No more Premier League fairytales, please! Get the big clubs back on top
My Euro hangover lasted longer than most, and not for the obvious reason. Oh sure, there was no shortage of golden hops consumed amid the communal bonhomie of a major tournament.But after a while it became less about the spectacle and more about simply coping with the life-sapping tedium of watching teams sit back, tackle hard and spring the occasional counter. In other words, they were all trying to out-Leicester Leicester.
Granted, Iceland and Wales played with a heroic resilience and unbreakable spirit that stirred the soul, but apart from Hal Robson-Kanu's sick Cruyff turn and the Houdini-like ease with which Aaron Ramsey made Eden Hazard and the rest of Belgian's ballyhooed midfield disappear into his satin back pocket, did Wales really make your nerves jangle? And did your pulse quicken more at the Iceland team on the field or at their remarkably synchronized fans in the stands? Presuming you're neither Icelandic nor Welsh, you probably joined me in a state of near catatonia.
Which is why as we approach the new Premier League season, my most fervent hope is not that Arsene Wenger will at long last come to his transfer market senses before Arsenal finds itself starting the new campaign with Yaya Sanogo as it attacking spearhead. That would be nice, of course, but my chief concern is, believe it or not, less Gunner-centric than usual. It's that the upcoming season provides a glorious course correction to the gathering storm of turgid, smothering tactics that sucked much of the joy and wonder out of watching the game this summer.
So, Football Gods, please don't give us another miracle Prem season featuring the Middlesbroughs, Hulls and Burnleys of the world defying the stratospheric odds to once again send bookies scurrying to find a new line of work. Show mercy on us and don't let the next eight months become a celebration of clogged midfields and bunkered defenses. Seriously: don't you dare. Portugal's Euro 2016 win was enough punishment for the next four years.
Thankfully, we are now living in a world where there are enough outsized managerial egos that want to put their imprimatur on the Premier League. I doubt that the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino will set up their teams to simply avoid defeat. These are men who value style almost as much as they do winning -- though in the case of Wenger, I am not so sure about the winning part.
Even Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, distinguished graduates of The School of Risk-Averse Football, are making the right noises about their teams playing with attacking swagger. It all points to a reversion to the mean: the two Manchesters, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and even Tottenham reasserting themselves after a year's sabbatical during which Claudio Ranieri and his band of overachievers wrote their names into legend.
Given last week's move of N'Golo Kante to Chelsea and the expected decampment of Riyad Mahrez to a big European club willing to pay him an inordinate sum of money, it looks like Leicester are very much a one-and-done phenomenon. Unless, of course, the nicest Italian manager in the Prem can make lightning -- or even better, Jamie Vardy -- strike in the same place twice. Until then, we appear to be in for a reassertion of the Prem's natural pecking order, starting in that grey city divided into red and blue.
How great is it that the two biggest managerial godheads on the planet are now only a cross-town bus ride away from each other?
It's true that the two saviors-for-hire didn't exactly wax poetic about each other when they butted their egos against one another for La Liga supremacy. But that was then, this is Manchester and for now, they are both on their best faux-diplomatic behavior, being careful not to say anything that will antagonize the other until a ball has been kicked in anger.
Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are vying to make Manchester dominant again. Can they do it while remaining cordial?
Even though it was obvious early on that United's philosopher emperor, Louis van Gaal, had no chance to last another year, the club's brain trust (now there's an oxymoron) waited until after the Dutchman had won the FA Cup to show him the Old Trafford David Moyes memorial door. Enter Mourinho, a man who represents both an immediate sartorial and charismatic upgrade, although these attributes don't mitigate the pressures he now faces.
In their seething frustration with Van Gaal's tactics, United fans took to chanting "We're Man United, we want to attack." This is not to say that Mourinho will turn United into the second coming of Brazil's fabled 1970 World Cup team. He's too cagey to open up the throttle and allow his players the freedom to express themselves all over the field for fear they will be caught out at the back. But he's also smart enough to know that he can no longer get away with parking a fleet of buses and hope to endear himself to his new fan base.
His initial efforts in the transfer market bode well for a return to a more attack-minded United side, if not necessarily a free-flowing, swashbuckling one. In addition to bringing in everybody's favorite man-bun rocking, bicycle-kick-launching 34-year-old legend, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Portuguese signed the highly regarded Borussia Dortmund midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan. And if he succeeds in luring back Paul Pogba, this season's most coveted transfer prize, to his old stomping ground for we-really-are-the-richest-league-in-the-world money, he will have outwitted, among other frantic, high-profile suitors, his old amigo Guardiola.
Not that the Spaniard, for his part, hasn't been busy trying to transform City into a more technically assured side after a disappointing campaign that saw them barely eke out a Champions League berth. All Pep has to do this season to please his new Abu Dhabi-based employers is win the Champions League, something he was unable to accomplish with a vastly superior Bayern Munich squad. No pressure.
ESPN reporters evaluate Antonio Conte's comments about his players' ability to reach the level of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Since Guardiola has figured out that he can't do that on the back of stellar underachievers like Raheem Sterling and Yaya Toure, he has made some significant signings, most notably the German international Ilkay Gundogan, one of the 187 Arsenal targets that Wenger had flirted with but couldn't crowbar open his transfer vault quickly enough (or at all) to close the deal.
Any thoughts, however, that Guardiola and Mourinho would turn the coming season into a mano y mano death match have been banished by the dynamic performance of Conte at the Euros. A whirlwind of volcanic emotion on the touchline, the Italian somehow guided his pedestrian team to the quarterfinals by surprising opponents with his uncharacteristically positive tactics. If I were a Chelsea fan (though I'll never be that desperate a human being), I'd be giddy with anticipation. And this was before Conte captured Kante to anchor his midfield. He had already bolstered the attack with the addition of the young Belgian talent Michy Batshuayi.
Then, with a wink and a nod towards those supporters who need a reason to live after their long-time captain and spiritual leader John Terry announced he had played his last game for Chelsea, Conte offered the noted humanitarian a one-year deal to hang around Stamford Bridge, preferably on the bench. But restoring Chelsea to a position of dominance it shockingly lost under the Decidedly Ordinary One last year is a bigger job than simply changing a few pieces on the chess board. Conte will need time and that, unlike money, is something owner Roman Abramovich does not squander.
The guys answer your tweets about who will captain Liverpool, Chelsea's advantage and a new No. 8 for Jurgen Klopp.
The three elite clubs that stood pat in the managerial poker game (Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool) realize that if they want to be part of the free-for-all at the top of the Prem, they cannot sit on their well-manicured hands in the transfer arms race. Still, they have gone about their business with seemingly little urgency.
You'd never have known from the toxic atmosphere at the Emirates last season that Arsenal enjoyed their most successful campaign in a decade under Wenger. But the second place finish was deemed to be yet another of the Frenchman's Le Grand Flops, and he has once again risked bringing out the pitchfork brigade by dithering over reinforcements in defense and attack while nominally strengthening his midfield with the arrival of Swiss hard man Granit Xhaka (the best named Gunner since the awesomeness that was Emmanuel Frimpong).
Liverpool's most notable action to date was to lock up Klopp for another six years of gegenpressing, touchline theatrics and all-around star wattage. At the same time, they have greatly reduced the stress levels among their supporters by sending Martin Skrtel to do his howler routine at Fenerbahce and have fortified their attack by yet again plundering Southampton, this time to the tune of the $50 million transfer of Sadio Mane. Of course, any squad that still boasts both Christian Benteke and Mario Balotelli on their books, at least for the time being, bears watching just for the comedy value.
As for Spurs, is it boorish of me to mention that five of their players formed the heart of England's travesty in France? And that perhaps they weren't in the most supremely confident frame of mind going into the tournament on the heels of their spectacular collapse at the end of the season that saw them finish behind Arsenal for the 21st consecutive time.
To be fair to Tottenham (man, just writing that hurt), they played the most eye-catching football of anyone up until the last ten games, and if Pochettino can help them exorcise those choking ghosts, they should be ready to mount another title challenge -- especially if their new Dutch recruit, Vincent Janssen, can take some of the goal-scoring burden off the beleaguered Harry Kane.
All of which brings me to this hopeful conclusion: it's Goliath's turn to shine this season and I, for one, couldn't be happier about it. Sorry, Claudio.