The 2022-23 Premier League season kicks off on Friday when Arsenal travel to Crystal Palace, and it already looks as though the top six in the table will once again be contested by the so-called Big Six of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and the Gunners.
Defending champions City start the season as title favorites — and to become only the fifth club in English football history to win three in succession — with Liverpool likely to be their closest challengers. Spurs, Chelsea, United and Arsenal will likely then battle it out for the remaining two Champions League qualification spots.
But how ready are the top teams for the start of the season? Can anyone get off to a flyer following their preseason campaigns? Or are they unprepared after starting late and struggling to find consistency and fitness?
Now their preseason preparations have been completed, ESPN assesses which of the Big Six are ready and which are going into the campaign with issues still to be addressed.
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City have taken a different approach to their rivals in preseason, with Pep Guardiola’s side playing just three games ahead of the Premier League opener against West Ham this Sunday. The squad also started training later than anyone else by reporting back on July 11 — three days after Arsenal played their first friendly against Nurnberg in Germany.
Although City secured two victories in friendlies against Club America and Bayern Munich in the United States, they were beaten 3-1 by Liverpool in the Community Shield and there appeared to be an obvious gulf in the fitness and readiness of the two teams at the King Power Stadium.
Sources have told ESPN that City’s late start to preseason and reduced workload in terms of friendlies was a strategic decision based on the length of the campaign ahead, which runs until the Champions League final on June 10 because of the impact of the scheduling of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar between Nov. 21 and Dec. 18.
The view within the Etihad is that the benefits will pay off towards the end of the season, when the players will be fresher than their rivals. The downside is the risk of a slow start in the Premier League, so City could be vulnerable when they travel to West Ham this weekend.
VERDICT: City have certainly taken a gamble with their shortened preseason, but if they can avoid early defeats, they could be stronger than the rest towards the end.
Steve Nicol praises the efforts of both teams for the Community Shield, but calls Liverpool’s attacking game far superior to Manchester City’s.
Liverpool played six games in preseason, but manager Jurgen Klopp is so concerned by what he believes to be his side’s lack of preparation time that he has instructed the club to arrange another friendly 24 hours after the Premier League opener against Fulham on Saturday.
Having beaten champions City so impressively in the Community Shield, Klopp’s worries about the shape of his squad seem to be unfounded. But Liverpool have had mixed results since starting preseason training on July 4 — a week earlier than City — winning three and losing three of their games.
Liverpool lost 4-0 to Manchester United in Bangkok, were beaten 1-0 by FC Salzburg in Austria and suffered a 3-0 defeat against Strasbourg at Anfield on July 31, less than 24 hours after beating City in the Community Shield, albeit with a largely second-string side.
But wins against RB Leipzig (5-0), Crystal Palace (2-0) and City (3-1) have been the positives from a period that has also seen Liverpool clock up the air miles with games in Thailand, Singapore, Germany and Austria.
VERDICT: Liverpool’s Community Shield win against City should have allayed some of Klopp’s concerns about his team’s preparations. However, a tough opening round of fixtures includes trips to Manchester United and Everton before the September international break, so Liverpool will need to make a strong start.
Coach Antonio Conte has always made it clear that he needs a full preseason to assert his authority and personality on a squad, and the former Chelsea and Inter Milan boss has taken full advantage of his first summer at Spurs.
The first-team squad reported back for duty on July 4 before flying to South Korea for a two-game tournament against a K-League XI and Sevilla. A 6-3 win against the K-League and 1-1 draw against Sevilla were positive results, but the most eye-catching outcome of the trip to Seoul was video footage of Conte’s demanding training regime which saw the players doing endurance-sapping runs up and down the pitch in searing heat and humidity.
Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min were both pictured struggling with the demands of Conte’s physical exertions, but at his previous clubs, high levels of fitness banked in preseason have led to Conte’s teams challenging for titles, so he will be hoping to repeat that process at Spurs.
A 2-1 win against Rangers in Glasgow, followed by a 1-0 defeat against Jose Mourinho’s Roma in Israel, completed Tottenham’s four-game warm-up campaign.
VERDICT: Four games is a below-average number of preseason friendlies, but Conte has always favored hard work on the training ground over accumulation of minutes on the pitch, so he is sticking to a tried-and-tested method. Spurs will be fit and strong when the season starts, but the big question will be whether they can sustain it until the end of the campaign.
Shaka Hislop is concerned about Chelsea’s lack of significant signings in the summer transfer window in comparison to Arsenal and Tottenham.
It has been a tough preseason campaign for Chelsea, with coach Thomas Tuchel complaining of a worrying lack of progress and cohesion following a 4-0 defeat against Arsenal in Orlando, Florida, on July 24.
Some senior players — including Antonio Rudiger, Romelu Lukaku and Andreas Christensen — have left Stamford Bridge this summer, with Raheem Sterling and Kalidou Koulibaly arriving during the tour of the United States.
Training began on July 2 for those not involved in the June international break, with others returning on July 8 ahead of the three-game trip to the US, which saw a 2-1 win against Club America in Las Vegas and a 1-1 draw against Charlotte FC in North Carolina prior to the defeat against Arsenal.
A 3-1 win against Udinese in Italy on July 29 completed the preseason schedule and helped steady the ship ahead of the Premier League opener at Everton on Saturday, but an ongoing search for reinforcements and Tuchel’s concerns suggest a bumpy ride ahead for Chelsea.
VERDICT: It is rare for a top coach to make such outspoken comments about the readiness and attitude of his players during preseason, so all is not well at Chelsea. A good start will banish much of the negativity, but the flipside is that if they are slow out of the block, then it will only exacerbate the tensions of the summer.
Arsenal have enjoyed a flawless preseason, winning all five games in Germany, the US and at the Emirates. For a club that has endured a catalog of troubled summers in recent years, the value of simply winning and injecting positivity ahead of the new season cannot be overstated.
A staggered return, starting for some players on June 27 and ending with the internationals on July 11, has worked in Arsenal’s favor, judging by their performances on the pitch. The Gunners beat Nurnberg 5-3 in Germany on July 8, before wins against Everton (2-0), Orlando City (3-1) and Chelsea (4-0) on the tour of the US A 6-0 win against Sevilla at the Emirates on July 30 completed the warm-up program.
New £45m signing Gabriel Jesus scored seven goals in five games, while three clean sheets in those five wins will also be a boost for Mikel Arteta, whose team missed out on a Champions League spot last season after failing to keep a clean sheet in any of their last 10 league games.
VERDICT: Preseason is rarely a reliable guide to what lies ahead, but Arsenal have aced their summer campaign. That will give Arteta and his squad huge confidence going into the opener against Crystal Palace. Arsenal look fit and sharp, so they have given themselves the perfect launchpad.
Steve Nicol, Frank Leboeuf and Gab Marcotti discuss Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo leaving the stadium before the final whistle in a game vs. Rayo Vallecano.
New manager Erik ten Hag started preseason training with the majority of the United squad reporting back as early as June 27. With United recording their worst-ever Premier League season in 2021-22, the former Ajax coach wanted additional time to introduce his methods and improve the squad’s fitness following the disastrous last campaign.
Performances in preseason have pointed to an early upturn and it has been a busy summer, with United playing six games on three different continents, including a 10-day training camp in Australia.
United opened up with a 4-0 win against Liverpool in Bangkok, before victories against Melbourne Victory (4-1) and Crystal Palace (3-1) in Melbourne. A 2-2 draw against Aston Villa in Perth was followed by a 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in Oslo and a 1-1 draw against Rayo Vallecano at Old Trafford on July 31, so there has been something of a reality check ahead of the Premier League opener at home to Brighton on Sunday.
Ten Hag and his squad have traveled further than any of their Big Six rivals and nobody has played more games, so there can be no suggestions of a lack of preparation time. But on-field issues, including the future of Cristiano Ronaldo — who played just 45 minutes in preseason and left at half-time of the Rayo game — and the failure to sign Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong, continue to cast a shadow over the new campaign.
VERDICT: All managers like to work on problems ahead of a new season, so Ten Hag will benefit from the run of three games without a win in terms of being able to point to work still needing to be done. The new manager has been able to find an attacking blend with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jadon Sancho, and United appears a happier environment, so preseason has been largely positive at Old Trafford.