The summer of 2012 witnessed an incessant and exuberant exhibition of soccer with fans being treated to the Euro championships, followed by the London Olympics that witnessed some of the finest U-23 teams from all over the globe tussling for their share of Olympic glory. Well, for any passive and indifferent fan a break might be in order. But, for a true soccer fan, the excitement is just about to begin and reach euphoric levels. The time has come to promulgate their loyalty towards their respective league teams, be it the Red Devils or the Gunners or whichever club they follow. It is time to hang the banners again; dawn their favorite jerseys and scarfs. The EPL is back and promises to be bigger and better this time around.
The action, the passion and drama, the wide plethora of sporting talent, the expansive repertoire of skills, the indomitable spirit and determination is sure to dazzle and mesmerize fans all over the globe. But, more than anything the EPL is special for the emotion and a sense of loyalty that it inspires from the fans. This is the very spirit that causes the fans to cry out in anguish, sigh in disappointment, crib in jealousy and swear in despise when they see their team failing to match up with their expectations. The same feeling drives them to yell in elation, to jump around in hysteria and to mock and talk trash when their team has an upper-hand.
This emotional juggernaut and turmoil that every fan has to go through in the several nerve-wrecking match-ups that the league showcases, is the defining quality of the league. The last minute drama, the pressure, the tension, and the euphoria leave indelible impressions on the minds of the fans, leaving them emotionally drained and in a trance. The matches are re-lived and discussed in details over many a cup of coffee and cans of beer; respect and mockery shared, with all bloopers being further disgraced by some scathing one-liner, or with the proliferation of social media quite possibly a Facebook troll. On the other hand, the heroics are graced with adjectives and superlatives that grossly over-estimate the achievement. Rationale is for pundits, while for a fan there is no middle-ground and they revel in the roller-coaster of extreme emotions, bearing no inhibitions in expressing their utterly biased and prejudiced opinion. Summing it all, one can aptly explain the whole enigma in a single phrase:-“The weekend just got serious”!!
Well, before the start of the Premier league it is widely expected that the pundits would be busy speculating and contemplating the turn of events, predicting and giving their opinion about the way they envisage the season to unfurl, who they see as title challengers, who they believe would struggle to keep up with the other teams and would have to fight against relegation. But, on a more objective scale, what can one expect from the next EPL season.
Every single edition of the league is marked with changes within the respective franchises, be it with the exodus or influx of players, a change of the managerial positions or just a change of sponsors. The summer of 2012 was among the busiest summer ever in the history of the league, with many big name signings making it to the EPL teams. The signing of the enterprising Eden Hazard, and the exuberant Santi Cazorla, to go with the insuperable creative talents of Shinji Kagawa established the EPL as the most alluring destination for soccer players all over the globe.
Hazard is mostly expected to feature on the wings or in a more advanced role alongside Torres in a 4-3-3 formation. One can expect a Hazard-led Chelsea to play a more adventurous and intrepid game, and with both Mata and Hazard adept at linking up with the strikers, we can expect to see a zappy display of one-touch football, and quite a many exquisite through balls being played into the path of Torres. These wingers differ from the traditional concept perpetuated by Beckham and Valencia, choosing to cut inside and try to play the little one-two’s with the strikers rather than staying out wide and playing in inviting crosses. The league is deprived of many quality wide players, but for maybe the duo of Nani and Valencia at United or the combo of Bale and Lennon at Spurs. Thus, the game-play of Hazard and Mata can re-define the standards of wing-play in the EPL and other teams can emulate their example and look to develop a model where the wingers can cut in and help link up with the strikers, press the opposition wing-backs and just have a greater impact on the game. With most teams in the EPL preferring to play a 4-5-1 formation, the movement of the wingers not only opens up space for the wing-backs to exploit but also give the mid-fielders more options to exploit.
The EPL is famed for its tough tackling and unrelenting commitment to pressing mid-field players and denying them time on the ball. Thus, the role of the trequartistas and the registas shall become far more pronounced. With teams playing a compact mid-field and a high line of defense, time and space is a luxury in the English game and thus it is imperative that the forwards try to find spaces, link up with the mid-field and exploit the high line of defense. A revelation to this environment would be the irrepressible talent of Kagawa, who can easily play a false 9 or the role of a trequartista, given his intelligent movement and decisive touches and ability to thread the deadly final ball. An ideal partner for Rooney, with his ability to drift into positions, find space and play in the strikers he is sure to excel for United.
While Kagawa might set trends as a trequartista, the role of a regista is also expected to be re-defined in the next campaign. The fast-pace of the game needs that every team has an efficient distributor, who can effectively collect passes from defense and distribute effectively to the wide players, switch flanks and add some much needed width to the offense. This is vital as it not only gets the wingers and the full-backs into the game, giving them a chance to pepper the penalty box with their crosses, but also opens up space in and around the box for the forwards to exploit. Thus with the influx of players like Cazorla and Kagawa and the emergence of industrious and creative deep-lying playmakers like the industrious Joe Allen and the assiduous Tiote, the league shall witness many playmakers who can unlock the solid and compact defense perpetuated by most EPL teams. Thus, one can expect the English game to be driven mostly by the mid-field talents of the teams, with many teams trying to build on similar lines and design their offensive plays around such players.
The Hazards and the Kagawas will indeed have an impact, but one can’t really expect a total revamp and refurbishment of the defense-minded league. The league has always been identified with towering defensive line-ups and teams willing to make up for the lack of quality by putting in extra effort in defense. Thus though the exploits of these new creative wizards might inspire teams to explore further attacking options, one surely doesn’t see them shifting paradigms and imbibing a similar offensive mentality. Yes, teams like Arsenal and Swansea would definitely set the mark and act as examples for the same, but most of the lower rung teams would still stick to their philosophy of playing direct football, opting to overcome defenses by their aerial ability and strength. Thus don’t expect a team like Stoke City to give up on their philosophy of floating long balls forward for the colossal Peter Crouch, or be bemused to see Rory Delap running in to launch another of his famous throw ins hoping that somebody finds the space and strength to rise above and direct the ball into the back of the net. Thus, one can expect headers and goal-mouth scrambles to dominate the scoring charts, peppered by a few ambitious long distance humdingers rocketing straight into the highlight reel.
With the league adapting a brand of interminate soccer, it is widely expected that much emphasis would be given to the dead-ball situations. However, the league is definitely short-handed in this regard with not many players having the ability to reciprocate the embellish, curling and dipping banana free-kicks that David Beckham made a career out of. The efficiency with free-kicks in the league has seen an all-time low in the recent years and this is one goal scoring opportunity that these teams should look to better and become more proficient in.
But, the most important attraction in the league would be the greater equity and the level of competition that the league promises. The EPL is definitely the most competitive league in Europe with teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs establishing themselves as legitimate title contenders, being more than capable of tilting the balance of power away from the two Manchester clubs. The matches are expected to be great contests with almost all teams boasting of a line-up of full-time Internationals and even the bottom rung teams having the ability to shock the top of the table teams. The top of the table contests might actually turn out to be a soporific affair while the bottom of the table clashes turning out into animated and exciting encounters. This vivacity is sure to reach euphoric levels in the next campaign.
One of the most intriguing factors of every league campaign is the young talent that graduates from the youth academies of the respective clubs and gets a chance to train and play with professional football players. This season also shall witness its share of youth academy graduates in all teams, who would be hoping for a chance to showcase their potential and carry on their development further. These young players shall prove to be the building block of future national teams. The next season shall see many youth prospects such as Raheem Sterling of Liverpool, and Ross Barkley of Everton getting more playing time and this augers well for the English national squad. The young talents would however have to play under constant scrutiny, and would have to give a good account of their temperament, confidence and self-belief to win some respect in the eyes of the overtly-skeptical English media. The EPL will never be recognized in the same light as the La Liga or the Bundesliga until they produce quality youth players who can transform into transcendent stars for their country, and get the English fans some much deserved international success.
Well, all this is about what one expects to see in the next campaign. On the other hand, every fan would wish that the next campaign is free of any controversy especially that related to racism. The last campaign was severely maligned due to the two major incidents, involving Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra in one and John Terry and Anton Ferdinand in the other. One can only hope that such incidents and controversies are avoided and the sanctity of the league is maintained. Also, the fans could do without the eccentrics of the enigmatic players like Joey Barton and Mario Balotelli. With so much of media attention directed towards them, it is but natural for soccer players to aspire to become regular head-line makers. However, a Mario Balotelli is well adept at doing the same with his goal-scoring abilities and such histrionics should be kept to a minimum. Even the antics of player on social media should be kept under check, and such players should realize about their responsibilities as sporting icons and idols for the youth. In short, let the head-lines be about football and just football, we have film-stars for the rumors and controversies.
The league shall commence on the 18th of this month. However, fans of Manchester United like me would have to wait till the 21st to get a glimpse of our side in action. The bitter memories of the last campaign still languish in our minds, the image of Kun Aguero stealing the title with a dramatic 94th minute winner, the noisy neighbors reigning supreme. However, this is a new league campaign, and the squad has been bolstered by the arrival of Van Persie, Powell, Kagawa and Henriquez. With an able and young supporting cast of Cleverley, Wellbeck, Chicharito, Smalling, Jones and De Gea complimenting the indomitable talent of Rooney, Valencia, Evans and Vidic, the United squad is primed to re-establish its status as the premier club in England and vindicate the trophy-less campaign of 2011-12. The onus will be on Rooney to lead the team again, to derive courage and redeem himself after his much criticized Euro performance. He knows that he will be buoyed by the rapturous applause of over 75,000 fans in the theatre of dreams, the vociferous chants and slogans egging him on, the infectious energy pushing his adrenaline levels to the maximum. And every time he finds the back of the net and gets coronated in a sea of red, many a fans would join on in celebrating the moment; fans spread all over the globe rejoicing in front of their TV sets, screaming in joy, emulating the goal by trying to finish in between the legs of the nearest furniture. The joy, the ecstasy, the emotion and the passion!! Indeed, the weekend is serious again.