EPL 2021-22: Manchester City will be the side to beat

Manchester City is the only outfit since Manchester United in 2008-09 to successfully defend the title (2018-19) and it enters the coming season with the confidence that it can do so again, when the Premier League kicks off on August 13.

The 2020-21 campaign was one of Manchester City’s best, despite the defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League final. It added the EFL Cup to the Premier League trophy and shrugged off a wobbly first half of the season to ultimately finish with the best defence (32 goals conceded), best attack (83 goals scored) and most number of clean sheets (19 by Ederson). And, importantly, Spanish manager Pep Guardiola will be beginning his sixth season in charge of City.   -  AP

In the last week of July, Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson was on the verge of being handed a fresh contract extension that would tie the Brazilian sweeper-keeper to the club until he turns 34. He is 27 now.

This is indicative of the kind of dynasty City Football Group, which runs affairs at the Etihad, has set about building. So much so that even Pep Guardiola, bit of an agnostic to such matters when at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, has seemingly bought into the idea.

As the Catalan begins his sixth season in charge, the reigning champion will be the side to beat when the Premier League kicks off on August 13. City is the only outfit since Manchester United in 2008-09 to successfully defend the title (2018-19) and it enters the coming season with the confidence that it can do so again.

The 2020-21 campaign was one of City’s best, despite the defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League final. It added the EFL Cup to the Premier League trophy and shrugged off a wobbly first half of the season to ultimately finish with the best defence (32 goals conceded), best attack (83 goals scored) and most number of clean sheets (19 by Ederson).

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The pursuit of England striker Harry Kane and midfielder Jack Grealish in the transfer market for a whopping 200 million pounds combined means that Guardiola is on a mission to make his side more complete than ever.

Raheem Sterling and John Stones return from Euro 2020 with great confidence, while the likes of Ruben Dias (centreback), Ferran Torres and Phil Foden (wingers) have their best years in front. All-time top-scorer Sergio Aguero has left the club, but City coped well last year when the Argentine striker spent large spells on the sidelines.

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The only club which can rival City’s wealth and depth of talent is Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea. The German has revolutionised the side since taking over from Frank Lampard in January, leading the club to Champions League glory. The stage is now set for him to launch a full-blown attack on the Premier League.

Brentford and Manchester United battle it out during the English Premier League pre-season friendly match at Old Trafford. Brentford will make a historic entry to the top flight for the first time since 1947.   -  AFP

 

Lynchpin Jorginho was a transformed player under Tuchel and has added the Euro 2020 winner’s medal. Kai Havertz gave a good account of himself at Euro 2020 despite Germany’s travails, and it will be no surprise if the future Chelsea team is built around him. N’Golo Kante and Mason Mount will look to carry forward their fine summer form, while the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic will be well-rested and raring to go.

One area of concern for Tuchel, however, will be the lack of consistent quality in the final third of the pitch, with Timo Werner misfiring. Under Tuchel, Chelsea has scored just 25 goals in 19 league games. Signing an elite No. 9 like Erling Haaland will go a significant way in making Chelsea well-rounded.

Threatening to disrupt this fast-developing duopoly will be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. For Solskjaer, this might well be a make-or-break season. In the little more than two years he has been in charge, the Norwegian has brought stability to the club, but the hierarchy will now want United to start winning trophies.

The club has backed Solskjaer in the transfer market, adding the brilliant forward Jadon Sancho and seasoned defender Raphael Varane to an already impressive array of footballers comprising Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani among others.

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French midfielder Paul Pogba was the best outfield player at Euro 2020, despite his nation crashing out in the round-of-16. Whether this inspires him to lead United’s charge remains to be seen, for the club has to first sort out his contract, which has just a year to run.

Klopp’s Liverpool suffered last year with a defensive injury crisis and couldn’t mount a title-defence worthy of its triumph in the season before that. It just about made the top-four — taking 26 of the last 30 points on offer — and lost to Real Madrid pretty convincingly in the Champions League quarterfinals.

The German coach has however done well to strengthen the defence by signing Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig for around the 35 million pounds. With star centreback Virgil van Dijk set to return after a nine-month injury layoff, and Joe Gomez recovering from a knee injury which had kept him out for an equally long period, Liverpool can look ahead with optimism.

Midfielder Thiago Alcantara should blossom after a difficult first year and provide the ideal support to Liverpool’s intense front-three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. But Georginio Wijnaldum’s midfield enterprise will be missed, with the Dutchman moving to Paris Saint-Germain.

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It will be interesting to see how each of these four clubs plays. The limited window for pre-season training after exhausting periods at the Euros and Copa America may mean that Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool, all three who swear by high-octane football, may have to ease their players in, instead of going full throttle from day one.

Arsenal, though, has a lot to worry about before it gets down to deciding its style of play. Mikel Arteta’s team has progressively fallen down the pecking order and with little money to splurge in the transfer market, the Spaniard has had to look mostly inward to carry out his rebuilding job. The signing of England defender Ben White for 50 million pounds can provide the team some stability in the back.

This has resulted in midfielder Emile Smith Rowe, who impressed in the 33 appearances he made last year across competitions after being promoted from the youth ranks, getting the coveted No. 10 jersey.

The Englishman’s excellent positional awareness and ability to play through the centre of the pitch and between the lines should finally lift Arsenal, even as the club prepares for the impending loss of key midfielder Granit Xhaka.

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Arsenal’s North London neighbour Tottenham Hotspur has turned to Nuno Espirito Santo to stem the post-Mauricio Pochettino rot. The Portuguese coach led Wolverhampton Wolves back into the Premier League (2017-18) and has coached the club to two straight seventh-place and one 13th place finish.

The expectations at Tottenham will however be much higher and the profile of the players much bigger. His first task will be to convince Harry Kane to stay, as the talisman looks for greener pastures. The freshening up of the squad seems to have already begun, with Spurs letting go of senior pros in Toby Alderweireld and Erik Lamela. Brendan Rodgers had led Leicester City to two consecutive fifth-place finishes and won the FA Cup last season by beating Chelsea for the club’s first silverware since the 2015-16 Premier League triumph.

But there is a feeling that this Leicester outfit has hit its peak, and a further jump may not be possible without a bigger financial outlay.

At Everton, the managerial churn has continued with Rafael Benitez becoming the fifth full-time appointment in as many years. His biggest challenge, however, will be to convince the fans of his suitability, with his past tenure at archrival Liverpool not going down well with the faithful.

Elsewhere, David Moyes and Marcelo Bielsa will consider their jobs well done if they can help West Ham United and Leeds United punch above their weights again and keep them in the top-10 for a second consecutive season.

At the bottom, Norwich City and Watford both return to the top flight after a year’s gap, while Brentford will make a historic entry to the Premier League for the first time since 1947.