The battle for the Premier League top four – Part 1

The battle for the Premier League top four – Part 1

So, yet another season is upon us and, on paper at least, it promises to be one of the most competitive yet when it comes to the top end of the Premier League. I’m actually finding it almost impossible to call at the present moment when it comes to which team will be lifting the title and the competition for those coveted Champions League spots will be intense.

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It’s only right and proper to start with the reigning champions Leicester City. What they achieved last season was monumental; it captured the imagination of millions and was a news story all around the world, such is the significance of their achievement. To defy near-impossible odds with a team that certain sections of the media even had down as relegation fodder and actually win the league is probably something we won’t see again for decades, if ever. Claudio Ranieri, his backroom staff, the scouting team and all the players deserve all the accolades they have received, but to replicate the season of a lifetime will be a bridge too far. In fact, with the loss N’Golo Kante at the heart of the team, defending the Premier League crown with that target on their back of being the team that everyone will want to beat will be tough enough in itself. Add to this the clubs first Champions League campaign and you can be forgiven for thinking 2016/17 could bring a complete reversal of fortunes for Leicester.

Whilst Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez grabbed the headlines with their goals, Kante was the hub of the side and they will miss his influence in a key area of the pitch. Vardy turning down a £30m move to Arsenal was a positive for the Foxes, as was adding the experience of goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler, as well bringing in forward Ahmed Musa for a club record £16m fee, defender Luis Hernandez and midfielder Nampalys Mendy. The increased squad will certainly be needed, not just for Champions League football, but also because Leicester were fortunate with injuries last term and were able to get away with very little rotation. Although I don’t think the Champions will suddenly be fighting relegation, I do think this could be a difficult campaign for them and they will fall out of the top six.

Last season’s runners-up Arsenal could potentially find themselves in a position of opportunity once again. Whilst so many other clubs around them are going through change and transition, they have the stable constant in a settled squad and manager. However, they have been in this position of opportunity before and Arsene Wenger failed to grasp the nettle then and it could very well be history repeating itself here. Yes, Arsenal are mainstays of the Premier League top four and always maintain their position in the elite when some think they are about to lose it, but it’s that pushing on to the next level and seriously challenging for the title that has long been missing. The acquisition of Granit Xhaka should solve a problem in the midfield that existed since the departure of Patrick Vieira, but the Gunners still lack a central defender and striker if they are to capitalise on the upheaval elsewhere. After a bid for Vardy fell though, Arsenal have been linked with plenty of strikers, from Alvaro Morata and Gonzalo Higuain to Alexandre Lacazette, but nothing is yet to materialise of any links. Olivier Giroud may be under rated, but he still has alarming drop offs in form through a season and with the long term injury to Danny Welbeck, it’s an area Arsenal are light in. The same can be said of central defence where the ageing Per Mertesacker is now out for 5 months and Gabriel has been inconsistent. If Wenger does not address those positions, then their top four status could be under threat; though even if he does make signings, the title is likely to be out of reach, but top four assured.

Tottenham have become a more formidable team under Mauricio Pochettino, one that works incredibly hard, is defensively solid and has a real goal threat. Last season they pushed Leicester for the title before falling away late on and eventually finishing third, but rightfully gained a great deal of respect in the process. Last year Harry Kane proved he was no one season wonder and will this year be determined to show that the Euros were just a blip for him. Spurs became a strong unit last season and the addition of Victor Wanyama could prove to be a fantastic piece of business. The purchase of striker Vincent Janssen from AZ Alkmaar could also prove to be fruitful, especially with the return of Champions League football for the club and Kane now a marked man. Janssen could ease the burden on Kane and perhaps give Pochettino the option of a different formation if he wants to change things up. How Spurs deal with the balance between European and domestic football could be interesting and whilst their squad certainly hasn’t got any weaker, they are a club that can be difficult to predict and with the increased competition around them, Spurs could get a similar, but slightly lower, points total this year and finish two or three positions lower in the table. That’s not a knock on Spurs, just a reflection of the improvements being made around them.

That’s last season’s top three teams covered, check back for part two on the other contenders.