Liverpool face a brutal task to defend their Premier League title… but who are the leading candidates to dethrone them? And can Arsenal or Tottenham reclaim a place in the top four?
- Liverpool’s Premier League defence starts on Saturday when they host Leeds
- Rivals Manchester City and Chelsea have made important signings this summer
- Tottenham and Arsenal are looking to break back into the top four this season
The Premier League returns on Saturday after the briefest of breaks with arguably the fiercest of battle of recent seasons about to unfold.
Will champions Liverpool struggle to defend their crown without any major additions? Are Manchester City best equipped to dethrone them or is that now Chelsea, after their spending spree? And can Wolves or Leicester gatecrash the party?
Sportsmail assesses the candidates.
Liverpool begin 2020-21 as Premier League champions but can they defend their title?
Jurgen Klopp’s title holders have had a subdued summer with only one addition to the first team squad in Kostas Tsimikas from Olympiacos to provide back-up to Andy Robertson at left back. A necessary addition, but not an eye-catching one.
Most of the spotlight has instead been fixed upon Liverpool’s interest in Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara, but it seems inevitable that a move will only materialise if Georginio Wijnaldum departs for Barcelona.
So for fresh impetus in Klopp’s team, players such as Takumi Minamino and Naby Keita are the ones to watch out for. Minamino has taken time to settle since his January move from Red Bull Salzburg but has impressed in pre-season and snatched a goal in Liverpool’s Community Shield defeat by Arsenal.
Keita, meanwhile, has excelled in flashes in the two years that has followed since his move from RB Leizpig. If he can stay fit for a sustained period of time, he will definitely add an extra dimension to Liverpool’s midfield.
With no major additions yet, players such as Naby Keita will need to stand up and be counted
Takumi Minamino has also impressed in pre-season and could step up after a January switch
But a lack of transfer activity, enforced by the Covid-19 outbreak, means Liverpool are relying on innovation on the training field rather than fresh faces to take them to the next level.
There are plenty of young players who will keep improving – Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez are still only 21 and 23 respectively – while the rest of the squad are at the age that suggests they have another level in them. Robertson and Fabinho are 26, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are 28 while at 29, Roberto Firmino and Virgil van Dijk will recoginse that 2020-21 is another campaign in their peak.
If Liverpool are to defend their title – and perhaps the harshest of critics will say that they should, after winning the league by 18 points last season – they will need those players to stay in top form.
Fresh faces have been needed at Manchester City and fresh faces is what they have but perhaps inevitably, their summer will be defined by the one that got away.
Pep Guardiola’s side were frontrunners to pounce for Lionel Messi before the Barcelona talisman accepted that he would be unsuccessful in forcing his Nou Camp exit. A transfer of that ilk would have been City’s ‘nuclear’ option but Guardiola has still made some key additions to his team.
Their defence was, at times, woeful last season for a club defending the Premier League title so Nathan Ake’s £40m arrival from Bournemouth was key. He fits the calibre of defender Guardiola likes – comfortable on the ball and reads the game smartly – but he will have to address critics who have underlined his involvement in a Cherries defence that shipped 65 goals last season.
Nathan Ake’s arrival from Bournemouth provides Man City with vital defensive reinforcement
Ferran Torres will an exciting watch as well – he impressed on international duty for Spain lately and had a host of clubs across Europe interested in him while at Valencia. But it was City who swooped, and the 20-year-old winger will fill the void left by Leroy Sane.
City missed Sane for the lion’s share of the 2019-20 campaign so the addition of Torres will feel particularly useful once a jam-packed season properly gets going.
And if Ake can forge a swift understanding with Aymeric Laporte – another long-term absence for Guardiola in 2019-20 – City will back themselves to make a real fist of reclaiming the title.
Ferran Torres, a new addition from Valencia, was impressive in the recent international games
As ever for City, players such as Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling are crucial for them
It hasn’t yet been the summer of transfers Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was hoping for after United crashed out of the Europa League at the semi-final stage, but it hasn’t been a disaster.
United appeared to be on the brink of landing Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund but the German club have dug their heels in and, in truth, there doesn’t seem a huge sense of urgency from Sancho to move.
But Solskjaer has bolstered his midfield with Donny van de Beek from Ajax and the prospect of a partnership alongside Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes is a fascinating one, especially with a trio of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial ahead of them.
Donny van de Beek signed for Manchester United in a £40million deal from Dutch giants Ajax
Yet while United have unquestionably improved under Solskjaer’s guidance, talk of a title challenge may well be premature this season. Solskjaer definitely knows his best 11 but he doesn’t seem to have too much faith in the players outside of his starting line-up.
When the season restarted after the enforced Covid-19 pause, Solskjaer set a new club record for naming an unchanged side for the fifth game running which, some may say, was particularly remarkable considering how games were crammed in to complete the season as promptly as possible.
United looked leggy in their Europa League defeat by Sevilla and with a shorter than usual pre-season, it could catch-up with Solskjaer’s squad as the season goes on.
Plus, having the tactical nous to outsmart messers Klopp and Guardiola over the course of a whole season, rather than one match, is no easy task. But Solskjaer has United on an encouraging trajectory and keeping them on that path, and in the top four, would be no bad thing for the upcoming campaign.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has overseen improvement at United but how far can they go in 2020-21?
Whatever happens at Chelsea this season, it is going to be fun to watch.
Frank Lampard has, by far, overseen the most dramatic transfer window out of all of the top six with Roman Abramovich throwing his money behind the Chelsea boss after an encouraging maiden campaign at Stamford Bridge.
Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Ben Chilwell and Thiago Silva have all headed through the arrivals door at Stamford Bridge and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy is expected to follow.
Chelsea have made a number of eye-catching summer signings, including Timo Werner (right)
Chelsea also fended off a number of major clubs to buy Kai Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen
But after such an outlandish layout, Lampard will be held up to a far higher level of expectation, both inside and outside of the club. Chelsea were third in the Premier League for a long time last season but threw away points, particularly at home, in games they were favourites to win and eventually finished fourth, behind United.
The arrival of Silva on a free transfer after leaving PSG will be particularly fascinating; he has a glittering CV but turns 36 on September 22.
Chelsea’s defence let them down on numerous occasions last season and it remains to be seen whether the Brazilian veteran can hit the ground running and patch it up while adjusting to a league he hasn’t played in before.
Jose Mourinho’s first full season at White Hart Lane begins with what will be a fascinating clash with Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton.
He has made some astute additions to his ranks at Spurs – Matt Doherty from Wolves is a solid, Premier League proven signing while Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg adds a bit of steel to the heart of the midfield.
Jose Mourinho is preparing for his first full campaign as Tottenham’s manager
Players such as Son Heung-min and Dele Alli are gearing up for a busy start to the season
Mourinho’s men snuck back into Europe via a sixth-placed finish last season but face a particularly condensed fixture list at the beginning of the season. They have to qualify for the Europa League group stage and must advance two qualifying rounds in September.
Squad depth and rotation are going to be vital for Mourinho as he looks to maintain a balance of fitness throughout his setup. Tottenham were Champions League finalists back in 2019 and a return to Europe’s elite club competition is not only needed to maintain the stature of the club, but also to help with finances that, like many teams, have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Like their north London rivals, Arsenal begin afresh with Mikel Arteta at the helm and a growing sense of optimism surrounding the club.
Arteta led Arsenal to FA Cup glory after taking over in December last year but question marks remain over the long-term future of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, their star striker.
For all of the development in the team that Arteta has overseen in a short space of time, much depends of the future of Aubameyang. He fired 29 goals in 44 games in all competitions last season and is already up and running for this campaign after scoring in the Community Shield triumph over Liverpool.
Mikel Arteta needs Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (left) to commit his future to Arsenal
The Gunners have made some solid signings, such as landing Willian on a free transfer
Arteta’s signings have largely been astute – Willian is a proven Premier League player although at 32, the logic of a three-year deal is questionable.
Gabriel Magalhaes, a £27m signing from Lille, will help bolster their defence and Dani Ceballos rejoining for another season on loan from Real Madrid is welcome news for Arteta, even if the deal is without an option to make it permanent.
Unlike their top six rivals, Arsenal do not have any European football to contend with this season, which may help their cause of sneaking into the top four.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Leicester made a strong fist of gatecrashing the top four and could have qualified for the Champions League had they defeated Manchester United on the final day of the 2019-20 season.
The departure of Chilwell at left back is a blow for Brendan Rodgers but he has otherwise kept the crux of his squad together – James Maddison signing a four-year deal is a particular boost.
Wolves are the other leading candidates. Nuno Espirito Santo’s men have added Portuguese wonderkid Fabio Silva from Porto in a £35m deal and reinforced the defence with the arrival of Fernando Marcal from Champions League semi-finalists Lyon.
Wolves have bolstered their attack with the arrival of Fabio Silva from Porto for £35m
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