Premier League returns: Looks to be a 4-team title fight, questions facing outsiders


Manchester City has broken its transfer record, Chelsea looks to be on the brink of doing the same, while Manchester United has spent around $150 million in fixing two of its weakest positions.

Liverpool? Well they’re just happy to have their best player back from a serious injury.

For very different reasons, each of the Premier League’s top four teams from last season appear to be in a healthy position heading into a 2021-22 campaign that will be played in front of capacity crowds for the first time in 17 months.

England’s lucrative top division for some time has had a so-called “Big Six” of City, United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal. Leicester, an unlikely champion in 2016 and a fifth-place finisher the last two seasons, can rightly argue it should be a “Big Seven.”

The coming season, though, looks to be a four-team race for the title, even if things could change dramatically by some late movement in a transfer window that closes on Aug. 31.

MANCHESTER CITY

Signing Jack Grealish for $139 million was a big statement of intent by City, but that only served to strengthen a midfield department where Pep Guardiola already had enviable riches. It is a striker the champions really need following the departure of Sergio Aguero after 10 years, and there’s one they are targeting in particular.

Harry Kane would cost more than Grealish — potentially much, much more — and City appears willing to spend another British-record figure if only Tottenham would negotiate. But, according to Guardiola, that isn’t currently the case, even if Kane seems keen on the move.

If it happens — and it’s a big “if” given how tough a negotiator Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy is — City would have a squad mighty enough to blow away its rivals. There would barely be a weakness. Even City’s second team could mount a top-four challenge.

As it is, the lack of a genuine top-class striker — Gabriel Jesus doesn’t convince as a finisher, despite his work rate — leaves England’s other top teams with a glimmer of hope.

CHELSEA

Chelsea has already proved a genuine rival for City, having won their last three meetings — capped by a 1-0 victory in the Champions League final in May.

Having built the sturdiest defense in Europe, with Jorginho and the indefatigable N’Golo Kante protecting a back five, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel has focused on adding an attacking spearhead to the team and that looks like being Romelu Lukaku. The Belgium striker reportedly underwent a medical examination on Monday ahead of a club-record $135 million transfer from Inter Milan.

Lukaku’s return to Stamford Bridge — he was at Chelsea from 2011-14 — will turn the London club into a huge title challenger, potentially giving Tuchel as strong a squad as Guardiola has. After all, it comes after Chelsea’s spending spree of nearly $300 million in the last offseason.

A prolific striker was the only thing missed for Tuchel last season and Lukaku would solve that.

MANCHESTER UNITED

While the signing of Jadon Sancho, for $100 million, came as no real surprise, United’s acquisition of Raphael Varane for a likely fee of around $50 million hadn’t been trailed. As improbable was the swift and trouble-free way the club concluded the deals, a far cry from recent transfer windows that have been hectic at Old Trafford.

It points to a club that is increasingly sure of what it wants and building a strong team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who still hasn’t won a trophy since joining late in 2018. United may just be a defensive center midfielder away from having a title-winning team, but even that mightn’t stop them this season.

Key will be striker Edinson Cavani staying fit and if Mason Greenwood, the young forward carrying so much hope and expectation, kicks on again. Paul Pogba appears to be staying for another season, and Solskjaer will hope the midfielder can transfer his international form with France to his club.

United finished in second place, 12 points behind City, last season and will believe the gap can be closed.

LIVERPOOL

Liverpool’s defense of its 2019-20 title can best be described as underwhelming — the team went from champions by 19 points to trailing home 17 points behind City in third place — but there was one big reason for that.

Virgil van Dijk’s knee injury kept him out for all but one month of the campaign and capped a season when Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was struck by one defensive injury after another. In the end, creeping into the Champions League qualification positions after a strong finish was regarded as a success.

Van Dijk is back now, though he might need another month to get back to full fitness, and that will come as a huge relief to Klopp, who has reinforced his defense further by signing Ibrahima Konate from Leipzig. Suddenly, the biggest issues might be in midfield.

Georginio Wijnaldum’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain robs Liverpool of one of its most consistent performers of the last four years and he hasn’t been replaced. That will place more strain on captain Jordan Henderson, who starting to pick up injuries regularly, and Fabinho. Klopp will need Thiago Alcantara to have a better second season than his first, when he struggled to adapt to the pace of the league.

That said, the front four of Diogo Jota, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino can be relied upon for plenty of goals. And with Van Dijk mopping up at the back, another title charge is likely at Anfield.

OTHER TOP-FOUR CONTENDERS

Expect Leicester to have another solid year, especially now it has plenty of options in attack following the signing of Patson Daka, but the team just doesn’t have the financial strength of the top four and will again have to balance competing on domestic and European fronts.

That is not the case for Arsenal, which failed to qualify for European competition for the first time in 25 years. It should ensure Mikel Arteta’s team improves on an eighth-place finish but getting back in the Champions League looks a big ask and will require a much more prolific season from striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

As for Tottenham, under a new manager in Nuno Espirito Santo, it all really hinges on whether Kane stays or goes. Man City will attest to that.

Questions facing the outsiders

Here are some questions facing the teams below the elite:

WILL EVERTON AND BENITEZ WORK?

Shaken by the unexpected departure of Carlo Ancelotti, Everton was forced to begin a search for a fifth manager of the five-year tenure of majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri. He’s landed on his most contentious hire yet. Appointing Rafa Benitez, the former manager of the club’s fiercest rival, Liverpool, with a pragmatic playing style hardly in keeping with Everton fans’ preferred adventurous style, is bold and some might say misguided. Some banners were hung outside Goodison Park — one read “We know where you live, don’t sign” — in protest at the arrival of Benitez, who in 2007 called Everton a “small club.” The Spaniard thinks he can win the fans over but it seems there will always be some tension there. Winning silverware looks to be the only solution for Benitez but that looks way beyond Everton, which finished 10th in the Premier League last season and last captured a trophy in 1995. Some will say it’s a marriage destined for a divorce.

CAN BIELSA TAKE LEEDS FURTHER?

Here’s a partnership that’s on a much firmer footing. Leeds supporters cannot get enough of Marcelo Bielsa, their enigmatic Argentine coach beginning his fourth season at Elland Road — longer than any other club he has managed in his storied career. Under Bielsa, Leeds was one of the most entertaining teams in the Premier League last season and ended its first top-flight campaign since 2003-04 in an impressive ninth place. Can Bielsa take them further? The only major addition has been at left back, where Junior Firpo has joined from Barcelona to replace the out-of-contract Ezgjan Alioski. The 66-year-old Bielsa, who famously sits on an upturned bucket while watching matches on the sideline, likes to work with a tight-knit group he can mold into a relentless, hard-working unit that no opponent relishes facing. He could do with maybe another central midfielder if Leeds is to make that next step, but expect Bielsa to carry on squeezing everything out of a team greater than the sum of its parts.

CAN VIEIRA BE EXPANSIVE AT PALACE?

The last time Crystal Palace hired a manager with an expansive approach, Frank De Boer lasted four Premier League matches before getting fired. After four years under the dependable Roy Hodgson, Palace has chosen to roll the dice again in hiring Patrick Vieira for the France great’s first senior managerial role in English soccer. Vieira is promising to bring attacking soccer to the south London club — “I want to see a team who is on the front foot,” he has said — but that contrasts with Palace’s long-held style of playing in the counterattack and being mostly robust defensively. Preseason results have been encouraging, with star forward Wilfried Zaha seemingly in form, but the first real test for Vieira — whose only coaching experience has been at New York City FC and Nice in France — comes in Palace’s opening league match against Chelsea. A tough start sees Palace face Manchester City, Liverpool, Leicester, Tottenham and Arsenal elsewhere in its opening 10 games. Vieira will hope Palace’s board shows him more faith than it showed De Boer.

END OF THE ROAD FOR SOUTHAMPTON?

Southampton has managed to stay in the Premier League for a decade despite constantly selling its best assets, which have included Virgil van Dijk, Luke Shaw and Sadio Mane to name just three. Can they continue to survive? This season may prove to be one too far, with manager Ralph Hasenhuttl having sold two of its most important players in top scorer Danny Ings, to Aston Villa, and left back Ryan Bertrand, to Leicester. Denmark defender Jannik Vestergaard may also be on his way out so Hasenhuttl looks to have a massive job on his hands. Southampton, its fans hate to be reminded, have lost games 9-0 in each of the last two seasons and can often wilt under pressure. The team slumped after a strong start to a 15th-place finish and could well find itself in a relegation battle in the months ahead.

WHICH OF THE PROMOTED TEAMS CAN SURVIVE?

Promoted teams Norwich, Watford and Brentford take their place in the Premier League looking to emulate Wolverhampton and Leeds, who have transitioned well to life in the top flight and managed top-half finishes in their first season. Which of the three looks best positioned to do the same? Norwich comes up as the Championship winner and is likely to have a more rounded game plan compared to the attacking approach that proved its undoing two seasons ago under the same manager, Daniel Farke. Watford had comfortably the best defensive record in the second tier — just 30 goals conceded in 46 games — but might not have the attacking quality to survive. Most of the intrigue surrounds Brentford, a team from southwest London competing in the top flight for the first time since 1947 and which is owned by an entrepreneur — a former professional gambler, Matthew Benham — who uses analytics to unearth talent overlooked by traditional scouting methods. This “Moneyball” method has finally lifted the team to the Premier League and will come under strain against some of the world’s best club teams. It will be fascinating to see how the experiment turns out.



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