Reda Maher

The Premier League is back, as everyone rings the changes

Reda Maher

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And so it returns.

After what seems like only a couple of weeks off, the Premier League resumes this weekend, with the stakes as high as ever.

A thrilling World Cup narrowed the three months of thumb-twitching ennui usually endured by Premier League fans; the mania of the transfer window means club football never really went away.

Of course, there have been major changes, mostly in terms of playing personnel.

Arsenal bought one of the stars of the World Cup in Alexis Sanchez, and welcomed back several injured players. They looked formidable in the Community Shield win over Manchester City – with young defender Calum Chambers showing composure beyond his years and Mathieu Debuchy slotting in well for Bacary Sagna – but, of course, that match is rarely a barometer for the rest of the season.

Defending champions City missed several big names in the 3-0 loss and, by their standards, have been quiet in the transfer window. Their hands relatively tied by financial fair play, major signings of note have been defender Eliaquim Mangala and goalkeeper Willy Caballero, although those positions were the main holes in Manuel Pellegrini’s team last season. Trimming the fat from a bloated squad has been a priority and they are a sleeker unit now. They remain the benchmark for other teams, and write them off at your peril.

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Fabregas is one of the standout signings of the summer

Chelsea have been active, sealing big deals for Spain duo Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas – a surprisingly short World Cup means they are nicely rested for the season curtain-raiser against promoted Burnley. The return of Thibaut Courtois from his loan at Atletico Madrid gives Jose Mourinho a nice problem in the goalkeeping department, while Filipe Luis should prove an able replacement for the departed Ashley Cole. Expect another title challenge.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have been forced into wholesale changes following the £75m sale of Luis Suarez, which could see them struggle to match their exploits last season. They were short of numbers then, and had to pad out the squad, but can any of the half-dozen signings so far really be called world class? Are they clear improvements on existing personnel? We’ll find out soon enough.

Of course all eyes have been on Manchester United, whose disastrous 2013-14 campaign was attributed to David Moyes’ abortive, failed shot at the big time. Yes, only two senior players have been brought in, Ander Herrera – a long-standing target whose failure to sign last summer was a comedy of ineptitude by United – and Luke Shaw. The former plugs what was a gaping hole in United’s creativity, the latter replaces Patrice Evra. But there remains a shortage of defensive personnel, with another left-back and at least one centre-half the basic requirements. However, United’s biggest signing was coach Louis van Gaal, who has set about changing a culture of slackness that germinated under Moyes. The Dutchman already looks to have transformed morale, with a shrewd tactical switch to 3-5-2 accompanied by radical alterations to the club’s requirements from players.

And let’s not forget Everton, who have sought to build on an impressive campaign with the £28m coup to make Romelu Lukaku their own; several other solid signings have been made, and expect them to linger in the top six, ditto Tottenham, who will surely improve under the excellent tutelage of Mauricio Pochettino.

It’s not just the big boys who have been flashing the cash. The explosion in television income has seen an even bigger spree from clubs in the lower reaches of the division. The opportunity to build financial prudent models of self-sustenance has, of course, been eclipsed by wild spending as teams look to consolidate Premier League status. Why else would Shane Long and Leonardo Ulloa go for deals that could exceed £12m and £10m respectively? How can Hull City justify an £8m outlay on Jake Livermore when strong, silky Bosnia star Muhamed Besic cost Everton half that? It smacks of desperation – and some clubs have shown that you can be smart with your money, as Stoke City’s £3m capture of Bojan Krkic has highlighted, while QPR have learned from their mistakes by focusing on quality, not quantity.

Meanwhile, some less fashionable clubs could struggle, despite their best efforts. Southampton have paid the price for their style and quality, their manager poached by Spurs and their first team ravaged by Liverpool, among others; good replacements have been acquired, but could the instability prove too much? Burnley, meanwhile, are finding it tough to encourage big names to take the risk of a team that punched well above their weight in the second tier; Tony Pulis became so frustrated by the Crystal Palace board’s over-cautious approach following last summer’s scattergun approach to the window, he is now gone; Leicester appear to have decided that a ‘best of the Championship’ strategy is the sensible approach.

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There are no clear favourites at either end of the table. It’s impossible to predict how Liverpool and Southampton will cope with their overhauls. Will United be able to sustain their pre-season rejuvenation under Van Gaal? Can Arsenal finally keep themselves together, physically and mentally? Is Jose really all that special? Will City suffer a champions’ hangover? Can Newcastle, who overhauled last term’s underachieving squad, bounce back into the European places?

Indeed, the only thing that is certain about the new season is its uncertainty.

By Reda Maher - on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport

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