Man City were only crowned 2018-19 Premier League champions yesterday, but it is never to early to start looking ahead to next season. Will City repeat? Which club will surprise? Who is in trouble? And finally which top-six club is headed for a transition season?
Nick Ames takes a way too early peak at the 2019-20 campaign and makes a few projections regarding the next edition of the Premier League.
Manchester City to make it a hat trick
Pep Guardiola's side squeaked it to another Premier League title this season -- a far cry from the 19-point margin that saw them home a year ago -- but is it too much to hope for a similarly tight tussle next time?
The noises coming out of the squad after their clinching win at Brighton suggested that they believe they will only have been strengthened by such a relentless sprint for the line. "It's a kind of addiction," Leroy Sane said. "We want to win it again and again."
The fear is that an ultimately fruitless chase for top honours, coupled with the fact that their season does not end until after the Champions League final, will take its toll on Liverpool.
Their two star forwards, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, will spend the summer shouldering huge burdens for their countries in the sapping heat of Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations. There will be little rest and, although City may lose Sergio Aguero for the Copa America too, it would seem to be Jurgen Klopp's side who will take the greatest hit.
After the jolt of this season's scare, and with nobody beyond Liverpool who can obviously keep pace with them again, City look well placed to run away with things again next season.
Teams on the top-six fringes close the gap
Manchester City and Liverpool have left everyone else trailing in their wake, and if the season were to be repeated now, a different outcome would be unlikely. But what of the teams beneath them? While the trend in recent years has been to talk of a "Big Six," there is every indication that at least two of that cabal could be reeled in.
When Wolves defeated Arsenal 3-1 at Molineux late in April, hammering home their claim to seventh place and a Europa League spot, it was genuinely difficult to tell which side ought to be stronger man for man. Would Rui Patricio, Ruben Neves, Matt Doherty, Joao Moutinho, Conor Coady or Diogo Jota not have a stab at establishing themselves in Unai Emery's side. The same could be said for many of the Leicester team that eviscerated them the following weekend and the impression, given the late-season surge in form of those behind the traditional boys, is that the gap is no longer very big at all.
Expect that to become even clearer: Wolves, with big financial backing along with the background assistance of Jorge Mendes and the outstanding team management of Nuno Espirito Santo, are unlikely to go away, while Leicester brim with forward momentum under Brendan Rodgers. Everton and Marco Silva have picked up markedly, too. In the final five matches of the season Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United -- in fourth, fifth and sixth respectively -- picked up 10 points between them. Wolves, Everton and Leicester netted 23, and it may not have been a fluke.
Another season of transition for Man United
The murmurs are growing already: should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's job title be changed, at best, to "interim" once again? The bottom fell comprehensively out of their season after their victory over Paris Saint-Germain, and while senior figures at the club continue to talk unhelpfully about a title push, the reality is that they need time to unravel the mess created in the six years since Sir Alex Ferguson's departure.
Ander Herrera, who will depart this summer, had it right when he said that the club "need time" to reclaim their place at the top. He used Liverpool as an example of a club whose fans had been patient and given their club time to revive. Whether or not Solskjaer really has the gravitas to complete the job, United's supporters should prepare for a season in which young players like Mason Greenwood and, perhaps, players from abroad with something to prove are phased in.
Then there is the Paul Pogba issue: is his undoubted talent worth persevering with despite the obvious downsides? A clean break might be in everyone's interests if United can find a buyer -- and if everyone connected with them can tolerate a spring cleaning from top to bottom, which would probably delay Champions League qualification for another year.
Norwich to be the season's surprise package
Nobody expected Norwich City to storm through the second tier on the way to being crowned champions. Even fewer would predict them to enjoy a comfortable time of things back in the big time, but Daniel Farke's side are equipped to make the inevitable purveyors of doom and gloom eat their words.
The Canaries have a clear identity throughout the club, instilled by their excellent sporting director, Stuart Webber, and a wealth of exciting youngsters who play slick passing football from front to back. Their full-backs, Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis, have turned plenty of heads higher up, and the Argentinian schemer, Emi Buendia, is destined for huge things. Finnish striker Teemu Pukki finishes the chances off, and Norwich do not intend to tweak much, if anything, for the new campaign.
The division's lower half tends to reward stability and gradual improvement against spending splurges and delusions of grandeur -- contrast Eddie Howe's Bournemouth with Fulham's disastrous ripping apart of the good habits that had brought them up in 2017-18. Norwich sit in the former camp and they should live to fight for at least a second season at the top.
Burnley's fortunes to run out?
There is an argument that Sean Dyche should be placed among the managers of the season for 2018-19. Hear me out: Burnley's dogged, never-say-die spirit seemed to have completely crumbled at the start of the campaign, with a 4-2 defeat at Fulham probably their lowest point, and it seemed they had finally run out of road. What an achievement, then, to pick it up again, rediscover the tension and commitment that had belied a limited talent pool to take them this far, and ultimately finish six points clear of the drop.
The plaudits are deserved, but that cannot hide the fact they are still overperforming. Only Brighton had fewer shots on target this season and they have wasted no time in dispensing with Chris Hughton as they seek a more expansive approach. Nobody should suggest Burnley do the same with Dyche, but without a few extra strings to their bow, it is hard to see them weathering another campaign without dropping into the danger zone.