Premier League Season Preview: Mark O’Haire’s team-by-team guide

Manchester City

Defending champions

Manchester City earned only 12 points from their opening eight Premier League games last season, although the Citizens overcame that slow and sloppy start to dominate the division. As well as comfortably taking top honours, Pep Guardiola’s group clinched their customary EFL Cup trophy, and put a phenomenal 21-game winning streak together across all competitions. Disappointment did follow in the Champions League final, and record goalscorer Sergio Aguero has since departed. But the defending champions have reloaded with the £100m addition of Jack Grealish and will expect to feature in the shake-up for more silverware this season. However, rival challenges are also set to be stronger…

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Chelsea

Fourth last season

Thomas Tuchel transformed Chelsea’s fortunes after arriving at Stamford Bridge in January. The German turned the Blues from underachievers to Champions League winners in the space of four months, and the club are now targeting a major assault on Premier League glory. The West Londoners leaked just twice in Tuchel’s first 14 fixtures, and whilst Timo Werner endured a difficult first season, more is expected from Chelsea as an attacking force in 2021/22, particularly should Romelu Lukaku make a big-money return. The Blues already boast a frightening array of forwards, the world’s best defensive midfielder in N’Golo Kante, and should be well capable of smashing last season’s 67-point total.

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Liverpool

Third last season

Liverpool recovered from a disastrous mid-season run of results to seal a Champions League berth, finishing the campaign with a flourish (W8-D2-L0). Jurgen Klopp’s charges were dogged by damaging defensive injuries with key personnel Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez sidelined for long stretches. Meanwhile, the reliable front-three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane regularly failed to fire in a forgettable title defence. However, the Reds have added Ibrahima Konate to their defensive options this summer and with Diogo Jota joining a rested and refreshed frontline, there’s fresh hope of a renewed title bid. Nevertheless, the departure of Georgino Wijnaldum means more is required from Fabinho and Thiago in midfield.

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Manchester United

Second last season

Manchester United’s second-place Premier League finish was the club’s joint-best since the Sir Alex Ferguson era ended, although the Red Devils wait for a trophy has extended to four years following the Europa League final disappointment. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has performed above relatively low expectations, but the pressure is most definitely now on to deliver silverware following Jadon Sancho’s £73m move, and the possible arrival of Raphael Varane. United won only four of 14 encounters with the top-eight last season and must improve against the leading lights if the layers are going to take Solskjaer’s side seriously in terms of a sustained title challenge.

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Tottenham

Seventh last season

Tottenham were top of the Premier League last December under Jose Mourinho’s tutorship but Spurs’ season quickly unravelled. The polarising Portuguese was dismissed before the Lilywhites’ EFL Cup final defeat and rookie coach Ryan Mason guided the group to a seventh-placed finish. After a long, chaotic and convoluted managerial search, Nuno Espirito Santo was hired to lead Tottenham into 2021/22, although preparations have been hampered by speculation surrounding Harry Kane’s future. Without the England skipper, Spurs will undoubtedly be a weaker force, although playmaker Bryan Gil promises plenty and Christian Romero is a solid replacement for Toby Alderweireld in central defence.

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Arsenal

Eighth last season

Arsenal last registered a top-four finish in 2015/16 and the Gunners enter the current campaign without European football for the first time since 1995/96. Recent seasons have been a story of steady decline for the North London outfit, although the lack of continental action should give Mikel Arteta the opportunity to engineer a progressive campaign considering the youth and potential within Arsenal’s ranks. The Gunners posted 47 points from their final 24 Premier League games, suggesting the Spaniard is finally making his mark on the first-team, whilst Arteta’s troops also boasted the division’s third-best defence. Ben White should bolster the backline, with Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli all expected to be afforded more responsibility in the new regime.

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Leicester

Fifth last season

Over the past two seasons, Leicester have spent more time inside the Premier League’s top-four than any other club, occupying a place in the Champions League qualifying berths for an astonishing 567 days. Unfortunately for the Foxes, back-to-back fifth-place finishes mean Brendan Rodgers’ boys again miss out on Europe’s premier club competition. Even so, City look well-equipped for another top-four challenge having secured a couple of high-class signings in Patson Daka and Boubakary Soumare. Should Kelechi Iheanacho kick-on from where he left off in May, the FA Cup and Community Shield winners should again be there or thereabouts in the top-four reckoning.

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Leeds

Ninth last season

A sterling ninth-place finish was a great return from Leeds in their first Premier League campaign since 2003/04. Marcelo Bielsa’s famed relentless pressing and attacking approach paid dividends as the Whites proved reliable operators against the lesser lights – pocketing 15 victories from 22 tussles against sides below them in the standings. Overall, the Yorkshire giants won the second-most games and points of any promoted team in Premier League history, and scored the most goals (62) in a memorable return. Junior Firpo replaces Ezgjan Alioski at left-back and Bielsa’s experience should help guard against the infamous second season syndrome that afflicted near neighbours Sheffield United.

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West Ham

Sixth last season

Few expected West Ham to challenge for Champions League qualification last term yet David Moyes’ boys performed above all expectations to table a sixth-placed finish, the club’s best return since 1998/99. Only Man City bettered the hammers’ home record and Jesse Lingard was a revelation when arriving on-loan in January. The Man Utd loanee is no longer around and with European football heading back to east London for the first time since 2016/17, could the Irons’ small squad be left a little overexposed? Alphonse Areola was a smart signing between the sticks, although West Ham look likely to regress back into the mid-table pack without further investment this summer.

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Aston Villa

11th last season

Aston Villa survived by the skin of their teeth in 2019/20 but last season was hugely encouraging for supporters of the Second City club. The Villans registered an 11th-placed finish – their best since 2010/11 – and ambitious owners have set about strengthening the squad with eye-catching arrivals Emi Buendia, Leon Bailey and Danny Ings. Dean Smith will hope the incoming trio can make-up for the loss of talisman Jack Grealish – Villa’s points per-game return dropped from 1.73 to 0.93 when the influential playmaker was absent last term and progress depends on the club’s capacity to move on without the former skipper.

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Everton

10th last season

Everton were sitting second behind Liverpool at Christmas, however the Toffees form took a worrying nosedive thereafter, leaving Carlo Ancelotti’s charges out of European contention. The charismatic Italian moved on this summer and the club made the controversial appointment of ex-Reds boss Rafa Benitez as his replacement in the Goodison Park hot-seat. Star striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin should suit the Spaniard’s more functional style, whilst wingers Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray have been recruited with question marks still surrounding James Rodriguez’s future. Benitez did an excellent job on a budget at Newcastle but putting Blues into the top-six equation could prove too tall a task in his first season.

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Wolves

13th last season

After year-on-year improvement under Nuno Espirito Santo, Wolves took a step back in 2020/21. Injury to key forward Raul Jimenez undoubtedly hit the Old Gold hard, although the stench of stagnation had been in the air at Molineux and Nuno’s departure felt like its natural ending. Former Benfica boss Bruno Lage has arrived with a remit to make Wanderers a more exciting and expansive side to follow; Trincao joins from Barcelona, whilst further development is anticipated from Pedro Neto, Fabio Silva, and even William Jose. Should all click, Wolves will be comfortable but it’s a calculated gamble and a campaign of transition looms for the Black Country boys.

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Brentford

Championship play-off winners last season

It’s been 74 years since Brentford played top-flight football, although there was a feeling of inevitability about the Bees’ eventual return to the Premier League. The west Londoners were the Championship’s top-scoring side and striker Ivan Toney bagged a divisional-record 33 strikes as Thomas Frank’s expressive side overcame a play-off final hangover in 2020 to seal promotion via the play-offs at Wembley in May. The club’s data-led transfer policy has paid dividends in the past, and although Brentford’s squad lacks top-tier experience, the Bees boast enough ability within their ranks to make the step-up required and consolidate.

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Brighton

16th last season

Despite finishing 13 points above the drop-zone, Brighton were frustrated with a 16th-placed finish in 2020/21. Graham Potter’s troops severely underachieved according to performance data projections, scoring 16 goals fewer than Expected Goals (xG) forecasts. Poor finishing, questionable discipline and a mediocre home record all contributed to the Seasiders unremarkable campaign. Ben White’s departure leaves a void in defence, although Tariq Lamptey’s made a timely return from injury and midfield enforcer Yves Bissouma is still in situ. New arrivals are anticipated before September and Albion will be targeting a mid-table return should similar standards be set this season.

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Burnley

17th last season

Burnley endured a season of regression in 2020/21 as the Clarets collected 15 points fewer than 2019/20 and posted the third-fewest goals in the division. The club’s usually competitive Turf Moor form evaded Sean Dyche’s outfit and without major work in the transfer market, there are fears stagnation could lead to the Lancashire club’s five-year stay in the top-flight coming to an end. £12m centre-half Nathan Collins is unlikely to dislodge Ben Mee and James Tarkowski, leaving Dyche with the same XI that failed to impress last season. With Dyche’s own contract issues rumbling on, the Clarets are a real concern.

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Crystal Palace

14th last season

Following four years of stability under Roy Hodgson, Crystal Palace begin a new era under Patrick Vieira with a premise to play a more front-foot style. The Eagles’ current eight-year stay in the top-flight has been built upon solid foundations, but could the major rebuild put the capital club’s Premier League position in jeopardy? The Selhurst Park side have made a collection of smart summer signings, although Eberechi Eze is sidelined and hopes still remain pinned to Wilfried Zaha’s fleeting influence. Vieira’s transition to management hasn’t yielded obvious returns and matching last season’s 14th-placed finish could be difficult for the French World Cup winner.

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Newcastle

12th last season

Newcastle haven’t finished higher than 10th since 2011/12 but the Magpies can be satisfied by their 12th-placed effort last term, having spent periods facing the threat of relegation. Callum Wilson scored 12 goals in his first season on Tyneside, and his partnership with enigmatic Allan Saint-Maximin will be key to the Toon’s prospects. The club look set to sanction a big-money deal for Joe Willock and Steve Bruce has proven he’s capable of steering the chaotic north-east club to safer waters. Survival should be assured although it’s unlikely to be a campaign free of off-field controversy and negative publicity.

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Norwich

Championship winners last season

Norwich managed only five wins on their last Premier League excursion, concluding the campaign rock-bottom having conceded 75 goals. Nevertheless, the Canaries dusted themselves down under Daniel Farke and made an instant return to the top-flight by taking top Championship honours with a 97-point haul. However, the possibility of another immediate bounce back has been heightened following the sale of influential playmaker Emi Buendia. Billy Gilmour is by far the best arrival from an uninspiring summer of recruitment and the Norfolk giants’ squad lacks obvious star quality. Another season of top-flight struggle awaits.

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Southampton

15th last season

Southampton were top of the tree in early November, taking 16 points from their opening eight games. However, the following 30 fixtures returned just 27 points as Saints slipped down the Premier League standings – no other side accrued fewer points over the final 25 games. Injuries didn’t help a small squad and Ralph Hasenhuttl’s task has gotten harder over the summer with key forward Danny Ings departing and speculation surrounding set-piece extraordinaire James Ward-Prowse’s future. The Austrian boss must fix a fragile backline and hope incoming striker Adam Armstrong can make an immediate impact in attack, otherwise a dogfight could be on the cards.

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Watford

Second in the Championship last season

Watford bounced back from relegation at the first attempt with Xisco Munoz’s appointment before Christmas proving the catalyst for the Hornets’ promotion campaign. Under the unheralded Spaniard, the Vicarage Road outfit plundered 57 points from only 26 matches, shipping only 15 goals in the process. The Hornets possess plenty of exciting talent, particularly in forward areas, although the squad appears weaker on paper compared to their last relegation campaign and the newcomers could be in for a survival battle. Much will depend on Ismaila Sarr and Joao Pedro’s ability to consistently produce the final-third goods with upgrades arguably required in defence and midfield.

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Mark’s 1-20 Premier League Prediction
1 Man City
2 Chelsea
3 Liverpool
4 Man Utd
5 Leicester
6 Arsenal
7 Leeds
8 Spurs
9 Everton
10 Aston Villa
11 Brighton
12 West Ham
13 Wolves
14 Brentford
15 Newcastle
16 Southampton
17 Burnley
18 Norwich
19 Crystal Palace
20 Watford