“I didn’t learn anything,” said Jose Mourinho last week, upon completing a stop-start visit to the USA which brought more questions than answers. It is not certain that we learnt much either. European royalty faced off against each other but the larger meaning behind the results was unclear. It was an exercise in advertising the club business certainly, and the football was an opportunity for those who are unlikely to feature prominently during the season to show off their wares.
But beyond that, the picture was amorphous. However, there will be some opportunities for the younger talents to furnish claims of their ability in the coming weeks. The shortest gap between the World Cup final and the start of the Premier League in living memory, merely 25 days, has left clubs scrambling in search of adequate preparation for the upcoming campaign. Many key players who were involved deep in Russia have offered to cut short their holidays and some of them are back earlier than they were supposed to.
Still, the pre-season was ridden with short-termism as managers sought to come up with solutions for the immediate alone. Tottenham Hotspur showed how difficult it can get. No new signings have been made since the club cannot be wanton in its spending thanks to a refurbished White Hart Lane.
Moreover, with the Premier League clubs having decided to shut the transfer window before the competition begins on Friday, Spurs do not have much time left to finish its recruitment. It is not outside the realms of possibility that the club may end up with only key contract extensions this summer – albeit, it was necessary to secure the future of decisive players like Harry Kane, Heung-min Son, Harry Winks, Davinson Sanchez, and manager Mauricio Pochettino.
The situation is skewed unfavourably even further due to the performances by Tottenham’s players at the World Cup. In the process of scoring the joint-highest goals in Russia — twelve strikes, as many as Paris Saint-Germain’s players tallied up — footballers who represent Spurs ended up playing the most minutes at the World Cup. With many of these stars returning to training only on Monday, and no friendly match slated before Spurs opens its campaign against Newcastle United on 11 August, key figures will have their first taste of football in weeks at a Premier League match. This is as much a price you pay for success as it is for a football calendar which seems unable to demarcate one season from another.
In this context, a look at past seasons following the World Cup and Euros are only slightly useful. While it is not unprecedented to see managers in the proverbial Big Six grapple with unavailability of personnel following a major tournament, this season has brought breaks hitherto unseen.
The incredibly short gap between the World Cup aside, come the start of the season on Friday, many managers will still be figuring out whether the players at their disposal will be enough. In past seasons, a defeat or two in the beginning at least allowed panic buys. There will be no such luxuries this time around.
But the changed reality of the Premier League brings another element of complexity to this campaign. Four years ago when eventual champion Chelsea made a racing start to its campaign, the financial gap between English clubs and the rest was not as pronounced as it is now. In the current scenario, though, the wealth assumes a different picture as continental challengers get three more weeks to complete their business. With little time left for the Premier League clubs now, their best option is to pay even higher prices for players they desperately need. Chelsea’s move for Kepa Arrizabalaga is a point in case.
It is worth recalling that the Blues hit the ground running in time following the 2014 World Cup as the extra week allowed to the teams back then, in comparison with now, was enough for the squads to recuperate from the summer’s exertions. Manchester United was the biggest team to struggle but only because Louis van Gaal’s late arrival following the Netherlands’s third-place finish in Brazil allowed little time for everyone to settle down. To an extent, this is the kind of challenge Maurizio Sarri is facing now.
Statistically, in the 21st century, the Premier League champion in the post-World Cup campaign scores a lower average of points than in other seasons. However, that may not be the case with Manchester City if Pep Guardiola’s men go on to successfully defend their title. This has been touted as a strong possibility because not only has City kept its record-breaking squad together, but it has also added the iridescent Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City.
Four years on from the shambolic start to its Premier League campaign under van Gaal, Manchester United finds itself in an ominous position yet again. But the late finish to the World Cup cannot be blamed for the chaos. United has been run poorly for years now, with the club’s transfer activity its lowest point.
Spurs has arguably felt the pinch of the scheduling more sharply but the North Londoners will do well to remind themselves that they have been notorious slow-starters under Pochettino in other campaigns too. Among the other members of the Big Six, Arsenal’s transition under Unai Emery is not defined by this summer’s zany developments in Russia.
That leaves Liverpool, a club that has been most adept at dealing with this unusual situation. Under manager Jurgen Klopp, sporting director Michael Edwards, and the scouting team led by Barry Hunter and Dave Fallows, the targets were identified early and the business swiftly accomplished. The consequence of this determined approach is that the Reds appear stronger than they ever have under their current manager.
No longer is Klopp beset by the deficiencies of the past. More importantly, Liverpool has set a lesson for others to follow in upcoming seasons when it comes to dealing with the early shutdown of the transfer window. A harebrained approach to signings is not a healthy sign, after all.
As for the World Cup, it will retain its shadow over the Premier League as the differences in a player’s performance for his club and his country will not go unnoticed. Pre-season friendlies, that were reduced to tawdry marketing activities, are usually the barometers for judging any changes that may arise in a footballer’s development. This season, that will have to wait until the actual competition begins.
The sudden change in the calendar, though, is likely to be forgotten soon. But it has left an indelible imprint on the football to come. In the next few weeks and months, we will continue to feel the strains of this change. Mourinho and everyone else, finally, will have a lot more to learn.