The Premier League is back tonight!
Teams have had a slightly frantic preseason. The decision to close the transfer window pre-season was only a good idea if a) other European leagues followed suit, which they didn’t, meaning teams can sign from Premier League teams who then can't replace those players or b) it wasn't a World Cup year, as a lot of players either had a short pre-season or haven’t had one at all and teams have brought players in at the last minute, meaning that a lot of squads will be a bit under-cooked at the start of the season.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as though the title race will be much of a race this season.
History suggests it’s hard to defend a title; Manchester United in 08/09 were the last team to manage it. But, last season’s City team were so dominant; easily winning the league, gaining 100 points and scoring over 100 goals along the way, that it looks like they're going to do it again.
An already strong team has added Riyad Mahrez to their squad, which gives them even more attacking firepower. They looked really good against Chelsea in the Community Shield and something dramatic would have to happen for anyone to even give them a serious challenge, let alone beat them to the title.
Liverpool have strengthened. They’ll hope Alisson will be the elite goalkeeper they’ve lacked for a long time. Naby Keita and Fabinho will make the midfield better and Xherdan Shaqiri was an excellent signing for a relatively low fee.
But, have they strengthened enough to bridge a 25-point gap? I don’t think so.
Liverpool will see teams trying to stop them by throwing men behind the ball a lot this season and I don’t think they have the creative midfielder to unlock a defence. Philippe Coutinho still hasn’t been replaced. Liverpool looked to sign Nabil Fekir to fill that role, but after he failed a medical, they curiously decided not to try and sign anyone else in that position. They’ll be relying on Adam Lallana for midfield creativity, but he’s flattered to deceive his entire Liverpool career and only boasts one goal and no assists in his last 18 months.
I think it will be a lack of depth that may undo Liverpool. In order to challenge for the league, you need to have two good players in every position. Liverpool don’t have that. If anything happens to Alisson, or to one or more of Mane, Salah or Firmino, Liverpool will struggle to cope.
Spurs became the first team since the summer transfer window was introduced to not sign anyone. They didn’t lose anyone of note either, so they’ll be going into the season with the same side as last season.
It’s a bold move, and they're still a very good team; but, I can’t see how Spurs will be able to come close to a City team that were streets ahead of them last season.
With Manchester United, it’s not on the pitch where they’ll be interesting, it’s off of it. Jose Mourinho is starting his third season as manager, and that’s normally where the wheels come off for him.
He’s spent the pre-season publicly moaning about Manchester United’s transfer activity, or in his opinion, lack of it. He’s been throwing his own players under the bus after disappointing results in friendlies. It seems like the club hierarchy are getting tired of his negative demeanour and are expecting him to do more with the players he already has at his disposal rather than going out and spending big every time he wants them to.
The fans are getting restless too. While the team’s results are good; United were second in the table last year, the performances are not. Manchester United were always a team that played with style and panache. The players they have are much better than the stultifying way Mourinho has them playing.
Usually, finishing second in the league gives reason for optimism for the following season. For Manchester United, the opposite is true. They’ve got a cranky-at-the-best-of-times manager even more pissed off that he hasn’t got his own way and a squad that’s been demoralised by their manager throwing them under the bus.
It’s still likely that they’ll make the top 4, but Mourinho seems to have given up on winning the title before the first ball has been kicked.
Looking to get back into the top 4 will be Chelsea. They changed manager over the summer with Maurizio Sarri replacing Antonio Conte. Chelsea were another team that were quiet on the transfer front until the last few days when Thibaut Courtois forced their hand by refusing to come back. Chelsea paid a world-record fee for Kepa Arrizabalaga to replace Courtois, and as part of the sale of Courtois to Real Madrid, got Mateo Kovacic on loan, which accompanied by the earlier signing of Jorginho from Napoli makes for a good, solid set of transfers.
Sarri did an excellent job of getting the best out of his players at Napoli, and Chelsea will hope that he’ll do the same there and get players like Alvaro Morata playing to their potential. Chelsea do look a bit light on numbers up front, which makes the decision to allow Michy Batshuayi to go on loan to Valencia seem strange.
Chelsea will be one of those teams sweating for the remainder of the European transfer window as there have been persistent rumours of Eden Hazard leaving all summer. Should Hazard stay, Chelsea have a good chance of making the top 4; should he go, they likely won’t.
Arsenal begin life after Arsene Wenger with Unai Emery in charge. They’ve actually built what looks to be an excellent attacking team, and Lucas Torreira should add more stability in the midfield, but the defence, which was a shambles at times last season doesn’t look too much better.
Bernd Leno combined excellent saves with a load of errors in the Bundesliga. Sokratis Papastathopoulos is a good defender, but one that’s been injured a lot and Stephan Lichtsteiner is 34-years old.
Arsenal this season may be a bit like the Liverpool team of two years ago, where electric attacking play could be combined with calamitous defending. Either way, they should be a fun team to watch, and could maybe pinch a top 4 spot if some of the other teams are slightly below their best.
Other than that, the team to keep an eye on will be newly-promoted Wolves. Backed by a Chinese billionaire and with super-agent Jorge Mendes acting as a consultant for the club, Wolves have been able to sign some top-level players for this season. Look out for Adama Traore, a player who is superb at dribbling the ball.
Rather than merely looking to survive, as many newly promoted teams do, Wolves will be looking to break into the top six, and have the player to be able to do it. The only question mark will be over how quickly that team manages to gel.
The relegation battle will be much more closely contested. I can see about 7 or 8 teams in a relegation fight this year.
Cardiff came up last season, and teams have managed to overcome a talent gap with good coaching before, and Neil Warnock is certainly a wily enough coach to be able to find ways to win, but I don’t think they’ve improved the team enough to be able to stay up.
Huddersfield were one of those teams that stayed up thanks largely to the efforts of their coach, with the team only scoring 28 goals. I think this season may prove to be too much for them as other teams around them have just strengthened more.
Southampton were somewhat lucky to stay up last season and sort of fell over the finishing line. They’ve paid for some recruiting mistakes in terms of both players and coaches. I’m not convinced Mark Hughes is the right man for them, and I’m also not convinced that they’ve got enough goals in them, even with the late signing of Danny Ings from Liverpool, to be able to avoid another relegation battle.
Newcastle played last season with a Championship-level squad and it speaks volumes about the coaching ability of Rafa Benitez that they avoided relegation, let alone finished in tenth. Despite promises to the contrary, owner Mike Ashley hasn’t given them money to spend this summer. The squad looks woeful on paper and they’re lucky that Benitez hasn’t walked out. This may be a tough season for Newcastle, which will only get worse if Benitez goes, as the fans have threatened to mutiny if he does.
Watford are another team that look really short on quality this year. Last year their survival owed a lot to a great start to the season where they got a lot of points on the board early before they fell away. They’re also a team that aren’t slow in getting rid of a manager, so Javi Gracia may be gone quite quickly if things aren’t going well.
Brighton somewhat unexpectedly stayed up last season despite having a horrendous winless run of 20 games. They’ve made a lot of signings this summer, but time will tell if they were the right ones. They finished the season strongly and managed to stay up, but may struggle to repeat that trick this year.
Bournemouth were another team whose survival was less to do with their own skill and more to do with others being even worse. Their transfer activity has been limited and they’re another team that are lacking the goals to get them out of trouble. Eddie Howe has done a remarkable job keeping them up thus far, but will this be one season too far?
Finally, Burnley, despite finishing a very impressive seventh last year could find themselves dragged into a relegation battle. It’s somewhat cruel that their reward for a good season, qualification for the Europa League, may be what puts them in trouble in the Premier League.
Burnley don’t have a big squad and the extra games of the Europa League, should they win their qualifier, will put a lot of strain on those players. Burnley haven’t made any significant additions to the team this year and have done nothing to address their lack of goalscoring.
Last season’s league position owed a lot to their defence. Burnley only scored 36 goals in 38 games, but only conceded 39. If they can’t repeat those defensive heroics, Burnley could be in a lot of trouble.