KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- The new Premier League kicks off tomorrow after an ever-increasing pace of transfer market spending as the 20 clubs cash in on the lucrative new television deal worth £5.1bn in domestic rights plus a possible £3bn extra in overseas revenue.
Also, the main title contenders have been loading more ammunition to try to prevent any more would-be Leicesters from punching above their weight this time.
Manchester United, needing to keep Jose Mourinho happy and buoyed by their Community Shield success last Sunday, set the pace in concluding the €105m world record purchase of France midfielder Paul Pogba from Italian champions Juventus.
Neighbours Manchester City immediate hit back by agreeing to pay Everton a British record for a defender of £47.5m for England’s John Stones.
The 22-year-old became City’s eighth signing of the summer at the behest of Pep Guardiola by signing a six-year deal. He follows Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus among new arrivals although the Brazilian will not arrive until January.
Chelsea – then managed by Mourinho – had two bids for Stones rejected last year which adds to the piquancy of his move now to City. The fee makes him the second most expensive defender of all time, behind only Paris Saint-Germain’s David Luiz who cost the French club €63m two years ago from Chelsea.
Last season’s champions are not expected to repeat a shock triumph which echoed around the world under the sensible and sensitive management of Claudio Ranieri.
For all the goals of Jamie Vardy and assists of Riyad Mahrez the foundation of the Foxes’ success was the hard work in midfield of N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater. Kante will be difficult to replace after his departure for Chelsea. Robert Huth, Wes Morgan and Christian Fuchs remain resilient in defence and Ahmed Musa, at £16m from CSKA Moscow, strengthens attack.
However, Leicester’s squad still looks too thin to cope with the extras stresses and strains of Champions League football on top of a title defence. Last season they were also very fortunate with injuries and this time around will do well to finish in the top six.
Last summer manager Arsene Wenger was confident that the season would belong to Arsenal. In fact they started badly and did not regain consistency until Leicester were effectively out of reach.
An unexpected star was hard-working midfielder Francis Coquelin but the Gunners were badly affected by a stream of injuries in both midfield and attack. Fitness uncertainty will continue to hang over Jack Wilshere while Arsenal must navigate the first half of the season without England forward Danny Welbeck and central defender Per Mertesacker while Gabriel Paulista will be out for two months.
Arsenal have not strengthened their squad in any way comparative to the Manchester clubs and risk finishing outside the top four for the first time since before Wenger’s arrival 20 years ago.
Last season Mauricio Pochettino Led Spurs to their best league season since 1989-90 before signing a new contract. This has presented him with a test of even greater expectation which may prove hard to fulfil.
The youthful energy and talent of Eric Dier and Dele Alli in midfield will not take opponents by surprise this season while Harry Kane, at Euro 2016, showed signs that his youthful enthusiasm is being worn down by the fatigue of the heavy goal-scoring demands placed on him.
Pochettino has signed Dutchman Vincent Janssen for £17m to support Kane but – partcularly in defence – Spurs’ squad appears dangerously thin for tough tests at home and abroad. Spurs may also not enjoy the enforced switch of having to play their Champions League games at Wembley while White Hart Lane is being redeveloped.
Still, they may be more likely to be just outside the Champions League places than just inside them.
Pep Guardiola is perhaps the most intriguing new arrival in the Premier League. He has conquered the world, Europe, Spain and Germany but the Premier League is a form of Everest. It would not be a surprise if he took half a season to discover at first hand the challenges of fixture pressure, pace and tough matches every week.
Already, however, he has plainly guided City’s transfer policy in terms of the style of players he wants. But to build a new team in a matter of months at the highest level is a daunting challenge.
City hope Kevin De Bruyne will mantain his fine form from last season and become the new midfield fulcrum rather than the ageing Yaya Toure. In Leroy Sane, Nolito and Ilkay Gundogan City may also provide a better supply of passes for the expert finisher Sergio Aguero. They may not be champions but should not be far off; certainly an improvement on last season’s fourth place.
United are favourites to win the Premier League for the first time since their good old days under Sir Alex Ferguson. Jose Mourinho has galvanised the players, swept away the unambitious approach of Louis Van Gaal and left director, players and fans in no doubt that he and United will make headlines.
United hope that these will be the right sort of headlines and that Mourinho will not allow himself to be distracted into the self-destructive PR blunders which scarred his last half-season at Chelsea.
Certainly this is the job he always wanted and it will fascinating to see what he achieves with a talent-stuffed attack featuring Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antony Martial and Marcus Rashford, all supported by Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Without Champions League distractions, either, Mourinho and United appear perfectly placed to prove the perfect partnership – for two years at least.
No more time for experiments or for the new man to adapt and adjust. The Premier League is the Impatient League.
Jurgen Klopp made a powerful impression with his own personality and the high-tempo transformation of Liverpool’s football. He also took them to two finals in the League Cup and the Europa League. But near-misses will no longer be tolerated. Klopp has had his season on transition. Now he has to succeed.
That means winning a cup and it means achieving a place in the top four to presage a league title-winning bid in 2017-18.
Liverpool’s owners have supported Klopp with further investment in new players and Philippe Coutinho should improve still further with the likes of Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum alongside him.
Loris Karius, when fit to take over in goal from Simon Mignolet, should improve defensive security but the fitness of Daniel Sturridge (or lack of it) remains a worry at the centre of attack.
Antonio Conte is coming into English football with a big reputation after his leaue title domination of Italy with Italy and then his success on getting the best out of a modest Azzurri squad at Euro 2016.
Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink left him a reasonable squad and the acquisitions of N’Golo Kante in midield and Michy Batshuayi in attack are exciting. However defence remains a question now that veteran club captain John Terry is fading out. This places a major weight of responsibility on the shoulders of Kurt Zouma.
Goalkeeper Thibaud Courtois will also be expected to pick up again after a disappointing season following his excellent first term in 2013-15.
Willian was Chelsea’s best player last season when Eden Hazard was a major disappointment. All in all Chelsea are more likely to finish up in the Europa League places than the Champions League slots.
Top five transfers (so far . . .)
Paul Pogba (Juventus to Manchester Utd) £89.3m [€105,000]
John Stones (Everton to Manchester City) £47m
Leroy Sane (Schalke to Manchester City) £37m
Sadio Mane (Southampton to Liverpool) £34m
Michy Batshuayi (Marseille to Chelsea) £33m