The Premier League, whose new season begins on Saturday, will probably have its title won by one of two sides. The familiar four teams will probably battle for the other two Champions League qualification slots. The half-dozen sides expected to battle against relegation probably will wind up doing so. The Premier League is a clearly stratified division.
Except this season, nothing seems quite as certain as it normally does.
These are not normal times. In as far as it was possible to tell, the absence of crowds didn’t seem to make much difference (although Arsenal, perhaps, relaxed without the constant low grumble of the Emirates crowd), but the bigger issue is the shortened close season and the compressed nature of the fixture list. For those also participating in European competition, this will be an especially draining season. So there is likely to be greater randomness to performances and results in the first few weeks of the season, and there is a serious threat of fatigue for top-seven clubs come next spring.
Here's a closer look at the season to come, from the title challengers to the relegation battlers and the newcomers who will bring some new elements to the competition:
The most likely threat to Liverpool’s crown is Manchester City, although the task of making up an 18-point gap should not be underestimated. City’s problems last season were in the two boxes, as Pep Guardiola would put it. All nine of its league defeats were to an extent the result of simple balls in behind or over the top. In part that is an issue of personnel, and while the acquisition of Nathan Aké will help, the bigger problem is a lack of pressure on the ball higher up the pitch. Moving Fernandinho back into midfield should help to a degree, but he is 35 and cannot be expected regularly to play two games a week.
At the other end, City perhaps lacked a little ruthlessness in front of goal. Certainly against Chelsea and Southampton toward the end of the season, it created but failed to take the chances that might have transformed defeats into draws or wins. Gabriel Jesus, a fine forward in terms of his movement and leadership of the press, is only 23 and may suddenly become a great finisher, but Sergio Agüero, a consistent source of goals since he arrived in 2011, is 32 and returning after knee surgery: He cannot carry that burden forever.
Liverpool’s only signing so far has been the Greek left back Konstantinos Tsimikas, and, while he may ease the burden on Andy Robertson, he represents a modest outlay. Liverpool’s squad is still just young enough that it doesn’t need immediate rejuvenation, but it will soon and, after a couple of seasons of stability, staleness is always a potential concern.
It should also be a worry for Liverpool that it hasn’t really been at its best since winning relentlessly in January and February. The last 16 games, including the Community Shield, have yielded only seven wins. Lockdown and the fact the title was all but won offer some mitigation, but momentum, once lost, is not easily regained.
This, anyway, is likely to be a slightly different title race than the past three seasons. Given the compression of the season, it’s hard to believe any side will be able to maintain the consistency for another season of 95-plus points. City is likely to close the gap on Liverpool; the question is whether it can close it enough to reclaim the title.
Chelsea, perhaps, after a summer full of spending, can challenge as well. Certainly from an attacking point of view, this should be an exciting season, with Frank Lampard facing the problem of how to pick three or four from Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Tammy Abraham, Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount. But other than a couple of games when finishing let it down, Chelsea’s problems last season were not going forward. Rather, it was defending against crossed set plays and counterattacks. Perhaps Thiago Silva can add a level of authority at the back, but even with the addition of Ben Chilwell at left back, it’s not clear the issues have really been addressed; besides which, those were as much structural issues as they were to do with personnel. Lampard was generally seen as having had a promising first season managing in the Premier League, but with greater expectations this season will come far greater scrutiny.
Managerial doubts surround Manchester United as well. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time in charge has passed through three distinct phases, the first and third good, the second much less so. Donny van de Beek, signed from Ajax, adds depth to the midfield, but there are still questions about the squad to be addressed, notably in defense and center forward. Fatigue was a clear issue toward the very end of last season as Solskjaer kept picking the same XI, as though he had limited faith in the rest. Questions also remain about whether captain and center back Harry Maguire will be affected by the ongoing legal situation in Greece and about the form of goalkeeper David de Gea.
INTRIGUE ON THE SECOND TIER
The Community Shield is rarely a guide to anything, and was perhaps even less so this season, given it came closer to last season’s Champions League final than the start of the Premier League campaign. The way Arsenal won (albeit on penalties), though, seemed to offer further evidence that, on the field at least, it is on the right track under Mikel Arteta–especially after a the triumph in the FA Cup final that preceded it. The issue, with an unbalanced squad, will be maintaining that over a full season.
Tottenham finished sixth last season, grimly recovering under José Mourinho after a miserable start. The two summer signings so far—Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Matt Doherty—have been solid and necessary rather than spectacular, but that may be for the best. How far Mourinho can take any side in the modern age remains debatable, but Spurs should at least be in the battle for Champions League qualification.
For half of last season, Leicester City looked like a top-four contender, but its form fell off badly as it slid to fifth, and it has lost Chilwell since then (replacing him with Atalanta's Timothy Castagne). Whether that was regression to the mean or a more meaningful trend remains to be seen. Wolves, meanwhile, may benefit from the absence of European football, having clearly paid the price last season for a Europa League campaign that lasted more than a year.
And then there’s Everton. Optimism reignited under Carlo Ancelotti and with a far more dynamic midfield than last season after the signings of James Rodríguez, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Allan. Its concern is off-pitch given that even before the summer signings the wage bill represented a deeply unhealthy 85% of turnover.
Fulham, inevitably, looks to be in the greatest danger of relegation. It was largely unimpressive last season, and Scott Parker was under pressure other than in the playoff campaign. The scars of the last immediate relegation will not easily be erased. West Brom, too, as a promoted side, is likely to struggle. Defensively it will battle, but there is a lack of real quality in forward areas.
The third side is harder to call. It could be Leeds; with manager Marcelo Bielsa, an implosion is always a possibility. Brighton showed signs of improvement last season, but a low budget renders it vulnerable. Crystal Palace ended the season dismally, and a lot depends on whether Roy Hodgson can quickly shift the trajectory. Aston Villa escaped the drop by the skin of its teeth. In the most danger, perhaps, is West Ham, its squad still an incoherent blend of the aspirational and the ordinary. A tough start—it plays five of last season’s top seven in the first seven games—could unleash the sense of crisis that lurks always just below the surface.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
No side has such a wide range of possibility as Leeds. Back in the Premier League for the first time in 16 years, it has a squad that, under pretty much any other manager, would look certain to return to the championship. But under Bielsa, it seems like anything is possible, and the way it unsettled Arsenal in the FA Cup last year suggested its hard-pressing approach could be successful at this level. Rodrigo has been brought in to add attacking options, but with Pablo Hernández aging, there is probably a need for further creativity. It’s Bielsa, though, who is central to Leeds’s season, and there's a fascination of seeing an idiosyncratic genius take on the league’s best–not to mention the touchline encounter potential. He's already locked horns with Lampard in the Championship over the infamous "Spygate" scandal.
In terms of new signings (so far—the transfer window remains open until Oct. 5, and the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly, Jadon Sancho and Houssem Aouar reportedly remain targets of great interest), the most expensive are Kai Havertz and Timo Werner. Both are products of the new German model and have grown up in the hard-pressing school of the Bundesliga. Both will be expected to bring goals, but also to try to get Chelsea counterpressing in a way it simply didn’t last season.
The most intriguing newcomer, though, is James. At the 2014 World Cup he looked to be among the most exciting players of his generation, but the last six seasons have been anticlimactic, to an extent due to injury. At 29, Everton is possibly his last chance really to establish himself, and he will be looking to do so under Carlo Ancelotti, the manager who coaxed 13 goals and 13 assists out of him at Real Madrid in 2014–15.
The most useful, perhaps, will be Van de Beek. He tended to be overshadowed in the Ajax side that reached the Champions League semifinals in 2019 by Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, but his versatility and ability to get goals with late runs from midfield mean he can give Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Nemanja Matic time off, while also offering the option of functioning as a midfield diamond.