The Premier League is back. Back because the league starts another season today, but also back because the addition of star talent on the pitch and on the sideline has rejuvenated a league that saw 5,000-to-1 underdogs Leicester City capture the title. The Foxes were amazing story, but the traditional powers have reloaded and retooled and are poised regain their grasp on the Premier League.
But first, here are the teams I have pegged for relegation.
The Bottom Three
18. Sunderland – The Black Cats needed CPR-certified Big Sam Allardyce to rescue them from relegation last season and even though David Moyes is a solid manager who you wouldn’t expect to lead a bottom three side, the team hasn’t been improved enough from last season to avoid another relegation scare. Moyes did snag Adnan Januzaj, whose hype was at its peak during Moyes’ United tenure, on a loan deal, and Jermain Defoe is still capable of banging in 15-20 goals up top, but I am not sure the squad has enough goals in it to stay up.
19. Burnley – Burnley were a powerhouse down the stretch of the Championship season last year, but they return to the Premier League without reinforcing the squad enough to challenge for a spot in the league next season. If Andre Gray, who some peg as the next Jamie Vardy, can approach the same form he had last season during his 23-goal campaign, Burnley will have a chance to stay in the top flight, but the rest of the team doesn’t have enough quality to survive in the Premier League, even if they do have tremendous chemistry.
20. Hull City – The Tigers enter the season in turmoil. Manager Steve Bruce has abandoned the team after the club’s owners refused to spend any money on new signings, instead opting to sell first-choice players to Championship teams, and Hull City start the Premier League season with only 13 fit first-team players. There is some quality within the team, but nowhere near enough to compete in the Premier League without proper depth and management.
The Top Four
4. Liverpool – Jurgen Klopp enters his second season at Anfield having adjusted his squad to better suit his aggressive, tireless and entertaining brand of football. Sadio Mane looks an excellent signing and a perfect fit for the new Liverpool; he’s got barrels of pace, the desire to press hard for an entire match and a good goal-scoring touch. Clop also added a few former Bundesliga opponents to bolster his defense, mainly Joel Matip from Schalke and Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg. Joe Allen, who didn’t fit Klopp’s style, and Jordan Ibe are gone, but without the distraction of European football, Liverpool will be able to challenge for a Champions League spot.
3. Arsenal – There is still time for Arsene Wenger to reverse the comical trend of his frugal transfer policy keeping Arsenal from competing for the title and the Champions League. The Gunners start the season with major holes at striker and center back, though rumors suggest Wenger is on the verge of signing Mustafi from Valencia, which would drastically improve the team’s defense.
That would still leave Arsenal without a top striker, though. Theo Walcott has said he prefers life on the right wing, meaning Olivier Girioud is once again Arsenal’s reluctant first-choice striker. Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette and Inter’s Marou Icardi are intriguing options for the Gunners, but thus far Wenger has deemed their price tags too high.
It would be unfortunate for Wenger’s stinginess to spoil what is likely his final season at the Emirates. He has made an excellent signing this summer in Granit Xhaka, who will boss the midfield for the Gunners and add a vertical dimension to the team with his long passing, but even though Arsenal have a strong starting XI, they will fall short of the pair of teams from Manchester without adding another big player.
2. Manchester United – The arrivals of Jose Mourinho, Zlatan Ibrahomivic, Henrik Mkhitaryan and, most expensively, Paul Pogba have brought the Galacticos feeling back to Old Trafford after Louis Van Gaal’s uninspiring tenure. Eric Bailly’s addition has strengthened a spine that was already quite good last season and now United have players who can score goals to make its defensive disposition actually mean something.
The big question for United is one of tactics. Mourinho preferred a 4-2-3-1 at Chelsea and has hinted that it would be his formation for the Red Devils as well. But Pogba’s arrival changes things. Pogba has struggled as a deeper midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 as recently as this summer during the Euros and he was never able to play the No. 10 role at Juventus. At Juve, Pogba’s best role was as a center mid bombing forward in a 4-3-3, which is a formation that would suit Ibrahimovic, who played at the top of PSG’s 4-3-3, and Mkhitaryan.
Wayne Rooney would be the casualty of the 4-3-3; currently pegged as the No. 10 behind Ibra in the 4-2-3-1, Rooney would lose his place in the 4-3-3, for Mourinho has said he will not play Rooney as a central midfielder. It’s a case of loyalty or royalty: Does Mourinho stick with the club legend and play Pogba in a role he isn’t suited for, or does everything change with the arrival of the world’s most expensive player?
No matter the answer, United will be an excellent team this season, one that combines the grit and stingy nature of Mourinho’s defenses with the individual and collective brilliance of their expensive and talented attackers. But in the end, I think they will fall short of their Manchester rivals.
1. Manchester City – The dream is finally a reality. Pep Guardiola, the club’s dream manager, has arrived, and he has brought with him a bundle of fantastic signings to bolster a team that was already a title contender, but was lacking in tactical direction. Guardiola’s genius will give City several new dimensions, breathing new life into a side that constantly came up short against the biggest clubs in European play.
Guardiola has already mastered the domestic leagues of Spain and Germany, and now he sets his sight on the Premier League, which will present new problems, but nothing that his tactical acumen and blank checkbook can’t solve. His initial reinforcements of Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane, Nolito and, most recently, John Stones give City a mix of potential, solidity and flair, and if Pep gets his wish, soon Barcelona’s Marc Andre Ter Stegen will take Joe Hart’s place in goal.
The potential for Guardiola’s experimentations with this squad are mouth water. Raheem Sterling will have his chance to shine in a high-octane, press-heavy system that is all about moving the ball forward with tempo. Fernandinho could play anywhere on the pitch this season if you listen to Guardiola’s praises, and there are even whispers of Yaya Toure, who played for Pep at Barcelona and was convinced to stay at City by his former manager, following his brother’s footsteps and playing center back.
It might take time for Guardiola’s intellectual approach to the game to soak in with his players, but the nature of Pep’s style is already sewn into the fabric of a lot of his players. Sergio Aguero should win the golden boot this season if he stays healthy, David Silva, who had a bit of a down season by his standards last year, should be rejuvenated under Guardiola, and Gundogan could challenge Pogba for the title of best midfielder in England once he is fit.
Although Mourinho’s transition at United might be quicker given that he has already won in the Premier League, I think Guardiola’s style and selection are superior, paving the way for City to stake their claim as kings of Manchester and champions of England.