Shortly after winning the club’s first English top division title in thirty years, Liverpool’s coach Jurgen Klopp gave a now-famous interview. COVID-19 had forced the Premier League season to finish behind closed doors. Liverpool’s legendarily passionate fan base had to watch Klopp and his players celebrate from afar.
“It’s for you out there,” he told fans through tears. “It’s for you. I hope you stay at home. Go in front of your house maybe. But it’s in here. It’s in here,” Klopp said, pointing to his heart and then his head.
A few weeks later and some 300-miles south of Liverpool, Eddie Howe addressed the media. With Howe at the helm as manager, Bournemouth was relegated to the Championship League (the process by which the bottom three teams from one division swap places with the top three teams from the tier below). In other words, Bournemouth won’t be in the Premier League this year. Neither will Norwich City or Watford. Relegation is crushing to a team’s pride, finances, and even their sense of self. In the Championship League, there’s less money to be had. Sometimes dozens of employees from a relegated club lose their jobs.
Howe, having spent most of his life at Bournemouth as a player and then a manager who brought the club to previously unimaginable heights, apologized to the fans. It was a shame, he said, that fans had to stay home. Had they watched from the stands, if nothing else, fans and players could be together in their grief.
This dynamic, of joy and suffering constantly mirrored, is what makes sports worth watching.
In an ordinary year, fans and clubs would have close to three months to process the season that has been, recharge, and prepare for the one to come. This year, thanks to the three-month COVID-19 hiatus in the spring, the season ended in late July. On Saturday, the new season will begin.
Liverpool, the reigning champions, are favorites to repeat alongside Manchester City, the winner of the two titles prior. The test for Liverpool, like any team in their position, will be whether they can maintain the energy and focus that defined their last campaign. They’ll begin the season, at least, with mostly the same group of players. Likely due to the constraints of the pandemic economy, Liverpool has only signed one new player so far, a backup left-back. Discounting the chances of major injury problems in the squad, there’s no reason Liverpool shouldn’t compete for the title again. Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, and Alisson Becker remain some of the league’s best.
Manchester City had a disappointing 2019–2020 by their standards. On their day, Manchester City might be the world’s best team and might even have the world’s best player in Kevin De Bruyne, but consistency was a problem, particularly in the defense. Backed by the Abu Dhabi Investment Group, money has not been a problem. Manchester City has already spent a little over £60 million on center back Nathan Ake from relegated Bournemouth and winger Ferran Torres from Valencia. More signings are sure to be on the way (though not, after a brief moment of hope, Lionel Messi). Manager Pep Guardiola will surely come to the new season with a few tricks up his sleeve.
No one has spent more on their team this summer than Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. Not for the first time, Chelsea has broken the market, spending close to £250 million (and counting) on RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz, Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell, and Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech. Chelsea has also brought in defenders Thiago Silva from PSG and Malang Sarr from OGC Nice as free agents. This is a massive and risky outlay in support of second-year manager and Chelsea legend Frank Lampard. New signings should solidify their place in the top four, meaning Champions League qualification (a knockout tournament between Europe’s best teams). However, Lampard has yet to prove he can build a solid defense, and constructing a balanced team that includes Werner, Havertz, Ziech, and young American star Christian Pulisic may be impossible.
Manchester United finished in the top four and seemed to turn a page in the closing months of last season, boosted by January signing Bruno Fernandes (although advanced metrics show that Fernandes might not be quite as good as he seems). Their attacking line is one of the best in the league and young, too, featuring the English duo Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood. United brought in Donny van de Beek for forty million from Ajax, a good player, but also a challenge for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to fit into a functioning midfield alongside Fernandes and Paul Pogba.
North London rivals Tottenham and Arsenal finished last season sixth and eighth, respectively. Both clubs fired their managers midway through the season. Behind Jose Mourinho, Spurs rarely wowed but did enough to get sixth and qualify for the Europa League (like the Champions League, but for Europe’s second-tier of top teams). New signing Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from Southampton may help, but more important perhaps is maximizing last summer’s big signing, Tanguy Ndombele. Depending on who you ask, Ndombele either had attitude problems or was ostracized by Mourinho (a familiar tactic of his). Harry Kane’s top priority will be staying healthy and finding a level he hasn’t sniffed in years.
Mikel Arteta’s hiring brought new life to Arsenal, and though their form was up and down, they won the FA Cup to close the season, beating Manchester City and Chelsea along the way. Picking up Willian from Chelsea on a free transfer should help the attack (though it’s fair to question the wisdom of spending limited resources on an older player). More important is the presumed contract renewal of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the league’s best goal scorer since his arrival. Gabriel Magalhães from Lille and William Saliba from St. Etienne bring youth and quality to a defense in desperate need. Dani Ceballos is back on loan from Real Madrid, but Arsenal will still lack quality in midfield without more signings.
Leicester City had a great season, finishing fifth, but building on that will be a challenge given their relative financial disadvantage (there is no Salary Cap in the PL, so the richest clubs generally can build the best teams). Losing Ben Chilwell to Chelsea will hurt, but Leicester replaced him at half the price with Atalanta’s Timothy Castagne. Leicester still has one of the league’s best strikers in Jamie Vardy and an incredibly well put together midfield between James Maddison, Youri Tielemans, and Wilfred Ndidi.
Part two of this preview will cover several clubs not competing for the top four and provide some general themes for the coming season.
Will Slater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org