Hot-button issues involving Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool are among the 10 storylines to watch as the 2015-16 English Premier League season gets underway.
At times last season the English Premier League lacked excitement on the pitch. Chelsea romped to the title, the top four was settled well in time, and even the relegation race was fairly tame. Instead, the memorable moments were provided by the drama that this league continues to produce: an outrageous goal by Charlie Adam, Leicester coach Nigel Pearson’s bizarre rants, the feel-good success of Swansea and Stoke, the on-going enmity between Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger.
This season there are a whole new set of storylines that will emerge. Here are 10 of the most intriguing ones that could determine the campaign ahead:
Is the top four a closed shop again?
Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure from Manchester United breathed new life into the race for Champions League qualification. While issues of competitive balance are a problem in France, Germany and Italy, where you can probably name next season’s title-winners already, the title race in England could be a three or four-way battle.
While Liverpool was the main beneficiary in 2013-14, last season everyone missed a trick to chase down Manchester United for fourth place. Louis van Gaal has the charisma and media savvy to control his message and yet he knows that for much of the season, United did not look top-four material and were it not for slumps from Liverpool and Tottenham and Southampton just running out of steam, the picture at Old Trafford would look very different indeed.
Would Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger have joined a team out of the Champions League this summer? Would David de Gea have maintained his professional and low-key profile this summer even though he is ready to jump on a plane to Real Madrid at any moment?
Including United, the top seven sides have all improved their squads this summer, but the gap between top four and the chasing pack looks as big as it has ever been. In some ways, it’s not a big deal: an exciting title race is far more important than the ‘race for fifth.’ It would be a huge surprise if there was a new name in the top four this season joining Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal.
Falcao has a point to prove
Say what you like about the relationship between Mourinho and his agent, Jorge Mendes, but they rarely deal with duds. That's why the arrival of Radamel Falcao at Stamford Bridge is such an intriguing one: for a start, it’s a loan deal, so there is nothing like the financial outlay of previous ‘vanity strikers’ like Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres.
The extra motivation for Mourinho is to get more out of the Colombian forward than his mentor van Gaal managed at Manchester United last season. That seems eminently possible given the two styles of play: at United, he was part of a side trying to build and keep possession, whereas Chelsea is better sucking up pressure and hitting on the counter, with the speed of Willian and skill of Eden Hazard creating chances from both flanks.
Put simply, United did not play to Falcao's strengths, with few crosses from wide and balls into space. Chelsea can do that, but has he still got the fitness to make a difference? With Diego Costa potentially out to start the season, that could matter early on.
Van Gaal's selection dilemma
Van Gaal continues to talk a good game as Manchester United coach, but charisma can only take you so far. Last season, the Dutchman was saved by de Gea in goal while collapses from Liverpool and Tottenham secured United’s top-four finish.
This summer, United has continued spending big–Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian and Memphis Depay cost a combined £75 million–and yet van Gaal says he still needs more creativity.
It’s true that the squad still lacks cover in attack, but at least van Gaal has options elsewhere. Last season, the partnership of Carrick-Herrera worked well in a 4-2-3-1 but with Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger also there, what will he go for? Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera seem too similar, while the two older players prefer to control play from deep. That suggests it will be one of Carrick/Schweinsteiger partnering Herrera/Schneiderlin.
Whether that will be enough to keep everyone happy remains to be seen. As for defense, it could be that Daley Blind is seen as an alternative at center back, which would leave Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones fighting it out for one spot. Ironic, and perhaps typical of United at the moment, that the idiosyncratic coach’s first-choice center back may yet be a player signed as a midfielder. Just don't ask what might happen if Wayne Rooney gets injured.
Will McClaren prove the doubters wrong?
Former England coach Steve McClaren deserves his chance back in the Premier League eight years after failure to qualify for Euro 2008 left him labeled ‘The Wally with the Brolly’. McClaren had success at Twente after that, but was not such a hit at Wolfsburg, Nottingham Forest and Derby County, who lost in the Championship playoff final two seasons ago, and suffered an unlikely slump last season top drop out of the top six altogether.
That makes his appointment at Newcastle a tough one to decipher.
McClaren remains an excellent coach, but is he No. 1 material? And more importantly, can he turn around a club whose owner, Mike Ashley, is unpopular with fans and content only to remain in the top flight? The signings of Chancel Mbemba, Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic have increased optimism on Tyneside. Then again, the mood was so low at the end of the season, any fresh broom would have done the trick.
Newcastle fans are among the most committed in England and are due a decent season: whether McClaren can deliver that remains to be seen.
Rodgers enters last-chance saloon
There are more questions than answers when it comes to Liverpool this season. While Raheem Sterling’s transfer may have dominated the summer, it allowed coach Brendan Rodgers breathing room for another villain to emerge from Anfield. Otherwise it might have been him. The fate of his assistants Colin Pascoe and ex-Liverpool player Mike Marsh, both ‘released’ in the summer, suggests that Rodgers was not far from the boot himself (the manner of their exit is a head-scratcher: had Fenway Sports Group demanded the change in coaching set-up, or had Rodgers blamed the poor campaign on his two confidants?).
Anyone who watched Liverpool’s limp 6-1 surrender to Stoke on last season's final day would be surprised to see Rodgers still in charge. His take is that “the pressure is no different to any other season,” but that is patently untrue. The first season was his honeymoon period; his second the Luis Suárez-Daniel Sturridge-Sterling-inspired title chase (it still baffles at how Liverpool collapsed since then); and last season the post-Suárez struggle.
This year will be the defining one.
The club’s transfer strategy has changed yet again: after signing young talents last summer (like Emre Can and Lazar Markovic, both of whom spent much of the season playing out of position) now it’s the summer of proven Premier Leaguers, like James Milner, Danny Ings and Christian Benteke. Can Rodgers make it work? If he does, you can be sure he will let us know how he did it. And if not? It will probably be someone else’s fault.
Out-of-work coaches waiting in the wings
What’s the best chance of a coach finishing the season in a job? Starting it without one, if the turnover in recent years is anything to go by. Sometimes the changes happen late, as Sunderland showed by bringing in Dick Advocaat with 10 games of the season left to play. Does it work? It’s 50-50, with 14 of the 28 Premier League sides in league history to make a late switch (with 10 or fewer games remaining) experiencing an upturn in points-per-game for the rest of that season.
What’s slightly different about this season is the presence of two outstanding coaches who are currently on sabbatical: Jurgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti.
If Manchester City, Liverpool or even Everton suffer nightmare starts to the season, they could receive a call; although expect the City bosses to keep a close eye on Bayern Munich’s efforts to extend Pep Guardiola’s contract in Germany.
That deal has one year to run, and reports have already started to emerge that Guardiola has signed on for City to start in 2016. That would leave Manuel Pellegrini with a clear run for the campaign; but Rodgers and Martinez, the bright young minds just a few seasons ago, could be looking over their shoulders.
Different strategies for the promoted sides
Last season, two of the three new sides went straight back down and Leicester only survived after the most unlikely of winning streaks. This time around, each of the new boys has decided on a different way of trying to avoid the drop: Championship winner Bournemouth is trusting most of the squad that won the league, but spending big on some talent (like fullback Tyrone Mings for £8 million). Expect eight or so of the team that won promotion to start the season under highly-rated English coach Eddie Howe, even though the same strategy failed for Burnley and Sean Dyche last season.
Then there’s Watford, whose owners have signed 10 players, some, like Valon Behrami and Etienne Capoue, with Premier League experience. Watford has a new coach, Quique Sanchez Flores, and is more likely to start with eight or nine fresh faces compared to last season. That strategy didn't work for QPR last year.
Then there’s Norwich, perhaps the most intriguing of the three: under young coach Alex Neill, the team has made just two new signings, but so well has this club retained its talent that not only will it be the bulk of last season’s side, but also the bulk of the previous season’s too: and that year, it was relegated from the top-flight. Neill is the difference: he is backing himself to take a group of players that has already been relegated and bounced back. That takes some confidence, but speak to anyone at Norwich, and they will back him to do it.
Who will be the buy of the summer?
It’s the question all fans want to know, and in some cases, transfer value does not come into it: if Sterling scores over 15 goals and helps Manchester City win the league, then he could be the one. If Christian Atsu, Chelsea’s winger on loan at Bournemouth, scores a relegation-avoiding goal on the last day of the season, then it could be him (look out for the two other Chelsea loanees in the Premier League this season, Marco van Ginkel at Stoke and Patrick Bamford at Crystal Palace).
Ligue 1 has been a fertile hunting-ground for mid-table sides this summer, and there are high expectations around Idrissa Geueye and Jordan Amavi (Aston Villa), Andre Ayew (Swansea), Dmitri Payet (West Ham) and Yohan Cabaye (Palace).
Is it time for Stoke to get some credit at last?
It’s a joke that has now turned into a regular refrain whenever Lionel Messi produces his latest moment of magic: ‘Yes, but can he do it on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke?’ The implication is that Stoke, under former coach Tony Pulis a byword for physicality and ugly football, would kick Messi off the park.
It was unfair then and not helped by a media campaign led by Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side always struggled at the Britannia Stadium, moaning that his side was never allowed to play football. Mark Hughes has slowly but effectively changed all that; the high point was the 6-1 win over Liverpool (but typically, the future of Rodgers as Reds coach overshadowed that result). But such is the Stoke stigma, you wonder if the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Steven N’Zonzi would have won international caps had they played somewhere else.
This summer, Hughes has evolved the squad with some eye-catching transfers, among them Ibrahim Afellay. Along with Bojan Krkic, Marc Muniesa and Moha El Ouriachi, there are now four ex-Barcelona players in the Stoke squad. The odds are, they will be able to do it on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke, but will the club's evolution get its due?
The ‘English coaches’ debate
There will be five English coaches starting this Premier League season–Tim Sherwood, McClaren, Howe, Alan Pardew and Garry Monk–and one of them has already coached England. So when it comes to possible alternatives to Roy Hodgson, whose Euro 2016 campaign will be his third tournament as national team coach, the pickings are pretty slim.
Other potential successors include Under 21-boss Gareth Southgate (who flopped at this summer Euros) and Hodgson’s assistant Gary Neville, who is a brilliant TV analyst but has yet to hold any head coach position. If the teams of the first three coaches are in the bottom three, expect the lack of opportunities for English coaches to become a talking-point; on the other hand, there is a chance that Pardew, Monk and perhaps one other could be in the top 10 and the spin might be more positive. Either way, Hodgson is comfortable in his position–and that's partly down to a lack of viable alternatives.