Premier League 2020-21 season preview Big questions, new players to watch, team-by-team projections
It seems like only yesterday that the 2019-20 season was wrapping up (well, maybe a month?) across Europe but after a quick breather and some UEFA Nations League fixtures as a sporting aperitif, it's time for the 2020-21 Premier League season to begin.
– Predict results in ESPN's English Soccer Pick ‘Em!
There's a lot to preview, too, with some clubs investing big this summer (we see you, Chelsea) and creating the tantalizing prospect of a three- or four-way title fight. (Expect Liverpool and Manchester City to set the pace, however.) Meanwhile, three familiar clubs (West Bromwich Albion, Fulham, Leeds United) return to the top-flight, we've got a glut of top strikers and a slew of intriguing new signings to look forward to.
Who will win the league? Who will fall short? What is each team setting as their goals and expectations for the campaign? We've got all that and more in our bumper Premier League preview to get you ready for the season.
Jump to: Liverpool faves or not? | Projecting Pulisic, year 2 | Same top four again? | Man United to do better? | Arsenal or Spurs finish higher? | Which promoted team will shine? | How will Bielsa fare? | New arrivals to watch | Season in a sentence
Are Liverpool favorites, or a one-season wonder?
Liverpool are about to discover that getting to the top of the mountain is the easy bit, even if took them 30 years to manage it by winning the Premier League last season.
Jurgen Klopp and his players wrote their own chapter of Liverpool history by sealing a first domestic title since 1990 — and doing it in spectacular fashion with their pre-lockdown form, making the title race an inevitability by the halfway point of the 2019-20 campaign. But despite their success last season, the new challenge facing Liverpool is arguably tougher than winning the title in the first place.
Liverpool have now raised the bar, and they must match up to their standards. The only problem is that, so far, they have ignored the old truism that you must capitalise on success by strengthening when you are at the top. Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal have all made significant additions to their squad this summer in an effort to close the gap on Liverpool — who have made just one signing, a reserve left-back to provide cover for Andy Robertson.
Mark Ogden explains why Liverpool will need to sell a significant player to raise funds for Thiago Alcantara.
The Community Shield defeat against Arsenal last month highlighted the need for change and new blood at Anfield. Klopp's team is still one of the best in Europe, but depth is an issue, and the established stars know that their place in the team is pretty much secure. A lack of competition could blunt Liverpool's edge, but they missed out on Timo Werner, and they have yet to suggest they will complete a deal for Thiago Alcantara.
Klopp's squad will unquestionably be one of the favourites to win the title, but without new faces, they look like falling short in their challenge of staying on top of their perch. — Mark Ogden
What to expect from Pulisic in Year 2 at Chelsea?
Christian Pulisic has plenty of objectives for this season for Chelsea. There are more goals, more assists and more trophies to secure. But perhaps most of all, there is one that can be taken for granted: health.
The American sustained a hip injury just before the new year, and he had yet to return to the field before the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. Upon the season's resumption in June, Pulisic hit top gear, only to sustain a hamstring injury in the FA Cup final.
That injury could shelve him for the start of the season, though sources close to the situation say he'll be back training this week. One can only hope that when he returns, he can reprise the form he showed at the end of the season, when he was among the best players in the Premier League.
Craig Burley says Christian Pulisic will need to maintain his excellent form to remain in Chelsea's starting XI.
Granted, at a club like Chelsea, the competition for places is always fierce, and nothing has changed on that front. If anything, it'll be tougher in 2020. Pedro and Willian are gone, but Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech arrived from Bayer Leverkusen and Ajax, respectively, for combined fees of over $130m. There are also holdovers Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to contend with on the flanks. Maintaining fitness will allow Pulisic to see off those challenges and build upon his debut season with the Blues.
Yet the arrivals of Havertz and Ziyech, as well as world-class forward Timo Werner, also present an opportunity. Their success will create more spaces for Pulisic to exploit. Havertz, who operated mostly as a central playmaker with Leverkusen, seems a complimentary piece to Pulisic, with Ziyech capable of operating on the opposite wing. Assuming Pulisic stays fit this season — and there are never any guarantees there, as we've seen — he could and should thrive alongside such quality. — Jeff Carlisle
Will we see the same four teams in the top four?
Liverpool and Manchester City were by far the best two teams in the Premier League last season, and they are likely to set the standard again. The levels of consistency they've shown over the past two years suggest they will again compete for the top two positions. Beyond that, Chelsea's business in the summer transfer window has been eye-catching and if the majority of their new players can settle quickly, they look best equipped to challenge the top two.
Manchester United were a different team during the second half of last season after the arrival of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon and if they can replicate that consistency over a full campaign, a top four finish shouldn't be a problem.
Arsenal, Tottenham and Leicester will all challenge for the Champions League places, particularly Arsenal and Tottenham, who should be over the upheaval of both changing managers in midseason last year. Arsenal have shown they can beat the best teams under Mikel Arteta and Jose Mourinho will have his Tottenham side organised and well-drilled.
Last season's top four will fancy their chances of repeating it but there should be a more sustained challenge from the chasing pack. — Rob Dawson
Can Man United do better than fourth?
Jan Joost Van Gangelen believes Solskjaer will play Donny van de Beek alongside both Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.
The challenge for Manchester United this season is to back up the talk with actions. Three semifinals and a third-place finish in the Premier League last season represented progress for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but the task now is to take another step forward. The message from Solskjaer since his arrival in December 2018 has been about his rebuild taking time, but there comes a point when it needs to turn into trophies and a Premier League title challenge.
Since Bruno Fernandes' arrival in January, United have shown they are capable of long runs of good form, but that has to be replicated over an entire campaign if they are going to get back to where they were under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Ajax midfielder Donny van de Beek is a positive addition to the squad in midfield, but there are other gaps to fill, and United's prospects of bridging the gap to Liverpool and Manchester City will depend on how well they perform in the transfer market before the deadline on Oct. 5. Chelsea have already made their statement with a number of high-quality signings.
United's start will be crucial. Start well and they won't have to answer questions about whether they can qualify for the Champions League — and the attention will turn to putting pressure on Liverpool and Manchester City at the top end of the table. Start poorly and Solskjaer could be facing questions about his future by Christmas. — Rob Dawson
Which side of North London will reign supreme?
ESPN FC's Frank Leboeuf delves into how Gabriel Magalhaes will strengthen Arsenal's defence.
Arsenal vs. Spurs is always a battle, and consistency will again be key to seeing who “wins” North London as Mikel Arteta and Jose Mourinho embark on their first full seasons in charge.
A few big victories put a gloss on what was Arsenal's worst finish in 25 years. The signing of an experienced Premier League player in Willian will go a long way to reinforcing Arsenal's defence, while the choice between two first-rate keepers in Bernd Leno and Emiliano Martinez gives Arsenal a solidity they've been missing. Bukayo Saka's breakout season hints at promise, but it's hard to look past securing the services of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — the latest is that he's “close” to signing a new deal — as key to any Arsenal success.
Despite Mourinho's abrasive approach to management, he did oversee an upturn in Spurs' fortunes last season. While the expectation might have been for some headline summer signings, Mourinho has opted for solidity instead with Premier League-proven additions in Southampton midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Wolves defender Matt Doherty and veteran goalkeeper Joe Hart. Popular or not, Mourinho was brought in to win trophies, and being in the Europa League might lead Spurs to focus on other, attainable competitions.
It's hard to look past the excitement that Arteta has brought to Arsenal, an injection of energy that was sorely needed after a tired few years. Mourinho's colourful management history (and tendency to self-destruct) has prevented a similar bump at Spurs, putting the Gunners in good stead to paint North London red this season. — Kathleen McNamee
Which promoted team will ‘pull a Sheffield United,' and why?
After last season's surprise-packed Sheffield United finished ninth in the Premier League, they have set the benchmark for the latest crop of promotion hopefuls. West Brom and Fulham have the most recent top flight experience — WBA finished last in the Premier League in 2018, and Fulham copied them 2019 — but it's Leeds who we expect to enjoy their return to the elite for the first time since 2004.
Under the maverick Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds have a manager who has forged a side that trusts in the system and fears nobody. The summer signing of Spanish striker Rodrigo from Valencia for £30m — he should contribute at least 15 goals — and defender Robin Koch from Freiberg are bits of smart business, while they also have managed to bring back in the impressive Jack Harrison from Manchester City on loan. Kalvin Phillips is getting international recognition in the UEFA Nations League with England, while Pablo Hernandez is ageless, so expect this Leeds team to run and run with El Loco, ensuring they leave nothing on the field.
West Brom have recruited well, and Fulham still have several of the players who experienced their last Premier League adventure, but neither side boast the same strength in depth as Leeds, nor the Bielsa factor. — Tom Hamilton
Who will contend for the Golden Boot?
Mark Ogden believes Harry Kane's starting spot for England isn't as secure as many people think.
When it comes to goal scorers in the Premier League, the question once again this season is: Can someone new break into the Golden Boot Club? After all, it's always the same stars topping the charts. Leicester's Jamie Vardy won last season with 23 goals, one ahead of Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who shared the award the season before with Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. Salah lifted the Golden Boot alone in 2018 after his incredible campaign (32), ahead of Harry Kane, who finished first for the previous two seasons with 29 and 25 goals, respectively. Then there's always Man City's ageless Sergio Aguero, who's never far from the top.
So can someone break the hegemony of the “top six” players, or will it be one of them again?
Southampton's Danny Ings got very close last season, with 22 of his own. Can he go one better? Can Chelsea's new signing, Timo Werner, be the man? Or how about Man City's Raheem Sterling? Can Man United's Anthony Martial or Wolves' Raul Jimenez improve on their 17 league goals from last season? Or are we in for a big surprise “à la Kevin Phillips” — he notched 30 for Sunderland in 1999-2000 — from the likes of Everton's Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham), Rodrigo (Leeds United) or Callum Wilson (Newcastle)?
Whoever wins it will be hoping to set a new mark. Salah's 32 goals in 2018-19 was the highest tally since Alan Shearer and Andy Cole hit 34 in 1994 and 1995. Can someone do better this season? Only Phillips (2000), Thierry Henry (2003), Cristiano Ronaldo (2008), Robin Van Persie (2012), Luis Suarez (2014) and Salah achieved 30+ goals in a single season in the past 20 years. Whatever happens, it promises to be another close and exciting race… — Julien Laurens
What can we expect from Marcelo Bielsa?
The only thing we can truly expect from Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa this season is the unexpected. After a 16-year absence from the top flight, Leeds are finally back where many believe they belong, but it needed the unpredictable genius of Bielsa to crack the code of promotion from the Championship.
Leeds won the Championship title by playing classic Bielsa football — a game of fast-moving possession with players capable of moving around the pitch at high energy. When they faced Arsenal in the FA Cup third round at the Emirates last season, Bielsa's Leeds gave an hour-long masterclass that belied their lower-league status before losing the game due to a lack of cutting edge.
If Leeds and Bielsa are to succeed in staying up this season, they have to find a way to score goals in games that they dominate, and the move for Rodrigo suggests that they have found a solution to that problem. That said, it's best not to make assumptions where Bielsa is concerned. He will certainly bring a different flavour to the Premier League with his brand of football, but will it be too open and adventurous for the top division? And will Bielsa last the pace? Will he want to?
His track record has been patchy — he walked out on Lazio after two days in the job, quit Marseille one game into his second season and lasted less than six months at Lille — so time will tell whether he will stay for the ride with the Leeds or find the Premier League too challenging. — Mark Ogden
New arrivals to get excited about
The Premier League has seemed slower in the transfer market this summer given the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but so far deals worth an estimated £850 million have been completed up and down the table.
Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive, and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. Here, he assesses the six incoming players worth paying attention to as the new campaign kicks off.
Ale Moreno thinks Leeds' record-signing Rodrigo has the potential to flourish in the Premier League.
Rodrigo, FW, Valencia to Leeds United, €30m: It may seem like a steep price for someone who's just six months from turning 30, but in the Brazil-born Spanish international, Bielsa gets a quality player with plenty of pedigree. The left-footed forward, who had a rather unremarkable loan stint with Bolton 10 years ago, can play in practically any attacking position and is full of the energy, movement and determination that Bielsa requires from an attacker.
Quick, sharp and unpredictable, Rodrigo is an excellent counter-attack player.
Kai Havertz, MF, Bayer Leverkusen to Chelsea, €80m: Out of a spectacular bunch of summer signings by the West London club, the German is the cream of the crop. Despite being just 21, Havertz is already a seasoned Bundesliga player and already has useful experience in both the Champions League and the German national side. The superbly talented footballer with a lovely touch on the ball is capable of playing as an attacking midfielder through the middle, out wide to the right or as a deep-dropping forward.
On the one hand he's an intelligent playmaker with the skill and creativity to set up goals and on the other he's an excellent finisher who finds great positions in and around the penalty area.
Eberechi Eze, MF, Queens Park Rangers to Crystal Palace, €17.8m: The nimble, creative attacking midfielder moves from west to south London after an impressive season in the Championship. Most commonly deployed as an inverted wide midfielder on the left, Eze loves running at opponents and his outstanding balance makes him able to withstand challenges despite his relatively small build.
Now 22, Eze, who has plenty of clever ball skills and loves backheel passes, made his debut for the England U21 side last year and was closely monitored by several other Premier League sides before joining the London rivals. All in all, he's a good finisher who's able to hit the target from well outside the penalty area.
Donny van de Beek, MF, Ajax to Manchester United, €39m: Despite spending heavily over the past few years, it's only January 2020 signing Bruno Fernandes who has emerged as an instant hit for the Red Devils thus far, though it looks as though the 23-year-old Dutchman could follow in the same vein.
Judging from his profile, van de Beek has all it takes to succeed in the Premier League; he's sharp, industrious, neat on the ball and has the priceless ability of converting well-timed attacking runs into chances and goals. Though he faces tough competition in midfield, one wouldn't be surprised if van de Beek ends up as one of the first names on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team sheet once he gets settled.
Ferran Torres, FW, Valencia to Manchester City, €23m: For a club accustomed to paying over the odds, the Spanish winger — who was about to enter the last year of his contract — represents something as rare as a bargain signing. Manchester City may not have ended up with Lionel Messi (yet?), but the 20-year-old Spaniard certainly possesses some of the technical abilities that are required for an attacking player to function within Pep Guardiola's framework of fluid football.
Torres has usually been fielded as an out-and-out right winger, but expect him to take up more central positions in the blue shirt. An exciting, tricky flair player who is a delight to watch when at his best.
James Rodriguez, MF, Real Madrid to Everton, €25m: There's no denying that the career of the 2014 World Cup Golden Boot winner has gone somewhat downhill in the past couple of seasons, with just 18 league starts during the past two campaigns. However, the presence of Carlo Ancelotti speaks in favour of Rodriguez becoming a success at Merseyside, with the Colombian joining up with the Italian manager for the third time in his career.
While there might be some doubt about his mobility and determination to push himself for another challenge, the amazing left foot — with which he can finish from anywhere — is still evident. Coupled with his highly impressive vision and (hopefully) his playmaking abilities, this makes him potentially a major reinforcement for Everton. — Tor-Kristian Karlsen
The 2020-21 Premier League season in a sentence
You've read the big questions and you've got the new names to keep an eye on from week to week. Now it's time to examine what each of the 20 teams might be expecting from the 2020-21 campaign and how they might (or might not) accomplish their goals. Tom Hamilton has you covered.
ARSENAL: (8th last season, 56 points)
The goal will be a top-four finish and while Arsenal fans will be waiting to see if Mikel Arteta is further backed in the transfer window to achieve these lofty aims, they'll take heart from Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang's new contract and the signing of Gabriel Magalhaes to shore up their unpredictable defence.
ASTON VILLA: (17th, 35 pts)
Villa will hope to finish with breathing space away from the relegation zone, sign a striker and keep their talisman, Jack Grealish; do that and they have a chance of staying up.
BRIGHTON: (15th, 41 pts)
Brighton fans will hope for a mid-table finish, and this should be achievable after a good summer that saw Adam Lallana arrive, Ben White return and Lewis Dunk sign a new deal.
BURNLEY: (10th, 54 pts)
Burnley fans have faced the annual uncertainty over their beloved Sean Dyche's future and are battling to hold on to James Tarkowski; accomplish both and they should be mid-table.
CHELSEA: (4th, 66 pts)
After signing half of Europe's stars, Chelsea fans will hope for a title challenge this season with new recruits Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech spearheading their charge; after a valiant battle, expect them to finish third.
CRYSTAL PALACE: (14th, 43 pts)
After a dismal end to last season, Crystal Palace fans will be keeping everything crossed they manage to get a striker in who can score double figures this season; if they manage that, they should escape the drop, but it'll be another nail-biting campaign from start to finish.
EVERTON: (12th, 49 pts)
Their new-look midfield of Allan, James Rodriguez and Abdoulaye Doucoure will give Everton fans confidence they are going to finish in the Europe places, but they will need to start the season well and hope Richarlison is firing on all cylinders.
FULHAM: (Promoted via Championship playoff, 81 pts)
This season will be about survival and learning from their last disappointing venture in the Premier League; however, they will fall short, but not for want of effort or application.
LEEDS UNITED: (Promoted as Championship winners, 93 pts)
It's a welcome return for Leeds this season and the Premier League will have to brace itself for Bielsa and their new big-money signing, Rodrigo, which should be enough to secure a mid-table finish and plenty of drama along with it.
LEICESTER: (5th, 62 pts)
Having lost Ben Chilwell this summer, Leicester will fail to emulate last season's fifth-place finish with the Europa League, giving Brendan Rodgers a selection headache and a battle to keep his squad fresh.
LIVERPOOL: (Champions, 99 pts)
Topping last season's remarkable title charge will be hard, and Liverpool's fans will hope for a repeat this term, but with Manchester City strengthening, they will end up finishing second by a hair's breadth.
MAN CITY: (2nd, 81 pts)
With Pep Guardiola probably still fuming at last season, Manchester City will be a wounded animal this term, and even without Leo Messi, they have recruited well over the summer (Ferran Torres, Nathan Ake) and should end up Premier League champions for the third time in the past four seasons.
MAN UNITED: (3rd, 66 pts)
The summer was dominated by Jadon Sancho talk and if they manage to get him over the line, United fans will be dreaming of a title challenge; fall short of that, and it'll be another top-four fandango, but they should be good for a spot in the Champions League places.
NEWCASTLE: (13th, 44 pts)
Newcastle fans still aren't rid of their controversial owner Mike Ashley, but with some smart recruitment over the summer — including Callum Wilson — Steve Bruce's side will hope for a mid-table finish but will likely finish a little lower down.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: (9th, 54 pts)
It's going to be hard to top last season, but teams will no longer underestimate Chris Wilder's side; a mid-table finish is likely, yet they'll still hand out defeats to some of the league's bigger fish.
SOUTHAMPTON: (11th, 52 pts)
With arguably England's most prolific striker in their ranks, Southampton fans will hope Danny Ings and some smart summer signings will be enough to see them break into the top half, but a finish of 10th or so is projected.
TOTTENHAM: (6th, 59 pts)
Flip a coin for this season: On the face of it, Tottenham should finish in the top six, but they could go higher if Jose Mourinho works his magic following a prudent summer's transfers and they manage to keep their star players fit.
WEST BROM: (Promoted as 2nd in Championship, 83 pts)
They have recruited well over the summer, with Grady Diangana arriving and the wondrous Matheus Pereira signing permanently, and they have a smart manager in Slaven Bilic, but although West Brom fans will hope the team avoids relegation, it's going to be a struggle.
WEST HAM: (16th, 39 pts)
Even the West Ham captain is unhappy at the owners, so goodness knows how this season will pan out, but they have enough quality to finish mid-table if they manage to find some off-field stability.
WOLVES: (7th, 59 pts)
The Portuguese contingent is growing at Molineux with the signing of £36m wonderkid Fabio Silva, so Wolves should be good for another Europe charge and further improvement under Nuno Espirito Santo.
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