When it comes to round-the-year entertainment in football, very little compares with the travails of the main European leagues. And, among the latter, the league that’s the most consistently entertaining has to be England’s Premier League. It is literally leagues (sorry about the pun!) ahead of all other association football, not just in terms of the concentration of star players and managers, but also as a bellwether for the direction of the world’s most popular sport.
The 2022-23 season has only just crossed the half-way stage, but plenty of interesting narratives are already shaping up. From sportswashing controversies to genuine on-field excitement, here are five things to look forward to for the rest of the season.
Premier league’s spending spree: The January transfer window, which slammed shut a fortnight ago, demonstrated once again the outsized concentration of wealth in the Premier League. Typically, most player business is done in the summer between seasons, but all that went out of the window as Premier League clubs spent a whopping £815m on players.
Leading from the front was cash-rich Chelsea, spending nearly £300m on players, including the English transfer record fee of £106.8m for 22-year-old Argentina star Enzo Fernandes. Chelsea’s gross expenditure during the transfer window was more than all of La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 put together. This has led to the president of Spain’s La Liga, Javier Tebas labelling the Premier League a financially “doped market”.
There might be some truth in his words, since in a global financial environment of austerity and uncertainty, Premier League clubs have spent nearly £3 billion over the two 2022-23 transfer windows.
Manchester City’s legal troubles: Meanwhile, the world’s richest club, and defending Premier League champions, find themselves in serious legal soup, stemming from serious allegations of fraudulent business. Last week, the Premier League brought charges of over 100 breaches of competition rules. They relate to alleged dishonest statements of the club’s finances, a failure to fully disclose manager and player remunerations, breaches of fair play rules and a failure to cooperate with the Premier League in its investigations. The charges will be heard by a three-member independent commission.
The legal wranglings may drag on for a while, but if Manchester City is found to be guilty, it would have serious repercussions on the world’s first state-owned club. City could be stripped of the six Premier League titles it has won in the past 13 years since it was bought by Abu Dhabi. Punishment could also include points deductions, suspension or even expulsion from the league.
Will Qatar acquire Manchester United? While Manchester City’s troubles stem in part from the bottomless pit of sovereign wealth that has been pumped into the club by Abu Dhabi, this hasn’t deterred other Gulf countries to try and take over clubs. Qatar had followed suit soon after Manchester City’s sale in 2008, by acquiring Paris Saint-Germain in 2011. Since then, country has steered an increasingly successful course through the dark alleyways of global football politics, culminating in the divisive, but successful World Cup last year.
Evidently all this success has whetted the appetite, because news has emerged that the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, now wants to buy England’s most famous club, Manchester United. The club’s current owners, the American Glazer family, put the club up for sale late last year, valuing it at £6 billion. The Emir values the club at £4.5 billion, and is reportedly willing to figure out ways to own both PSG and United without falling afoul of European governing body UEFA’s rules. If the sale were to go through, it would cause seismic shockwaves in global football.
Will this be Arsenal’s year? Through all this, the actual football has been great this season. In this World Cup-interrupted season, while the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea have faded badly, Arsenal have bucked recent trends and are playing like champions-in-waiting. Coach Mikel Arteta’s patient work over the past few seasons has paid off in a big way as the Gunners seem to be coasting towards a first Premier League title since the 2003-2004 season of Arsène Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’.
Arteta’s first-team, built around the youthful attack of Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah, backed up by the nous and determination of Ben White and William Saliba in defence, Granit Xaka and Martin Ødegaard, and smart buys like Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, have been purring all season, turning in weekly displays of breathtaking attacking football. But Arsenal have stumbled of late, including in a shock 1-0 loss to Everton, which has led to Man City cutting the gap at the top to just one point. This makes Thursday’s top of the league showdown with City all the more tasty.
The race for top-four: Manchester City and Liverpool’s nearly unbreakable grasp at the top of the Premier League for the past few seasons has crumbled this season. The resurgence of Arsenal, and Manchester United, coupled with Liverpool’s collapse, has made this season more open and fun. Right now, while Arsenal and City battle it out for the League title, United, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspurs are in the race to claim the remaining two Champions League spots. Add to this the outside chance of both Liverpool and Chelsea (currently languishing at 9 and 10 respectively) putting together a consistent run, and the race for top four has become an intriguing one.
Towards the beginning of the season, it had seemed another year of transition for United. But coach Erik ten Hag has worked wonders at Old Trafford, and though United are far from the complete package, the team are playing with rare fluidity and confidence. The Saudi Arabia-owned Newcastle have also come up in leaps and bounds, while Tottenham are having an indifferent season. Newcastle will meet Liverpool and City before the month is out, while Chelsea and Tottenham will face off in a London derby on 26 February. Expect fireworks.