Thrilling sprint to the line is whats needed in the Premier Leagues anniversary year, plus Champions League success and a shoot-for-the-moon season for Huddersfield
And, breathe again. After a lingering summer of cold turkey sweats and chills, of August dog days spent slurping down another spoonful of transfer window gruel, relief is at hand. As of Friday night the Premier League is back, strutting in through the double doors, twirling its malacca cane, tipping its purple fedora and doling out another hit of the most colourfully framed footballing drama on earth.
Even in a league where every season is more pantingly hyperbolic than the last, this feels like a significant point for English footballs great project. Most obviously it is an anniversary year. Next weekend marks a quarter of a century since the first Premier League season in 1992, when the talk was of ever-escalating modernity, of self-imposed hock to the broadcasters, and of wildly inflated transfer fees for young English talent following Alan Shearers sensational 3.6m move to Blackburn Rovers, an amazing 0.7m uplift on Dean Saunders switch to Liverpool the year before.
Plus a change, plus, well, here we are all over again. As ever the worlds most excitable league arrives in a blur of sound and light. And as ever in the Premier League the superlatives tend to centre on excess as much as excellence, a version of football where the most notable qualities are not teams built and talent nurtured but pounds spent, billions dispersed, sacks of cash hurled to the winds.
This is the other point of note for the new season. That combined 10.4bn TV rights deal has made its presence decisively felt this summer, allowing a league that was already drowning in money to become even more sozzled on its own profligacy.
Unease at Neymars absurdly excessive, state-backed 200m move to Paris Saint-Germain is justified on many levels but closer to home the Premier League, funded by our own aggressively fleeced commercial loyalty, is already approaching 1bn spent with three weeks of the window to run. Pep Guardiola has spent 400m on players in two years. Manchester United could have probably bought Neymar themselves at that price, arguably a superior all-round investment to a similar sum splurged on Paul Pogba, Pogbas agent and bustling former Everton goal-hulk Romelu Lukaku.
And so it goes on. Bogged down in this kind of talk, the challenge for the new season is above all to change the conversion, to raise its game in other ways.
For all the attendant excitement it is hard to avoid the feeling of stasis in the Premier League. This is a place of interlocking but still discrete parts. Before a ball has been kicked the top six are already quite easy to call, with Everton the most likely insurgents should one or two cards fall their way. Beyond this the usual sub-peloton of mid-rankers will grind their way through to 40 points. Further down it isnt hard to identify the contenders for the usual divvying up at the bottom.
This still represents a decent level of sporting uncertainty at a time of stratification everywhere else but for a league that trumpets its competitive edge, the no-filler excellence of its product, there are still some areas that could do with improvement.
First up on the to-do list is an actual title race. Remember those? Only once in the last five seasons has there been anything resembling a genuine sprint to the line. Leicester Citys giddy ride was a wonderful thing to witness but it wasnt exactly close by the end.
This time around there is reason to hope for something more, if only because once again nobody really looks equipped to run away with it. Manchester City have the most captivating group of attacking players and a manager whose era-defining obsession with style and glory is for once perhaps going a little under the radar. This is still a club in progress though, with pretty much an entire midweek Carabao Cup team exiting over the summer. Much hangs on the ability of Ederson, Kyle Walker and the hugely talented Benjamin Mendy to add some instant ballast to a zany backline.
Chelsea have had a wearing summer. Antonio Contes squad seem a little thin. On the other hand they seemed a little thin last year and ended up romping away in unanswerable fashion. Manchester United still looked a constipated array of muscular parts in defeat to Real Madrid, but the combination of unarguable talent and Jos Mourinhos cold, murderous will to win should never be underestimated.
Liverpool have bought a good left-back and spent an awful lot of money on Mohamed Salah. Arsenal remain Arsenal, although the addition of muscle and incision in the shape of Sead Kolasinac and Alexandre Lacazette does look excellent business.
Tottenham have cause to celebrate just by not losing anyone but the worlds costliest, very fast right-back. They still look the most interesting club at the top end of the league, a rare example of jarringly coherent elite level team-building. Either way with no obvious bolters here we could still get a crush at the top, even it ends up being a shared slow bicycle ride for the line.
The second thing the Premier League could do with is a legitimising push in the Champions League. Two semi-finalists in the past five years is an embarrassing note of bathos given the tone of imperialist bombast, the relentless self-congratulation. This isnt about tiredness. Its not about the rest of Europe maintaining an unfairly measured and tactical style of play. The problem isnt that the Premier League is too good, too strong, too competitive, thereby fatally damaging our teams chances.
Standards have risen elsewhere since the Premier Leagues golden run from 2005-2012. Sometimes if it looks like a sightly so-so set of hurled-together elite teams and quacks like a sightly so-so set of hurled-together elite teams, well, you get the idea. Time to put the debit card away, jab a walking stick in the revolving door and set about building teams again.
The third thing the Premier League needs is another unexpected success story, or even an unexpected collapse at the other end, just as in that first Premier League season Norwich City almost ran away with things at the start. Another outlier, an unexpectedly brilliant shoot-for-the-moon season for Everton or West Ham or Huddersfield Town would give everyone a lift.
It probably wont happen, just as it seems unlikely anyone other than Brighton, Huddersfield, Swansea and one or two others will be caught up in the real heat of the scrap at the bottom. But these things did used to happen quite regularly and a note of freshness at both ends of the table really would jazz things up.
Finally the Premier League could do with spawning a world star. Lets face it, it has been a while. And not in the easy way, a star you order in a dying Ronaldo, Neymar harpooned with the cash-gun. Money isnt enough anyway. Best-in-breed, Ballon dOr or curios footballers dont come here. The biggest signings even in the current summer of money are lvaro Morata, Mendy, Lukaku and Lacazette: a worthy bunch, but hardly the next generation of galcticos.
The Premier League was designed as a dream factory, a hothouse for its own breed of stars. A title driven by an emerging team, consistent brilliance from Paul Pogba, a moment for Harry Kane or Dele Alli to pull themselves up to their full height and fill the skies: a little of this really would ennoble the coming season.
For now it is enough to remember the game remains essentially the same; and it is still impossible to contemplate a new season without a rush of shared excitement, confirmation that the one currency football never manages to exhaust is hope and the thrill of unspent possibilities.