How Are the Premier League Title Contenders Shaping Up? Liverpool to Tottenham

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistJuly 30, 2016

Can either of Tottenham or Liverpool challenge for the title this season? Or will Manchester dominate?
Can either of Tottenham or Liverpool challenge for the title this season? Or will Manchester dominate?Associated Press

On Friday we assessed the respective merits of Arsenal, Chelsea and Leicester City. Read it here.

Liverpool (8th last season)

What's been going on?

If Jurgen Klopp's players buy into what he is doing as much as the club's board and supporters, with a full pre-season behind him, significant improvement should be forthcoming.

In 1960, Liverpool gifted Germany the Beatles on a two-year loan, as the Fab Five, as they were then, honed their live skills in the clubs of Hamburg. Kevin Keegan made the same journey in 1977. In the opposite direction, Karl-Heinz Riedle, Sean Dundee, Dietmar Hamann, Christian Ziege, Markus Babbel, Samed Yesil and Emre Can were sent to Merseyside. 

It's safe to say before the arrival of Klopp at Anfield, the Germans owed Liverpool one. In less than a season, Klopp has become the most Scouse foreigner since Jan Molby, quickly ingratiating himself into the fabric of Liverpool not just as a football club but as a city.

In a loud way he's quietly putting in place the building blocks for what should be a bright future. Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum arrive at Anfield carrying weighty transfer fees, but both know the Premier League and should hit the ground running. 

Mane and Roberto Firmino earned a ticking off from Klopp after Liverpool's friendly defeat to Chelsea for failing to adhere to his "team first" principle, as reported by the Express' Uche Amako. Chuck Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge into the mix, and Liverpool may have to ask for special dispensation to play with four balls this season.

Having to juggle a surfeit of outlandish attacking talent is a hardship most Premier League managers could live with. If Klopp can find the right balance, his Liverpool side could be frightening on the counter-attack.

Even if he can lose concentration at times, the rangy Joel Matip looks a smart addition to a Liverpool defence still some way short of the level required of a title-winning side. Why Klopp is not pursuing a left-back more vigorously, given his problems in the position, remains a mystery.

The departure of Martin Skrtel raised barely a tear among Liverpool fans long since exasperated by his "act first, think never" ethos, but given Mamadou Sakho is hardly flavour of the month either with Klopp, after he was sent home from the club's tour of America for showing a lack of respect, there is plenty of work still to be done defensively.

Goalkeeper Loris Karius has not joined the club simply to admire Simon Mignolet. Klopp is hopeful the German, who is noticeably better with his feet than the Belgian, can seriously push for a first-team place over the course of the campaign. A broken hand prohibits his involvement for the first few months of the season, though, as reported by the BBC, leaving fellow old man new boy Alex Manninger as back-up.

No club has shed their ranks of those on the periphery better than Liverpool. Bringing in the best part of £50 million for squad players is nothing less than inspired, even in today's market where owning a pair of football boots makes you worth about £1 million regardless of age, gender or ability.

Mario Balotelli, Christian Benteke, Lazar Markovic, Lucas and Luis Alberto could yet add their names to a list of noticeable departures including Joe Allen, Jordon Ibe and Skrtel. 

Having been armed with a budget that seemingly allowed Liverpool to match both Bayern Munich and Manchester United in the pursuit of Mane, Klopp can have few complaints about the backing he has received from the club's at times maligned board and transfer committee.

In an interview with ESPN's Gabriele Marcotti, Klopp insisted he is happy with how the club's transfer policy is implemented: "I don't think it makes sense to give one person all the power. And not just in football. That's why we live in a democracy ... hopefully it stays like this."

One suspects, though, the famous Brian Clough line about how he dealt with his players may also apply to Klopp and Liverpool's transfer committee: "We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right."


What would constitute success?

With Klopp having a year on his managerial counterparts at both Manchester clubs and Chelsea, Liverpool's players should be well ahead in terms of understanding exactly what is being asked of them.

Last season saw Liverpool produce some spellbinding moments in cup competitions as they reached the finals of both the Capital One Cup and Europa League only to ultimately fall short.

In total, they played 63 matches. Given Klopp's Gegenpressing principles are not for the fainthearted, it stands to reason Liverpool's players will be all the better off for having a specifically designed pre-season programme behind them. 

This term it should all be about kicking Liverpool on in the league, especially given they have no European distractions. Anything less than a serious push for a top-four place will be disappointing.

Klopp is in no mood to make excuses, per the Mirror's David Maddock: "This is my squad now. After all the transfers, this time it is my team. There are probably no players here any more I don't want. There are no signings I didn't want, we have not sold anyone I didn't want to."

He added: "Certainly at the moment we should not look for excuses and say things like 'I need another year' or things like that."

Ins: Sadio Mane (£34m, Southampton), Georginio Wijnaldum (£25m, Newcastle United), Loris Karius (£4.7m, Mainz), Ragnar Klavan (£4.2m, Augsburg), Alex Manninger (free, Augsburg), Joel Matip (free, Schalke).

Outs: Jordon Ibe (£15m, Bournemouth), Joe Allen (£13.5m, Stoke City), Martin Skrtel (£5.5m, Fenerbahce), Jerome Sinclair (£4m, Watford), Brad Smith (£3m, Bournemouth), Sergi Canos (£2.5m, Norwich City), Lawrence Vigouroux (£400,000, Swindon Town), Jordan Rossiter (£250,000, Rangers), Joao Carlos Teixeira (£250,000, Porto), Ryan Kent (loan, Barnsley), Danny Ward (loan, Huddersfield Town), Adam Bogdan (loan, Wigan Athletic), Ryan Fulton (loan, Chesterfield), Kolo Toure (free, Celtic), Daniel Cleary (free, Birmingham City), William Marsh, Ryan McLaughlin, Alex O’Hanlon, Kristof Polgar, Jose Enrique and Samed Yesil (all released)


Manchester City (4th last season)

What's been going on?

When Manuel Pellegrini informed the world's media in February he was to leave his role as Manchester City manager at the season's end to make way for Pep Guardiola, it was hard to decipher whether the biggest cheer went up from the Premier League's marketing department or the club's supporters.

European football's most Yoda-like figure is box-office gold. 

As such, unless he has City playing like a perfect hybrid of his Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides from the opening day of the season, he'll likely be labelled a fraud by a large number of people. Many of whom may not have won 14 trophies in four seasons in Spain or even seven over three campaigns in Germany.

Every editor in the country asked for a picture of Lionel Messi's head superimposed on a Manchester City shirt on the day news of Guardiola's impending arrival broke, but so far it's all been a little quiet on the transfer front. 

Only Ilkay Gundogan (a snip in today's market at £20.3 million) from Borussia Dortmund and Nolito from Celta Vigo have arrived in Manchester, to relatively little fanfare. Both were met with the type of polite smiles elicited by children upon opening functional but slightly disappointing presents on Christmas morning: "Wow, it's Nolito a pencil case!"

It was said Guardiola may fancy a whole new back four. When you're armed with City's spending power, that's a bit like being told to pick any car in the world and coming back with a Volvo Estate. And he's not even done that, with not a solitary defender added to date.

With Vincent Kompany's never-ending catalogue of injuries making him far too fragile a figure to build a defence around, Martin Demichelis having left and Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi both horrifically erratic, it's little wonder Guardiola is purportedly pondering the option of using one of his midfielders at centre-half. 

The Guardian's Jamie Jackson reports Fernandinho, Fernando and even Yaya Toure are being considered as options to sate his predilection to convert players into new positions. 

Should John Stones be prised from Everton at an eye-watering £50 million, Guardiola will have the ball-playing centre-half he craves. He'll also have a major project on his hands. Stones is definitely more Gerard Pique than Carles Puyol in that he less loves defending than tolerates it. 

Guardiola told the BBC: "Normally central defenders are strong in the air and aggressive. But we need to have a good buildup to create easy passes in the midfield so they can create good passes for the strikers. I believe when the ball goes from the central defender to the striker as quickly as possible, it comes as quickly as possible back."

Let's not even mention issues in both full-back positions and the fact City had the oldest squad in the Premier League last season other than West Bromwich Albion: 10 members of his squad are 30 or over. It's hard to press high when backs creak and knees hurt upon getting up too quickly.

As ever, keeping Sergio Aguero fit will be key to City's season, but it will be fascinating to see how Guardiola can bring on Kelechi Iheanacho. Raheem Sterling is another who should benefit from an arm around the shoulder.

Guardiola may have been quiet in the transfer market, but he has been quick to make an impression on the training field. Overweight players have been banned from taking part, with Samir Nasri missing City's friendlies in China having reported back for pre-season training tipping the scales. 

City have the added complication of a UEFA Champions League play-off first leg to be negotiated on the week of 16-17 August, just a few days after their Premier League opener against Sunderland. Like neighbours Manchester United, City's pre-season tour of China may have been quite the cash cow, but in terms of preparation, it has been far from ideal. 

If all of which paints a fairly gloomy picture, it really shouldn't. It is more just pointing out it's nonsense to suggest Guardiola has taken the easy option in joining Manchester City.

There's plenty to fine-tune, in some areas perhaps even overhaul, but if anyone can unlock infinite potential in a City squad still more than capable of winning the Premier League this season, it's Guardiola. 

Not that winning titles is his primary concern, mind: "For the people and for the media it's 'how many titles are you going to win?' Titles are amazing, but you lift the title, and then two days after, people say 'what's next?' Our job is to convince the guys that this is the best way to cross the road."

Guardiola's Zen-like interview interview with Noel Gallagher (per the Manchester Evening News' James Robson), is likely to have led to not a few Mancunians asking with a shrug: "Sound Pep lad, we'll watch the road no bother, but just to be clear, we are going to win the title, yeah?" 

What would constitute success?

All eyes will be on Manchester City this season. And probably rightly so given the new manager's track record. Such is his reputation, and the obvious talent at his disposal, City will be many people's favourites for the title. 

Pellegrini managed just one win against any of the Premier League's top eight last season, while the five home games City lost tied equal worst in the division with Southampton. 

If Guardiola can fix both issues, and add to his squad significantly between now and the close of the transfer window, there's no reason why City won't be the team to catch come May. 

Guardiola has always been the man owner Sheikh Mansour has wanted for Manchester City. He will back him to the hilt, but in return he will expect City to seriously challenge both domestically and in Europe from the off.

Finishing above Manchester United will be a minimum requirement, too.

Ins: Ilkay Gundogan (£20.3m, Borussia Dortmund), Nolito (£13.8m, Celta Vigo), Oleksandr Zinchenko (£1.7m, FC Ufa), Aaron Mooy (free, Melbourne City).

Outs: Seko Fofana (£3.8m, Udinese), Aaron Mooy (loan, Huddersfield), Jack Byrne (loan, Blackburn Rovers), Enes Unal (loan, FC Twente) Charlie Albinson, Martin Demichelis, Nathaniel Oseni, Sam Tattum, Richard Wright (all released).


Manchester United (5th last season)

What's been going on?

Not much really.

Jose Mourinho has taken the reins. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has turned up declaring he will be God of Manchester.

Fellow new boys Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were somewhat less outlandish in their introductions but cost a not-inconsiderable £30 million and £26.3 million, respectively.

In less reported news, Paul Pogba is all set to join them, too. In an under-the-radar deal, the Frenchman will likely move for a world-record transfer fee in the region of £100 million. It should finally put an end to the only Manchester-based saga that pre-dates Coronation Street, first broadcast in 1960.

Apparently Pogba still yearns for Betty's hotpot from his previous stint in the north-west. 

His (super) agent Mino Raiola is expected to net himself around £20 million for his role in the deal. Those bags don't carry themselves.

To be fair to the man loathed by Sir Alex Ferguson (who described his relationship with Raiola as being like "oil and water"), his client will likely be happy enough with a five-year contract worth £290,000 a week, per the Independent's Samuel Lovett and Samuel Stevens.

It is not just about incomings for Mourinho. It is thought he wants to trim his squad size to a more manageable 24 players. 

Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Andreas Pereira, Adnan Januzaj, Will Keane and James Wilson have all been informed they are surplus to requirements, according to the Daily Mail's Joe Bernstein.

Form an orderly queue to take on the remaining two years of Schweinsteiger's £160,000-a-week contract. 

Having missed out on UEFA Champions League football for the second time in three seasons, United have finally got around to doing what they should have done when Ferguson retired.

No top Premier League side has needed an injection of stardust more than Manchester United. Mourinho will provide it on the touchline, the players he has brought in beyond it. 

Just the other day I read a review of a Roald Dahl biography that described the British author as "pig-headed, domineering, mendacious, boastful, foul-mouthed, coarse, boorish." The Times' John Carey could easily have been profiling Mourinho. Or Ferguson. 

After the terminally dull years of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, he's exactly what United need. 

The Portuguese has been punchy and decisive with his market moves, appearing to have put the proverbial rocket up the arse of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. In Ibrahimovic, he has brought with him the closest thing out there to Eric Cantona.

One suspects the media's obsession with Pogba will only double Ibrahimovic's efforts to prove he's the Premier League's biggest summer import. In the same side, they could be frighteningly good.

A front three of Anthony Martial (if counselling can help him get over losing his No. 9 shirt), Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford/Mkhitaryan similarly whets the appetite for the new season.

What Mourinho chooses to do with captain Wayne Rooney is a subplot worth a novel in its own right. 

After the embarrassment of being dismissed as Chelsea coach last season, the nadir of a career laden with trophies, Mourinho could not be more motivated, either. He has a point to prove, whether he would admit it or not.

Manchester United should give him the perfect platform to do it.

What would constitute success?

After seventh-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes in the past three seasons, and two disastrous appointments in the post-Ferguson years, United, and in particular Woodward, are acutely aware they need to get it right with Mourinho. A hat-trick of cock-ups will not be tolerated.

As such, Mourinho is being backed unequivocally. In his first season, the fans would probably accept not falling asleep in the first half of games at Old Trafford. The board probably wants a touch more.

Mourinho has said he will not use the failures of his predecessors to set low targets. He wants the title.

The signing of Pogba, whether obscene or otherwise, would add drive and physicality to a United midfield prosaic to the point of being pedestrian, while Mkhitaryan's directness could potentially make him another outlandishly good addition. 

If on top of that Ibrahimovic proves age is no barrier to being God, Mourinho might just get what he wants.

He usually does.

Ins: Eric Bailly (£30m, Villarreal), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (£26.3m, Borussia Dortmund) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (free, Paris Saint-Germain).

Outs: Tyler Reid (undisclosed, Swansea City), Ashley Fletcher (free, West Ham United), Oliver Rathbone (free, Rochdale), Victor Valdes (free, Middlesbrough), Joe Rothwell (free, Oxford United), Nick Powell (free, Wigan), Guillermo Varela (loan, Eintracht Frankfurt), George Dorrington (released).


Tottenham Hotspur (3rd last season)

What's been going on?

It's all gone a little quiet at Tottenham Hotspur, but that's not necessarily cause for concern. Mauricio Pochettino is not a manager to bellow his every move from the rooftops. 

He knows exactly what he wants and how to get there. The only people that really need to know his plans are his players. Reinvigorating them after last season's late collapse will have been quite the task over the summer, particularly the likes of Harry Kane and Dele Alli, who endured underwhelming European Championships to boot.

The last side to come from nowhere to mount a serious title bid were Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool in 2013/14. They staggered out of the traps the following season and eventually finished sixth.

Pochettino appears to have adopted an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" policy in making just two signings. A lack of a marquee purchase has led to accusations Spurs are still looking for their running shoes, while rivals are on their marks on the start line.

What kind of managerial fool would be sated simply by buying cover for the positions that require cover? Pragmatism is not a quality overly cherished in the Premier League.

Tottenham needed additional resource at centre-forward and centre midfield. They've bought a player in each of those positions. 

Kane finally has some back-up to help share the goalscoring burden in Vincent Janssen. Impressive goalscoring exploits in the Eredivisie don't always translate to the Premier League, with more imports from the Netherlands proving to be closer to Afonso Alves than Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Janssen arrives from AZ Alkmaar with a reputation for being a smart two-footed finisher, with a raw and robust physicality to his game that should suit the Premier League.

Pochettino knows midfield powerhouse Victor Wanyama well from his Southampton days, with the physical nature of his game needing no introduction. The Argentinian believes his new signing can also play at centre-half, a la Eric Dier. 

It might save a headache further down the line, though, if a specialist defender were brought in regardless, with Federico Fazio having been informed he is free to leave the club.

Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are almost certainly the best central defensive partnership in the league, while back-up Kevin Wimmer showed he's more than good enough when called upon last season. Still, having only three three centre-backs seems a little light. Pochettino is not convinced it's an area of his squad he needs to improve though, per Sky Sports' Lyall Thomas.

Marseille winger Georges-Kevin Nkoudou is said to be close to becoming Spurs' third signing of the summer, with Pochettino conceding he anticipates further additions, per the Evening Standard's Dan Kilpatrick: "I expect some signings in the next few weeks."

The temptation will be to keep on spending, but Pochettino is convinced he's on to something special in north London and enjoys working with a tight group. Whether it is too tight a group, only time will tell.

What would constitute success?

It's another tough one to call. There was no more edifying sight in the Premier League last season than Spurs in full flight. When Kane and Alli were at their telepathic best, with Moussa Dembele conducting proceedings behind them with his straight-back, head-up promptings from deep, Tottenham were a joy to watch at times.

Unquestionably they are a side on the up, but just as it was with Arsenal, they might never have a better chance to win the title than last season.

Tottenham could be as good as they were last term this time around and not make the top four, let alone challenge for the title. If the old order re-establish their hegemonic grip at the Premier League summit, Spurs could miss out. 

Ins: Vincent Janssen (£17m, AZ Alkmaar), Victor Wanyama (£11m, Southampton).

Outs: Filip Lesniak (loan, Slovan Liberec), Christopher Paul (free, QPR), Emmanuel Sonupe (released).


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