The Premier League, Bundesliga and LaLiga kick off this coming weekend, with Serie A starting on August 21. Ligue 1 is already in action, though the real show there has yet to begin (more on that later).
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Everywhere you look in Europe, the club game is returning to life, so we asked Gabriele Marcotti, Mark Ogden, Julien Laurens, James Olley and Rob Dawson to detail what they’re most excited to see across the continent in the 2021-22 season.
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Messi in Paris, Van Dijk back for Liverpool and Haaland hoping to star at the next World Cup: the 2021-22 season has plenty we can’t wait to see. ESPN Illustration
Season start: Friday, Aug. 13
Number of teams: 20
Reigning champions: Manchester City
1. De Gea returning to his best
David De Gea is still only 30 years old and could potentially play for another decade at the game’s top level, but the Manchester United goalkeeper really needs to rediscover the form that saw many observers regard him as the world’s best keeper.
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After three years in decline, maybe it’s too late for De Gea to turn back the clock. But I hope that the signing of Raphael Varane from Real Madrid will give De Gea the central defensive partnership at Old Trafford that will enable him to focus on his own job and become the keeper he can still be.
If Varane and Harry Maguire gel at centre-half, the inconsistencies in United’s defence that have harmed De Gea’s form and confidence will be eradicated and could trigger his resurgence. — Mark Ogden
2. The return of Van Dijk
Virgil van Dijk’s cruciate ligament injury last October derailed Liverpool’s season and left a huge hole in the Netherlands’ plans for Euro 2020. His absence for club and country highlighted just how important the central defender is to both.
Liverpool ultimately salvaged their season with a late surge to secure Champions League qualification, but Van Dijk’s return to action for Jurgen Klopp’s team during preseason is a huge boost for the club’s prospects this time around.
The big question now, however, is whether Van Dijk can get back to his best and once again become the cornerstone of Liverpool’s team. At 30 and with a serious injury behind him, it will take time to regain his top form and there will inevitably by missteps along the way. But his 10 months on the sideline showed just how crucial he is for Liverpool, and his return to fitness can only be a major plus. — Ogden
3. Will Tuchel’s honeymoon at Chelsea continue?
The only other manager to win the Champions League for Chelsea was sacked six months later. Thomas Tuchel has a far greater pedigree than Roberto di Matteo did in 2012, but Stamford Bridge remains an unforgiving place for anyone who dips below the required level, and Tuchel has set the bar extremely high.
Since replacing Frank Lampard in January, the 47-year-old German tactician has steered Chelsea to a top-four finish, an FA Cup final and a 1-0 win over Manchester City in Porto to lift European club football’s biggest prize. They have lost just five of his 30 games in charge.
Tuchel proved more tactically astute than Lampard, but the key to his success was a willingness to buy into Chelsea’s short-term mindset. Managers don’t last long under owner Roman Abramovich and you can’t change that, so why not pull together and enjoy the ride while it lasts?
Nedum Onuoha says Romelu Lukaku is a proven striker and would put Man City on notice with a move to Stamford Bridge.
That approach is harder to sustain over a 38-game Premier League campaign, but Tuchel at least has the benefit of a preseason to mould a team more in his image. The Blues are also aiming high in the transfer market, having identified the need to bring in a top centre-forward, with Romelu Lukaku on the verge of a return to the club. His adaptation will become the manager’s primary concern with the stakes for Tuchel higher than ever. — James Olley
4. Kane’s moment of reckoning
Harry Kane wants to leave Tottenham Hotspur to win trophies. It remains to be seen whether the 28-year-old will get his wish, as Manchester City continue to show interest, but Spurs are still reluctant to part with their captain.
City — or any other club — would have to get close to Tottenham’s £150 million valuation to pull off a deal, but however the market unfolds, Kane’s season will make fascinating viewing. Either he stays at a club he no longer wishes to play for and tries to drag Spurs back among the challengers for major honours, or he joins the team crowned champions in three of the past four years. (It’s worth noting that they won the Premier League title last season while not consistently playing with a centre-forward.)
Kane, operating in a forward line made up of some combination of Jack Grealish, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Ferran Torres and Raheem Sterling, is a mouthwatering prospect. A sliding-doors moment awaits. — Olley
Gab Marcotti doesn’t understand why Harry Kane thought a gentleman’s agreement would be enough to leave Spurs.
5. Verdict on the Premier League’s Man City investigation
Manchester City have been the subject of a Premier League investigation into alleged breaches of financial fair-play regulations since March 2019, but you won’t know much about it because it has been shrouded in secrecy. However, City lost an appeal at the High Court in London in July against the reporting of their challenge over the jurisdiction of arbitrators to investigate the case and it has emerged that, after more than two years, they’re continuing to investigate the reigning champions’ financial dealings.
Lord Justice Males, one of the three judges hearing the appeal, said “it is a matter of legitimate public concern that so little progress has been made after two-and-a-half years, during which, it may be noted, the club has twice been crowned as Premier League champions.” Football needs transparency to maintain the trust of supporters, so it’s vital that this investigation reaches a conclusion. — Mark Ogden
6. Can Solskjaer live up to expectations?
At different times, each Manchester United manager who has followed Sir Alex Ferguson — David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho — has suggested they’ve lacked the backing to realistically challenge for the Premier League title. This summer, though, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already admitted he couldn’t have had more help from the board after the arrivals of Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane.
The challenge to wrestle the trophy from Pep Guardiola’s champions, as well as holding off Chelsea and Liverpool, is a big one, but there’s optimism at Old Trafford that the squad is now strong enough. Over to you, Ole. — Rob Dawson
7. Can Pep win the Champions League again?
He will go again. Manchester City will go again. Guardiola came so close in May, the closest he has been in 11 years to winning the Champions League again, except he failed again. Tuchel and Chelsea killed his dream, and reaching that “Holy Grail” will have to wait again.
The question is: How much longer? Just a few more months? With the arrival of Jack Grealish, the Citizens will be even stronger. Harry Kane could be also playing in Blue Sky colors soon, which would almost complete the game for the English champions.
But can Guardiola learn (does he ever actually learn?) from the disappointment of the 2021 final defeat to Chelsea and messing up things tactically again? If he finally does, if Grealish adapts quickly and if Kane has not forgotten how to score goals between London and Manchester, then he can definitely lead this team, eventually, to European glory. But the pressure is greater than ever, especially with Lionel Messi arriving at Paris Saint-Germain. — Julien Laurens
Mark Ogden debates how Pep Guardiola will utilise Jack Grealish and wonders whether Man City even need him.
8. Arsenal’s youthful core coming together
Bukayo Saka is 19. Emile Smith Rowe is 21. Ben White and Gabriel Martinelli are 23. Kieran Tierney is 24. Then there’s Albert Lokonga and Nuno Tavares, both 21, who have just arrived.
The latter pair aside, the others have shown they can contribute over the course of a Premier League season. It will be interesting to see whether Mikel Arteta can use them to form the backbone of a side that can take Arsenal where they want to go. — Gabriele Marcotti
Season start: Friday, Aug. 13
Number of teams: 18
Reigning champions: Bayern Munich
9. Promotion for football’s biggest underachievers
No major club in the world has failed to punch its weight for quite as long as SV Hamburg, but German football needs the former European champions to somehow rediscover their winning formula and return to the Bundesliga this season.
Until relegation in 2018, Hamburg had been the only club to spend their entire history in the top division. They have won six German titles, three DFB Cups, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and, in 1983, lifted the European Cup three years after losing their first final against Nottingham Forest.
Hamburg have now spent three seasons in 2. Bundesliga, and Germany’s second biggest city continue to have no team in the top division, where they ought to be challenging the giants of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. At some point, Hamburg will finally get it right and the Bundesliga will be stronger, and more exciting, if they return and challenge again. — Ogden
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WEDNESDAY, AUG. 11
• Leyton Orient v QPR (2:40 p.m. ET)
• New York City v Pumas (8 p.m. ET)
THURSDAY, AUG. 12
• Orlando v Santos (7 p.m. ET)
FRIDAY, AUG. 13
• Huesca v Eibar (1:50 p.m. ET)
• Gladbach v Bayern (2:30 p.m. ET)
• Valencia v Getafe (3 p.m. ET)
• Charleroi v Antwerp (2:40 p.m. ET)
• San Jose v Vancouver (10:30 p.m. ET)
10. Bellingham’s big year
Jude Bellingham turned 18 in June, but much is expected of him for club and country over the next year or so. Having joined Borussia Dortmund last summer from Birmingham City, the midfielder was voted the Bundesliga’s Silver Arrow award (Newcomer of the Year) by his fellow professionals in recognition of a fine breakthrough season.
Bellingham plays in midfield with an authority and composure far beyond his years, explaining why he was the most expensive 17-year-old in the world when completing his £25m move and how he went on to become the youngest English player to start a Champions League game in October. England took notice.
He was a somewhat surprise inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad, but the regard in which he’s held in became clear when making a late substitute appearance in the opening game as England looked to hold on to victory against Croatia. That outing made him the youngest player to participate at a Euros.
Dortmund finished third last season and will need their key men to kick on again, with Jadon Sancho having departed for Manchester United and the clock ticking on Erling Haaland’s time with the club. If Bellingham can build on a hugely promising start by influencing top-level games on a regular basis, he could develop into the type of assured midfielder England have lacked for years — just in time for the World Cup in Qatar next November. — Olley
11. A fresh challenge for Jesse Marsch
It has been a crazy few months in the Bundesliga’s coaching merry-go-round, with seven of the top eight clubs in the league changing managers. But more than Julian Nagelsmann (RB Leipzig to Bayern Munich), Marco Rose (Borussia Monchengladbach to Borussia Dortmund), Adi Hutter (Eintracht Frankfurt to Gladbach) or even the other moves or new faces (Mark van Bommel, Oliver Glasner, Hannes Wolf), the one with the most at stake, and the biggest step up from their previous job, has to be Jesse Marsch.
Gab and Juls discuss RB Leipzig’s appointment of Jesse Marsch as manager for next season.
The American tactician did a fantastic job at FC Salzburg — winning the Austrian Bundesliga and Austrian Cup double twice in two seasons — and more than deserves this chance, but Leipzig and the German Bundesliga is a different ballgame. This is the biggest of stages, and Marsch now has the opportunity show that he is up for the task and will succeed in such a highly competitive environment.
Leipzig finished second last season under Nagelsmann, seven points behind Bayern, and missed many opportunities to push the champions harder. Despite losing defenders Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate in the transfer window, Die Roten Bullen made great signings in Mohamed Simakan, Josko Gvardiol, Andre Silva and Brian Brobbey. There’s also the excitement around playmaker Dominik Szoboszlai, whom Marsch developed so well in Austria, and has yet to make his debut for Leipzig. Now, they just need a bit of Marsch magic. — Laurens
12. What will Nagelsmann’s Bayern look like?
He’s still the most hyped young manager — he has five seasons of top-flight management under his belt and turned only 31 this August — but now Nagelsmann has to perform at a club like Bayern, which is a whole new ballgame. On paper, the transition shouldn’t be overly bumpy: Bayern are used to their version of pressing plus possession. But there are other pitfalls.
To what degree will veteran players buy into the new boss who, for all his talent, has yet to win a trophy? When you can’t rely on track record to win folks over, you need to get them on board pretty quickly, and Bayern’s veterans have won everything in sight, whereas Nagelsmann has won nothing … yet.
To what degree will the upper echelons at the club stay out of the coach’s way? There’s a fine line between public support and interference from above, and sometimes they’re two sides of the same coin. At Leipzig, he had the perfect balance. Bayern is a different story, as previous managers (who won trophies) will confirm.
Julian Nagelsmann will be under pressure like never before now that he’s in charge of Bayern Munich. Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images
To what degree will he cope with the sheer size, scale and pressure of the Bayern job? He excelled at TSG Hoffenheim and Leipzig, relative backwaters in terms of media attention, and miniscule relative to what he’ll face in Munich. — Marcotti
Season start: Friday, Aug. 13
Number of teams: 20
Reigning champions: Atletico Madrid
13. Will Aguero rediscover his form?
Of all the players with something to prove or who have to bounce back in 2021-22, Sergio Aguero is the biggest one. After such a disappointing last season at Manchester City (seven league starts, four goals), suffering numerous injuries, his move to Barcelona is huge.
Now that Messi has left the club, there’s more pressure on Aguero to impress. He’ll be playing in a league with less physical intensity than in the Premier League, but he just turned 33 and his fitness is a big question mark. It’s also a question that’s already being answered, in the negative, given this week’s news that he’ll miss up to 10 weeks with a calf injury.
Aguero was part of Argentina’s Copa America-winning squad this summer, which brought him so much joy, but he didn’t play much and his performances in the tournament were hardly reassuring. That doesn’t bode particularly well considering the competition for places at Barca: In addition to Aguero, Antoine Griezmann, Memphis Depay, Ousmane Dembele and Ansu Fati all will need regular minutes.
Aguero had better be ready, or his move to the Camp Nou could quickly turn sour. — Laurens
14. Ancelotti vs. Madrid fans (and Perez)
It seems like a weird thing to say, but it feels like Carlo Ancelotti was the “continuity solution” as manager after Zinedine Zidane left (again), just as, in some ways, Zidane (his former assistant) was the continuity solution after Rafa Benitez. It’s what club president Florentino Perez wants (until he decides he doesn’t): a guy who is good with the media, will keep the superstars happy and has a big enough range of playing styles to suit whatever players are available.
Steve Nicol is quite skeptical Gareth Bale will be able to reinvigorate his Real Madrid career under Carlo Ancelotti.
And, of course, deliver results.
The difficult thing here is that assuming Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland don’t walk through the door all of a sudden — as some of the Spanish dailies hope — he’ll need to do it with, essentially, Zidane’s group of players (plus David Alaba, minus Sergio Ramos), all of whom will be a year older. To keep everyone happy, he’ll have to equal or surpass Zidane’s results and do it while emitting a more positive vibe.
The latter seems easier to achieve than the former. — Marcotti
FRENCH LIGUE 1
Season start: Friday, Aug. 6
Number of teams: 20
Reigning champions: LOSC Lille
15. Messi in Paris
In case you hadn’t heard the news, the greatest-ever player in Barcelona history (and perhaps the game) is joining Paris Saint-Germain after his boyhood club was unable to make his new contract work within the confines of LaLiga’s salary rules. And so he departs for a new challenge, one he didn’t exactly want, but one he’ll relish in pursuit of new trophies and (hopefully) a return to the summit of the Champions League.
That trophy, which has proved painfully elusive to the French super club, is arguably the reason he’s there, such is the desire of the club to finally complete their collection of accolades. How he meshes with former Barca teammate Neymar, the next GOAT contender Kylian Mbappe, Italy’s all-world goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and even his former rival in El Clasico, Sergio Ramos, will reveal itself over the months to come. One thing’s for certain: we will be tuning in. — James Tyler
16. Excitement around revamped Nice
In the first full summer of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s ownership of Nice, the British billionaire must be excited by what is on offer. First, his club has just gone and got the best manager in the league. Christophe Galtier took Lille to a superb, yet unexpected Ligue 1 title last season, and Ratcliffe dreams of him doing the same on the Riviera.
In the offseason, Nice spent their money well and early, with some really exciting young talent arriving this summer: Calvin Stengs, Justin Kluivert, Pablo Rosario, Jean-Clair Todibo and the experienced Mario Lemina. The rest of the squad is already full of talent, too, with Amine Gouiri, Youcef Atal, Hicham Boudaoui, Khephren Thuram and Kasper Dolberg leading a dangerous team.
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Galtier, who has a reputation for improving young players, will also have the leadership of Dante and Walter Benitez to fall back on. On every level, there’s reason for excitement within the Nice project. — Laurens
17. Can Saliba make his mark?
It continues to be the transfer that makes little sense. Arsenal signed William Saliba for £27m from Saint-Etienne in 2019, yet he’s still not made a single appearance for the club. He spent the 2019-20 season back on loan at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, and there were expectations among Gunners fans that the young centre-back would subsequently be given a chance to prove himself under Mikel Arteta. However, Arsenal bungled their attempts to loan him out again last summer before shipping him off to Nice in January, and now to Marseille for the upcoming campaign.
Aged just 20, Saliba has time on his side, but he could feasibly be three years into a five-year Arsenal contract without ever playing for the club. This year is pivotal, either to get some momentum ahead of a permanent move that would bring some stability to his career or finally give him a shot at establishing himself at Emirates Stadium.
Saliba is joined by another player whose career stalled at Arsenal, Matteo Guendouzi, and United States international Konrad de la Fuente as part of a widespread overhaul of Marseille’s squad in which they have made 10 signings to date, looking to build on last season’s fifth-placed finish. — Ogden
U.S. international Konrad de la Fuente joined Marseille this summer after eight years with Barcelona. NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images
18. Gomes to deliver on his potential in France?
It was a huge disappointment for Manchester United that Angel Gomes decided to leave Old Trafford for Lille last summer after a youth career that had plenty of coaches and supporters excited.
After spending last season on loan at Boavista in Portugal, he’s been back in France for preseason and there will be a lot of eyes on him if he gets a chance with the reigning French champions. Gomes will turn 21 in August and is reaching the stage of his career when he will want to turn promise into something more tangible. — Dawson
19. What does Lille do for an encore?
After a first full season under new ownership, Christophe Galtier is gone and replaced by Jocelyn Gourvennec (something of a surprise appointment), goalkeeper Mike Maignan and midfielder Boubakary Soumare are off too (to AC Milan and Leicester City, respectively), there are plenty more questions than answers for the Ligue 1 champions. It feels like an uphill battle — to the chagrin of supporters, who were maybe hoping for some growth at this stage — but then so did the last few seasons. — Marcotti
ITALIAN SERIE A
Season start: Saturday, Aug. 21
Number of teams: 20
Reigning champions: Inter Milan
20. Can Giroud bring trophies to Milan?
It’s not the highest-profile deal of the summer nor the most expensive, but it’s one that could prove really clever for AC Milan. Olivier Giroud arrived at the San Siro to be Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s No. 2, but the 2018 World Cup winner could prove to be the X-factor in a season in which the Rossoneri have an opportunity to do something interesting.
They have a strong, deep squad, and Giroud will bring all his experience and his winning mentality. He has won trophies everywhere he has played, from Montpellier to Chelsea, and won European trophies, domestic titles and a World Cup: you name it. It is perhaps what was missing from this Milan side, with Ibrahimovic the only other “serial winner” in the dressing room. When Giroud scored on his debut for the Italian giants, albeit in a friendly against Nice, it has him — and Milan fans — feeling really good about this season. — Laurens
Olivier Giroud stands to bring experience and a winning mentality to an AC Milan in the ascendancy. Claudio Villa/AC Milan via Getty Images
21. Ronaldo to break men’s international goals record
It’s surely just a matter of time before Cristiano Ronaldo moves clear of Ali Daei to become the greatest goal scorer in the history of men’s international football. The Portugal captain moved level with former Iran striker Daei on 109 goals during Euro 2020, but elimination against Belgium in the round of 16 denied him the chance to break the record this summer.
Portugal’s next game is against the Republic of Ireland in Faro on Sept. 1 before clashes with Qatar (Sept. 4) and Azerbaijan (Sept. 7), so it’s a safe bet that the 36-year-old will net a record-breaking 110th goal in one of those fixtures. It will be a moment of history when Ronaldo does it. — Ogden
22. Will Haaland be a player at Qatar 2022?
One thing I really want to see during the 2021-22 season is Norway securing qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. This isn’t based on some distant Norwegian ancestry or a desire to turn back the clock to the days of Egil Olsen’s long-ball Norway team of the 1990s, but rather a determination to see Erling Haaland play on the biggest stage of all.
World Cups are about football’s top talents being able to showcase their quality, and Qatar will unquestionably be a richer tournament with Haaland in it, especially with the next World Cup likely to be when Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi leave the international stage. Norway are in a tough qualifying group alongside Turkey and the Netherlands, with only the top team guaranteed to reach Qatar, but they go into the September qualifiers just one point off top spot, so Haaland’s hopes are still alive and kicking. — Ogden
23. How long will the latest Van Gaal experiment last?
It really looked like Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal (Louis, to his friends) had called time on his coaching career when he left Manchester United in 2016, but five years after insisting he’d retired to his villa in Portugal, he was appointed as Netherlands coach for the third time, doing it less than a week before his 70th birthday.
Louis van Gaal is taking charge of the Netherlands for the third time following their Euro 2020 exit under Frank de Boer. Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images
To many, Van Gaal is yesterday’s man in terms of football coaching, having enjoyed the peak years of his career in the 1990s and early 2000s, but he did guide the Dutch to the semifinals of the World Cup in 2014. Whether this is a job too far for Van Gaal, only time will tell, but it will be fascinating to see whether his philosophy of patient possession football can still work in an era of high pressing and fast counterattacks. — Ogden
24. Wild scenes off the pitch
All being well, we will have fans back in stadiums this season due to a relaxation of measures designed to combat COVID-19, and it’s hoped that we will soon be back to full capacity in all the top leagues.
It has always been an easily spoken cliche that fans are the lifeblood of the game, but the past 18 months have proved that beyond dispute. Football continued last season, but without fans, it was a sterile and often forgettable experience. So with fans back inside stadiums, I want to see those wild scenes of celebration when a late winner goes in. I want to hear chanting again, and I want to see the players sharing the experience of scoring or winning with the supporters behind the goal.
I want noisy stadiums again and the banners and flags that bring stadiums to life. Hopefully, it will happen safely and soon. — Ogden