With the Premier League returning throughout this weekend, I explain who I believe will be in the reckoning for the title, Europe and those who will be fighting to beat the drop.
After Liverpool ended their 30-year wait for a title, despite a three-month wait due to the league’s suspension, the impetus will be on them to see if they can retain their crown. Despite achieving 99 points, the second-highest points tally in Premier League history, there are questions as to whether their squad will have enough depth to compete with a Manchester City side reprieved of any Financial Fair Play misconduct and a Chelsea side revitalised by a strong transfer window. It has long been accepted that Liverpool could not compete in the transfer market in the same way as these clubs, but this has been balanced by some quite brilliant football over the last 2-and-a-half years under Jurgen Klopp. Liverpool are certainly not outsiders to retain the title, but supporters will be anxious to see incoming signings that will strengthen the squad should any of Liverpool’s star players fall foul of a long term injury, something that has perhaps not impacted them as it has other clubs.
For their title rivals of the last 2 years, Manchester City, this will be a chance to banish any demons of last season, where they finished second, 18 points behind Liverpool and were knocked out in the semi-finals of the FA Cup to Arsenal. Any hope of winning their maiden European crown was lost in a 3-1 defeat to Lyon in the Champions League Quarter Finals and there has been some criticism of manager Pep Guardiola’s tactical arrogance in the latter stages of knockout competitions. However, they have strengthened both defence and attack with the signings of Nathan Ake (Bournemouth) and Ferran Torres (Valencia). Despite the loss of David Silva, whose contract expired at the end of last season, City are still well-placed to take the title off Liverpool.
Chelsea have made the strongest statement in the weeks leading up to the new season with their busy summer transfer window. No longer restricted by a transfer ban, manager Frank Lampard has spent over £200million on signings, including the most recent purchase of German playmaker Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen) in a transfer estimated to be in the region of around £70 million. This has followed the signings of left-Back Ben Chilwell (Leicester) for a reported £50 million and prolific forward Timo Werner from RB Leipzig. The west London club have also bolstered their central defensive options, by securing the signature of former Brazilian captain Thiago Silva from PSG on a free transfer. This may resolve an issue that plagued Lampard last season as he seemed unable to settle on a consistent back line. Whilst questions may remain on their goalkeeping issues and whether so many new signings can gel quick enough to mount a title challenge, they are expected to run Liverpool and City much closer than they did.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) September 4, 2020
The Race for Europe
I expect Manchester United to take the final top-4 spot alongside the three teams who I believe are the main title challengers. They have a potent enough attack in Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford to beat most mid-table teams. The signing of Donny Van De Beek is thought to bring an extra ounce of creativity to their midfield alongside Bruno Fernandes who has been a revelation since he joined the club in January. However, to win the title I think is a step too far for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team. The signing of Jadon Sancho appears no closer at the time of writing and they face the same issue that Chelsea have in that their central defensive options appear to be weak, a problem that has yet to be addressed so far. If those signings are made however, they might not be as far from returning to the top as one may think.
The battle for North London supremacy rages on, with Arsenal holding the trump card currently due to their successes in winning the FA Cup and Community Shield since football restarted after the Covid-19 suspension. Arsenal look a far more organised side under Mikel Arteta and possess one of the world’s top forward players in Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. For them to have any chance of making the top 4 again – and on a consistent basis – they must ensure he signs a new contract. The new signings of Willian and Gabriel however is evidence of strength in depth in certain positions.
Tottenham, embarking on their first full season under Jose Mourinho have also not stood completely still in the transfer market. Matt Doherty and Pierre-Emile Hojberg, signed from Wolves and Southampton respectively, may seem like solid signings but are perhaps indicative of the problems that Tottenham face compared to the teams around them. Club-record signing Tanguy Ndombele appears to have fallen out of favour with the manager and this is only the club’s second full year in their new stadium. Spurs, along with Liverpool, also faced heavy backlash from supporters after they announced that they would take part in the government’s furlough scheme, underlying some of the difficulties that Daniel Levy may have in justifying big money moves that Spurs fans desire. Long injury layoffs to vital forward players Harry Kane and Son Heung Min is also an issue the club could do without this season as Spurs look blunt in attack without them. They will challenge for the Champions League spots, but they look a fair way off the side that finished second and third in the league and reached a European final a little over a year ago.
Wolves, Leicester and Everton are the teams that would be expected to give the so called ‘Big 6’ a run for their money. Wolves and Leicester indeed can feel aggrieved that they missed out on Europe and the Champions League respectively after some disappointing end of season results. Leicester, who at one point were 15 points clear of Manchester United, dropped points away at both Watford and Bournemouth, both of whom would go on to be relegated. Wolves, whose season totalled over 365 days due to the Coronavirus went on to lose out on European football altogether, finishing 7th in the League and being knocked out of the Europa League in the Quarter-Finals. They now face a battle to keep starts Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore, both of whom enjoyed stellar campaigns and have attracted interest from some of the top clubs in the land. Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton failed to impress last season despite a sound squad and are a long way off European Qualification realistically. The signing of Allan from Napoli may bring more control to a midfield that is often overrun and the loan singing of James Rodriguez will bring a new dimension to their attack, but they are fighting a long battle to regain the consistency that had under David Moyes almost a decade ago now.
The Best of the Rest
For Newcastle and West Ham, the animosity between fans and the board is showing no sign of ending. A failed takeover bid from Saudi Investors has fallen through for the Magpies, whilst West Ham supporters are also furious with their owners for their apparent lack of ambition in the transfer market after promising that the club would be challenging for European football after their move to the Olympic Stadium in 2016. Captain Mark Noble took to twitter to express his own personal disappointment at the club’s decision to offload promising youngster Grady Diang to West Bromwich Albion.
Southampton are looking to continue their own revival. From looking likely to be relegation fodder after their embarrassing 9-0 defeat at home, they finished the season strongly and ended up with the third best away record in the division after Champions Liverpool and Runners-Up Manchester City. They will hope that Danny Ings has yet another stellar season following his call up to the national side.
The remaining clubs from last season will be looking for further signs that they can not only cement a mid-table place but can maybe look to break into the top half. Sheffield United and Burnley have both done so in the past few seasons, but will they be able to perform as consistently? Crystal Palace can be considered to have somewhat under achieved with the talent they possess, and Brighton and Aston Villa will be desperate to survive another season. The latter must keep hold of captain Jack Grealish if they are to have any hope of remaining in the top flight.
The New Boys
Leeds are back in the Premier League after a 16-year absence and have already stated the case that they are not intending to fall straight back into the football league. A club-record singing in Rodrigo is set to add extra firepower to Leeds’s attack that sometimes struggled at home in their memorable Championship title winning campaign.
West Brom’s return was of little surprise given their consistency over 2 years back in the Championship after their relegation at the end of the 2017/18 season. Their team arguably however does lack the quality one would expect to survive but in Charlie Austin they do have a forward with experience in the top flight.
Fulham must not make the same mistakes that they did when the club was last promoted in 2018. Manager Scott Parker has seemingly steadied the ship in this respect and has added Mario Lemina and Alphonse Areola to his ranks as the club look to return to where they were a decade ago when they reached the Europa League final under Roy Hodgson.
With a month’s delay on the usual start time (admittedly due to various competitions that were still ongoing due to coronavirus) it promises to be another excellent season of Premier League football.