And off they go again. The 2020/21 Premier League season is under starter’s orders. It’ll be a season unlike any other, starting behind closed doors and, judging by the way in which the government has been tightening regulations on sporting events in the last few days, it’ll still have the doors shut come Christmas.
By Dave Bowler
That is likely to be highly significant, at both ends of the table. Liverpool’s frankly ridiculous run of success at Anfield has played a big part in their success over the last couple of seasons, but upon the restart, it didn’t seem quite the daunting place it had been to opponents.
That may be partly down to Liverpool easing down having clinched the title, understandable enough, but without the Kop driving them on, should Liverpool start to spill a few points at home, it could open things up dramatically.
The other issue for Liverpool is that while winning the title is tough enough, in the post-Ferguson world, retaining it has become even harder. Klopp’s team must start the season as clear favourites alongside Manchester City, but they will face a much harder campaign than last time around.
That time, they flew out of the blocks so quickly that they had broken the rest of the division by Christmas. It’s hard to imagine that happening this time, not least because Manchester City have something to prove again.
Having had the trophy taken away from them so emphatically, City will have renewed motivation. And while City fans might disagree, most would argue that they will lose less from having the Etihad closed than Liverpool will from Anfield.
The big question for City is how well can they replace David Silva? The failure to properly address Vincent Kompany’s departure played. A big part in their demise last term, and Leroy Sane has moved on too. So far the recruitment of Nathan Ake and Ferran Torres offers promise and Guardiola will be looking at Phil Foden to step up too, but surely they – and Liverpool – are not finished in the transfer market yet?
With their transfer embargo lifted, Chelsea have gone into the market like a shopaholic after lockdown. They have bought plenty of established quality in Timo Werner, Ben Chilwell, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and Thiago Silva, seeing Pedro, Willian, Pasalic and Morata leaving.
They look a more robust side now and will be better for last term – manager Lampard too – when young talent was blooded as well. And they will push the top two closer but the title? It’s a lot to ask without some assistance from Liverpool and City really falling away from their standards. A Champions League place for them again, but will that be enough for Abramovic?
A similar tale looks set for Manchester United. Better than last season but still not good enough to really challenge for the title. Their form on the resumption of the season should encourage them, Bruno Fernandes will be even for having had 20 games for the club and their forward line looks potent enough.
They could have done without the distractions over Harry Maguire but the signing of Donny van de Beek promises much. All of which said, they, like Chelsea, were 15 points shy of Manchester City last term, another18 behind Liverpool. Bridging that gap in one season is surely too much to ask without the top two going completely off the rails?
Looking at the threat to them from the other direction, can a case be made for any team sneaking past those two and into the top four? Arsenal are certainly improved under Arteta, they have the boost in confidence that comes from winning FA Cup and Charity Shield and have added well in Willian, Cedric Soares and Gabriel while, crucially, not losing anyone significant.
They could challenge the top four but will need much to go their way. The same could be said of Spurs. Writing off Mourinho is never especially smart but at present, there are few signs of a real step forward. Doherty and Pierre Hojbjerg are sound enough signings, Joe Hart too, but there’s been little to quicken the pulse, while the departure of Jan Vertonghen could be costly.
Harry Kane will need to have the season of his life if Tottenham are to get anywhere near the top four, unless reinforcements arrive in the next couple of weeks.
Leicester City & Wolves
Leicester look to have blown their great opportunity and will again be very reliant on the goals of Jamie Vardy not drying up if they are to continue pushing for Europe. Wolves might be helped by not having to play in the Europa League, their small squad stretched that bit too far last term.
Losing Matt Doherty will be a blow and much will rest on the shoulders of £36million teenager Fabio Silva. If they can get to the end of the window without losing anyone else, they can threaten again, if not the top four then certainly a Europa League place again and in the cup competitions too.
The outliers could be Everton. A dreadful season last time couldn’t end quickly enough, but the summer has been hugely promising for them. Bringing in James Rodriguez, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan shows real intent and in Carlo Ancelotti, they have one of the very best coaches.
They are a club that could be adversely affected by the lack of supporters because at its best, the tight confines if Goodison Park can be like a bearpit, but if the Toffees get off to a good start – and blending an entirely new midfield, however high the quality is not easy – then momentum could carry them on to much better things than last term. It wouldn’t be before time.
The other end of the table is where the inability to get proper crowds in, at least before the turn of the year, could hurt most. For any newly promoted team, getting points on the board early on is generally crucial to survival.
They go into a new season still on the high of promotion, they play in front of packed, frenzied crowds at home and that can often get them a handful of points that might otherwise have looked unlikely and, from the beginning, put them into a place above the drop zone, giving them a bit of freedom.
That crowd boost is not going to happen this season and by the time it does, it could be too late. They’ll draw plenty of encouragement from the fact that some of last term’s strugglers will be down there again – you can’t see Villa, Brighton and West Ham finding it easy to get 40 points either and will Sheffield United be able to repeat last year’s heroics? – but it’s likely to be a very long, hard season for the promoted teams, not least because they’ll have missed out on a least some of the financial windfall that comes with promotion in terms of season ticket sales, boosted hospitality etc.
Ironically, Leeds United might be the one that bucks the trend. If any side is going to be helped by the home crowd, and so really miss it, it’s Leeds United at a febrile, pulsating Elland Road where the atmosphere can be as powerful as any stadium in the land. That they can’t draw on that will surely cost them points.
But on the other side of the coin, Bielsaball will, if anything, be better suited to the Premier League than the Championship. It will be fascinating to see just how his management stacks up against the elite but Leeds could well be this season’s surprise packet – though I’d be more convinced if Elland Road was open.
Dave Bowler is the author of “The Magic of the Cup 1973/74”, telling the story of Liverpool’s FA Cup win in 1974. Available here: https://www.curtis-sport.com/books –