EPL preview: A championship of managers

In assembling a cast of superstar managers and multiple title contenders, the Premier League promises much entertainment this time around. The season will also see the rekindling of an old rivalry, between Jose Mourinho, the manager of Manchester United, and Pep Guardiola, in-charge at Manchester City.

The competition between Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (left) and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is expected to juice up the English Premier League this season.   -  REUTERS

Antonio Conte... the new Chelsea manager is expected to bring to Stamford Bridge the same defensive solidity he brought as Juventus coach.   -  Getty Images

It seemed unlikely in May, during Leicester City’s coronation as the unlikeliest of champions, that the Premier League would top that season for drama anytime in the near future. It is, after all, not often — in any football league in the world — that a team that avoids relegation by the skin of its teeth one season wins the title the next. Yet, the 2016-17 season of the Premier League has all the ingredients to produce yet another remarkable competition.

Leicester’s win cannot be beaten for shock value; but in assembling a cast of superstar managers and multiple title contenders, the Premier League promises much entertainment this time around.

“We have (Jose) Mourinho at Manchester United, (Antonio) Conte at Chelsea, (Pep) Guardiola at Man City, (Jurgen) Klopp at Liverpool, so it’s a little bit a world championship of managers as well,” Arsene Wenger noted recently.

 

Mourinho has had an eventful year. He began last season as league champion, but was sacked midway through the season after overseeing the worst title defence in the history of the Premier League. Chelsea eventually finished 10th, its lowest since 1995-96. That does not appear to have affected Mourinho’s reputation a great deal, however, for he soon found himself installed as manager of Manchester United, an appointment the club would have done well to make two years ago.

The Portuguese has begun in typical fashion, making a few high-profile signings in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba. The centre-back Eric Bailly has also been recruited from Villarreal. United has been decisive in the transfer market, and Mourinho appears to have his best team in mind, unlike the desultory approach seen under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

Ibrahimovic has at least one good season as a striker in him, while Bailly will surely be an upgrade on Daley Blind. Mkhitaryan, though, has to be something of a steal at GBP 27 million. The Armenian attacker can play either as a number 10 or out wide. He’s quick and intelligent, and enjoyed a brilliant 2015-16 season for Borussia Dortmund, scoring 11 goals and making 15 assists. United had distinctly missed speed and creativity up front last season; Mkhitaryan will bring both.Pogba will give United dynamism in midfield.

United should definitely improve; it is hard to do worse than the standards set since Alex Ferguson’s exit, but a number of questions remain. Can Mourinho recover from his disastrous season at Chelsea? Is he on his way down as a manager, since his time at Inter? Is the squad good enough? And how much of a problem will the Europa League be?

All this will soon be answered.

This season will also see the rekindling of an old rivalry, between Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, who has taken up residence at Eastlands.

Manchester City finally has got the manager it has chased for so long. It is difficult to assess Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich — three semifinal exits in the Champions League — but it is impossible to argue with his record. There is a belief that Guardiola has had it easy, managing giant teams with bottomless finances in Spain and Germany. At City, he again has access to huge funds and he has been using them already, snapping up Ilkay Gundogan, Nolito, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus. But Guardiola is new to the Premier League. It remains to be seen how quickly he will adapt to City and the league. He still has a great squad at his disposal, but City will expect success not just in England but in Europe, something Manuel Pellegrini, notwithstanding the semifinal appearance in the Champions League last season, failed to deliver. Vincent Kompany’s fitness, and the general health of the defence, will be a worry.

At Chelsea, the Juventus legend Antonio Conte has taken charge, and he will be expected to bring the same defensive solidity he brought to Juventus as coach. He finished his time with Italian national team with the universal acknowledgement that he did as well as he could with the resources at his disposal.

 

Conte can be an emotional, inspirational coach; he will improve Chelsea, but the league title may be a bridge too far this time. Capturing N’golo Kante was a good move, as was acquiring Michy Batshuayi from Marseille. But Chelsea will worry about goals. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa had rotten seasons last time around, while Cesc Fabregas was inconspicuous. At the back, Branislav Ivanovic had a nightmarish season while Kurt Zouma is still recovering from injury. The squad simply does not appear to have quality all over the pitch.

Arsenal should be optimistic after a good finish to the last season, although there seems no end to the pervasive negativity among its supporters. In Granit Xhaka, signed for GBP 35 million from Borussia Monchengladbach, Wenger has finally plugged a hole he ought to have filled years ago. Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey — who had a fantastic EURO 2016 with Wales — are fine players.

Injuries continue to be a concern, though, with Per Mertesacker out for a few months, at the very least, after knee surgery, while doubts remain over Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. Arsenal fans are right, though, in demanding that the club spend money on reinforcements. Olivier Giroud is a good player but clearly not in the same class as Karim Benzema, Luis Suarez or Gonzalo Higuain. Arsenal had a bid turned down for Alexandre Lacazette; it is worth asking why, if it was a player Wenger desperately wanted, the club simply did not make a financial offer impossible for Lyon to refuse.

Defence is another area of concern, and Wenger and those above him at the club would do well to quickly strengthen the side to keep the fans on side.

Amid all the hubbub over this galaxy of fine managers, Leicester City has somewhat been ignored. It is possible to argue that the defending champion actually has a better squad than it did last season. Claudio Ranieri has made some astute signings in the summer, replacing Kante with Nampalys Mendy. The 19-year-old midfielder Bartosz Kapustka, who impressed for Poland at the EURO 2016, has hopped on board, as has the unbelievably quick Ahmed Musa, who cost a club-record GBP 16 million from CSKA Moscow. Jamie Vardy turned Arsenal down to remain at Leicester, which is great news, but Riyad Mahrez’s future is still up in the air.

Teams will not make the mistake of underestimating Ranieri’s men again, although how they deal with the twin challenges of the Premier League and the Champions League is to be seen.

Wenger did not name Ranieri or Tottenham Hotspur’s Mauricio Pochettino in his list of managerial greats — and perhaps rightly so — but he surely does not believe that the two are not threats. Whatever the circumstances of Tottenham’s farcical end to the last season, Pochettino must be congratulated for guiding the team to a third-placed finish. ( READ: >Pochettino backs Spurs to make amends)

Tottenham will return to the Champions League for the first time since 2010-11; tickets to home games at Wembley have been selling at a brisk pace. The arrivals of Vincent Janssen and Victor Wanyama have strengthened the side, which should be disappointed with anything less than a top-four finish again.

On Merseyside, Jurgen Klopp perhaps recognises that he still needs time to make things work at Liverpool. Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum, even at a combined cost of GBP 61 million, make a pair of great additions.

The battle to avoid relegation already has one member, it may be safely assumed, in Hull City. The club is in a mess, and still in the hunt for a new manager following Steve Bruce’s exit. Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough has hopes of staying up, but it could struggle, alongside Burnley and Swansea.

Elsewhere, it will be interesting to note how Walter Mazzarri and Claude Puel, two more foreign managers with fine records in their home countries, get on at Watford and Southampton respectively. The managerial merry-go-round has been whirring at great speed. Ronald Koeman is newly in at Everton and David Moyes at Sunderland, both clubs having recently lost their incumbent managers to National sides.

A lot of fun is in store.

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