English Premier League set for new season
Millions of dollars have been spent, mind games have already begun and fan optimism is at its peak which can only mean one thing — the English Premier League is about to raise the curtain on another campaign that promises to be full of intrigue.
The 2018/19 season gets under way with Manchester United taking on Leicester City at Old Trafford Friday.
United manager Jose Mourinho, entering his third season at Old Trafford, has looked like a Bassett Hound for most of the summer, predicting a “difficult season” for a team that finished second in May.
Not enough money has been spent, says the Portuguese, who has seen three players added to his squad over the summer — Brazil midfielder Fred for $60 million, Portuguese defender Diogo Dalot ($24 million) and third-choice goalkeeper Lee Grant ($2 million).
“The other clubs who compete with us are really strong and already have fantastic teams. Or they are investing massively like Liverpool, who are buying everything and everybody,” Mourinho told MUTV after his team’s 1-0 friendly loss to Bayern Munich Sunday.
“If we don’t make our team better it will be a difficult season for us.”
So gloomy has Mourinho been during pre-season that former Premier League striker Chris Sutton has predicted that the ex-Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Chelsea boss will have walked through the Old Trafford exit by Christmas.
‘He’s almost become a caricature’
The Portuguese has been critical of his players this summer; questioning captain Antonio Valencia’s fitness and the length of Anthony Martial’s absence from the summer tour following the birth of his second child.
How could Alexis Sanchez, the league’s highest-earning player, be happy with the players around him, asked Mourinho during the recent U.S. tour, dismissing the quality of younger squad members who filled the void left by the 13 senior players recuperating following the World Cup.
He even said he would not have paid to see his team’s money-spinning friendly, which United lost 4-1, against Liverpool at the International Champions Cup in Michigan Stadium.
Mourinho’s outbursts have led many to ask whether this is the onset of what is called his “third-season syndrome,” a nod to the manager’s eruptions in his third seasons at Real and Chelsea (second stint) which ultimately led to him losing his job.
Author and award-winning journalist Mike Calvin describes Mourinho’s behavior this summer as “bizarre.”
“The very fact he’s coming out and being so overtly negative, it goes beyond the mind games we’ve come to expect,” Calvin tells CNN Sport.
One of the issues Calvin explores in his most recent book “State of Play” is the need for more emotionally intelligent managers and coaches in football, as epitomized by England manager Gareth Southgate.
“When Mourinho began [his career] there was a vivacity about him, an intelligence, a raw cunning and everything had an agenda,” continues Calvin.
“Now he seems to be almost becoming a caricature of himself. He’s still obviously a fantastic coach, but it’s almost as if the lights have gone out in his eyes to a degree. As things stand, they won’t be title challengers.”
‘Liverpool will challenge City’
United has been relatively quiet in the transfer market this summer but Mourinho’s net spend as United boss is reportedly $389 million, only Manchester City (£500 million) has spent more.
But perhaps seeing rivals Liverpool spending heavily during the summer transfer window, strengthening a squad which reached the Champions League final in June, has added to Mourinho’s ire.
Unsurprisingly, the 55-year-old has directed a few verbal arrows towards the Reds.
But Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has admitted that after his $219 million summer spend — no Premier League club has spent more in the close season — winning trophies is the “next step” for his team.
The Merseysiders begin their campaign against West Ham on Sunday, August 12, and Calvin believes the acquisition of Naby Keita, Fabinho, Becker Alisson, and Xherdan Shaquiri has addressed the weaknesses which were apparent last season, when the team finished fourth.
“I think they’re at the stage where they do need to win a trophy under Klopp,” says Calvin.
“I do think they’ll probably run city close in the league, which is probably not an universal opinion.
“Keita will have a really big first season in the Premier League. He seems perfectly suited to the league and the club.
“City will probably be looking more at the Champions League. Strategically they probably need to win the Champions League and the Premier League title will mean everything for Liverpool.
“I think there will be a big gap between City and Liverpool and the rest.”
City still the favorites
If Klopp is to guide the Reds to a first league title since 1990, the biggest obstacle to an elusive 19th league title is likely to be last season’s champions Manchester City.
Liverpool may have beaten City three times last term, but Pep Guardiola’s team finished 25 points ahead of Klopp’s men when they won the title by a record 19-point margin, becoming the first team in English top-flight history to reach 100 points.
It was an extraordinary campaign for Guardiola, who has only made one big-name addition in acquiring Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City.
The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager has, understandably, kept faith with last season’s record breakers while the emergence of England youth international Phil Foden will add to Guardiola’s options in midfield.
“He was ready last season. Now he is one year on, he is more mature,” Guardiola, who has previously described Foden as a “gift,” told reporters after his team’s 2-0 Community Shield win over Chelsea on Sunday.
Foden was named player of the tournament when England won the Under-17 World Cup last year and will be one of a number from that victorious side who will be hoping to make a Premier League breakthrough.
Striker Rhian Brewster, 18, winner of the Golden Boot during the Under-17 World Cup, has recently signed a long-term contract with Liverpool and though still recovering from a knee injury will be aiming to make his first-team debut this campaign.
Another much admired teenager is Ryan Sessegnon, who will be turning out for newly-promoted Fulham despite being coveted by the league’s richer clubs, while his twin brother, Steven, also plays for the west London club and was a member of that victorious England Under-17 side.
“Ryan Sessegnon is a certainty,” says Calvin of the teenager’s potential to make an impact this season.
“I think he will be one of the outstanding emerging players in the league this year. I expect him to be in the England squad very quickly.
“The recurring question with young English players is what will the quality of opportunity be like? Foden is an interesting one. The nitty-gritty is how many games can he play in the Premier League?”
A new era for Arsenal & Chelsea
Also impressing during pre-season was Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe, another member of England’s World-Cup winning youth side.
He scored a wonderful goal for the Gunners against Atletico Madrid in pre-season and the 17-year-old winger has been promoted to first-team training by new boss Unai Emery, although the chances of him featuring regularly in the first team seems remote as the Gunners’ new dawn begins.
With Tuesday’s news of Stan Kroenke’s $777m takeover and Emery replacing Arsene Wenger after the Frenchman left at the end of last season following two decades in charge, much has changed off the pitch in north London.
Calvin describes the prospect of Arsenal coming under the sole ownership of the American billionaire through his company KSE as “desperately worrying” though, he says, it won’t impact the team.
“It will just become another business enterprise rather than what a football club should be,” says Calvin.
Emery has been presented with a tough first assignment, an opening weekend clash against defending champions City.
But the 46-year-old has had a full summer in the English capital and has signed five players — right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner, centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos, midfielders Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi, and goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
“Their recruitment has been logical, whether it’s been good enough we’re about to find out,” adds Calvin.
“You still look at the defense and worry about it. Sokratis doesn’t look a bad signing, but that’s probably going to be an area of vulnerability.”
Arsenal is not the only London club adjusting to a new regime with Chelsea having replaced Antonio Conte with Maurizio Sarri in the summer.
Sarri has changed Chelsea’s formation to 4-3-3, with midfielder Cesc Fabregas saying: “He is bringing a different style, a different formation and we just need to grow into it.”
“We need time to re-adapt to a back four and to what the boss wants but I believe we’re intelligent players at the top level who will try to adapt as soon as possible.”
A significant signing for the Londoners is the world record fee it paid for goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, while midfielder Mateo Kovacic has also joined from Real Madrid with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois going the other way.
It has been a summer where much has changed, but that is the norm in football.