New faces, new kits, new contenders.
The new Premier League season kicks off this weekend and an off-season full of spending, coupled with the competitiveness of last season, has our appetites well and truly whet.
Manchester City were the runaway leaders in the end, but Manchester United put together their best title challenge since Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge, while Champions League winners Chelsea will have their first full season under Thomas Tuchel.
Oh, and there’s a fully fit again Liverpool side. Could do some damage.
We take a look at the Premier League contenders and the potential bolters for the top spots ahead of what is set to be a gripping new season of football.
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Manchester City are almost every pundit’s unanimous pick to win the Premier League again this season – and that’s even before they have conducted the rest of their transfer business.
They established the best central defensive partnership in the league last season, with two of the best full backs as well, to protect the best goalkeeper in the league. And they only get more dangerous from there.
Ahead of that formidable back five, you’ve got the £100m British record signing Jack Grealish joining the embarrassment of attacking riches already at the club in Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Ferran Torres, Ilkay Gundogan, Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva.
City could probably field two different XIs this season and they’d both finish in the top four, such is their huge strength in depth. It was one of the reasons Aston Villa reportedly reached out to Manchester United to try and sell Grealish to them, with a number of Premier League clubs concerned with City’s complete dominance.
However, there are two points of weakness which City must address between now and the end of the transfer window.
The first is their central striker. They want it to be Harry Kane. Harry Kane wants it to be Harry Kane. The only people who don’t want it to be Harry Kane are Tottenham, and, thanks to the England captain’s six-year deal at the club, they hold all the cards.
Without him, it’s just Jesus, who has proven himself to be so unreliable that Pep Guardiola often went without a striker for long periods throughout last season. With all the creativity he has, not having an elite finisher will harm them, such is his desperation to sign Kane – the last piece of his puzzle.
The second is the unhappiness of their squad. All footballers want to play and with the huge number of stars on the roster, it is impossible that they all will. Guardiola has already revealed that Bernardo Silva wants to leave and that he is just one of three or four eyeing the exit door. But therein lies the problem.
City want to sell, the players want to leave, but no one can afford them. The Italian clubs are selling anything not nailed down, Real Madrid and Barcelona have no money, Bayern Munich aren’t interested and City won’t want to sell to a Premier League rival.
That disharmony and so-far lack of a focal point of attack, whilst can be solved by a strategically negotiated swap deal with Spurs, could open the door for the challengers to burst through.
Manchester United finished second last season and have strengthened better than anyone else so far during the transfer window.
The addition of Jadon Sancho may have been numbed somewhat by the year-long negotiations to get the deal over the line, but United now have arguably the most exciting winger in the world at their disposal.
And with the arrival of a World Cup-winning, Champions League conquering talent like Raphael Varane to form a partnership with Harry Maguire, who was superb last season and during the Euros, for just £50m is a bargain even United weren’t anticipating actually coming off.
Also, the tying down of Edinson Cavani for another year has negated the need for a new striker until Erling Haaland is officially available again in 12 months and gives Mason Greenwood more time to progress in his favoured position.
Marcus Rashford being out for the first two months of the season with a shoulder injury is a big loss, and means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will not have him and Sancho terrorising both flanks simultaneously to begin with, so it could be more of the same attacking-wise initially.
The two further points of strengthening which have not yet been addressed are a challenger to the defensively-excellent but offensively suspect Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right back and a new holding midfielder.
The latter likely won’t arrive until next season given the money already spent and consequently it’ll be the strength in depth in that area which has Manchester United down as unlikely winners, but contenders nonetheless.
Liverpool, unlike the other members of the soon to be newly-established Big Four, with Spurs and Arsenal dropping out, have spent very little this summer so far, with just the £40m arrival of central defender Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig as the only addition.
However, with Virgil van Dijk back and Joe Gomez soon to follow, they will once again have one of the most formidable defensive partnerships in the league, amid some growing competition for that mantle which wasn’t there the last time those two paired together.
Their lack of signings isn’t a weakness though, given their squad has been the most complete when fully fit over the course of the last few seasons.
For the Reds, their success this season will be all about the returning to form of key players. Sadio Mane, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Roberto Firmino and Thiago were all poor last season compared to what has come to be expected of them, while youngster Curtis Jones will be expected to step up even further following the departure of Georginio Wijnaldum.
His departure will be felt in the middle of the park, with Thiago struggling in his debut season and Jordan Henderson’s injury troubles curtailing his season. His box-to-box energy and some crucial goals will need to be replaced.
If that void is not filled sufficiently, be it by Jones or Naby Keita, Liverpool will struggle to keep touch with the league leaders.
If Jurgen Klopp can get these players back to where they were in their title-winning season, then Liverpool will be strong contenders to reclaim the title, but much will depend on the mental fortitude to get back to that level.
The final of the realistic title contenders is Chelsea, the European Champions who have somehow managed to add to their firepower during the transfer window despite spending £173m on Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz only 12 months ago.
Romelu Lukaku’s return, 10 years after joining the first time, will give Chelsea the most feared attack in the country, which, when looking the forward lines over the other contenders, is no mean feat. While he may be remembered as not living up to his potential at United, it was more that he was misused by Jose Mourinho and will be desperate to prove his ability in the Premier League once again.
Mason Mount has only improved, Christian Pulisic adds depth and N’Golo Kante has the energy of two holding midfielders to cover all of those in front of him.
The lack of pace amongst the ageing centre backs will be the Blues’ only real concern as Thomas Tuchel looks forward to his first full season in charge at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea really could be City’s biggest threat this season, especially if their plethora of attacking talent is able to seamlessly integrate with each other – something Frank Lampard was unable to get them to do last season at the cost of his job.
BEST OF THE REST
Although it’s been threatening for a couple of years with Arsenal’s huge drop off, it appears that after last season Spurs have joined them as being cut off from the traditional Big Six and we are back to a Big Four again for the coming season.
While Ben White has potential, Arsenal’s recruitment has not been enough to address the years of mismanagement of the club and unfortunately for them, there is unlikely to be a quick fix.
A successful season for them would be returning to the top six, but given the gap between them and the likes of Leicester City and West Ham has now flipped, just getting ahead of them again will be key to the rebuild.
For Spurs, the situation is different, yet so similar. While Arsenal have accepted a huge rebuild is needed and are slowing addressing it, Spurs spent the last season in denial, with the appointment of Mourinho blowing up in their faces.
With Kane so desperate to leave, you can see the argument for just selling him and reinvesting in the squad, but his goals and partnership with Heung-min Son were the only positives out of a dire season.
They still need to get new signings over the line but expect a slow start to the season under new manager Nuno Espirito Santo, who has a reputation of not playing the most attractive football while at Wolves.
Leicester City therefore are probably the best chance at someone cracking those top four contenders, given that for once their squad has not been picked at by the bigger clubs like a child searching for the best sweets in a packet.
Kelechi Iheanacho’s continued improvement will take some of the responsibility off Jamie Vardy, with Harvey Barnes and James Maddison ably supporting them. The biggest area of concern is the long-term injury sustained by Wesley Fofana last week, meaning a replacement may be needed to bolster the squad this season.
They will also have the distraction of Europa League football to laden their schedule this season.
Whether Everton can rediscover their form under Rafael Benitez and his cohort of signings which would have been impressive in 2015, or if Leeds United can continue to progress, or if Aston Villa can come out of the Grealish saga stronger than when they were in it will be fascinating subplots, while the resurgence of West Ham is another to keep an eye on.
They thrived with the loan of Jesse Lingard but he doesn’t appear to be heading back this time around and with a stadium full of fans again, who are notorious for their lack of patience with their team, it could go one of two ways. They were excellent without the pressure of those in attendance and it would be great for the league if they can move up another level now that they are back.
It’s going to be a hell of a season.
Champions: Man City.
There is plenty more competition but even without signing Harry Kane, you feel that they just have too much right now for their rivals. The addition of Jack Grealish and the further development of Phil Foden will be extremely exciting.
Top four order:Man City, Chelsea, Man Utd, Liverpool
Behind City, Champions League winners Chelsea are only getting stronger and have an experienced manager at the helm to guide them, rather than a rookie like Frank Lampard. Manchester United’s signings are very impressive which should see them finish ahead of Liverpool, who have a team full of players trying to get back to their best after a loss of either fitness or form.
Relegated: Newcastle, Norwich, Watford
Newcastle have been teetering on the brink for a couple of seasons but this could be the one that finally sees them go. Norwich were the PL whipping boys last time they were up and little seems to have changed, while Watford are unlikely to keep a manager long enough to sustain any sort of continuity.
Golden Boot:Harry Kane. In a City shirt or a Spurs one, he will keep scoring goals, that won’t change. Romelu Lukaku will have something to say about it, as will Mohamed Salah, but Kane is just so deadly.
POTY: Kevin De Bruyne. He’s the best player in the best team in the league by a fair distance and that’s unlikely to change. Keep an eye on Jack Grealish and Bruno Fernandes though, both of whom will likely have big says in the fortunes of their clubs.
Dark horses:Leeds United. They could surprise everyone and snatch a European spot this year after building on their success of last year under Marcelo Bielsa. He has now had a full season in the Premier League for the first time and knows where the shortcomings of his team left them exposed.