At the risk of sounding like a Sky Sports advertisement, this will be a Premier League season like no other.
That is normally the sort of line uttered by an enthusiastic Jamie Redknapp in front of a loud backdrop, but this time there is some substance in that claim.
However, this season is different insofar as the biggest source of intrigue will come from the men on the sidelines rather than the players on the pitch.
At no other point in English football recently, arguably any country for that matter, has there been such a collection of superstar managers in any one league at one time. Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho are European champions, Claudio Ranieri, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger and Antonio Conte are all domestic league winners, while Mauricio Pochettino is one of the brightest young managers in the game.
All of them are used to winning, and yet one of them is going to finish seventh. A former league champion is going to finish sixth.
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) August 11, 2016
Even Wenger, never really a man to buy into the hyperbole that comes with modern football, has commented on the fact that so many of the most illustrious tactical minds in the game will be based in England, telling Sky Sports:
“It looks like that [the season being more difficult than ever] because it is a little bit world championships of managers as well which means a lot of ambitions come with that as well and the expectation level everywhere is very high.”
Wenger seems excited, but he should actually be pretty worried. Most of these men, his new (and old) adversaries have been more successful than him recently. He can go one of two ways with this – he will have to rise to the challenge and show that the man who revolutionised the game in England is capable of keeping up in this new era, because otherwise he is going to look more out of touch than ever.
The resumption of the battle between Guardiola and Mourinho is also an interesting narrative. The war between the two whilst at Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively proved psychologically exhausting for both – arguably, neither has ever recovered from it. Pitting them against each other once again, and in the same city no less, and it becomes even more significant.
Mourinho’s biggest problem right now, at least to those outside Old Trafford, is that last season’s meltdown is still fresh in the memory. The air of vulnerability that began to enshroud him in Madrid did not follow him back to England initially – when it finally hit him last December, it hit him hard.
He’s saying all the right things so far in his new job, but it remains to be seen just how much he has learned from that humiliation – as a coach and a person.
For Guardiola, meanwhile, this is unquestionably his biggest challenge as a manager. With the greatest of respect to the Bundesliga, winning the title with Bayern Munich, a team that had just won the Champions League, is not as difficult as rebuilding a side that limped to fourth place in what was not a particularly strong Premier League last season.
His signings so far indicate the implication of a long-term strategy, but will a manger who does not like to hang around in one place for very long even be in the Etihad for enough time to see it come to fruition?
Pep’s recent record is better, but José has a greater level of knowledge of the Premier League. Both have spent similar amounts of money (albeit in much very different ways) – and right now, one of those two has to be considered title favourites.
And what of Klopp and Conte? Neither has European football to worry about this season, and when both are trying to instill such high-intensity games, that could prove significant. The signings made by Liverpool and Chelsea have been understated – far more so than the two Manchester clubs’ anyway – but suit the respective’ managers ideals.
Klopp has the added benefit of having the majority of last season with this squad, laying the groundwork for a team that should be more in his own image in this campaign. The signing of Sadio Mané in particular has all the hallmarks of what the former Dortmund boss wants in a player.
At Stamford Bridge, Conte has to revitalise Chelsea both physically and mentally. Last season broke them in so many ways, and Conte is just sort of belligerent that can motivate them, be it through fear or otherwise. Last year was not the real Chelsea – Conte will make damn sure that this season will be.
Before a ball has even been kicked, the real story of this season has begun. The managers’ transfer policies over the summer have done much to outline their plans for their respective clubs. None of the clubs’ signings, with the exception of Paul Pogba perhaps, has upstaged their manager.
It has become more about the system than the players who occupy it. The idea of forcing square pegs into round holes doesn’t seem as prevalent this summer, and that comes down to the increased influence of the managers.
There have been no examples, say, to rival Manchester United spending £60m on Ángel Di María and shoving him into a Louis van Gaal team, or Manchester City handing over almost £40m to sign Eliaquim Managala, a decision that should have resulted in the public flogging of whoever authorised it.
Leicester, despite being given the task of defending their title, are probably under the least pressure. Claudio Ranieri is already setting his side targets of 40 points – that might seem defeatist given what happened last season, but it patently works for him. How they handle the added pressure and fixture congestion of the Champions League will have a massive bearing on their domestic campaign.
For Tottenham, much will depend on how they recover from last season. The title race, and subsequent capitulation to finishing behind Arsenal, will have been physically exhausting for Pochettino and his team. They have added Vincent Janssen and Victor Wanyama, both astute signings, but whether that will be enough for even a top four finish remains to be seen.
None of the squads right now are perfect, and in many ways that adds to the level of curiosity. Brilliant managers working with not-so-brilliant squads – which would-be tactical genius is going to be the most capable of getting the best out of the resources at hand?
All of this leads to a greater interest in the tactical styles to be implemented. Seven different styles, all previously successful in their own right, an multiple-way game of chess lasting the course of a season – and yet only one of them can prevail. Whose squad will adapt first? Will every one of the managers even last the full season?
There are more questions than ever in the buildup to a new Premier League season, and thus makes it the most fascinating in a long time.