Only six clubs can win the Premier League title this season – and there are three obvious choices in Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City – but there is no runaway favourite in my eyes.
United may have signed four players who will walk straight into their first XI, yet they still need a pattern of play. New coach Antonio Conte is sure to make an impression at Chelsea, and they will need a dramatic improvement on last term to challenge this time. City have splashed big money on John Stones, but is he a major improvement on what they had?
Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool are the others who have to believe they are in contention. No-one beyond them has a chance, but it is very difficult to be convinced by any one team.
The managerial battle among the top six, where all bar Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham have won multiple league titles, is fascinating. Spurs came unstuck in the end last season, but I think Pochettino will have learned from that and have more attacking depth this time. It is easy to forget that Arsene Wenger led Arsenal to second after what has been a busy summer. All at once, the three biggest clubs have recruited superstar managers in Jose Mourinho, Conte and Pep Guardiola – that’s unprecedented.
So evenly matched are the squads among the top five or six – Liverpool have the most to prove of that group – that I wonder whether goalkeepers might play a big part in deciding the destination of the trophy. You only win the league if you have a great keeper, and United and Chelsea have the best in David de Gea and Thibaut Courtois. City, on the other hand, have Joe Hart, who goes into the season under some pressure having been unconvincing for a couple of years now.
United have gone up several gears after buying brilliantly during the summer, with a world record deal for Paul Pogba following deals for Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They have missed a leader and driving force in midfield and it’ll be interesting to see how Pogba is used because that is not the role he played at Juventus. He is a perfect footballing specimen and brings presence, and if he can achieve consistency then United will be very difficult to beat. The real key to United and how they will play, however, is Zlatan.
This year I make no apologies for going with a hunch when picking a winner, because there is so little between the top five squads. And my hunch is City – or more precisely, Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola has shown in hugely successful spells at Barcelona and Bayern Munich that he relentlessly drives players, and I think players in turn learn so much from him that the process excites them. He is able to be demanding because not one of those players will question him.
City look to have bought enough players, except perhaps in attack, where they could benefit from better back-up for Sergio Aguero when their top scorer is absent. An alternative to Hart might be worth considering too, if only to put pressure on him to have the season of his life. Despite my reservations about Hart, though, I’m backing City. They have so many top players and I think Guardiola can make the difference.
United have bought the players they need to step up, but there are question marks over how Ibrahimovic will adapt to the Premier League, with no winter break, aged 34. Chelsea will be in the mix but the likes of Branislav Ivanovic look a little rusty and I wonder about the effect of another hard season on the output of Cesc Fabregas.
Of the top six, I’d put Liverpool bottom. While they can beat Barcelona, as they did in a friendly at the weekend, I wouldn’t bet on them to win at West Brom.
That leaves fourth place and, while it’s a toss-up, I fancy Tottenham to pip Arsenal this time. Spurs made good progress last year, have youth on their side and I think expectations at White Hart Lane will be more realistic than at Emirates Stadium, where I can see fans quickly getting on Wenger’s back if they don’t start well. He rode out the negativity last term, but this time the competition is even more fierce and the standard higher.