On Friday night the Premier League returns to our lives. Not even a month has gone since the end of the World Cup but anticipation is rife for a new season after some interesting transfer business, new managerial appointments and a chance of a real title fight this time around.
Our writers have given their thoughts on potential title winners, relegations favourites and the best buys of the summer.
Meet your Previewers
Harry Dean: Harry is the sports editor for the upcoming academic year. Having spent the dreadful, largely football-barren last three weeks since the World Cup ended averaging a touch over 10 with the bat for his local cricket club and staying up until the early hours watching highlights of the Europa League qualifiers, he’s unsurprisingly thrilled that the time for top-level football is about to return to our screens. You can follow Harry on Twitter @saint_sport.
Joel McInally: Joel is a deputy sports editor who supports Newcastle United. He had to edit his fantasy team because he tried to select too many Newcastle players. He believes this is the season that Joselu comes good, Paul Dummett wins player of the year and young player goes to generic mediocre Newcastle youth player. You can follow Joel on Twitter @JoelMcInally.
Lewis Frain: Lewis is a deputy viewpoint editor. As a Scottish football fan who also follows the forever-underwhelming Birmingham City, Lewis can approach this Premier League with an entirely neutral viewpoint. All he requests is competitive football and the demise of the petulant child Jose Mourinho. You can follow Lewis on Twitter @lewisfrain.
James Fox: James is Senior Copy editor and fervent supporter of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Given that it was only four years ago that he was watching his team battle it out in the third tier, James sees no reason not to dream big this year. With half the Portuguese national side now in the side, Wolves are set for a big season and James is very excited. You can follow James on Twitter @jamesfox1997.
Who do you expect will come out on top and win the title this season?
Joel: I think it will be a two horse race. I think City have a decent chance of retaining their title but I reckon Liverpool will be right up their too as they have made some really quality additions, especially Allisson in goal. If I had to pick a winner then I will go with Liverpool to win their first Premier League title, but do not be surprised if City defend their crown.
Harry: It’s been a long time, 2009 to be precise, since a side last retained the league title but currently I just can’t envisage any alternative. Manchester City were far and away the best team in the competition last year and nothing that has happened over the offseason has been able to convince me of any alternative narrative of the title going back to the Etihad. If anything City have got stronger with the acquisition of Riyad Mahrez to buttress their already lavish attacking options and under the guidance of arguably the world’s greatest coach in Pep Guardiola, you can be sure his charges will be kept hungry and primed for further domination.
Lewis: I’d like to see Liverpool compete for the league; last season showed how exciting and effective Klopp’s style can be. However, it is difficult to look past the sheer quality of Manchester City’s squad with many players (Sane, Sterling, Jesus etc…) capable of getting even better. I fancy a closer title race but for Pep’s men to retain the trophy.
James: Wolves. Okay maybe not. Realistically I think it will be Man City again. Their squad is every bit as strong as last year and it’ll take something special from another team to break that winning formula. Much has been made of Liverpool’s chances in the upcoming season but I feel that though their cut-and-thrust tactics wreaked havoc in the Champions League last term, they still lack the consistency to see it through a whole season.
With that in mind, who do you expect to round out the top four and secure Champions League qualification?
Joel: I think the top four will be Liverpool, Man City, Man United and Arsenal. Manchester United have not had the best pre-season and I actually could see Mourinho being sacked before Christmas. Either way I think they have enough about them to reach the top four. I am also backing Arsenal because I believe that Emery will reinvigorate Arsenal, on top of some shrewd recruitments that have strengthened them where they were weakest. While it will be close, I expect Tottenham to just miss out as their recruitment has been non-existent. Their first team is superb but if they suffer any injuries they will struggle, so I cannot back them to make the Champions League. Finally, Chelsea are in disarray. It is not clear who is staying or going and their change of manager was shambolic.
Harry: At present I’m going for City, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea. I actually think Spurs will be City’s closest challengers this year; their squad is pretty much complete and if they can adapt quickly to their new stadium then all that’s required is for them to truly compete for the league will be a change in their soft mentality. Liverpool should again make the top 4 and have made some astute signings, however I don’t expect Mohamed Salah and co. to be as prolific as last year, with some defences perhaps beginning to work them out. That leaves Chelsea, who, under the guidance of new coach Maurizio Sarri, I believe will get themselves back in the big time. Manchester United therefore are the most notable team to miss out, with many of their players clearly unhappy with their uninspiring style of football and coach Jose Mourinho already seeming to try and brace their fanbase for disappointment with a series of ominous pre-season press conferences.
Lewis: I’ll go for City, Liverpool, Tottenham and United. City and Liverpool should be totally secure barring any capitulations. Whilst Spurs don’t have much depth in their squad, they have been a consistently strong outfit for a few years now and should continue, so long as Harry Kane remains at the top of his game. The preparation from Chelsea and United has been really poor and I could see Chelsea struggle once more. Like Joel, I can see Mourinho departing at some point this season perhaps of his own volition but I’d still back that squad to make top four. I think Arsenal are a difficult one to predict. On the one hand they have potentially one of the best attacks in the league if they can get Aubameyang and Lacazette firing together and with Ozil and Mkhitarian in the midfield there is creativity in spades. However, this is the first Arsenal team in over twenty years not managed by Arsene Wenger and Emery could either be the reboot they need or they could fall further back like United post-Fergie.
James: City and Liverpool are certs, and Mourinho’s efforts to bore/frustrate other teams into submission will surely see United maintain a spot in there too. I don’t think either Chelsea or Arsenal are realistic candidates, though I do very much look forward to seeing how the latter will play under new management. The last spot will be a toss up between Tottenham and Wolves. Pretty much every one of the Spurs team has come back a hero from the World Cup but I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. They’ve gone some time without serious investment and I can well see this being the season this team starts to deteriorate. Wolves, by contrast, are a team on the up with a hugely talented squad a manager who I believe will emerge as one of the league’s best.
Who do you expect to be this season’s surprise package?
Joel: I am really tempted to say Fulham as I think they have recruited well and think they could finish around 10th but at the same time could easily be relegated. I also think Arsenal could pull some surprises and be far stronger than people are expecting. However, my pick is going to be Newcastle. They have barely strengthened from last year and are going to emerge from the window massively in profit, with Michael Owen still standing as their record signing. Despite this, I think Benitez will guide Newcastle to mid-table security once more which would be a monumental achievement.
Harry: I’m plumping for last year’s Championship winners Wolves. It’s not even clear if they qualify as a surprise package as they have spent much more than others around them, but nevertheless acquisitions such as Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio are impressive for a club of their stature. They join a squad that won the Championship at a canter last term and if this outfit can adapt to the challenges of the Premier League then I believe a top-ten finish is easily within reach.
Lewis: I’m looking forward to seeing what West Ham can do this season under Manuel Pellegrini who has returned to the Premier League for the first time since his successful and I feel underrated stint at Man City. Pellegrini has strengthened his squad with some impressive names (Felipe Anderson, Jack Wilshere, Issa Diop and Andriy Yarmolenko are the standouts) and his teams play some really exciting football so they would be my pick for surprise package. Although I don’t see them coming anywhere close to their previous heights, I feel Leicester are more than capable of challenging for a European place.
James: This one has to go to Wolves. With a bevy of new signings many have predicted them to finish solidly in mid-table, but I think they will surpass expectations and make a real challenge for a top four spot. The players and manager have shown themselves to be highly adaptable and despite the lack of experience at Premier League level within the squad, individual talent will make Wolves hard to beat.
Which teams do you expect to see in the relegation zone come the end of the season?
Joel: I think Cardiff are certainties to go down. They have by far the weakest side in the league and it is a massive achievement for them to have reached the Premier League in the first place. I am also tipping Huddersfield to go down and bring their magical fairytale to an end. They have punched well above their weight but I just cannot see them holding on. Finally, I am going to say Brighton will also suffer from second-season syndrome as they will be dragged into a relegation scrap and I do not think they have enough to stay up. Newcastle will also be there or there about throughout the majority of the season, but I think as long as Benitez is in charge he will steer them to another comfortable mid-table finish.
Harry: Cardiff seem to be a consensus pick to go down this season and I won’t err from that sentiment as I believe their squad is badly lacking to cut it at this level. Moreover, I feel Huddersfield will struggle to match their heroics in staying up last year on a budget that is vastly more restrained than their contemporaries. Ultimately, I also think Watford will be a surprise candidate to fall through the trap door next May. They largely limped through the second half of last season under the guidance of the unproven Javi Gracia and I feel they may suffer something of a hangover effect from that this time out. The loss of Richarlison to Everton, perhaps the most talented player in their ranks, will also do them no favours.
Lewis: I also think the season doesn’t look too promising for Cardiff City. Neil Warnock is a master of the Championship division and did another fine job in getting the team from the Welsh capital promoted automatically. However, their squad looks a class below their counterparts and Warnock has struggled at Premier League level in the past. Second-season syndrome may hit Brighton and Huddersfield but I feel Chris Hughton’s side showed some steel last term and with some improvements could put up a decent fight to stay up. Southampton have a lot of work to do or they will find themselves in trouble again.
James: No one seems to be giving Cardiff a chance; they’re absolutely right. Warnock may know how to get teams out of the Championship but his sides never play good football and that lack of imagination combined with a poor squad will see Cardiff flounder. Southampton have been on the decline for some time and don’t seem to have made the necessary additions to their squad. The same could also be said of Newcastle, though I think Rafa Benitez has the managerial pedigree to keep them up. That leaves Brighton and Huddersfield as two teams who will certainly struggle and I think the latter especially are in a dangerous position with so few resources.
Who are you tipping to win player of the year?
Joel: I am predicting Liverpool to win the title so Mo Salah is the obvious pick. However, I have a feeling that Mesut Ozil will have a special season. I think if Emery uses him right he could make life very easy for Aubameyang and Lacazette. I would love him to prove every lazy pundit wrong.
Harry: I’m going to save myself potential ridicule here and opt for a safer choice. Having been pipped to the crown last year, I believe that it’ll be Kevin De Bruyne’s turn this season as he masterfully pulls the creative strings that drives Manchester City to a second consecutive title.
Lewis: Salah and De Bruyne are decent shouts after their brilliance last year and if Arsenal perform I feel Ozil will be at the centre of their team. However, to differentiate from the others I’ll go for Harry Kane. If he has yet another season of 25 goals or more then he will have firmly established himself as one of Europe’s elite strikers and Spurs’ success this season largely depends on his form. I also think Leroy Sane or Eden Hazard could really reach new heights this season.
James: I’m backing Salah to be the first player to win the award in consecutive seasons since Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008. Regardless of whether or not Liverpool win the title his brilliance seems impossible to match at the moment. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Harry Kane nab the award as he continues to go from strength to strength.
Who will have the unenviable victory in the sack race?
Joel: I think Mark Hughes will not last the season as I think he should never have gotten the Southampton job full-time. On top of this I think Nuno could come under pressure if he fails to implement Jorge Mendes’ signings wisely and Wolves get off to a poor start. However I will be somewhat brave and pick Mourinho to be first to go. He looks fed up and his negative comments in recent times do not suggest a happy attitude. The owners have thrown money at him and unless it looks like he can deliver a title or make a Champions League run, then third season syndrome could strike again for him.
Harry: Neil Warnock has done extremely well to get another go back in the Premier League when most people thought he was done for having performed a minor miracle in hauling Cardiff to promotion. However his top flight record has done nothing to suggest he’s anything more than just an excellent Championship manager but a flawed Premier League one. If his team, perhaps the weakest in terms of overall quality in the League, gets off to a slow start, do not be surprised if Warnock is cast aside in favour of a grizzled veteran of relegation avoidance in the mold of Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis.
Lewis: Sadly I agree with Harry in thinking Warnock doesn’t finish the season. Aside from that I think Javi Gracia, Claude Puel and even Mark Hughes need good starts considering the trigger-happy nature of their clubs. With Mourinho, his childish approach to pre-season can’t have made him a popular man with the board. If United are out of the title race by Christmas, I can see him resigning or being sacked.
James: The powers that be at Cardiff will very quickly realise what everyone already suspects, that Warnock is not cut out for the top flight. If Cardiff get off a bad start he’ll be gone by Christmas.
A two-fold question: Who do you believe to be the best signing of the window, and which side has done the best overall business this summer?
Joel: I think Max Meyer is a superb free transfer for Crystal Palace. If Meyer can fulfil his potential then you will not see a better free signing. Another shrewd peace of business is Ki Sung-yueng, who Newcastle signed on a free from Swansea. A tidy player with Premier League experience shows that there are still bargains to be had, even in modern football. In terms of the side that has had the best window, I think it has to be Arsenal. They have recruited in their weakest positions and have done so quickly and for good value so I expect them to hit the ground running.
Harry: I really like Chelsea’s acquisition of Jorginho from Napoli. The fact that reigning champions Manchester City were also close to signing him just emphasises his quality and if he’s able to develop a good rapport with fellow midfielder N’Golo Kante then I do believe this team will be a real force in the coming year. In terms of which clubs have had the best transfer window, with honourable mentions to the aforementioned Wolves as well as Liverpool, I’m going to second Joel and choose Arsenal. I like what they’ve done in bringing in (amongst others) a much needed defensive leader in Sokratis as well as Lucas Torreira who can beef up the midfield. I’m unconvinced however that this will be enough to get them back into the top four.
Lewis: Overall I think West Ham have done the best business as they have improved across the board, including in the dug-out. Wolves have also strengthened and look good for a strong return to the Premier League. Max Meyer is an interesting one as I think he expected to sign for a bigger club after leaving Schalke, hopefully he hits the ground running at Palace. Of the bigger teams I think Liverpool’s business has been really strong, they have bought a world-class goalkeeper in Alisson, two strong midfielders in Fabinho and Keita and Shaqiri can be an effective squad player.
James: It has to be Wolves’ acquisitions of Moutinho and Patricio. The former cost just £5 million and the latter arrived on a free and both are world class players. Given the excesses of the modern transfer market, these signings represent absolutely outstanding business. Elsewhere Liverpool’s acquisition of Keita should provide them with some much needed stability, which could mean the difference between first and second.
Would you have liked to see VAR in use in the Premier League this season?
Joel: To quote Slaven Bilic at the World Cup, ‘to be honest I don’t care’. Let’s shut up about VAR and just be happy that after three long weeks football is back. I’m sure everyone will find something else to focus on soon, hopefully it’s a cracking season
Harry: I for one would have. I thought the World Cup showed it was an excellent acquisition to the sport. Yes it had its fair share of controversies, however these arose mainly from debates about its implementation rather than its merits as a concept. Ultimately, whether you like it or not, VAR is the future and I’m surprised that the self-styled “best league in the world” is yet to pick up on this.
Lewis: VAR was great at the World Cup for making even the more boring games highly dramatic. I don’t think this would be replicated in the Premier League with so many games anyway, the novelty would wear off quite quickly. I’m sure the Premier League will survive without it, the football should be centre stage rather than the referees.
James: It was an interesting talking point in the World Cup and it did add an extra dimension to proceedings. However, punditry is often predictable enough as it is without the inevitable debates over VAR after every match. For tournaments where everything is on the line it’s an important addition, but I’d hate to see it week in week out in the league.