As reaction continues to pour in from across the globe over Neymar’s eye-watering world record move, the Premier League’s big boys have not exactly been standing still in their own pursuit of domestic and European glory.
It may seem like stating the “bleedin obvious”, to quote John Cleese, to say that only one team can win the league but the way the usual contenders have gone about their pre-season business, splashing out lavish sums like there was no tomorrow, only reinforces the dog-eat-dog pressure on the respective managers to deliver and to ensure, nine months down the road, that they are not left behind.
Today’s traditional season-opening Community Shield clash between Chelsea and Arsenal won’t tell us a great deal about their respective chances but the hoodoo of retaining the title, starting next weekend, will hang heavily on the defending champions – Manchester United were the last team to win consecutive titles back in 2009.
No team in Premier League history won more matches than Chelsea in 2016/17 but the fact is Antonio Conte’s side played a miserly 47 games in all competitions that required no travel outside the country. This time they have the Champions League to contend with and whilst they have conducted arguably the most exciting piece of business of any top-flight side by acquiring striker Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid for £70 million and are expecting big things too from Antonio Rudiger (£34m) and Tiemoue Bakayoko (£40m), Conte faces an entirely new ball game. With two weeks of the transfer window to go, there is considerable speculation over the future of Diego Costa who won’t want to play second fiddle to Morata whilst another huge concern is the fitness of Eden Hazard, who suffered an ankle injury on international duty in June, and will miss the start of the season. “We need more players to improve our squad, both in terms of quality and the size of it,” admitted Conte.
The problem is the rest of the usual suspects feel the same way but they can’t all end up winning the title – or, for that matter, qualifying for the Champions League. A fact that Arsene Wenger knows only too well. For the first time since arriving at Arsenal a generation ago, Wenger finds himself in the Europa League instead of Europe’s elite competition. Many observers thought he would leave. Instead he signed up for another two years and for once he has got the marquee signing he was after in striker Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon. Finishing 2016-17 with another FA Cup trophy was a high and Arsenal look blessed with forward players even if Wenger loses Alexis Sanchez. The problem is in central midfield where they still lack a leader.
If the title were awarded to the club with the most resources, Manchester City would land it on a plate. But as Pep Guardiola found out last season, often with a look of painful frustration, it’s not as simple as that. The Spaniard has done much to overhaul his squad with a massive summer investment of close to £300m knowing that if he doesn’t improve on third place he may not be around for a third season.
Should his new players gel quickly, City could be one of the most dangerous teams in Europe. If they don’t, they could be playing catch-up once again. Certainly there are no excuses now that Guardiola has got the full-backs he wanted in Kyle Walker (£40m) and Benjamin Mendy (£60m), players who can at last provide width to stretch the play in the opposition half. Add Bernardo Silva, Ederson (world record fee for a goalkeeper) and Danilo to that list, throw existing galacticos Gabriel Jesus and Kevin de Bruyne into the mix and you have a team bursting at the seams with glorious talent. Sort out central defence, over which there are still question marks, and City will take some stopping.
But then so might Liverpool who won’t be happy with another fourth-place finish and who will be looking, under Jurgen Klopp, for the consistency that has been sorely missing. Klopp’s side were unbeaten against the other teams in the top seven last season but lost six times in 26 outings against the clubs ranked eighth and below. In the creative Philippe Coutinho, club record signing Mohamed Salah on one flank and Sadio Mané on the other, plus strikers Roberto Firmino, Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi, Liverpool pose a formidable threat, again blessed with pace. In midfield, they will be without the injured Adam Lallana for a couple of months but rather like City, it’s how they perform at the back that could determine their title credentials and it is no surprise they are favourites to land Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk. “Make other teams crazy with the qualities we have,” is Klopp’s mantra as the club maintains its desperate craving for a first league title since 1990. “Our biggest challenge is to be stronger defensively as a team.” The problem is he said the same this time last year.
Jose Mourinho claimed three trophies in his first season at Manchester United yet had to rely on Europa League success to clinch a Champions League spot. Seventh, fourth, fifth and sixth is a poor league return since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement but Mourinho – just like Guardiola across the city – can have no excuses if United fail to come close in his second term in charge. Once again he has been rewarded with his preferred big-price targets: Zlatan Ibrahimovic replaced by Romelu Lukaku to score the goals, Victor Lindelof from Benfica to strengthen the defence and Nemanja Matic from Chelsea to stiffen the midfield. If United can cut out a failure to beat bottom-half teams at Old Trafford, they could well justify the bookies’ choice as second favourites. If not…
Which leaves the enigma that is Tottenham Hotspur. While everyone else – not just the title contenders – have spent to improve (Leicester’s acquisition of Nigerian striker Kelechi Iheanacho from Manchester City for £25m is particularly eye-catching), Mauricio Pochettino’s side are conspicuous by having done precisely nothing in the market.
Currently there is no viable replacement should Harry Kane get injured and still no adequate back-up for Christian Eriksen. In a sense Pochettino is caught between a rock and a hard place. Expensive signings could disrupt a settled starting eleven, jeopardise his refreshing emphasis on giving youth a chance and damage team spirit. On the other hand lack of any significant transfer activity could send out the wrong message especially when Tottenham are already hamstrung by having to play home matches at Wembley.