By Shane Thomas
Is it me, or does the gap between Premier League seasons feel smaller each year? Regardless, we're back again, so let's have a close look at the probable top 4 come next May:
Whispers abound that Arsenal may finally go into a season with a squad that isn't undercooked. Even those who pour scorn on these susurrations have to acknowledge that this is the best crop of players Arsenal have had since 2011.
Petr Cech may not be the final piece in the puzzle, but seldom do a side win the title without a strong goalkeeeper, and he presents an initial line of defence that won't induce dread among Gooners since David Seaman in 2002.
However, while the cracks in Arsene Wenger's plans are as minute as they have been for years, this doesn't mean flaws can't be discerned. Per Mertesacker is an underrated defensive leader, but looks to be past his best, and if Gabriel - who showed promise last season - can't offset this, it will leave the excellent Laurent Koscielny far too exposed.
While (too much) focus has centred on Olivier Giroud's suitability at centre-forward, the patterning of Arsenal's attack will hold the destiny of their season. Giroud's greatest attribute is his ability to link with his midfield. But has Wenger worked out an alternative approach when Theo Walcott starts up front?
Manchester United showed in 2006/07 that a team can be champions without a singular copious scoring threat, as only two players scored more than 10 goals in that campaign (and no player reached more than 17). Arsenal possess players who are more than capable of reaching 10/15 goals for the season. That will likely determine where the Gunners end up.
Arsenal ruined their assault on the Premier League with an insipid start to last season. They can't afford to drop so many careless points this time. And while Jose Mourinho may be mischief-making with his comments about the money Arsenal have spent, he's not entirely incorrect. They've made it through the storm of restricted spending since the move to the Emirates. They're pretty low on excuses if they fail to hit their targets this season.
PREDICTION - 3rd
Since Bob Paisley in 1983, only Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have been able to retain the English title, and one can have no doubt that Mourinho is looking to go back-to-back again.
In terms of a net gain, Falcao is the only addition to last season's squad that won the Premier League and the League Cup, and it could be an masterstroke if the Colombian can replicate anything like the quality he showed at Porto and Atletico Madrid.
Both Falcao and Loic Remy may prove important, as Diego Costa is arguably the finest lone striker in the country, but remains injury prone. Indeed, it was the frailty of Costa's hamstrings that blunted Chelsea's attacking verve at the tail-end of the last campaign. Mourinho's preference for a relatively small squad remains a risk, and there are specific players who leave Chelsea vulnerable if they miss significant parts of the campaign with injury.
But the thorniest issue could be them focusing too intently on the Champions League. After succeeding in his first goal by regaining the Premier League, Mourinho will now look to progress his squad to European glory. But competing on both fronts can be an onerous task, especially if you don't rotate your talents assiduously.
Motivation is unlikely to be a problem, not where a Mourinho side is concerned. But no errors can be made in the conditioning of the players. The paucity of competition allowed Chelsea a substantive amount of margin for error last season. They are unlikely to get that again.
PREDICTION - 1st
They may be one of the toughest teams to appraise. There's little doubt that City woefully underachieved last season. Yet they still finished as runners-up, and have signed Raheem Sterling and Fabian Delph. However, few think this business adumbrates a third title in five seasons.
Put City's best XI on the pitch, and it's a team capable of beating anyone. However, the continuing concern is that they are the equivalent of a boxer who has knockout power, but also a glass jaw, and a reticence to get thrive when being drawn into a scrap.
While there is reputedly little discord in the camp, Manuel Pelligrini demonstrably failed to sufficiently exert the optimum from his players last season. Injuries to his better players didn't help, but the rest of squad were woeful in picking up the slack.
For City to assert themselves again, Pelligrini has to devise a system which gets the best out of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Yaya Toure. Vincent Kompany has to stay fit, and players like Fernandinho, Pablo Zabaleta, and Gael Clichy have to rouse themselves out of the funk they were in during the last campaign.
With the rumours of Pep Guardiola swapping Munich for Manchester not going anywhere, you wonder if it will have a deleterious effect on the squad. I said last season would be the verification of City as a champion team, or merely a good one.
We saw last term that they lack the ruthlessness common among the very best. This doesn't preclude them from a serious tilt at the title, but I can see more reasons for them to falter than ones for them succeeding. Curiously enough, with such individual talent, they may be better suited to knockout football, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see them finally go far in the Champions League.
PREDICTION - 4th
In the Premier League arms race, there's no club with the financial armoury of Manchester United. Their recent problems have come from an ineffective deployment of said armoury.
Needing bolstering all over the pitch, Matteo Darmian and Memphis Depay have big upsides, and Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger are excellent acquisitions. I suspect Schweinsteiger may need time to settle, but for my money, United now have the Premier League's strongest midfield.
While they are possibly a centre-half shy, the boon of their new midfield offers the defence greater protection, both through Schweinsteiger's ability to retain possession, and Schneiderlin's underrated qualities as a midfield screener. Don't expect United to look as vulnerable at the back as they did at times last season.
The key probably lies in the productivity of their attack. Wayne Rooney will likely feature in his strongest position as a striker, and if he links well with Depay and Juan Mata, they have enough to score regularly. They don't have a squad to make a concerted effort at both the Premier League and Champions League, but if they are prepared to sacrifice Europe, it could result in impressive showings domestically.
United had little problem in matches their peers last season - only losing twice in contests against the top six. It was careless points dropped against mid-ranking teams that scuppered any chance of their 21st league title. If they can rectify this, United have it in them to assert their financial muscle into trophies again.
PREDICTION - 2nd
 - Yes, that man was Cristiano Ronaldo
 - Something Alexander Netherton pointed out a year ago.
This piece was first published on Think Football.
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