Written by Toby Foster (@TobyFost)
It has been a short, but by no means uneventful, Premier League off-season.
Thanks to Messrs Maguire, Foden and Greenwood, it barely feels as if we have had a break from the non-stop pandemonium of the top flight.
But with the starting gun about to be fired on the 2020/21 campaign, it’s high time to make a few predictions on how events might unfold.
To be frank, this column’s track record at soothsaying Premier League scores and standings is mixed.
Last term, though I correctly called Leicester’s surprise success and Wolves’ stellar campaign, I was wrong to pick Manchester City to win a third consecutive title – and wrong to write off Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United.
To me, Liverpool’s inexorable, bombastic romp to the top of the Premier League last season, leaving in their wake the shattered hulk of Pep Guardiola’s once-proud treble-winning side, was an unexpected, yet joyful sight.
Though deep-seated grievances may prevent many followers of the game from fully appreciating the satisfying glory of Jurgen Klopp’s five-year project coming together, every football fan should take their hat off to the Liverpool manager and his charges.
With a net spend just a fraction of the size of Pep Guardiola’s, and an extraordinary eighteen-point winning margin, Klopp has now decisively stepped out of the Catalonian’s shadow.
Proving himself to be a better tactician, man-manager and team-builder than Guardiola has taken time, but as the old saying goes: ‘the cream always rises to the top’.
Not since the heady days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s pomp, where Manchester United’s utter domination was a simple fact of life, have we seen a manager so figuratively (and also quite literally) head and shoulders above his rivals.
Which makes it all the more extraordinary that Liverpool’s billionaire American owners, Fenway Sports Group, have kept their chequebook firmly in their pocket this summer.
The acquisition of Thiago would be a welcome shot of technical jet fuel
‘The best time to strengthen is when you’re ahead’ is a well-established adage in football for good reason. Yet FSG have permitted Klopp just one, small-beer signing so far this summer – Greek left-back Kostas Tsimikas, who will almost certainly be used as an understudy to Andy Robertson.
Some will argue that Liverpool, as runaway Premier League champions (and World Champions too), don’t need fresh faces. But there is no doubt that a handful of new signings can bring positive change to a dressing room. Switching up the playing squad is a useful way of warding off the dreaded complacency which so often seeps into title-defending sides.
Plus, no team is unimprovable. The acquisition of Thiago Alcantara, long rumoured to be linked with an Anfield move, would be a welcome shot of technical jet fuel into Liverpool’s midfield, which did have its off-days last season – particularly in the weeks after the title had been won.
The Reds have also failed to replace three reliable squad men who departed the club this summer, including Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren, who were said to be key characters in the dressing room.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel Clyne’s absence was harshly felt when youngster Neco Williams had to be drafted in to cover for the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold in the Community Shield – and the 19-year-old Welshman’s floundering performance suggested he is still some way off the standard required in the Premier League.
Yet despite this lack of summer signings and the loss of a trio of squad stalwarts, Liverpool still have the best side, and the best manager, in the league. On that basis, they are my pick to win the title again this season.
Their campaign will be nothing like the smooth procession of the last one – I fancy that Liverpool will win far fewer points this time around – but they still have enough to cross the line in front.
Lacklustre transfer business at Anfield doesn’t just represent a missed opportunity for the champions themselves, but also for their closest pursuers, Manchester City.
I suspect that City will again finish a comfortable second, But, like Liverpool, they will be a slightly weaker force this season than in the last. The loss of David Silva is a bitter blow at the Etihad, and it heaps more pressure on Phil Foden to deliver the goods in a season which he has started in a very disappointing way.
Question marks still hang over Gabriel Jesus
I remain unconvinced that Nathan Ake, for all his talent, is the answer to City’s defensive quandary. Kyle Walker is not getting better with age, and Aymeric Laporte’s problematic injury record means that City are likely to still be left relying on the erratic Nicolas Otamendi, or 35-year-old Fernandinho, to hold the defensive line for them.
Signing Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly would be a big step in the right direction, but as the season begins, City look as if they will be found wanting once again in defence.
Up front, the great Sergio Aguero is beginning to get on in years, and question marks still hang over Gabriel Jesus’ goalscoring reliability at the very highest level. Spanish youngster Ferran Torres is an exciting and progressive signing, but surely is not enough by himself to tip the balance in City’s favour this year.
Manchester United will have a steadier season than has often been the case since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, and should finish in third place again. It is vital that they keep Bruno Fernandes fit and firing, but the Rashford-Martial-Greenwood axis is an exciting prospect that will propel United to another top four finish, and respectable tilts at the cup competitions too.
Rounding out the leading quartet will be Chelsea. They have unquestionably had the best transfer window of any English club, paying eye-watering price tags to bring in a raft of Europe’s highest-rated young talent. But for all these great signings, they still look very much like a work-in-progress team –with a work-in-progress manager at the helm. It might well take a season for everyone to find their place in this rapidly evolving side.
Below the Top Four, we will see improved returns for Tottenham and Arsenal as their new-ish managers begin to make their mark. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has committed his long-term future to the Gunners, which will prove a huge boost as Mikel Arteta attempts to restore their old pride.
Wolves and Leicester pushed the big guns last season, but it will be tougher for both this time around. The sheer number of fixtures which Nuno Espirito Santo’s small squad have played might well take its toll. Leicester remain massively reliant on Jamie Vardy, who will turn 34 in January, for goals – and the loss of Ben Chilwell is significant. There is a lot to like about their midfield, but Brendan Rodgers will have his work cut out to match last season’s 5th-place finish.
Everton have had so many false dawns over the past few years
Everton are undoubtedly the dark horse of this season, having made three superb signings and with one of the most respected managers in world football at the helm. This is a side which is, on paper, capable of competing with the Top 6. But Everton have had so many false dawns over the past few years, and seen so many big-ticket signings fail to impress, that it would represent a giant leap of faith to tip them for anything more than mid-table mediocrity once more.
At the foot of the table, the conundrum gets even trickier. Fulham look too easy to play against, and the goals of Aleksandar Mitrovic will not be enough to keep them out of the drop zone. West Brom look short of top-flight quality in a few too many positions as well, so a tough season will likely be in store at the Hawthorns.
The final relegation spot could quite easily be filled by a handful of teams –Burnley, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, West Ham or Brighton. They will all be battling to emerge as the ‘least worst’ in an almighty scrap at the bottom of the table. Ultimately, I expect that West Ham will be the ones who go down, particularly if the reported unrest in their dressing room continues during what will likely be a difficult campaign.
So, there you have it. The Top 4 will be the same as last season – and in the same order – but much more tightly grouped. Fulham, West Brom and West Ham will be the unlucky trio who drop to the Championship. Oh, and while we’re at it, Aubameyang will regain the Golden Boot.
Here’s hoping for a safe and successful season.