A beginner’s guide to following the English Premier League
It is currently 11:56pm EST on a Wednesday night, and I find myself watching a meaningless preseason soccer match between Chelsea and Liverpool. A sentence that, three years ago, would never have been uttered from my mouth.
After taking a slightly more vested interest in soccer during the 2014 World Cup, I decided that, upon the tournament’s conclusion, I would do some research and pick a team in England to follow. Why England? Well, for starters, the games would (obviously) be broadcast in English, which, for someone whose knowledge of foreign languages begins and ends with what I learned in Italian classes in Middle School and High School, was a big deal. I also chose to follow an English club because NBC’s extensive coverage of the English Premier League (EPL) made it relatively easy to find games on television whenever they were/are on.
Now, after hours upon hours of extensive, backbreaking research (I think I spent maybe an hour max, followed by a small text conversation with a couple soccer-loving friends), I had chosen the club I would claim as my own for the rest of my soccer fandom: Tottenham Hotspur. How exactly did I come to this decision? Why did I pick Tottenham, Spurs, for short, as my team? I didn’t want to root for one of the top, top clubs (Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City), but I also didn’t want to root for one of the bottom clubs that had no shot of achieving glory (looking at you, Leicester City!). So, I landed on Tottenham Hotspur, a club that has not been crowned champion of the English Top Division since 1961 and one that had a new manager at the helm.
Before delving into whom to choose as your team (assuming you don’t already have some sort of geographical ties to a team), here are some reasons to get excited about becoming a soccer fan:
The Structure of the EPL
The EPL is made up of 20 teams. Each team plays the other 19 teams both at home and away, with one meeting occurring before the New Year and the other occurring after. It’s nothing huge, per se, but I find the neatness of 19 matches before the calendar changes and 19 matches after to be supremely satisfying (kind of like this gif).
Oh, and there are ties. Well, they’re called “draws” in England. If nobody has taken the lead following extra time after the full 90 minutes, it’s a draw. Sadly, this isn’t a game of FIFA on Xbox where you can choose the ‘golden goal’ option. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Points are awarded for both wins and draws. A team receives three points for a win and one point for a draw. Technically, there could be a season in which the first place team finishes with more points but less actual wins than the second place team. In the 2009–2010 season, Chelsea and Manchester United both finished with 27 wins, but Man U lost one more game than Chelsea did, meaning Chelsea finished a single point ahead of them for the title.
At the end of the 38 match weeks, a champion is crowned. Just like that. Yes, there is no such thing as an actual playoff in European soccer. Whoever is in first at the end of the season wins and that’s that.
Beyond first place, places 1–4 and 5–7 gain entrance to Europe’s two continent-wide tournaments that take place during the next season: The Champions League and the Europa League, respectively. The Europa League is kind of like the NIT to the NCAA Tournament that is the Champions League.
Furthermore, the league has relegation, where the bottom three clubs at the end of the season are relegated to the Championship, the second-tier league in England. (Don’t ask me why the second-tier is called the Championship. It makes as little sense to me as it does to you and everyone else, I promise.) Those three clubs are replaced by the top three teams from the Championship each year.
Matches take place almost exclusively on Saturday and Sunday mornings and occasionally Monday afternoons. I’m talking strictly in Eastern Standard Time at the moment. Sorry, West Coast supporters who have to rise at the crack of dawn to watch your favorite team. You have my sympathy.
Also, when the game is supposed to start at 9:00am, it starts EXACTLY at 9:00am. This isn’t like an NFL Sunday where games “start” at 1:00pm and 4:25pm, but really end up kicking off later than those scheduled times. If you’re an early riser, such as myself, you’ll love that you can wake up and throw on NBC Sports Network to find games on all morning long. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
The Use of Advertisements
Growing up (and to this day), I was a huge fan of football (American Football, that is). While I still consider it my favorite sport, football broadcasting on television is not without its faults, namely, the overbearing existence of commercial breaks at just about ANY stoppage in a game. With soccer, commercials only exist before matches, at halftime and after matches. There are ZERO commercials during a match. Watching two uninterrupted 45-minute halves of soccer is a thing of beauty.
“But Brett, don’t they have uniform sponsors that make up the greater part of the jersey?” They do, hypothetical person who is recently interested in soccer, however, sponsorships on uniforms in soccer seems to be so ingrained in the culture of the sport now that I rarely bat an eye at it.
Pronounced “dar-bees,” they are the rivalry matchups that occur between specific clubs throughout the season. Famous ones, such as the North London Derby (Tottenham-Arsenal), the Merseyside Derby (Liverpool-Everton) and the Manchester Derby (Manchester City-Manchester United) are the perfect showcases for soccer fandom. Supporters are known for the passion they have for their clubs, and these rivalries amplify that ten-fold.
Transfers are how a player moves from one club to another. They can choose to move clubs at any time, regardless of their contract situation. During the offseason (which, for most major European leagues is between mid-May and mid-August), trade rumors run rampant. Add the widespread use of social media to this already ridiculous (albeit extremely entertaining) time period, and you’ve got as much ridiculousness as you can possibly handle. I’m talking players’-transfers-being-announced-on-Instagram-by-their-barbers-type stuff. It’s a lovely way to bridge the gap from one season to the next.
Soccer announcers are pretty great. You have some play-by-play men who exercise extreme excitement and unreal breath support. You have others who are wordsmiths and can summon exactly what to say at the appropriate moment. Generally, they do an excellent job of keeping the game interesting no matter the score.
So, the time has finally come. Let’s pick an EPL club…
Pronounced “Leh-ster.” They are the reigning champions of the EPL. A 5,000–1 underdog to win the league at the start of the season, they rode a winning strategy and career years from multiple starters to the title. Because it is so hard to repeat as a champion after a Cinderella-story such as theirs, I personally don’t see them repeating as champions. But, they have one of the most likable managers in Claudio Ranieri and will be competing in the Champions League for the first time ever this year. Not a bad choice!
As I supporter of Spurs, I can’t possibly condone rooting for Arsenal. But, if you must, you would be happy to know they have two of the most exciting attacking forwards in Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. They also have a long-serving manager, Arsene Wenger, whose consistent job of placing Arsenal in the top-4 yearly has become maybe a bit too commonplace for supporters of the club.
Let’s just say this much: If you decide to root for Spurs (by the way, it’s actually just “Spurs,” not “the Spurs.” Again, I don’t make the rules.), understand you’ll be in for quite the rollercoaster ride. They’re one of the youngest and, arguably, one of the most promising teams out there, but they’re still working on maturing more (see: the game against Newcastle, last week of this past season).
City were purchased by Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008, bringing them from a sneaky underdog pick to two-time EPL Champs, winning in both 2012 and 2014. It’s kind of tough to hop on the bandwagon now, although they will be managed by former Bayern Munich skipper, Pep Guardiola, one of the top managers in the world. City are known for easily handling lower-table clubs, but have a slight tendency to struggle against the top teams at times. They’ve got Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero leading the attack, making up as formidable an offense as there is in the EPL.
If you pick Man U, I assume you’ll be doing so while wearing a Yankees shirt, a Cowboys hat and your fresh new Curry 2s. Too easy a pick. However, if you were to choose Man U, understand that you’re getting arguably the greatest manager-player 1–2 punch in Jose Mourinho and Zlatan Imbrahimovic. Those two alone provide enough quote-able soundbites for the rest of the entire team. You would also be supporting a team whose history is as rich as they come.
Think this is one of your best choices. Southampton may have lost their manager for the second time in three years, but they’ve done well to punch above their weight and finish within Europa League qualification in back-to-back campaigns.
West Ham United
As much as I dislike West Ham, given that they are a London rival of Spurs, they’re not a terrible team to root for. They have plenty of promise as an up-and-coming club that will have an influx of money soon because they’re spending the year at the large Olympic Stadium in London. They also have Dimitri Payet, a Frenchman who is one of the best free-kick takers in the world right now. Enjoy.
Liverpool has arguably the most entertaining manager in the league in Jurgen Klopp and have as rich a history as any club. Watch these highlights from Liverpool’s miraculous comeback against Dortmund in the Europa League this past year. Required viewing for anyone getting into the sport.
For an American connection, Geoff Cameron is a starter on both Stoke and the U.S. Men’s National Team. In recent years, Stoke have taken on a number of players who were supposed to be great and have not quite lived up to expectations. Their second chance is coming with Stoke, who play an entertaining, but inconsistent style of football (football, soccer, tomato, tomahto).
Champions in 2014–15, 10th place in 2015–16. Chelsea is a huge club that has been a title contender in recent years (besides last year, of course). They’ve got ex-Italy manager, Antonio Conte, at the helm, who will look to recapture the recent glory. Buuuut, they’re also a fellow London team, so I’d advise you to stay away (but that’s me).
The other ten clubs are as follows: Everton, Swansea City, Watford, West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace, AFC Bournemouth, Sunderland, Burnley, Middlesborough, and Hull City. Everton is probably the one most likely to get into the top half of the table out of this group. Beyond that, you’re certain to avoid being called a bandwagoner for choosing one of the remaining nine. Burnley, Middlesborough and Hull City are the three newly promoted clubs, if you want to take the super-underdog route.
In any case, choosing to follow the EPL has been a phenomenal decision. Once people can look past the perceived stereotypes of soccer being full of players who flop around and being full of “boring” 0–0 games, they’ll realize just how much fun the sport can be. After all, there’s a reason why a vast majority of countries outside of the good ol’ U S of A have soccer as one of their most popular national sports. Be prepared for early weekend mornings watching matches, receiving team news at odd hours and the realization that you care far too much about a team located across an ocean. It’s a blast.