The Premier League is back: who are the biggest contenders? | Soccer

The Community Shield, of course, doesn’t matter. Last season Liverpool beat Manchester City 3-1, Darwin Núñez looked more dangerous than Erling Haaland, and within a month a lot of predictions hastily amended after that Saturday afternoon at the KingPower were made to look pretty silly. The Community Shield has never mattered – apart from when it has.

It mattered in 2015, when Chelsea’s defeat to Arsenal offered early warning of the José Mourinho implosion that was to follow. It mattered in 2010, when Manchester United’s 3-1 win over Chelsea offered notice of how good Alex Ferguson’s side had become. And it certainly mattered in 1974, when it exposed the tensions bubbling away at Leeds (see the On This Day section below). Does it matter that Arsenal, thanks to a deflected late equaliser and victory in a penalty shoot-out, beat City at Wembley on Sunday?

Perhaps not but, equally, there was no reason to doubt Aaron Ramsdale when he said: “For us it’s a statement. It’s a marker to know we can go and beat Man City in a big game when it matters. I’m not sure what it will be like this season but that mental block is gone. We’re ready to push on now.” After eight defeats in a row to City, that is not insignificant.

City have won five of the past six league titles, a level of dominance achieved by only two sides before; no team has ever won six out of seven. Evan after the loss of some cutting edge with the departures of llkay Gündogan and Riyad Mahrez – for all his passing ability, Mateo Kovacic is unlikely to replicate Gündogan’s key goals late in the season – City have by far the best squad in the Premier League.

But if City do slip up, if winning the Treble last season does dim their hunger, who is most likely to take advantage? Nobody would have predicted Arsenal’s surge to the top of the table at this stage last season and a lingering sense remains that it may have been slightly freakish, but the additions of Declan Rice, Kai Havertz and Jurrien Timber mean the squad is stronger this time around, even after Granit Xhaka’s departure. Whether it is deep enough to cope with the demands of the Champions League as well as the league is another matter.

After losing their opening two games last season, Manchester United somehow recovered to find themselves on the fringes of the title race by January, only for reality to set in with the concession of late goals in successive games at Crystal Palace and Arsenal. Mason Mount will add tactical intelligence and energy to midfield and Rasmus Højlund is inexperienced but a mobile centre-forward of the type Erik ten Hag clearly wants. But the key summer arrival is likely to be the goalkeeper André Onana. All last season, Ten Hag was forced to compromise how he wanted to play because of David De Gea’s inability to pass the ball out from the back; with Onana, a part of Ten Hag’s very successful Ajax side, there should be no such problems.

Liverpool, surely, will be better than they were last season, although there must be concerns that the overdue rejuvenation of the midfield has gone too far, with Alexis Mac Allister, at 24, likely to be the most experienced player in the central three. Núñez has been in fine form in pre-season and it may be that after Diogo Jota and Luis Díaz both missed significant chunks of last season with injury, the new-look forward line is finally ready to take wing. The concerns raised about Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk may fade away if Liverpool’s press regains its snap.

Newcastle surpassed expectations last season, sensible signings and Eddie Howe’s meticulous work on defensive structure elevating them to fourth. There have been some acquisitions, notably Sandro Tonali and Harvey Barnes, while Anthony Gordon has looked far better in pre-season than he did after arriving in January but coping with the demands of the Champions League will still be a big ask.

Then there’s Chelsea, entering the second full season of Todd Boehly’s great disruption. A lot of money has been spent and Mauricio Pochettino seems a wise appointment, but this is a weirdly unbalanced squad, lacking experience in key areas. Nicolas Jackson, with just 16 league starts for Villarreal, is the only out-and-out centre-forward, while the 23-year-old Conor Gallagher is the team’s oldest midfielder and, after the 38-year-old Thiago Silva, the 22-year-old Wesley Fofana was the oldest centre-back until the 25-year-old Axel Disasi was brought in from Monaco last week. This may be the basis of a good squad in two or three years but for now it looks very raw.

Tottenham, meanwhile, as the uncertainty over Harry Kane’s possible move to Bayern goes on, continue to struggle to compose a squad to match their stadium.

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City really should win again but if they do not, there should at least be more challengers than last season. Sunday was their third defeat in a row in the Community Shield, so it’s unlikely to trouble them too much, and Pep Guardiola always aims to have his side hitting their peak around March and April, but it was a warning nonetheless.