The Premier League is back
From Liverpool's title defence to the return of Leeds and the race for the top four, there's much to look out for as football returns this weekend
It seems like a trick of the mind that just over two months ago, the Premier League ended in a sterile atmosphere of empty stadiums, canned crowd noises for TV viewers, and Liverpool crowned champions after 30 years. On 26 July, the final day of the 2019-20 season, mid-September didn’t seem too far away. And the months in between have been eventful, what with the exciting Champions League finish, Barcelona’s meltdown and the transfer saga of Lionel Messi. It seems like football has never been away.
The league season starting 12 September will be a strange one because of the pandemic. Fans still won’t be allowed into stadiums, though clubs are trying to figure out ways to have at least some of them back in the stands before long. Normally, the season begins in mid-August, so the season will be highly compressed this time, with every club facing a gruelling schedule of league ties and Cup games. The bio-secure bubble when the Premier League resumed in June isn’t so secure any more, with many players testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
But worries aside, football is back, and here are five things to look forward to.
Can Liverpool retain the title?
Such was Liverpool’s momentum and dominance last season that the title was all but won even before the pandemic brought the league to a halt on 13 March. At that point, there was a yawning chasm of 25 points between Liverpool and second-placed Manchester City. Despite losing much of their intensity once the title was won with seven games to spare, Liverpool still finished 18 points ahead. This season, it will be a question of whether the Reds can retain the title. Manager Jürgen Klopp has promised that his team will not seek to defend the title, but attack it. And Liverpool is certainly best placed to finish first again.
It will, however, depend on a few factors. For starters, after the cathartic release of having won the club’s first championship in 30 years, the team will have to find enough motivation to go out and do it again. Remember, Liverpool has been in an unrelenting, intense form for over two seasons now, racking up an astonishing 196 points and pretty much winning all the major honours. The squad will remain largely unchanged and Klopp will have to ensure the focus doesn’t waver, right from the league’s meanest defence, anchored by Virgil van Dijk, to the free-scoring front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino.
Can Manchester City close the gap?
After creating an unrelenting winning machine that hoovered up two back-to-back Premier League titles, 2019-20 was a year to forget for Pep Guardiola’s team. On song, City remains as lethal and effective as ever, blowing teams out of the water with some stylish, intricate football. But what the previous season revealed was that City has a glass jaw—its defence. Far too many times, counter-attacking sides found ample space behind the back four, and City’s run of surprise defeats had effectively handed the title to Liverpool by December last year. Despite scoring an eye-watering 105 goals in the league last season, City still managed to lose nine times.
If City’s problem area was in defence, the team still hasn’t addressed the urgent need to reinforce. Although the transfer window is open till 8 October, City will have to be perfect in its opening few fixtures so as to not surrender the initiative to Liverpool. As always, Guardiola will look to the continued brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne in midfield and the potency of Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero in attack. And after Messi opted to remain at Barcelona, we can’t hope to see the world’s best player in the sky-blue jersey of City. Clawing back a deficit of 18 points from Liverpool is a tough ask but Guardiola’s team will certainly try.
The fight for top four
Three rookies and one grizzled old fox. José Mourinho will chafe at being called old but he would be happy to be called a fox. And he will need all his nous and experience to find a way to get Tottenham back into the top 4, in direct competition with Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. Tottenham has fallen away since finishing regularly among the top four between 2015 and 2019. It’s a tired squad that needs refreshing and Mourinho might find it tough to break into the top four.
Frank Lampard did better than expected to steer Chelsea into fourth place last season, and the London club certainly splashed the cash in the closed season, spending big bucks to bring in exciting attacking players like Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech. Despite the signings, however, Chelsea remains a team in transition. While Lampard has managed to stiffen up his side’s resolve, it remains vulnerable in defence and is yet to sort out its goal-keeping problem. A tilt at the title may seem outlandish this season but a top 4 finish certainly looks possible.
Arsenal too is a club in transition. Manager Mikel Arteta has made the Gunners a steelier side by focusing on tightening the defence. In attack, however, the side remains all too reliant on the brilliance of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The FA Cup winners have plenty of young and exciting players but just like Chelsea, the best Arteta can hope for is a top 4 finish this season. Manchester United, on the other hand, can hope for something more. Having defied expectations to finish third last season, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has managed to fashion United into an often thrilling counter-attacking side. Donny van de Beek is an excellent signing in midfield but United still needs to get a striker and bolster its defence to challenge the duopoly of City and Liverpool.
The return of Leeds
Premier League fans of a certain generation would remember the thrilling, high-flying Leeds sides from 20 years ago. A young and vibrant attacking team, between 1998-2001 Leeds was ever present in the top 4. In 1999-2000 season, it came third and the following season, it stormed into the semi-final of the Champions League. Within the next six seasons, the club had plummeted two league tiers, to League One. It has been a long, hard road back to the Premier League elite but the Yorkshire team should provide plenty of entertainment this season.
The main reason for that is manager Marcelo “El Loco" Bielsa. The mad one is one of the most respected coaches in the world—Guardiola considers him his guru—and under his tutelage, Leeds has transformed into a hard-pressing, slick-passing and free-scoring side that’s a joy to watch. The Premier League will prove to be a different level altogether but if Bielsa’s close-knit team clicks, it might give many of the bigger teams a bloody nose this season. We will find out soon enough, as the Championship winners travel to meet the defending Premier League champions Liverpool on the first day of the season. Expect fireworks.
Players to watch out for
Chelsea has made the most eye-catching new signings so far, and anyone among Havertz, Werner and Ziyech might hit the ground running and have a fantastic season. Salah, Mané, Aubameyang, Sterling and Agüero can be counted upon to continue to be the best strikers and playmakers in the league, with United’s Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood hoping to join them. Among midfielders, De Bruyne remains supreme, while his teammate Phil Foden, and Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes, should continue where they left off last year. Among defenders, Liverpool’s Rolls-Royce of a centre back, Virgil van Dijk, will be key to his club’s hopes, as will the electrifying attacking full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson.