What separates Manchester City and Liverpool from the rest of the Premier League is that they have settled squads which excelled last season, playing to their optimum level almost every week in a brilliant title race that City eventually just edged.
Sustaining that lead is so difficult and this is why Pep Guardiola got such a kick out of retaining the title. It’s a huge challenge for players to be so consistently good, barely dropping a point. On the eve of a new campaign, the question is: how long can that go on for?
The law of averages says that it only becomes more difficult to stay at that level without injuries to key players or a simple loss of momentum intervening. It’s inevitable and it’s human nature; as great as City are, they are not machines.
So I would have to take my hat off to Guardiola and City if they made it three Premier League titles in a row. It’s an achievement that might not be repeated in the modern era.
But on the other hand, it’s the reason why I feel the door may be slightly ajar for Liverpool.
City have lost an important character in club captain Vincent Kompany. Every team needs a leader and I’m not sure at this stage who will take up that mantle at the club.
Sergio Aguero’s longevity is another slight concern for me. How long can he sustain his appetite and fitness?
Liverpool fell short by just one point short last term and I think their Champions League victory will give them momentum and even greater determination to finish top this season.
I think there will be a fire burning inside them and a sense that City rode their luck.
I’m a big fan of their back four and goalkeeper, and I fancy Mohamed Salah to have a big campaign. Although he scored 27 goals he didn’t have the best 2018-19, and I can see him coming back hungry to repeat the sort of numbers he racked up in his first year at Anfield.
There is a slightly different mindset when defending a title, and that makes me think City could be vulnerable.
Liverpool played well against them in Sunday’s Community Shield and, with Europe conquered, Jurgen Klopp can make domestic dominance his clear priority.
Six into four
Tottenham are settled into their new home now and I think they expect a massive season.
They have shown they can keep pace with the leaders 75 per cent of the time; their challenge is to improve on that and never let the gap grow to more than three points.
I seem to say this every year but they still don’t have an alternative to Harry Kane, who has been shown to be injury-prone.
Son Heung-Min and Lucas Moura are very good but not at that level and I struggle to understand why Spurs haven’t thrown money at this issue.
The top two may be out of reach but I think a top four place is assured for Tottenham, and I expect them to finish third.
Chelsea may have lost Eden Hazard and be banned from making further signings, but I believe Frank Lampard is a smart appointment as manager and I think they can claim that last Champions League spot. It would be a massive achievement, though.
Lampard was only away from Stamford Bridge for five years, so he remains part of the fabric of the club – as does his No2 Jody Morris, who used to work in the academy.
They have the support of the fans, who have had to temper expectations slightly, and that’s a big plus.
I think Lampard is potentially a very good manager. He has been in football all of his life, has had good people around him, has always listened to advice and is bright enough to put it all together. He’s always believed in himself and that will be no different now.
Arsenal, meanwhile, are a funny one. In Aaron Ramsey they have lost a player who could have been their heartbeat, as Steven Gerrard was for Liverpool or Lampard for Chelsea – not necessarily at their level, but something close.
At the back they have been uncertain, and questions remain over whether their defenders are good enough. They have tried to address that by signing Kieran Tierney and David Luiz but the fact that the situation was up in the air two days before the season starts is not ideal.
Manchester United’s top six status is under threat.
There is no semblance of a powerful team, just a gathering of international footballers. Some don’t want to be there and some – Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku – are superstars for their country but fail miserably at United.
Even David de Gea looked a nervous wreck last season. Harry Maguire has been brought in at great expense to be that rock and repair the relationship between goalkeeper and defence which for the last 18 months has looked virtually non-existent.
As we have become used to lately, there will be three leagues within the top flight and it will be fascinating to see who can break their glass ceiling.
There are a handful with ambitions of gatecrashing the top six and, of those, I like the look of Everton.
My old club have recruited well: Fabian Delph brings personality and experience, Moise Kean is an exciting young striker, and Idrissa Gueye has been replaced with Jean-Philippe Gbamin.
I’d like to see Richarlison step up and become a figurehead, like Kane did at Spurs.
There are some lingering questions about the defence, and Michael Keane needs a really good season, but I am optimistic that Everton will improve this year.
Leicester are another team who are widely expected to threaten the big guns and they know all about that.
I like the team Manuel Pellegrini has built at West Ham and they can’t be discounted.
Wolves and Watford will be looking to build on their progress, too.
Promoted teams are always at risk because they are up against sides who have come through at least one top-flight season already.
They tend to have low expectation levels so they can start well, but once the Tuesday-Saturday grind kicks in they can begin to struggle.
Aston Villa are a big club with a great fanbase and they have spent big to try to stay up. They have the benefit of John Terry’s knowhow in the backroom staff and I this they will survive relatively comfortably.
I can’t help thinking Sheffield United will struggle. They have a strong gameplan but it is high-risk and I wonder whether that will become untenable at some stage.
Norwich have more going for them, with a bright manager in Daniel Farke, a tight ground and good home form. They may have the little bit extra required to avoid going back down to the Championship.
There are lots of relegation candidates this year, though. I’d include Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Southampton and Brighton in that number, and that can offer some hope to the Premier League newcomers.
Trevor Steven’s 2019-20 predictions
2. Man City
6. Man Utd
20. Sheff Utd
Main image credit: Getty