The disturbing truth is the very biggest stars – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, now Neymar and Edinson Cavani – are elsewhere
For any football fan expecting to find a wind of change blowing through the new Premier League season, which kicks off at Anfield at lunchtime on Saturday, David Moyes had a message this week. His claim that the fixture list has clearly been rigged in order to handicap Manchester United carried the unmistakable echo of a familiar Glaswegian snarl.
Behind the league's polite dismissal of the new United manager's accusation could be detected a sigh of recognition that while Moyes undoubtedly has his own ideas about his team's formation on the pitch, there will be no change in Old Trafford's approach to the task of taking on the world.
Roberto Mancini's abrasive style of man-management may have been supplanted at Manchester City by the more emollient methods of Manuel Pellegrini, but Moyes has begun life in his new home by emulating his own predecessor's approach. Now we can be certain that he has no plans to meet the challenge of replacing the man who controlled the narrative of the Premier League for more than 20 years by making nice.
There is one difference. Whereas rage reddened Sir Alex Ferguson's face, anger drains the blood from Moyes's countenance. But the glare of his pale blue eyes carries the same message. If you are not with the defending champions, you are against them. No change there, as the top tier of England's match officials will soon discover.
If he has had time to make his way through the 700 pages of David Peace's much discussed Red or Dead, the big football book of the summer, Moyes will know that the job is not necessarily an impossible one. Replacing Don Revie at Leeds or Brian Clough at Forest proved too much for any number of candidates, but the arguably bigger demand to build on the foundations laid by Bill Shankly at Liverpool was answered in full by Bob Paisley.
The job of following Ferguson's 26-year reign is a different order of magnitude again, and Moyes's arrival from Everton was carefully plotted. Nevertheless fingers will be crossed at Old Trafford that a rocket-assisted start to José Mourinho's second coming at Chelsea does not leave United regretting that they declined to respond to the Portuguese provocateur's overtures.
Like all his direct rivals except Pellegrini, Moyes has endured a difficult summer in which agents controlled the news agenda and the message behind the headlines seemed to be at odds with the Premier League's belief in its own global pre-eminence. United failed to lure Cesc Fábregas from Barcelona and face a battle to keep a disaffected Wayne Rooney. As Moyes contemplates a late bid to strengthen his lacklustre midfield by bringing Marouane Fellaini from his old club, he might also be wondering if Ferguson could have done more to keep the French prodigy Paul Pogba, now starring at Juventus and voted the player of the tournament after captaining his country to victory in the recent Fifa Under-20 World Cup.
Elsewhere, Chelsea could not land Radamel Falcao while Arsenal missed out on various important targets, including Gonzalo Higuaín – who rubbed salt into the wound by scoring one goal and making the other in Argentina's 2-1 win in Italy this week – and Luiz Gustavo, who preferred a move to Wolfsburg. Tottenham Hotpsur are in a standoff with Gareth Bale and Liverpool have been at war with Luis Suárez.
Among a flood of fresh faces from foreign lands, some will make an impact. It could be Jesús Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic or Fernandinho at Manchester City, André Schürrle at Chelsea, Roberto Soldado or Paulinho at Tottenham, Iago Aspas at Liverpool, Victor Wanyama at Southampton, Wilfried Bony at Swansea, Diego Lugano at West Brom, Gary Medel at Cardiff, or Jozy Altidore – scorer of a hat-trick on Wednesday as the USA came back to beat Bosnia and Herzegovina 4-3 in Sarajevo – at Sunderland.
But here is the true reality check: no English club could compete with Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco for the services of the three forwards who were this summer's biggest transfer targets. A couple of years ago, at least two of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Falcao might have been expected to be heading for the Premier League, unable to resist the lure of the money and the worldwide platform.
No amount of pre-season television appearances by Richard Scudamore, publicising the league's annual £1.9bn turnover, can disguise the disturbing truth that the very biggest stars – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, now Neymar and Cavani, even Carlos Tevez, who left the Etihad for Juventus – are elsewhere. It is impossible not to correlate this phenomenon with the failure last winter of any of England's four Champions League contenders to make it beyond the last 16.
The reliable weapon with which the Premier League will fight back is the guarantee that a high proportion of its games will deliver genuine excitement. And at least Wednesday's international match at Wembley did not throw a pall of depression over the start of the domestic season, although it would be accurate to say England's 3-2 victory over Scotland was "watchable" in the sense that a £7 bottle of Pinot Grigio from the corner shop is "drinkable".
Roy Hodgson's innate decency renders him almost immune to the sort of media treatment that has turned English football into an unending soap opera, but his team's uncertain prospects of qualifying for next summer's World Cup in Brazil will cast a shadow over the coming months, and failure would be hard even for the Premier League to ignore. The scarcity of available talent would come under further scrutiny, and some respected names are already making calls for a quota system. Few English names have featured in the daily transfer round-ups, with those moving clubs – such as Tom Huddlestone (Spurs to Hull) and Kevin Phillips (Blackpool to Crystal Palace) – generally on the downslope of their careers.
Upheavals on the managerial and playing sides are mirrored in the boardrooms. There are new owners – new to the Premier League, like Cardiff's Vincent Tan of Malaysia or Hull City's Egyptian-born Assem Allam, or new to English football altogether, like Shahid Khan, the Pakistani-born American billionaire who paid £200m to take over at Fulham. Khan's arrival enabled Mohamed Al Fayed, English football's first significant foreign owner, to step aside after 16 years of almost wholly beneficial ownership – ignoring the Michael Jackson statue, of course.
Where Tan changed the Bluebirds to Reds and Allam has officially rechristened his team the Tigers, Khan proclaimed: "Anything historical I have absolutely no intention of interfering with." His manager, Martin Jol, quickly honoured the club's tradition of eccentricity by acquiring Adel Taarabt on a season-long loan, a reminder that George Best and Rodney Marsh briefly graced Craven Cottage.
While the thought of Taarabt, Dimitar Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz in the same side is enough to turn an optimist's footsteps in the direction of the Fulham Palace Road, there are more urgent questions. Will Pellegrini, the Premier League's first Chilean manager, recapture the title for City after taking steps – according to Joleon Lescott – to improve his squad's physical condition? Now that Mourinho is no longer either lean or hungry, can he still cast a spell over the Chelsea dressing room? Are Arsène Wenger, beginning his 18th season at Arsenal, and Brendan Rodgers, in his second at Liverpool, finally about to reverse slow decline? Will André Villas-Boas's tactics be easier to implement with new faces instead of Bale at White Hart Lane?
And the questions don't stop there. Is Mark Hughes the man to regain the goodwill forfeited by Tony Pulis's approach at Stoke City? Can Sam Allardyce resurrect the career of the wayward Ravel Morrison, once Old Trafford's most promising junior since Paul Scholes? After his heroics with Wigan, is Roberto Martínez the man for a bigger job at Everton? Is steady progress the best Chris Hughton, Paul Lambert and Steve Clarke can hope for at Norwich, Aston Villa and West Brom? Are Swansea's Michael Laudrup and Southampton's Mauricio Pochettino candidates for a second-season slump? Will Alan Pardew steady Newcastle's ship while Paolo Di Canio sets Sunderland ablaze? And which of the promoted clubs will still be bright-eyed in 12 months' time?
All that and a light reshuffle on the Match of the Day sofa, too, presumably in response to the threat posed by the newcomers from BT. Inside the studio and out in the stadiums, the next eight months will decide whether fresh air is really being introduced, or the same stale fumes merely recirculated.