Hey, the Premier League’s back. After about two and half months worth of a break, the English top flight is slated to return this weekend, starting with a game on Friday afternoon between Crystal Palace and Arsenal — for folks watching in the U.S., the game kicks at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network. That begets a weekend packed with games. Behold:
Don’t forget to set your alarms!
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) August 3, 2022
Peacock: It’s like cable, but you pay extra for it! Anyway, this season should be a blast for a number of reasons, and ahead of things kicking off, we wanted to answer the five biggest questions facing the league this year and make some predictions about how things will go down.
1. How does the World Cup impact the entire season?
I suppose this is less of a Premier League thing and more of a general thing, but regardless: All 20 Premier League teams will play a game on Saturday, Nov. 12. Then, competitive games are gonna stop for a month-plus while dozens of players head to Qatar for the World Cup (the tournament runs from Nov. 21 until Dec. 18). Players will then return, and all 20 teams will play a game on Boxing Day, Dec. 26. It’s an extremely unique situation, one that will make the already challenging task of navigating a season a little more difficult — players are going to leave their teams and play hundreds of high-intensity minutes in sweltering heat in the middle of the season, without much time to prepare for their national team responsibilities before the World Cup starts and, if their team goes on a run in the knockout round, barely any time to rest and recover before the Premier League campaign starts up again.
Some high-profile players whose national teams did not qualify for Qatar, like Liverpool’s Mo Salah and Manchester City’s Erling Haaland, will get a month off to rest and recover (and in the case of a new signing like Haaland, work on things that help them get a better grasp of their new club situation). But for numerous others, there’s a big risk that comes with going to the World Cup. The “what if?” game is a dangerous one, but plenty of teams are one rolled ankle to the wrong player away from their chances of making a European competition or staving off relegation taking a gigantic hit. Here’s to hoping everyone who heads to Qatar can avoid those sorts of injuries and they’re able to get through the season without hitting a wall.
2. Can anyone else get in on the title race or are Manchester City and Liverpool a step above everyone again?
The last team not named Manchester City or Liverpool to win the Premier League was Chelsea in 2017. City have won the league four times since then, Liverpool won it once. The year Liverpool won, City were the runners-up. In two of the four years City won, Liverpool were runners-up, both times by a single point. That included last year, when City barely got across the finish line on the final day and secured the title with 93 points to Liverpool’s 92.
The teams in third and fourth place last season, Chelsea and Tottenham, finished on 74 and 71 points, respectively. A gap exists between the top-2 teams in the league and everyone else, as City and Liverpool have arguably the two best managers in the world, the two best squads in the world, and a whole lot of trophies to back all of that up. And this summer, both sides brought in potentially game-changing talent all over the park: City still need a left back, but got Haaland from Borussia Dortmund, midfielder Kalvin Phillips from Leeds, and forward Julián Álvarez from River Plate; Liverpool purchased striker Darwin Núñez from Benfica, forward Fábio Carvalho from Fulham, and right back Calvin Ramsay from Aberdeen.
Despite this, both teams also lost important players, while a number of the teams below them secured major reinforcements. City sold forward Raheem Sterling to Chelsea and the duo of Gabriel Jesus (a forward) and Oleksandr Zinchenko (a left back/midfielder) to Arsenal; Liverpool sold star forward Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich. Beyond Sterling, Chelsea added Napoli center back Kalidou Koulibaly, Brighton defender Marc Cucurella, and seem to get linked to another big-money move every day or two. Arsenal added Porto midfielder Fábio Vieira to their midfield. Tottenham had a monster summer, as it brought forward Richarlison over from Everton, midfielder Yves Bissouma in from Brighton, right back Djed Spence in from Middlesbrough, and midfielder/wingback Ivan Perisic from Inter Milan.
Tottenham seems, to me, the most dangerous of the bunch, as their attacking trio of Son Heung-Min, Harry Kane, and January acquisition Dejan Kulusevski caused teams major problems last year — Son and Kane might be the best players at their respective positions in the world — and Bissouma is going to make their already steely midfield awfully hard to play through. Plus their manager, Antonio Conte, is as good as any manager in world football. Spurs have not won a trophy since 2007-08, when they won the League Cup. I’m fascinated in whether or not Conte, who loves racking up trophies, decides to make a run at a trophy in one of the three cup competitions Spurs find themselves (League Cup, FA Cup, or Champions League, which would easily be the toughest of the bunch), but if they go for broke in the league, they’re going to be a thorn in City and Liverpool’s side.
Still, while the caveat of the World Cup looms over all of this (City, in particular, are susceptible to something happening at the tournament as they might send 14 first-team players to Qatar), breaking up the stranglehold the top-2 have on the league is a mighty difficult task. Impossible? Probably not, but City and Liverpool are that good. At the bare minimum, the two times they’re guaranteed to play this year — Oct. 16 at Anfield and April 1 in Manchester — are going to be two of the best games of the season. Any chance to watch guys like Kevin de Bruyne, or Virgil van Dijk, or Phil Foden, or Trent Alexander-Arnold, or João Cancelo, or Luis Díaz, or Haaland, or Salah, or any of the other world-class players both of these teams boast is a joy, but there is something so special about when they step on the pitch against one another and everyone seems to elevate their games to match the magnitude of the occasion.
Giving away how this piece ends: My hunch is Liverpool’s deeper squad mixed with the fact that City are likely sending so many players to the World Cup (and thereby increasing the likelihood of either an injury or sheer exhaustion catching up to them) means I’m inclined to lean towards red ribbons being placed on the Premier League trophy at the end of the year. Betting against City is usually a terrible idea, though, and if Haaland can hit the ground running during his first year in England, this prediction might end up looking terrible.
3. What the heck is up with Cristiano Ronaldo (and Manchester United as a whole)?
The above section featured five of the Big Six sides in English football. The one exception is Manchester United, which have had a … well let’s call it an interesting summer.
At the forefront: Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the sport’s icons and a club legend who re-joined the team from Juventus last year after originally leaving in 2009, really doesn’t seem like he wants to be there anymore. The long and the short of it is Ronaldo, who turns 38 in February, wants to win as many things as he possibly can and compete in the Champions League at this stage of his career. United probably aren’t doing the former (last season was his first since 2010 in which he did not win a single trophy) and are not part of the latter this year.
As such, he wants out, but the situation as of this writing is that no one seems to want him, either because they can’t afford him or his style of play doesn’t quite fit — at this point in his career, Ronaldo basically doesn’t run unless he is trying to score a goal, and everything he does on the pitch is with the intention of scoring a goal. There’s value in this, but for a player who costs what Ronaldo costs (a little more than £515,000 a week, the highest figure in England) and demands what Ronaldo demands in terms of playing time, well, it’s a tougher pill to swallow.
All of this is happening in a summer of gigantic overhaul at perhaps the biggest club in England. There’s a new manager, Erik ten Hag, who is trying to clean up the mess that led to them finishing sixth last year and has prevented them from winning the league since 2012-13. Their top target this summer, Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong (who played and thrived under ten Hag at Ajax), doesn’t want to leave. While United probably haven’t done nearly enough in the transfer market to suddenly become title contenders, they have brought in talented players and let a number of guys who just have not worked out either leave or go on loan.
Still, the Ronaldo situation looms over everything, and his style of play doesn’t exactly mesh with what ten Hag (who wants his team to press without the ball and play with fluidity in the attacking third). The transfer window closes on Sept. 1, so there is still time to sort this out, but regardless: A club that has lacked patience in recent years might need to give ten Hag time to build the team in his image, and that includes figuring out what the heck to do with Ronaldo.
4. Can someone steal a European spot from one of the Big Six sides?
The Big Six have the inside track to the six main European spots — four in the Champions League, two in the Europa League — but of course, having the inside track hardly means something is guaranteed. Anything is possible and I am an idiot, but here are three teams that, in my opinion, could have a shot to swipe one. (Also, there is technically a final European tournament in the Europa Conference League, but it’s brand new and lacks the prestige of the other two.)
West Ham: The Hammers got seventh last year, finishing two points behind United in sixth. They’re an excellent side with a manager in David Moyes who just knows how to get results, and perhaps most importantly, they didn’t lose anyone who gave them double-digit starts and more than 1,000 minutes in the league last year. They also spent over $100 million in the transfer window, led by gigantic Italian striker Gianluca Scamacca and Moroccan defender Nayef Aguerd. Their midfield duo of Declan Rice and Tomáš Souček are among the best in the league, and Jarrod Bowen is a tricky and talented winger. They are going to be very, very good.
Crystal Palace: Former Arsenal star Patrick Vieira has done an impressive job since taking over last year — the team finished in 12th in 2021-22. Under his guidance, Palace are a nightmare to play through and are far more confident playing with the ball, younger, and physically imposing than they have been in years past. While standout midfielder Conor Gallagher’s loan spell is up and he’s back at Chelsea now, they’re still going to be a very direct side that wants to battle in the midfield and create chances that Wilfried Zaha can finish. Bringing in midfielder Cheick Doucouré from French side Lens was one of the signings of the summer, and for the Americans reading this, new center back signing Chris Richards teams up with fellow center back Marc Guéhi and left back Tyrick Mitchell for one of the league’s most promising defensive groupings.
Newcastle United: Newcastle looked destined to get relegated last year before new manager Eddie Howe came in and the club’s new ownership group, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, spent money in the January transfer window to save them from the Championship and finish 11th. Those players now have a year under Howe, while their summer signings (defenders Sven Botman and Matt Targett, goalkeeper Nick Pope) should shore up a defense that allowed the sixth-most goals in the league last year. If that happens and they can find someone who consistently finishes chances and scores double-figure goals, Newcastle is going to give opposing teams headaches.
5. Will the fight for relegation be interesting or are we headed towards the three new teams heading back down?
A usually pretty safe bet is that a few of the teams that just got promoted will head back down to the Championship. This year, Bournemouth, Fulham, and Nottingham Forest are all in the Prem, with Bournemouth the overwhelming favorites in the league to head back down — as of this writing, the Cherries are -250 to get relegated, as the team has barely done any business this summer upon returning to the Premier League for the first time since 2019-20. Fulham and Forest are both +125 to return to the Championship. The former won their league last year and have a striker in Aleksandar Mitrović who scored a record 43 goals, but are masters of returning to the Prem and immediately going back down. The latter have done a ton of business this summer, although time will tell how that works out.
As for teams that were in the league last year, Leeds United (+225) have the best odds at going down, while Brentford (+240), Southampton (+275), Everton (+333), and Wolverhampton Wanderers (+400) are all viewed by bookmakers as teams with a shout. Leeds avoided relegation on the final day last year, Everton did so in their penultimate game. Both lost crucial players in the summer (Leeds sold Kalvin Phillips to Manchester City and Raphina to Barcelona, Everton sold Richarlison to Tottenham), while the former did a ton of business in an attempt to replace those guys and the latter … well, not really, but they got a pair of players from Burnley (James Tarkowski and Dwight McNeil) who should help them.
Maybe Brentford losing Christian Eriksen is too much to overcome, or Wolves are in trouble if standout keeper José Sá doesn’t stand on his head again, but he team that interests me the most here is Southampton. They’ve been in the Prem since 2012 but things feel like they’re starting to grow really stale under manager Ralph Hasenhüttl, who wants his team to press and play aggressively. It’s led to them getting thrashed a few times a year. They brought in a number of young, talented players, but we’ll see if that bet pays off.
Manchester City and Liverpool are both +450000 to get relegated. I will confidently say neither are getting relegated. If nothing else in this post, I will get that right. Anyway, here are some other predictions to close this out:
Champions League: Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea
Europa League: Arsenal, West Ham
Relegation: Bournemouth, Fulham, Southampton
Player of the Season: Mo Salah, Liverpool
Young Player of the Season: Erling Haaland, Manchester City
Manager of the Season: Antonio Conte, Tottenham
Golden Boot: Mo Salah, Liverpool
Golden Glove: Alisson, Liverpool