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Premier League helped by early deadline but were teams ready to play?

Former Premier League referee Peter Walton and Stewart Robson discuss the key decisions from the weekend.
Former Premier League referee Peter Walton and Stewart Robson discuss the key decisions from the weekend.

The 2018-19 Premier League season is well and truly underway and for once, that phrase feels appropriate.

The English top-flight always commences in mid-August but, after a significant change to the structure of the transfer window, the new campaign will not feature the disastrous three-week period, in which clubs and media were focused more upon moves than matches. Now deadline day has already passed, the games themselves dominate.

In years gone by, the first month has been compromised by numerous teams not appearing to be properly equipped. Last season, for example, the Premier League began on Aug. 11 but clubs had another 20 days of transfer activity. At that point, with squads eventually finalised, we were forced to endure an international break, so the season only began properly on Sep. 9, nearly a month after the first game.

It is worth remembering precisely why the Premier League found itself in this situation. Until 2002-03 there was no transfer window, as such, in England, aside from a deadline day on March 31 that was essentially to stop teams artificially boosting their squads with late-season additions. Otherwise, they were free to trade as they liked.

The introduction of a transfer window was effectively forced by the European Commission and the summer deadline day was generally in line with those of Serie A and La Liga, i.e. the end of August. However, there was a problem: While the leagues were in harmony as regards the end of the window, they were not when it came to the date on which the season began. 

Opening day in 2002-03 was Aug. 17 in England, Sep. 1 in Spain and Sep. 15 in Italy. Therefore, the latter two leagues effectively operated within the system the Premier League has now unilaterally enacted: Transfer window and league campaign did not overlap.

The pattern broadly continued for the next few years. La Liga's season crept forward into the last week of August, meaning one week of overlap, while Serie A's alternated between that date and an early-September start.

But the Premier League has remained relatively consistent in its mid-August commencement, usually resulting in three rounds of matches with the window still open; it is a reason why the deadline-day silliness that is somewhat unique to the Premier League has meant matches have been played under a cloud.

For example, an Arsenal vs. Tottenham clash in September 2013 was overshadowed by Spurs confirming the departure of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid and Arsenal's imminent announcement of Mesut Ozil's arrival from the Spanish club. Indeed, while Arsenal are generally less active on deadline day than other clubs, they have started several seasons in somewhat shambolic fashion due to uncertainty over players.

In 2011-12, Samir Nasri started against Liverpool despite being on the brink of a move to Manchester City and then, eight days later, Arsenal's 8-2 thrashing at Man United was partly because Arsene Wenger had not yet signed Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker.

While other European leagues have not fallen in line with the Premier League's new transfer dates, the reaction to the decision was generally favourable from Italy, France and Germany; Serie A, in fact, has effectively taken the same decision to close its window before the season: Friday's deadline comes a day before the games begin.

There is some concern that Premier League players could be targeted by clubs elsewhere in Europe before deadlines pass, but the reason for that is due to England's top flight being out of sync with most other major leagues. Ligue 1 and the Eredivisie also began last weekend, but Serie A and La Liga kick off a week later and the Bundesliga does not start until Aug. 24.

Beyond implications for the transfer window, this summer has also shown why it might be logical for the Premier League to start later. Man United's game with Leicester was played just 26 days after the World Cup final and, more pertinently for English clubs, 27 days after Belgium and England's third-place playoff.

It felt like an unnecessarily quick turnaround and meant some players were not physically ready for the new campaign. Otherwise key men like Kevin De Bruyne and Jordan Henderson were reduced to substitute roles and there were mixed performances from those who did start, including N'Golo Kante and Harry Kane.

Others, meanwhile, had tactical problems that might have been solved with an extra week on the training ground. A new-look Fulham were particularly disjointed in a home defeat to Crystal Palace, while Manuel Pellegrini's West Ham used an atrocious offside trap in their 4-0 thrashing at Liverpool. Perhaps free midweeks for the remainder of August can serve as something of an extended preseason for clubs.

Starting even a week later would be difficult logistically: Unlike other top divisions, the Premier League uses weekends for its domestic cup competition from January onward, with the final played on a day when other countries are still in league action. Moreover, a delayed start would also be tricky to accomplish considering there will be, in some form, a mini-winter break from next season.

Perhaps the 2022 World Cup might offer a solution. Playing the tournament in November and December might force leagues to align seasons; if that happens, standardising the transfer window would also make sense. The current situation, with start dates and deadlines staggered, is entirely illogical in such an interconnected transfer market.

The Premier League is on to something, though, with its decision to conclude transfer activity before a ball is kicked in anger. If it next opts to move the season back a week -- a midweek round in August would surely be feasible -- then it would not only help teams better prepare but might inspire other countries to fall into line.

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