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Premier League preview: Liverpool look vulnerable but are City, United or Chelsea good enough to catch them?

Get ready for today’s big kick-off with our bumper Premier League preview.

HOW TO PREDICT a season we can’t be sure will even end? 

Uncertainty, therefore, is the abiding word as a new Premier League season creeps quietly upon us. 

liverpool-v-chelsea-premier-league-anfield Jurgen Klopp celebrates with the trophy he must now defend. Source: PA

There is uncertainty over whether the season will end; uncertainty over when fans will be allowed back into grounds; and uncertainty over just how lucrative this business is after all, as empty stands and the ripping up of a £525 million Chinese TV contract adds further to the notion that a score of club owners may be slowly rubbing their bleary eyes in the slough of a weapons-grade hangover after a years-long boom. 

It’s also difficult to recall a season in which all the clubs were clouded in ranging hues of uncertainty of their own, exacerbated by the transfer window remaining open until 5 October. 

The off-season was so short that none of the 20 clubs had the chance to fire their manager, but that ironically doesn’t remove doubt from anyone other than Burnley, who will again stay up and will again not be worth watching as they do so. 

Liverpool are the champions and have been Europe’s outstanding team over the last two seasons, but can they really keep this relentless pace? 

If so, they will have to retain their good fortune on the injury front – Virgil van Dijk played every minute of last season and all but an hour of the one before it, with Liverpool looking equally light on replacements for their full-backs and all of the front three – and Klopp must hope his “mentality monsters” can deal with the challenge of being chased, rather than doing the chasing themselves.

His is a team that has been driven by their preceding failures – Champions League and Premier League near-misses were immediately followed by victories – so how will they maintain their edge now there are no more worlds left to conquer? 

They will also be unable to sharpen their senses against the demands of the Anfield crowd, and while Jurgen Klopp has said his side will be “attacking, not defending” their crown, even a nigh-imperceptible drop in intensity can cause glaring issues in Liverpool’s surgically-tuned game. A single player not pressing with the intensity he should can open concentric swathes of space for the opposition. 

Alex Ferguson is the one manager to make a habit of retaining the Premier League, and he usually blew away any latent complacency by recruiting new players. Liverpool haven’t done so. The cost of having a successful team stick together is the lack of a Coutinho-style windfall to improve it, and this, taken with investments in redeveloping Anfield and the club’s training ground, has left them with nothing to spend this year. 

“For some clubs it seems to be less important how uncertain the future is”, says Klopp. “Owned by countries, owned by oligarchs, that’s the truth. We’re a different kind of club.” 

Manchester City and Chelsea may have felt their ears burning. 

City are probably best-placed to make the most of any Liverpool slips, but they have issues of their own. The most significant part of their close season so far has been who hasn’t arrived, but of those who have signed, only Nathan Ake looks like he is ready to go directly into the first team.

netherlands-netterlands-vs-italy Nathan Ake. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Guardiola must instead focus on rejuvenating a few of his key players’ form, including Ederson, Raheem Sterling, and the mystifyingly poor Bernardo Silva. But does Guardiola have it in him to inject fresh energy into his team? 

This will be his fifth season at City, making it his longest-lasting stint in management. Working with Guardiola is, by anyone’s testimony, utterly exhausting for all involved, so it will be fascinating to see if his and his players’ reserves are as deep as their owners’. 

At his best, Guardiola seems to do much of his players’ work for them – his Barcelona players frequently talked about how Guardiola would tell them exactly how they would win any given game – but there have been strains on that magic of late, most notable in Kevin De Bruyne’s honest appraisal of “It’s a different year, same stuff” in the immediate heat of European exit to Lyon. 

Things are much fresher at Chelsea, where Frank Lampard’s bold and long-lasting trust in youth has been emphatically chucked out the window. Lampard should hardly believe his luck: he was given one of Europe’s biggest jobs after a single year in charge of Derby County and is now benefitting from one of the most lavish spending sprees in the game’s history. 

The arrivals of Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Ben Chilwell, Thiago Silva, Malang Sarr and the imminent arrival of a goalkeeper represents an extraordinary amount of activity in a pandemic; the kind of splurge that is less forgiving of a manager’s inexperience than a stadium full of adoring fans. 

frank-lampard-file-photo Frank Lampard. Source: PA

But even Lampard, who enjoys ludicrously easy press in England, will face criticism if his side doesn’t hit the ground running. Fitting Werner, Havertz, Ziyech, and Christian Pulisic into the same attack will need a bit of time, however, and it’s something Lampard hasn’t been blessed with in a pre-season blighted by late arrivals and quarantines. 

Just as surprising as Chelsea’s mega-spend is the quiet and nigh-universal regard for Ed Woodward’s business in the transfer window so far, with the arrival of Donny Van De Beek from Ajax one of the best signings of the closed season.

Solskjaer hit upon a formula that worked in the latter third of last season, and while Van De Beek adds some much-needed midfield depth to a side lacking it, the defence remains an area of huge concern. 

Beneath that quartet, Arsenal and Tottenham have a huge gap to bridge with one looking more likely to do so than the other. Mikel Arteta has given Arsenal a defensive resilience last seen some time in the mid-2000s, and with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang likely to sign a new contract, they can call on the league’s best striker. 

Tottenham have done some good business – Matt Doherty is great value at €16 million though, as we’ve seen with Ireland, he may need time to get used to playing in a back four – but there is nothing in the last decade of Jose Mourinho’s management to suggest he can improve Spurs as a collective. 

Jose’s career was just taking flight when Leeds United were last in the Premier League, and today they return under Marcelo Bielsa, who gets the chance to coach in a league graced by a host of his proteges, including Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino. 

Sheffield United showed last season how high a promoted side can be vaulted by a modern, defined and energetic style, and while losing Ben White to Brighton is a blow, the sheer amount of energy Bielsa demands should be enough for them to avoid relegation. 

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Fulham and West Brom, by contrast, are familiar to the league and they may be about to grow familiar with a relegation battle. 

Elsewhere, Leicester narrowly missed out on Champions League football last season and the loss of Ben Chilwell will make it difficult for them to go one better while this year’s edition of Everton’s Midfield Decadence may be one of their more successful. James Rodriguez is a punt, but Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan look like an ideal partnership.

Away from the pitch, the players will wear a slogan reading, ‘No Room For Racism’ in place of ‘Black Lives Matter’ this year, which will allow the league retain a stance against racism without aligning themselves with the direct, defund-the-police action demanded by the BLM movement. Taking a knee will continue to be supported. 

manchester-united-v-west-ham-united-premier-league-old-trafford Marcus Rashford takes a knee ahead of a league meeting with West Ham last season. Source: PA

The pandemic means Stephen Kenny won’t get to scout games in the flesh, though he and his management team will be watching the Premier League more keenly than previous Ireland managers had reason to. 

Aaron Connolly has the potential to reach double figures in goals for Brighton, where Jayson Molumby may make a first-team impact. Michael Obafemi should continue to make his influence felt alongside Shane Long at Southampton, where Will Smallbone may yet establish himself before the season is out. 

Jeff Hendrick has gone to Newcastle to hopefully rediscover some of the creative talents that perished so badly in Sean Dyche’s dreary regiment, while Kenny will be crossing his fingers that James McCarthy gets an uninterrupted run in the Crystal Palace midfield. 

This is all with a view to Ireland’s participation at Euro 2020, by which time the players will be shattered. The calendar has never been so squeezed, as the club game aims to wrap their seasons before the Euros begin (somewhere) on 11 June. 

It means teams in Europe may not have a midweek off until December and will have to send out U23 sides in the League Cup as it clashes with European dates. It is an absurd fixture schedule, and England has bucked the European trend by returning to three substitutes a game. 

leeds-united-fans-outside-elland-road Leeds fans make their reverence of their manager pretty clear. Source: PA

They have kept VAR, mind, although referees have been told to use the pitch side monitor more often and the exasperating live geometry on offside calls will likely not be shown to TV viewers. Instead we will see definitive red or green lines. 

There has been the annual clarification of the handball law: now, if the ball strikes a player from the top of the shoulder to the bottom of the armpit – armpits! We’re still talking about armpits! – will not be deemed handball. If the ball strikes the arm below that, then it’s adjudged a handball. 

The Premier League have also had to fall more staunchly in line with Fifa rules this year, so expect to see a lot more penalties given away for handball in the penalty area.

Remember the Kimpembe handball from a couple of seasons ago that cost PSG a Champions League tie with Manchester United? Expect those kinds of decisions to be made in England this season, and then prepare for the inevitable wailing of tears and gnashing of teeth that will follow. 

Still, as we learned earlier this year, any competition that can occupy itself solely with such trivialities is in a pretty good place, and we can only hope it remains that way right through until May, and that no further uncertainty unfolds from the hidden pleats of another Premier League Year. 

Predictions

Champions: Manchester City 

Champions League: Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United 

Relegated: Aston Villa, Fulham, West Brom 

Player of the Season: Kevin De Bruyne 

Signing of the Season: Donny Van de Beek 

First sacking: Dean Smith

First Cryptic Jose Mourinho Message to Board in post-match interview: 27 September 

First stadium boycott in spite of being locked out for months/years because of a generation-defining pandemic: Newcastle United fans

First manager to tell Marcelo Bielsa ‘That’s just not how we do things in this country’: Frank Lampard 

Manager to replace the West Ham manager who replaced David Moyes: David Moyes

Earliest call for the complete abolition of VAR: 12.37pm, 12 September

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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