2017/18 Premier League Preview – Part One

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The return of the Premier League this weekend is eagerly anticipated with no less than six clubs believing they have realistic ambitions of winning this year’s title. Chelsea were far too good for all the other challenges in 2016/17 but they will expect to be run closer this time with record amounts of money being spent by both Manchester clubs who would have been disappointed with their own performances in the previous campaign. Tottenham and Liverpool would have been very pleased with how last season went whilst Arsenal rescued their own efforts somewhat by winning the FA Cup, partially making up for their failure to qualify for the Champions League – could that be an advantage in their quest for a first league title since 2004?

With just under three weeks of the transfer window left, we can still expect plenty of movement both into these top six clubs and out of. The summer thus far has been packed full of transfer rumours and huge sums of money being spent with Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho at the forefront of it all. Aside from all the player movements it has been a contrasting close season to 12 months ago which seen new managers arrive at three of the top six. The biggest doubt surrounded Arsene Wenger’s future at Arsenal but that was dealt with swiftly at the start of the summer period. There have been some murmurings coming out of Chelsea with Antonio Conte seemingly unhappy that his top transfer targets have not been more readily acquired but it would remain a shock if the Italian would walk out on the title winners anytime soon. 

Title Contenders

Having disappointed hugely in 2015/16 when attempting to defend the title they had won the previous season, Chelsea returned to something like their very best last term and won the title at a canter. Conte’s appointment was arguably overshadowed by that of Mourinho and Guardiola in Manchester but he was by far and away the most successful of the lot of them as the Blues cruised home. Key players who came under fire for their non-performances before Mourinho was sacked as manager were at their devastating best, particularly Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. Their efforts for a domestic double were only undone by a surprise defeat against Arsenal at Wembley but it has not stopped Conte attempting to restructure his squad. Nemanja Matic has departed for Manchester United and John Terry’s career at Stamford Bridge came to an end. Costa is also surplus to requirements it seems with Alvaro Morata arriving from Real Madrid so the old guard are being depleted to make way for some new blood. Conte will want to strengthen further, especially in midfield, and he will need quality as well as quantity this year with the group stages of the Champions League to contend with – something they never had last year. 

Tottenham had another excellent league campaign last season as they improved their points total and league position from the previous year to be Chelsea’s nearest challengers. The foundation for that placing was very much the form at White Hart Lane which seen them go unbeaten in the league all season – an excellent feat. It was in stark contrast to how they performed in Europe, however, with the decision taken to play all their home games in the Champions League (and briefly in the Europa League) at Wembley. It was not rewarded with any success as Spurs exited both competitions with a whimper. That poses a problem for Maurico Pochettino for the coming season as Wembley will be their home venue for 2017/18 ahead of moving to a new stadium. It could be a huge disadvantage if last season is anything to go by. For Tottenham to go one step better and finish on top of the Premier League – or perhaps cement themselves in the top two – they will have to pick up more points on their travels. It was an obvious weakness, particularly in the early parts of the campaign, and will have to be addressed. Pochettino has been the quietest of any manager in the top flight this summer and has actually yet to add to his squad – it would be a surprise if that didn’t change between now and the end of August.

Liverpool were looking like they could challenge for the title last season until the halfway point when injuries and possibly fatigue had a part to play. Jurgen Klopp’s preferred style of the high, intensive press is wearing for any team they play against but it also has an impact on the Reds themselves, which proved to be the case. Nevertheless, despite looking like they might throw it away at some point, Liverpool were able to clinch the fourth and final Champions League spot by finishing in fourth spot. Their reward for that is a tough two legged tie against Hoffenheim – a team that Klopp will know very well. Those games will be crucial for the team’s development and also the ability to attract a better quality of player. The long running saga of Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton continues whilst Mohamed Salah will provide much needed pace in attack having arrived from Roma. Whilst Liverpool fans will hope that more new faces arrive, they will also be conscious of keeping their star player – Philippe Coutinho. With Neymar moving to PSG, Barcelona are locking their sights on his fellow Brazilian as a replacement and will continue to test the Anfield club’s resolve. He has been inspirational under Klopp and if he was to move it would be a catastrophic blow to Liverpool’s chances of challenging for the title. 

For long spells last season it appeared as though it would be Arsenal Wenger’s final campaign in charge. Certain sections of the Gunners support have long voiced their disapproval at Wenger and the lack of success at the Emirates. That disapproval seemed to be growing in the early part of 2017 when Arsenal were trailing well behind in the title race and suffered a hugely embarrassing 10-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. It was in stark contrast to earlier in the season when they led the league following a 3-0 dismantling of Chelsea. As noted, the FA Cup triumph over the same opponent certainly provided an opportunity for Wenger to stay on and he elected to do so. The major summer signing has been Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon, a player the Wenger believes will be the predatory 30 goal a season striker that Arsenal have lacked. With the Europa League unlikely to be of that much interest, Arsenal can concentrate fully on their domestic form this term and although that may not be enough to see them win the title, they will hope to finish in the top four again at least.

Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Where do you start?! The unsuccessful appointments of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal to replace Sir Alex Ferguson meant that the club could ill afford to take any more chances and sought to buy the experience and perceived guaranteed success that Mourinho brings. He was backed with big money to begin building a his own team and probably realised very quickly that it was not going to be one of two transfer windows before he could get a squad that could challenge for the title. The Europa League and League Cup are in ye trophy cabinet but more importantly Manchester United qualified for the Champions League courtesy of winning the former. Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindleof have all come in over the summer and are the exact type of player that Mourinho strives for: big, imposing, physical and powerful. United fans accepted the clubs poor performance in the Premier League last season but a repeat of that this year would be unacceptable – they have to be challenging for the title this time around. 

Manchester City were the hype club of last season as Pep Guardiola finally arrived at the Etihad after months of speculation. Things could not have started better for City as they won their first 10 games of the season which then seem them qualify for the group stages of the Champions League and become the early pacesetters in the Premier League. The wheels came of quickly though and they struggled for consistency the rest of the campaign. Guardiola’s signings were being called into question, especially Claudio Bravo, and star man Sergio Aguero was also underperforming. Expectations are high at Man City these days and Guardiola can ill afford another disappointing domestic campaign whilst he’ll also have to improve in Europe, too. There’s been no shortage of money spent in an attempt to do that with Ederson arriving from Benfica, Benjamin Mendy from Monaco, Kyle Walker from Spurs and Danilo from European champions Real Madrid. Bernardo Silva has been the only major attacking acquisition which is probably illustrative of where their problems from last season lie. Guardiola’s teams are never going to be defensive minded but they have to defend better as a team and the full back areas were an obvious weakness. Going forward they have the best options in the league and if they can get that balance right then they will no be far away.

Looking to improve

There’s been plenty of movement both in and out of Goodison Park over the summer and high profile transfers at that. Lukaku’s future was always in doubt with Chelsea and Manchester United strongly linked with the Belgian striker so attention was very much about signing adequate replacements. Ronald Koeman has elected to bring in a couple of strikers with a view to making up for losing the league’s top marksman from last season. Sandro Ramirez has arrived from La Liga with the Spanish U21 international looking to continue his good form since leaving Barcelona for Malaga, whilst an old favourite in Wayne Rooney has returned to his boyhood heroes after a frustrating last couple of years at Manchester United. Neither guarantee goals in the way Lukaku did but Everton may well be a more balanced side as a result. A seventh placed finish last year was about as good as they would have hoped for, particularly in Koeman’s first season in charge, but with the money they’ve spent they may feel that they can challenge some of the more illustrious names ahead of them for a top four finish.

Another close season and another change in management for Southampton. Having lost Koeman in the previous campaign to be replaced by Claude Puel, the Saints dismissed the Frenchman – despite a seventh placed finish and getting to the League Cup final – and have put their faith in Mauricio Pellegrino. Pellegrino was previously boss at Alaves and has switched to the South coast of England having taken the Spanish club as far as he could. Much of the summer has been to do with the speculation surrounding Virgil Van Dijk and his rumoured move to Liverpool. It may yet happen but it appears that Van Dijk will not be available for selection for the opening weekend of the season as a result. It’s not an ideal situation for anybody, particularly as the Dutchman is club captain, so the sooner it get sorted out the better it will be for the club as they look to progress from what was seen as an inconsistent league campaign in 2016/17. Southampton are very much an established top half Premier League team these days but they want to be pushing for the European places. It’s an extremely well run club, however, and should be looking at the top 10 as the bare minimum nowadays.

It all happened with West Ham last season as they made the move to the new London Stadium and had an expected bedding in period. What was unexpected, however, was the actions of their player of the year from the previous season – Dmitri Payet. Payet went from fans darling to being hated as a result of his transfer request and petulant actions which followed, eventually ending with a move back to Marseille. At one point it appeared as though the Hammers would be in relegation trouble but they regrouped when needed and eventually finished in 11th spot. The highlight of their season came at the start of May when they defeated Tottenham at home to all but end their arch rivals title hopes. Slaven Bilic has brought in experienced Premier League players over the summer to bolster his squad. Two of the most notable additions have been Joe Hart and Javier Hernandez. They will certainly add quality to the ranks and should see the club return to their previous season’s form when they were one of the most attractive teams in the league.