A lot of us are going to be making similar predictions like we did last year. Many of us are going to be proven wrong once again.
Sure Leicester City were never going to retain their Premier League crown after the greatest sporting miracles they have pulled off in the previous season — their brief stint with the relegation battle further vindicated what almost everyone had predicted for them.
But the more intriguing bit is that no side has managed to defend their Premier League crown in almost a decade — Manchester United were the last side to do it who, along with Manchester City, Chelsea and Leicester, have failed to win back-to-back titles since 2009.
In fact, defending champions Chelsea are the only side other than United to have retained the title in the Premier League era (since 1992). And they formally kick off the English football season with the Community Shield against Arsenal today.
Antonio Conte’s team would clearly have their work cut out in their title defence, having gone through two vastly contrasting seasons, going on from finishing 10th in 2015/16 to winning the league last year. However, more critically it’s the additional challenge of European football — last year Chelsea played 47 matches, as compared to United’s 63, for instance — dealing with which would be pivotal to ensure the defending champions have another go at the title this year.
The additions of Alvaro Morata, Antonio Rudiger and Tiemoue Bakayokohave definitely enhanced Chelsea’s starting 11. But with Diego Costa, John Terry and Nemanja Matic departing, they would have similar squad depth for a two-pronged assault in England and Europe. If Chelsea can add to the current squad before the window closes, they could be right up there come May next year.
Chelsea, along with fellow London clubs Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspurs form one half of what now clearly is a ‘Big Six’. And the North London rivals have been experiencing contrasting trajectories in recent seasons.
Spurs are coming off the back of their second successive title challenge last season. Just like in 2015/16, Tottenham were the only side that gave the eventual champions any run for their money. Progress would Tottenham would now be winning the league itself. Can they do it?
Spurs’ staring 11 would be pretty much the same as last season — except for Kyle Walker — and that can work both ways. While Harry Kane, Deli Alli, Christian Eriksen, Danny Rose et al, are as good as any of their peers in the league, what happens when one of them suffers a prolonged injury?
Spurs have the additional challenge of getting accustomed to Wembley, and of course getting used to the fact that anything less than a top-two finish, a cup final and a deeper run in the Champions League would now be deemed a failure. Spurs would need at least one high profile addition to the squad to match the expectations of their fans.
Arsenal, meanwhile, are looking to rebound from their worst showing in the league for two decades. If they can add to Alexandre Lacazette’s signing with ensuring that Alexis Sanchez stays, they’ll absolutely be a much stronger team than last year. Furthermore, with the Europa League not as big a challenge — at least in the initial stages — Arsenal would be able to focus more on the domestic front, especially the league.
But Arsenal’s power remains skewed towards the forward line with Lacazette and Sanchez, being joined by Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi and Mesut Ozil. Despite Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey forming a strong partnership in the midfield in the latter part of the season, Arsenal are in need of a commanding presence in the centre of the pitch, which should further boost their quest for a title challenge.
Liverpool too might need reinforcements in the middle for them to even maintain their presence in the top 4, let alone a tilt at the title. Andrew Robertson and Mohamed Salah are decent signings, but if they fail to get Naby Keita, Liverpool too would need a midfielder to beef up their starting 11. What has further complicated the matter is Philippe Coutinho’s future, especially now that Barcelona have £200m worth of Neymar money to aggressively pursue their targets.
For Jurgen Klopp, who specialises in getting the best from the squad at hand, it would be important to balance Champions League and the Premier League, with repeating a top-four finish the minimum requirement this season. Can Klopp’s side go one better and actually pose a threat to the title challengers? That would depend equally on how the favourites’ fare as much as it would be a case of how much Liverpool can up their game.
Two of these favourites would be the Manchester clubs, who have been splashing most of the cash.
After letting their title surge slip away after a sensational surge in the first couple of months last season, Manchester City have identified the problem area and have thrown serious money at it.
Ederson’s £35 million signing — the world record for a goalkeeper — has been coupled with a £130 million splurge at the fullback position.
Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy offer significant upgrade on City’s flanks, allowing them to stretch the opposition with considerably more pace than they had last year. The signing of Bernardo Silva, the heir apparent to namesake David Silva, has also bolstered the attacking side of City’s game, which was already effective last year.
Despite serious investments in goal and the fullback positions, the central defence still is a concern for Man City. Vincent Kompany’s fitness concerns and question marks over Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi mean that John Stones — who himself had a mixed season last year — is in dire need of a more experienced partner.
Meanwhile, Manchester United have made the central defensive acquisition of Victor Lindelof, who has had an unconvincing preseason — to put it politely. But few would argue against Jose Mourinho’s knack of identifying defensive talent.
Lindelof has been joined by Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, both proven Premier League players that should boost United’s midfield and forward line. Even so, there’s always a question mark when a player struggling to make the starting 11 of a rival side is purchased by a team that has similar ambitions. But it’s evident what Matic would bring to the heart of United midfield, that has practically been without a combative midfielder since Roy Keane.
Lukaku guarantees goals in the league, which with support from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, should be able to transform United’s string of home draws from last season into wins.
With high-profile signings of their own, Everton and West Ham have higher ambitions as well, while newly-promoted Huddersfield could be the surprise package this year. Even so, the feeling is that the tussle for the league title could remain in Manchester, with Chelsea and Spurs rounding off the top 4, followed by Liverpool and Arsenal.
Of the two Manchester clubs, City might edge United for the top. But we said the same thing about the city rivals last year. And things didn’t quite pan out according to script.