The new season has started already and the background noise is familiar. At Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp has been talking about money, Manchester City’s money. At the other end of the East Lancs Road, Pep Guardiola has expressed himself ‘bothered’ by what he feels is a misconception about his club’s spending.
There will be more of this as we travel along the road of the new Premier League campaign.
Beneath all of that, though, lies a truer picture; an image of two great European coaches readying themselves to fight for the league title again on the back of a profound and genuine appreciation of each other’s work.
Klopp believes Guardiola to be the best coach in the world. He says so privately and he means it. No wonder he strives so hard to beat him.
Guardiola knows also that his rival is formidable. He fears the way Liverpool play and he finds it enduringly challenging to try to combat a style that has no real precedent in the modern game.
Evidence of this admiration was to be found in the phone call made to Klopp by Guardiola in the moments after last May’s Champions League final in Madrid. Guardiola not only knows how it feels to win that competition but knew also of Klopp’s painfully deep desire to join the list of men who had done so.
So to make that call at that time reflected well on the City coach and Klopp’s subsequent claim that his rival warned that ‘we will be back next season to kick your ass’ was made only half in jest. This, after all, is likely to be the nub of it once again over the next nine months. City and Liverpool — almost 200 points between them last season — were streets ahead of the rest and to describe the pack as ‘chasing’ would be to give Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United some credit they did not deserve.
So who wins it this time? To the neutral, it should not matter. If these two teams can provide a tussle laced with the quality and tension of last season then nobody would complain. Personally, I feel it will be City’s year again and wonder if Klopp and Liverpool have missed a trick in not spending heavily on a player or two during the summer.
Over at Old Trafford — such a shrunken place these days — the great Sir Alex Ferguson used to advocate strengthening when you were strong. It was his way of not only keeping his squad one step ahead of the club’s rivals but also of guarding against any complacency in the ranks.
Liverpool have players such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the terrific defender Joe Gomez returning from injury this season and will expect improvement from the likes of Fabinho and Naby Keita. Klopp clearly thinks that is enough. But I do wonder what will happen to his team if he loses one of his gilded front three to injury. To that end, I am surprised Liverpool have not recruited another attacking player.
If the title is to come to Merseyside, City will have to regress. Liverpool cannot improve on 97 points — surely they can’t — and that means that City will have to come back to the field a little. Will that happen? It is hard to think that it will. The lure of a treble of titles will be strong.
Looking at the group of teams below, it is hard to envisage a great deal of improvement. Tottenham’s pre-season has been characterised not by talk of last season’s Champions League near miss but instead by the peculiar rhetoric of coach Mauricio Pochettino, and that is disappointing. Chelsea have a new but rather familiar manager but have lost their best player while Arsenal can be expected to improve sufficiently under Unai Emery to challenge for the top four but not the title.
As for United, it is hard not to fear for them as they try to shift into a forward gear under a manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who ended last season looking dangerously out of his depth. United have spent money but still look well short and if the season does not start well I wonder how long Solskjaer can be expected to last.
If anything, it is the group of teams beneath the established order who have most to gain this time round. Two Portuguese coaches — Marco Silva at Everton and Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolves — showed enough last season to suggest they have the capacity to bring European football to their clubs. Nuno, in particular, would appear to have a formula that works in the Premier League and a clear ability to teach players how to use it. United travel to Molineux in less than two weeks for a televised Monday night match and that may tell us much about the lie of the land in the top half of this year’s league.
Equally, we can expect much from Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester and I am particularly keen to see how one of English football’s brightest young talents, midfielder Hamza Choudhury, develops under such an accomplished and innovative coach.
At the bottom, I fear for Newcastle while newly promoted Norwich and Sheffield United will rely on the cleverness of two contrasting managers — Daniel Farke of Germany and Chris Wilder of Yorkshire — to resist gravity’s pull.
At Aston Villa, Dean Smith and sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch have spent heavily since winning May’s play-off final. It was an approach that didn’t work for Fulham last time around so Villa must hope for evidence of sounder judgment.
So. City to win the title. Newcastle to go down. Don’t put any money on either.
Liverpool’s points total of 97 last season equalled the European record for a team not winning the league. Celtic came second in Scotland in 2002-03 with 97 points.