The 2015/16 season was one in which the traditional hierarchy of the Premier League was shaken up; not so long ago it was perm four out of a maximum of six for the top four and pick one of Chelsea, City or United for the title. However the under-performance of the traditional Premier League big guns, the development of Tottenham and the emergence of Leicester from nowhere to win the title completely disrupted the status quo.
Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea all have new managers in post and have spent huge sums so far, the £89m paid to re-sign Paul Pogba put United’s spending at £157 on transfer fees alone. Not to be outdone, United’s cross-city rivals have been far from shy in opening their cheque book to allow Pep Guardiola to add players he sees as upgrades on the squad he inherited; the addition of John Stones, the second most expensive British transfer in history, taking their spend north of £155m.
Chelsea by contrast have been relatively conservative, with ‘only’ £60m laid out so far on striker Michy Batshuayi from Marseille and N’Golo Kante from champions Leicester. Although with just under three weeks left to go and persistent rumours about a huge deal to re-sign Romelu Lukaku from Everton, it may be that they are yet to conclude their business.
If money is the solution to all of last season’s failings then it would seem that all three clubs have, at least on paper, pretty much bought their way back to the top of the League.
Chelsea’s shocking capitulation last season, resulting in Mourinho’s sacking in December, pointed to disharmony amongst the squad and a number of players either on their last legs or drastically under-performing. New manager Conte arrives fresh from an impressive performance in the Euros, with a strong track record, a shrewd organisational and tactical approach and an almost obsessive will to win. While he will feel the need to freshen the squad further with more additions from the transfer market and perhaps utilising some of the emerging youngsters largely ignored by his predecessor; it does feel that his impact might be more greatly felt in terms of re-organising the side and playing style and nurturing a return to a more solid defensive base.
The re-joining of the battle of the two highest-rated managers in world football in Manchester promises to be compelling and many, quite rightly, see the championship going to one of these two clubs; yet perhaps it is not quite as straightforward as it first appears.
For all United’s investment in their squad and Mourinho’s track record of hitting the ground running when joining a new club, the major issue for them last season was in scoring enough goals. The additions of Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan and the promise to play Wayne Rooney as a striker don’t necessarily guarantee an improvement on the pitiful 49 league goals scored last season; and may limit opportunities for exciting young forwards Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
While Man City finally got the manager they have been seeking for a number of years, Pep Guardiola joins the club in very different circumstances than when they first tried to attract him. It feels as if there is an over-reliance on Kompany and Aguero, both of whom have had significant problems with injuries which has almost inevitably impacted on City’s form. They of course still have the impressive DeBruyne and some interesting new additions to the squad, although it feels like the key for their chances may rest on what happens with Yaya Toure and David Silva; such important players in their recent title wins but the former is 33, in the last year of his contract and not the influence he once was; while the latter seems to have had less impact than when he first arrived, with perhaps the way the system and playing style have evolved not getting the best out of him.
Last season’s surprise champions Leicester have, so far, other than the loss of the highly impressive Kante, managed to keep their title-winning squad together, whether they can still do so as we enter silly-season in the transfer market is their first big test. Playing in the Champions League for the first time will provide an interesting challenge but it would seem unlikely that Ranieri’s men will be able to repeat the fairy tale of last season.
Tottenham will look to continue their progress and look to build on the best season they have had for decades, but their England representatives looked shot during the Euros; and this time they will also have to balance the demands of the Champions League which won’t allow the squad rotation they have generally used in the Europa League. It also as yet unclear what impact the cost of the redevelopment of their stadium will have on their recruitment strategy.
West Ham go into their new surroundings at the Olympic Stadium on the back of a really good season and it will be interesting to see if Slaven Bilic can continue the evolution of his side and make them contenders for the top places for a second season in a row.
Last weekend Liverpool dismantled Barcelona in what was by all accounts a highly impressive performance that carried the hallmark of Klopp’s work in pre-season; the key challenge for his side may well be one of stamina and whether they can maintain the intensity of their play across an entire Premier League season.
All of which brings us to Arsenal and an all too familiar scenario. Since the financial situation stabilised after the stadium move, there has been a feeling amongst us Gooners that we are only one or two world class additions away from challenging at the very top, and yet season upon season, glaring deficiencies in the team and squad are ignored and we are left ruing yet another missed opportunity. Last season being the case in point, where despite cash reserves of at least £150m and a title which turned out to be there for the taking; the manager and club’s decision not to add a single outfield player to a squad that had finished 12 points adrift of Chelsea the previous season and once again failed in Europe looks more and more bewildering.
Yet, despite even more cash in the bank, other than the addition of Granit Xhaka to bolster midfield options after the departure of 3 veteran players, we are going into the new season without having addressed the key failings in the team, namely the lack of a top class striker and the need for an improvement at centre back. The situation is compounded further by absences through injury and the extended breaks afforded to some players after their success in the summer’s international tournaments. A full analysis of Arsenal’s seemingly unfathomable approach to the transfer market is something that I will keep on hold until this transfer window has closed; but it is difficult to foresee anything other than a poor start due to a depleted squad and a desperate post-Christmas push for Champions League qualification; although this time I fear could be the time that we miss out.
If I were a betting man I would say that this season’s champions will come from one of United or City, although with Chelsea being free of European competition they will be somewhere near the mix and should secure a return to the Champions League. In terms of the other top four place I would see that as a straight fight between Leicester, West Ham, Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal although it will be interesting to see if Everton under Koeman and with their newly invested wealth can join the fight.