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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Explained: As English Premier League begins, here is the state of play

How will a season played behind closed doors impact the English Premier League and the title race? Chelsea, with deep pockets, has been spending a lot – but that alone is unlikely to bring it the trophy.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: September 13, 2020 11:12:28 am
In this Saturday, July 4, 2020 file photo, empty stands are seen as Manchester United's Paul Pogba (6) shoots a free kick during their English Premier League soccer match against Bournemouth at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England. (AP)

Uncertainty has gripped Premier League clubs, as the new season starts on Saturday (September 12).

With the United Kingdom (UK) government “reviewing” its “intention” to allow fans back into stadiums from October 1, the world’s most high-profile football league and its stakeholders continue to count the Covid-induced cost.

Why are closed-door matches no longer a sustainable option?

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters has revealed that top division clubs lost £700 million in revenue in the final quarter of last season, when matches were played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus outbreak.

This was mainly due to two reasons – no gate money and the Premier League having to give big rebates to TV broadcasters.

And how do closed-door matches affect the finances of the clubs?

The Big Six – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Manchester City – are going to suffer the most.

Figures put out by FootballCritic show that United’s matchday revenue per game is £3.96 million, followed by Arsenal’s £3.10 million, Liverpool’s £3.01 million, Spurs’ £2.92 million, and £2.08 million each for Chelsea and City.

In this Saturday, July 11, 2020 file photo, Burnley’s goalkeeper Nick Pope dives in vain as Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson’s header goes past him during the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Burnley at Anfield, Liverpool, England. (AP)

According to BBC Sport, the Big Six had a collective matchday income of £495 million in 2018-19.

So the Premier League is desperate to have the fans back in the stadium.

Very desperate. “We have to get back to fans inside stadia as quickly as possible – that’s the big thing that’s missing, economic or otherwise – we need fans back inside stadiums for all sorts of reasons and it’s the number one priority,” Masters told BBC Sport.

But why is the UK government reviewing its plans to have fans back from October 1?

This is because of a recent surge in Covid-19 cases in the UK. Government data published on September 9, show that the number of daily cases rose to 2,659, up by 1,151 compared to last week.

Accordingly, at a 10 Downing Street press conference on Wednesday (September 9), Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We must revise plans to pilot larger audiences in stadiums and review our intention to return audiences to stadiums from 1st October.”

Does this mean even pilot projects are on hold?

Yes. A pilot project to have about 6,000 spectators for horse racing at Doncaster this weekend has been cancelled.

United were planning to welcome a turnout of 12,000 – the Old Trafford stadium has a capacity in excess of 75,000 – for their Premier League opener against Crystal Palace on September 19. According to The Athletic, the club was due to meet authorities on Thursday (September 10) to discuss the trial run project.

Meanwhile, The Sun reported that Spurs’ request to have 8,000 fans back for the Everton game on Sunday was rejected, as the UK government changed the Covid rules.

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How is this economic uncertainty impacting the transfer market?

Defending champions Liverpool have so far made just one low-key signing – Greek defender Kostas Tsimikas for about £11.7 million, as a back-up option to Andy Robertson at left-back.

City, despite being flush with money from Abu Dhabi, have spent a little over £60 million on two signings – centre-half Nathan Ake and winger Ferran Torres. By City’s standards, this is pretty modest business.

Arsenal have roped in Willian from Chelsea on a free transfer. The Gunners have spent £25 million and £14 million on defenders Gabriel Magalhaes and Pablo Mari respectively.

The Spurs have landed right-back Matt Doherty for £14.7 million and midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for £15 million.

United’s sole summer signing so far is midfielder Donny van de Beek for £35 million, rising up to £40 million, including ad-ons and bonuses. The 20-time Premier League champions are reportedly chasing £120 million-rated Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, but a deal is unlikely unless the German club accedes to United’s demand of part payments.

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But Chelsea’s are spending.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has loosened the purse strings quite spectacularly. The Blues have already forked out £200 million to sign up midfielders Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz, striker Timo Werner and left-back Ben Chilwell.

Defenders Thiago Silva and Malang Sarr have come on free transfers. And Chelsea are still reportedly going after Rennes goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and West Ham midfielder Declan Rice.

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Chelsea are able to seemingly defy the Covid-forced recession because they have cash available from the transfers of Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata after the 2018-19 season. Hazard joined Real Madrid last year at an initial fee of £88.5 million, while Morata went to Atletico Madrid for around £58 million.

Chelsea couldn’t spend in the summer of 2019 because of a transfer ban. They just made Mateo Kovacic’s loan deal permanent. The bottom line, however, is that Chelsea manager Frank Lampard’s style of management has won the club owner’s trust, which is a reason for this shopping spree.

Will the ‘merry hell’ shopping make Chelsea title contenders?

Very unlikely. Chelsea finished fourth last term with 66 points, 33 points off champions Liverpool. A 33-point gap is usually not bridged in one season in football. New players take time to gel with the squad. Lampard has rightly called for caution.

“It doesn’t work that simply bringing in players mean you win on the pitch. It doesn’t work that way so we hope we will improve. I know expectations will be there. I won’t hide away from that,” Lampard told reporters.

So, we have a two-way title race again?

Liverpool and City are far ahead of others. But expect United – honourable mention Chelsea – to snap at their heels this term.

Even without any major signing, Jurgen Klopp’s managerial genius will ensure that Liverpool will be right up there this season as well. Klopp is great at improving his players. The development of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane attests to that.

Ake’s arrival at Etihad has filled the left-sided centre-half void for City manager Pep Guardiola. City were a distant second last season, 18 points shy of Liverpool. A response is expected.

Watch out for United, though. They are fresh from a season of real progress, and under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, their transfer policy has changed for the better.

Bruno Fernandes was a world-class acquisition in January, followed by van de Beek in the summer. In Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and van de Beek, United arguably have the best midfield in the Premier League.

They also have a super front-three in Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood. If United land Sancho, they might give Liverpool and City a run for their money. But to become serious title contenders, United need a bit of defensive reinforcements and two more transfer windows.

Any surprise packages?

It would be a travesty to brand Leeds United as minnows. Yes, they had a 16-year top-flight absence, but going by history, Leeds are a bigger club than some of the nouveau riche that came to prominence in the new millennium.

Don Revie’s Leeds were English football’s most formidable side in the late 1960s and early ’70s. David O’Leary’s Leeds were a serious force to reckon with at the turn of the century. Leeds have regained their mojo and flair under the great Marcelo Bielsa. They will not win the league, but will provide top entertainment.

What are the title odds?

The bet365 odds put City as title favourites at 4/5. Liverpool are at 9/4. Chelsea, despite their heavy spending, are placed third at 10/1 and United are at 16/1.

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