LIVERPOOL kicked-off the Premier League season in emphatic style, underlining their own credentials and also reminding everyone of the competitive imbalance that exists in the top flight. While it looked like business as usual for the Reds, Norwich City, for all their enterprise in the early stages of the game, now know that life may be harder than expected in the next nine months.
Even before the first weekend of 2019-20 gets underway, it is all-to-easy to anticipate a similar campaign to last season. Certainly, it is difficult to look beyond Manchester City and Jürgen Klopp’s team for the destination of the Premier League trophy, even though Liverpool had a a quiet summer in terms of adding to their squad. Liverpool certainly look confident that they have the playing resources to have another productive campaign, while City with their many riches, will undoubtedly add to their recent impressive tally of silverware.
Manchester United seem an uncomfortable club at present. They’ve had a reasonable summer in terms of transfer activity, adding Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka to their defence, but the club appears to have mislaid its joie de vivre. It hurts that neighbours City are in an acquisitive mood, collecting silverware and players, but the club is still in its post-Ferguson daze and there’s no guarantee that Ole Gunar Solksjaer will last the season. In fact, there are many who see the hastily-appointed OGS as the first likely managerial casualty in the Premier League.
Arsenal had a very active window and the club has now moved on since “Wenger Gate” and is now beating itself up over its ownership structure (the two things were actually linked, after all). An unhappy place is the Emirates, but if Unai Emery can navigate the politics, he may just give the Gunners a better season in 2019-20. The signing of Nicolas Pépé from Lille for £ 72 million was a surprise given there was constant talk about a limited war chest, but he may be an excellent new face for the Gunners. William Saliba and Dani Ceballos, from Saint-Étienne and Real Madrid (loan) respectively are also solid additions. The late signing of the erratic David Luiz from Chelsea, while bringing personality to their ranks, may not bring the defensive solidity they need, while Liam Tierney from Celtic already seems to have over-expectation waiting for him at the Emirates. Nobody can accuse Arsenal – or their owner – from sitting on their hands, though.
Tottenham Hotspur, with their new ground and new signings – Tanbuy Ndombele of Lyon could be a bit of a sensation – are expected to be among the challengers, but there has to be question marks about whether they can improve on recent seasons without an influx of fresh talent. Chelsea, meanwhile, are hampered by a transfer ban this season and it remains to be seen if Frank Lampard can step-up as a Premier manager, even though the fans will give him time. There could be a bit of OGS syndrome for “Lamps” and if Chelsea do, as promised, field the young players that have been on the loan circuit, such as Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, it will be interesting to see what the mood will be like if the experiment stutters.
While it is not great feat of forecasting to assume the top six will remain unchanged in its composition, this season could see a challenge from outside the usual culprits. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City. A bold prediction, maybe, but don’t be misled by the fact they are not from Manchester, Liverpool or London. Ironically, these two teams meet each other on the opening weekend. Wolves, who may find that the pre-season Europa League qualifiers hampers their start to the campaign, had a successful jaunt to China and have already won through one round in Europe and travelled to Armenia before they kick-off their Premier programme. Wolves have secured Raul Jiménez from Benfica on a permanent basis for £ 32.5 million. He’s popular with the fans and had a great partnership with Diogo Jota last season.
Manager Nuno Espirito Santo showed in 2018-19 he can extract an awful lot from his squad and also that, from a tactical perspective, he’s a canny operator. Wolves were impressive against the top teams, losing only four of 12 games against the top six and beating Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United at home. They’ve got good financial backing from Fosun and their involvement with Jorge Mendes means players will always be accessible, so if they strengthen their squad in the windows, Wolves could improve on that seventh place. It’s a tall order, but there’s a good vibe at Molineux, so who knows?
Leicester City hired Brendan Rodgers last season and he was quick to explain that one of the reasons he left Celtic was the strength of the squad he would manage at the King Power. Leicester still have players like Schmeichel, Vardy and Albrighton from their title-wnnning team, but Vardy, their talismanic forward is 32 years old. They have signed, on a permanent basis after a loan spell, Youri Tielemans (22) from Monaco for a club record fee believed to be around £ 40 million.
As for the rest of the division, Everton have made some good signings in André Gomes, Fabien Delph and, most of all, Moise Kean. The latter, signed from Juventus, is just 19 and represents a bizarre decision by the Italian champions given Kean was outstanding for them in 2018-19. West Ham United have added the likes of Sébastien Haller, a £ 45 million signing from Eintracht Frankfurt, to their potentially useful squad.
Candidates for the drop could include at least half a dozen clubs. The promoted trio, Aston Villa, Norwich City and Sheffield United, will all do well to stay in the division beyond May 2020, but others such as Watford, Burnley, Bournemouth, Southampton, Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Brighton may also get sucked in. For most of the them, Premier League survival is their goal, but if there is a shock team from this lot, Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United may upset the form book.
And talking of surprises, the Premier rarely has the uncertainty of a National Rail timetable, but we’re going for Wolves to break into the top six, even if it is a one-season wonder. Sadly, the big prizes will be won by the same old suspects – not just in England but probably in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Modern football is like that.