Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Ten Questions As the Premier League Season Kicks Off

The 2021/22 Premier League season kicks off Friday when newly promoted Brentford hosts Arsenal.

How does Romelu Lukaku Change The Title Race?

The reported imminent signing of Romelu Lukau addresses Chelsea’s most glaring deficiency – finishing. Chelsea’s leading scorer in the Premier League last season, Jorginho, never scored a goal from open play last season as his seven penalty goals led the club’s scoring race. Bundesliga imports Timo Werner and Kai Havertz both experienced drastically reduced production as they had difficulty acclimating to the Premier League in their maiden seasons. Lukaku, meanwhile, scored 24 goals in Serie A for Scudetto winner Inter Milan last season. Lukaku is also well familiar with the Premier League, having spent seven seasons leading the line for Everton and Manchester United. After scoring 64 goals across all competitions for Inter the last two seasons, Lukaku has raised his game to become one of the world’s top strikers. His signing instantly makes Chelsea a threat to a Manchester City team which outscored Chelsea by 25 goals in winning the Premier League title last season. 

Where Will Harry Kane play this season? 

The Harry Kane saga looms large over the coming Premier League season. Should the wantaway star move to Manchester City, the Citizens become prohibitive favorites for a fourth title in the last five years. Having already acquired the dynamic Jack Grealish, procuring a true number nine would check the last box on Pep Guardiola’s shopping list as he pursues not only league success but the Champions League trophy which has so far eluded him at Manchester City. If Spurs owner Daniel Levy refuses to part ways with his striker, Spurs should remain a relevant force in the table under new manager Nuno Espirito Santo. A true wild card scenario would have Manchester United make a late entry into the Kane sweepstakes. The Red Devils, who signed 34-year-old Edinson Cavani for one more year, would immediately see their title chances improve with the addition of the top striker in English football.

Can Manchester United Win the Premier League Title?

Manchester United ran second to their cross-town rival last season and made two key acquisitions this off-season. Center back Raphael Varane joins the Red Devils from Real Madrid and forms an impressive center back pairing with Manchester United captain Harry Maguire. The experience and dependability of Varane should instantly elevate the play of Maguire. The headline acquisition in attack was Jadon Sancho who brings a different element to the team with his ability to attack defenses. Sancho’s ability to take defenders will address difficulty United experienced in attacking packed in defenses. Questions for the club still include whether 34-year-old Edinson Cavani can hold up over an entire season at striker. Can a currently injured Marcus Rashford regain his form after a disappointing league season and diminished role for the English national team? United’s best chance at a title may be the 2022/23 season should they acquire Erling Haaland or another world class striker.

Have Liverpool Done Enough To Return To Title Contention? 

Liverpool did early business in the transfer window by bolstering their defense with the acquisition of Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig who can hopefully pair with a fit Virgil Van Dijk returning from last season’s injury absence. There has been little other transfer activity for the Reds, who edged into the Champions League slots with an impressive five match unbeaten run to end last season. The club also lost Gini Wijnaldum to PSG. The hardworking Wijnaldum appeared in every match for the club last season, making 34 starts. With Naby Keita a perpetual injury risk, Manager Jurgen Klopp may need to look to young midfielders Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott. Though Mohamed Salah remains world class, Liverpool will also need improved form from linemates Sadio Mane and Bobby Firmino. Most important to title contention may be how quickly Konate adjusts and how well fellow defenders Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip return from their injury ravaged 2020/21 seasons. 

Is the Arrow Pointing Up or Down for Leicester?

So far in 2021 Leicester have won the first FA Cup in club history and on Saturday captured their first Community Shield in 50 years. Kelechi Iheanacho burst forth in the latter part of the 2020/21 season while Harvey Barnes returns from injury to bolster Leicester’s attack. What’s not to like after finishing just outside the top four in the past two seasons? A contrary view is that Leicester forfeited its best opportunity to crack the top four with agonizing collapses in each of the last two seasons. With several key competitors upgraded this offseason and Jamie Vardy turning 35 years old this season, the Foxes may be at an inflection point. The club, however, has so far retained young players Youri Tielemans, Wilfred Ndidi and James Maddison despite interest form other clubs. 24-year-old striker Patson Daka, acquired from RB Leipzig, adds to a stable of young talent. Despite worrisome injuries to key defenders entering the upcoming season, Manager Brendan Rogers’s Leicester project  continues to show promise.

Can Aston Villa Be Better Despite The Loss Of Jack Grealish?

While suffering the blow of losing long time star and captain Jack Grealish, Aston Villa may emerge a more balanced squad with squad additions providing the path forward. The impact of the Grealish departure was tempered by the acquisition of Dany Ings, fourth highest goal scorer in the Premier League over the past two seasons. The club additionally moved to pluck Emiliano Buendia, last season’s Championship Player of the Season from newly promoted Norwich City. Buendia delivered 15 goals to go with 16 assists in the Championship last season. Jamaican international Leon Bailey, a winger acquired from Bayer Leverkusen, is also expected to enliven an attack which already includes young goal scorer Ollie Watkins. Where previously the club’s attack focused on getting the ball to Grealish and allowing him to create, there are now several options for a club which struggled in attack last season, particularly when Grealish went down to injury. 

Is Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta On the Hot Seat?

Two consecutive eight place finishes, and a fall completely out of European competition, should mean that the honeymoon is over for Mikel Arteta. Thoroughly embarrassing for the club was a loss to Arteta’s predecessor Unai Emery in last season’s Europa League semifinal. Arteta needs to build off the five consecutive wins to end last year’s league campaign and challenge for a top six position in the league. A position in the top four, once thought a birth right for Gunners fans, remains a bridge too far for this current Arsenal team. Arteta will need young players Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe to continue to blossom. Ben White, the center back acquired form Brighton should provide a defensive upgrade. Aubameyang needs to return to form after a poor 2020/21 season. If Arsenal continues to struggle in the league for a third straight season, the resolve of the Kroenke ownership to trust in Arteta will be tested. A preseason injury to Thomas Partey last week was exceedingly unwelcome news for the young manager. 

Is West Ham Headed For a Fall?

West Ham were the surprising “feel good” story of the Premier League last season and the Hammers will be playing in Europe this coming season as reward for their sixth-place finish. Unfortunately, their most noteworthy roster change to date is the return of Jesse Lingard to parent club Manchester United after his outstanding loan assignment with West Ham last season. Lingard was critical to West Ham’s drive to Europe last season, contributing nine league goals after his January loan acquisition. The club also remains exposed at the striker position where Michail Antonio has significant durability issues with his troublesome hamstrings. Rather than kicking on from their successful 2020/21 season, West Ham is in danger of taking a step back, particularly given a perception they may have overachieved in last year’s exciting run. From a positive standpoint, the Hammers have successfully held on to Captain Declan Rice who has attracted attention from some of the larger Premier League clubs. 

Will The Transformation of Crystal Palace Prove Successful?

Crystal Palace has undergone significant makeover, transforming from a pragmatic, aging team under Manager Roy Hodgson to a younger squad headed by former Arsenal player Patrick Vieira who hopes to implement a more creative playing style for the south London club. Nine players from last season’s squad have moved on while the roster has been refreshed with younger players. 19-year-old midfielder Michael Olise was signed from Championship side Reading. 21-year-old defender Marc Guehi was purchased from Chelsea. Conor Gallagher, also 21, joins on loan from Chelsea. 25-year-old defender Joachim Anderson joins the club after playing well at Fulham last season. The amount of personnel change is daunting, and the adoption of a more open playing style will raise memories of the disastrous Frank De Boer managerial tenure of some years back. Guehi and Anderson will need form a solid defensive partnership and veterans Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke will need to score for this project to work.

What Can Be Expected From The Promoted Clubs?

Watford return to the Premier League with a side that conceded the fewest goals in the Championship last season. Ismaila Sarr led the Hornets attack with 13 league goals last season. Scoring will likely be the greater issue when Captain Troy Deeney leads his mates back to the Premier league after a one-year absence. Spanish manager Xisco could become the latest Watford manager to be on the hot seat. Norwich City had a terrible experience two years ago when they managed just 21 points in finishing in the Premier League cellar. They hopefully learned some lessons and will temper the wide-open style that manager Daniel Farke employed to little success in their last visit. Hurting the Canaries will be the loss of Emi Buendia to Aston Villa. Buendia’s 31 combined goals and assists will be difficult for the Canaries to replace. Brentford makes its first appearance in the Premier League led by forward Ivan Toney who had a sensational season in the Championship last year, leading the division with 33 goals. The Bees combined their potent attack in the Championship last season with a defense which conceded the joint fewest shots per game to division opponents.

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