Twelve months ago I thought that the Premier League had amassed its best group of players ever but, as we approach this season’s big kick-off tonight, I think top-flight clubs have raised the bar again.
The division is getting harder to win, and that means it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict. The competitiveness makes it such a long, hard battle and for that reason I think much of it comes down to the size and quality of squads.
Injuries take their toll. Last term, Chelsea were among the least affected, helped in part by their absence from European competition, and they ended up on top.
When forecasting, all you can do is assess a team’s commitments and priorities alongside the strength of their squad. So based on that, here is how I see the new campaign.
1st Manchester City
Some old frailties remain, but Pep Guardiola has assembled an unbelievably good squad at Manchester City.
Last season they started with 10 straight wins, only for it to unravel with Pep losing his cool, perhaps in frustration at himself as much as anything, and some odd decisions, such as Claudio Bravo’s selection and an insistence on playing out from the back when it wasn’t working.
City have made very strong moves in the transfer market, spending more than £200m on the likes of Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo. Add them to Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane and David Silva and they now have two quality players competing for every position.
Much depends on Vincent Kompany staying fit – he is vital as a leader and a cohesive element – while John Stones needs to step up this year and Ilkay Gundogan ought to take Yaya Toure’s central midfield spot.
Guardiola, meanwhile, has some riddles up front. Does he play Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus together? And if they are really serious about going for domestic and European glory this time then shouldn’t they sign another top striker to occupy a place in the squad currently wasted on Wilfried Bony?
That said, City already have the best group of players in the league and that’s why I favour them for the title.
Their long run in the top four might have come to an end last season but if I was an Arsenal fan I’d be very optimistic.
Such has been Arsene Wenger’s desire to win the Champions League that at times it compromised their focus domestically. I don’t think that will be the case with the Europa League this year.
Winning the FA Cup gave them some momentum to take into the new campaign, while Wenger has quashed doubts about his future by signing a new contract and the squad looks to be maturing.
I think we’ll see more from Granit Xhaka, who looked good in the Community Shield on Sunday, and I like the cut of Sead Kolasinac’s jib. They have a good group of defenders now.
Fellow summer signing Alexandre Lacazette is a finisher and, with Olivier Giroud seemingly set to stay, brings variety to Arsenal’s game. We know Lacazette scores goals but the test will whether he can do it in the big games. I am confident that he can.
Doubts remain over the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, but in the case of Ozil, I think he needs a wake-up call. He is almost 29 but showed little last term to suggest he’s improving. If I was him I’d be glad to be at a big club, have won a trophy and in a strong squad.
Keeping those two is important, but if they do I think Wenger has a terrific squad that will fight for the Premier League.
Tottenham have so much going for them: an excellent, tight squad with a good age profile and they believe in each other. However, one of the main strengths is also their biggest weakness.
So much depends on Harry Kane, Golden Boot winner for the past two seasons. Spurs still don’t have enough options up front – they can’t rely on Vincent Janssen to score at least every other game – so they are in trouble if Kane gets injured.
They seem to have trouble attracting players, who don’t believe they will get games. Old boy Gareth Bale would be a dream final piece of the jigsaw but doesn’t look like he’d go back there. They need to do something, though.
Then there is the temporary move to Wembley, where results have been poor. That has to be a concern and Tottenham will need a good start at their adopted home, otherwise the pressure will build.
In any case, they will miss White Hart Lane, which boasted one of the best old-fashioned atmospheres and lent them a significant advantage. Leaving the Lane weakens their title-winning potential.
For a team that convincingly won the title three months ago, I think the new season could be tough. The transfer business Chelsea have done has not taken them forward and they face several questions.
Chief among those is whether Alvaro Morata can replace Diego Costa. I don’t think he can. Morata has had limited game-time so far and is still acclimatising to Chelsea’s style, but I’m sure Antonio Conte won’t have been thrilled with what he’s seen so far.
There is a lot of pressure on the Spaniard, but he isn’t dynamic; he drifts into the box to score. Costa does a lot more and with an obvious hunger. On top of that, you can’t pin too many goals on Michy Batshuayi either.
Elsewhere, Chelsea have sold Nemanja Matic to Manchester United, meaning new arrival Tiemoue Bakayoko must very quickly adapt to the intensity of the league, while N’Golo Kante has barely missed a game in two years – can he keep that up? There is also still a shortage of back-up to Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, so important last year, should they get injured.
It feels as though the club is reluctant to spend big time after time but I’d like to see them buy someone like Pablo Dybala – a super signing who really puts them back at the forefront of everyone’s thinking. Without question they need another goalscorer.
5th Manchester United
A failure to take chances last season created pressure on Manchester United but the £75m signing of Romelu Lukaku guarantees goals and should address that issue.
Matic is also an excellent buy and should give more freedom to Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Much has been expected of those two and there will be extra pressure in their second seasons.
But I’m not convinced that Jose Mourinho’s team is a finely-tuned engine, or that they have shopped well at centre-back.
What I have seen of Victor Lindelof has not been particularly impressive. It’s a big step up from Benfica to United and I don’t know if he’s ready.
United were sixth last year. I think they’ll be better this time but aren’t solid enough to lift the title.
If you could guarantee Daniel Sturridge would play 35 games and Philippe Coutinho would stay on Merseyside then I think Liverpool would be in with a chance of winning the league.
I’d love Sturridge to have good season and remind us why he has been an England starter in the past. Without him, I don’t see a striker with enough goals at Liverpool. Divock Origi won’t be that player and youngster Dominic Solanke is unproven.
I like the fluidity of the front four and think Mohamed Salah is a good signing. He knows the league and has settled well already. It’s a strong, pacy squad and they should be exciting to watch.
Yet problems remain at the back. Their goalkeeping options aren’t the best and central defence, where they can be exposed as clumsy and untidy, is a key issue. Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk would be such a great buy to address that, but Liverpool seem to have messed that up.
My old club have spent boldly and the result is the most exciting Everton squad for some time.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is brilliant, Michael Keane is another really good buy, I can’t believe they got striker Sandro, who looked unbelievable at Malaga, and Wayne Rooney’s return has already paid off in raising the profile of the club.
Expectations are high, although Everton have lost Lukaku and Ross Barkley will likely leave, while Leighton Baines’s best years appear to be behind him and Seamus Coleman will miss the start of the season.
Ronald Koeman can pick an excellent team but I wonder whether he has back-ups of equal quality and that might be the factor that prevents the Toffees breaking into the top six.
The Hammers have shown ambition with their summer business and the players they have brought in – Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Hernandez and Marko Arnautovic – will improve mood and confidence.
Hernandez in particular is a jack-in-the-box, Arnautovic has shown he can score and create, while I think it’s all set up for Hart to have a great season.
I’m a big fan of Slaven Bilic and, a year on from the move, I think they will be settled in their new home, the London Stadium. I put West Ham in the group pushing Everton for seventh place.