It’s been a long, dark, grueling summer. A summer of warm weather, grilled meats, and so-called “international” football. Thankfully, our long nightmare ends this Saturday when the 2016-17 Premier League season kicks off.
Last season was… weird. You know it. I know it. And while some teams (coughcoughUnitedcoughcough) have thrown down strong statements of intent, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions as to how this season is going to go.
Here are a few of the big question marks ahead of Week 1.
1. What’s The “New Normal” At The Top Of The Table?
Leicester City enter this weekend as the defending champions. (Yup, still weird to type that.) Typically, winning the title puts a crown on your head and a target on your back, and your rivals end up spending the entire summer reconfiguring their roster with one goal in mind— stopping you. But Leicester’s title win was so improbable, with such an unremarkable roster, that their new neighbors may not know what they can do different this season. How do you beat a team driven by luck and the power of believing in yourself? Add to that Spurs finishing 3rd last season (somehow) and the top end of the Premier League table hasn’t looked this chaotic in a long time. Maybe ever. How do you even try to predict the Top 4 this season? Was 2015-16 a fluke? Or is this just how things are now?
2. How Fast Can Pep Get His System Rolling?
Sheikh Mansour didn’t buy Manchester City as a mere vanity project. From the offing his goal has been clear— to dominate England and become a legitimate European power. Over the better part of a decade City have pushed steadily, inexorably, towards that goal. But while in recent years the braintrust at the Etihad have focused on building out a sustainable operations, the club have made it clear that a robust academy and a lucrative business operation means little without trophies. And now they’ve brought in arguably the best manager in the game with the express intent of transforming City in a faithful adaptation of Barcelona. But Pep is a systems guy at heart, and systems can take time to fully ramp up. How long will Guardiola need to turn City into a true European juggernaut? And will CFG (and Mansour) give him the time he needs?
3. How Will The Trio Of Newcomers Cope?
Typically, at least one newly-promoted team ends up going right back down at the end of the campaign. This season, it’s possible all three will get stuck in the revolving door. Hull haven’t brought in any significant new signings and, when taken with departures and significant squad members sidelined with injury, they might have to raid the U21s just to field an 18-man team this weekend against Leicester. To say nothing of Steve Bruce quitting over the summer and the club have yet to replace him. Meanwhile, Burnley have similarly failed to add to the squad that won the Championship last season and are likely prepared for another swift exit. Middlesbrough seem to be the best equipped of the new trio to stay up, but even so, it’ll be a real fight. Still, don’t be surprised if none of this season’s newcomers end up staying for dinner.
4. How Will The Influx Of Chinese Investment Affect The League?
For the better part of a year Chinese billionaires have been making big bets in football. Whether it’s splashing cash to bring European players to the Chinese Super League, claiming minority stakes in City Football Group, or buying English clubs outright (West Brom, Aston Villa), football has become a popular landing strip for Chinese capital. Years ago, investments from Middle Eastern oil barons turned struggling outfits like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain and turned them into veritable European powerhouses. Of course, this story is bigger than the football— it’s but one symptom of the rush by China’s investor class to get their money out of the country while the getting is good. Can we expect more Chinese investment in the English game? How will Premier League clubs adapt to this latest money bomb?
5. Will There Be Anything To Talk About Beside José Mourinho?
There were times during Mourinho’s second term with Chelsea where the football news cycle revolved around what he said and did. Even in the midst of the club’s title run in 2014-15 (much less the stunning collapse the following season), the back pages tended to lead with whatever Mou happened to utter during the day’s press conference. I hate to draw this comparison, but it was not unlike Donald Trump’s stranglehold over American media, where every angry Tweet threw the newscycle for a loop. Now, Mourinho is at one of Chelsea’s fiercest rivals and is clearly out to make English football pay for ever doubting him. Meanwhile, his sworn enemy happens to be preparing for his debut season across town. Liverpool’s current boss is Jürgen Klopp, whom Mourinho likely still hasn’t forgiven for the 2012-13 Champions League semifinals and has already made it clear that there will be no professional comity. Wenger is still in charge at Arsenal (for now, at least). And eventually he’s going to have to meet the man who took his old job. The Premier League produces enough drama on its own in any given season, but 2016-17 could well be dominated by José Mourinho and his ongoing feuds with various enemies, real and perceived. Will there even be time for football?
BONUS: Who Will Have The Worst Hot Take Of The Season?
My money’s on Sam Allardyce.
Happy football, everybody!