The 2015/16 Premier League season redefined what we believe is possible not only in soccer, but in the world of sports. Leicester City overcame 5000-to-1 odds to win the PL title. To give you a frame of reference of how fucking crazy that is, the British bookmaker Ladbrokes listed Simon Cowell’s odds of becoming Britain’s next Prime Minister at 500-to-1. That’s right, this was ten times more likely to become Prime Minister than this happening. Really.
And yet, the 2016/17 season, which kicks off tomorrow, is set to outdo its predecessor in terms of sheer excitement. The level of coaching, transfer fees, and stakes have never been higher. While there are a multitude of storylines that will define this weekend and the season as a whole, here are key things to watch during the opening weekend of Premier League play.
CHESS TOURNAMENT MANAGERIAL SHOWDOWN
Vince Lombardi, Coach K, Bobby Knight, Joe Torre, and Gregg Popovich. Imagine they all coach the same sport. Now, imagine they’re all coaching in the same division of that sport. That’s the only Americanized analogy I can come up with to describe the magnitude of coaching that will be playing every weekend in the PL this year. On the one hand, you have the new guys, and new is used loosely.
One of them, Pep Guardiola, is largely responsible for the greatest shift in soccer strategy in the last decade, tiki-taka. Traditional soccer is a game of fixed formations. Defensive, midfield, and attacking lines move forward in, well, lines. Rigid formations that you can clearly see from a visual standpoint. Tiki-taka basically says “fuck that and the horse it rode in on.” Tiki-taka emphasizes zonal play and is characterized by short, quick passes. While Pep certainly didn’t invent tiki-taka, he perfected with a Barcelona side that won fourteen trophies in just four seasons with Pep at the helm.
The Manchester City squad he inherits from Manuel Pellegrini may be the most objectively talented squad from top to bottom in the league. It was a side that looked to be running away with last year’s title at the start, only to slump and squeak out a fourth place finish. The key to success for City will be discipline and stamina, and Pep can certainly bring it to them.
The Antonio Conte experiment that is set to begin at Chelsea during their derby with West Ham on Monday. I say experiment, because in my mind, Conte’s time with the West Londoners ends in two ways—a title, or disaster. Conte is notorious for his passion. This passion sent a weak Italy side through to the QFs, where they BARELY lost to world champions Germany in PKs. Chelsea are no stranger to passionate or otherwise eccentric managers. It was Jose Mourinho who lead the team to a title in the 2014/2015 season, only to be sacked some six months later after a Trump-like meltdown with his players and the media. But the error of Chelsea’s ways last season can’t all fall on Jose’s shoulders. The squad basically checked out for the first half of the season, still on their extended vacation from the year before. With Conte now leading Chelsea, he’ll either be able to rekindle the flame that led them to glory just two years ago, or burn Stamford Bridge to the ground.
And then, there’s Jose Mourinho. Yeah, he was fired in December by Chelsea, but he’s back with a vengeance to lead a Manchester United side that is in need of guidance. While Man U are the current FA Cup holders, they haven’t come close to a PL title since Sir Alex Ferguson hung up his glasses. “The Special One” has won just about every title there is to win, and he has the tools to improve that tally. The midsummer pick-ups of Paul “$$$” Pogba, Zlatan “Zlatan” Ibrahimovic, and Henrikh “The H is silent” Mkhitaryan add experience and skill to a young, quick side that will certainly contend for the PL title.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp dubbed himself “The Normal One” in response to Mourinho’s epithet. Things at Anfield will certainly be a bit more normal this year as Klopp enters his first full season at the helm of the Reds. Liverpool have brought in Sadio Mané from Southampton, who could help Klopp transform his side into playing the “heavy-metal” style of soccer that Klopp popularized during his time at Borussia Dortmund. Liverpool’s attack is quick and creative, but its back line must be dependable if it’s to allow its midfield to press as high as Klopp wants them to. They’ll be able to put that on display this Sunday when they take on Arsenal.
Speaking of Arsenal–Arsene Wenger is still coaching! And as Ryan O’Hanlon brilliantly illustrated in his Ringer piece, few have changed the game like Wenger has. While the Gunners finished in second place last season, it was arguably the worst second place finish in the history of the club. They were hamstrung by hamstring injuries, and couldn’t score against a certain blue menace. Wenger is entering the last year of his contract, and some believe this year could be his swan song. If Arsenal fail to make a big signing at striker before the end of the transfer window, Wenger’s fairytale may not have a happy ending.
While we’re in the neighborhood, let’s take a quick look at Tottenham. The other team in North London and victim of fantastic meme-ing (search: “Lads, it’s”) looked like they could spoil Leicester’s title run until they collapsed at the end of the season. But while Tottenham couldn’t top their rivals on the table, Spurs have something that Arsenal don’t—a solid striker in Harry Kane. That, coupled with a young and dominant midfield and the most consistent central defensive pairing in the PL, could spell trouble for Tottenham’s opponents this season. Manager Mauricio Pochettino will continue to train hard with his players as they hope to capture that elusive PL trophy.
And then, there’s the champions. Leicester City return sans N’Golo Kante to make a run at both the Premier League and the Champions League. Manager Claudio Ranieri has come back along with almost all of the title-winning squad to try and recreate the magic of last season, but frankly, it’s not likely. For one, Leicester winning the title at 81 points is well below the average of 87.3 points that title winners usually boast. What’s even more unusual is that they ran away with title at that points total, with the next closest team Arsenal at 71 points. Collectively, everyone shit the bed in the Premier league except for Leicester last season, which allowed them to win it all. But now, they’ll not only have to compete against the best brain trust ever assembled to vie for a trophy, but also with the grueling schedule of midweek European competition. And therein lies the greatest variable of this season.
LONGEVITY: THE KEY TO SUCCESS
The PL schedule is grueling. Unlike most European leagues, there isn’t a winter break, and there are two domestic cups of relative importance, along with the league. And for seven teams, there will be the added stress of European competition. Leicester, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Man City will all play in the highly competitive Champions League, while Man U, Southampton, and West Ham will all play in the Europa League. The Europa League is particularly trying for fitness, as games are played on Thursdays, forcing a quick turnaround for domestic play on Sunday.
This is the biggest argument for either Liverpool or Chelsea (or both) finishing in the Top 4 this season, or even making a run at the title. Neither team will have the glory, or pressure, of playing in Europe, and can focus solely on domestic competition. The greatest variable of this PL season is who can bring all the heat, all the time.
Is there a better way to start this weekend than with a couple of huge matchups in Liverpool-Arsenal and Chelsea-West Ham? Add those to all the existing drama on display in the PL, and you get a weekend that will surely give us plenty to talk about in the coming days. Also, let’s throw in a betting pick of the week for good measure.
PICK OF THE WEEK: Leicester City (-105) @ Hull. Because everyone loves a comeback and those odds are stupid good.