​New Premier League era begins

Exasperated and embarrassed, Arséne Wenger could do nothing but shrug as 76 000 people mercilessly heckled him. Like a defeated Gallic king paraded through Rome, his ability to maintain a stubborn defiance in the face of a superior power had expired.

That day in 2009, when the Frenchman was sent to the Old Trafford stands for kicking a water bottle, was the final corroboration that the Wenger era had ended.

His football philosophy was an amalgamation of loyalty and authenticity, force but also respect. Challenged by Chelsea’s new millions in the mid-2000s, he ferociously clung to those ideals, never conceding that they now were but totems dedicated to archaic gods.

What Wenger experienced in that moment, in pure footballing terms, is death. He ceased to be a relevant life form in that world. Credit must still be given, though, for the fight he put into remaining off his knees. The mega-rich ethos that overthrew him will probably tumble far more easily.

Yes, our leaders Manchester City have assembled a team probably more valuable than El Dorado itself, but what has made them so dominant is perhaps something purer than wealth. It’s not measurable or tangible.

Pep Guardiola delivered something England had never mastered before — a possession-based game designed to suck the opposition out of play. Having attacking, inverted full-backs almost always leaves a free pass. With Kevin de Bruyne deployed in more of a playmaking role, that innocuous possession can quickly turn malignant.

Recent Premier League winners have been incited by the nexus between invention and hustle. Claudio Ranieri did it with a side valued in the region of De Bruyne’s price tag; his return to footballing fundamentals with a 4-4-2 ultimately nullified new-age thinking and delivered a system that everybody has somehow forgotten how to crack.

Unleashing the unknown prospect of Jamie Vardy in conjunction with a strike partner to playoff was too much for defences that had become entrenched in the custom of marshalling one target man.

READ MORE: Transfer window’s biggest winner and loser

A year later, Antonio Conte embedded an Italian conundrum on the other side of the pitch. Most sides had never had the prospect of facing three at the back, let alone a trio capable of launching a fatal counterattack. An intrepid use of attacking players— particularly with Victor Moses out of position — as wing-backs, was a simple yet deadly move. As much as Diego Costa bullied, it was the bewilderment the side evoked that brought in the silverware.

Like Wenger, Conte and Ranieri couldn’t adapt once the molecular bonds to their formula had been isolated. (Conte died last season,Ranieri the year before.)

Guardiola is undoubtedly aware that his name will be mentioned among those managers should City fail to replicate their recent success. With the waters of change constantly rising, a high-level manager will never be given ample time to acclimatise.

Both Mauricio Pochettino and Jürgen Klopp have proven their penchant for innovation. Liverpool, who enjoyed a cheery transfer window, have a group of youngsters who will swarm over stagnation like mould on moist bread. Klopp is smart, hungry and innovative: this environment, that of the current era, is one he will likely thrive in.

What about Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri?

They bring new philosophies with them to a league already in flux. Can they lift their respective wounded contenders and have them fit for the battlefield?

We haven’t entered a season in the past two decades with such novelty. The time of Sir Alex Ferguson has passed; the days of Wenger are over. What we have is a period in which the audacious and foolhardy will ascend to the throne.

Perhaps this phenomenon will come to define our current era or is the beginning of something entirely different.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.


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