Fiery Conte will relish sideline dogfight

Eight teams go into this Premier League season with new managers in the dugout, another unquantifiable variable for those unfortunate enough to be writing pre-season predictions.

Last season that number was just four, and while one went on to win the league against all the odds and Slaven Bilic found a way to please West Ham fans with the attractive football they crave, Quique Sanchez Flores’ Watford side initially impressed before wilting, and the Steve McClaren experiment ended in relegation for Newcastle.

Arsene Wenger recently described this season’s Premier League campaign as “a world championship of managers”, and with little between the teams on the playing field, the influence of these managers has never been so important.

Considering the fact that new arrivals Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola, and José Mourinho — all league winners at previous clubs with the latter two also leading teams to European glory — will face a season-long battle with familiar faces Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp, Claudio Ranieri, and Mauricio Pochettino for the Champions League places, and considering that three of the aforementioned will ultimately miss out on a top-four place, what odds of seeing another raft of tactical masterminds, charismatic mavericks, and old-school disciplinarians step into the fray in 12 months?

Of the contenders, it is entirely possible that the three remaining managers from last season’s top four to all come up short, or equally that the new arrivals will flounder in the intensity of Premier League competition. Further down the table there will be a money-fuelled scramble to be the best of the rest, so what are the realistic expectations for those still finding their ways around their stadiums and training grounds as the season begins?

Both Guardiola and Mourinho will have an eye on the title, and excuses will be thin on the ground come next May should they not sustain a title challenge given the investments in both teams since the opening of the transfer window. The arrival of John Stones to the Etihad should ease some worries of defensive fragility, and it is worth noting in this regard that Eliaquim Mangala has not been named in Manchester City’s Champions League squad, with only 21 of the 25 places confirmed thus far. More signings from the former Barcelona manager can be expected.

Likewise, Mourinho will be under pressure to perform having signed Paul Pogba for a world record fee — not to mention Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, both on the back of player of the year awards from France and Germany, respectively. European distractions will take a back seat for the bread and butter of the league, where Thursday nights should see Mourinho bolster his list of young players he has given debuts to.

Antonio Conte should make an impact on an underperforming Chelsea squad — faced with a similar situation upon arriving at Juventus, Conte led the Old Lady to three consecutive Scudettos. His rallying cry then, according to Andrea Pirlo, was simply that “it’s time to stop being so crap”, although it may take more than that to breathe new life into a side that looked jaded even in the run-in to their title-winning year in 2015.

Taking over a team who finished tenth last season means a top-four finish and a domestic cup run would mark a successful introduction to English football, although the fiery Italian, renowned for an obsessive attention to detail and incredible drive, will relish the prospect of a dogfight at the top of the table. The arrival of N’Golo Kante gives Chelsea the tenacity in midfield they missed last season, and could yet prove the most effective transfer of the summer window.

Elsewhere, Ronald Koeman has swapped the south coast for a taste of Merseyside, although optimism among Toffees fans may yet prove unfounded. Ashley Williams is an able replacement for the departing John Stones but the future of Romelu Lukaku is uncertain. Given the intense competition in the middle of the table, Koeman’s task is not as straightforward as righting the wrongs of the Martinez era, when a previously stable defence disintegrated and the goals began to dry up.

At Southampton — where the cleaners are more familiar than most with the inside of the manager’s office having seen Koeman and Pochettino before him leave for other Premier League clubs — Claude Puel faces the unenviable task of matching the south coast team’s best ever season in the top-flight without the presence of Sadio Mane, Vincent Wanyama, and Graziano Pelle. Similarly to Pochettino and Koeman, however, Puel seems well-placed to make the most of Southampton’s strengths with a pedigree of developing young players. Despite the arrival of Nathan Redmond from Norwich, attacking reinforcements would provide more optimism for a fourth-successive top-ten finish.

David Moyes returns to the Premier League to take the helm at Sunderland following Sam Allardyce’s appointment at FA headquarters. Papy Djilobodji’s arrival from Chelsea will do little to quell fears at the Stadium of Light that this season will finally see Sunderland plunge through the trapdoor, although the challenge appears suited to Moyes.

There was some sympathy for the departing Quique Sanchez Flores after Watford’s surprisingly comfortable league season and FA Cup semi-final appearance, so former Inter Milan and Napoli manager Walter Mazzarri will surely need to show signs of further progress. Expect new signing Isaac Success — a €9m purchase from the Pozzo-owned Granada — to challenge Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney for a starting place in attack; with 37 goals in 63 appearances at his last club, he will add to the firepower that seemed to burn out as the previous season drew to a close.

The less said about Hull the better — since Steve Bruce resigned following play-off success and subsequent frustrations with the club hierarchy, Mike Phelan is now expected to lead the team against Leicester on opening day after unsuccessful approaches for Gianfranco Zola and Chris Coleman. With significant squad injuries and no additions to the first team, Phelan may find it difficult to convince club owners or fans that he can provide Premier League safety.A serious bulking of playing numbers and managerial stability would go some way to closing the gap on survival rivals but as it stands Hull face the very real risk of being cut adrift quickly. Although similar sentiments were also cast around loosely about a club with an unpopular managerial choice at the reins before the start of last season, and we all remember how that turned out.

  • Michael Hayes is a staff writer with


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