The best day of the year is upon us as the English Premier League’s 2016-17 campaign kicks It was a long summer, made better by more tournaments than normal, but not even the European Championship could fill the soccer-sized hole in my heart. At last, our wait is over. In honor of this glorious occasion, I thought I would give a quick preview of how I expect the season to unfold.
This year will be the “Year of the New Coaches,” as Antonio Conte of Chelsea, Pep Guardiola of Manchester City and José Mourinho of Manchester United join the ranks of Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool, Arsène Wenger of Arsenal and Claudio Ranieri of Leicester City.
In some ways, more people will be interested to see what these fantastic managers are able to achieve, instead of looking at how the new players will perform. This notion might seem a little unfair, but a new coach — especially a particularly gifted coach — can have a devastatingly good effect on a team. Just look at what Ranieri was able to do in his first season with Leicester, the defending league champions.
I for one am very interested to see what Guardiola will be able to do with Manchester City. Guardiola has added Spanish winger Nolito, one of the only bright spots from Spain’s Euro campaign, midfielder İlkay Gündoğan, and the prize that Mourinho desperately craved last year: defender John Stones. This iteration of Man City will be a phenomenal team, especially when one remembers that it already has one of the best strikers and midfielders in the world, Sergio Agüero and Kevin de Bruyne — respectively — in its ranks.
City was a bit of a disappointment last year, finishing fourth after a pretty good start to the season, but under Guardiola I see the team becoming positively electric. Call it the Guardiola factor, but I am tapping Manchester City as my early favorite to win the Premier League this year.
However, we cannot forget that Manchester’s other team has also massively improved this summer. The arrival of Mourinho, the brilliant but also very polarizing figure, indicates that change will be coming to United.
After a fifth-place finish for Manchester and a humiliating start to the season for Mourinho with Chelsea, both club and coach have something massive to prove. He has already begun to make his mark on the team, with rumors swirling that he is planning to ship out at least seven players — including poor Juan Mata — who do not fit his vision. Zlatan Ibrahimović was set to be one of Mourinho’s biggest signings, until Manchester United shelled out a world record £89m to re-sign mercurial midfielder Paul Pogba. Whether these two signings will pan out remains to be seen, seeing as Ibrahimović is heading into the twilight of his career at 34 and the volatile genius that Pogba produces, but one thing is clear: Manchester United will be a threat. A top-four finish is almost certain.
Perennial top-four favorite Arsenal will in all likelihood finish in the top four once again, despite the fact that not many changes have been made. The one big signing that Wenger has made is the arrival of Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka. Xhaka will provide a welcome relief to a midfield that can often be quite stilted at times.
In a typical Arsenal move, the Gunners will start the season without a healthy central defender. Fortunately, Arsenal has a world-class goalkeeper in Petr Čech, but this could prove to be a costly mistake. Coupled with the failed attempts to sign Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, this has been a fairly typical offseason for Arsenal. Arsenal is always a good team. It may not really challenge for the title, but Arsenal will put up a decent fight.
It is hard to pick a team to finish in fourth this season, because there are plenty of viable options. Everyone is of course wondering whether Leicester will be able to capitalize on its shocking first-place finish from last season. N’Golo Kanté has been the only big name to leave the team thus far, leaving the core nucleus intact. It is very conceivable that Leicester will continue to dominate the league with its lightning-fast speed and ability to quickly take advantage of a turnover.
However, the Foxes will be busy with Champions League this season as well, which often ends up draining a team. While I think a top-six finish is very possible for Leicester, at this point I do not think that everyone’s favorite Cinderella team will be able to repeat as champions. Ask me in a few months.
Tottenham is another good option for the coveted fourth-place spot, as the Spurs came so close to finally ending their title drought last year. Tottenham has a fantastic coach in Mauricio Pochettino and wonderful players in Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Dele Alli. However, all three players had a disastrous Euro Cup campaign, and this could haunt the team for the start of the season.
Chelsea will surely do better than last year’s epic meltdown that saw the defending champions finish 10th. New coach Conte seems very similar to Mourinho, in that both are extremely combustible in their temperaments. Conte just finished a fantastic Euro Cup campaign with Italy, and he is a proven winner, so the Blues surely can only do better. He will be bolstered by the signings of Kanté and Michy Batshuayi, who will provide a creative spark in midfield. The team will certainly benefit from a lack of European football, as will the team that I am hoping will finish in fourth: Liverpool.
This will be Klopp’s first full season in charge and it has been a very busy offseason for the German. A total of 15 players have been shipped out — some of them on loan — while great players like Sadio Mané and Georginio Wijnaldum have been brought in. Call me an optimist but I think that the Klopp effect will be in full swing this season.
Whatever the case may be, I think we are in for a fantastic season once again. Welcome back soccer. We’ve missed you.
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