The upcoming season promises to be one of the most fascinating yet in English football. Due to COVID-19, authorities do not expect fans in the stadiums until late October at the earliest. However, the quality of coaches and talent of players will provide us with mouthwatering entertainment and moments to savour.
For the first time in Premier League history, the traditional ‘top six’ clubs all have a clear identity, high quality playing staff, and managers in charge who have set hearts racing within their respective fanbases.
It is exciting times for the Premier League that even the race for Champions League qualification will be extremely tough and enthralling to witness.
We have Liverpool and Manchester city who accumulated 196 and 179 points in the last two seasons. Chelsea have signed Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Thiago Silva, Ben Chilwell, and are now closing in on Kai Havertz. Frank Lampard and Roman Abramovic are building one of the most promising squads in Europe.
Speaking of promising, will Manchester United’s youthful attack be enough to piece together a genuine title-shot? Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal will have the first full season under their new coaches; the latter buoyed by the stewardship of their former midfielder and a set of shrewd signings.
Can Wolves, Leicester or Everton lay siege on the Champions League places? How will Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United cope during their much anticipated top-flight return? Who will be languishing near the relegation places and fighting to stay in the league?
Bielsa’s Leeds United
Finally, the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa has arrived in the Premier League. Leeds fans worship the Argentinian and excitement is snowballing in Yorkshire. Nicknamed “El Loco” – Bielsa has already produced moments to remember in the Championship. From spy-gate, losing agonisingly in the playoffs in 2018/19, allowing Aston Villa to score against them in a must-win game, to Bielsa’s eye-opening post-match interviews; this has already been fun.
The most fascinating thing about Leeds United, however, is their on-pitch actions. The possession-based, attacking football on display, incorporated with ferocious pressing, has not only wowed those in the terraces pre-COVID, but also rubber-stamped their long-awaited return.
If you are new to football (where have you been?) or you don’t yet have a second-team which you’re fond of, do yourself a favour and follow Leeds United’s return stint in England’s flagship competition. Leeds will likely be the most unpredictable team during the upcoming season and almost guarantees dramatic twists and turns. El Loco‘s team are known for starting strong, and if Bielsa can conjure up a solution for that to be maintained against England’s best, Elland Road could be in for a cracker.
A strong start which then faded occurred at Marseille, and it happened in Bielsa’s first season in Leeds. Leeds could be in the top four at Christmas, but they could also be in the relegation zone come February. Leeds are box-office television. Their visit to the champions, Liverpool, on the first match-day is an intriguing one; expect fireworks from Bielsa’s men.
A Three Horse Race for the Title?
For the third season in a row, pundits and football lovers are predicting a tight race between Manchester City and Liverpool. Chelsea cannot be underestimated with their transfer activity, and should impose themselves on the top two. The blues’ business has been sensational, and Lampard has shown enough with his attacking brand of football to suggest they will be fighting for the biggest prize. Expect Chelsea’s new signings to impress and hit the ground running.
Lampard is likely to deploy the 4-2-3-1 with inside forwards and high full-backs. They should be one of the most entertaining sides in Europe with the influx of talent in addition to those who shone last year at The Bridge. Chelsea scored 69 Premier League goals in 2019/20, only bettered by Liverpool and Manchester City.
The Chelsea defence was the biggest issue for Lampard last season. Aside from the fierce competition, it will act as their most significant obstacle in winning the league. The Blues conceded 54 goals in the previous campaign, which was the worst among the top ten sides, and level with Brighton in 15th place.
Chelsea have acquired the brilliant Silva and Leicester’s Chilwell. Silva has been one of the best defenders in the last decade, but the Brazilian turns 36 this month. Silva possesses an abundance of experience and skill, but will the pace of the Premier League cause issues for him?
The goalkeeping situation is a pressing concern and one yet to be resolved. If Chelsea go into the upcoming season with Kepa Arrizabalaga and Willy Caballero, they will struggle to finish in the top four. Kepa achieved a save percentage of 54.5% last season, which is the worst in Premier League history (minimum 10 games played); Kepa ranked in 730th place among all goalkeepers.
Liverpool and City, champions in the last three seasons, will no doubt scrap at the business end of the table. The Citizens have added Ferran Torres and Nathan Ake, whereas Liverpool have added a backup left-back, Kostas Tsimikas to their ranks. Manchester City may still sign another centre-back to add much-needed depth to their squad and veer away from utilising Fernandinho in that position.
Pep Guardiola’s side conceded 56 goals in all competitions last season. Despite having one of the most talented squads in football, City won only the Carabao Cup in 2019/20. The defensive issues were prominent in the 3-1 loss against Lyon in the Champions League quarter-final, proving that Guardiola must improve City’s defence if they are to regain the league crown and fight for silverware on the continent.
City’s qualities and goalscoring abilities are apparent, scoring 102 goals last season and amassing a +67 goal difference. Pep’s side also had the second-best defensive record, and the 4-0 demolition job on Liverpool, the newly crowned league champions, was a statement win.
Jurgen Klopp’s team dominated the league, sealing the title with an 18 point margin. Liverpool were eliminated from the Champions League by Atlético, and should be well-rested and raring to get another campaign underway. Liverpool had the best defensive record in the league in 2019/20, conceding just 33 goals, which will need to be harnessed and continued for any chance of success.
The real issue for the Merseyside club, if there is one, will be squad depth. If the likes of Virgil Van Dijk, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, or Alisson Becker were to get a season-threatening injury, then Liverpool will be in trouble.
There is a prevalent saying “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” That’s what Manchester City did last season when not buying a replacement for the vacating Vincent Kompany. It cost them domestically and arguably a chance to win their first Champions League.
As we saw in Liverpool’s 4-2 loss to Atlético, not having your first choice goalkeeper can be extremely costly. Imagine if Van Dijk gets a long-term injury, Liverpool’s defensive leader; his reading of the game, positioning, and recovery pace, which prevents so many goals, now gone.
Imagine an injury to Mane, Salah, or Roberto Firmino. All three are so crucial to Klopp’s 4-3-3, and Liverpool lose balance when any are missing. Klopp needs attacking reinforcements for his front-line as Origi is a significant step-down.
The Premier League should be a three-horse race for the league; Manchester City and Chelsea have an astonishing amount of attacking talent, but they must fix defensive issues. Liverpool will be the team to beat, unless their lack of squad depth plays its part.
Solskjaer Unable to Mount a Title Challenge
The Red Devils are in an exciting but unclear position. They have been relentless in the chase for Jadon Sancho, and as things stand, It seems as if United will not get their target to add to an already very capable squad. In Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, and Bruno Fernandes, United have one of the most fearsome attacks in Europe.
Manchester United are amongst the biggest and most popular sports teams on the planet. They should have the best brains in the business working for them in terms of players and coaching staff. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a club legend, but he won just 33 out of 61 matches last season.
United went trophyless for the third season in a row. The Norwegian was out-coached by Julen Lopetegui and Pep Guardiola in the Europa League and Carabao Cup semi-final respectively. Solskjaer comes across as a brilliant man-manager, but his tactical prowess has continuously been questioned.
In the Norwegian’s first full season, United accumulated just 66 points in 38 league games, the lowest points tally since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Solskjaer’s supporters will point out that he secured Champions League football as a counter-argument, but he needed help in achieving that.
United needed Leicester to drop 11 points in their last five games, and required Chelsea to stumble to get Champions League qualification. A top-four finish seems the only realistic goal for Manchester United, with the top three seemingly ready to pull away.
Donny van de Beek is an astute buy at £40m, but could the money have been better off used elsewhere? United need to replicate Chelsea’s transfer activity if they are to consider a genuine title push.
North London’s Loudest
Arsenal and Spurs; the two fierce North London rivals who will be pitting their wits in the Europa League in 2020/21, and will have aspirations to go all the way in the competition to clinch the prize on offer.
Jose Mourinho and Mikel Arteta have had their first, and albeit a small pre-season with their squad. The Gunners have signed Willian on a free, and moved to acquire Gabriel Magalhães’ signature. Top scorer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is also expected to sign a contract extension to signal the club’s intent moving forward. There is a buoyant mood surrounding the Arteta era, a mood which has been missing in recent years.
Mourinho will be thrilled with the signing of former Wolves full-back, Matt Doherty, who arrives at what seems like a snippet of his value at under £15m; a real Daniel Levy signing.
Neither side is expected to fight for the league title as both clubs are in transition. Arteta has shown great potential, and Mourinho has one of the best CVs in the game, even if his last trophy was in 2017.
Arsenal and Spurs should battle with Manchester United to take the last Champions League spot, although there will be sections of Arsenal fans quietly confident in that regard with the recent football on show.
WOLVES AND LEICESTER CITY
Leicester City, more so than most, were footballing victims of the pandemic. They ended up finishing 5th, despite spending the majority of the season in 3rd place. The Foxes created history by winning 9-0 against Southampton, but lost 4 of their last 7 league games, including a 4-1 loss against Bournemouth.
Leicester were flat-track bullies with six losses, two draws, and zero wins against the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, and Chelsea. Injuries did not help Brendan Rogers, but the Leicester squad were not blameless either. They qualified for this season’s Europa League, and that should be their only hope for Champions League qualification next season.
Wolverhampton Wanderers finished 7th in the league, although they will not be playing in Europa League next season because of Arsenal’s FA Cup triumph. This will positively impact their fixture list and give more rest and recovery time for players. Wolves will make a strong run for Europa League qualification next term.
The new boys last year, Sheffield United, were rightly praised for their tactics and the coaching from Chris Wilder. A 9th placed finish after being promoted was impressive, but are they as good as their debut season leads us to believe? The Blades registered a very modest 39 goals in 38 games last season, with only four Premier League teams scoring fewer goals. Wilder’s squad also conceded 39 league goals.
Pundits and fans fell in love with their overlapping centre-backs and their fighting mentality. However, the upcoming season could be a rude awakening for The Blades. With the top six teams spending big, and the likes of Wolves, Leicester, and Everton strengthening themselves, Sheffield United may struggle to get any higher than 12th.
Newcastle United scored just 38 times in 38 matches. Steve Bruce’s side finished 12th, and had a -20 goal difference, which was the 5th worst record among Premier League clubs. The much-anticipated Saudi takeover has not happened, and Newcastle are in for a tough season as it stands. If The Toon can get Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser over the line as reported, they could make a world of difference.
Aston Villa gathered only 35 points from 38 games on their return to the top flight last campaign. They escaped relegation by inches, and Villa had just one more point than relegated Watford and Bournemouth. Dean Smith’s side had a goal difference of -26, which was the third-worst in the league, while also losing 21 out of 38 games in 2019/20. Villa fans should expect another tough season.
Newly promoted Fulham lost 11 games in the championship last season, 4 more than West Brom, who also earned promotion in 2nd place. With all due respect to the teams in the Championship, the Premier League has far more quality and will prove a lot more ruthless. If Fulham don’t want a repeat of 2018, when they were relegated after just one season, they’ll need to step up to the plate and improve drastically.
League title: Liverpool, Manchester City, and Chelsea.
Top 4: Manchester United to take fourth spot, but Arsenal or Tottenham may spring a surprise.
Top 6: Arsenal, Wolves, Leicester and Tottenham to fight for Europa League qualification.
Relegation battle: Fulham, West Brom, West Ham United, and Aston Villa.
Words by Hammad – @HammadFootball
Graphics by Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_