There are times when the modern global obsession with soccer feels exhausting. Why do so many people from so many places care so much? What is it that drives the endless jokes, the Ronaldo fundamentalists, the conspiracy theories about the preponderance of Northwest referees? Why is this the focus rather than the seemingly more pressing concerns of a growing energy crisis, skyrocketing inflation and a worrying new prime minister? Why does it bother us more that Erik ten Hag compromises his Ajax principles than the tactics of the Ukrainian counteroffensive?
And then you have weeks like this when you realize that the Premier League is the greatest drama ever written. And like the best literature, it contains multitudes. On the one hand, there is the warning. Poor Brighton. You are one of the few clubs that is not owned by a hedge fund, a public investment fund, a sheikh, an oligarch or a tax exile. You are owned by a local boy well done, a childhood fan. You grafted for years. You put plans in place. You establish a cunning recruiting department. Find an innovative and discreet manager who fits your model. You impress but for one thing: you don’t convert your chances.
Then suddenly you break it. You win at Old Trafford for the first time in your history. You are compact and well organized. You put five past Leicester. You sit fourth at the table. You are two points from the top. You know it probably won’t happen, but this is a weird season. The calendar is absurdly compressed. You are not involved in the European competition. Not that many of their players are involved in the World Cup that will interrupt the season. Not likely, but maybe… maybe there is a chance of reaching the Europa League, the Champions League, maybe even a slim chance of repeating Leicester’s glorious madness…
Below comes the meaty fist of capital. Never bother to dream. This is not the 1960s, when Alf Ramsey could lead Ipswich to the title. It’s not the 1970s, when Brian Clough could win the league with Derby and Nottingham Forest. It’s not even the 1980s, when Graham Taylor could lead Watford to second. It is modernity, when the slightest sign of promise must be gobbled up by the super-rich.
You can’t blame Graham Potter for joining Chelsea, any more than you can blame Marc Cucurella for going in the summer, or Yves Bissouma for joining Tottenham. There is a clear ladder and if you want to win trophies you have to climb it; just as Potter climbed the ladder leaving Swansea for Brighton. But it’s depressing when the moral of the story is that no matter how smart you are, football is a world where money will always trump smarts.
Brighton is an example of how a club can function successfully without regular waste. Not only have they coped with the loss of Cucurella and Bissouma, they are thriving. They will almost certainly have anticipated losing Potter and will have a contingency ready. But still, the momentum has been checked. A new manager, no matter how talented, will take time to get acquainted. What could have been the best season in the club’s history has been proven after six games.
This, comes the warning, is what happens if you rise above your station. But this is not a gloomy morality tale. The Premier League has several layers. From Chelsea’s angle, this looks like a great opera buffa. Is Todd Boehly, the college wrestler with his long hair and sunglasses, a little too much on the nose for the American capitalist? Maybe it is, but not everything has to be brilliantly subtle.
He certainly seems to have filled the role with gusto, from the moment he showed up for the 2-2 draw against Wolves last season and seemed completely taken aback when VAR ruled out a goal for offside. He may have had to appoint himself sporting director this summer, as the Roman Abramovich-era staff liquidation stripped the club of sporting experience, but his clumsy attempts to navigate the market felt at times like one of those body-swap comedies that were so popular in the ’80s.
Perhaps that is unfair to Boehly. Maybe learn fast. Maybe he brings a new perspective. But the first signs have not been good. Football, more than any other sport, is about unity and you change components within that at your own risk. It’s not just about paying for the “best” players. That Thomas Tuchel’s reluctance to allow Boehly to sign Cristiano Ronaldo and Anthony Gordon was a key point of friction suggests that is misunderstood, and that should worry Chelsea fans while offering everyone else a potential source of great wealth. entertainment. If Manchester United have really begun to act under the fierce gaze of Ten Hag, there is probably room in the drama for an owner-led financial giant easily seduced by a celebrity with little capacity for long-term planning.
This is the Premier League as a satire on capitalism. There is a well-run club that thrives on a budget, and there is another club that has just sacked a manager a week after the close of a transfer window on which he was allowed to spend a quarter of a billion pounds. And yet, it is the latter that can attract the prize asset of the former; that he can disrupt the little man’s dreams at his whim.
Welcome to modern football. Welcome to the modern world. Welcome to the circus.