New Season, Same Story?

New Season, Same Story?

August 2023 | Sport

The new Premier Season has kicked off. The final result looks predictable, but there is still a lot of uncertainty around a lot of the top clubs.

It seems poetic that the summer's biggest transfer saga concludes on the same day as the start of the new Premier League season. While I write this, the defending champions are already leading at Burnley. There's a good reason why Manchester City are red-hot favourites for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title. Pep Guardiola may have won it all, but no team has ever won four top flight titles in a row in England. That will be the ambition to motivate City for another year. They'll have plenty of competition from Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, but each team has clear weaknesses. The defending champions don't.

The losses of Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez will harm City's chances in cup competitions, but they should have little impact in the league. Both Gundogan and Mahrez had a habit of scoring vital goals in tight situations. Mateo Kovacic does not have that same skill, which will be a problem in those rare games where Erling Haaland fails to perform. We may see a few more unexpected defeats for Pep Guardiola this season, particularly if Rodri's very public request for more rotation is heeded. Haaland may be the star of this team, but he's not their most important player. Much like Fernandinho before him, the Spanish defensive midfielder is the one irreplaceable player of this star-studded squad. Kalvin Phillips may have been a good player at Leeds, but he is clearly at City for the money and easy trophies.

Arsenal were impressive last season until their late collapse. They have strengthened significantly, but questions about their defence still remain. There were still lapses in pre-season. Jurien Timber's arrival will provide more options in defence. Arsenal could have coped with the loss of one of William Saliba and Takehiro Tomiyasu last season, but could not cope with the loss of both. Ben White can cover for Saliba at centre back but was needed at right back during the run in. This season it is likely we will see him alternating between both positions.

The Gunners will be able to rotate more consistently this season but do need to avoid burning out key players for the run-in. Reiss Nelson needs to be trusted more, as Bukayo Saka clearly ran out of steam around March time. They at least have the midfield options to rotate Martin Odegaard and Thomas Partey now, which will help avoid further problems. Even in last week's Community Shield, it was clear they have plenty of options for rotation in midfield and attack. They spurned better chances than the scruffy deflection that Leandro Trossard eventually scored, but they barely missed the injured Gabriel Jesus. If Mikel Arteta rotates his squad properly, then I would expect Arsenal to be serious challengers across all competitions. Could this be the year they finally win another European trophy?

Manchester United are the most likely challengers to last season's top two. They briefly threatened to get involved in the title race last season, and I would expect the same to happen again. They have the defensive resilience, although Andre Onana is known to be error-prone. The Cameroon goalkeeper will significantly help in their build up, as will the arrival of Mason Mount. Christian Eriksen is an outstanding player, but lacked stamina at times last term. Erik Ten Hag will be able to rotate his midfield without drop-off, which he wasn't really able to do before. That should improve the consistency of United. The main question remains around their attack. Rasmus Hojlund looks like he has potential but is still young and is already injured. Marcus Rashford carried a lot of the goal scoring burden last season and will need assistance from the opposite wing if United are to challenge. They could easily win another domestic trophy though.

One team that won't struggle for goals is Liverpool. Instead, the question marks are at the opposite end of the pitch. The Reds have finally brought in some new midfielders, although selling all their senior midfielders was clearly not part of the original plan. They have a lot of good options in attacking midfield, which should see the return of Klopp's trademark high press. That will help significantly in reducing the burden on their suspect defence. The question remains around what happens when the first line of the press is bypassed. Liverpool have several players who have the ability to play at the base of midfield but have yet to bring in someone who naturally plays as a 6. This would be solved if they do gazump Chelsea's deal for Moises Caicedo, which would elevate them to title challengers. Romeo Lavia probably isn't ready for a club the size of Liverpool, but is still better than nothing. They should improve on last season, but probably not enough for another 90 point haul. A return to the Champions League will have to suffice for Jurgen Klopp.

Newcastle and Aston Villa are probably the nearest challengers for top 4 at this stage. It's likely that one of these teams will finish fifth, and with that earn the extra Champions League place should the English sides live up to expectations in Europe this season. Last year, Callum Wilson's fine late season form disguised a significant drop-off in Newcastle's defence. The Magpies still lack depth at the back, even with the signing of Tino Livramento as the long-term replacement for Kieran Trippier. They were hideously reliant on Bruno Guimaraes last season. Their form collapsed when he was suspended or injured. The signing of Sandro Tonali will provide more options here, even if the Italian will require plenty of time to adapt to the Premier League. This is why the addition of European competition is such a problem for Newcastle. They will have no choice but to rotate their defence and midfield, which will expose the lack of depth in their squad. There is a reason why many of their rotation options were in a relegation battle two years ago. Newcastle's season will depend on how early they're knocked out of Europe. If they exit the Champions League at the group stage, then they could clinch another year in Europe's premier competition. A deep cup run might do more harm than good.

Aston Villa's return to the Premier League elite was the unheralded story of last season. They were very much overshadowed by the new money of Newcastle and the underdogs of Brighton. The Birmingham-based side belong at the top table, but mismanagement under previous ownership saw them relegated. Their current owners are very ambitious and very rich. Villa are probably not quite as good as the hype suggests, but they clearly have a squad that can challenge the top four. Unlike Newcastle, they do have sufficient depth in most areas to compete across all fronts, particularly in the Europe Conference League, for which they are red-hot favourites. Villa's problem is they lack the talismanic figurehead to turn them from potential challengers to winners. Another season in Europe will be sufficient consolation for their fans and owners. Expect them to push Liverpool all the way though.

Spurs and Chelsea will both be desperate for a return to European competition next season. One of them will probably finish eighth. At this point, it's impossible to say how either of them will do. Last season, Spurs had no problem scoring goals but also conceded too many. Despite the departure of Harry Kane, it's likely we will see more of the same. James Maddison will replace Kane's creative output. Improved seasons from Richarlison, Son and Kulusevski should replace his goals. It will be in more intangible areas that Kane will be missed. Spurs now have a coach who will prioritise attack over defence, but who will also encourage them to press more. It's been a long time since Spurs were a high pressing team. In recent seasons Spurs have rarely pressed but have been surprisingly effective when they did. They will over-perform the expectations of the doom-mongers. However, their suspect defence will mean they won't trouble the Champions League places.

Chelsea are an even less predictable proposition. They have a very young team, outside of Raheem Sterling and the evergreen Thiago Silva. The veterans of their Champions League win have now departed. The combination of youth and squad turnover should lead to a high degree of inconsistency. Chelsea do have plenty of depth in wide areas, but are short of numbers in the middle. This will be addressed during the rest of the summer transfer window. Mauricio Pochettino has been here before, but finished 6th in that season in a far less competitive league. The defensive solidity that Chelsea showed last season should still carry over into the new regime. There are still question marks over where the goals come from. The answer will probably be everywhere. A Pochettino team should score more than Potter or Lampard managed last year. Expect Chelsea to be very streaky. It would be a major surprise if they're not competing for the Champions League places in a few years time. This year is probably a year too soon to see a resurgence for the Blues.

At the other end of the table, Sheffield United are significantly weaker than they were in May, which is bad news for their survival chances. Luton have made some moves in recent weeks but seem more interested in building for future seasons than for this one. Meanwhile, Gary O'Neil is being asked to pull off a miracle two years running. Wolves have a better squad than Bournemouth did last time out, yet that squad has lost key players and was in the bottom three for large parts of last season. A repeat of the Gary O'Neil miracle is unlikely.