Season of two halves offers hope to chasing pack as Liverpool and Manchester City face schedule like no other

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·5-min read
Season of two halves offers hope to chasing pack as Liverpool and Manchester City face schedule like no other
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Welcome to the 2022/23 Premier League season — or, at least, the first half of it.

For the second time in four years, the campaign will be cleaved in two and played in separate parts to accommodate a winter World Cup in Qatar.

The Premier League’s 30th anniversary season shuts down after the weekend of November 12-13 and resumes on Boxing Day, with the Carabao Cup fourth round on December 21 just three days after the World Cup Final.

All six European group games are crammed into a fevered pre-tournament schedule and there is a frustratingly-timed international break in September as usual.

The impact of squeezing the greatest show on earth into the midst of a domestic season is unpredictable but the strain on players, pushed to their limits during pandemic football, is only set to increase. Disruption to the usual order appears a certainty.

The top six face losing the majority of their squads for weeks but clubs with fewer internationals will effectively be handed a winter break.

The psychological and physical impact on players could lead to a repeat of the wild and unpredictable scores of pandemic football, as clubs’ fortunes depend on how their players fare in Qatar.

Can internationals be expected to play League games as normal just days before the World Cup, or days after winning or losing the final, for example?

The intensity of the programme should be offset by the introduction of five substitutes, although the change is widely expected to hand further advantage to the biggest clubs with deeper squads, potentially enabling teams such as Manchester City and Liverpool to mitigate the strange conditions.

City and Liverpool dropped just 21 and 22 points, respectively, last season and stopping them will be an even bigger ask for lesser clubs when Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp can change half of their outfield players during a match.

City are chasing a fifth title in six years and, given their unparalleled financial power, this dominance suggests the Premier League is in danger of becoming a closed shop, like the French and German top flights.

The arrival of Erling Haaland leaves Guardiola’s squad without anything resembling a weakness and the hope for the rest of the Premier League is that the centre-forward takes time to settle or somehow disrupts City’s equilibrium.

Erling Haaland is the headline arrival in the Premier League this summer (The FA via Getty Images)
Erling Haaland is the headline arrival in the Premier League this summer (The FA via Getty Images)

Liverpool have lost Sadio Mane but his replacement, Darwin Nunez, scored in the Community Shield, Luis Diaz should step up and Mohamed Salah’s new contract was more important than any signing.

However, the distorted calendar could yet offer some hope to the chasing pack, with reasons to think the title race might be more competitive. A year ago, the ‘big six’ was on course to shrink to four as Tottenham and Arsenal floundered, but with the effects of the pandemic receding and both clubs backing their managers in Antonio Conte and Mikel Arteta, they have each made encouraging signings.

Arsenal’s mentality remains in question, while the issue for Spurs is whether Conte can consistently produce results across such a hectic season.

Manchester United will (surely) get better too, having signed Ajax’s Lisandro Martinez and free agent Christian Eriksen for new manager Erik ten Hag. The jury remains out on the Dutchman, who has managed only in the Eredivisie.

Chelsea have lost their unlimited capacity to spend, with Roman Abramovich’s ignominious departure, and the Todd Boehly era has started with some frustration in the transfer market, despite the eye-catching additions of Raheem Sterling and Kalidou Koulibaly.

Incidentally, the sales of Sterling and Gabriel Jesus to Chelsea and Arsenal, respectively, underline that Abu Dhabi-backed City exist on a different plane to their rivals and points to an emerging trend among the League’s top clubs of dealing with each other, as rivals on the continent struggle to afford top-six cast-offs.

A mid-season World Cup puts an unpredictable strain on players (AFP via Getty Images)
A mid-season World Cup puts an unpredictable strain on players (AFP via Getty Images)

Thomas Tuchel’s side are in transition, with the coach rebuilding his defence and in need of consistency from a talented but unpredictable group of forwards.

The anticipated spending spree at Saudi Arabian-backed Newcastle is yet to materialise, dampening suggestions they are poised to immediately gatecrash the top six and offering encouragement to teams such as West Ham, who fancy themselves as challengers.

The Hammers have had an encouraging summer with the additions of defender Nayef Aguerd and forward Gianluca Scamacca, and crucially are set to keep talisman Declan Rice for another year.

Crystal Palace are aiming to continue their impressive progress under Patrick Vieira, and Mali midfielder Cheick Doucoure could quietly prove one of the signings of the summer.

Consolidating their Premier League status, and without Eriksen, is the challenge for Brentford, who continue to make innovative additions to both the first team and backroom staff.

Not even head coach Marco Silva is hiding his dismay at Fulham’s underwhelming summer, however, and, without serious reinforcements in the next three weeks, the Championship winners will surely struggle to avoid another relegation battle.

Bournemouth are also in danger of following Norwich and Watford straight back down but Nottingham Forest, back in the top flight after 23 years, are altogether harder to predict.

In Steve Cooper, Forest have a highly-rated coach, who is admired by teams such as Spurs, and they have been prolific in the transfer market with 12 signings, including Jesse Lingard. Leeds, Southampton and, perhaps, Frank Lampard’s Everton are among the other clubs hoping to avoid a scrap at the foot of the table.

The Lionesses’ Euro 2022 should lead to an increased focus in the women’s game (The FA via Getty Images)
The Lionesses’ Euro 2022 should lead to an increased focus in the women’s game (The FA via Getty Images)

Although safe standing has returned, and could be commonplace by May, fan behaviour is increasingly a talking point after the end of last season was marred by a series of ugly pitch invasions and the mounting use of pyrotechnics.

One intriguing possibility is a leakage of supporters over to the women’s game following the success of the Lionesses in relaxed, joyful but no less passionate atmospheres this summer.

In a Premier League campaign where the impact of the World Cup is set to be the biggest theme, perhaps the only overwhelming positive of a mid-season tournament should be an increased focus on the women’s game and an opportunity for clubs to host fixtures at their main stadiums.

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