Dublin: 11°C Friday 15 October 2021
Advertisement

5 key questions as the new Premier League season begins

Will Virgil van Dijk retain his world-class status and other talking points.

Virgil van Dijk (file pic).
Virgil van Dijk (file pic).
Image: DPA/PA Images

Updated at 19.49

1. Can anyone stop Man City?

AS SOON as it clicked for Man City last season, they looked unstoppable.

Following the 1-1 draw against West Brom in December, the setback led to a meeting and a tactical re-think, which proved successful, as they won their next 15 games on the bounce.

Their end-of-season form was not quite so spectacular, with seven wins and four losses, though they had the title more or less wrapped up for much of that period, so the defeats in question were not especially significant.

Those 15 successive victories at a crucial part of the season were ultimately key to their triumph and it’s easy to imagine them pulling off a similar feat this year.

The legendary Sergio Aguero is a big loss, while Jack Grealish should improve their attack provided he adapts to life at a club of Man City’s calibre.

Signing Harry Kane would be a major coup, but it’s not necessarily the difference between them winning and losing the title — they prevailed last year with Gabriel Jesus as their only recognised striker who was regularly fit, and he was not exactly firing on all cylinders with an underwhelming return of nine goals from 29 games.

Their squad has a good age profile and plenty of depth, while in Kevin De Bruyne, they possess arguably the best attacking midfield player in the league. The Belgian international finished second in the assists charts last year with 12. Only Harry Kane (14) managed more, and the City star achieved this feat despite playing 10 fewer games than the Englishman due to injury.

No team is flawless and a couple of injuries to key players could hurt them significantly, as it did during the 2019-20 campaign, but as it stands, it’s difficult to see any of City’s rivals matching them.

2. How will the Harry Kane saga end?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Harry Kane saga is how we ended up at this point in the first place.

Ahead of the 2018 World Cup, he signed a six-year contract reportedly worth £62,400,000.

In one respect, the decision looks incredibly naive in hindsight, and the suggestion he had a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Daniel Levy that he could move on does little to quell this perception.

If Kane was in any way unsure about committing to Tottenham until 2024, he should have at least insisted on a buyout clause in his contract, as Grealish did with Aston Villa.

How the situation develops from here is difficult to predict, though it would be a major surprise if Kane lines out against Man City from the outset on Sunday, for fitness reasons as much as anything else, given that he is only just back from an extended break post-Euro 2020.

In recent days, some British media reports have suggested City will launch a €150 million for the striker, while others have even hinted that the possibility of a new contract at Tottenham is not inconceivable.

Whatever happens though, the situation is another stark reminder of the realities of modern football.

If one of the richest clubs in the world and a team that has finished top four in four of the last six seasons, getting to the Champions League final as recently as 2019, seriously struggle to keep hold of their best player, then what hope is there for 99% of clubs out there who lack even Tottenham’s considerable wealth?

3. Can Jadon Sancho help take Man United to the next level?

jadon-sancho-file-photo Jadon Sancho (file pic). Source: PA

Along with fellow high-profile recruit Raphael Varane, there is big pressure on Jadon Sancho’s shoulders this season.

The winger joined Man United for a reported €85 million fee  — not too far off the €117 million Man City paid for Grealish, breaking the British transfer record in the process.

The 21-year-old was a revelation during his time in Germany with Dortmund, scoring 50 goals in 137 appearances, while according to footystats.org, he averages 0.48 assists for every 90 minutes.

Yet you still feel the youngster has something to prove to the people in England who would not have been following his overseas exploits too closely.

In particular, Sancho will be determined to make Man City rue their inability to persuade him to stick around amid limited first-team opportunities as a youngster.

Similarly, while he did feature in the final against Italy, notably missing a penalty in the shootout, some critics felt he was under-utilised by England at the Euros, and so he will also be keen to show Gareth Southgate why he should be a more integral part of his plans in the future.

With the likes of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata and Mason Greenwood competing for spots in attack this season, even starting for United is not 100% guaranteed, but if Sancho can bring his Dortmund form to Old Trafford, he should certainly improve the Red Devils’ attack a great deal.

With the addition of Varane, their defence looks as strong as any team in the league, while keeping Cavani — who scored 17 goals in 39 appearances last season — is unquestionably a boost, despite the 34-year-old having seen better days.

Midfield is perhaps their biggest weakness. While the likes of Fred, Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba are good players in isolation, they don’t always look a seamless fit together. You rarely see Man United dominate a game the way City or Chelsea do, and so you suspect this is one area where they may fall short. Red Devils legend Roy Keane, who knows more than most about midfield play, has been among those to express reservations about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men in this department ahead of the new season.

4. Will Virgil van Dijk get back to his best?

Virgil van Dijk is back playing again for Liverpool having missed the majority of last season after suffering an ACL injury.

The big question is whether the Dutchman can regain the type of form that led to the Reds making him the then world’s most expensive defender when he joined the club in January 2018 for a £75 million fee.

That has looked like money well spent, with Van Dijk integral to subsequent Premier League and Champions League triumphs, and he was badly missed, with the Reds often a shadow of their title-winning selves in his absence last season, as they just about did enough to secure a top-four spot.

Yet at 30, Van Dijk is closer to the end of his career than the beginning and more so than many defenders, he is heavily reliant on his impressive pace, with this asset likely to be less conspicuous as age and injury problems catch up with him.

In many ways, the Dutch international’s issues are a metaphor for the entire Liverpool squad, whose core members have been around for a long time now — the vast majority of the starting XI that played in the 2018 Champions League final remain key squad members.

There were times last year where the acclaimed attacking trio of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, who are all now aged 29, looked a little stale.

Even younger members of the squad such as Trent Alexander-Arnold on occasion looked short of confidence and error-prone in what was a forgettable campaign when judged by the Anfield club’s high standards.

Was it just a blip exacerbated by Van Dijk’s catastrophic injury and will Liverpool start to resemble the title winners of two years ago again? Jurgen Klopp will certainly hope so.

The alternative is one fans of the club will be reluctant to contemplate. Football is of course a game of cycles and this great Liverpool side’s moment in the sun may just be coming to an end.

5. Is Romelu Lukaku Chelsea’s missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle?

Having spent big in the summer last season, a poor run of form that included only two wins in eight games cost club legend Frank Lampard his job as Chelsea manager.

It was a team in disarray, yet after taking over on 26 January, German boss Thomas Tuchel’s impact was swift.

SEE SPORT
DIFFERENTLY

Get closer to the stories that matter with exclusive analysis, insight and debate in The42 Membership.

Become a Member

Roman Abramovich could hardly have envisioned it going much better. The new boss oversaw a 13-match unbeaten run, which was a club record.

He also steered Chelsea to glory in the Champions League, upsetting Man City 1-0 in the final, as well as helping them secure a coveted top-four spot that had appeared unlikely in the last days of the Lampard era.

There have been occasional blips along the way — the 1-0 FA Cup final defeat to Leicester and the emphatic 5-2 defeat against West Brom in the Premier League, but for the most part, the Blues have looked formidable under Tuchel.

Key to their impressive form since the former PSG coach took charge has been their defence — in 19 Premier League games, they earned 11 clean sheets.

Their talented and well-balanced midfield, with the likes of Euros winner Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Mason Mount would be the envy of most Premier League clubs.

Yet one stat that stands out from last season for the wrong reasons is the fact that defensive midfielder Jorginho was their top scorer with seven goals.

Some big-season summer signings, most notably Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, have yet to fully convince in attack.

That is why the acquisition of Romelu Lukaku for a reported €115 million fee from Inter feels so important.

Despite being effectively discarded by the Blues as a youngster, Lukaku has scored goals pretty much anywhere he has gone since.

With 12 goals in 32 appearances, his last season at Man United was not especially impressive, but having registered 64 goals in 95 games, he has since gone on to consolidate his reputation as a world-class striker in Serie A.

Should he avoid serious injury, there is no reason why the 28-year-old can’t become the 20-goal-a-season striker that Chelsea have been sorely lacking lately, in the process, helping them become the biggest threat to Man City’s crown.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures

Friday

Brentford v Arsenal (20.00)

Saturday

Man United v Leeds (12.30)
Burnley v Brighton (15.00)
Chelsea v Crystal Palace (15.00)
Everton v Southampton (15.00)
Leicester v Wolves (15.00)
Watford v Aston Villa (15.00)
Norwich v Liverpool (17.30)

Sunday

Newcastle v West Ham (14.00)
Tottenham v Man City (16.30)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

Read next:

COMMENTS (3)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel