As the fight to claim the title of the world’s most popular league hots up, here’s how things stand in the Premier League
2023 was quite a watershed year for world football, and one of the reasons for this was the sudden cash-injected prominence of the Saudi Pro League. As part of the country’s ambitious plans to turn itself into a hub for elite sports, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), decided to inject eye-watering amounts of money in helping get the biggest teams in the league secure the services of some of the biggest names in world football.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Karim Benzema and Kalidou Koulibaly all left for Saudi, but the biggest effect of this splurge was probably felt by the world’s biggest football league—the English Premier League. Liverpool lost Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, while Roberto Firmino left the Reds as a free agent. Other big stars like N’Golo Kanté from Chelsea, Aymeric Laporte and Riyad Mahrez from the treble winning Manchester City, and Ruben Neves from Crystal Palace all chose the upstart league. 2024 will likely see similar deals, with Saudi clubs making a beeline for Mohamed Salah and Lionel Messi, two of the biggest stars who have yet resisted the lure.
However, despite this upheaval, the Premier League continued to provide the biggest thrills. The ongoing 2023-24 season is turning out to be one of the most competitive in a while, with defending champions City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Aston Villa all in the mix. Even Tottenham Hotspur has an outside chance. A steady run of games though January will give a better sense of where every team is going to ultimately end up. Keeping this in mind, here are four things to look out for.
City look for relentlessness
Manchester City jetted away from the chasing pack—well, basically Arsenal—in the beginning of 2023 to claim a fourth successive Premier League title. And Pep Guardiola’s men didn’t just stop there. They completed a dream treble by also winning the FA Cup and the Champions League. So far this season, they have added the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup to their kitty. The worry is that after one of the greatest season’s for any club side, can they go on defend the league title, as well as the Champions League?
City was hit by a couple of rude jolts in the summer, when key architects of the treble, Riyad Marhez and İlkay Gündoğan, both decided to leave: the former for the Saudi Pro League and the latter for Barcelona. In the past few months, injuries to key players like Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland has meant that City haven’t quite rediscovered the fluidity or relentlessness that they are famed for. Still, City are in the Champions League knockouts, and within two points of the Premier League summit. When De Bruyne and Haaland are both back, City may just complete a hattrick of league titles.
Liverpool surprise everyone
Neither Liverpool fans nor football waters in general expected the Reds to be league leaders in the new year. Following on from a deeply underwhelming 2022-23 season, and after a major overhaul during the summer transfer window, Jürgen Klopp’s “Liverpool 2.0” was supposed to be having a transitional season. And yet, here they are, top of the table, despite not hitting their fluid best or being particularly consistent.
Well, Mohamed Salah has certainly not let his levels drop. One of the best footballers in the world already has 16 goals and 7 assists in all competitions for Liverpool. The worry for the Merseyside club will be that he may ed up spending over a month at the Africa Cup of Nations. While Klopp has a wealth of talented strikers at his disposal, none, bar perhaps Diogo Jota is as prolific a threat.
On the other hand, this year the goals have been shared around the squad with many of them coming from midfield, where three of Liverpool’s four new midfielders—Dominic Szoboszlai, Alexis Mac Allister and Wataru Endo—have shone. Add to that Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deep-lying passing excellence, a return to form for Virgil Van Dijk in defence, and the continuing brilliance of Alisson in goal, and Liverpool’s title challenge might well have legs this season.
Arsenal flatter to deceive
Building a champion team takes time and patience, and at the beginning of the season, it would seem that Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta had finally completed the jigsaw puzzle. Primarily by bring in excellent Declan Rice to anchor the midfield, it was hoped that Arsenal would be able to put the learnings from last year’s title challenge to god use this season, and actually go the distance.
And the Gunners well might. However, after sitting atop the league at Christmas, two back-to-back losses have brought them down to earth. An overreliance on Bukayo Saka in attack, and Rice in midfield has led to both running on fumes, while it seems that opposing teams have figured out a way to thwart, and even defeat, the relentless Arsenal press. And as City may be about to go on another imperious tun of form, and Liverpool continuing to win, Arsenal may be reduced to fighting it out for Champions League qualification with Aston Villa and Tottenham.
New manager bounce
The two sides this season to really benefit from new managers at the helm are Aston Villa and Tottenham. While Unai Emery has been at Villa since the middle of last season, 2023-24 is where his tactical imprint on the team has come to the fore. The Villans are not just punching above their weight by currently being third in the league rankings, but also showing up other so-called ‘Big Six’ clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea. Aston Villa are proof that good coaching can ensure that clubs with less spending power can also compete.
Tottenham too have come out swinging this season under manager Ange Postecoglou. While pundits cast serious doubts on Tottenham’s ability to compete after losing club totem and record scorer Harry Kane to Bayern Munich in the summer, Postecoglou’s Spurs are again proving that coherent tactics and inspirational management can have as great an impact as possessing a world class striker.