The 2020-21 Premier League season is expected to be a two-horse race between incumbent champions Liverpool and their well-heeled counterparts Manchester City.
In 2019-20, Liverpool looked virtually unstoppable as they cruised to their first title of the Premier League era, finishing 18 points above a City side that had won the previous two seasons.
Preseason predictions are a fool's errand (just ask the numerous professionals who tipped Leicester to be relegated in 2015-16), but conditions sure seem ripe for Manchester City to not only close the gap on Liverpool, but reclaim the Premier League title next spring.
Last season, Guardiola’s men struggled against less expansive teams who were able to stay organized, absorb pressure and punch on the counter. They lost nine games, principally due to the folly of failing to adequately replace longtime captain Vincent Kompany on defense.
When center back Aymeric Laporte suffered a serious knee injury early in the campaign, Guardiola did not trust junior squad members such as Eric García to step up. Instead, 34-year-old Fernandinho dropped back into central defense for much of the season, and that meant he was unavailable to carry out a defensive screening role that has been critical to Guardiola’s success in Manchester. And instead of addressing the issue in the transfer market, Guardiola invested around $72 million on fullback João Cancelo at the start of the season.
Tracing transfer mistakes even further back, City’s refusal to spend on Virgil van Dijk back in January 2018 also proved costly. If City had splashed the cash at that point, Liverpool would have been significantly weaker and City would have been much stronger. By pulling out of the race for van Dijk, City effectively ceded power to its biggest rival.
Laporte — purchased instead of van Dijk — recovered from his knee injury in late January 2020, by which point Liverpool had already established an insurmountable lead atop the table.
In this coming campaign, it appears that City has learned from its mistakes and made moves to strengthen a key area of weakness. The acquisition of Nathan Aké will lessen the reliance on Laporte, while adding a squad member versatile enough to deputize at left back (which may be necessary for the injury-prone Benjamin Mendy) and defensive midfield.
In the attack, while the Lionel Messi dream didn’t materialize, neither did a spate of departures after the club’s Champions League ban was overturned. Former Valencia winger Ferran Torres will replace the departed Leroy Sané this term, and there is no shortage of weapons in City’s squad.
The Sky Blues were, for the most part, a spectacular force last season. A cursory glance at the 2019-20 team stats shows City ranked No. 1 for possession, pass completion, shots, shots that hit the woodwork, touches, passes and clean sheets.
Essentially, the only statistical column in which they trailed Liverpool was points earned.
To win the league this coming season, City need to maintain their high quality, while relying on a dip from their Merseyside rivals. Fortunately for Guardiola and his cohorts, Liverpool appears destined to perform at a lower level.
Since their shock 3-0 loss to Watford in February, the Reds seem to have lost the cloak of invincibility that accompanied their historic start to last season. Klopp’s side subsequently crashed out of the Champions League at the hands of Atlético Madrid, and dropped 10 points in their remaining league games.
Granted, Liverpool had virtually secured the league title by that point, and would be permitted to take its foot off the gas. But the recent Community Shield loss to Arsenal suggests a newfound streak of fallibility.
Motivation may be an issue. After winning the Champions League, the Premier League and the FIFA Club World Cup in the past 15 months, it would be a big feat to maintain such a high standard. Particularly given Liverpool’s physically demanding playing style, for which the truncated 2020-21 campaign will do no favors.
Klopp has already followed up two thunderous league campaigns with a natural decline, too, during his time at Borussia Dortmund. The German manager won back-to-back league titles in 2011 and 2012, but regressed in 2012-13, finishing 25 point behind Bayern Munich. Klopp’s Liverpool has earned 196 total points in the past two seasons, so it is not unreasonable to suggest a similar pattern will emerge.
It must also be noted that the Reds have not significantly strengthened their squad. Days before kickoff vs. Leeds, only backup fullback Kostas Tsimikas has been added to the ranks. In the Premier League, teams that stand still tend to get left behind.
That’s not to say Liverpool won’t remain competitive at the top level. However, all evidence suggests a Premier League with more parity this season, and a title race in which Manchester City will have the edge.
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