Although the last day of the men’s English football season ended on August 1, the hangover from the strange campaign, caused by the interruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, still remains. Just two days before the start of the new season and 10 days after the traditional curtain-raiser, the Community Shield, for the 2020-21 season, the PFA awards were announced for the best performers from the 2019-20 season.
It’s not been a regular pre-season build-up for teams with the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea and Arsenal all having cup commitments both domestically and in Europe at the end of the last Premier League campaign. United and City’s scheduled start has been postponed by a week as the competition commences behind closed doors.
Among the biggest talking points ahead of the new season is the Premier League teams opting to revert to the time-honoured three-substitutes rule, while major European leagues in Spain, Germany, Italy and France will continue to adopt the five-subs, introduced post the coronavirus lockdown. English teams in European competitions will likely face the brunt of the demanding nature of the calendar when they come up against elite teams from the rival leagues.
The FA Cup replays, EFL Cup double leg semifinals and winter break have been scrapped to fit in the English 2020-21 calendar before the delayed European Championship begins. With fixture congestion a cause for concern and little layoff for the players, teams might find it difficult to sustain a level of performance which would be expected of them in the top-flight division.
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As Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta pointed out on the eve of the Community Shield, his team had “no choice” with the scheduled start in the build-up to the season. Despite that, Arteta again proved to be a tactically astute fit for the Gunners coaching job as Arsenal built on last season’s FA Cup triumph to beat the defending Premier League champion Liverpool on penalties. Recruitment in the off-season suggests Arsenal is on the right track but a tilt at the title might be too early for the Londoners.
It’s the city rival from the blue territory, Chelsea, which has been making all the right noises during the off-season. Frank Lampard has bolstered his side significantly with additions in the form of the attackers Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz and the defenders Thiago Silva, Ben Chilwell and Malang Sarr. The Blues aren’t yet done in the transfer window and are seemingly on their way to assembling the best starting XI in the league. But as Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp put it, “you cannot bring in the 11 best players in the world and just hope a week later they play the best football.”
‘We cannot change it (transfer approach) overnight and say, ‘Now we want to behave like Chelsea.’ They are signing a lot of players. That can be an advantage, but that means they have to fit together.’
Klopp told BBC 5 live , “We cannot change it (transfer approach) overnight and say, ‘Now we want to behave like Chelsea.’ They are signing a lot of players. That can be an advantage, but that means they have to fit together.”
However, Klopp will hope he can get his desired additions to freshen things up at Melwood as his team prepares to defend its crown. The Reds have only added Takumi Minamino, who can stake a claim for a place in the first team, since the end of the 2018 summer transfer window. The team, which posted 97 and 99 points in the last two seasons, is in need of some creativity in midfield to add to the industry it possesses. Thiago Alcantara, who won the treble at Bayern Munich, is seen as the much-needed creative spark but Liverpool has struggled to cough up the reported asking price of GBP 30 million.
Liverpool remained unbeaten at home in its last two seasons and in the continued absence of fans, its ability to conjure up relentless attacking waves without the uproar of its home crowd will be tested this season. In recent weeks, test events are being held around England with a small number of supporters allowed to the stadiums for friendlies.
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters warned that a complete season without fans will cost the clubs around GBP 700 million. While it’s difficult to estimate when the venues can start hosting supporters amid rising positive cases in the country, Masters hopes to have them back in a limited capacity in October. “We have to get back to fans inside stadia as quickly as possible - that’s the big thing that’s missing, economic or otherwise - we need fans back inside stadiums for all sorts of reasons and it’s the No. 1 priority,” he told BBC Sport .
‘We need fans back inside stadiums for all sorts of reasons and it’s the No. 1 priority.’
Liverpool’s realistic challenger will be last season’s distant runner-up Manchester City. Goal-scoring doesn’t seem a concern for Pep Guardiola but his defence, despite being the second-best in the league, proved costly in its challenge for a third successive title. Left-footed centre-back Nathan Ake was brought from relegated Bournemouth, while City is also hoping to add Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly for GBP 67 million. City’s challenge will be to fix its susceptibility to counter-attacks, which was laid bare last season.
Manchester United is set to start the season with the same way it finished the last season: a potent first XI with a thin bench. Dutch midfiedler Donny van de Beek has been the only arrival so far and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is desperate for a strong bench. A GBP 120 million move for 20-year-old Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund might drag on until the end of the transfer deadline October 5.
Tussle for European places
Among the mid-table pack, Everton has added Allan from Napoli, James Rodriguez from Real Madrid and Abdoulaye Doucoure from Watford, and has a big name manager in Carlo Ancelloti to make the push for a top-six place and beyond. Wolverhampton Wanderers’s Portuguese revolution continued with three more additions in the form of Tote Gomes, Matija Sarkic and Fabio Silva, who is a club-record signing.
Leicester City suffered one of the biggest collapses in the second half of the season as it dropped out of the Champions League places. So far it has only added right-back Timothy Castagne as Brendan Rodgers will need to pick up the pieces and look to mount another challenge on the top four.
At the end of the last season, Jose Mourinho argued that since he took over at Tottenham Hotspur in November, Spurs have been the fourth best team in the league. Now in his first full season in charge, it’s another chance for Mourinho to show his critics and his star players Harry Kane and Heung Min Son that he is the man to deliver silverware at Tottenham. The arrival of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Joe Hart and Matt Doherty have added depth in what is expected to be a hectic start – potential nine games in 24 days – if the Spurs are to progress into the group stages of the Europa League.
Newcomers and fight for safety
It’s difficult to look beyond Leeds United among the three new promoted teams, as the cult of Marcelo Bielsa finally rolls into the Premier League. Bielsa has brought top division football back to Elland Road after 16 years and the Argentine’s straight-shooting press conferences and high-intensity football promises to keep onlookers on the edge of their seats. And all eyes will be at Anfield on Saturday when Liverpool hosts Leeds.
West Bromwich Albion and Fulham are the other newcomers managed by Slaven Bilic and Scott Parker, respectively. West Brom, Fulham, Aston Villa, West Ham United, Brighton and Hove Albion will likely be among the familiar contenders, who could be involved in a scrap to avoid the drop.
Villa has already splashed GBP 44 million in incoming transfers and it could take its spending upwards of GBP 60 million if it brings in Emiliano Martinez, indicating skipper and star player Jack Grealish could be on his way out. Villa and West Ham skirted with relegation last season and without the creative brilliance of Grealish, Dean Smith’s men could find itself in trouble again.
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