It’s Still Liverpool And Manchester City’s League

The Premier League has never been one for parity. For the majority of its existence, the league has been dominated by a small fraternity of very talented (and very wealthy) clubs. Only six teams have won the Premier League in its 27-year existence, and only four have won it more than once. And if last season is any indication, the stratification is becoming even more extreme. It’s Manchester City and Liverpool’s league to lose, and everyone else is playing for third place.

The rivals from the north of England had the second and third best seasons in Premier League history last year by points accrued. And if it weren’t for an astonishing goal line clearance and the small matter of 11.7 millimeters, Liverpool might have lifted its first-ever Premier League trophy last May. Instead, Manchester City claimed its second straight title and fourth this decade.

While domestic success might have eluded them, the Reds finished their 2018-19 campaign with a 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League final in Madrid. So while Manchester City may start the Premier League season as champions of England, Liverpool will start it as champions of Europe.

Both City and Liverpool boast impressive squads — so impressive that neither felt the need to dip their toes too deep into the transfer pool this summer. City starts the season where it left off in the Soccer Power Index (SPI), leading the league with a 94.2 team rating, while Liverpool is close behind at 92.9. As such, the FiveThirtyEight projection model suggests this season will be as imbalanced as the last, as it’s unlikely that any other team will win the Premier League: It gives City a 55 percent chance of winning and Liverpool a 32 percent chance. Meanwhile, the model gives Chelsea a 5 percent chance to win the title and Tottenham a 4 percent chance.

Perennial top-six teams Manchester United and Arsenal each begin the season with a 1 percent chance of winning the title; the remaining 14 teams each have a less than 1 percent chance of Premier League glory. Here’s a look at what to expect.

The big two

Manchester City and Liverpool didn’t make a lot of roster moves this summer because neither Pep Guardiola nor Jürgen Klopp believed doing so was necessary. City’s main piece of business was acquiring defensive midfielder Rodri from Atlético Madrid. The club splashed roughly $80 million for the Spaniard, who is likely the heir to City’s longtime linchpin midfielder, Fernandinho. City’s front line — consisting of any configuration of Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Sergio Agüero, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva — won’t require much in the way of extra goal-scoring. But much of what City does has been enabled by Fernandinho’s ability to break up opposition possession and win the ball through midfield, so getting a younger, healthier version of him, in Rodri, makes a lot of sense.

And if Rodri’s performance last season is any indication of what’s to come, Guardiola and co. will be able to justify the hefty price tag: Among players who played at least 15 games, Rodri was the 10th-best central midfielder in La Liga in interceptions per 90 minutes in the middle third of the field, and he made the seventh-most tackles at his position in the middle third. His role in Madrid was to disrupt the opposition’s attack and advance the ball to Atlético forwards. Rodri finished the season as La Liga’s third-most successful central midfielder in terms of passing accuracy from the middle third to the final third, ahead of superstars like Toni Kroos, Ivan Rakitić, Luka Modrić, and Sergio Busquets.

City was already the best team in the Premier League at both holding possession and scoring, leading the league in share of possession (at nearly 68 percent) and total goals. Adding another wrecker in the center of the field who can also advance the ball into the attacking third with accuracy seems likely to make them even harder to stop. Bringing a healthy Kevin De Bruyne into the fold won’t hurt City’s chances at a three-peat, either.

Liverpool, meanwhile, might not have added star power this summer, but it will have more depth. It made three signings of note, though none is expected to get much game time. Two — Dutch defender Sepp van den Berg and English winger Harvey Elliott — haven’t reached their 18th birthdays yet, and the other, former West Ham goalkeeper Adrian, will spend most of his days on the bench ready to deputize for Alisson Becker should catastrophe strike.

The Reds will also return fully healthy versions of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana, who should bolster an already-dominant midfield. Last season, only City was better than Liverpool in possession percentage in the middle third of the field. When each player was most recently healthy enough to play in 15 games or more during a season — Oxlade-Chamberlain in 2017-18 and Lallana in 2016-17 — they finished 21st and 22nd, respectively, among Premier League midfielders in terms of passing accuracy from the middle third to the final third. It’s unclear just how much they’ll factor into Klopp’s plans, but Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lallana’s ability to accurately progress the ball from the middle third to the final third could prove crucial for a Liverpool team that did so less efficiently than City last season.

Less-than-perfect passing aside, Liverpool still finished the season with two of the league’s three shared Golden Boot winners in Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané. Along with forward Roberto Firmino, the group forms one of the most prolific scoring trios in world soccer, combining for an astounding 113 goals in the past two seasons. Fuse Liverpool’s attacking prowess with its ability at the back — center back Virgil van Dijk is currently the bookmaker’s favorite to win the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player, and Becker is the Premier League’s reigning Golden Glove winner — and it’s not hard to see why our model is high on the Reds.

The next four

The triumvirate of contenders in London all had very different summers in terms of personnel changes. Chelsea allowed malcontent manager Maurizio Sarri to return to Italy and pursue his dream job at the helm of Juventus and dealt playmaker Eden Hazard — its best player and among the best in the entire Premier League a year ago — to Real Madrid. In the wake of all that change, it hired club legend Frank Lampard, who’s only been a manager for one season, to steward the club into the future. And they’re hoping American wunderkind Christian Pulisic can fill Hazard’s shoes, a tall order.

Don’t expect Pulisic, who played his last four seasons at Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, to be a one-to-one replacement for Hazard, however. Like Hazard, Pulisic can play in just about any attacking role and can use both feet with near-equal ability. Unlike Hazard, Pulisic didn’t lead his league in passes made in the final third per 90 minutes last season, and the American didn’t even sniff Hazard’s passing accuracy. Pulisic is an excellent attacking option — Chelsea is lucky to have signed him before its transfer ban went into place — and he could certainly form exciting partnerships with the likes of Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi after the latter recovers from an Achilles injury. But a player like Hazard is irreplaceable.

Unlike Chelsea, Tottenham didn’t end up selling any of its top talent this summer. Indeed, the Lilywhites went on a bit of a shopping spree instead, shelling out roughly $68 million for French defensive midfielder Tanguy Ndombele. The former Lyon man completed 89 percent of his passes in 2018-19, the 11th best rate per 90 minutes among midfielders in Ligue 1.

At first glance, Ndombele’s game doesn’t look drastically different than that of Moussa Sissoko, one of Tottenham’s mainstays in midfield. Both are box-to-box midfielders responsible for interrupting the flow of the opposition’s attack and restarting the attack for his team. But everything Sissoko can do, Ndombele can do a little bit better. Ndombele outstripped Sissoko in chances created, assists, expected goals, interceptions per 90 minutes, pass percentage, passes in the final third per 90 minutes and key passes per 90 minutes. Ndombele also proved last season that he’s an elite dribbler among defensive midfielders. He led Ligue 1 defensive midfielders in dribbles per 90 minutes in the middle third of the field, and had the ninth-best success rate. His ability to beat opponents off the dribble, paired with his elite passing ability, will allow Ndombele to progress the ball forward toward Tottenham’s scorers.

While some of Ndombele’s statistical superiority can perhaps be explained by the relatively weaker French league, Ndombele is also younger than his French compatriot and has room to keep improving. Either way, he and Sissoko should form a formidable partnership in the center of the field for Spurs this season.

The Lilywhites will be a pleasure to watch with healthy versions of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min providing the scoring touch up front. But once again, uncertainty at each fullback position probably means they won’t challenge for the title.

Things for the other team in North London look a bit better than they did last season, but only marginally. Arsenal hasn’t done anything to fix its back line: The shaky Shkodran Mustafi will probably be called upon to play lots of minutes in central defense, which is bad news for the Gunners, and former club captain Laurent Koscielny is now on the move to Bordeaux. They did add depth in the middle of the field and another scoring threat up front, securing the signatures of Spanish midfielder Dani Ceballos (on a one-year loan from Real Madrid) and French winger Nicolas Pépé, who shredded defenses in Ligue 1 with 22 goals last season.

Ceballos could help shore up a midfield that finished fifth in possession rate in the middle of the field — which would be a good first step toward finishing in the top four of the table at the end of the season — and Pépé should add even more firepower to an attack that has only been outscored by City and Liverpool over the past two seasons. But Arsenal didn’t really need more scoring — Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was joint top-scorer a season ago, and Alexandre Lacazette has netted 27 goals in his two seasons at Arsenal — so the Pépé move is a strange one.

If Manchester United had one priority going into the summer transfer window, it was to improve its back line. The Red Devils conceded 54 goals in 2018-19, 31 more than City and 32 more than Liverpool. They addressed their defensive woes, getting right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace and center back Harry Maguire from Leicester City.

The total bill for the two defenders comes out to roughly $160 million, but that’s hardly an issue for a club with near-inexhaustible resources. It’s unclear whether the new defenders can bring United back to the top of the Premiership, but United fans would probably settle for a top-four finish and some Champions League soccer in the meantime.

Top challengers

The top-six is almost always set in stone, but things could be shifting this season. Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leicester City, and, of course, Everton might be battling it out for the so-called Everton Cup,14 but they could also each realistically make a push for a top-six finish. The three challengers are all closer to Arsenal and Manchester United in SPI ratings than Arsenal and United are to Manchester City and Liverpool. All three clubs pulled off some key signings in the transfer window, but Everton might have had the most fruitful summer. Everton locked up André Gomes — among its best players a season ago — on a permanent basis and snatched versatile midfielder Fabian Delph away from Manchester City. And in one of the summer’s biggest shocks, Everton managed to bring in 19-year-old Juventus and Italy starlet Moise Kean.

Delph found minutes difficult to come by on a stacked City team last season, but he should expect to play a more important role for the Toffees, especially now that Everton has sold Idrissa Gueye to Paris Saint-Germain. And if Kean continues to develop, he, Gylfi Sigurðsson and Richarlison could form a lethal strike team.

Wolverhampton wasn’t as active as Everton. It signed top-scorer Raúl Jiménez to a permanent deal and gave the Mexican forward some cover up front, signing Italian forward Patrick Cutrone from AC Milan. Cutrone had a down season in Serie A in 2018-19, but scored 10 goals in 2017-18 as a 19 year old. With Jiménez, Diogo Jota and Rúben Neves, Wolves already have a potent attack. If Cutrone regains some of the form he showed as a teenager, Wolverhampton may find itself contending for the top six.

As good as the summer has been for Everton and Wolves, something truly special could be happening at Leicester City. Losing Maguire hurts, but everywhere else you look on the Leicester roster you see talent. Jamie Vardy can’t stop scoring; James Maddison has shades of a young David Beckham; new signing Ayoze Pérez is a proven goal-scoring commodity; the 22-year-old Youri Tielemans is already among the league’s best midfielders and has signed on a permanent basis; Ben Chilwell likes to get forward and ranks among the top five left backs in passes made into the final third of the field, and passes made in the final third of the field; Wilfred Ndidi, Harvey Barnes and Demarai Gray all played key roles for the Foxes last season, and none of them are older than 23.

The last time Leicester City had a team of sneaky-good youngsters — Mahrez, N’Golo Kanté, Jeffrey Schlupp and Gray — and wily veterans, they won the damn Premier League as a miracle longshot. City and Liverpool’s excellence mean something that magical probably won’t happen again any time soon, but it wouldn’t be shocking if Leicester made a push for the top six — or even the top four.

The newcomers

It’s always hard to judge how newly promoted teams will perform in the Premier League. It could go the way of Wolverhampton, which finished the 2018-19 campaign in seventh place, just 9 points behind sixth-place Manchester United. Or it could go the way of Fulham, which was relegated after winning just seven games and conceding a ludicrous 81 goals.

Among this season’s three newcomers, Aston Villa is the highest-rated team in SPI and the best suited for top-tier success. The Villans possess the best player of these three teams in attacking midfielder Jack Grealish. Grealish is club captain and a lifelong Villa fan, and he was one of the best passers in the final third of the field in the Championship last season: Grealish made the third-most passes in the final third per 90 minutes, and he completed those passes at the third-highest clip.

When Grealish missed two months with a shin injury, Villa floundered near the middle of the table. When Grealish came back from that injury, Villa went on a 10-game winning streak during which they outscored opponents 23-5, rocketing up the table into a playoff position and eventually into the Premier League. Villa isn’t just Grealish, of course — they brought in 12 new players, including former Burnley goalie Tom Heaton, and let go of 14 others — but keeping their star healthy will be key to their success.

Norwich City’s hopes rest on the shoulders of a 29-year-old Finn named Teemu Pukki. The Canaries’ hitman torched Championship defenses for 29 goals last season, a tally good enough to earn him the Golden Boot. If the Finn keeps up his hot form, Norwich could stave off elimination. But if Pukki goes as cold as his native Kotka in winter, the Canaries might find themselves back in the Championship as quickly as they left it.

This leaves us with Sheffield United. The Blades haven’t played Premier League soccer since they spent a single season at the top level in 2006-07. (Prior to that, the last time Sheffield United competed in the Premier League was the 1993-94 season.) In fact, Sheffield United spent six seasons in League One, from 2011-12 to 2016-17, so this leap will feel especially big. The bookmakers and our model both think Sheffield United has the best odds of getting relegated.

Even if that does happen, at least club legend Billy Sharp — who has scored more Football League goals in this century than any other player — is finally getting a shot to prove himself in the Premier League.15 The Sheffield-born striker will have played with them in three levels of the English pyramid when the season kicks off in Bournemouth on Saturday. Sharp is a true poacher who has scored 227 league goals in his career thus far, but his most important goals are still in front of him. If Sheffield is to stay up, it will be because Sharp had the season of his life.

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