It is impossible to dispute the quality of last season’s Premier League title race as Manchester City and Liverpool dominated the season with relentless consistency, both garnering staggering points hauls. However the ongoing arm-wrestle between them somewhat overshadowed just how far ahead they were of the rest of the field, the 25 point difference to third place more of a chasm than a mere gap.
Increasingly it feels like City – Liverpool is developing into a modern day rivalry in the same way that Manchester United – Arsenal and then Manchester United – Chelsea used to be in recent decades. Even before a ball has been kicked in anger, it is hard to make a case for anyone other than either of those two being crowned champions come May.
Can the Reds do it again?
Liverpool despite having been good enough last season to have won the title in all but 3 of the 119 previous seasons, have been remarkably quiet in the transfer market this time around, perhaps believing that they addressed their key issues through the purchases of Virgil Van Dijk and keeper Alisson in the last two transfer windows.
As the freshly crowned European Champions, Jürgen Klopp’s men are now starting to deliver on the potential and promise they have shown ever since the charismatic German’s arrival nearly four years ago, the only question hanging over them is whether they will be able to lift themselves and go again and match what was an almost perfect season? A lot will once again depend on whether their effervescent attacking trident of Firmino, Salah and Mané will be able to match their staggering goals output of the past two seasons.
City finally get support/ a future replacement for Fernandinho.
City won out in the end last season by holding their nerve in the pressurised run in, last dropping at Newcastle at the end of January and then reeling off a run of fourteen consecutive victories. If Pep Guardiola’s side are to become only the fifth side in English football history to win three consecutive league titles then, even before the season starts, it feels very much as if they may have to achieve another points haul of the ilk of the 100 in 2017/18 and the 98 in 20018/19.
The addition of defensive midfielder Rodri early in the summer seems to be a typically shrewd piece of business and addresses perhaps the one weakness in the squad by finding a player to share the workload in the engine room with Fernandinho and perhaps to even replace him in the future.
Where Pep Guardiola’s side, and indeed the manager himself since leaving Barcelona, have under-delivered has been the Champions League. It was a thinly-veiled intention that the Catalan was brought into the club to establish City on the European stage; yet each campaign under him has seen elimination before the semi-finals. If City focus their efforts on that competition might it open the door for Liverpool?
A Legend returns but has little option but to stick with what he has.
Chelsea the ‘closest’ challengers last time out have once again dispensed with a coach after a relatively successful season, with Maurizio Sarri being relieved of his duties despite returning the Blues to the Champions League and wining the Europa League. All through the season it seemed that Sarri’s face didn’t really fit, the Stamford Bridge faithful never really warmed to him and tangibly turned against him as results started to fall away during the winter, most notably after the 6-0 humbling at the Etihad.
In an unusual, but hardly unexpected, move Roman Abramovich has turned to former club playing star and relative management rookie, Frank Lampard, rather than the latest continental flavour-of-the-month, as Sarri’s successor. It seems to be accepted wisdom that Lampard has all the attributes and familial pedigree to develop into a high quality coach but after just one season with Derby, is he truly ready for management at the very highest level?
Chelsea face some significant challenges this season, not least of which is the inhibiting two window transfer embargo which will necessitate Lampard working with what he has got, save for the incoming young USA star Christian Pulisic, signed in January perhaps in anticipation of the impending ban.
Equally, Chelsea’s best player and talisman over the past few seasons, Eden Hazard, will be plying his trade at the Bernabeu next season after his big money move, is Pulisic of sufficient quality to replace the Belgian?
On a plus for Lampard and Chelsea is the continued emergence of some exciting young talent such as Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek as well as two players that Lampard had on loan at Derby in Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori. Moulding these players into a squad in need of refreshment could well be the key to determining Lampard’s success.
What now for Tottenham?
Tottenham came oh so close to breaking their manager’s silverware duck last season by reaching the Champions League Final but that run masked some ropey domestic form in which they won three of their final twelve league games. Despite having established themselves as a regular part of the top four, Spurs’ points returns have actually been diminishing since 2016/17, arguably when they were at their peak.
In response to manager Mauricio Pochettino’s call to the hierarchy to “act like a big club” Spurs have brought in two players focused on bolstering their midfield in: club record signing Tanguy Ndombele to replace Mousa Dembélé and, initially on loan, Giovani Lo Celso. They also brought in exciting wide option Ryan Sessegnon from Fulham having lost Kieran Trippier to Atlético Madrid. It remains to be seen however if those additions will be enough to see them close the gap on Liverpool and City.
Maybe Arsenal really did have a plan after all!
The apathy that has engulfed the Arsenal fanbase (yours truly most definitely included!) since spectacularly messing up a glorious opportunity to return to the Champions League thanks to some woeful end of season form, followed by the pitiful capitulation in Baku alongside reported budget constraints, saw leading supporters groups and spokespeople questioning the ownership’s ambitions (or lack thereof!) for the club.
Speaking at the end of last season Head of Football Raul Sanllehi suggested that in order to ensure Arsenal compete going forward he had “a very good plan” to endeavour to beat the market. Arsenal fans, used to so much rhetoric from our now departed Chief Executive, Ivan Gazidis, reserved judgement until we actually saw some tangible actions.
Restricted by a limited budget of a reported £40-£45 million, Sanllehi has pulled off a series of moves that have left us both intrigued and enthused. In came young Brazilian prospect Gabriel Martinelli, highly rated Real Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos on loan as a replacement for Aaron Ramsey, and an exciting winger with genuine end product in terms of goals and assists in the form of Nicolas Pepe from Lille. The signing and loaning back to Saint-Étienne of William Saliba clearly an investment for the future.
Then yesterday on Deadline Day the two defenders we knew we needed were unveiled: left-back Kieran Tierney from Celtic, and almost completely out of nowhere David Luiz from Chelsea. Essentially Sanllehi and Arsenal have addressed clear weaknesses in the squad, although the prospect of Luiz teaming up with the hapless Skrodan Mustafi in the centre of our defence in a game of real significance is enough to instil a foreboding sense of sheer panic in even the most optimistic of Gooners!
Alex Iwobi was somewhat surprisingly sold to Everton but it is a sale that makes sense due to the continuing top-heavy feel to the squad, the presence of more effective options with better end product, and the need to start to recoup some of the outlay in this window. It may well be the case that others judged surplus to requirements leave in the remainder of the transfer window for destinations outside of England.
The Gunners remain very much a work in progress but the new recruits combined with the arrival over the last eighteen months of Aubameyang, Leno, Torreira, Guendouzi and Sokratis and some exciting youngsters emerging from the Academy give the side and squad a very different look than in the final season under Arsène Wenger.
A real challenge for the title is probably still beyond Arsenal this season but they look equipped enough to compete for a Champions League spot whether through the League or once again as one of the big fish in the Europa League. Should Unai Emery not deliver that I for one suspect he might be seeking alternate employment this time next year.
But do Manchester United?
Ever since Sir Alex called it a day six seasons ago, Manchester United seem to have been stuck in a perpetual cycle of ill-conceived recruitment, underwhelming seasons and managerial changes of plan. As funny as it is for those of us who were tortured by Fergie’s seemingly never-ceasing success, it is difficult to see any clear plan at Old Trafford. Even the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer seems to have been an impulsive reaction based on a short period of positive results.
The recruitment of the world’s most expensive defender, Harry Maguire, will strengthen the rear-guard and Aaron Wan-Bissaka will add pace and width on the right. However once again we find ourselves in will-he-won’t-he territory with enigmatic midfielder Paul Pogba, with the window still open for sales to Spain, Italy and France he may even end up departing this time without United being able to bring in a replacement.
Romelu Lukaku may not have quite delivered as his price tag suggested he should for United but he was nevertheless their top scorer again last season and it must be questioned whether Rashford and Martial will be able to replace his output.
This season looks like shaping up very much as last season did, the title will be decided by whether Liverpool have enough to match Manchester City again while Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and probably United will battle it out for the other two Champions League places.
What about the best of the rest?
Wolves impressed last time out, finishing seventh, especially considering it was their first campaign back in the top flight, but the potentially increased workload should they make it through to the group stages and a relatively small squad may stretch them too thin.
Everton lost key man Idrissa Gueye to PSG but have splashed the cash again bringing in Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Fabian Delph, Moise Kean and Alex Iwobi as well as making André Gomes’ loan move permanent. Once again it feels as if consistency will be the key to determining whether the Toffees can push towards Europa League qualification.
The same is probably true of West Ham who finished last season just five points behind Wolves and have spent a reported £77 million on players at the sharp end of the team in strikers Sébastien Haller and Albian Ajeti and attacking midfielder Pablo Fornals and will welcome back from injury Manuel Lanzini and Andriy Yarmolenko, but will they have enough to push on from last season’s decent finish?
Leicester have been building another capable squad for the past couple of seasons and have added Ayoze Pérez to give some much needed support to Jamie Vardy. However the loss of Harry Maguire might be massive and it will be how they come to terms with that that will determine their fortunes.