35 things to look out for in the new Premier League season

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Hakim Ziyech

Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech
Mo Salah might be the Arab world’s biggest footballing star, but Hakim Ziyech of Ajax and Morocco is right up there in terms of performance. In the 90 league games he’s played so far for Ajax he’s recorded 39 assists and scored 32 goals, which for a midfielder is a phenomenal return. And at 26 years old he’s in his prime. His 28m Euro release clause makes him a potential bargain for someone.

Diving Arsenal?
Six of the 24 yellow cards that were shown last season for simulation were given to Arsenal players. With VAR in place this season, and vague FA promises to clamp down in diving, Arsenal are going to need to cut out the antics lest this becomes something they get a damagingly-bad reputation for.

More build up play from the goalkeepers
This season outfield players will be able to receive goal-kicks from inside their own penalty area. Previously it had to leave the area before anyone else could touch it. For teams like Man City and Liverpool, whose keepers Ederson and Alisson are comfortable passing it out and like to build up from the back, this will suit them, likewise teams like Barca, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, etc. But the rule change could encourage more teams to take fast goal kicks and get on with playing out from the back rather than setting up for long kicks and hoping to win the header.

Hazard effect on Chelsea and Real Madrid
Eden Hazard has left Chelsea for Real Madrid and it’s worth remembering that last season he scored 20 goals for Chelsea in all competitions – his best return in a single campaign – and registered 15 assists, which was more than any other player in the top five European leagues. How Chelsea cope without him, especially as they have a transfer ban and can’t sign a replacement, could define their season. It could also define Madrid’s attempt to challenge Barca in Spain.

Ronaldo will shoot whenever he can
Last season Cristiano Ronaldo averaged 5.7 shots per game which is more than any of the other 1,316 players Europe’s top five leagues – England, Italy, Spain, Germany and France. Second was Lionel Messi with five per game. It seems that when you’re the two best players on the planet, nobody’s going to complain if you opt to take on most of the shots yourself.

But Ronaldo is not greedy…
Of all the things he’s been accused of recently, being selfish on the pitch is probably the least of his worries, but the idea that he doesn’t set up team-mates is a persistent myth. In his career so far he’s recorded a huge 218 assists, and other countless chances that were spurned. Yes, Messi has set up more goals (271) and in fewer games too, but Ronaldo is not the “ball hogger” some paint him as. Not all the time anyway.

Leicester’s over-reliance on Jamie Vardy
Vardy scored 18 times last season in the league which represented 35% of all Leicester’s goals. When over one-in-three of your strikes come from one player it’s clear they’ll need to add more from elsewhere or just pray he stays fit for all 38 games.

Will Manchester United make up any ground?
United finished 32 points behind the champions last season which was incredibly two more than when they were relegated back in the 1973-74 season. It’s harder than ever to keep in touch at the top and vast improvement will be needed lest they become – dare we say it – just one of the also-rans.

Italian teams attack
When it comes to teams that have the most shots per game, six of the top 10 from last season play in Serie A, and only one of the top 10 (Man City) plays in the Premier League. The idea that Italian teams are defensive is a complete myth. The team that average most shots per game however, is Bayern Munich with an average of 18.7 per game.

You can get away with more in the Premier League
If you list the 98 teams in Europe’s top five leagues by the average number of fouls per game, you wouldn’t get to an English side until Watford down in 71st place. It’s not that English team don’t tackle – stats show they do – it’s simply that English refs like to let the game go, which is great for those watching the games but not so great if you’re a player getting a kicking from the opposition.

Athletico Madrid love to get stuck in
For years under Diego Simeone, Athletico Madrid had a reputation as a team moulded in the image of their hardman manager. It seems it’s actually warranted as 20.6 tackles per game is more than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues, but in terms of fouls per game they’re not even in the top 50. They’re just really good at tackling.

But Man City don’t need to tackle
There are 98 team in the top five European leagues and no team faced fewer shots last season than Man City. Not a huge surprise, but at the same time no team has averaged fewer tackles per game than City. You don’t need to tackle to stop the opposition when you can close out spaces and hold possession like Pep Guardiola’s side.

Leicester’s James Maddison
Arguably one of the most underrated players around right now. Last season he was the only player to create 100 goalscoring chances in the Premier League, and he averaged more passes per game that set up chances than Lionel Messi. And he’s still only 22 years old.

VAR + new handball rule = pens
Video Assistant Referee will be introduced in the Premier League this season but has already been in place in Serie A and other leagues. In Italy it hasn’t led to an increase in penalties given, as some suggested it would, but with the new ultra-strict interpretation of the handball rules – basically if it touches your arm it’s almost always a penalty – plus VAR’s accusatory replays, we’re almost certainly going to see lots more penalties given this season.

The influence Christian Eriksen
Since moving to the Premier League in 2013-14, Eriksen ranks top for chances created (547), assists (60), goals from outside the box (22) and goals from direct free-kicks (7) and is one of only two players to register over 10 assists in four successive seasons, after David Beckham between 1998-2001. He wants to leave Spurs and if he goes, they’ll be losing one of the most creative players in Europe – wherever he ends up will have signed a hugely influential player.

Messi can’t last forever – can he?
Last season almost half of Barca’s goals (43%) were scored or set up by Messi and it was his tenth season in a row where he scored over 40 goals in all competitions. But he’s is 32 years old now and that’s about the age you start to see attacking-midfielders’ levels drop off. Barca’s reliance on him is increasingly dangerous and this season could see the start of the great man’s decline.

Paul Pogba’s influence
Since he rejoined Man United he’s been involved in 60 goals (31 scored and 29 assists) which is more than any of his teammates. We’re not saying the want-away star is underrated, but he’s not quite the disappointment that some of his critics are claiming.

Chelsea’s transfer ban? Not short of players though
Chelsea may have a transfer ban, but they currently have a staggering 41 players out on loan that can be recalled including Álvaro Morata, Mason Mount, Michy Batshuayi, Tammy Abraham, Kurt Zouma, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Victor Moses, Mario Pasalic, Fikayo Tomori and Kenedy. The biggest effect of the ban may well be on all the clubs around Europe who will lose those key players that they had on loan from Chelsea.

 Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix
The big target for many of Europe’s top clubs this summer is Bruno Fernandes of Sporting Lisbon. With 13 assists and 20 goals in 33 games last season in the Portuguese league the 24 year old attacking midfielder is understandably being touted as the next big player to come out of Portugal. But watch out for Benfica’s Joao Felix – the 19-year old is the true heir to Ronaldo’s throne, and this year he’ll be the name to look out for.

Tottenham’s longevity
After the first 20 games of last season Spurs were only two points behind Man City. But if the season had started on Jan 1st then after the remaining 18 games Spurs would be tenth. While a run to the final of the Champions League was remarkable, their league form in the calendar year of 2019 dropped off a cliff. A bigger squad really is needed if they are to sustain a challenge.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is still brilliant
The Swede now plays in the MLS in America and was thought well past his best when Man United let him leave for nothing. But with 33 goals in his last 36 games over there he’s proving that even at 37 years of age, football’s most arrogant man still has a good reason for that abundance of self assurance.

Idrissa Gueye’s ball-winning
From the top five European leagues no player averaged more tackles per game last season than Idrissa Gueye of Everton. In fact, in the Premier League over the last four seasons he’s been top in that respect twice and registered the second-most on the two other occasions. He’s a tackling machine and often goes unnoticed… until you have to play against him.

Liverpool’s headed goals.
Only Wimbledon in the mid-90s scored more headed goals in a Premier League season than Liverpool last year. But unlike Wimbledon it wasn’t all long, high balls – it’s was largely from full backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold getting forward to cross. Between them they totalled 28 assists and the key to stopping Liverpool is as much blocking the full-backs as it is stopping the Salah, Mane and Firmino front three.

Man United need to sort out the defence
Last season they only kept two home clean sheets in the league which was their fewest at Old Trafford in a top-flight campaign since 1963. They also conceded a total of 54 league goals – home and away – which was the most ever in a single Premier League campaign and most in any league season since 1979. So naturally, their first signing this summer was an attacking midfielder.

Juventus and Maurizio Sarri
Maurizio Sarri won 39 matches in all competitions for Chelsea this season. The only manager to ever win more in his first season in charge of Chelsea was Jose Mourinho’s 42 wins in 2004-05. The notion that he was a failure at Stamford Bridge was more that Man City and Liverpool were so good by comparison and a bewildering impatience from Chelsea fans. Juve have themselves a top manager.

Sergio Ramos seeing red
If Ramos does get his wish to leave Real Madrid this summer one man at the Bernabeu who won’t miss him is the guy who has to fill out all the disciplinary paperwork. Ramos racked up 12 red cards while at Real, which is more than any other player at one club in the history of Spanish football. But Sergio will tell you he didn’t deserve any of them.

Jadon Sancho’s big year
The young Englishman may be a bit out of the spotlight playing in Germany – unless you follow German football of course – but last season at Dortmund he completed more dribbles per game and set up more goals than any other player in the Bundesliga, as well as scoring 12 himself. With the European Championships next summer, this season could see the 19-year old’s ascendency to becoming one of the biggest stars in the game. And to think, Man City sold him for £8 million.

Referee Mike Dean
Of the 47 red cards given out last season, 10 of them were shown by the referee Mike Dean. He also showed 129 yellow cards – not only the most, but 27 more than any other ref. He’s been at the top, or close to it, for most cards given season after season. The FA says that all refs are equal and are adhering to the same rules of the game, but Mike Dean loves to bring out the cards, he just loves it.

What now for Alexis Sanchez?
Lionel Messi scored twice as many goals against English clubs last season as striker Alexis Sanchez. Not only did he score just three times, Sanchez only had three shots on target in his last 14 games for Man United. He’s also on a reported £350,000-a-week, making him the highest paid player in England. You’d have to feel a bit sheepish picking up your wages wouldn’t you?

More goals than ever
Last season there were 1,072 goals scored in the English top flight which was more than in any previous 20-team Premier League campaign.

New Barcelona star Frenkie de Jong
Barca’s 73m Euro signing from Ajax could be the deep-lying playmaker they’ve been looking for. De Jong completed 54 out of 58 dribbles last season and was making nearly 70 passes per game, completing an average of 92% of them.

Villa back in the Premier League
Aston Villa are back in the top flight, but last season 33 of their goals – knocking on for half of them – came from crosses, which was more than any other team in the Championship. It remains to be seen if they’re going to be able to pull that off against tougher defences who are likely to find them out pretty quickly.

Real Madrid’s new striker Luka Jovic
The 21-year old Serbian became the youngest player to score five goals in a Bundesliga game last year and is tipped to be one of Europe’s best forwards in the next few years. His total of 25 goals last season was impressive but he’s only scored nine times in four seasons prior to that. There’s a lot of expectation on the youngster to make the step up in the notorious pressure-cooker atmosphere of Real Madrid.

Wolves’ second season
Wolverhampton Wanderers were one of the surprise teams last season and finished the season with the best points tally for a promoted club since Ipswich 18 years ago largely because they made some brilliant signings. But that’s no surprise when you remember that one of the official “advisors” to the club is super-agent Jorge Mendes who looked after a lot of those players. Wolves’ owner Guo Guangchang is a good friend of Mendes and even bought shares in Mendes’ holding company. So don’t rule out Wolves signing some top European talent this summer.

The return of Norwich
Norwich play some lovely football and it gets them promoted to the Premier League and then it gets them relegated again soon after. Last year it got them promoted, and fans of football played “the right way” should take note of a side that loves to play neat passing football on the ground. The difference this time could well be Finnish striker Teemu Pukki whose 29 goals made him top scorer in the championship last season, and with nine assists he can set them up too.

For Esquire Magazine – ESQ – July-August – Football Season

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