Neil Humphreys: Winners and losers in a weird new EPL season
For the first time, an EPL campaign begins during a global pandemic. NEIL HUMPHREYS looks at who might gain or suffer from these unique circumstances
1) LESS PREP, MORE SQUAD HELPS CITY
Manchester City finished top of the table last season. All right, it was the Project Restart table, counting only the games played after the resumption of the season. But City's stellar form was enough for Pep Guardiola's boys to hold off Manchester United on goal difference.
Liverpool's inconsistency during Project Restart left them in sixth position. Naturally, the Reds will be a million miles from caring.
The trophy sits proudly in the cabinet.
But the fixture congestion highlighted City's undeniable squad depth. Less preparation between seasons can only suit the best-prepared squad.
City finished 18 points behind Liverpool because their defence had more gaps than a Donald Trump press conference.
Nathan Ake's £40 million (S$72.5m) arrival from Bournemouth is Guardiola's belated decision to mind the gap. City are reportedly eyeing Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly as well.
If the duo take care of those defensive frailties, then Guardiola has a squad that scored the most goals, made the most passes and took the most shots last season.
Kevin de Bruyne equalled the league record for assists (20), Raheem Sterling enjoyed his most prolific campaign (20 goals) and Phil Foden came of age, highlighting City's extraordinary depth.
Liverpool still boast the best XI, but City have the superior squad. In a congested season, that may prove priceless.
2) WALKING ALONE AT ANFIELD SUCKS
It's easy to overplay Liverpool's dip in form after the Covid-19 break. Once the title was in the bag, the anti-climax was understandable. But it was a silent Anfield that spoke volumes.
The Reds are at their electrifying best when they haven't got a prayer (see the Barcelona miracle). Anfield's 12th man rises to the occasion as a point of principle.
While it's a tad insulting to suggest the likes of Jordan Henderson and Virgil van Dijk require adrenaline shots from the Kop to elevate their performances, both men have acknowledged the crowd's role in tight contests.
In a league where power is concentrated in the hands of fewer clubs, the margin for error is miniscule. This season, it could be the difference between a full house and an empty stadium.
Juergen Klopp's gegenpressing thrives on intensity and intimidation. A deserted Anfield has neither.
3) KANE READY TO BE CAPTAIN FANTASTIC
What a difference a global pandemic makes. When Tottenham striker Harry Kane went off with a hamstring injury on New Year's Day, his manager Jose Mourinho summed up the situation. "We're f*****"," he screamed at a documentary camera crew, which seemed a fair response.
Kane was out until Easter. The England captain's chances of making an impact for either club or country were negligible.
But then Covid-19 happened and Kane benefited from the extended rest. He returned and ended the season with 18 goals in 29 league appearances.
This campaign feels like the 27-year-old's greatest chance to succeed Robert Lewandowski as the world's best No.9. Or he might want to consider a move to one of the Manchester clubs.
4) ROMAN'S ARMY ON MARCH AGAIN
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich seemed to take the club's two-window transfer ban personally.
His recent shopping spree feels like a petty act of defiance. He's throwing money around simply because he's one of the few owners that can during an economic downturn.
Last Friday, Bayer Leverkusen's attacking midfielder Kai Havertz became the sixth arrival at Stamford Bridge in the summer after Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Ben Chilwell, Malang Sarr and Thiago Silva recently joined at the club.
If anything, this might be the last hurrah of the Russian as the EPL moves into a Middle East-fuelled stratosphere that even Abramovich may not be able to reach. His patience is even more limited now. Clearly, the Blues feel that their time must be now.
5) NEW ENGLISH KIDS ON BLOCK
Aside from being a pointless exercise, the Nations League has at least thrown up some interesting statistics.
England manager Gareth Southgate has picked a remarkably young, inexperienced squad. Just four outfield players have 20 caps.
Nine of his 13 midfielders and attackers are under 25. Every one of them has inadvertently profited from the pandemic.
Euro 2020 was too soon for Mason Mount, 21, Jadon Sancho, 20, Phil Foden, 20, and Declan Rice, 21.
But its delay by a year represents a viable opportunity for players who flourished during Project Restart as squads were rotated constantly.
As we all search for a new hope, this season may well be remembered as the year of the youngster.