For the next 10 months, and especially during the next week, the focus as it relates to the Premier League will be on the title and top-four contenders. That’s the nature of any season walkup, and naturally, that focus tends to turn toward the “Big Six”—and for good reason.
In four of the last six seasons, those six clubs have held true to form, with some combination of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal all occupying the top six places in the table, and Man City and Liverpool particularly performing consistently at a cut above the rest. They’ve remained the six richest clubs in the land and are favored to, in some order, again find their way to the European places that come with occupying their corresponding places in the table.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a fight, though, and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t any true intrigue beyond them. The new season is packed with questions, story lines and pressing issues for those looking to break into the top tier, some that may not share the same portion of the limelight that their “Big Six” counterparts dominate. However, they still help make up the fascinating elements entering an abnormal Premier League campaign that will be put on pause during the World Cup:
Will Newcastle benefit from its billionaire backers?
The Magpies warded off midseason relegation concerns and surged to an 11th-place finish under Eddie Howe. Now, after a first winter and summer transfer window since its Saudi takeover, Newcastle may feel that it has a squad that’s more equipped to compete at the Premier League level. No, it hasn’t landed anyone on the Kylian Mbappé tier, despite what some fans may have been envisioning for its immediate future—it took Man City a few seasons before it was chock full of world-class international stars after its nation-state takeover, remember. The Magpies reinforced their defense by signing Lille center back Sven Botman ($37 million) and Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope ($13 million) while making left back Matt Targett’s loan from Aston Villa permanent, which should aid a club whose 62 goals conceded were only surpassed by five teams. Without any additional punch in the attack, though, it’s hard to see the club ascending to the top tiers.
Can West Ham crack the upper echelon?
David Moyes’s Hammers have come close over the last two seasons, finishing two points out of the top six—while slumping to the finish line with five losses in their last nine games—a year after finishing two points out of the top four, period. They’ve resisted all interest in midfield star Declan Rice and spent big to upgrade the attack with the addition of former Sassuolo standout and PSG target Gianluca Scamacca for a reported $43 million. If his adjustment to the Premier League can be accelerated, then the Hammers just might have something to say about the European places and how they’re allocated next spring.
Leicester seems oddly content
The Foxes have made no signings, looked resigned to losing longtime goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel to Nice and could sell off rising French center back Wesley Fofana and star Belgian midfielder Youri Tielemans as well. It’s fine to do that if there’s a succession or reinvestment plan in place, but there seems to be no such thing, at least on the level that would put the 2015 champion back in position to contend to any degree. A strong finish to last season resulted in an eighth-place spot in the table (despite a record that was .500), but perhaps no club has had as baffling of a summer so far as Leicester, whose best-case scenario is destined to be that of a mid-table positioning.
Everton’s quest to remain a top-flight club
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Everton has been in England’s top flight every year dating back to 1954, though it came down to the wire last season. Frank Lampard’s side narrowly avoided the drop but then sold off Richarlison to Tottenham while turning to some of Burnley’s finest (James Tarkowski, Dwight McNeil) for reinforcement. The window isn’t shut yet, but it doesn’t seem like a club that’s improved all that much, and its 4–0 preseason pasting at the hands of MLS’s Minnesota United (it’s only preseason, but still) surely doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Can Fulham stop the yo-yo?
For five straight seasons, Fulham has taken a ride on the promotion-relegation yo-yo, alternating between the two and rising back up following a dominant, Championship-winning campaign last season. Will it be followed by an immediate drop, though? The Cottagers sold Fábio Carvalho to Liverpool, and while Aleksandar Mitrović scored a Championship-record 43 goals last season, he has never topped 11 in any of his previous three-plus seasons in the Premier League. Fulham simply destroyed clubs last season, scoring 106 goals in 46 league games, but manager Marco Silva has to know that the same level of attacking output won’t be replicated against Premier League defenses.
Pressure on Leeds’ Americans to come through
Gone are Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips, the two best players from a club that barely escaped relegation last season. While there’s much to celebrate from a U.S. angle surrounding Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams and their arrival at Elland Road to play for Jesse Marsch, there’s an immediate need for them to perform as part of the solutions for two outgoing players who wound up being worth more than a combined $100 million in transfer fees. Aaronson, to his credit, looks the part in preseason, punctuated by his three assists—including one on a special sequence—in a friendly vs. Serie B’s Cagliari on Sunday.
Nottingham Forest’s need for chemistry
Back in the Premier League for the first time since 1998-1999, Nottingham Forest would like to ensure its stay is not a quick one. To that end, the club, whose CEO is American Dane Murphy, underwent quite the summer makeover. A total of 12 players have been signed so far, including former Man United attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard, former Bayern Munich left back Omar Richards and former Union Berlin forward Taiwo Awoniyi (15 goals last season), in the hopes of giving manager Steve Cooper the necessary pieces to navigate a safe and successful season in the top flight. But by the time all those new parts jell, in what shape will Forest find itself? The Premier League table is often not a forgiving place.
Brighton’s backup plan
Only eight teams in the Premier League finished with more wins than losses last season, and Brighton was one of them. Graham Potter has done a superb job as manager, but losing midfielder Yves Bissouma to Tottenham—and potentially selling left back Marc Cucurella to Man City, should the champion meet the club’s reported, lofty $60 million asking price, or Chelsea, which reportedly is making a push to sign him—puts significant pressure on the squad that remains to compensate. Then again, the Seagulls sold center backs Ben White and Dan Burn in the last year for roughly $80 million and fared just fine, displaying faith in Potter’s system while also operating wisely from a business standpoint.
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