As fans of the English Premier League brace themselves for lift-off on Saturday, developments during the off-season point to an enthralling campaign ahead.
The abiding memory of the previous installment is undoubtedly how Leicester City spectacularly defied the odds. The Foxes made mugs of all of us, pundits and fans alike, and made a mockery of our pre-season predictions.
Yet we remain unrepentant and continue to subscribe to the view that last season was a freak. As a result, we have already summarily dismissed Leicester’s title claims before a ball has even been kicked. Many of us are just not persuaded Claudio Ranieri’s defending champions will be in the title reckoning again this term.
The expectation going into the new season therefore is that natural order will be restored. The usual suspects – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United – will duke it out for the title as the big boys look to reassert themselves.
But what about Tottenham Hotspur, you ask? After all, they emerged as Leicester’s closest rivals last term. They were the most complete team in the league and played arguably the best football over the whole piece. But for Spurs’ capitulation right at the death the outcome of the title race might have been different.
And yet for all the promise they showed last campaign and the exciting squad Mauricio Pochettino has assembled, Spurs remain excluded from the list of favourites going into the new season.
Spurs, along with Leicester will be hoping to fly under the radar again as they did for most of last season. Ranieri has already made peace with it. Rather than demand the respect reigning champions automatically command the Italian has readily embraced the underdog tag.
Battle of managers
The stage is set for a season laden with subplots and intriguing battles with the war. It is going to be as much about individual managerial duels as it is about the collective fortunes of the clubs the managers preside over.
Since the inauguration of the Premier League in 1992 there has never been a more stellar line-up of managers than the incumbents heading into a new season. The English top-flight is now home to candidates who have won multiple titles in top European leagues.
When the season gets underway, all eyes will be on Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp and the league’s elder statesman, Arsene Wenger.
Of the quintet, Conte and Guardiola have to contend with the added pressure of adapting to a new league. Italian Conte must also adjust to the demands of club football after his stint as coach of his country’s national team.
However, both newbies will be encourage by the fact that Mourinho won the title with Chelsea at the first time of asking, and did so at a canter after arriving from Porto. The Portuguese then made a triumphant return for his second spell at Stamford Bridge.
Meanwhile, Klopp has had enough time to survey the lie of the land after joining Liverpool midway through last campaign. That experience will stand him in good stead for the season ahead. The German has hand time to revamp and mould the Reds squad his own image.
Over at Old Trafford the new emperor has made no secret of his intention to restore the empire to its former glory sooner rather than later. Manchester United’s gladiatorial signings, notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic and world-record signing Paul Pogba, are a statement of intent. Mourinho is targeting instant dominance and rewards. However, to achieve that goal the Red Devils will have to see off determined rivals, including Manchester City.
Guardiola’s managerial record in Spain and Germany speaks for itself. The question on most people’s lips is whether he can transpose that success onto the Premier League. The Spaniard’s doubters believe the demands of the English game will finally ‘humanize’ the City boss. They are convinced he will discover to his horror that the Premier League is unlike any other he has worked in. It will challenge him and his philosophy.
Lest we forget, Guardiola has on numerous occasions masterminded victories over Premier League clubs, England’s crème de la crème, in the Champions League. Some of those victories were against Arsenal.
Wenger is facing arguably the sternest test of his Arsenal managerial tenure. The wily old campaigner, an underachiever in the eyes of many neutrals and Arsenal fans alike, will come under intense scrutiny from the first whistle. Pressure has been mounting on Wenger for years, with the Frenchman often finding himself at the sharp end of fans’ anger and public protests.
Unless the Gunners make a real fist of the title contest it is hard to see the 66-year-old remaining in charge beyond the campaign upon us. This is a make-or-break season for Arsenal and their manager.