Premier League 2017-18: Crabby Conte, Manchester money and other big issues in the new season
The Premier League's top six appeared a cut above as Chelsea stormed to the title last year but will they have it all their own way again?
Chelsea begin their bid to become the first team since Manchester United in 2008-09 to retain the Premier League title when they travel to Burnley on Saturday.
But with Antonio Conte disgruntled by the number of players the Blues have managed to bring in – not to mention one they have been unable to move on – can the Manchester clubs convert their latest close season of huge spending off the field into defining success on it?
Conte's concerns over fighting on two fronts will be similarly felt by Jurgen Klopp, whose Liverpool squad depth will be severely tested by a Champions League campaign, irrespective of whether Barcelona manage to prize Philippe Coutinho away from Merseyside. Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino had a Wembley hex to ponder at Tottenham long before Danny Rose started offering up alternative spending plans.
A complex narrative will start to unfold from when Arsenal host Leicester City on Friday. How these big issues play out will have a big say over where it leads.
MOURINHO MELTDOWN LOOMS OVER CONTE'S CHELSEA
Had Antonio Conte fielded his favoured 3-4-2-1 formation from the get-go last season there is every chance his imperious Chelsea would have broken the 100-point barrier, such was their mastery of England's top flight from October onwards last term.
Chelsea's was a dominance that means they should be entering 2017-18 in a position of enviable strength, but it has been a curious close season at Stamford Bridge. Diego Costa remains on the books despite Conte, it has emerged, informing him in January he would no longer be required, while reported transfer targets such as Leonardo Bonucci, Danilo and Romelu Lukaku have gone elsewhere.
The Italian has been barely subtle in implying his dissatisfaction with those misses, while Nemanja Matic leaving to join Manchester United does not appear to have been a move he enjoyed his board sanctioning.
Throw in the unusual development of Conte signing a new contract that is not an extension on his term at Chelsea and Eden Hazard missing the start of the campaign and a few chimes of discomfort combine to sound an alarm that yells "2015-16" – that terrible, previous title defence that saw Jose Mourinho sacked before Christmas.
It is implausible Chelsea will implode in such a fashion again, but Conte's surly reaction to last weekend's Community Shield loss against Arsenal was not a good look. They must banish any parallels with that shambling campaign as circumstantial nonsense quickly.
TAKE TWO FOR MOURINHO AND GUARDIOLA
Last season was billed as Pep v Jose, El Clasico comes to Manchester or any other grand moniker related to Messrs Guardiola and Mourinho pitching up in the same city. But for all that Manchester City performed with dazzling attacking brio at their best and United claimed the EFL Cup and the Europa League, they finished third and sixth respectively, Chelsea a vanishing speck in the distance.
Both men have been backed handsomely to reshape the talented but imbalanced squads they inherited in their own image – blueprints that have not been compromised by recent experience.
Matic and Lukaku represent classic Mourinho signings as he approaches his second season at a club, a point at which he famously always wins the league. An imposing presence at the base of the midfield and a powerful, dominant centre forward have been present whenever he has done his best work.
Guardiola's experience in England has apparently resulted in him doubling down on his attacking principles. Even the defensive signings – Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy – have been selected for their propensity to bomb forward relentlessly from full-back.
Bernardo Silva is mouth-watering recruit who will rub shoulders with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in an enviable creative hub. Nevertheless, a soft centre remains, with a reliance on the injury ravaged Vincent Kompany stronger than ever and a sense that Yaya Toure and Fernandinho's aging legs will be overrun decisively at some point. It will not be dull.
DELICATE BALANCING ACT IN NORTH LONDON
At present the truce is laden with silverware. Arsenal's last two competitive matches have been against Chelsea and both ended with a trophy. In between lifting the FA Cup and the Community Shield, Arsene Wenger penned a new contract and smashed his club's transfer record to bring in lethal France marksman Alexandre Lacazette. No Champions League, no problem?
But with one contract saga over, two more come sharply into focus. Wenger insists Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil – the former seemingly far more coveted than the latter – will not be sold despite entering the final year of their contracts. The reasoning that comparable replacements would not be available is sound but Arsenal and their stars with uncertain futures must stay long in the title race for the truce to hold.
A little further west than usual in north London, Tottenham reside temporarily at Wembley. A first home game against Chelsea means a risk that their dismal record of defeats at the national stadium will extend, but it is unlikely to continue for Mauricio Pochettino's wonderful team.
Nevertheless, Rose's questioning of Spurs' wage structure, transfer policy and squad depth in his Sun interview shed uncomfortable light on the strains endured by a club punching above their weight. They must box clever to retain their place at the top table.
RENEWED AMBITION ON MERSEYSIDE
If Klopp had a Liverpool player asking questions similar to Rose's they might well have a point. Mohamed Salah's arrival from Roma means the burden on providing pace and dynamism in attack should not fall so heavily upon Sadio Mane, but the return of Champions League football to Anfield will ask plenty of questions of a team who took chunks out of many rivals last term before being undone by a midwinter collapse. The battle for Coutinho will understandably be fought until - and probably after - it becomes futile.
If any of last year's top six falter, Everton are primed to crash the party. Irrespective of whether Wayne Rooney's return can live up to the fairytale, Ronald Koeman has enjoyed a productive off-season. Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane are in an ideal place to push for England starting spots and Sandro Ramirez arrives on Merseyside having scored one more LaLiga goal than Neymar in 2016-17. He cost £5.3m.