Last season the Premier League went mental: Chelsea gave the worst title defence in living memory, Manchester United missed the top four for the second time in three years (and put everybody to sleep in the process), and Leicester City confounded the world by winning the bloody league in one of the greatest underdog stories of all time. So what can we expect this year? Will we get another fairytale, or will the usual suspects sort themselves out? Let’s take a closer look at the contenders and see if we can find the champions.
Last Season Position: 2nd
You could probably get away with writing the same Arsenal season preview every year and nobody would even notice. They play beautiful football, have some wonderfully talented attackers but are in desperate need of a spine: a world class striker, a physically imposing centre-back and a ruthless midfield general. Gunners fans must be wondering how the club continue to miss what is so obvious to all and sundry. Their major signing so far has been the acquisition of midfield pass-master, Granit Xhaka. Xhaka had a superb Euro 2016 and will provide the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez with the silver service, which is bad news for defenders across the league. The Gunners have also been heavily linked with German international defender Shkrodan Mustafi, Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette and Leicester’s wing wizard Riyad Mahrez. Mustafi is the must have, given Per Mertesacker’s injury woes – but the additions of Lacazette and Mahrez would rocket Arsenal’s hopes of clinching the title.
The form of creative players is also of critical importance to Arsenal’s hopes. After starting the year as an absolute assist machine, Mesut Ozil’s form dipped in the new year and the Gunners’ threw away the best chance they’ve had of winning the league in a long time. The addition of Mahrez (or a player of similar quality) would certainly help take the pressure off Ozil and Sanchez, as will the return to fitness of Santi Cazorla. Despite their aformentioned shortcomings, Arsenal have a settled squad who don’t need any work – they know how to play together already and should hit the ground running.
Last Season Position: 10th
Last season was one to forget for Chelsea fans, eventually finishing 10th despite coming into the year as reigning Premier League champions. Things didn’t click with Jose Mourinho and there certainly seemed like some mutinous performances from star players. Still, the new season brings with it a new manager along with fresh hope. Antonio Conte recently guided Italy at Euro 2016, getting some incredible performances from what was considered to be a very ordinary Italian squad. He’s tactically astute and has a ferocious will to win – in short he’s exactly the right kind of candidate to get things back on track at Stamford Bridge and instill a winning mentality once again.
Chelsea have already signed young Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi and Leicester’s midfield dynamo, N’Golo Kante. While Batshuayi is a talented prospect who may take time to adapt to the rigours of the Premier League, Kante is an excellent signing and will have an impact from the get-go. His ability to cover ground and win the ball back should allow Fabregas, Oscar and co. more freedom further up the park where they’re dangerous. If reports are to be believed, Chelsea also look set to try Everton’s resolve with a bid for former player, Romelu Lukaku.
Chelsea’s weak spot at the moment lies in defence and Conte will have to work miracles if he can’t add to their stocks before deadline day, with just seven first team defenders in the squad. They’re still heavily reliant on an ageing John Terry, while at right-back Branislav Ivanovic only has 19yo Ola Aina for competition, and the Serbian’s form was not exactly electric last season. Still, if there’s a man who could mould that defence into a cohesive unit, he’d probably be an Italian.
Last Season Position: 1st
The best thing about writing a Leicester preview this season is that the pressure’s right off, no prediction can be worse than last year. The Foxes confounded the footballing world to win the league last season, but can they do it again? In short, probably not, but they’ll be better off than many are predicting. It seemed reasonable to expect a mass exodus this season as traditional powerhouses picked off Leicester’s best players, but so far they’ve managed to hold on to most of them. Jamie Vardy rejected the chance to move to Arsenal, though the Gunners also look like they’ll make a play for Riyad Mahrez who was so good for them last year. The big loss was N’Golo Kante to Chelsea, and replacement signing Nampalys Mendy has some serious big (and worn out) shoes to fill.
It’s not all about the cattle, though, Claudio Ranieri has instilled real belief in the squad. Leicester are well drilled and play as a unit as well as anyone, soaking up pressure before breaking in direct fashion. Even with the loss of Kante, they’ll still be incredibly hard to score against and have outrageous pace on the break, not only from Vardy but from youngster Demarai Gray and record signing, Ahmed Musa. So we can expect more of the same from the Foxes this year, though Premier League rivals will be taking them more seriously. They also have the Champions League to navigate this year, which will really stretch their squad. Part of their success last season came from their stability, with Ranieri refusing to rotate the squad. They also had a charmed run with injuries. Still, they overcame the odds last year, and although they probably won’t do it again, they’ll certainly be better off than some are suggesting.
Last Season Position: 8th
Liverpool ended last season in disappointment. They lost the Europa League final after taking an early lead and missed out on a spot in this year’s Champions League in the process. While another year out of Europe might be hard to stomach for Reds fans, it will give them the chance to focus their attention on the league and closing the gap between themselves and the top four. In fact, the last time Liverpool missed out on Europe, they finished second, something Jurgen Klopp will be keenly aware of. And while they might not have a superstar like Luis Suarez to call on this time out, Klopp’s vision for Liverpool is starting to take shape.
While missing out on Europe might have hurt Liverpool’s chances of signing names like Mario Gotze, Klopp has gone about his transfer business astutely. They’ve added in key areas, with experience and physicality brought into the back four with the signings of Bundesliga pair Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan, while in midfield the speed and ability of Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum will bring drive to their attack and take the pressure off Firminio and Coutinho. It certainly looks to be a better-balanced squad than last year, and with the extra petrol in the tank with no European football, we can expect Klopp’s high pressure ‘gegenpress’ to kick into overdrive. Will it be enough for Liverpool to win it? Probably not, but they’re certainly headed in the right direction.
Last Season Position: 4th
Years of careful planning finally came to fruition with the arrival of Pep Guardiola in Manchester – and the dream of creating Barcelona 2.0 in the north-west of England edged a little closer. Whether Guardiola is capable of replicating the style and success he enjoyed in Barcelona is the question on everyone’s lips, but the Premier League is a very different beast to La Liga. So too is the Bundesliga, where Pep steered Bayern Munich to three consecutive league titles. While that was an impressive feat, Guardiola’s failure to take Bayern beyond the Champions League semi-finals puts a little asterisk next to the name of the man who was widely considered to be the best in the business during his time in charge at the Camp Nou.
Pep arrives at the end of City’s current lifecycle with the squad needing an overhaul if they’re to fulfil their lofty ambitions. The Citizens stalled into fourth place last season, only just scraping into the final Champions League spot ahead of Manchester United, which says a lot given how poor the Red Devils were. The Overhaul is already well underway, with City bringing in no less than eight new faces, although a few of those will go straight out on loan, including Australian, Aaron Mooy. Of those staying in Manchester, the headline acts are Nolito, Leroy Sane, John Stones and Ilkay Gundogan. Nolito will have an immediate impact out wide, and will likely demote an out of sorts Raheem Sterling to the bench. At 29, he’s in his prime and coming off the back of a solid Euro 2016 campaign for Spain.
The other signings give a better indication of what Guardiola is trying to achieve – it’s clearly a build for the future. Gundogan is an accomplished midfield maestro, with great passing ability and a solid work ethic – and is just 25. John Stones, 22, is rated as one of the best central defensive prospects in Europe and Leroy Sane, who looks to be a prodigious talent, is just 20.
Given the young players they’ve invested in, and the fact that key senior figures in Kompany, Aguero and Silva seem prone to injury, it’s difficult to imagine City remaining consistent enough to win the league, especially when you consider that there’s a big chance Nasri, Mangala and Wilfried Bony all look set for the door after being left out of the Champions League squad. They’re certainly on the right path, but it could be a year too soon for the Citizens.
Last Season Position: 5th
After spending the last three years in the doldrums, Manchester United are looking to shake things up in a big way. The arrival of Jose Mourinho might have divided opinion, but the new manager’s pulling power has paved the way for some remarkable work in the transfer market. Eric Bailly has impressed so far with his pace and strength and looks to have a bright future in the heart of United’s defence. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was outstanding for Dortmund last year, with 11 goals and 15 league assists to his name, and will bring some cutting edge in the final third. And of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his goal-scoring powers need no introduction at all. The Swede is one of the top few in the world up front, 35 years old or not.
That list is impressive enough, but the world record acquisition of Paul Pogba is the headline that really sends a message to United’s rivals. Pogba is the hottest property in world football at the moment, and it’s been a long while since the Premier League attracted a player of his caliber over the likes of Madrid and Barcelona. While his technical talents are many, the explosive power he brings to a one-paced United midfield is perhaps the greatest threat of all.
United are not without their problems. Mourinho’s first job will be to break down the rigid system (read boring) Van Gaal had in place, to encourage risk-taking once again. It won’t happen overnight. The other major issue is the failing powers of captain Wayne Rooney, who has been on the decline for some time. It’s plain to see the Mkhitaryan is made for the no. 10 role and Mourinho’s ability to manage the situation effectively should Rooney fail to deliver could prove crucial.
Despite these issues, there seems to be a real buzz around United heading into the season, and should they start the year well, you get the sense it won’t be long for the fear factor to return to Old Trafford.
Last Season Position: 3rd
Before they ‘Spursed it up’ last season, Tottenham looked for the longest time as the only side who might be able to reel in Leicester City. Some disappointing results at the back end of the year left them third overall, and while it might’ve come as a blow initially, Spurs fans can take heart in where they’re at. Last season they played some glittering football, as good as any in the league, and uncovered some absolute gems along the way. Harry Kane proved he’s the real deal, backing up his breakout season with a 25 goal haul to finish the year as top goal-scorer. Dele Alli exploded from relative obscurity into England’s most promising talent since Wayne Rooney. Eric Dier also backed up a promising first season to book his place as England’s midfield lynch-pin for the next decade.
Spurs more senior players found consistency too – Christian Eriksen was brilliant throughout, while Eric Lamela impacted games more frequently. And at the back, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld were at the heart of the meanest defence in the league.
While Spurs haven’t been as active in the market as a few others, they’ve signed well. Victor Wanyama will add a bit more physicality to their midfield, while Vincent Janssen was the Eredivisie’s top goalscorer last year and will help take the pressure off Harry Kane. Mauricio Pochettino did a brilliant job last season and looks well on his way to becoming one of the top managers in world football. Crucially, he’s kept his young squad intact and knows that they can only improve – and everyone at White Heart Lane will be desperate to prove last season wasn’t just an outlier.
Best of the chasing pack
As things stand, you’d give West Ham ($81) the edge over Everton, Stoke and Southampton in the chasing pack. The Hammers finished last season in seventh and played some scintillating football, scoring 65 goals in the process, which is more than Liverpool, Southampton and Man United. Crucially, they’ve managed to hang onto star man, Dimitri Payet, who had a great Euro 2016 , while bringing in Andre Ayew from Swansea and Sofiane Feghouli from Valencia, both of whom will make the Hammers even more of threat going forward. They say attack is the best form of defence and West Ham look set upon proving it. While they’ll not be good enough defensively to win it, they’re going to be great fun to watch and certainly have the attacking power to give the big boys trouble.
While there is almost no chance we’ll see another Leicester in our lifetime, Middlesborough ($501) have probably recruited best of all the clubs expected to struggle at the time of writing. Former Madrid assistant Aitor Karanka has showed his pulling power, bringing in players that are probably above a newly promoted side’s station. Alvaro Negredo comes in on loan from Valencia with a point to prove after a disappointing year. They’ve also picked up former Barcelona and Man Utd keeper Victor Valdes, young Dutch destroyer Marten de Roon (who won more tackles than anyone last year in Serie A) and former Ajax prodigy, Viktor Fischer.