A nervous air of excitement has gripped fans from all over the world – as the biggest league of the world, the Premier League, rolls out in its latest iteration on Friday night.
Last season, Pep Guardiola’s rampant Manchester City side steamrolled all in sight to claim victory with a record tally of 100 points – 19 more than 2nd place, cross-town rivals Manchester United.
As the league kicks off with Man Utd taking on 2015/16 champions Leicester City, the chasing pack will be looking to take the challenge to the reigning champions. No team has successfully defended the league in this decade, with the previous 3 champions even failing to make the top 4 in the subsequent season.
In this feature, we take a look at our top 3 title contenders – Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool – and a dark horse contender, Arsenal – and analyze their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
The same strengths that carried them to Pep Guardiola’s first Premier League title. In his third season now, this is well and truly Guardiola’s team. The players know the roles they have to carry out, and the gaffer has his choice of players to execute his plans.
A ferocious attack – with Sergio Aguero, sure to go down in the pantheon of all-time greatest Premier League strikers, and starlet Gabriel Jesus as his understudy. A metronomic midfield – with the peerless Kevin de Bruyne, who racked up the most assists in the league last season, accompanied by the silky David Silva, and the robust Fernandinho behind them.
Electric wingers – in Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva and new addition, record signing Riyad Mahrez. And ravaging fullbacks – the two most expensive fullbacks of all time in Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy.
The phenomenal thing about City’s squad is their strength in depth. Aguero gets injured? Jesus steps in. Silva gets injured? They have Ilkay Gundogan. Sterling unfit? Mahrez or Bernardo Silva can effortlessly slot in. Kompany picks up a knock yet again? Aymeric Laporte or John Stones are there to take his place. A long season awaits, and City can deal with it.
Barely any. If we have to be really picky, City showed a weakness when teams really went at them – and exposed cracks in their defense. Most teams could not do this because they barely got the ball against City, but Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp showed everyone the roadmap – on how to be the kryptonite to City, beating them three times in a row. If more teams could pick that up, City could be in for a trickier season.
The ageing Fernandinho and David Silva could also be potential concerns, but they have more than enough quality to cope up with ageing legs.
This City side is still very young – with Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo Silva, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy and Phil Foden in their early 20s, and Kevin de Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez hitting their peaks. By becoming the first side to defend their title this decade, they could signal the start of a dominant era.
One reason why sides have failed to defend their titles is complacency. City found it almost too easy at times last season, and could find complacency creep in again. Guardiola will have his task cut out to motivate his players.
Manchester United –
A galaxy of stars who haven’t met their potential yet. If Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford can hit their best notes, Man Utd have an attack which could rival City’s.
With new signing Fred and Nemanja Matic pulling the strings in midfield, and the industry of Jesse Lingard and Ander Herrera, Utd have enough to support their star cast. Then, of course, is the man-mountain in goal – four-time consecutive United Player of the Year David de Gea – who can turn certain losses into scrappy wins.
Their biggest possible weakness can also be their biggest possible strength – Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese manager has seemed beleagured recently, denied of the signings he wanted. Mourinho has installed a siege mentality at Man Utd, and is the underdog this season – the very situation he’s at his best at.
A Mourinho desperate to prove that he’s not past it can be a double-edged sword – he could be at his scintillating best, or his imploding worst. The Old Trafford faithful will be hoping it’s the former.
Somehow, Man Utd are still in a position where they have a pair of 33-year-old converted wingers as their first choice fullbacks. Their center-backs don’t inspire much confidence either – Mourinho was desperate for a new center-back, but was denied.
Eric Bailly is injury prone, while Victor Lindelof, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo don’t inspire much confidence – none of them are genuine leaders. de Gea will have to be at his very best to help United keep the top teams at bay.
The chance to show the world that Manchester United are not a force on the wane. Despite the outlook from the media, last season’s 2nd place was by far their best finish in the post-Ferguson era. Mourinho will be hoping to do one better.
Mourinho has looked at odds with Ed Woodward recently – with questions around his relationship with players. It all smells very 2015/16 Chelsea – United will be hoping it’s not a similar implosion.
A rampant attack in record-breaker Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino – who will be looking to better last season’s free-flowing football, and top it off with a tangible trophy. A steely midfield, reinforced by new signings Fabinho and Naby Keita, will be looking to supply the Salah-Firmino-Mane triumvirate endlessly. And with record signings Alisson and Virgil van Dijk shoring up their defense, Liverpool could be looking to put their defensive frailties to bed – finally.
Jurgen Klopp has impressed one and all with his style of football at Liverpool – but has failed to win a single trophy so far. After spending such a big amount of money on summer reinforcements Alisson, Keita, Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri, he’ll be gunning to take City down.
Do Liverpool have enough in the tank to go all the way? Trent Alexandre-Arnold is still very raw, and Nathaniel Clyne is coming after a long-term injury. The third midfielder spot is still not inspiring confidence, after a move for Nabil Fekir fell through at the last hurdle. Can Alisson bed in well, or will the pressure of the price tag get to him?
Liverpool are yet to win a Premier League title. After the disappointment of 13/14, this might be their best chance ever – having assembled a star cast which ranks up there with one of their best sides in Premier League history. If they don’t take their opportunity this season – both in the Premier League and the Champions League, sides from sunny Spain could come calling for their top talent.
The longer it goes, the bigger it becomes – Liverpool’s mental block. They got oh so close 4 years ago, and then inexplicably choked in the last moment. In a title challenge going down to the wire, can they keep their bottle?
Dark Horses – Arsenal
A surprise package, a new-look Arsenal side will start their first season in the post-Wenger era as somewhat of an unknown quantity. With the mental baggage of the late-Wenger era gone, Arsenal will be looking to start afresh.
Their strength certainly lies in their attack, with the creativity of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil and the clinicalness of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Arsenal have been crying out loud for a top striker since Robin van Persie – they now have two.
Unai Emery has also recruited smartly – although they may not have signed superstars, he has identified problem areas and fixed them. Lucas Torreira in midfield, Sokratis Papasthathopolous in defense, Bernd Leno in goal – all plug in long-term problem areas. Arsenal certainly have the talent to spring up a surprise.
Their defense still stands out as a sore spot – with Laurent Koscielny a serial name on the injury list. Shkodran Mustafi has been more miss than hit, and Sokratis is still to bed in. Hector Bellerin needs to curb his natural attacking instincts too, and leave the right flank less exposed.
With Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal both missing the opening few weeks, left-back is also a pressing issue. Another question remains if Arsenal have the depth to cope up with a full Europa League campaign?
Absolutely no weight of expectations – after the gradual death under Wenger, Emery has a free hit to shape the squad how he wants to. Finishing in the top 4 would be a resounding success – no one will blame them if they fail to achieve that, too. No expectations could mean Arsenal start playing more freely – which could mean they could surprise a few.
Aside from the top 3 – Chelsea arguably look weaker than last season, with Thibaut Courtois out, Kepa Arrizabalaga in being an undoubted downgrade. It will also take time for Maurizio Sarri to impose his philosophy. Tottenham Hotspur look happy to stagnate – they became the first side in Premier League summer window history to make no signings at all. Could Arsenal step up?
Author’s Take –
I can’t see anyone challenge City for the title. Man Utd will be a very close second, with Liverpool in third. I expect Arsenal to fight with Tottenham Hotspur for 4th place.