All right, my soccer-agnostic Atlantic reader. It is time for us to relate on a new level. Because I say this not hyperbolically, but demurely and with a quiet and pious certainty: The upcoming season of the English Premier League will be the single most enthralling and ugly/beautiful season of professional sports played anywhere, by anyone, ever. I know this in my buzzing journo-bones, and if I could show you the picture in my mind—the roaring managerial heads, the soccer balls bending goalward on beams of Blakeian light, the stadiums shaking with vilification and worship—you would know it too. The stage is set, les jeux sont (just about) faits, and on August 13 it all quite literally kicks off. Do you feel a wary prickle of interest? Do you want in? Let me help.
Some background: Since its formation in 1992, when the top 22 clubs in English soccer broke away from the rest to form an elite super-sphere of television deals, corporate sponsorships, and Bond-villain money, the Premier League has ballooned into global brandhood. Today it is the most watched, most discussed, most thoroughly marketed and heavily merchandised soccer league in the world. In the United States, where not long ago fans had to slope off to an Irish pub with a satellite dish to watch a Liverpool game, NBC Sports now pipes all the Premier League action you could want directly into your home (or onto your handheld device, if you’re post-TV). The point is that you can just sit there like Noël Coward with a bag of Doritos and soak it up. Technologically speaking—also narratively and theatrically, as we shall see—there has never been a better moment for an intrigued American to venture an engagement with the upper tiers of English soccer. So here we go.
First: the mood. Sink into the mood. Although liberally stacked with non-English players, managers, and owners, the Premier League remains very English in its humors. “Naismith’s chuntering on,” observes the commentator into his microphone, as the camera captures Steven Naismith, a midfielder for Norwich City, in profane soliloquy after the referee did something he didn’t agree with. Sifting rains, snarling faces, Larkin-esque glumness, a playing style that, despite gobs of overseas lucre and an end-of-history deterioration of the national spine, has mysteriously retained some vestige of Britannic fury—the Premier League is an infamously hard school for players unused to English soccer. “It’s all spilling over here at Stamford Bridge!” cried NBC’s silver-tongued Arlo White, throbbing like a nightingale, during a Tottenham Spurs–Chelsea clash at the end of last season, one of the most frenzied and full-blooded Premier League matches in recent memory. Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard, inexplicably dormant for months (was he injured? sulking? spellbound?), had awoken with a vengeance, sending a ball hissing past Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris on an arc of pure spite. Spurs drooped—You’re fucking shit! chanted the Chelsea fans—and then lashed out. Crashing tackles, writhing bodies, the referee flashing yellow cards like some kind of errant beacon. As the game disintegrated into crackling pockets of contention, a note of concern entered the commentary: “They’re going from tactical fouls [to] … some quite serious challenges flying in here.” A minute after the final whistle, a shapeless mass seethed and scuffled at the mouth of the players’ tunnel. Glorious.
Next: the teams. News may have reached you, this past May, of the Seabiscuit-style upset that was Leicester City’s conquest of the league. Defying augury—the bookmakers had the team at 5,000 to 1 when the season began—they charged from the bottom of the standings to the top and simply stayed there, in sovereign inappropriateness. And as the team racked up victory after insolent victory, various centers of individual brilliance were revealed. There was the endlessly mobile, hummingly energetic, supernaturally ubiquitous N’Golo Kanté, so adhesively on top of opposing players that his teammates nicknamed him “The Rash.” There were the tipsy, brilliantined skills of Riyad Mahrez, a slender goal grabber generally moving at a 45-degree angle to the ground. Watching Mahrez, often in gloves, flaneur his way through a crowded penalty box with the ball obediently at his feet was one of the season’s great joys. And then there was Jamie Vardy, the speeding yang to Mahrez’s oozing yin, austere and high shouldered, pure athletic purpose burning almost vacantly behind his eyes, bursting into space and stonking the ball into the back of the net with a kind of extravagant directness. Can Leicester City hang on to the title? Can it fend off the young and muscular Spurs, the brawling West Ham, the revitalized Liverpool, the brittle, neurasthenic, intermittently dazzling, almost erotically frustrating Arsenal?
Next: the managers. These are the characters on the sidelines, now stonily unreadable, now bellowing in ecstasy or despair, each with his private voodoo of credibility. Their heads are always rolling—last season there were 11 managerial sackings among the 20 teams of the Premier League. This season, watch for the renewal of the galactic feud between José Mourinho, recently hired as manager of Manchester United, and Pep Guardiola, who has taken over at Manchester City. The two men are former-life foes, having clashed in Spain when Mourinho managed Real Madrid and Guardiola managed Barcelona. Guardiola is aloof, Apollonian, elegantly bald; Mourinho, nicknamed “The Special One,” is a handsome little bully with grudge-bearing radar. (He once allegedly said of Guardiola, “He doesn’t enjoy football. When you enjoy what you do, you don’t lose your hair.”) Last season, Mourinho was fired by Chelsea. Having steered the team to the top of the league the previous year, he subsequently seemed to have overdosed them with his own sulphurous and machinating personality. The players seized up, got touchy, fell over; the team plummeted. And now he faces Guardiola—again. Feelings already run high in Manchester, where the United–City rivalry is ancestral and intense; with the superimposition of these two characters, fireworks are guaranteed. Look out also for the continuing ascendance of Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s leaping, gnashing, laughing Golden Graham of a manager. Klopp arrived last season after the sacking of Brendan Rodgers and immediately started hugging all his players, who responded like love-starved children. “It means a lot as a player,” gasped attacking midfielder Adam Lallana in the wake of a particularly searching Klopp embrace, “if your manager is showing some genuine affection for you.”
Finally: Barney Ronay. Enjoy the Premier League as spectacle, then make yourself a cup of tea and enjoy it as prose. Ronay, who writes for The Guardian in London, is the Anthony Lane of soccer journalism—although with a style more to be admired even than Lane’s, because he pumps out his drolleries and image-clusters at deadline-busting sportswriter speed. He sees the game in infrared, in heat chambers and spaces of chill, and his specialty is the wild simile. When the massively beautiful, titanically clumsy forward player Andy Carroll was enduring miseries in Liverpool (he’s now in wonderfully destructive form for West Ham), Ronay wrote this: “Because he is a good team man Carroll will continue to run willingly, lumbering sideways like a drunken horse, still doing his ‘passing,’ addressing the ball with the finesse of a man booting an old hubcap along a motorway verge.” More recently, Ronay harked back mistily to the fearsomeness of Leeds midfielder David Batty, “a player who strolled about the pitch like the kind of quiet, chillingly effective nightclub bouncer who keeps a set of steak knives and a bag of human teeth in the boot of his car.”
We’re agreed, then, are we? This is the season. Don’t worry about picking a team. The term for unaffiliated soccer fans is neutrals—quite the misnomer, really. Who is less neutral than the dragonfly dilettante, with his changeabilities, his evanescent allegiances, his loopy partialities, darting here and there as the drama dictates? It will be your privilege, as a novice devotee, to cultivate a fine, benign, post-tribal appreciation of the Premier League in all its wildness. Go to it.