The Bees finally managed to secure promotion in May via the Championship play-off final after heart break at the same stage in the two previous seasons. Led by charismatic Danish manager Thomas Frank off the pitch and dynamic striker Ivan Toney on it, they play an enterprising, free-flowing game and will be confident, along with fellow promoted sides Watford and Norwich, of not just being there to make up the numbers this season.
It is a key campaign for the Gunners and manager Mikel Arteta in particular. After a promising start to his tenure, last season was disappointing with the final finishing place of 8th in the league way below the standards expected at The Emirates. After a season where he seemingly went missing indefinitely, it is imperative that striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang redicovers his form and leads with purpose in his role as captain.
Reigning champions Manchester City will, once again, be the team to beat. Adding Jack Grealish to their ranks from Aston Villa in a British transfer record of £100 million (B4.6 billion) will bring further dynanism to a team already packed with attacking talent. If City are successful in their ongoing pursuit of Harry Kane from Tottenham then it is fair to question whether any of the other 19 teams in the division need even lace their boots! We watch developments with bated breath.
Manchester United have spent astutely, bringing in winger England winger Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund and French World Cup winning defender Raphael Varane from Real Madrid. With Paul Pogba seemingly staying put for another season and wily veteran Edinson Cavani sure to provide goals, the Red Devils could push their City rivals for the top spot. As with Arteta, this is very much a make-or-break season for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Chelsea are an intruiging proposition. They caught fire under Thomas Tuchel last season, winning the Champions League, securing fourth spot in the league and an FA Cup runners up medal only five months into his tenure. Clearly the German coach is the real deal and he will be hungry for more success this campaign.
Expect Kai Havertz to shine after a difficult first season settling in which, in addition to the unusual operating protocal, was one where the young German was plagued by a serious case of COVID-19.
At time of press, it seemed only a matter of time before Romelu Lukaku was set to return to his former club – if this goes ahead and the Blues land the consistent striker they have been craving for years, expect them to push City all the way, if not top the pack themselves come season end.
Liverpool had a poor season by their lofty standards last time around although with Virgil van Dijk back to marshall the defence and their front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firminio and Mohamad Salah well rested after a largely inactive summer period, they will be confident of a better campaign. Critics argue, however, that their failure to freshen up the squad with any new signings of note could hinder them.
Leicester City will once again threaten to upset the league’s established order with a well-drilled, exciting team. Patson Daka is a smart signing from Red Bull Salzburg who will look to support club legend Jamie Vardy with the goal load in attack. Beating Manchester City 1-0 in the Charity Shield last Saturday (Aug 7) will only provide further confidence to the Foxes that they can go on and have a successful campaign although losing defender Wesley Forfana in pre-season to a bad injury is, admittedly, a blot on their copybook.
Aston Villa have spent the money from the Grealish transfer wisely and could well turn out to be a dark horse. Signing striker Danny Ings from Southampton could well turn out to be a masterstroke, a quality operator wherever he has plied his trade and still with many points to prove. Playing alongside Ollie Watkins and supported by exciting new signings Leon Bailey and Emi Buendia, expect the Villains to cause more than a few upsets this season.
Tottenham have a new coach in Nuno Espírito Santo but the unrest with the Kane transfer saga could well undermine their preparations. As obvious a statement as it is, keep him and Spurs could well be in stall for a rewarding campaign – lose him and it could transpire to be a struggle. Nuno is renowned for a well-ordered, resolute team so expect Spurs to toughen up and prove difficult to beat.
Crystal Palace also have a new coach in Patrick Vieira who has overhauled the squad he inherited from Roy Hodgson with 10 players exiting during the summer. With limited, non-spectacular experience in the hot seat at New York City and Nice previously, this is somewhat of a gamble for both Vieira and the club. Should they find themselves struggling after 4-5 games, expect the natives in South London to get restless and even start calling for a change – remember Frank de Boer’s ill-fated four-game tenure, anyone?
Rafael Benitez has taken on a real pressure cooker sceanrio at Everton and will need to get off to a good start to placate the many agitated fans that are already clambering for his head due to his prior conections with arch-rivals Liverpool and certain disparaging comments he made towards the blue half of Merseyside some years ago. One thing he will do is enforce them as a defensive unit, although don’t expect too much enterprising, attacking flair.
It is quite the opposite at Leeds as fan-worshipped Marcelo Bielsa will look to continue their meteoric rise. Without doubt the most interesting manager in the league, if not world football, ‘El Loco’ (the mad one) Bielsa now has the fans back in stadiums to wonder at his magic first hand. Everybody’s favourite “second team” last season, expect Leeds to carry on where they left off, meaning no hand brake being applied to their all out, exhilirating approach to the game.
Steve Bruce will face his usual challenge of trying to appease fans at Newcastle and, once again, it looks like a long, hard campaign ahead for the Geordies with owner Mike Ashley still looking to offload the club. The signing of Joe Willock from Arsenal is a good move however, after he impressed last season on loan.
It’s a similar situation at Burnley where the dogged Sean Dyche will once again be looking to preserve the club’s top-flight status first and foremost with any notion of entertaining football very much taking a back seat.
Brighton will be an interesting one to follow. They showed real promise last season under the tutelage of Graham Potter, dubbed the best English manager around by Pep Guardiola. Losing defensive kingpin Ben White to Arsenal is a blow but there is still real optimism that the Seagulls can go onto a successful campaign.
West Ham had an incredible last season in finishing 6th and qualifying for Europe and it is fitting that fans can now return to enjoy a rare European venture. However, this could well prove their undoing in the league as a heavy work load will take its toll on an already stretched squad. Keeping Michail Antonio fit is crucial. Keeping Declan Rice at the club is critical.
Southampton tailed off badly last season after heading the table at one point in Novemeber. Losing Danny Ings is a big blow and it remains to be seen whether the industrious Che Adams and new signing from Blackburn Adam Armstrong can step up and provide much needed goals.
Wolves are also under the tutorship of a new manager in Bruno Lage who won the league and cup double in his native Portugal with Benfica in 2019. Little is known of Lage but the same could be said for predecessor Nuno Espírito Santo and he turned out to be ok. Fans will be hoping Adama Traore can finally find a consistent level of performance, while crowd favourite Raúl Jiménez returning from his horror injury last season is a major plus.
Last season was, without question, the strangest on record. Any sport played in an empty arena immediately loses its appeal, its focus and almost becomes a bizarre caricature of itself. By season’s end, the millions watching on TV from home finally got accustomed to the fake crowd noises and constant apologies from commentators for any “unsavoury language you may have just heard”. It was the new normal and just being able to watch the game, in whatever guise, was a welcome respite from the mind-numbing oppression of COVID-19 and all the limitations it brought to our daily lives around the world.
However, that’s all soon to be forgotten as the lifeblood of the game return to stadiums to provide their own, inimitable soundtrack and experience which will be interesting to witness – several teams, and managers, seemed to fare better without the pressure of supporters constantly ringing in their ears. Likewise, clubs such as Liverpool, Palace and the relegated Sheffield United often looked ruderless without the emotionally charged atmosphere their faithful provided.
Whatever transpires over the next nine months, it all promises to provide an enthralling rollercoaster ride for the world’s most prestigious and entertaining league.
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