With Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho taking over Manchester City, Chelsea, and Manchester United respectively over the summer, the 16-17 Premier League season looks to normalize from the unpredictability of last season as the traditional powers flex their financial muscle. Yet Leicester City gave mid-table sides both hope and a blueprint to break into the top four. As such, the upcoming season looks to be a battle between deep lying counter attacking sides, high pressing sides and Guardiola’s City.
With that in mind, RealGM presents ten players who will shape the upcoming Premier League season in some form:
By Yu Miyagawa
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Ibrahimovic’s game winning goal against Leicester City in the Community Shield showed off his tangible skill in winning a header against Wes Morgan. It also brought to the forefront the intangibles he brings of bailing out a side with a goal out of nothing when plan A goes awry.
And yet, Ibrahimovic’s biggest impact at United may be off the field in his relationship with United’s young attackers. Mourinho calling his presence “a gift” to Marcus Rashford. Being a mentor is not the first description that comes to mind when describing Ibrahimovic, but his quality and personality has stabilized United’s indecisive and slow attack from last season. Plus, both Ibrahimovic and Mourinho get to renew their personal rivalry with Pep Guardiola.
With Wayne Rooney also on the other side of 30, there will be an odd player out when taking into consideration Mourinho’s defensive demands. But focusing on that would be missing the point of Ibrahimovic’s signing. He’s here to win United trophies, and he’s 1 for 1 thus far.
Dimitri Payet: The 29-year-old playmaker was, by one metric, the best player at the Euro 2016. His footwork, timely goals, and emotion sparked Payetmania across France and amongst West Ham supporters alike. After reaffirming his commitment to Slaven Bilic after rumors linking him to the likes of Real Madrid, 16-17 represents an important season for West Ham both on and off the field.
Payet’s presence on the roster carries its own value in light of the respect he receives from his peers. New signing Andrew Ayew is driven to help Payet reach new heights this season. Defender Arthur Masuaku expressed his excitement at playing alongside the playmaker. Beyond that, West Ham move into the 60,000 seat Olympic Stadium this season. The excitement of the new recruits, Bilic, and a new stadium will give Payet the platform to succeed on the grandest stage, again.
Jamie Vardy: Even after a season in which he scored 24 goals in 38 matches, including 11 straight games with a goal, there are still questions of how long Vardy (and Leicester City) can keep up the pace. The late blooming striker turns 29 this season, and logic says that at some point, defenders will be able to keep up with his thundering runs into the box. On the other hand, with the knowledge gained from navigating how the likes of Mourinho and Guardiola squeeze space and Champions League experience, this can also be a season Vardy establishes himself as the top striker for his country.
Vardy’s summer began by rejecting a move to Arsenal, reluctant to switch to Arsene Wenger’s possession based side at the expense of his counter attacking strengths. The move showed an awareness of him at his best: relentlessly run into open space, with power, and scoring in an efficient manner. As Gary Neville says, Vardy sets the tone for Ranieri’s counterattack with both his pace and his attitude.
The only disappointment this summer was Vardy not being showcased more at the European Championships. And there are questions of both Vardy and Leicester City coping without N’Golo Kante in midfield. But being doubted and underappreciated are exactly where Vardy and Leicester City do their best work.
John Stones: The 22-year-old was an intriguing player before becoming the most expensive English defender in Premier League history this week in his move to Manchester City. With the importance of ball playing center backs to Pep Guardiola’s approach, one could not have pick a better environment for Stones to grow into his potential.
City were linked to Leonardo Bonucci before the Stones’ transfer. That would be an appropriate template for the English defender to emulate (Guardiola’s appreciation of the Juventus center back is well known). Guardiola’s underrated craft is molding raw defenders into their own nebulous form of positional versatility combined with an ability to sniff out counter attacks. For now, Stones’ brashness and YouTube highlights inside his own box are misunderstood as either supreme talent or stupidity. Stones would be benched or stifled under most managers. But that same calmness and instinct could be the foundation for City’s attack to build upon in the future.
N’Golo Kante: While Jamie Vardy got the attention, Kante was named the Stats Zone Player of the Season for his importance in both driving and defending the Leicester City midfield. Kante’s move from Leicester City to Chelsea was a double blow of strengthening a side and weakening a rival in one blow. In contrast to Vardy, the 25-year-old midfielder chose a season without Champions League matches to work with the potential at Chelsea, and most excitingly, with Antonio Conte.
Kante appears to be the perfect midfielder for Conte to build his high energy, high pressing style around. One only points to Marchisio, Arturo Vidal, and Paul Pogba as examples of how Conte develops and uses box to box midfielders. Kante made 31 more tackles and 15 more interceptions than any player in the Premier League last year, but he will also be asked to add the incisive runs and passes that characterized the Juventus and Italian midfields for this upcoming season. As for Leicester, their biggest challenge will be replacing Kante’s effect of seemingly taken on the role of two players in one.
By Christopher Reina
Paul Pogba: A player with the multi-dimensionality of Pogba, who is still a year or two away from even reaching his prime, it is still about the potential for what he might become someday in the future. United paid a nine-figure transfer fee for him to eventually reach that potential, not what he is today, which still too often comes and goes depending on the day, the minute, or the formation and is best appreciated in YouTube compilations as clichéd as it sounds.
Pogba will almost certainly outlast Jose Mourinho at United and there are serious questions of how he’ll develop under a manager who has always been about short-term results and battles against virtually everyone at some point in his tenures. Mourinho will get the most out of Pogba in terms of pragmatic team results but it’s difficult to see him truly becoming a richer, more complete player because of Mou, especially if United plays his typical 4-2-3-1 instead of the 4-3-3 that better suits Pogba.
Eden Hazard: After taking the mantle of best player in the EPL following Luis Suarez’s departure in 2014, Hazard had a confounding 15-16 that saw Mourinho fired before Boxing Day. Whether it was mental, physical or both (surely both), the dribbling and running that makes Hazard one of the best wingers in the world became incredibly ordinary.
Hazard doesn’t always impose his will upon the game the way other greats do and as much as Mourinho got the best out of him in 14-15, he also got into his head in 13-14 and in the opening months last season. Conte will challenge his best players, but without the head games of Mourinho, and his personality is perhaps perfectly suited for maximizing Hazard’s greatness. During the Euros, Hazard showed glimpses of that familiar excellence and a complete return to form where he’s even better than he was in 2015 should be expected.
Kevin De Bruyne: No player has the potential to have his game become more amplified in Year 1 under Pep Guardiola than De Bruyne. When he was healthy last season, De Bruyne was City’s most imaginative and lethal goal creator. With David Silva clearly on the wrong side of his prime, even when fully healthy, De Bruyne will have an even bigger role this season. If City does win the EPL in Guardiola’s first season, as they’re favored to do even if I expect it to be United, De Bruyne would be a safe bet to be named Player of the Year.
De Bruyne’s commitment to a high work rate when City lose the ball will be interesting to monitor. We know how talented De Bruyne is in attack, especially on the counter when he gets into space, but we’ll see how quickly and he becomes adept at what Guardiola will require of him with his press.
Granit Xhaka: Defensive midfield has long been a position Arsene Wenger has tried to triage into respectability, stumbling into Francis Coquelin just past the halfway point of the 14-15 season. Coquelin became invaluable for Arsenal but he wasn’t dynamic enough or confident enough with the ball to link play.
Xhaka grew up admiring Zinedine Zidane so he possesses that creative sensibility with a grittiness to his defending. Arsenal has needed a versatile player at this position that can check all of the boxes to gives the club a more complete and fully functioning XI in the bigger matches of the EPL and the Champions League. Even against Monaco in the knockout stage in 2015, Arsenal played like underdogs and no single addition Wenger has signed, including Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, changes those equations for them like Xhaka.
Toby Alderweireld: Spurs acquired Alderweireld a year ago under weird and controversial circumstances with Southampton and Atletico and immediately created an excellent center back partnership with Jan Vertonghen.
Alderweireld has a perfect blend of skills for a modern center back with his aerial abilities in either box, defensive positionality and his vertical passing out of the back.
Spurs secured a Champions League spot by building off Year 2 of Harry Kane with their improved defense Alderweireld anchored in front of Hugo Lloris.