The Premier League, in truth, is a series of smaller leagues. There is an obvious big six who have realistic hopes of winning the title, and there are those sides who at the beginning of the season would quite happily settle for finishing fourth from the bottom. Some may climb a band over the course of a season, or slip into the band below the one they believed themselves to be in–and there’s always the example of Leicester City to make fools of those who make predictions–but here is our predicted 1-20 finish for the season, divided into five key levels.
GENUINE TITLE CONTENDERS
1. MANCHESTER CITY: City has bought extensively–and expensively–over the summer, and seems to have addressed most of the major deficiencies of last season, even if Ederson’s start in goal hasn’t entirely convinced. Pep Guardiola has said that for the first time in preseason he has begun to see City playing as he would like it to, which is just as well given the sense that there is a clear need to start delivering in City’s investment in him. The signing of three orthodox attacking fullbacks in Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy perhaps signals a slight change of approach. Bernardo Silva should add to the attacking options.
2. MANCHESTER UNITED: Jose Mourinho always wins the league in his second season at a club and he has, in Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof, strengthened the spine. Matic, vitally, should release Paul Pogba to be more effective than he was last season, while Lukaku should resolve the issue of failing to break down lesser sides. But there is wrangling over further spending while doubts remain as to Mourinho’s methods in the modern game.
3. CHELSEA: The champion is likely to find it much tougher this season. European competition means Antonio Conte will have to rotate more, while teams even toward the end of last season began to get wise to the 3-4-2-1 formation he introduced with such success. The pending sale of Diego Costa and the injury that will keep Eden Hazard out of the early weeks of the season mean a possible dearth of creativity, while there has been constant rumbling over the summer about a perceived lack of transfer activity.
4. TOTTENHAM: There has been no spending at all by Spurs this summer, a bold gambit in the modern world, but keeping last season’s squad together–with the exception of Walker–represents a major achievement. This is a young, exciting side that is growing together, but playing home games at Wembley while White Hart Lane is redeveloped may be an issue given Tottenham’s poor record at the national stadium.
5. LIVERPOOL: Mohamed Salah’s arrival gives Liverpool the option of serious pace on both flanks, while Dominic Solanke adds depth to Liverpool’s attacking options. The failure to land Naby Keita, though, is a blow and there probably is need of another central defender, while the prospect of Philippe Coutinho departing for Barcelona looms over the start to the season.
6. ARSENAL: Although Alexandre Lacazette has arrived to give Arsenal more cutting edge, the issues at the other end remain, for all that Sead Kolasinac enjoyed a goal-scoring debut in the Community Shield. The switch to a back three perhaps offers greater solidity, but with the future of a number of players still in doubt, this still feels like a side lacking edge.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE POTENTIAL
7. EVERTON: Last season, Everton was in a league of its own in seventh, eight points adrift of Manchester United in sixth and 15 clear of Southampton in eighth. After a summer of unprecedented spending, facilitated by the sale of Romelu Lukaku, Ronald Koeman’s side should have moved closer to sixth than eighth, but it still looks stranded on the Europa League mezzanine.
EUROPA LEAGUE POTENTIAL
8. SOUTHAMPTON: Few managers in Premier League history have made less of an impression than Claude Puel, who arrived without fanfare and departed without mourning, having done a decent job that hardly anybody noticed. Mauricio Pellegrino is more dynamic but he, as all recent Southampton managers have been, is hobbled by the club’s reputation for selling off its best talent.
9. NEWCASTLE UNITED: It’s entirely possible Newcastle could be relegated. It’s entirely possible it could win silverware. Rafa Benitez is a very fine manager and he has a decent squad, but the summer following promotion has been spent in wrangling over transfers and control. For the moment an uneasy peace holds, but Newcastle could explode in either direction.
10. LEICESTER CITY: How will Leicester react to being just another club? It’s not the champion and it has no Champions League as a distraction, nor all the frenzied talk of player sales. And is Craig Shakespeare actually a good manager, or did he just benefit last season from not being Claudio Ranieri, after players lost faith in the Italian?
11. STOKE CITY: 13th, 9th, 9th, 9th, 13th, 14th, 13th, 11th, 12th. That, going backwards, is a list of Stoke’s finishes since returning to the top flight in 2008. The makeup of the squad has changed profoundly since Mark Hughes took charge three years ago, but the result never seems much different. Marko Arnatutivic, Jon Walters and Glenn Whelan have gone; Darren Fletcher and Kurt Zouma have arrived, and it looks like it's destined for a mid-table finish again.
12. WEST HAM: There were times last season when it looked as though West Ham might be dragged into the relegation battle, there is still widespread dissatisfaction with the new stadium and Slaven Bilic sits uneasily on the Irons’ throne, but realistically the long-term prognosis must be positive. Summer additions Joe Hart, Javier Hernandez, Pablo Zabaleta and Arnautovic bring experience.
13. WEST BROMWICH ALBION: Now that Sam Allardyce has retired, Tony Pulis is as near as there is to a guarantee against relegation. The football may not be pretty, and that has become an issue with West Brom fans who wonder whether drab stasis is actually better than aesthetically pleasing jeopardy. Egyptian center back Ahmed Hegazi is an intriguing addition, but this has been a quiet summer transfer-wise at the Hawthorns.
14. CRYSTAL PALACE: Frank De Boer’s managerial record is uncertain. Although he won four league titles in charge of Ajax, his time at Inter was brief and disastrous. It’s true that Inter is a club with deep structural issues, but the concern for Palace must be that De Boer needs the Ajax environment to survive. Jairo Riedewald and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are interesting rather than spectacular signings.
15. BOURNEMOUTH: Eddie Howe’s side faces the familiar problem of the smaller club in the top flight. It has survived twice, but as the initial thrill of playing in the Premier League wears off, what comes next? Qualifying for the Europa League seems impossibly far off, so for smaller clubs existence becomes about staving off relegation for as long as possible before economic reality bites. Jermain Defoe, Asmir Begovic and Nathan Ake are experienced additions.
16. BURNLEY: Sean Dyche has done a remarkable job at Burnley, but it, too, is now suffering from the question of what comes next. Does it look to play more expansively while trying to edge closer to mid-table, or is it enough simply to keep on surviving? Jon Walters, Jack Cork and Phil Bardsley are experienced signings, but the sale of Michael Keane could leave a defensive gap.
17. WATFORD: Marco Silva impressed many as manager of Hull last season but ultimately couldn’t keep the Tigers up. He was appointed in the summer as Watford maintains its policy of staying up then sacking the manager who achieved that, although given the widespread dissatisfaction with Walter Mazzari that was perhaps perhaps a more understandable decision this tie than it has been in the past. The club-record signing of Andre Gray not only strengthens the attack, but it weakens a competitor in Burnley.
18. BRIGHTON: After years of knocking on the Premier League door, Brighton has at last gained admittance. The question now is staying there. Chris Hughton is a well-respected manager who was harshly sacked by Newcastle and Norwich in his last two stints in the top flight. Anthony Knockaert is a classy midfielder who should make the step up, while there have been eight new arrivals.
19. SWANSEA CITY: Paul Clement performed a minor miracle to keep Swansea up after a shambolic start to last season, but a squad that needed major surgery has only been tweaked. There have been several departures, but the only major arrival has been the midfielder Roque Mesa. With Fernando Llorente a year older and Gylfi Sigurdsson potentially on the outs as well, it’s not clear where the goals will come from unless Tammy Abraham, on loan from Chesea, hits the ground running.
20. HUDDERSFIELD TOWN: For Huddersfield to win promotion is one of the more remarkable stories in recent history. David Wagner’s hard-pressing approach unsettled Championship sides early in the season, and the Terriers clung on to win the playoff final on penalties. Against fitter opponents there may need to be a change of approach, and with the budget relatively limited, this season is likely to be a struggle despite £38 million of investment.