It should have been sensational. After 30 years of seeing domination in the top flight from the likes of Man Utd, Chelsea and Man City, it was Liverpool’s turn. There should have been 50,000 people on the Anfield pitch. There should have been an open bus tour with the streets of Liverpool thronging with wild-eyed fans. There should have been parties and flares firing into the night sky on Merseyside…Okay, so maybe some of that still happened.
In all seriousness, Liverpool swept away the opposition last season to finish a sensational 18 points ahead of Man City and the rest. Jurgen Klopp developed the perfect storm of a water-tight defence, a dynamic midfield and deadly strike force. And this time, Man City lost nine games.
One gets the feeling it won’t be such a saunter through Stanley Park and beyond this season. Indeed, Liverpool seem to have the ‘let’s go again’ stance, sticking pretty much with the squad that led them to the title in 2019/20. But is that such a wise ploy? Whilst they stand still, those around them are catching up, recruiting well and trying to narrow the gap. Albeit, last season that gap was a gaping chasm. The Reds have added Greek left-back Kostas Tsimikas and will perhaps utilise youngsters Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Rhian Brewster more as back-up to their first XI. It goes without saying that they have one of the best, if not the best, starting XI in the Premier League, one just worries a little beyond that. Two central figures stand at the middle of Liverpool’s success. One is captain Jordan Henderson, once maligned, now magnificent as a leader and influence on those perhaps more talented players around him. The other, of course, is Klopp himself; a manager who has the perfect blend of superb man management and tactics which aim to blast the opposition from the get-go. For Liverpool, winning a second successive title may not depend on their own drop-off, but more so how much other teams can get their act together.
How is Pep Guardiola going to turn around that 18 point gap and win a 5th Premier League title for Manchester City? He’s already taken serious action to shore up a creaky, ever-changing defence with the signing of Nathan Ake. The Dutchman should prove a good partner for Joan Laporte. At £20m attacker Ferran Torres appears a bargain, although it remains to be seen if he will be a regular starter for City. When Man City are on song, there isn’t a team in the league who can compete with them; last season their song at times was more of a deranged howl as they lost against the likes of Norwich and Wolves (twice). However, they still managed an incredible 105 goals, and with a tighter defensive unit, they might expect to be recrowned as champions in May 2021.
Across Manchester, Ole Gunnar Solkjaer’s Manchester United team are making steady progress in his tenure. There is no doubt the key man for United is Bruno Fernandes, who lit up the team in the second half of last season, with goals and assists galore. There seems a real intention at Old Trafford to restore the club to its glories of a decade and more previous, with investment in the first team squad. Donny van de Beek has arrived from Ajax to add more depth to an impressive midfield which already boasts Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay and Fred. There is no doubt, either, in the excitement of the forward line where Mason Greenwood continues to flourish. Perhaps the only doubt for United is defensively, where they look liable to make big mistakes, no-one more so than David de Gea, whose star has faded and who faces a huge challenge for the gloves from Dean Henderson. For United, the title still seems a little out of touch, but they’re certainly feeling their way back.
Down in London, Chelsea and Arsenal both have effervescent young managers who are keen to build on solid first campaigns in charge. At Stamford Bridge, Frank Lampard has been given the gift of money this pre-season, and has (on paper at least) probably made the most exciting signings. Hakim Ziyech is an exciting attacking midfielder who Chelsea fans will look to finally fill the boots of Eden Hazard, whilst Timo Werner will certainly add goals. Add to the mix sought-after Kai Havertz, who has a feel of a young Michael Ballack about him, and Chelsea suddenly look like title contenders. Another advancement is in defence, oft-questioned last season, but now the additions of Ben Chilwell and veteran Thiago Silva will add nous and solidity. If the new signings settle, Chelsea could really make a charge.
Over at the Emirates, Mikel Arteta has strong backing of the board, fans and players alike after a positive 9 months in charge culminated in an FA Cup victory. Keeping hold of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been key, with the forward looking better than ever aged 31. The emergence of Kieran Tierney, post-injury, as an exciting full back will boost Arsenal, as will the development of youngsters Bukayo Saka and Joe Willock. Other players will have settled too, such as record signing Nicolas Pepe and re-loaned Dani Ceballos, who was impressive after lockdown. Add to the mix Willian, who still has plenty to offer aged 32 and the return from loan of French youngster William Saliba, and Arsenal’s squad looks both stronger and more balanced. Question marks still remain, though. Fitness has been an issue amongst many players, and the reliance on David Luiz as not just a defender but a footballer in general, is frankly bizarre. A season of progress awaits, albeit one where others are still several yards ahead in the chase for Premier League glory.
A short walk across North London, and Tottenham Hotspur have had a relatively quiet summer, adding just Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Matt Doherty in terms of senior signings. Both are solid if unspectacular additions. Jose Mourinho has his feet under the table now and will be hoping he can have a little more luck with injuries after the likes of Harry Kane, Moussa Sissoko and Ben Davies spent much of last season on the treatment table. Spurs undoubtedly have talent all over the pitch, with Heung Min Son one of this writer’s favourite and most underrated Premier League players. Perhaps defensively, question marks may persist over central defence, where the quality of Jan Vertonghen hasn’t really been replaced, and question marks remain over Serge Aurier. I expect a return to the status quo in terms of the old-school ‘Top Six’ this season, but Spurs will be hard-pressed to finish above any of the other incumbents.
Last season, Leicester started the season looking like they were trying to emulate the fairy tale of 2015/16, but ended it like they had put their pens firmly down and given up writing that particular story. The demise must have been worrying for Brendan Rodgers, whose side still appear over-reliant on the pace and goals of 33-year-old Jamie Vardy. Of course, they are strong elsewhere and in Wilfred Ndidi and James Maddison have two of the best players in their respective positions anywhere in the division. They have, of course, lost Ben Chilwell but head into the campaign with a similar group of players including a very solid defensive partnership of Caglar Soyuncu and Jonny Evans. If Leicester are to compete amongst the top 6 again, they will need to get over the disappointment of last season’s end.
Wolves were another impressive side last season, showing consistency across the season – they finished 7th and played in a Europa Cup quarter final. It’s easy to forget that Nuno Espirito Santo’s team have only been promoted for two seasons. They have again added to an already strong squad with starlet Fabio Silva adding to their growing Portuguese contingent. Rui Patricio is one of the league’s best ‘keepers, whilst at the other end of the pitch, Raul Jiminez scored 27 goals in all competitions and is one of the strongest all-round strikers in the Premier League. Having played over 60 games last season, Wolves may find it hard to emulate last season’s achievements, they are no longer the ‘surprise package,’ but a top half finish is likely.
Everton seem to have had a series of false dawns over the last decade and more, but this season it feels like it could be the beginning of some proper progress for the Merseyside club. Carlo Ancelotti, given a full season with his players, is a classy manager and it seems almost certain they will improve on last season’s 12th place. Impressively, Ancelotti has identified midfield as the key area of improvement and has signed Allan from Napoli and Abdoulaye Doucoure who deserved to stay in the Premier League. Of course, James Rodriguez is an eye-catching signing and much will depend on whether he can recapture the kind of form which led to Real Madrid laying out £65million for his signature in the first place. Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin continue to impress in attack, but perhaps Everton’s defence requires improvement. Mason Holgate developed into a fine centre back last season, but the form of Jordan Pickford is a concern. Expect a stronger Everton, one which should be looking up rather than down.
Southampton are my pick for this season’s surprise package. After a slow start under Rafl Hussenhattl and that disastrous 0-9 reverse against Leicester, they showed strong form in the second half of the campaign and were producing some eye-catching football. They are a squad without real superstars, but all the same one which is settled. They have improved defensively, with Jan Vestergaard at the centre of the improvement. In midfield, James Ward-Prowse is now progressing into one of the best English players in his position, and improvements will likely be seen from Moussa Djenepo and Che Adams. The jewel in Southampton’s crown is Danny Ings, who scores for fun and has surprisingly not been subject of many transfer rumours. Usually amongst the bottom half, the Saints can expect to be at least comfortable this season and could surprise a few… either that or I will be left with egg on my face.
Last season, Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United were undoubtedly the surprise package. Keeping to their style of playing overlapping central defenders bamboozled many as they finished 9th, which could well have been higher. They have kept the core of the squad, with John Egan and Jack O’ Connell two of the division’s best centre backs. In midfield, John Fleck makes the side tick and wing backs Enda Stevens and George Baldock are vastly underrated, at least by those outside the club. The Blades have recruited well, adding more depth to the squad with the likes of Jayden Bogle, Max Lowe and Ethan Ampadu on loan. Losing Den Henderson is a huge blow, and even though Ramsdale is an able replacement, he isn’t quite on the same level. They also lack a striker who will push far beyond double figures, and I think the second season will be much harder than the first – a lack of fans at a normally passionate Bramall Lane could also be a factor. Relegation is unlikely, but it could be a bit of a slog.
Burnley are another side who often punch above their weight, and Sean Dyche is always up for the fight. Again, last season, after a slow start they pushed up the league to finish comfortably mid-table and it would be blind-sighted to expect anything different this time around. The Clarets have a small, but tight-knit squad. Their strongest area is defence, where James Tarkowski and Ben Mee’s partnership is watertight. Further forward, they tend to buck the ‘fancy trend’ and play two up front, but it works effectively when you have options such as Jay Rodriguez, Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes. Dwight McNeil is probably their most creative talent. A lack of depth is concerning, and Dyche shows signs of frustration in the transfer market. It might be questioned how much further the ‘Ginger Mourinho’ can take them with the funds at his disposal – he probably deserves a little bigger and better than the sensible ambition of the Turf Moor club.
Newcastle United consolidated under Steve Bruce last year, where many thought they would get relegated. The style of play was often poor, but Bruce did keep the Magpies afloat with plenty to spare. Fans are distressed at the failed takeover by the Saudi mafia, so for now they will have to stick with the cockney version, with Mike Ashley promising he does want to sell the club at least. On the pitch, the club have made some smart additions, adding Bournemouth duo Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser for a bargain £20m combined, and Norwich’s emerging left back Jamal Lewis for £15m. The rest of the squad remains pretty much intact, and the Toon Army will be hoping that Allan Saint-Maximin will continue to light up the premier league with his dazzling dribbling skills. The worry for Newcastle is statistically they were amongst the worst in the league, both defensively and attacking-wise and Geordie fans may get impatient if they get off to a bad start. For a club which is often more like a soap opera, another season of solidity under Bruce may not be the worst thing.
Brighton were tipped by many for relegation last year, but kept their noses out of danger throughout. Graham Potter’s first season in charge saw him establish his style of play whilst the team picked up some impressive victories. Defensively sound, they can now boast the return of Ben White, so impressive with Leeds last season. Alongside the likes of Dan Burn and Lewis Dunk, who has been unbelievably ignored by England thus far, they have a strong unit. Further forward, goals are sometimes hard to come by. The Seagulls were indebted to Neal Maupay’s 10 goals last season, but it could prove once again difficult for them to outscore teams. Youngsters Tariq Lamptey and Aaron Connolly offer youthful hope to an otherwise experienced squad, which is good enough to be comfortable yet again.
Dean Smith was delighted with his team’s spirit post-lockdown, as Aston Villa cut a 7-point deficit to stay in the Premier League. It was a rollercoaster of a season for Villa with defensive deficiencies and mistakes often undoing good attacking work. Of course, Jack Grealish is at the heart of the team and the club, the captain having a stunning season and often winning points single-handedly. He needs more help. Villa’s strikers last year – Wesley, Mbamwa Samatta and Keinan Davis – struggled as they scored just 6 league goals between them. That fact alone gives some weight behind the £28m outlay on Brentford’s Ollie Watkins, who will hope to convert his goalscoring form to the Premier League. Villa must tighten up at the back – Tyrone Mings may need a little more help and quality. The right back position is improved with the arrival of Matty Cash, but they still look vulnerable. Smith will be hoping they don’t need another miraculous escape in 2020/21.
West Ham, as ever, seem to be in the midst of a mini-crisis. Owners David Sullivan and David Gold publicly said that they had to sell before they buy. For many West Ham fans, they believed this meant selling flops such as Felipe Anderson or Sebastian Haller; or perhaps injury prone attacker Manuel Lanzini. Instead, they sold exciting youth product Grady Diangaga for £16m to a team in West Brom who now appear to be relegation rivals. No major additions over the summer leave the Hammers with Michael Antonio as their best centre forward. Combative and effective he may be, but not the type of striker for a team with top half ambitions. Optimism lays in January signings Jarrod Bowen and Tomas Soucek, both of whom shone post-lockdown, but for David Moyes it appears this year will be another battle at the wrong end of the table.
The form of Crystal Palace after ‘Project Restart’ was astonishingly bad. Seven straight defeats and a real lack of goals is alarming for veteran manager Roy Hodgson, who will be having questions asked of him by Eagles fans should they get off to a bad start. Yet again, the season begins with questions over Wilfred Zaha’s future, although his value must have reduced after a poor goals return last year. The truth is, no-one in a Palace shirt was particularly prolific in front of goal last season, although Jordan Ayew scored some vital goals when needed. Palace are probably stronger in defence and midfield, where they boast enforcers Cheikhou Kouyate, Luka Milivojevic and James McArthur. The signing of Ebere Eze has caught the eye, the former QPR youngster has a bright future ahead of him. However, with alarming form and a lack of goals, this season could well see Palace battle it out at the bottom of the table – and possibly lose the war.
Out of the promoted trio, a lot has been written about Leeds United and their return to the top flight for the first time in 16 years. Rightly so, as Marcelo Bielsa’s side played some brilliant football to secure promotion. They will be keen to renew rivalries with the likes of Manchester United, but I think they’re also likely to be one of the clubs most affected by the ban on fans, as Elland Road can generate an electric atmosphere when full. Active in the transfer market, Leeds have brought in striker Rodrigo from Valencia and centre back Robin Koch amongst others, although they will be disappointed they couldn’t convert loanee Ben White into a permanent Leeds player. It certainly won’t be easy for them, and much will rest on how many goals Rodrigio and inconsistent goalscorer Patrick Bamford can muster as well as how well the new recruits adapt to the unforgiving nature of the Premier League.
West Brom, promoted as runners-up, are the bookies favourites to be returned to sender, and its not hard to see why. They laboured for promotion at the end of the season, and lack real conviction going forward. Slaven Bilic is an experienced boss and will offer know-how at this level, but are his playing squad good enough to keep the Baggies afloat? Well, their squad certainly contains young talent in Grady Diangana, Mateus Pereira and Kyle Edwards as well as the experience of Keiran Gibbs and Jake Livermore. However, signings (aside from Diangana) are uninspiring with Callum Robinson struggling for goals in the Premier League last time out. Ultimately, the Premier League is a huge step up in class and whilst West Brom will surprise a few teams, the quality doesn’t quite seem there to keep them up.
Scott Parker’s interview at the end of the Play Off final was compelling, showing a manager who had reached his limits to take them up. He did a great job, with Fulham the only previously relegated team to jump straight back. The approach seems different this time round, with the club refusing to spend millions when it doesn’t guarantee safety. Instead, they have gone with what they had although the addition of Antonee Robinson looks a good one. Much will rely on Aleksandar Mitrovic, who will be hoping to score more goals than be given red cards. Like West Brom, there is a lack of real quality at the highest level and Fulham fans will need to hope Parker can once again squeeze everything out of his side to keep them in the Premier League.
Seeing the Premier League played out in empty stadiums does lose some its wonder, and everyone hopes that there will be a time soon when fans can return and support their side. However, it remains the best league in the world for excitement and drama and now boasts even more of the world’s best players to keep us all entertained – from our sofas.