FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES

Get Ready For Something

It's a bit like being jetlagged, this early start to the season. The Premier League starts tonight, there's no escaping it. So do Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga. The Championship started last week. It's that time. And yet it's also too damn early, and your equilibrium is all gone, and you don't know how or where or when things should be; except not now, certainly not now. You look at the calendar and the calendar looks back at you in mutual incomprehension.
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For this, we can of course thank the Qatar World Cup, which seems to be actually happening in defiance of all common sense. This won't be the strangest season in recent memory, but that's only true because of Covid-19, so that's not a huge amount of comfort. It will certainly be football's strangest self-inflicted season for a generation; in English football, perhaps the oddest since the establishment of the Premier League coincided with the introduction of the backpass rule. And at least that started at a reasonable time of year.
For all that men's international football has been eclipsed by the club game, the World Cup remains the focal point of football's generational cycles, a comet that passes through the skies every four years and drags all attention to the skies, then changes everything. Of all the things that don't really matter, this one still matters the most. And so moving it to the middle of the season alters everything.
We've already seen the consequences. International managers that might have been tempted by club roles, instead making themselves unavailable for consideration. Players moving, or not moving; their next step suspended for another window. A whole lot of waiting and seeing. But then, that's not really football, is it? That's just admin and soap opera.
How is it going to affect the games? That's the real question. And the Warm-Up, like the rest of you, has absolutely no idea. There is of course the possibility that the World Cup itself ends up being a fantastic tournament, as for the first time in recent history it will be played by players that aren't absolutely knackered. But maybe the heat will counteract this, ensuring the familiar sluggishness that we all know and love.
Usually, a World Cup follows the end of a season, which has the helpful side effect of keeping everybody focused on the matter in hand. But here the build-up will come through October and early November, the wind-down in January. The Premier League, the noisiest and most attention-seeking competition of them all, will be a secondary concern for a good chunk of its run-time. And that's before we even start to consider the day-to-day management of injuries, of little niggles, of heavy tackles. Somebody could put themselves out of the World Cup this weekend.
And what happens afterwards? Take England, who have players drawn from all over the Premier League's important races. They will have one of three World Cups: they'll win it; they'll put together a glorious deep run that ends in a harrowing loss; or they'll crash out like useless clowns in a hail of acrimony. All those possibilities end with a squad of players utterly broken and exhausted by their efforts. Normally they'd disappear on holiday immediately afterwards, to soak away their worries in swimming pools and celebrity isolation. You can't get the same decompression from an away game against... against... well, the real tragedy of Burnley getting relegated is we no longer have an obvious nasty team to go at the end of this bit.
Basically, the World Cup has a good chance of distorting October, November, December and January in a direct, proximate, heads-or-legs-gone fashion, and has also ensured that the other months have more games than they would usually. Or to put it another way, you're going to feel jetlagged for the whole damned season, and the players are going to feel worse. And that's to say nothing of the fateful day - you know it's coming - when you get to the pub to find that there's a work Christmas party happening between you and the screen, and you're watching a World Cup semi-final through a forest of reindeer antlers and Santa hats. Buckle up. It's going to be weird.

Dilemma

We're all rational, sensible people, right? We all know that Erik ten Hag's job at Manchester United is a big one. Nothing less than a full club reset: simultaneously unpicking the consequences of all those previous resets, while also imposing a modern playing style on England's most under-coached elite squad. So this weekend's game against Brighton is going to be interesting, sure, but we're not going to read too much into it. Whatever happens. Right? Right?
Wrong! In fact we're planning to go fully overboard before the game even kicks off. Anthony Martial has an injury, you see. And that means Erik ten Hag has a Big Choice to make. And we're very much looking forward to reading far too much into whatever answer Ten Hag comes up with.
He could, of course, pick Cristiano Ronaldo. United's no.7 has only had 45 minutes of preseason, and not much more training. He wants to move to any club that will have him, and he's almost certainly struggling to reconcile his own monstrous self-belief with the fact that no club seems to want him. On the other hand, he is one of the greatest goalscorers of this or any other generation, which seems at least partly relevant.
So if Ten Hag does the obvious, sensible, inevitable thing and picks Ronaldo, we'll be able to conclude that he's taking the path of the pragmatist. Rolling with the slings and the arrows. Making the best of whatever turns up. Ronaldo's here, for now, and it would be silly not to make the best of that.
On the other hand, let's say Ten Hag does something else. Something fun. Marcus Rashford up top, perhaps; Alejandro Garnacho or Antony Elanga on the wing. Donny van de Beek as a false nine. From this, we will be able to conclude that Ten Hag is walking the path of the idealist: that he's willing to compromise his ideas on form, shape, fitness and commitment for nobody. However famous. However legendary. Pragmatist on one shoulder, idealist on the other: it's no exaggeration to say that the entire character of Ten Hag's reign at United - indeed, Ten Hag as a person: his intentions and his beliefs, his hopes and his fears - will be visible in that first teamsheet.
Okay, so it's a bit of an exaggeration. But look, the actual Premier League starts tonight, which means all of us have just a few more hours to spend with the made-up Premier League that exists only in our heads. Let's enjoy it, while we can.

New Blues

Marc Cucurella to Chelsea update: it's definitely going to happen, even though it hasn't happened quite yet. Maybe it will even happen today. Chelsea get another left-back, Fabrizio Romano's reputation remains intact, and Brighton will be getting £55m quid. Everyone's a winner, except Manchester City. What have they ever won? Losers.
The less spectacular news from yesterday was that Cesar Azpilicueta has signed a new two-year deal, ending the links to Barcelona and doing Chelsea a massive favour. First they get to keep their captain. And second, they now only need to find one more top-class central defender before the window closes.
That makes Todd Boehly's life a lot easier: he now just has to get deals for *checks rumours* Wesley Fofana, Frenkie de Jong and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang done this month. It also means that Thomas Tuchel will only have - counts on fingers - anywhere between four and seven players to integrate into his first-team plans, depending on Boehly's success.
That's a lot to do, right? They're all good players, of course; they should all do well. And yet that almost never happens. Tilt your head one way and you can sort of see a newly-invigorated Chelsea, a fluid collective with goals coming from everywhere. Hypnotic, free-wheeling Tuchelball. Tilt it the other and the squad is a thrown-together grab-bag that might just about settle into a team, given time and patience, of which the Premier League has little. Or it might crumple into a heap. Your guess is as good as ours.
As a final note, Chelsea are now in a position to cram an incredible number of syllables into their starting 11. Arrizabalaga in goal, a back four of Cucurella and Azpilicueta either side of Koulibaly and Thiago Silva, a midfield diamond of Jorginho, Chukwuemeka, Kovačić and Loftus-Cheek, and then Hudson-Odoi and Pulisic up front. You can see why they're after Aubameyang. He rounds that team out perfectly.

IN OTHER NEWS

As well as producing good footballers at a remarkable rate, Ajax are world leaders in very important field of 'making away kits that provoke fans of other teams to make strange high-pitched noises'. Here's this season's navy blue number, with exciting collar diamonds. You may begin squeaking.

RETRO CORNER

If the FA Cup is the most straightforward and intuitive way to arrange a football tournament, and a home-and-away league system the most rigorous, then the Watney Cup must stand as the most idealistic. It was contested by the teams that had scored the most goals the previous season: two from each division of the Football League made eight in total, and they played a quick knockout tournament before the season began.
It didn't last very long. Just five seasons, back in the early '70s, for some things are too beautiful for this world. But it did play host to English football's first-ever penalty shootout, 52 years ago today. Hull City and Manchester United played out a draw, and then George Best, Denis Law, and Hull goalkeeper Ian McKechnie came together to make all sorts of history.

HAT TIP

The Premier League announced this week that players would no longer take the knee before games as a matter of course, and that instead the gesture would be reserved for a few occasions: cup finals, Boxing Day matches, and nominated No Room for Racism rounds. Writing for the Athletic, Frank Nouble outlines his disagreement: "Stopping the knee is like taking down the speed-limit signs on the motorway. I believe it’s a necessary reminder that evil racists lurk among us. It makes people pause and think about what they can do to stop what is happening in society."
He also notes that this decision was taken by the club captains, "of which only two currently are non-white. As I’m still a player at Colchester United in League Two, I know how the conversations go in the dressing room. A captain will walk in and say, 'Look, I’ve received this email.' Nobody will take great interest in what final decision is made. They just go with the majority and decide on what everyone feels comfortable doing. Nobody stands up in a team sport and says how they really feel."

COMING UP

We begin our latest Premier League adventure with Arsenal travelling to Crystal Palace. Ligue 1 begins with Lyon vs. Ajaccio. And Bayern Munich begin life after Robert Lewandowski with a trip to Eintracht Frankfurt. And just like that, the whole clanking machine is back again.
Have a good weekend. And if you see Erik ten Hag, remind him that Phil Jones can play up front. It's not true, but maybe he doesn't know that.
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