The soccer treadmill starts up again with the return of the Premier League on August 13.
The post-lockdown period has been a pretty relentless one for the game’s leading players, although at least there has been a longer break this summer than last.
Still, the fact remains that England’s top flight will resume less than five weeks after the finals of Euro 2020 and Copa America, the stars of which have only just returned to training in many cases.
The Spanish boss is well versed in having to rotate his players – City have regularly contended for all four trophies on offer in recent years.
They look well stocked in defence where it should be remembered that Aymeric Laporte wasn’t even first choice for much of last season, while the midfield is overflowing with talent – something which looks set to be enhanced by the arrival of Jack Grealish.
Gabriel Jesus remains but won’t be able to play game in, game out, given the demands placed on this squad by the cup competitions.
Unless the Harry Kane saga takes another twist, it looks like Guardiola will again be looking to employ his midfield and wide options as ‘false nines’ pretty often. To be fair, the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and the ever-improving Ferran Torres are all capable when called upon to carry out that job.
However, in a season in which Aguero played little, it was notable that City’s goal output fell to 83 league goals – a decent number for most sides but well down on their own tallies of 102, 95 and 106 in the three previous campaigns.
Clearly a signing of Kane’s stature would make that less of a worry – and highlights the problems punters face betting prior to the closure of the transfer window – but in the here and now it’s at least a slight concern, as is the fact so many of their stars were involved in the latter stages of the summer international tournaments.
While they remain the team to beat, I can pass at around 4/6, particularly given there has been just one successful title defence in the last 12 years.
Question marks over Solskjaer
Cross-town rivals Manchester United were runners-up last season and have again spent big in a bid to improve.
Jadon Sancho‘s arrival for £73million makes for a fearsome attack, especially if Mason Greenwood can continue his ascent which rather stalled in the first half of last season.
Raphael Varane also looks a good upgrade in defence but it is the midfield which will be the biggest concern to those thinking of backing them at 17/2.
He’s regularly been forced into a wider or more defensive role and United fans aren’t the only ones who will have watched his performances for France in the summer and asked why isn’t he being utilised in the same way at Old Trafford?
That’s a mark against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and doubts still remain over his managerial ability at the very highest level.
He’s certainly not got a great record in the biggest games – May’s Europa League final was another where opportunity slipped away, while United won just one of their six matches against their fellow top-four clubs last season.
I’m not sure too many people would choose Solskjaer as their man if Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel were the other options and this off-pitch role is an area I can see United falling short in.
Liverpool a tempting price
Klopp’s Liverpool are a tempting price.
Much went wrong for them last season but most could be put down to some dreadful luck with injuries.
To lose both first-choice centre-backs to long term injury within weeks of each other was the biggest blow but both Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez are fit again now, with Klopp having also added Red Bull Leipzig’s Ibrahima Konate as to bolster the defence.
The Reds actually coped well for a while without their two central defenders but a devastating period in the new year saw their title hopes collapse.
With hindsight it was almost certainly a mistake by Klopp to plug the defensive holes with his best midfielders – Fabinho and Jordan Henderson were both regularly asked to play in the backline and that undoubtedly weakened the side in forward areas.
The likes of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams showed during the run-in that they were capable stand-ins. Had they been trusted earlier, Liverpool may well have created a title race.
I have few doubts the well-established ‘Fab Three’ forward line will still provide plenty of goals – although I’d expect Diogo Jota to be forcing his way into the side a lot this season, as long as he stays fit. Roberto Firmino‘s spot certainly came under threat towards the end of 2020/21.
Gini Wijnaldum will be missed in the midfield but Klopp appears to have a ready-made replacement in Curtis Jones, who should feature more this season and it would be no surprise to see him in the England squad at some point.
However, there seems a good chance Liverpool will be able to negotiate a deal which sees them leave after playing Chelsea on New Year’s Day. If that’s the case, they’ll only miss league games with Brentford and Crystal Palace.
In short, it’s not the big problem it might first appear.
This isn’t a vastly different team to the one which won the title just over a year ago but while Klopp’s men were seriously considered, preference is for Chelsea at the same price.
Their 2020/21 season was one of two vastly different halves with the arrival of Thomas Tuchel producing a huge upturn in fortune.
There was massive improvement, particularly in defensive areas, and that was highlighted by the Blues’ run to Champions League glory under their German boss.
However, Chelsea also picked up notably in domestic competition too with only champions Manchester City winning more points across the second half of the Premier League campaign.
A related point is that under Tuchel, Chelsea won at Liverpool and Man City and drew at home to Man Utd. They managed to pick up only one point against those three opponents when Frank Lampard was in charge in the first part of the season.
Essentially, Chelsea have looked much better tactically under Tuchel with the defence organised and tough to break down. Antonio Rudiger returned from the cold and made you wonder why he had been left out so long.
In wide areas, Reece James and Ben Chilwell offer plenty and in the centre of the park, N’Golo Kante, a man who knows what it takes to win Premier League titles, remains one of the best midfielders in the league, while Jorginho was arguably Euro 2020’s star man.
Attack is where Chelsea will need to improve if they are to triumph – they had only the eighth-best record for goals scored last term – but they are clearly working on that.
They remain keen on signing Erling Haaland, although Borussia Dortmund don’t look likely to sell, while Romelu Lukaku, another of the world’s best strikers, has been mentioned as a potential alternative.
Money appears to be there for Tuchel to spend and a marquee arrival can be expected before the transfer deadline.
But even with the forwards in his current squad, Tuchel has talent to work with.
Timo Werner will surely be better with a season in England under his belt and those who watch German soccer will know he’s a better finisher than the one we saw for much of last season. The same can be said about Kai Havertz, while more can also be expected from Hakim Ziyech, whose career at Stamford Bridge got off to a bad start due to injury.
Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount are others with plenty to offer going forward and a manager of Tuchel’s ability should be able to formulate a plan to get the most of these players, something Lampard simply couldn’t.
On paper, a gap of 20 points is a huge one to bridge but that doesn’t take into account how Chelsea picked up after Tuchel’s arrival.
If anyone is to challenge City this season, I feel it’s most likely to be the Blues and they look worth a bet at around 5/1.