Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Premier League 2016: Battle of the masterminds

There are so many unknown quantities bubbling away in the Premier Leauge that predicting a winner seems more difficult than ever

The English Premier League season has gotten underway this weekend in what looks to be one of the most absorbing campaigns to date.

The competition is fascinatingly poised due to the uncertainties that underpin it. Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, the one constant in the league’s tidal wave of changes, described the league as “a world championship of managers" for the year ahead.

It is in the dugouts where some of the greatest intrigue is to be found and where narrative threads will gradually unfurl over the next nine months.

Will Pep Guardiola’s pixie dust rub off on his Manchester City charges? Can Antonio Conte rewire Chelsea after last season’s mid-table meltdown? Now Jurgen Klopp’s feet are under the table, what can Liverpool bring to this unpredictable plot? Who will Jose Mourinho fight with first? (Well, Wenger most likely, but who will he fight with second?)

Where on earth are defending champions Leicester City going to finish? They could entirely unravel and be relegated, or they could establish themselves among the elite. Neither prediction appears outlandish.

The intrigue continues further down the league; Everton’s new billionaire owner Farhad Moshiri has furnished the Toffees with renewed fiscal firepower and a new manager in Ronald Koeman.

Meanwhile, Southampton, from which Everton poached Koeman, have experienced something of a groundhog summer. They are left to integrate a new manager from overseas in Claude Puel and they have sold their best player to Liverpool. Again. The Saints have a reputation for buying cheap and selling high; regenerating themselves each summer with a new set of hitherto unearthed rough diamonds; can they repeat the trick again?

Somewhere swirling in this vortex of revolution, Arsenal have become one of the more fascinating features in the Premier League, paradoxically, because of their constancy. Another stuttering summer in the transfer market has made the already irritable natives at the Emirates restless once more.

Wenger celebrates 20 years in charge of Arsenal in October, but with his contract due to expire in May, the Premier League’s last bastion of certainty faces an uncertain future. At the time of writing, they still have not procured the centre-half and the striker that the manager readily admits they so desperately need.

They have, however, recruited Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka, which could prove to be one of the shrewdest moves of the summer. Central midfield was a problem position for the Gunners last season and Xhaka adds a layer of steel to the underbelly of this Arsenal side, but he also possesses the technical ability required to operate in a Wenger midfield. Physical, all-action midfielders have set the soundtrack to the summer for Arsenal’s title rivals too.

Chelsea have pinched N’Golo Kante from champions Leicester. Kante is a dynamic midfielder very much in the mould of his new manager. Conte was himself a terrier of a central midfield player, and having worked with the likes of Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio with some distinction at Juventus, it is not difficult to see why Conte made the capture of Kante such a priority.

Meanwhile, Manchester United have completed a near world record fee for one-time academy player Paul Pogba from Juventus.

Mourinho and United had already landed striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Borussia Dortmund’s clever Armenian playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan. But Pogba is the marquee signing of the summer and a signal of Mourinho’s intent to arrest United’s recent decline.

After a few seasons floating on the fringes of the top four, the former Chelsea manager will have his sights set on the Premier League title. With egos such as Mourinho, Pogba and Ibrahimovic now on board, the Red Devils are set to put the devil back into the detail at Old Trafford. Expect them to look a more formidable outfit this season.

Arch-rivals Manchester City have set about injecting some youth into an ageing squad. Defender John Stones (22) and German winger Leroy Sané (20) have joined from Everton and Schalke, respectively.

Pep has further invested in City’s future by tying up deals for 19-year-old Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesús from Palmeiras and Colombian winger Marlos Moreno, also 19, from Atlético Nacional. Both youngsters will be allowed to continue their progression out on loan before joining the City squad.

Despite unparalleled success at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, there remains a small band of unbelievers inclined to question whether Guardiola has ever challenged himself in a truly competitive setting.

Barcelona and Bayern Munich enjoy enormous competitive advantages over their rivals in their respective leagues. Manchester City are certainly flush with finance via their Abu Dhabi owners—however, they are no island in the cash-rich Premier League. The money-lined bear pit of the English top flight will challenge Pep to the full extent of his abilities and will go a long way to resolving that particular debate.

Defending champions Leicester City are possibly the most fascinating component of this uncertain menagerie. Last season, their capture of the Premier League title was one of the most unexpected outcomes English football has ever witnessed.

This time last year, they were tipped for relegation. This year, nobody quite knows what to make of the Foxes’ prospects. With the increased workload of the Champions League and the loss of midfield lynchpin Kante, they surely cannot repeat last season’s unforeseen triumph.

It’s fair to say that Leicester could finish anywhere between second and 18th position without unduly surprising anyone. Their success last year was built on continuity in their starting XI and it seems unlikely that they will be able to replicate that this year. They will need to rotate their squad and will surely suffer with injuries too.

The Foxes haven’t been enormously active in the market this summer. They lost their head of recruitment Steve Walsh to Everton and highly rated scout Ben Wrigglesworth has joined Arsenal. These losses are likely to hurt them just as much as the sale of key players as they seek to deepen their squad for the challenges ahead.

Success brings scrutiny and it will be fascinating to see whether opponents work out how to nullify Leicester’s strengths. The element of surprise is removed from the algorithm that underpinned last season’s victory.

The lower reaches of the league hold plenty of intrigue too. Hull City were promoted to the Premier League via the play-offs last season, but at the time of writing, they still had not appointed a manager following Steve Bruce’s resignation.

They currently list a squad containing only 17 senior players and Leicester, Manchester United and Arsenal await them in their opening five games. Unless there is a sudden administrative upheaval at the club, it is difficult not to envisage them returning straight to the Championship.

Middlesbrough are also back in the Premier League following a seven-year absence. Led by Spanish coach Aitor Karanka, Boro have opted for the continental approach in the market this summer with the acquisitions of Alvaro Negredo, Viktor Fischer, Marten de Roon, Victor Valdes, Gaston Ramirez and Antonio Barragan.

Middlesbrough’s squad contains 20 different nationalities and it will be fascinating to see how they fare in the league. Needless to say, they would consider survival from relegation as success, with a view towards long-term consolidation.

Sean Dyche’s Burnley were relegated from the Premier League in 2014-15, but earned promotion at the first attempt, having won the Championship last season. They will apply themselves with the vigour and work rate that the manager demands, but they were found wanting in overall quality two seasons ago and that pattern might repeat again.

I am tipping Burnley and Hull for instant returns to the Championship; however, I think Middlesbrough will have enough to survive. Who takes that final relegation spot will be compelling.

Watford’s flying start to last season gave it enough space to avoid relegation, but they declined notably in the second half of the campaign. Watford has something of a policy of rotating managers—it replaced Spaniard Quique Sanchez Flores with Italian Walter Mazzarri in the dugout this summer.

The Hornets were figured out by opponents as last season progressed and Mazzarri will need to implement a fresh approach. I have my suspicions that they might fall through the trapdoor this time around.

Swansea established themselves as a Premier League club since their promotion five years ago, but things do not appear to have been as harmonious behind the scenes over the past 12-18 months.

The Swans scored a paltry 40 goals last season, and 21 of those goals have left the club this summer, with Andre Ayew and Bafetimbi Gomis leaving for pastures new. Captain and central defensive rock Ashley Williams has joined them in the departure lounge, becoming an Everton this week. The playing squad has seen a lot of upheaval over the last season or so and Swansea could struggle as a result.

AFC Bournemouth survived fairly comfortably last season and have added to their squad with the purchases of young winger Jordan Ibe from Liverpool and Nathan Ake on loan from Chelsea. However, Eddie Howe’s Cherries will consider survival as success again this season.

Of all of the Premier League’s established sides, Tottenham Hotspur have enjoyed the most settled summer and have flown under the radar as a result. The ignominy of finishing behind rivals Arsenal on the last day of the 2015-16 season has overshadowed their best ever Premier League finish.

The Spurs have kept their squad together, and in Vincent Janssen, added the striker they so desperately needed to remove some of the pressure from Harry Kane. The purchase of hard-tackling midfielder Vincent Wanyama from Southampton has embellished their options too. They have undergone a quiet, stable summer, not least with highly rated coach Mauricio Pochettino signing a new deal back in May.

Liverpool have likewise lurked in the shadows somewhat in the close season. Klopp has had two transfer windows now to mould the squad into his own image. Klopp demands a very intense style of play and it is fair to say that he did not inherit a team entirely capable of implementing his high-octane style when he took over in October last year. New signings Sadio Mané from Southampton and Georginio Wijnaldum from Newcastle seem to fit this blueprint more readily.

Both are swift players, capable of breaking forward quickly when Liverpool win the ball. The Reds have also managed to avoid speculation around some of their key players, such as Philippe Coutinho. Like the Spurs, they have enjoyed a settled, quiet summer, which every manager wants for his team in an ideal world. For Liverpool, pre-season will have been very valuable in acclimatizing further to Klopp’s ideas.

There are so many unknown quantities bubbling away at once in the cauldron of the Premier League that predicting a winner seems more difficult than ever.

Chelsea’s nightmare title defence last season could work to their advantage on this occasion, as the players do not have to contend with the extra workload of a European campaign. The squad appears to fit the traits of the new manager most comfortably. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Chelsea win the title, with Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and even the Spurs riding their coat-tails.

I think Hull City and Burnley will be relegated alongside Watford, who will find it difficult to recalibrate their team in my opinion. I am tipping Xhaka at Arsenal and Ilkay Gundogan at Manchester City to transform their respective midfields, proving themselves to be two of the summer’s best signings in the process.

Andros Townsend went some way to rebuilding his reputation at Newcastle last year and Crystal Palace, a team that rely heavily on their wingers, seem like a good fit for him to continue that rehabilitation process.

The race for the European places looks tighter than ever. Three of Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and defending champions Leicester will not qualify for the Champions League and one won’t even qualify for the Europa League. I think Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United will join Chelsea in the Champions League, with Liverpool and Spurs just missing out on the top 4. Expect the likes of Everton and West Ham to figure in the equation too.

Never has there been such a sense of mystery and intrigue at the outset of a Premier League season. The only prediction that I am absolutely convinced of, is that several of these predictions will look rather silly come May.

Matches not to be missed

Manchester United vs Manchester City (10 September, 12.30pm, Old Trafford)

The first meeting between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho since the pair “enjoyed" such an acrimonious relationship as managers of Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively. The fact that they are reunited in a local derby simply adds spice to the mix.

Mourinho is famed for his management of games against immediate title rivals and he will look to make the game tight and cagey against Pep’s more expressive style. Both managers will consider this a chance to put a marker down for the title race.

Arsenal vs Tottenham Hotspur (5 November, 3pm, Emirates Stadium)

North London derbies are always high-octane affairs. The teams are much closer in quality now and both sides like to attack. It is probably the most consistently entertaining local derby in the division.

Watford vs Swansea City (15 April, 3pm, Vicarage Road)

At the business end of the season, there is nothing quite like a relegation six-pointer and, if my predictions hold firm, this match will fall into that category.

Matches between struggling sides are always fascinating at this stage of the season, as previously hopeless teams generally find some form with the trapdoor winking beneath them. Draws are generally undesirable in these contests, so both teams look to attack and subsequently leave gaps in defence. They are seldom pretty, but they are always entertaining.

Chelsea vs Manchester United (TBC)

Mourinho returns to Stamford Bridge as the manager of Manchester United. He will enjoy a warm reception from the Chelsea supporters, but he may not enjoy such a cordial greeting from his old squad, several of whom fell out with the spiky Portuguese coach during his disastrous last season at the club.

AFC Bournemouth vs Burnley (13 May, 2pm, Vitality Stadium)

For two clubs that would regard Premier League survival as the principal aim of their season, this game, the penultimate of the season, could potentially become a straight shoot-out to avoid one of the three relegation spots.

Timothy Stillman is an UK-based football writer.

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