Monday 21 August 2017 / 03:21 PM

FIVE QUESTIONS TO DEFINE THE EARLY TITLE RACE

On the eve of the 2017/18 Premier League season, BRAYDEN ISSA pinpoints the five factors that will determine which teams stake an early claim for the crown.

Van Dijk and Coutinho — both, one or neither?

The ongoing transfer saga between Coutinho, Liverpool and Barcelona is set to hover over the early part of Liverpool’s season, and possibly define the rest of it. In the wake of the Neymar sale, Barcelona’s sustained interest in the Brazilian star has ramped up, circling with a current offer upwards of £100 million, and the reasons for the interest are obvious.

With the combination of a massive cash influx and genuine need for a player of this skill set, it puts the Reds in a precarious position: With Barca now stocking a basically unlimited budget, Liverpool can use the need to drive up the price as high as they see fit. The problem on making a final decision is two-fold:

One, the size of the Neymar deal is reflective of the market, so Liverpool may be interested in waiting it out, and the £100m price tag could develop into £150m in the next year. With no buy-out clause in his contract, their hand can’t be forced.

Two, the decision has serious, and immediate, performance implications. Losing Coutinho, still their best player, would be a huge blow to their talent levels. If he stays, the formation will be built around him, and that’s an intriguing discussion in itself — he could play on the right wing, but the alternate frontline of Mane, Firmino and Salah is brimming with options, so having Coutinho work as a traditional 10 in behind or deeper in the midfield where he can start the attack from deep (but his defensive questions will arise) could prove the better option.

On the other side, their long-winded pursuit of Southhampton ace Virgil van Dijk continues to be fruitless. He would lift their defensive talent to a much higher quality and leave them with three genuine options to choose from. Having both of them make Liverpool a title smoky; getting neither leaves them void of a holistic roster. Plenty of factors that will have massive repercussions.

How do the new transfers settle in?

A vast number of premier league newcomers will feature heavily from day one. Chelsea will put their eggs in the Morata basket early. He is a statistical plus, but without an extended period of quality minutes to point to, he remains an unknown quantity. He needs to catch on quick otherwise Chelsea may be scrambling for answers up front with the imminent departure of Diego Costa.

That isn’t the case for Arsenal, where Lyon recruit Alexandre Lacazette highlights a deep pool of speedy forwards including Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck, as well big man Giroud. Lacazette offers the most upside, and if it clicks between Sanchez and Ozil, they create a world-class front three and may be far better than expected.

Speaking of unexpected, the Gunners also added left back Sead Kolasinac, who looks set to start at wing-back, from Schalke 04. He looked fantastic in pre-season and could be a big plus for a guy picked up on a free transfer.

United may be relying most on incoming talent, as Lindelof, Matic and Lukaku will be essential in redefining the balance of a poorly assembled squad from last season. United addressed their needs in all three areas here, with each player’s elite skill matching up fairly closely with the team’s weakest spots. They weren’t the only team in Manchester plugging holes, with City splurging (as per usual) hundreds of millions on revamping a vulnerable defence. Their additions were big swings: Walker and Mendy, who will line the field either side, are borderline world class. When they’re on, they can confidently hold down the entire flank on their own — a must in Guardiola’s system. If they can tweak the defence, they will unleash a powerful attack.

Liverpool added an interesting piece in Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah from Roma. His ability to cut in and offer a goal-threat from the right wing is a rare skill, so adding it to this attack could potentiality have an astounding effect. Spurs don’t believe in transfers, apparently, so their lack thereof will be graded on how their depth fares.

How good are Everton?

The variable that could throw a wrench into the campaign of the perceived contenders, Everton on a talent basis seem to sit alone as the link between the title chasers and the rest of the league.

Swapping in Davy Klaassen and Wayne Rooney for Lukaku seems like a downgrade, but a Rooney revival isn’t too hard to envision, whilst deep talks with Swansea for Gylfi Sigurosson means talent may be on the way, and at least management is aware of the of the needs.

How they fair in their attempts to better the seventh-place finish from last year will impact the title chase immensely – especially early, with the Toffees facing City, Chelsea, United and Spurs in consecutive weeks after their season opener.

Have City turned the corner?

How big is the gap between Manchester City and the rest? On paper, Man City once again hold the status of title favourites. A year, and another full preseason, under the auteur watch of Pep Guardiola in which they attempted to upgrade at positions of weakness, should serve them well.

This team still has holes — the central defence is far from steady, with Kompany still unreliable to stay fit and Stones too often flipping between stud prospect and baby giraffe, and depth still a real problem with the talented but flawed Otamendi and Mangala the only backups. Due to the high line they play, the defence is often retreating and reacting, so securing it will lay the platform for the team to continue to press.

The have a plethora of classy attacking options — the play of Sane and Jesus at the back end of last year is particularly encouraging — so settling on a formation might be trial and error early on. Across the park, they need dependability: they lacked it last year and saw their form fluctuating from unstoppable attacking force to unfortified mess consistently being exposed.

If they find that dependability, whether it be through finally cracking the style or sticking to a familiar rotation, consistency will sky-rocket. If that happens, the talent is overbearing, and they could open up a lead atop the table.

What does continuity count for?

The teams that finished a comfortable one and two on the ladder have made the least changes out of the top sides. How this impacts the form of the squads early will be of great interest. Familiarity breeds confidence and trust, so whether Chelsea and Tottenham find themselves in better touch to kick-off the season and reap the rewards of their loyalty will define how we view their offseason.

Without the benefit of added depth, taking advantage of this continuity may be vital to their chances as the other clubs come together down the back end.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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