Transfer speculation dominates football like never before. An incredible amount of coverage is dedicated not to games themselves, but to the possibility that footballers might one day play them for another team.
At this point of the year, it makes sense. The World Cup has finished, the club season is a month away and there's nothing else to talk about. In the old days, newspapers would fill their pages with other sports, but football has become all-consuming, and fans demand constant information -- seemingly regardless of whether it's actually true. Once, the offseason meant no football stories: you'd load up Ceefax and discover nothing was happening. These days, football never stops.
Which is fine -- people clearly like transfer speculation and get excited about the stories. The problem, though, comes when it gets in the way of the actual football, and this has become a particular issue over the first fortnight of the Premier League campaign.
The transfer window shuts a couple of weeks after the start of the Premier League season, which means the first three matches are played with half-finished sides and players often in limbo between two clubs.
Managers are concentrating more on recruitment than the actual matches; last season, when Arsenal defeated Tottenham 1-0 in an entertaining north London derby, the real story was the imminent signing of Mesut Ozil. Meanwhile, Chelsea fans serenaded Wayne Rooney with chants of "we'll see you next week" when their club played Manchester united amid rumours that the England striker would be sold to Stamford Bridge.
There is sometimes a bizarre situation where players' performances in these early matches are understood in relation to their transfer situation. Was player X playing poorly because he wanted a transfer to team Y? Players used to transfer teams in order to play games. Now, it seems like we're meant to think they play matches in order to transfer teams.
This is a particularly big problem in the Premier league. Traditionally, England's top division started in mid-August, whereas southern European leagues like Spain and Italy usually kicked off in early September. There's been a slight convergence between the two, but the transfer window closes at the start of September, which causes a problem for the Premier League.
Transfer window roundup
- Premier League: Team-by-team ins and outs
- Transfer Centre: All the done deals
- Brewin: Premier League stars left in limbo
- Delaney: What did we learn on deadline day?
- Horncastle: European transfer grades
- Smith: Transfers more important than the game?
- Macintosh: We worship goals, not balance sheets
There's no obvious solution. Premier League clubs would put themselves at a disadvantage if their transfer window closed earlier than in other major European leagues, so there's nothing to be gained by bringing deadline day forward. A couple of years ago, they asked the other European leagues to consider bringing forward deadline day across the continent but, again, the other leagues didn't have anything to gain by restricting themselves.
The only solution is to push back the season and play the first round of matches in early September. This would be controversial in England, though, as mid-August has always been the usual start date, and people like late summer football. Besides, it would be another example of matches playing second fiddle to transfers.
It seems a preferable situation, however, considering the uncertainty at the start of each season. The first three weeks of the Premier League never seem "real," and then the transfer deadline is usually followed by an international break. When does the season actually start? Realistically, in mid-September and yet, often, some teams already have nine points on the board.
Last season was also a good example of how the transfer window can wreak havoc with the matches. Arsenal were attempting to sign Newcastle United's Yohan Cabaye, and made a bid shortly before his club played Manchester City. The Frenchman became unsettled and eventually pulled out of the game, leaving Alan Pardew furious that Arsenal didn't wait until the morning after the game to submit their bid.
"Why [Arsenal] couldn't do us the respect and the honour of waiting until Tuesday evening is beyond me," he fumed. "It is pretty obvious that I am upset about it. You prepare for three days with a player of that talent, and that was taken away from us ... it had a huge bearing on the result as well."
Pardew also addressed the problem with the transfer window shutting after the start of the campaign: "There is a question about the window being closed before we kick off the Premier League season," he said. "After the summer we have had, the situations we have had, with Wayne Rooney as well, it is definitely something they need to put under the microscope again."
It has become impossible to have a proper look at the Premier League teams before the start of the campaign. Remember all the fascinating, engaging, in-depth previews of the 32 World Cup sides? That simply isn't possible ahead of the new Premier League campaign -- there's no time to take stock, no pause for reflection.
As outlined earlier, the only real solution is delaying the Premier League by a couple of weeks, although this would make that early international break even more poorly timed. It would also make it difficult to fit in 38 league games and two cup competitions before May, perhaps leading to the knock-on effect of a demand to reduce the number of matches, which could actually be helpful in a variety of ways.
That remains unlikely, though, and so the Premier League will again be in a period of flux for the first three weeks. You wouldn't eat your dinner before you've finished cooking it or start driving a car before everyone has got inside, but Premier League teams are playing matches before their team has been properly assembled. Sadly, it's tough to take the first couple of weeks seriously.