Illustration by Matthew Craven. Lots more on his website.
So we're a few months late with this. No need to rub it in. We still hope you'll find some value, however tardy, in our primer on the English Premier League (or the "Premiership," if you prefer). The EPL deserves a primer. It's the biggest soccer league in the world. And following games an ocean away poses challenges. Devotion to the EPL will alienate you from your family and friends. You'll find yourself waking at dawn and skipping the football game everyone else is watching for the "football" game played 3,000 miles away. It can make for a lonely, confusing life. But don't worry, our less-than-timely primer will get you sorted.
How to successfully drink with foreigners all morning: Get ready to shoulder up to a bar an hour after dawn, a Man U supporter from Sweden on one side, a Chelsea fan from Senegal on the other. That's how it goes down in the United States, hours behind the action as we are. You're forced to watch games in bars and drink beer for breakfast. Forced, we say. But you'll need to understand a few things first. If you drink weak American swill, you'll be shunned. Don't do it. Guinness or Smithwicks are safe choices. Second, there are at least two games to watch, so you should have plenty of stimulants on hand. Your new friends will thank you. They will also appreciate your appreciation for their favorite league, so above all, don't pretend too much EPL knowledge like those insufferable yobs in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods. Because then your new friends will hurt you.
If you're only going to watch one team: The yobs we just mentioned have no doubt waxed poetic about the wonders of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, but what they probably failed to mention is that both teams are made up largely of effete wankers. We prefer the Sheik Mansour-backed Manchester City, whose blend of NBA-caliber athleticism (Yaya Toure, Mario Balotelli) and attacking skill (David Silva, Kun Aguero) has vaulted them to the top of the Premier League. City's meteoric rise is fascinating because of their history. The club, which was long overshadowed by its much, much more successful neighbor, Manchester United, was mired in a 35-year trophy drought until last season's FA Cup victory. But the Sheik's seemingly bottomless pockets have given them the upper hand in the transfer market, and for the first time since the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson took over at Man U, the pale blues are looking like the best club in town. Bonus points for throwing one of the most legendary Christmas parties ever.
Favorite Limey commentator: Ian Darke roared his way into the hearts of even the most casual American soccer fans with his call of Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, and again during the 2011 women's cup. Since then, the "Poet Laureate of Soccer in North America" has been the voice of ESPN's EPL telecast, where he is equally excellent, making even the dullest games in the drizzliest corners of England (and Wales) feel like must-see TV.
What we're most looking forward to this season: The race for this season's title realistically comes down to three teams. Again. As usual. See, it's the relegation battle that's more interesting. In the EPL, the three teams with the fewest points each year are sent down to The Championship, England's second division, while the top three Championship teams are called up to take their place. Currently, half of the league's 20 teams are at risk of being relegated, including nouveau-riche clubs like Blackburn and Queens Park Rangers, and Premier League stalwarts Everton, Fulham, and Aston Villa. There's a good chance, however, that two of the recently promoted teams—Norwich City and Swansea City (more on Swansea below)—will stick in the EPL for another year, which would be a welcome development. The main knock against the Premiership, which doesn't impose a salary cap or have a draft system, is that it's almost impossible for poorer clubs to thrive. But watching the minnows fight for survival down the stretch creates a drama unknown to American fans. The last day of the EPL is as tense as any in sports.
Podcast that doesn't suck: Grantland done good by bringing the Men In Blazers podcast to the site. MIB, anchored by ESPN soccer analyst Roger Bennett and TV producer Michael Davies (of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire fame) is consistently spectacular. The pair have Wilbon/Kornheiser caliber chemistry, and have mastered the art of talking footie to new fans, moving slowly enough for EPL rookies to follow along but without dumbing down the content, a la Fox. Past guests have included EPL legends Ray Hudson and Steve McManaman, U.S. men's national team players Stuart Holden and Maurice Edu, and, just because, Srdjan Darmonovic. (Montenegro's ambassador to the U.S.). The highlight of the podcast though, is the segment in which the hosts read listeners' emails aloud and decide who's earned the honor of being considered a Great Friend of the Pod (or GFOP), an accolade rewarded with a commemorative Men In Blazers patch. For your blazer.
Manager we'd like to punch in the balls: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is, simply put, the most irritating man in English soccer. The supercilious Frenchman never passes up an opportunity to remind the world that his Arsenal squad succeeds without the massive payrolls other top teams enjoy. Wegner has so irked other EPL fans that he is regularly serenaded on the road with a song declaring him to be a fucking pedophile (see above video). He is also a notorious whiner when it comes to refereeing and scheduling decisions, and appears to believe that a conspiracy against Arsenal is all that's held them back from championship glory, rather than the mediocre teams they've fielded the past few years.
Player we'd most like to hang out with: In his four-and-a-half seasons in top-flight European soccer, Mario Balotelli has cemented his status as the game's most lovable wingnut, the Old World counterpart to Tony Plush. Balotelli has been known to hand out thousands of pounds to Manchester's homeless on a whim, burn down part of his house in a fireworks accident the night before the biggest game of the season (in which he scored the opening goal), use a member of his club's youth team as a human dartboard, and turn his backyard into a quad bike racetrack. In spite of his busy extracurricular schedule, Balotelli has found the time to become one of the best young players in the league, scoring eight goals in 11 league games this season, good for third on the team. Balotelli comes from a famously rough background, born to Ghanaian parents who immigrated to Italy and put him up for foster care at the age of three, only to reappear in his life when it was clear his soccer talents were worth serious money. The kid deserves to have some fun now.
The good kind of American imperialism: Since the (not all that long ago) days of Joe-Max Moore at Everton and Brian McBribe at Fulham, American players have been fixtures in the Premier League. Tim Howard has turned himself into one of the best goalkeepers in the world at Everton. Brad Friedel, now 40, has shown no signs of slowing down at Tottenham. And Fulham's Clint Dempsey has emerged as one of the league's most consistent performers. There's also Zak Whitbread at Norwich City, and Stuart Holden, who could turn into one of Bolton's best players if he could escape injury. But more important to the future of U.S. soccer is that the emigration to the EPL is only increasing. Landon Donovan is on a two-month loan at Everton, defender Tim Ream figures to join Bolton in the next few days, and talented midfielder Brek Shea is all but begging to move to England after spending a month training with Arsenal. Keep on eye out for more American players moving to EPL clubs, especially now that Jurgen Klinsmann manages our national team. Klinsmann prefers to call up players from overseas. And there's no better overseas league than the Premiership.
Most compelling tactical change: This season, newly promoted Swansea City, the first Welsh side to compete in the Premiership, have brought tika taka, the fluent, short passing style perfected in Spain by players like Messi and Xavi, to the EPL. In so doing, Swansea have ushered in something of a tactical revolution in the physical, long-ball-happy world of English soccer. Without cash to spend on foreign talent, manager Brendan Rodgers assembled a Moneyball-esque group of cast-offs from bigger clubs and talented, if overlooked, players from the lower divisions of English soccer. The team is built around possession and passing, especially that of 5-foot-5-inch Leon Britton, who passes with greater accuracy than his world-famous counterpart in Barcelona, Xavi. Earlier this season, Rogers joked that "there was a better chance of seeing Elvis, or an alien" than Swansea remaining in the Premiership, but the Swans are currently in 10th place and all but guaranteed to survive relegation. This is a good thing for English soccer. And for all of us.
Simmering scandal: Racism has long been prevalent in English soccer, but recently, under international pressure, the wise old men of English soccer have begun cracking down, with controversial results. In December, the FA took the unprecedented step of suspending Liverpool's star striker Luis Suarez eight league matches for remarks he made on the pitch to Patrice Evra, a black Manchester United defender, and are investigating Chelsea captain John Terry for similar conduct. The next step the FA seems intent on taking will be to punish fans for bigoted chants and songs. One can only have sympathy for the guy who has to write a ticket to a group of intoxicated racists.