With the transfer window officially closed now (for the English clubs at least) and Premier League football right at our doorstep, it seems the right time to discuss the upcoming season. Let’s look at the clubs likely to challenge Manchester City for the 2018-19 title. But first, I feel we should talk a bit about this preponed transfer window for the English league. Though a noble idea which I’m sure was taken up for the benefit of all, its implementation has been completely impractical. The decision to enforce this rule during the World Cup year did not make any sense. They could have easily adopted this rule starting next year, which also would have given other European leagues a chance to come on board with the idea. But unfortunately, English clubs had to suffer (by which I mean Manchester United and Tottenham). But what’s done is done. Let’s talk about the season ahead.
Okay! So where do we even begin? Maybe we should start from the most obvious conclusion that it is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible for any club to even mount a challenge on this juggernaut called Manchester City. Last season, the whole world witnessed what this club is capable of. They won the league in an emphatic fashion and broke all sorts of records, be that the highest goal tally, the highest points or the highest number of wins. They were ruthless and unstoppable. Even the English league, known to be the most competitive league in the world, was reduced to a mere fight for the second place, such was the dominance of City.
Pep Guardiola, who struggled during his first season at the Etihad, finally made the team his own. He was able to enforce his philosophy and the result was for the world to see. Considering that he already has a well-oiled machine at his disposal, chances are slim for any other club to dethrone City from the champions’ throne. Add to it the fact that they have added Riyad Mahrez and the team looks even scarier.
High-intensity possession-based game with beautiful goals in the end, City did make everyone fall in love with their football. Their recent win in the Community Shield against Chelsea only reiterated their strength. The depth of their squad is envious. They dominated Chelsea without their star players De Bruyne and David Silva. That says enough. After capturing the Premier League title last season, they must be raring to prove their mettle in Europe. And by the look of it, they are fully capable of doing that.
Against the script
But football doesn’t always work like this. That is the beauty, isn’t it? This game is not just about the tactics. There is so much more to it. Football is a game of sheer passion and desire. With the right mentality and discipline, even a minnow can beat a giant. Leicester City showed the way in 2015-16. Their fairytale run made everyone dream. And not just Leicester, we saw Portugal win the Euro 2016, Croatia reach the finals of World Cup 2018.
Simply stating, we might expect few challengers worthy of competing with City for the title. These are the three clubs I feel can dethrone the champions.
Three likely challengers for the 2018-19 title
Now this one seems to be the most likely to put a serious challenge for the title this season. Everyone seems to be talking about them. And with the huge spending in the transfer market, people expect them to deliver.
Just after taking over the reins from Brendan Rodgers in 2015, Jurgen Klopp quickly demonstrated what he and Liverpool are capable of. The exciting brand of gegenpressing football showed everyone the glimpse of a bright future. In just half a season, Klopp took Liverpool to two finals. Liverpool and Klopp looked like a match made in heaven. Last season, under Klopp’s tutelage, Liverpool reached the finals of UEFA Champions League (UCL) in an emphatic fashion. They were impressive throughout.
What could work for them
Liverpool has been the Achilles’ heel for Guardiola ever since he arrived in England. Klopp’s Liverpool has beaten Guardiola’s City more often than not. Last season, they beat them to reach the semi-finals of the UCL and also played out the game of the season when Liverpool won 4-3 at Anfield. No doubt Guardiola is a shrewd tactician who takes control of each aspect of his team’s play but he often struggles to find a solution for the swift counter-attacks that Klopp’s team offers. Liverpool could actually go a step further this season and win the premier league title.
Looking at their squad, the team looks ideal. It appears like a lifetime ago when Klopp raised questions about Manchester United’s £89 million purchase of Pogba. Since then, his Liverpool has come out to be the biggest spender among the so-called ‘big six’ clubs of England. The acquisition of Virgil van Dijk in January for £75 million was a sign of intent. That was followed by the arrival of Naby Keita (though signed last season) for £53 million, Fabinho for £43 million, Xherdan Shaqiri for £13 million and Allison for £67 million (becoming the most expensive goalkeeper for a short while). Now, heavy spending doesn’t automatically guarantee success (ask PSG what happened in the UCL last year). But the team surely looks full of quality.
Last year, Liverpool’s most apparent weakness was their defense (did someone just say Karius). It did let them down on more occasions than not. So, with the purchase of van Dijk and Allison, the team looks more balanced. Keita and Fabinho will provide the necessary grit to their midfield. They already had the most efficient front three, and so a solid defense to support those attackers make Liverpool an ideal team to challenge for the title this year.
What could work against them
Personally, I find Liverpool to be the most entertaining team in the Premier League. One day they will beat the hell out of City and the next day they will find themselves losing to relegation-threatened West Brom. Inconsistency seems to be their biggest weakness. So, that is something they need to sort out if they are to challenge for the title. If they can maintain a consistent run in the league this year, the title could be theirs. They already have all the other ingredients for it.
After Liverpool, my next pick would be Arsenal. After the long-pending (too long?) exit of Arsene Wenger from the club, many were expecting some sort of upheaval in the club. After all, it isn’t always easy to replace someone who was at the helm of a club for so long (Moyes can tell that). And though it is too early to suggest that Arsenal won’t face the same fate, the initial signs have been promising.
What could work for them
Timely capture of Unai Emery was followed by an impressive transfer window. Early completion of transfer business ensures that the new players get maximum time to settle in. Adding a veteran like Lichtsteiner would add crucial experience to the squad. Further strengthening their defense with Bernd Leno and Sokratis (can’t blame me for not writing the last name) seems a step in the right direction. Though they have lost Wilshere, a player of Lucas Torreira’s caliber sure seems like a coup.
Along with an impressive transfer window, one thing that’s worth noting that Wenger did leave a good squad for his successor. The attacking combination of Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ozil, and Mkhitaryan is capable of terrorizing any defense. An already strong attack with an improved defense and you’ve got yourself an amazing squad capable of challenging for the title.
What could work against them
I feel there would be two factors that could make or break Arsenal’s season. First, Emery’s inexperience in the Premier League. The premier league has been known to be harsh to foreigners initially. The physical nature of this league along with the comparatively lenient refereeing makes it is a menace for any manager coming from the foreign leagues. More than the tactics, the teams usually rely on physicality, set pieces, second balls, third balls, aerial duels and counter attacks. Any so-called ‘small team’ is capable of giving the bigger teams a run for their money. They park the bus, play deep inside their own half and hurt the other team on counter attacks or set pieces. It can become really hard to unlock the defenses of such teams. Burnley overachieved last season because of their defensive merit. So, Emery will face the same issue and could really struggle. Guardiola faced a similar situation during his first season in England.
Second, Emery’s Arsenal will need to deal with the seemingly absurd scheduling of Europa League matches. A majority of managers in the English league are always annoyed by playing in the Europa League because of its scheduling. Playing European matches on Thursdays and even Fridays make it usually taxing for the players and makes it hard to recover in time for the weekend games. The Premier League schedule doesn’t help either, with managers usually at loggerheads with the authorities. Moreover, in the Europa League, there are teams from farther regions of Europe and their football pitches are also not up to the mark always. So, imagine a team traveling to a remote region in Russia for a game, have players injured in such harsh conditions, and then be left with less than 48 hours to recover for the weekend game. This all makes up for a terrible recipe. There is no wonder Chelsea won the league when they weren’t playing in Europe.
If they somehow manage to tackle these then we could see Arsenal challenging for the title by May next year.
With the transfer window closed now, Tottenham has become the only club in the premier league era to have gone an entire transfer window without buying a player (and here I thought Manchester United were having a bad day). No first team player left or came. That makes it a unique situation at Tottenham. They are also set to move to their new stadium this season, which is a symbol of exciting things to come.
What could work for them
Despite a lack of transfer activity, Tottenham’s major asset is their squad. The team has come a long way in the past few years. Under the guidance to Pochettino, the team has transformed from a top four challenger to a Champions League regular and a title challenger. Though they lost their best chance when Leicester won the league, they have shown enormous growth in each subsequent season. Their heroics in last year’s UCL left an impression on people around the globe. Considering their constant growth, this could be the season that they actually win the title and not just challenge for it.
One brilliant piece of business Tottenham chairman Levy has done this season is to tie down all major players on long-term contracts. In the present market, tying down your big players is a business in itself. To retain a player of Harry Kane’s caliber is a major boost for the club. The home-grown superstar’s decision to reject foreign offers and sign a long-term deal for the club shows how players believe in the project. It also inspired others and we saw Alli, Son and others follow suit. Moreover, getting to a new stadium will only benefit the club.
What could work against them
After their record-breaking transfer window (get the pun, eh?), one thing that’s clear is that they lack an appropriate squad depth to challenge for the title. Their over-reliance on Harry Kane was an issue last season, and it remains this year too. They still haven’t found a worthy back-up for Kane. Player injuries can hamper their season easily.
Despite all that they’ve achieved, Tottenham is a young team. When everyone was expecting them to beat Juventus to reach the quarter-finals of UCL last year, they were let down by a lack of maturity. The lack of experience in their squad was evident. On the other hand, Juventus after being in such situations many times, showed a nerve of steel. But all those experiences have made the players mature a lot. After the World Cup, Harry Kane and co. would have gathered enough experience to learn how not to crumble under pressure.
Other honorable mentions
Being a Manchester United supporter, it would be unfair for me to not include them here. It’s not that they are not capable of winning the Premier League. They do have enough quality in their squad. It’s just that Mourinho hasn’t been able to bring the best out of his players. Add to that, the tepid transfer window and Mourinho’s deteriorating relationship with the management. Things just don’t look so bright right now. A top 4 finish and an FA cup or EFL cup could be expected.
Other notable mention would be Chelsea. If Sarri is successful in implementing ‘Sarriball’ in time, that is getting his players to play the way he wants, then they are capable of fighting for the title. But, the chances are still slim.
I see the upcoming season as a two-horse race between City and Liverpool. City seems fully capable of retaining their title and Liverpool looks strong enough to give City a run for their money. Apart from them, Arsenal and Tottenham can prove strong competitors too.
But the beauty of football lies in its uncertainty. So, you and I will be keeping an eye on the proceedings. Let’s enjoy the season ahead. Let’s enjoy football.
By the way, even the Wolves have been making some noise. Who knows, maybe we would see another Leicester this year.
Author: Shikhil Vyas