Fans are back, the Premier League is back – let the drama commence

Michael Walker: If City buy Kane it’s hard to see them not lifting the trophy once again

Can Jürgen Klopp lead Liverpool to another league title? Photo: Paul Ellis/PA Wire

Can Jürgen Klopp lead Liverpool to another league title? Photo: Paul Ellis/PA Wire

 

We could start, and probably should, with Jack Grealish and his £100m record-breaking transfer from Aston Villa to Manchester City. It is after all a landmark deal in the economic history of the English game.

Or we could begin with Harry Kane and the possibility that he will leave Tottenham Hotspur by the end of August for an even greater sum. If he does, City could be looking at a 90 points-plus total once again. Then there is Romelu Lukaku’s £100m move back to Chelsea, who spent £170m (net) last summer.

And what about Manchester United and the £100m and more they have spent on Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane? Those are elevation signings for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Instead, however, this 2021-22 Premier League season preview kicks off at Carrow Road and not because Norwich City are title contenders on their return to the top division.

All clubs, of course, suffered from the absence of supporters and the feeling is that Sheffield United had it worst

No, on their first day back in the Premier League, Norwich host Liverpool and it is the visitors who have a serious interest in becoming champions of England next May. Liverpool have not made signings of the volume mentioned above; they have been quiet. But there is something about Jurgen Klopp’s team and his squad that inspires curiosity. At 5/1 Liverpool look over-priced.

The idea of Anfield reclaiming the title centres on the talent within, the benefit of continuity, Klopp’s experience and the return of noise and fans to grounds. Plus motivation: when Liverpool won the title in 2020 - after 30 years without it - they did so in a different, pre-vaccine world.

Even though their triumph was historic, there was a hollowness to the celebrations and in the season that followed, the club, players, supporters, were unable to relish their status in the traditional manner.

Suffered

“I know when I was a kid, when I dreamed of lifting league titles, it wasn’t in front of an empty Anfield,” Trent Alexander-Arnold said this week. “For me, we have won the league but it wasn’t the way I expected. So it’s still what I need to do.”

All clubs, of course, suffered from the absence of supporters and the feeling is that Sheffield United had it worst. But Liverpool’s decline at Anfield also stood out. When winning the league in 2019-20 the home points tally was 55; last season it was 33. They were undefeated in the champion season; last season they lost six times at home.

By comparison, the fluctuation in City’s home record was just three points - from 44 in 19-20 to 41 in 20-21. (Notably, last season West Ham had the second-best home record, the London Stadium having not been as challenging, perhaps, to the players as when fans are in.)

Jack Grealish could prove key for Manchester City. Photo: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP via Getty Images
Jack Grealish could prove key for Manchester City. Photo: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP via Getty Images

This is not mythologizing Anfield. In 2019 it was Pep Guardiola who said: “The motto ‘This is Anfield’ is no marketing spin. There’s something about it that you will find in no other stadium in the world.”

Klopp’s team had famously beaten Barcelona 4-0 not long before on the way to becoming European champions.

Liverpool were the team on the rise and the core of that side remains. To go back to Norwich, on their last visit there in February 2020, a Sadio Mane goal brought a 1-0 away win. But if the margin of victory was narrow, it left Liverpool with a 25-point lead at the top of the Premier League. “The gap is so insane, I don’t really understand it,” Klopp said.

The red XI that Saturday early evening was: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Keita, Wijnaldum; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Firmino, Salah.

Only Georginio Wijnaldum has left. Conceivably eight or nine of those players could start this early Saturday evening and while some might see it as a form of stasis, others will see experience and accumulated knowledge. Liverpool’s points total over the past three seasons have been: 97, 99, 69. The last - from last season - looks the outlier.

Virgil Van Dijk’s fitness will be a huge boost. The league is yet to see the best of Thiago Alcantara. Klopp, 54, is said to be re-energised.

But if there are reasons to believe in Liverpool, the same applies to City and Chelsea. Even if Klopp’s team improves by 20 per cent, it will take them to around 84 points and City won the title in May with 86. That was pre-Grealish and pre-Kane, should he move north from Spurs.

Kane’s recruitment would have an echo of Blackburn signing Alan Shearer in 1992. Not only did it bring Rovers a title, it denied others. Without slighting Grealish, his signing does not bring the certainty Kane’s would. It would be implausible for City not to retain their title if Kane signs. It would be their fourth in five seasons and making any case against them is fraught with future embarrassment. City have averaged just over 91 points in those last four seasons. They also have Guardiola. (And De Bruyne and Foden and Ruben Dias).

Chelsea have averaged just over 68 points in the same period but City have not beaten them in three meetings since Thomas Tuchel succeeded Frank Lampard and it is Chelsea who are holders of the Champions League.

That said, Chelsea finished 19 points off City in the Premier League. Timo Werner scored six goals in 35 appearances, which is why Lukaku is rejoining a club he left in 2014. He is only three months past his 28th birthday and last season at Inter appeared to have lifted himself to a higher level. If Lukaku continues that form and Kane stays at Tottenham, then Chelsea will not feel inferior to City.

When Lukaku signed for United in 2017, Jose Mourinho hoped the Belgian’s goals would take United upward. They jumped from sixth to second but when Mourinho left, Solskjaer preferred Marcus Rashford to Lukaku, so he went to Italy.

Punch their weight

There have been convincing and unconvincing spells for Solskjaer. But in Bruno Fernandes, Sancho and Varane, he has creativity, potential and nous. United came second last season and need to punch their weight.

The title should be between this top four. That might seem abrupt to Leicester City, given where they want to be, or Villa, who spent the Grealish money early - Danny Ings is one to watch. Tottenham, post-Mourinho, if they keep Kane, will expect to finish higher than seventh. Similarly, Arsenal will not want to come eighth again, but mid-table could be their new identity. Spending £50m on Brighton’s Ben White is close to extraordinary.

Unfortunately for Everton, Rafa Benitez is under pressure already; Southampton are selling; Newcastle are static; Burnley are Burnley and Wolves are somehow an unknown known. Crystal Palace have Patrick Vieira and bought Marc Guehi, a top, young (21) defender. Fortunately for these clubs only three go down and those promoted - Norwich, Watford and Brentford - are favourites to drop. Of these Brentford may be the most intriguing, and dogged.

Their new stadium hosts the opening fixture, against Arsenal, on Friday night. Fans are back and undoubtedly Leeds United are another club who will appreciate it. Marcelo Bielsa has a new contract. Elland Road will bring Leeds points.

Expect a post-Euros surge of enthusiasm, at least for a few weeks. If we are not yet in a post-pandemic world, it will feel like the Premier League is in a post-pandemic mood.

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