Takin’ on Sports: Premier League Preview

A less-than-comprehensive look at the 2019/2020 English Premier League season.

Note: This is the first installment of what I intend to be a weekly series. Bear with me while I flesh out the concept and figure out what I want to do with this space. The only certain thing I can tell you is I’ll be talking sports — sometimes current happenings, sometimes previews, sometimes irreverent takes on random sports/sports-related topics. Let’s have some fun.

Football season is here! Well, for Europe anyway, we have to wait a few weeks until meaningful pigskin football games here in the States. But, for now we have soccer, a strange combination of football, basketball and chess invented by the English to fight off Barbarian hordes during the Renaissance (or something, they don’t teach world history in America).

Anyway, let’s preview the upcoming 2019-2020 English Premier League, shall we?

The Favorites

Look, this is a two-team race, once again, between defending champs Manchester City and last season’s runner-up Liverpool, who lost all of one (1) game last year en route to second place. Lady Soccer can be a cruel mistress.

There might not be a safer bet than these two finishing at the top yet again this season.

City are managed by Pep Guardiola, basically a Catalonian Nick Saban (side note: I would pay GOOD MONEY to see Dark Lord Saban sport a scarf on the sidelines down in Tuscaloosa, if only for the takes that would follow), who just moves from title to title in his never-ending quest to conquer Europe via tiki-taka.

Challengers Liverpool are usually hailed as the antithesis to City, but in reality there are every bit the soul-crushing juggernaut, they just use a more relentless attack led by Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and plethora of speedy players meant to run you ragged until you curl up and cry and wonder why you ever thought defending was a worthwhile way to make millions of dollars–sorry, pounds. Or Euros. Pelts?

It’s been almost 30 years since Liverpool won the English title, although they did win the Champions League last season. And if you’re wondering how that works, well then go read wikipedia because I don’t have the time to explain. I will say that I imagine Auburn fans would love a similar setup in college football. That way, when they win an Iron Bowl, only to watch Alabama go win a National Title, rendering said bowl of iron to be meaningless (‘sup, 2017?), they still get a trophy. Yup, that’s a barner dig in an August article previewing English soccer, football is back bay-bay!

The Top 4 Race

This is the part that confuses those foreign to European Soccer. And also those who are fans of soccer. Even those who call it football and live in Europe. Champions League rules were writ in stone by ancient beings, passed down to factory workers who needed something to do once the British Empire crumbled. They are not meant to be understood, only worshipped while enjoyed UEFA-approved sponsored items.

So, the Champions League is continental competition, pitting the top teams from all the European leagues against each other. Except you don’t have to be a Champion per se, you just have to finish in a qualifying spot. How many spots your league has depends on some formula UEFA (the organization that overlooks European soccer) uses. Again, go read wikipedia for a detailed explanation.

So, in England the top 4 teams qualify for the next season’s Champions League. Last season’s final order was Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea (who won the Europa League, which is like the NIT… sort of, but not really) and Tottenham Hotspur.

The right to be called champions of Europe is nice and all, but the real prize is the paycheck,

This season could/should look the same, and if it differs it’ll likely be one of the other two Big Six teams. Who are the Big Six? Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, aka the six richest clubs in England who almost always comprise the top four spots in some order. When Leicester City won the title in 2016, they had 5000-1 odds to win. That most likely won’t happen again until, like, 2074.

Like I said above, the title race is between City and Liverpool. Spurs are always the hipster favorite, who play attractive soccer and, inevitably, at some point this season will be referred by pundits galore as “the actual best team in England” and then sputter to finish somewhere between 3rd and 7th place. Like. Clockwork.

Chelsea are certain to gain a boost in American fans this season as U.S. superstar-in-the-making Christian Pulisic starts his tenure with the Blues. Problem is, Chelsea got slapped with a transfer ban, meaning they couldn’t add any new players to the squad over the summer (Pulisic’s deal was done last winter before the ban hit). While they did finish third, a lot of that can be contributed to the incompetence of Arsenal and Man United.

Speaking of the Red Devils, Man U spent all summer in the headlines wondering “when and to whom will United sell Paul Pogba” only to not sell him, sell Romelu Lukaku to Inter Milan instead, and not replace him at all. They did sign Harry Maguire to help with the defensive woes, though. They’ll host Chelsea to open the season on Sunday, and while it should be a good match, the announcers, as per tradition, will be melodramatic AS FUCK about the whole ordeal shouting about “storylines” and what it all means a whole 27 minutes into the season.

Well, who’s your team?

There may not be a better goal-scoring dup than Lacazette and Aubameyang, but can they carry Arsenal back to the Champions League?

Arsenal, a North London club with tons of titles and tradition and hasn’t won an English title in over a decade. I became a fan somewhere around 2011/2012 when a roommate had DirecTV, and I became addicted to the Fox Soccer Channel. I asked some EPL-following friends who to root for, they advised me to just watch a season and let the soccer gods do the work. So, I did, and the gods blessed me with a team with solid red unis, an attractive style of play, and a cantankerous, old French guy managing the squad. Arsene Wenger is his name, and even though his final years were less than glorious, I was and still am a fan of his “no loss is truly our fault” philosophy.

Unai Emery, the man appointed to take over after Wenger’s resignation, has kept up with recent Arsenal tradition by deciding to forego any measure of defense in lieu of playing the “beautiful game” the right way. They lost club captain Laurent Koscielny in a rather ugly, surprising departure, but honestly that wasn’t a huge problem as Koscielny turns 34 in September and has had trouble staying healthy the past few years. However, the solution to their defensive troubles leaves a lot to be desired. The solution in question? David Luiz, a man who can unleash a beautiful pass from the back line to start a goal-scoring attack, but also a man who… well, just watch. At least the Gunners also signed talented and young left back Kieran Tierney.

As usual, the Gunners should be just fine in attack. Already having boasted arguably the best attacking duo in the EPL in Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal added club-record signing Nicolas Pepe, a French winger who tore up Ligue 1 last year for Lille; and Dani Ceballos, a twinkle-toed midfielder the Gunners got on loan from Real Madrid. Goals will not be in short supply at the Emirates Stadium. Whether Arsenal can hold off opponents enough to get back into the top 4, and subsequently Champions League soccer (and money), is the one true theme of their upcoming season.

The New Guys

The EPL, like most soccer leagues, operates on a promotion-relegation system, meaning the bottom three teams are demoted to the EPL Championship (the second tier of English soccer), and replaced by the top three teams from the Championship. Sort of, anyway: the top two teams qualify for promotion, and then teams that finish 3rd-6th have a little playoff to decide the last promoted team. Say what you will about it, but for my money watching the bottom-dwellers actually trying to win games is a hell of a lot better than watching teams tank in the hopes that some 18-21 year-old is gonna save the franchise.

This year’s new batch consists of Norwich City, Sheffield United and Aston Villa. I don’t have much to add about these guys, except that Norwich wear bright yellow and green kits, and Aston Villa are Ozzy Osbourne’s favorite club. Pour one out for Fulham, Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town.

liverpool everton
That’s Anfield in the foreground, less than a mile away from Goodison Park.

What the fuck is a Derby?

To begin, it’s pronounced dar-bee. Because England, I assume. What it is is another word for rivalry game. European soccer has a lot of similarities to college football in America in terms of culture surrounding the game. My favorite of which is the ferocity of the rivalries, based 100% on the fact that two clubs happen to set up shop close to each other. For reference, look at the picture of Anfield, home of Liverpool, and Goodison Park, home of rival Everton. They are literally on the other side of the park from each other. You just know that creates some awkward family outings, the way any good sport should.

What to watch for this season

The biggest storyline of the new EPL season will be the introduction of VAR — or Video Assistant Referee, the soccer version of Instant Replay. VAR certainly has it’s pros (helping teams not get screwed when the referee misses a call) and cons (we don’t need to stop play to review every goddamned thing), and no matter what side of the debate you fall on, at some point, probably early in the season, VAR will have a game-changing impact and cause a goddamned certifiable ruckus in the media. Should be fun.

As I mentioned above, Americans will tune in to see how Pulisic stacks up on a global stage. But, if you’re looking for the darlings of the 2019/2020 EPL season, you might want to look at the other blue shirt-wearing club in England (well, there’s like 3324 of them, soccer teams love them a good red or blue), Everton. The Toffees are perennially just on the fringes of the big six, but can’t seem to break through (the last time Everton finished in the top four was 04/05). This summer, Everton added Moise Kean, Alex Iwobi and Fabian Delph — among others — to create a real buzz around Goodison that this could be the year that Everton returns to Champions League football — especially given the unevenness of usual suspects Arsenal, Chelsea and Man United.

I’m not here to try and shove soccer down your throat, if you don’t like it then you don’t like it, and that’s just fine. But, if you find yourself bored to death this fall by the dredges of early morning college football (although who doesn’t love a good 11am tussle between Arkansas and South Carolina, or Iowa/Michigan St, or Virginia/Wake Forest), or you just need to get away from College Gameday before Tom Rinaldi makes you cry at 8 in the fucking morning, you can find the EPL on NBC or NBC Sports.

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