Sports

A Quick Guide To The Premier League As It Returns To Play This Week

Soccer’s reintroduction from the COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for a few weeks. Germany’s Bundesliga keeps chugging along, Spain’s La Liga returned over the weekend, and while Italy’s top league, Serie A, starts back up on Saturday, Italian football returned last week via the Coppa Italia semifinals.

Now, all eyes are on England, where the Premier League is slated to resume action with a pair of fixtures on Wednesday. Aston Villa and Sheffield United will get things underway at 1 p.m. EST, while Manchester City and Arsenal will follow that up at 3:15. Both matches are slated to air stateside on NBC Sports Network, offering some lovely mid-week live sports on national TV. Following a day off on Thursday, the action will resume on Friday and run through Monday as the league looks to wrap things up in a timely fashion.

For those that are looking to get into the Premier League — or for those that could just use a refresher after a months-long layoff — we tossed together a quick explainer of the league, some of its best players, and a recap of everything that happened prior to its suspension in March.

Alright so what’s up?

The Premier League is back today, which is extremely good news.

Why’s that?

Well, the Prem is the best league in the world. While Germany’s Bundesliga is more fun, and Spain’s La Liga is the most reliably compelling title race on an annual basis, the best players and clubs are in England. There’s such a wonderful variety of types of player and approaches by clubs, almost anything can happen in a match. I think you’d like it!

Ah, interesting. So how’s the race for a champion going?

It’s basically done and dusted, it is the least-competitive championship race among the major restarting European leagues.

Wait I thought the league was good.

It is! The Premier League just has a team in Liverpool at the top of the table in the midst of an historically good campaign, is all.

Alright so tell me about them.

Liverpool, despite being a giant in the sport, have never won the Premier League, which has existed in its current form since 1992. They’ve won everything else several times over in that period, but the Prem has always slipped away from them (“slipped” is both a metaphor and literally what happened to them in 2013-14). This year, though, the Reds — which lost the title on the final day last year to Manchester City by one point and set a record for points by a runner-up with 97 — have decided to just leave a trail of destruction in their path.

Jurgen Klopp’s side have taken 82 of a potential 87 points. City are in second with 57 points. The gap between Liverpool and City is bigger than the gap between City and 14th place Southampton, which are on 34 points. They entered this season looking to win the Premier League and are a whole six points away from clinching it. City is the only team that can mathematically catch them, but they will not.

Good lord. What makes them so good?

Basically, Liverpool have everything you want in a club. Their goalkeeper, Alisson, is in the conversation for being the best in the world. Their defense features three guys with a claim for the world’s best at their position — left back Andy Robertson, center back Virgil Van Dijk, right back Trent Alexander-Arnold — and their attack of Sadio Mane-Roberto Firmino-Mohamed Salah is nothing short of brilliant. Their midfield exists to fill in any gaps that pop up, and they are outstanding at filling their roles perfectly. Fabinho is a devastating defensive midfielder, while Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum have been two of England’s best this year due to their abilities to do anything Liverpool needs on a given night.

There’s plenty of tactical stuff that contributes to their dominance — namely the way their fullbacks, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, are used in their attack and the way Firmino is able to hold up play while Mane and Salah make incisive runs — but the biggest reason for this team’s success, I would argue, is their unwavering belief that they will win every single match they play. It is absolutely staggering. According to my pal James Tyler of ESPN, the Reds have taken 16 points from seven losing positions this year. No club in the world is better at looking like they’re stuck in first gear for 60-70 minutes and then unleashing the wrath of god on opponents — you can tell, in every match where this happens, that both clubs believe that Liverpool rallying and winning is going to happen. I have zero idea how there are any Liverpool supporters left who have not suffered heart palpitations.

Liverpool hit a bit of a rough patch before the break. They were bounced from the FA Cup by Chelsea, got knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid despite playing way better, and lost in the Prem for the first time to lowly Watford. They are still, one can argue, the greatest side in Premier League history.

That’s high praise. Do you like them?

God no. I appreciate how they play, but I’m a Manchester City supporter, thus the wholly unnecessary “slipped” jab a few paragraphs ago.

Talk to me about them.

Happily! City have been the best side in England over the last decade or so. They have stockpiled trophies across every competition but the Champions League. The two-time defending Premier League champions, City won the league with a record 100 points in 2017-18 and 98 points in 2018-19. They have not been as good this year, not by a long shot, but at their best, they have a case for being the best club in the world.

What’s been up with them?

There’s seemed to be a sense of fatigue from how high of a level they’ve operated at the last few years and how demanding manager Pep Guardiola can be, but the big thing has been injuries. For a number of reasons (we won’t get into all of them), their defense was built around center back Aymeric Laporte, who has appeared in seven matches this year. With how City play, having a rock at the center of the defense is crucial, and that just has not happened, and that has led to a chain reaction of issues elsewhere. We won’t get into that, because this is already going to end up being like 2,350 words.

It also hasn’t helped that basically everyone has looked like they’ve taken a step back this year, which again, is due to the club’s general injury issues and the aforementioned sense of fatigue. The one exception to this has been Kevin de Bruyne, the Belgian midfield maestro who missed essentially all of last year and has, for my money, been the best player in the Premier League this year. The first half of what he did against Arsenal earlier this year was nothing short of spellbinding.

Still, on their best day, this is the best club in the world, with Bayern Munich and Liverpool having a case for that distinction, too. They need a decent amount to go right for those days to happen, and if they’re in a position to spend big this summer (it’s complicated!), they will do that to freshen up their squad. But there is nothing like when Ederson is picking passes no other goalkeeper can play, and Laporte is flying around putting out fires, and their midfield is working in perfect harmony, and the attacking trio of some combination Raheem Sterling/Leroy Sane-Sergio Aguero/Gabriel Jesus-Riyad Mahrez/Bernardo Silva is cooking. They’ll try to stay in the top-4 for a Champions League spot next year and as a chance to stay fresh for the Champions League and FA Cup, but the league is gone.

How’s the rest of the top-4 looking?

Pretty fun! The two clubs in pole position for the final two Champions League spots are Leicester City, which have been my favorite side to watch this year, and Chelsea, which boasts the biggest American star in the world, Christian Pulisic, and a handful of other players who are quite good (I quite enjoy Tammy Abraham and think N’Golo Kante is magnificent at his best). Leicester is on 53 points, while Chelsea is on 48. Both are capable of playing some really exciting football, particularly Leicester, which has cadre of delightful youngsters (Ben Chilwell, Wilfred Ndidi, Youri Tielemans, Caglar Soyuncu, James Maddison) and some really good established players (Kasper Schmeichel, Jamie Vardy).

Lurking just outside are Manchester United — which sit in fifth on 45 points, have looked great since adding Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes in January, and get Paul Pogba back from injury once games start back up. Fifth is extra important this year, because if Manchester City’s Champions League ban is upheld, the team in fifth gets the nod. As such, United are in a battle with Wolves and Sheffield United. Both are on 43 points, with Wolves having played one more game. Both of these teams are quite fun: Sheffield are more pragmatic, but Wolves go for it legitimately every single match. Watch Adama Traore play, because he is bigger and faster and stronger than everyone else and it is just wonderful. I say this as someone who spent 180 minutes this year watching Traore eat my club alive.

A few more clubs are trying to crash that party. Tottenham and Arsenal, two clubs whose stated purposes are to make their supporters as mad as humanly possible at all times, are on 41 and 40 points, respectively, with Arsenal having played one fewer match. Burnley and Crystal Palace, meanwhile, are both on 39 points.

So Leicester and Chelsea, then?

Probably, although I am not counting out United, unfortunately.

Why is that unfortunate?

I’ll let Oasis explain. This link is NSFW.

Ah!

Come on, City.

So who are the players I should watch?

I’ll give a few for each of the top-10ish clubs, cool?

Cool.

Ok!

Liverpool: Everyone, but pay special attention to Virgil Van Dijk, who has a claim for being the best player in the world. Cannot say enough good things about the work Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum have put in this year, too. I’d disagree with it, but Henderson appears to be the frontrunner to be named the league’s Player of the Year.

Manchester City: Kevin De Bruyne. He’s a marvel. Also: Every attacker they have is a freak of nature, but Leroy Sane — who has been hurt all season and is probably going to Bayern Munich next year — is cut from a different cloth. When healthy, no one in the world is quite like him.

Leicester City: Kasper Schmeichel has never quite gotten the credit in goal that I think he deserves. Keep an eye on 23-year-old center back Caglar Soyuncu, too, because he is going to be a superstar soon. And this year, no one has been better at putting the ball in the back of the net than Jamie Vardy.

Chelsea: Christian Pulisic, obviously. He’s good, not by the standard to which Americans are measured, he’s just straight-up good. Tammy Abraham is up there for the most dangerous young striker in all of Europe.

Manchester United: We have no clue if Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba can play together. If they can, United’s midfield is going to be outrageously good. If not, Pogba’s almost certainly going to be sent to a club in France, Italy, or Spain. Also: Marcus Rashford rocks.

Dang, Rashford seems pretty cool.

I agree.

OK sorry, continue.

Wolverhampton Wanderers: Adama Traore. I have no idea how he is real. A smart club is going to pay a lot of money for Ruben Neves sometime soon, while Mexican international Raul Jimenez is on the list of the world’s most clever strikers.

Sheffield United: Hard to identify one player since they play so well as an 11-person unit, but recent midfield acquisition Sander Berge is going to be very good.

Tottenham Hotspur: They’re weird because they have a manager who plays pragmatically in spite of the fun attacking players he has — although in fairness, their attack has been super injured — but regardless, Son Heung-min is a blast and plays with a vivaciousness that few players can match. England captain Harry Kane is back from injury, too.

Arsenal: The 1-2 punch of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up top is a blast, even if it can be awkward when they play together. Arsenal’s hanging its hat on its youngsters, though, and Brazilian midfielder Gabriel Martinelli is perhaps the most promising of the bunch.

Anything at the remaining — [quickly counts] — 11 clubs worth watching?

Of course! The great thing about the Prem is that basically every team has someone or something worth paying attention to. Take the current bottom-three for example: Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Norwich City. Bournemouth have a collection of youngsters (Nathan Ake, Harry Wilson, Dominic Solanke, etc.) worth your attention, Aston Villa is home to Jack Grealish, who might be a superstar when all is said and done, and Norwich have a 29-year-old Finnish striker named Teemu Pukki who is just wonderful.

The league’s flotsam isn’t as fun to watch as the Liverpools and Citys of the world, obviously, but you’re still going to have a good time if, say, you toss on an Everton match and watch Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, or a Southampton match where Danny Ings just cannot stop scoring. The Premier League is a joy, and even if the rest of the sports world was carrying on unabated, it would absolutely be worth your time.

This is all useful. Anything else I need to know?

Uhh there are two USMNT players other than Pulisic in the league — Newcastle United’s DeAndre Yedlin and Aston Villa’s Indiana Vassilev. As Total Soccer Show (you should listen, they’re better at this than me!) pointed out, Wolves may use Owen Otasowie, too. You didn’t need to know that but that’s out there, now.

Nice. This is all gonna be on TV, right?

It is! Here’s a tweet.

There are no super crazy mega good matches this week, but Everton v. Liverpool is a derby, and both sides very much do not like one another, and Everton is going to do every single thing in its power to delay Liverpool’s quest to lift the PL trophy.

Sounds like fun.

I am sure it will be.

OK thanks.

No problem. Enjoy watching.

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