Well, at least that’s all over. Anyone who loves football will of course hate the transfer window, which rather than simply “slamming shut” should instead be abolished permanently along with agents, loan deals, signing-on fees, release clauses, theatrically over-excited men behind lighted desks, people who celebrate transfers as though witnessing some profound human achievement, medicals with hair-gelled men lying on tables doing the thumbs-up with wires clamped to their nipples, want-away aces, stay-away aces, open letters to the fans, car parks, children in car parks, children, cars, one-year deals, three-year deals, running down contracts, entourages, managers, chairmen, players, television, money and people.
The good news is that the actual football is finally back. Even without the window it has been a landmark summer for the Premier League’s ability to carry on happening all the time even when it’s not actually happening at all, a substance that froths and surges and bubbles through every gap and hole.
Football must always happen now. This has been the great leap forward of the last two decades. Even during the dog days of the summer heatwave it continued to happen. Lay your head down on that desiccated lawn. The noise you can hear isn’t birdsong or the clonk of cricket. It’s the sound of football, of an endlessly wheedling voice Bluetoothed down the line from a motorway service layby, speaking without any real meaning or purpose or end in mind about big money crisis club transfer list agent slur managerial meltdowns.
The big losers from this non-season were obvious enough. Clearly José Mourinho is finished, doomed by a non-season during which nothing actually happened or was decided. But during which he did appear in a series of photos in the newspapers looking puzzled and haggard and wearing the type of sad, baggy tracksuit favoured by disgraced celebrities pictured moping outside luxury clinics over headlines like Concern As Frail Ken Vows To Beat Dolphin-Fondling Charge.
Pep Guardiola had a predictably great no-football season, shown repeatedly looking handsome and crinkly and astute, perhaps pointing keenly at something just out of shot. And beyond this there was a clear winner in Jürgen Klopp, whose non-season revolved around saying funny things, smiling a lot, and looking as ever like a giant friendly bear in a duffel coat who likes crumpets and lives in a tree stump. What I’m really saying, perhaps you’ve picked it up, is that none of this really matters. Or rather it shouldn’t matter. Even if two things do seem clear as the season kicks off. First, the Premier League desperately needs a proper title race. And second, Klopp and Liverpool are most likely to provide one, most likely to push the Manchester City industrial complex a little harder than last season, which unravelled into not much more than a delightfully watchable lap of honour.
It is four years now since the Premier League staged anything like a proper title race. Even Leicester City’s great, giddy triumph was basically a sure thing from Easter onwards. And looking back the last eight seasons have produced just two close finishes – Agüeroooo; and We Don’t Let This Slip – and six processions, with the last four titles won by 19, seven, 10 and eight points.
It is customary at this stage to point to the robustness and energy of the Premier League, its fine high style. But stasis and certainty is the enemy of sport and increasingly the top two, top six, middle 10 and bottom five all look precooked, subject only to the most incidental variations. This is part of a wider trend. All of Europe’s top leagues were basically a one-team stroll last season, with Serie A the lone exception. The world’s richest club won the Champions League for a third time in a row.
This is a structural flaw, perhaps a symptom of the stratifying of resources. It is also why we have begun to talk like this, to linger on all the unceasing un-football, a sport where no one really knows if anyone else is any good anyway, where Arsenal were reduced during the late-Wenger years to an idea, a set of prejudices, an argument on the internet.
At which point enter Klopp and Liverpool, who seem the only really credible challengers. Certainly the Premier League needs them right now, needs Klopp’s team to hit the gears from the start, to provide some sustaining narrative tension. Liverpool look strong too, with a front six even more packed with furious ferreting energy. Andrew Robertson looked like the best full-back in the country at times last year, haring up and down his flank like a man being chased by a swarm of bees. Even Daniel Sturridge is back from injury, veteran of that last proper title race and a footballer I’ve always loved watching because of his endearing, inexplicable moments, the way he simply wanders off into weird places on the pitch then makes his own improbable moves from outside to in, like a man trying to run away from his shadow.