The Big Six are vulnerable, no matter how much money they (read: Chelsea) spend—though we shouldn’t write off Spurs’ Ange-ball quite yet. And is this the year Everton finally go down?
For Premier League fans, the start of a new season is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, clubs that struggled throughout the previous campaign—someone please flash the neuralyzer from Men in Black so I can forget the chaos that enveloped my beloved Chelsea—can take solace in a clean slate. (Some new signings or a managerial change wouldn’t hurt either.) However, all it takes is a couple of results, good or bad, for supporters to change their tune: Such is the obsessive joy—and despair—of football.
With just three match weeks in the can, it’s far too soon to make definitive predictions about how the Premier League will unfold. If you were to judge teams after three matches last season, you’d be singing the praises of Leeds United manager Jesse Marsch for claiming seven points out of a possible nine—Marsch is now out of a job, and the Whites are out of the Premier League. Still, enough football has been played that we can gather some early impressions of teams that have already deepened the skepticism of their fan base, as well as the ones that are exceeding expectations. With all that in mind, these are the biggest takeaways of the Premier League season so far.
Under former owner Roman Abramovich, who bought the club in 2003, Chelsea was no stranger to ludicrous spending in the transfer market. The Abramovich era, once more of an outlier, harbingered the transformation of the sport’s biggest clubs into playthings for billionaires and sovereign wealth funds with seemingly limitless resources. Chelsea’s new ownership group, fronted by American businessman Todd Boehly and private equity firm Clearlake Capital, is certainly no exception. Since the Boehly-led consortium completed its takeover in the summer of 2022, Chelsea has spent over $1 billion (and counting) on new players: an astonishing figure that outpaces every Premier League club—and entire leagues—over that period.
Setting aside concerns about how Chelsea is operating within financial fair-play rules, Blues fans have every reason to be excited: Most of the new signings are young players with tremendous upside, including a midfield core of Enzo Fernández (22 years old), Moisés Caicedo (21), and Roméo Lavia (19). At the same time, all the money in the world is meaningless if Chelsea can’t perform on the pitch: Amid so much turnover, the team suffered its worst finish in almost three decades last season. For supporters, the hope was that a full preseason under new manager Mauricio Pochettino—and the outgoing transfers of unwanted players—would offer Chelsea the kind of stability it sorely needed. (Enjoy the Kai Havertz experience, Arsenal fans!)
After three match weeks, however, it’s been a mixed bag for the new-look Chelsea. A draw at home to Liverpool was an encouraging sign of improvement; a 3-1 defeat to West Ham underlined the team’s ongoing struggles to create chances despite dominating possession; a comprehensive beatdown of Premier League newcomer Luton Town is what top clubs are supposed to dish out. Going forward, Chelsea’s real challenge will be finding consistency throughout the season while its many newcomers jell on the pitch. Ideally, Chelsea’s success after such an aggressive overhaul will be measured in years, not months. Of course, that’s the message Boehly and Co. gave to supporters last season under manager Graham Potter, and we all know how that turned out.
In the past two seasons, Everton has avoided relegation by the skin of its teeth. The storied club hasn’t experienced the drop since 1951, and while the celebrations upon clinching safety were exuberant, it’s not something Everton wants to turn into an annual tradition. One would hope that flirting with utter calamity would inspire owner Farhad Moshiri to address Everton’s most glaring issue: an inability to consistently score goals. The club bagged the second-fewest goals in the Premier League last season, a situation that was compounded by the fact that injury-prone striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin spent long spells on the sidelines.
Sure enough, Calvert-Lewin is set to miss more time this season after a gnarly collision with Aston Villa goalkeeper Emi Martínez left him with a swollen cheekbone. The injury might’ve been a freak accident, but at this point, Everton should consider Calvert-Lewin’s availability a bonus, not an expectation. In any case, Everton has yet to score a goal this season, and it already feels inevitable that the club will endure another grueling relegation battle.
The good news for Everton fans: The club has completed the signing of Udinese striker Beto, which should give the Toffees more attacking options. A reliable (and healthy) no. 9 could be all that manager Sean Dyche needs to pull off another miracle. After masterminding Burnley’s Premier League survival for years on a shoestring budget—and one inexplicable season in which the team qualified for the Europa League—Dyche has turned parking the bus into an art form. (I’m really not trying to sound dismissive of Dyche’s methods; it’s not the prettiest football, but the dude gets results!) You can never completely rule out a side managed by Brexit Diego Simeone, but if Everton’s beleaguered forwards continue struggling in front of goal, the supporters’ discontent with Moshiri’s ownership will only grow.
In theory, the implementation of the video assistant referee was meant to prevent obvious errors—a penalty awarded from a dive, an allowed goal despite an offside in the buildup—from ruining the integrity of the sport. In execution, however, VAR has been the subject of frequent disdain and derision. It’s a sentiment that isn’t helped by former Premier League referee Mike Dean’s recent admission that he let multiple errors slide in a match last season so that his “mate” and fellow referee Anthony Taylor could save face.
It would be one thing if the most glaring VAR mishaps happened in previous seasons; for better or worse, the dust has already settled. But just three match weeks into the new campaign, VAR has once again become the subject of intense scrutiny. A couple of examples: VAR didn’t award Wolves a penalty in its opening match of the season despite the fact that Manchester United goalkeeper André Onana clattered into forward Sasa Kalajdzic, and Liverpool midfielder Alexis Mac Allister was given a straight red for a challenge on Bournemouth’s Ryan Christie that warranted only a yellow card.
Thankfully, the Premier League has tried making amends for these questionable decisions: The referees in charge of the Wolves-United match weren’t selected for the following match week, while Mac Allister’s red card was overturned on appeal. But the more these kinds of problems persist, the more that fans will question whether referees are using VAR for the good of the game—or to spare their blushes.
When Tottenham Hotspur reached the Champions League final in 2019, it marked the most significant achievement of the Pochettino era. (Managers in the Premier League sure love jumping around, don’t they?) Even though Spurs lost to Liverpool, the groundwork had been laid for the club to meaningfully compete for trophies. (Tottenham hasn’t won any silverware since winning the League Cup in 2008.) Alas, Poch was sacked just five months after that historic final, and the team has been on a downward trajectory ever since. Between José Mourinho and Antonio Conte, Spurs hired managers with title-winning pedigrees, but their pragmatic philosophies were a bad fit for a squad that excelled while playing dynamic, progressive football. (As far as highlights go, Spurs’ most spectacular moment since the Champions League final might be Conte’s explosive press conference lambasting chairman Daniel Levy, which felt like it was plucked from a soap opera.)
With club legend Harry Kane’s departure for Bayern Munich this summer, few pundits would’ve had Spurs challenging for Champions League qualification. But against all odds, Tottenham has gotten its groove back, and new manager Ange Postecoglou deserves the lion’s share of the credit. With a résumé light on experience in the world’s top leagues, Postecoglou probably wouldn’t have been the supporters’ top choice to succeed Conte this season. But with Postecoglou’s stints in Australia and Japan, along with two years of dominance with Celtic in the Scottish Premiership, the manager has developed what is affectionately known as Ange-ball: a highly aggressive, attack-minded approach that uses relentless pressing, inverted fullbacks, and frequent runs into the box to overwhelm defenses. When Ange-ball is clicking, it’s like a knife cutting through butter.
The key to Spurs’ early success is its new-look midfield: After spending much of last season riding the bench, Yves Bissouma and Pape Matar Sarr look invigorated under Postecoglou, while former Leicester City talisman James Maddison may be the best bargain of the summer transfer window. There will surely be matches this season when Spurs’ high-risk style ends up costing them—even Postecoglou once admitted that “winning 4-3 is more exciting than winning 1-0.” Spurs already suffered a setback after crashing out of the League Cup on penalties to Fulham, robbing Tottenham of an early chance to compete for an elusive trophy. But as the saying goes, Spurs fans need to trust the process, and after years of stagnation, the Postecoglou era overall feels like a breath of fresh air.
For the better part of this century, the Premier League has been defined by the so-called Big Six—Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Spurs—and their domination of the competition. Finishing as “the best of the rest” was a worthy achievement for Premier League mainstays like Everton, which simply can’t compete with the commercial might of these clubs. (After Romelu Lukaku starred at Everton, Man United swooped in to buy him for £75 million in 2017.) But the Big Six era is quickly becoming a thing of the past: Just two years after Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund completed its takeover of Newcastle United, the club has qualified for the Champions League. Meanwhile, two of the Big Six, Chelsea and Spurs, failed to qualify for any European competitions last season. Instead, Brighton and Hove Albion, Aston Villa, and West Ham—which won the Europa Conference League despite a poor domestic campaign—will play in continental tournaments.
Newcastle, Brighton, Aston Villa, and West Ham have taken very different routes to their current success, some of which might be more sustainable than others. Newcastle’s newfound wealth should allow it to thrive in the long term, but the club’s impressive turnaround wouldn’t be possible without an excellent manager—resources notwithstanding, we can all agree Eddie Howe is doing a stellar job—and high-profile signings like Bruno Guimarães and Alexander Isak, who lived up to the hype. The fortunes of Aston Villa and West Ham, however, appear more inextricably linked to their respective managers. Unai Emery has transformed Villa into a side that’s difficult to break down in and out of possession; conversely, David Moyes has made West Ham the master of absorbing pressure and destroying teams on the counter.
But the most interesting club in the Premier League may well be Brighton, which, along with Brentford, is perhaps the closest footballing equivalent to the Moneyball approach to roster construction. For years, Brighton has thrived thanks to a shrewd recruitment strategy, which calls for signing promising young players for relative pennies before selling them for a healthy profit. (See: Alexis Mac Allister, Moisés Caicedo, Ben White, Yves Bissouma, Marc Cucurella.) To fill the absence of such important players, Brighton typically has someone waiting in the wings: Once Bissouma departed for Spurs, Caicedo filled his shoes to such an extent that Chelsea broke the British transfer record to sign him. (The club is equally effective in its managerial appointments: After Graham Potter went to Chelsea, Roberto De Zerbi has the Seagulls soaring to even greater heights by qualifying for the Europa League.) The Brighton model relies on its top brass to consistently knock it out of the park when it comes to player recruitment, and one hopes they’ve already got a solid replacement lined up for winger Kaoru Mitoma. This dude is an absolute star, and I’m willing to bet my life savings he won’t stay at Brighton beyond this season.
With the exception of Newcastle, which lost to Man City and 10-men Liverpool in consecutive weeks, these upstarts have begun the campaign in fine form. It’s quite unlikely that all of these clubs will qualify for Europe once more—especially with Spurs and Chelsea looking much improved this season—but the real winner of this new dynamic is the Premier League itself. The Big Six era led to a serious parity problem that showed little sign of slowing down; now, one could argue the Premier League is as competitive as it’s ever been. Of course, it’ll take a lot (a miracle?) for any club to usurp Man City when Erling Haaland continues to make mincemeat of every defender in his path. But as is true of any sport, all dynasties eventually fall—throughout the Premier League, there’s no shortage of worthy contenders ready to vie for the crown.
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