As brilliant as Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool were right up to their sealing of the title with seven games still to play, and as much as we expect Manchester City to bounce back and target regaining their status as champions, even without the acquisition of a certain Argentinian megastar, would it be right to suggest that this time out things may be a little more competitive at the very top of the Premier League table?
Inescapably, the ongoing impact of the Coronavirus pandemic is bound to have an influence on teams’ readiness for the new season. Where previously (the old normal?) the summer had a definitive pattern: players’ holidays, pre-season fitness work, friendlies, commercially-focused tours, the ongoing hoopla of the transfer window etc. This time out things feel very different, already champions Liverpool met FA Cup winners Arsenal in the Community Shield just four weeks after the FA Cup final, while that match is essentially a glorified friendly it still felt very early in the grand scheme of things. It feels very much as if the 2020/21 season is more like a continuation of the last one than something new in its own right.
The majority of the clubs returned to training just a couple of weeks ago, a mere month after the culmination of the previous campaign. Is that sufficient time to (re)prepare properly, never mind the fact that last weekend and this week saw an International break in order to fit in the nonsensical Nations League in Europe? If ever there was a competition ripe for being jettisoned…
Despite some clubs finding the ability to spend big even before the season actually ended, which saw Chelsea pick up Timo Werner, denying Red Bull Leipzig the 32 goals and 10 assists he had contributed up until lockdown from the final stages of their Champions League bid, the transfer market has remained somewhat depressed so far. In addition to Werner, Chelsea have also spent big on Hakim Ziyech, Ben Chilwell and Kai Havertz but their statement of intent during this window stands as something of an outlier thus far. Although Manchester City acquiring Nathan Ake as the presumably long-overdue replacement for Vincent Kompany and their cross-city rivals United bringing in Donny van de Beek from Ajax suggest that the big guns have money at the ready if players are available to potentially solve identified deficiencies.
The big unknown of course is the ongoing impact on clubs’ finances of games being played behind closed doors until at least October and then, assuming there isn’t another full lockdown which is by no means guaranteed given the rise in Coronavirus cases in the UK and beyond, significantly limited numbers for the foreseeable future. Can clubs other than those with huge financial reserves, either their own or from an uber-wealthy owner, really afford to chance their arm by looking to invest now without guaranteed future income? Although Everton, a club that reported a loss of £112 million in 2019/20 and who boast(sic) the highest wages-to-turnover ratio (at a scarcely believable 85%) of any of the 20 wealthiest clubs by revenue in world football, splurging north of £60 million on Abdoulaye Doucoure, Allan and James Rodriguez suggests that some may think they can.
In addition, with the transfer window not set to close until the first week in October, a full four rounds of matches into the Premier League campaign, teams may be starting the season with less than ideal squads and there may be some movement and disruption of squad-building plans for the first month of the campaign.
During Project Restart one of the fears of the new reality was that home team advantage would be eradicated by not having fans in the grounds. While there was no real hard evidence to support this assertion, in fact a study in the Financial Times last July found that: “if anything, home teams are performing better than before the pandemic, in terms of points gained, wins and goal difference”, at least in the Premier League as the findings across the major European Leagues were that in Germany and Spain in particular the advantage of being at home had in fact shrunk. That was admittedly across a relatively small sample size in comparison to a full season, but if there is an impact, even for the better, that could potentially influence the league table.
If we assume that the findings from the study are in fact correct and home sides will perform better in terms of the points picked up and goals scored that could potentially even the race to a degree. A key feature of the last two title races has been the sheer relentlessness of the two front runners with Manchester City and Liverpool failing to win a grand total of only 32 out of their combined 152 matches, might whoever is in the battle for the title drop more points away from home and thereby reduce the gap to the chasing pack this time around?
Beyond lockdown restrictions and the associated financial impact on football, the continuing presence of the virus itself brings with it other potential issues. Already this week we have had reports of Riyad Mahrez and Aymeric Laporte testing positive for Covid-19 and entering periods of self-isolation, while Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were sent home from England duty for what was officially described as “breaching quarantine rules”. While no one can condone the latter pair’s breach of protocol, how many more players might be ruled out of matches for either testing positive or breaching social-distancing rules? What would happen if a number of players, or even a whole squad has to self-isolate? Further considerations on top of the increased risk of injuries from playing games in a shortened time frame.
As a result of all of these issues and the tight turnaround between seasons it is actually difficult to know what to expect from the upcoming season. Logic would tell us that Liverpool and Manchester City aren’t likely to get worse, although there is some apprehension amongst the Anfield faithful that Klopp’s brilliant side may have peaked and that they may not be quite able to sustain the level of excellence they have reached for a third straight season.
As alluded to earlier, City for their part will presumably be going all guns blazing to not only regain their domestic crown but also to finally establish themselves amongst the European elite by finding a way to overcome their Champions League knock-out phase failings.
Manchester United and Chelsea both finished some 33 points behind the champions, but both seem to be continuing their resurgence under club legend managers. United looked like a much more cohesive unit once the exciting creative spark Bruno Fernandes joined in January, as demonstrated by their 13-match unbeaten run to end the last campaign and will be aiming to continue on that upward trajectory. Donny van de Beek should add further midfield creativity to a team that was sorely lacking it over the first part of last season.
Chelsea for their part are making full use of the end of their transfer ban and Frank Lampard can’t say he is being backed by Mr Abramovich’s wallet. However, while they now boast a potentially daunting frontline of: Pulisic, Werner and Ziyech, it was at the back were they were weak last time out. Will the addition of veteran Brazilian centre back Thiago Silva, who turns 36 this September, be sufficient to improve a rear-guard that conceded a whopping 54 goals in the league? They also don’t as yet seem to have solved their issue between the sticks with the world’s most expensive goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga seemingly not trusted by Lampard and as yet no sign of a new recruit.
North London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham for the most part had seasons to forget, both opting to change managers in late 2019. Although Spurs rallied to secure Europa League qualification, albeit through the qualifying phases which will see them having to play three one-off matches just to reach the group stages the first of these coming against the ‘might’ of Lokomotiv Plovdiv of Bulgaria next week, assuming of course that UK travel restrictions don’t see them forfeit their place in the competition. The feeling at Tottenham still seems to be very much that José Mourinho isn’t at Spurs for the long term and instead his job is to lead them back to the Champions League and perhaps more importantly to secure a trophy for the first time in 12 years, which is presumably why he replaced Mauricio Pochettino in the first place. The signings that Spurs have made already: Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Joe Hart and Matt Doherty seem to add robustness and battle-hardened experience to the squad.
Of course, it was Arsenal’s unexpected FA Cup Final triumph that put their rivals in the Europa League position that they find themselves. For us Gooners though winning a trophy and securing European qualification, even via the backdoor, alongside some of the performances against the top six sides, have continued the feeling that the club are moving in the right direction under rookie coach Mikel Arteta. Key for Arteta and Arsenal will be how they go about clearing out the players who are “not in the boat” (Hi Mezut and Matteo!) in order to free up cash to bring in the right type of players to augment the system and style of play that Arteta is looking to fully implement. William Saliba joining the club after a year-long loan and the acquisition of Gabriel Magalhães are two crucial moves to improve the defence. Plus of course finding a way to keep hold of captain, talisman and phenomenal goal-scorer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, will be absolute critical to not only their squad building plans but in all likelihood to their aspirations of any challenge to the top four.
In terms of a challenge to the “Big Six” it will be intriguing to see: if Leicester can recover from the manner in which they fell away at the end of last season and keep themselves in the running while balancing European commitments; whether Wolves are the real deal and can replicate another season in which they challenge the so called elite; whether Everton’s ongoing investment and Southampton’s development under the impressive Ralph Hasenhuttl can see those two clubs really challenging at the top end of the table; and of course whether Chris Wilder can continue to get his Sheffield United side to punch above their weight the second time around?
It may turn out to be a season like we have never seen before at the top of the Premier League and of course we have all realised in the current circumstances that there are things of much greater importance than football, but there is a certain comfort in the return of the Premier League and the familiar structure to our lives, even if for now we are going to have to continue to watch it unfold from the comfort of our own homes.