Every new season always brings the tingle back, but 2016/17 promises to be very special indeed. Here’s why we’re constantly acting like we’re being tickled…
10) How Middlesbrough’s European stars fit in
Sarah Winterburn wrote last month about how Aitor Karanka’s connections were likely to be the biggest factor in Middlesbrough’s performance this season, and she wasn’t joking. Having used players from 13 different countries in earning promotion last season, Karanka has promptly bought players from seven over the course of this summer. Reports of interest in former Manchester United defender Fabio would make that eight.
With Jordan Rhodes, David Nugent, Grant Leadbitter and Stewart Downing likely to moved away from centre stage after doing their job last season, their place will be taken by a travelling band of European actors: Alvaro Negredo, Viktor Fischer, Marten de Roon, Victor Valdes and Antonio Barragan.
The suspicion is that Boro are the best equipped of the promoted clubs to stay up this season, but there is something fascinating about just how odd that front six could look on the opening day. Whatever happens, it’s going to be interesting.
9) Mike Dean dealing with the new laws
Regular visitors to this site will be aware of our love/hate relationship with Dean. He is the sort of man who would see nothing wrong with proposing to his girlfriend at somebody else’s wedding ceremony. There is no situation that Dean cannot dominate, no penalty he cannot award with a flourish, no player he cannot roll his eyes at.
This season, Dean could be in his element. Not only will he be able to issue red cards before a match has begun – I’m picturing him hiding in changing rooms waiting to hear foul and abusive language – but referees have also been told to clamp down on “visibly disrespectful” conduct from players and officials. He’s going to book everyone and then do that look as if to say “What choice do you leave me, referee Mike Dean, with? Referee Mike Dean is a reasonable man, guys. But you pushed referee Mike Dean’s buttons.” We can’t wait.
8) New stadiums
There are some who enjoying seeing teams playing in new stadiums, some who enjoy visiting new stadiums, some who enjoy ticking stadiums off a list like a nerd and some who not only tick stadiums off the list but also buy a pin badge from every stadium or ground they’ve visited. God, those last guys sound like really cool dudes. I bet
we they get all the girls.
I digress. Not only does this season bring the weird sight of West Ham playing in the Olympic Stadium (anyone who calls it the ‘London Stadium’ has to do forfeits), but also Tottenham playing their European games at Wembley. That alone makes us purr about the Champions League group stage draw.
The last non-final in European competition at Wembley was Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat to Fiorentina in October 1999. If we see anything close to Gabriel Batistuta’s wonderful goal, we’ve been treated.
7) Are Hull going to be a calamity club?
It was good form of Curtis Davies to tweet a photo of Hull’s first-team squad in which only nine players were featured, but the final words gave away the frustrations of supporters. ‘The Big League’ should have been steeped in sarcasm; Hull are woefully unprepared.
— Curtis Davies #6 (@TheCurtisDavies) August 4, 2016
Five or six different candidates have now been favourite to replace the departed Steve Bruce, but nobody has actually been appointed yet. Seven days before their first match of the season, and the players have no clue who will be in charge of selecting the team or choosing the tactics. It looks like Mike Phelan will be in temporary charge for his first ever match as a manager.
That isn’t the only problem. Hull have not signed a single first-team player this summer, and have sold two. Add to that an injury list that includes Michael Dawson, Moses Odubajo, Alex Bruce, Harry Maguire and Allan McGregor and a support completely out of love with the club and things look very grim indeed.
Oh, and their first four home fixtures are against Leicester, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. Hull could be going down quicker than a homesick mole.
6) What next for this Leicester tale?
Is there a team in Europe whose finishing position for this season is harder to predict? Is there anyone who knows what Leicester would be happy with this season?
Claudio Ranieri has insisted that his team will not collapse, yet it is impossible not to wonder if we’re set for a bumper edition of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’. The loss of the all-running, all-tackling and all-intercepting N’Golo Kante is massive, and replacing him with a passing midfielder in Nampalys Mendy could leave the defensive partnership of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan far more exposed than last season.
The added complication is the addition of Champions League football, something Leicester’s fans and players will cherish, but also be wary of. Seven Leicester players played more than 3,000 league minutes last season, and Ranieri only gave league starts to 19 different players. That will have to change given the likely increase in workload and travel from September onwards.
As far as supporters are concerned, there is no worry; whatever happens, they have have enjoyed enough glory to last a lifetime. For the rest of us, Leicester’s performance both domestically and in Europe is a source of fascination.
5) Antonio Conte organising this Chelsea defence
I largely agree that the noise surrounding Pep vs Jose has rendered Chelsea as the forgotten team of this season’s likely title race. Yet there is is still one huge unanswered question surrounding Antonio Conte’s team: What happens with the defence?
Typically, Conte has asked his defenders to play with a high line, something that would surely be tactical suicide given the lack of pace that John Terry and Gary Cahill both share. Yet even if Conte cedes on this issue, Chelsea’s defence as a whole looks shaky. Branislav Ivanovic and Kurt Zouma are injured, and things have gone worryingly quiet regarding the progress on new signings. Baba Rahman and Papy Djilobodji have been moved out, leaving five fit first-team defenders. Ola Aina might have jumped six places up the queue in under three months.
Conte arrives at Stamford Bridge with a reputation as the best coach of defensive organisation in the game. Given that only the bottom six kept fewer clean sheets than Chelsea last season, he’s got his work cut out.
4) How far does a fit Sturridge take Liverpool (and do we get to find out)?
“You know me, I’m always working, I’m always pushing myself to the limits,” said Daniel Sturridge last week. “God willing it will be that season. For me to play for Liverpool and show my abilities and show my qualities has always been the aim, and I will continue to strive to be the best player. I will continue to strive to be the best striker in the league and do the best for this club. I will strive to win silverware for this club. That is the aim.”
Sturridge’s potential remains one of the Premier League’s great ‘What if?’ questions. During the only one of the last four seasons in which he has started 15 league games or more, Sturridge scored 21 goals in 29 matches as Liverpool edged to the brink of the title. Sandwiching that season, three years have returned just 23 goals, achieved in 30 starts. The striker’s goal per league minute rate since joining Liverpool is up there with the best in Europe.
With Christian Benteke and Mario Balotelli unwanted, Danny Ings still gaining full fitness and Divock Origi raw, it may be left to Sturridge to lead Liverpool’s line ahead of a glittering array of attacking midfielders. Stay fit for the majority of the season, and Jurgen Klopp could generate something really special. He’s already facing a fight to be fit for the opening weekend.
3) Pep Guardiola taking on a different challenge
There is a passage in Duncan Alexander’s excellent new OptaJoe book in which he jams tongue in cheek to imagine a conversation between a Pep Guardiola disciple and a Pep Guardiola critic. One talks about the coach as if he were a mythical deity, while the other tropes out the “fraud” accusation that should result in him being slapped with a wet fish.
The answer, as the author hints at, lies somewhere in between. Guardiola is in the top three coaches in world football, but has also taken on a project at Manchester City that is different to both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. City have an ageing squad, a brittle defence and a central midfield that looked weaker than each of their title challengers last season.
The Premier League is increasingly becoming a league of managers, where those in the dugout generate more media attention than star players. With Guardiola, there are two distinct camps, and both are desperately waiting to say they told you so. The journey to either of those tedious conclusions will so absorbing I’m starting to tingle downstairs, and I don’t mean in the kitchen.
2) Arsene Wenger’s last stand?
For the first time in his Arsenal career, Arsene Wenger may be managing for his future employment. Reports surfaced in March and again in June that Wenger was set to be offered a new deal, but the manager refuted those claims in May.
“I will continue to give my absolute best to do well next season and then after that, we’ll see,” the manager said. “My appetite is stronger than ever. Even if I decide in January that I will not extend my contract, that will not affect my attitude.”
The elephant in the room ignored by Wenger is that the decision may not lie with him. Having failed to seize their opportunity last season, large swathes of Arsenal’s support are unconvinced that their manager has another serious title challenge left in him. While each of their rivals have strengthened significantly this summer, Arsenal are yet again left trying to solve a striker problem that Wenger identified as a priority in May. Oh, and they’re all out of central defenders too.
Having rolled out the “It’s impossible to compete with our rivals in the transfer market” line more than once this summer, Wenger is under serious pressure to avoid the same happening on the pitch. With massive cash reserves and the highest ticket prices in Europe, supporters are restless at any insinuation of ‘poor old Arsenal’. The buck doesn’t stop with the manager on those issues, but he is a willing participant in the club’s PR game.
For 20 years Wenger has been part of the furniture at Arsenal. The man himself admits he is “scared” of leaving. Who knew parting with an old comfy chair could be such an interesting watch?
1) Jose Mourinho organising that front six
We’ve reached the No. 1, the point when I have to place a damp flannel on my face and lower parts at the anticipation of what is to come: Lots of bloody football.
Whatever supporters of their rivals may think, for near-neutrals a strong Manchester United makes for a strong Premier League. The arrival of Paul Pogba reiterates what we already suspected: Jose Mourinho has enough resources at his disposal to mount a serious title challenge.
In every position in his front six, Mourinho has mouth-watering questions to answer. 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3? Where will Pogba play? Does Ander Herrera get a game? Does Juan Mata start on the right and Henrikh Mkhitaryan as a No. 10, or is Wayne Rooney guaranteed to start, however cumbersome his play? How does Mourinho split the minutes between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford? Does Jesse Lingard get a look in after looking so bright in pre-season? Has everyone spotted that I’ve not even mentioned Memphis Depay yet?
There is plenty to excite at the start of this Premier League season, but there is also no doubt where the spotlights are shining brightest. The final third at Old Trafford could be where this title race is won and lost; there’s something wonderfully familiar about that.