms former Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson's inner rage. And if swapping one hard man-turned-guru (Sam Allardyce) for another (Slaven Bilic) can propel West Ham on their journey from Upton Park this season to their new home for the 2016-17 campaign and beyond, the Olympic Stadium.
Then there are the promoted sides: Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich City. Each so different, each so interesting. Eddie Howe, still 37, should be the enfant prodigy among top-flight coaches, taking Bournemouth from administration to the Premier League in a 10,700-seat shoe box, but he's an old hand compared to Alex Neil, who back in January was the 33-year-old player-manager of Hamilton Academical and now, after taking Norwich up, can call Arsene Wenger, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho colleagues. Plus Watford, where the visionary approach of the Pozzo family -- achieve miracles in three countries with one unparalleled scouting network -- will face its sternest test.
The top six will draw most of the bandwidth this season. That's fine, we get it. There are outsize personalities and world-class talents to keep us entertained. But a big part of why we tune in is what happens below the elite. That's a story told better than just about anywhere else in football.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.