LONDON – This is the season the Premier League has been waiting for since its inception in 1992.
It boasts the most glittering array of Hollywood managers with expensively assembled supporting casts and tempting fate as it may be, it is virtually impossible not to visualize a titanic struggle between the heavyweights of English football.
The Premier League has the finest collection of elite coaches in world football. It is not the best league and cannot boast the best teams — Spain’s La Liga is the undisputed leader — while the true superstars of world football are in Spain and Germany’s Bundesliga.
But nobody can match the quality and quantity of the Premier League’s coaching corps: Antonio Conte (Chelsea), Pep Guardiola (Manchester City), Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool), Jose Mourinho (Manchester United), Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham), Claudio Ranieri (Leicester) and Arsene Wenger (Arsenal).
Between them they have won 24 domestic titles and four Champions Leagues. With the transfer window open for another four days, their clubs have already spent a combined £555 million this summer.
Inevitably there will be some high-class,high-maintenance failures. One, maybe two of these super-coaches will not lead their teams to European qualification. Expectations are highest at United, City and Chelsea, so either Mourinho, Guardiola or Conte will be at least a second best though delivering the Champions League would make City fans overlook domestic shortcomings.
So far, so good as the big three have won their opening two matches.
Mourinho has given United its swagger back, the Special One’s charisma plus the acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan wiping out the misery of the David Moyes and Louis van Gaal eras. Such is the depth of United’s squad even making the bench is something of an achievement.
The suspicion that United needs a dedicated midfield enforcer remains while Wayne Rooney’s place in attack is uncertain though he has linked up well with Ibrahimovic who has probably set a record for the quickest player to become an Old Trafford hero.
While Mourinho was not every United fan’s ideal choice to succeed van Gaal, he has said and done all the right things so far — with the emphasis on so far. The fear factor has returned to United with the new additions giving the team a physical and psychological edge in the tunnel before the kickoff.
Across town at City, Guardiola has wasted no time putting his fingerprints on the side. Joe Hart, Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri are yesterday’s men, Martin Demichelis was released and Steven Jovatic loaned to Inter Milan. In have come Claudio Bravo, John Stones, Ilkay Gundogan, Nolito and Leroy Sane.
Guardiola’s record demands respect even if dumping England goalkeeper Hart, 29 for a 33-year-old Chilean is a little puzzling, but it underlines the Catalan’s ruthless streak. At Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Guardiola liked his goalkeeper to be proficient with his feet as well as his hands, his passing ability making him a glorified fullback. Hart’s distribution was not up to Guardiola’s standard so Bravo was recruited from Barcelona. It is hard to recall another goalkeeper sacrificed because of his footwork.
Conte has immediately won over Chelsea fans with his passion, energy and personality.
N’Golo Kante, at £30 million from Leicester almost loose change compared with some of today’s prices, will add steel, stamina and skill to the midfield.
Whether Michy Batshuayi will rotate with Diego Costa or the pair will play together is not yet clear. What is as certain as night following day is that the Belgium striker will fill in for Costa when he is inevitably sent off. Costa was fortunate not to see red against both West Ham and Watford, but his luck will run out and, of course, he will once again claim referees are out to get him.
The season started as it usually does for Arsenal with a defeat, supporters voicing their anger at no major signings, Wenger saying he will only bring in players who will improve the team (he must have one heck of a team) and the obligatory injury crisis.
Arsenal is interested in Lucas, the Deportivo La Coruña forward, and Shkodran Mustafi, Valencia’s Germany international defender, but as The Japan Times went to press neither deal had been completed.
Wenger is in the last year of his contract and the Frenchman, who did so much to revolutionize English football when he arrived 20 years ago from Japan, is rapidly becoming yesterday’s man. He probably still uses a typewriter.
His belief that it is better to produce talent than buy it at exorbitant prices is admirable, but he is stuck in his own ideal world with the game moving on outside it. While Arsenal’s main rivals have all bought big in terms of name and money, Granit Xhaka, £35 million from Borussia Moenchengladbach, is the only significant signing and the way the Swiss goes into tackles means he will not be a stranger to the Football Association’s disciplinary department.
In 24 minutes of the 4-3 loss to Liverpool Xhaka attempted six tackles, did not win one and four were fouls, collecting his first, but not last, yellow card in English football.
That must be some sort of record and we now live in a world of statistics — Fulham even has a director of statistical recruitment. Perhaps the most relevant and consistent stat is that to win the title a team can afford to lose no more than five matches — in the past 15 seasons only Manchester City, with six defeats in 2014, has bucked that trend.
Regardless of the number of points won, goals scored or conceded the figure in the L column is usually the deciding factor. He who loses the fewest wins.
Champion Leicester lost three games last season; the Foxes, Arsenal and Liverpool each have one loss already so realistically they can afford to lose a maximum of four more games in their remaining 36 matches. Pressure.
The match of the day on Saturday in many respects is Hull vs. Manchester United. Hull, like Leicester last season, was just about everyone’s tip for relegation, yet it has won its first two games.
Hull, whose caretaker-manager is former Reds assistant manager Mike Phelan, has never beaten United in the Premier League, a run spanning eight matches that includes seven Reds wins and one draw, but something has to give at KC Stadium in the battle of the unlikely unbeatens.
New reality: A former Premier League player who remains a close friend was admitted to a private clinic in an effort to help his alcoholism. The clinic deals with various types of addictions, but it is a sad comment on the times we live in that one person was there because of her addiction to her smartphone.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.