I’ve got a joke for you. The world’s best managers all walk into a bar… And one of them walks out nine months and 38 games later with the Premier League title. That’s one of the cheesiest puns I’ve used to introduce a preview but it’s true as this year’s Premier League is one of the most competitive in recent history. It has always been described, quite rightly, as the most competitive league but look at the odds of the fourth favourite to win the league by country. Italy 16/1, Portugal 40/1, Scotland 50/1, Germany 66/1, Spain 100/1 and France 100/1. Arsenal, at this time of writing, are 13/2 to take the glory this year. No less than seven teams are 33/1 for the title and 6 of them are a best of 10/1 or lower.
It’s the most ferociously contested the Premier League has been and nobody is going to be ruled out confidently after Leicester defied odds of 5000/1 to take the title last year, suffering a wobble after a blistering first half of the season before a succession of 1-0 wins against many important title opponents saw them storm to the title by no more than 10 points in a year when many of the big guns disappointed for one reason or another as Arsenal snatched second from Tottenham on the last day. Such is the bookmaking fallout from Leicester that now the layers won’t even give you 2,000/1 about Burnley shocking the world (and even then it’s 1,500/1 at best).
Of all the managerial arrivals Pep Guardiola’s at Manchester City might just be the biggest and everything looks set for a big improvement on their limp campaign last year. A raft of new signings have come in through the summer that have been handpicked by the former Barcelona and Bayern boss with much of the overhaul that needs
lkay Gundogan and Leroy Sane have come to Manchester via Dortmund and Schalke respectively, one having enormous potential if recovering from injury properly and the other regardless, whilst Celta Vigo’s Nolito impressed in La Liga last year with 12 goals and seven assists. Forward power is Pep’s mojo and Gabriel Jesus is a fascinating addition who racked up 11 goals in just 15 games this year.
Add him to Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Kevin De Bryune, fitness assumed, and they should score plenty of goals once again so the difference is likely to be at the centre of defence. John Stones retains tremendous appeal as a centre back who can grow from such a young age but his last season for Everton was an error prone one and Vincent Kompany’s injuries are still an issue whilst Joe Hart had the poorest extended period of his career during the Euros.
They are worthy title favourites, but there’s a lot of competition around and they appear to be just the right price.
Neighbours United have lurched from slump to slump since Sir Alex Ferguson left but the appointment of Jose Mourinho feels like the first appointment truly worthy of their standing since and the Portuguese has not let any time pass before stamping his own style on the team, or at least trying his level best.
It’s impossible to start anywhere else but with Paul Pogba, who finally came after a saga longer than the Chilcot Report but arrive he has and there’s no doubting of his sheer quality (as one would hope for the most expensive player in history) and he is absolutely ideal as a midfield enforcer that Mourinho has used to such great effort, especially in the right position, something that Didier Deschamps didn’t do all the time with France.
Upfront Zlatan Ibrahimović is another marquee signing and very importantly the striker around which United can build their attacking play. His goalscoring and title winning record around Europe is knowledge to all and a promising pre-season suggests he’ll be just fine here.
Highly-rated centre-back Eric Bailly is a very promising addition to a defence that ‘covers’ one of the world’s best keepers in David de Gea and the only way is up even before you consider the superb Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the best player in the Bundesliga last season and a ferociously attacking midfielder. That should add plenty more goals to a side that has goalscorers, although Jose would be unwise not to use some of the talented youth he has there in his ranks and team cohesion will be the order of the day there. They are now the right price, however.
In my opinion that’s not something you can say about Chelsea, who suffered the worst title defence (or favourite’s performance) in the history of the League last season. A season that started badly became far worse very quickly with things such as the infamous Jose Mourinho – Eva Carniero bust up one of many incidents that foreshadowed a season that would see them nearer the relegation zone than the top before finishing 10th.
Mouriniho left midway through the season and was replaced by the steady hand of Guus Hiddink who set a new record for the longest unbeaten streak as a new manager in the Premier League with 12 games unbeaten. He has since been replaced by Antonio Conte, a fantastic appointment. Conte turned around a Juventus side that was languishing into one of Europe’s best again with three straight titles at the Old Lady.
Conte further raised his profile when taking an Italy side that many did not have as contenders to the verge of the semi-finals in Euro 2016, despite many serious injuries in midfield.
After Jose had left Chelsea lost only three games in 21 last season and the same figures that dominated the league the year before last are all there with a couple of notable additions. The first of the tireless N’Golo Kante in midfield, who was absolutely central to Leicester’s title triumph last time, and the other was Michy Bathusauyi. The Belgian scored 16 times for Marsellie in Ligue 1 last year and is just the quick burte that Chelsea seem to love so much. Don’t forget about Diego Costa though, who is not far from being the best striker in the league if he recovers his form and note that Eden Hazard was back to himself through the end of the season and then the Euros.
Conte has a clean slate with no Champions or Europa League football so the squad does not need to be massive and 13/2 feels to have underestimated him greatly. Take them to beat the Manchester Clubs in tricasts.
Arsenal are the same price and there’s no doubting about the talent that they possess but there must be feelings at the Emirates that last season was a major missed opportunity. The rest of the field have moved on in a major way over the summer and whilst the signing of Granit Zhaka was a coup (and conducted early), he is the only major arrival with Rob Holding a raw but promising prospect and the same applying to Takiuma Asano.
The Gunners inflicted two of Leicester’s three defeat and were neck and neck with them in January before they eventually fell to a flattering second taken on the final day. Injuries to Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin through the middle of the season were devastating blows and ahead of the new season Per Mertesacker is out long term whilst Gabriel may miss a number of the opening games. In Mezut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, and an on form Oliver Giroud and Aaron Ramsey there’s no much they can’t do but Arsenal could struggle if injuries hit this season, or when.
Tottenham were twice title favourites last year before what can only be unfortunately termed as a late collapse but before that they had played much of the best football in the division with Maurcio Pochettino’s leadership encouraging a young English core to take the league by storm.
Dele Alli was the PFA Young Player of the year, Harry Kane scored 25 goals and won the Golden Boot, Eric Dier was one of the best midfielders in the league and Keyle Walker and Danny Rose earned England spots on the basis of their club campaigns. They didn’t lose a game when the first three played together for more than 45 mins and a centre back partnership of Vertonghen and Alderweirield is one of the strongest in the league and Hugo Lloris is a fine goalkeeper.
The worry is that those England five looked exhausted when collapsing at the Euros to Iceland so there’s potentially extra work on the shoulders of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela and bear in mind that they’ll have European football too which could really take its toll although their two decent singings (Wanyama and Janssen) should make an impact.
Jurgen Klopp’s career at Liverpool has gotten off to a promising start and during cup runs that took them to the final of the League Cup and Europa League they showed a lot of talents that his Dortmund side used to go from also-rans to Bundesliga winners. 3-0 and 4-1 wins against City, the latter taking place at the Etihad, along with that superb success againdt Dortmund, were all performance of a side that could win the talent.
However they were also well beaten by Watford and Newcastle and they only won two of their matched at Anfield against the bottom seven.
The major weakness would appear to be their defence and Simon Mingolet made as many errors of any goalkeeper amongst the top six so Loris Karius is a welcome addition. New centreback Joel Matip looks a smart addition for free with a lot of experience but neither of Dejan Lovren or Mamadou Sakho totally convinced and Moreno and Clyne are probably better going forward than back.
This is where things get good for Liverpool as Philippe Coutinhio is an outstanding influence going forward as he’s shown over the past two season whilst Roberto Firmino didn’t take long to find his best last season with the two linking to great effect. Daniel Sturridge is one of the best strikers in the league – but that’s given the giant if – of him staying fit.
Sadio Mane scored 11 goals and the former Southampton bruiser makes for a fine foursome going forward and they have to be respected when it comes to opening the back of the net again and again. However it remains to be seen if they find the consistency needed for a league winning challenge.
Leicester have to be mentioned here, at least to celebrate their title effort whilst analysing the chance of them repeating their feat. And it was an amazing feat, not least belying odds of 5000/1. They blitzed the field, taking the title by 10 points, losing just three games, and doing it all with just 44.8% of the ball as Riyad Mahrez dazzled defences and Jamie Vardy broke the record for scoring IN consecutive games.
At this point in time only N’Golo Kante has gone and whilst his industry was essential once can point to any one of the preferred XI – including the likes of Danny Drinkwater, Shinji Okazaki, and the centreback duo of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth to name a few – and whilst they’ve all stayed Ahmed Musa has joined from CSKA Moscow, bringing pace and experience.
Claudio Ranieri wants to get to 40 points and have it done at that but this side isn’t far removed from last season’s on paper and whether top or bottom half, they should be well clear of the relegation.
2 pts each/way Chelsea (13/2 Paddy Power)
1 pt Chelsea/Manchester City (16/1 general)
1 pt Chelsea/Manchester United (22/1 general)
1 pt Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United to finish in the top 3 (7/1 SkyBet)