With the Premier League season tantalisingly close, let’s delve into the state of all twenty Premier League sides to assess how they might fare in the 2020/21 campaign.
1) Manchester City (8/11 Betway)
Pros – Wonderful array of attacking talent; strength in depth; clear philosophy throughout the club; Aguero back fit
Cons – Pep’s experimental tactics; defensive question marks; no discernible plan B
Victims of or complacent as a result of their own success? Either way, Manchester City’s title defence last season can only really be described as pitiful considering the standards the team had set in the prior two seasons.
198 points across two campaigns gave Pep Guardiola’s men back-to-back titles despite the best efforts of nearest rivals Liverpool but almost from the off last year, the Citizens looked vulnerable. Going forward, City were irresistible at times but at others not clinical enough, leaving a defence without its best asset Aymeric Laporte exposed and defeats to the likes of Norwich and Wolves followed.
The effectiveness of Gabriel Jesus has split the fanbase. Whilst he will almost certainly never reach the iconic levels of Sergio Aguero, he simply has to become more clinical if he is to become the Argentine’s long-term successor. Luckily for City, Aguero is back in training following an injury picked up in the post-lockdown matches and if fit, is still one of the best strikers in world football.
Aguero’s finishing is complemented by the creativity of the players around him, no more so than Kevin De Bruyne, who set a record for the number of assists in one Premier League campaign with 20 across 2019/20. The Belgian is quite simply a genius and if they can keep him fit, there will be much more to come from a player seemingly at the peak of his powers.
Further forward, Phil Foden is a superb, ready-made replacement for the legendary David Silva and Ferran Torres has been signed from Valencia to negate the loss of Leroy Sane, giving more wide options. The strength in depth in this squad is quite remarkable and it’s a massive reason why City are as short as they to win the title.
As already alluded to, City have needed to add to their central defensive ranks for a long while now. It has to be seen as a failure of Guardiola’s management that this was not done last summer with the knowledge of Laporte’s persistent injury niggles.
Now that the cloud of financial fair play punishments has been lifted, as well as a general relaxion on the rules in light of the COVID pandemic, City purchased Nathan Ake from Bournemouth early to help provide more pace and prevent Fernandinho needing to cover out of position.
At the time of writing, City are also looking to add Kalidou Koulibaly to further bolster their options. The Senegalese defender struggled to produce the same level of consistent performances last season as he had in prior years but would slot in fairly quickly as a left-sided, ball-playing centre-half.
It’s sometimes easy to forget though that City recorded more clean sheets than any other side last season, to it’s perhaps a case of evolution rather than revolution.
City are a wounded animal and so long as Pep stops with the tactical experimenting in the biggest of games, their superior quality should tell over 38 matches.
2) Liverpool (23/10 Unibet)
Pros – Oodles of world-class talent; incredible output from full-backs; home form is unrivalled
Cons – End of season form a concern; do not have spending power to compete with some of their rivals
It is surely a marker of just how consistent Liverpool have been that we can consider their post-lockdown and Community Shield performances and results a worry.
The best runner-up showing ever in 2018-19, an incredible 97 points, looked at the time a indication that the agonising wait for a league title for the red half of Merseyside would go on and on. 30 years is a long-time, particularly in football, but nobody can argue that the Reds were not streets ahead of the rest last season, storming ahead to win 27 of their first 29 matches and leave their rivals in a cloud of red smoke.
In all areas of the pitch, Jurgen Klopp’s men excelled. The defensive unit of Allison, Van Dijk, Gomez, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson looked impenetrable for so long, conceding just 33 goals. Van Dijk played every single minute of the season and is considered the best centre-back in the world for just how effortless he makes the art of defending look. If he stays fit again, Liverpool are contenders – no doubt.
The dominance of Van Dijk, Gomez and Henderson who drops in to cover allows Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to bomb forward, playing like wingers against sides that deploy a low block. 25 assists between the pair shows just how good the deliveries from wide areas are, with TAA in particular demonstrating a range of passing that wouldn’t look out of place from a midfield playmaker.
The trio of Salah, Firmino and Mane continued to perform at elite levels and compliment each other like no other front three in Europe. Salah, despite niggling injuries, was just one short of another 20 goal league haul last season and Mane looked unplayable in the early part of the campaign.
‘Bobby’ Firmino has his critics outside of the Reds fanbase for his lack of goals but it’s a totally unfair view of just how much the Brazilian contributes to the team’s overall goalscoring success. In the false nine role, he drops deep to receive the ball which in turn creates space for Salah and Mane to run into and to be picked out.
Although Firmino's goals-per-90 numbers are perhaps not as high as they should be, the same cannot be said for his key passes, assists and expected goals build-up per match which are integral for the Reds.
Whether Liverpool can go an entire season unbeaten at Anfield again could determine whether or not they can regain the title for the first time since 1984, but playing behind closed doors for their early fixtures may encourage away sides to take the game to ‘Pool more often – as the likes of Chelsea an Burnley did to mixed success during July.
Getting the midfield combination right is crucial for Klopp, especially if the impact of his full-backs is negated at times. Naby Keita has shown flashes of brilliance, but you feel there is much more to come from a Guinean in the #eight role. Should the magnificent Thiago sign from Bayern, it would add much needed depth to the squad but whoever lines-up in midfield, they need to contribute more goals to ease the burden on the front three.
Maintaining the intensity levels produced for the past two seasons will be a huge challenge and with their title rivals addressing weak areas of their squad with plenty of spending, the Reds could well fall just short if teams are much more brave when hosting Klopp’s squad or travelling to Anfield.
3) Chelsea (12/1 Bet365)
Pros – New signings add top quality; key players all at ages they can improve; depth of squad now much improved
Cons – Goalkeeper issue likely to hold the team back; system not yet settled on; defensive frailties could yet continue
A work in progress, but an exciting one to watch at that. Chelsea games were rarely dull last season, with all 38 in the Premier League containing at least one goal as the Blues at times struggled to get the balance right between attack and defence.
Frank Lampard will very likely stay Chelsea manager for many years to come, even with Roman Abramovich as his boss. He’s one of Chelse’s best ever players which certainly gives him plenty of credit in the bank should the coming season not quite go to plan. But the question most will ask is – what are the expectations?
By the time Kai Havertz confirmed his move from Bayer Leverkusen to the Bridge, Chelsea had spent nearly £250m this summer on new signings with potentially more to come. It will almost certainly go unrivalled by any other Premier League club, but is perhaps more of a necessity than some may think.
The Blues have finished miles behind title winners Manchester City and Liverpool in the past three seasons, a sign of course of those team’s advances but also the regression of the Pensioners. So will the quality they will shortly have at their disposal, should Chelsea be aiming for the title?
In terms of what they have to offer in attack, you’d have to say yes. Last season, Chelsea actually outperformed Liverpool in terms of Expected Goals, recording an xG of 76.23. The team however only converted 69 goals, with the frustrations largely coming in home fixtures against bottom half sides.
Although form at the Bridge did improve as the season progressed, the 30 goals scored in SW6 compared to 39 on their travels tells a story of many an occasion struggling to break down teams that sat deep.
Indeed, defeats to West Ham, Bournemouth and Southampton (all without scoring) in the festive period were testament to the Blues needing a better cutting edge in the final third, something they found more easily when playing in open affairs away from home.
To solve that problem, Timo Werner has arrived. The German scored 95 goals in 158 appearances for RB Leipzig and although he does not have the physical stature of some of the Chelsea fans’ favourite strikers over the past 15 years – Diego Costa and Didier Drogba – his pace, movement and finishing have created as much excitement as any other striker signing since the latter left the club.
If Werner is to settle quickly, he’ll need the support of fellow new recruit Hakim Ziyech. The wide man has a great set-piece delivery and his key pass statistics from his time in Holland, albeit in a much weaker league, will have Werner rubbing his hands together in delight.
Ziyech’s eye for a pass, particularly a killer through ball, should help Chelsea unlock those stubborn defences that come and sit deep at the Bridge and in Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham, they’ve more than enough centre-forward talent in reserve. Ziyech will be competing with the likes of Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount for starting berths, both of whom should continue to progress under Lampard’s stewardship.
Mount has now worked with Lampard for two successive seasons at Derby and at his permanent home of the West Londoners, developing his ball carrying skills to an impressive level. Pulisic scored 9 goals and registered 4 assists in his debut season, a decent start to life in England. Both aged 21, the best is yet to come from them.
Further back, Lampard does need to settle the conundrum of who starts as part of the central midfield three. Ziyech or Mount could well play in those positions in one of the more advanced roles but with uncertainty around the future of Jorginho and N’Golo Kante, it’s likely that only Mateo Kovacic has nailed down a starting spot.
It’s defensively though where the doubts creep in regarding Chelsea’s ability to really challenge for the title, starting with their #1. Kepa Arrizabalaga became the club record signing when purchased from Athletic in 2018 but unlike countryman David De Gea, the Spaniard simply hasn’t adjusted to the league at all and had, by the end of July, conceded 8% of Chelsea’s goals conceded since 1992, recording the worst save percentage in Premier League history in the process.
Unloading the ‘keeper many take time but Chelsea need a replacement this summer and appear to be actively pursuing that avenue which should alleviate fears about such a key position in the modern game.
Thiago Silva has arrived on a free transfer from PSG to give the defence some much needed leadership and positional awareness, something the Blues have lacked since Gary Cahill left or arguably since John Terry retired. Ben Chilwell will be under pressure to live up to his £50m price tag, a hefty fee for the left-back but one that Chelsea will hope reflects his performances of the first half of 2019-20 rather than the latter period.
Overall, given that their flaws may take time to rectify, I would say that a challenge for the top two places, a trophy win and progress into the latter stages of the Champions League would represent success for the Blues as they continue to build towards returning the glory days to Stamford Bridge.
4) Manchester United (20/1 Betway)
Pros – Exciting forward line scoring and creating plenty; squad building in quality; Fernandes improved side immensely
Cons – Continuing to concede poor goals; wage output not matching up to expected results; need improved depth in wide areas
After years of mediocrity, a fourth-placed finish and return to the Champions League has to be deemed success for Manchester United from Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s first full season in charge.
At one point during the season, United had slipped to a laughably bad 14th in the Premier League table following the home draw with Liverpool in October which gave them just two wins from the opening nine.
Performances in their three defeats to that stage, at home to Crystal Palace and away at West Ham and Newcastle were very real flashbacks to the tepid displays that we had become accustomed to under David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho – none of whom came close to replicating the glory days under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Changes were required at that point and two key decisions seemed to turn United’s season. Moving Marcus Rashford from playing as a central striker to a wide left role that he has now made his own seemed obvious but it allowed Anthony Martial to flourish, the Frenchman returning the best goalscoring season of his career to date.
It also got the best out of Rashford too, who didn’t have to worry about holding the ball up to bring his teammates into play and could instead utilise his pace and direct nature to make darting runs into the gaps Martial’s movement had created for him.
Off the pitch, Rashford’s work in the community has propelled him to become one of the most popular footballers in the country and he’ll be hoping to harness that positive energy into another good season at Old Trafford and for England in Euro 2021.
Mason Greenwood’s breakthrough to the first team also added a new dimension to United’s attack, becoming the most exciting youth prospect to make the journey from academy to first team since teammate Rashford’s same venture years before. At 18, the Wibsey born forward will only continue to get better and flourish in an attack minded system that his manager deploys.
The second key decision that I was referring to was the signing of Bruno Fernandes. The 25 year-old was tearing up the Portuguese league for some time at Sporting and filled the #10 void at United perfectly. Of course, a number of penalties made his end of season statistics look rather elevated but there’s no doubting his open play impact on United too with his high shot numbers – registering 3.1 per match in a red shirt.
For all the positives, there’s still a lot of questionable aspects of this squad. Although the first eleven is looking stronger and stronger with each new signing that arrives, including the latest recruit Donny van de Beek who should slot in front of the back four nicely, the lack of quality in depth is a concern.
Defensively, the team still concede some dreadfully poor goals. Some of the post lockdown goals are prime examples of that with either David De Gea at fault or one of his quartet in front, whether it be Harry Maguire marking his own teammate or Luke Shaw not tracking a runner.
Maguire’s court case issues are an unwelcome distraction ahead of the new season and realistically, it’s the defence (no pun intended) which will prevent a further push up the table any time soon, even if a trophy elsewhere is tantalisingly close.
In addition, when United have needed to rotate as a result of a hectic period, as they will again this season in a crammed schedule, those deputising have not lived up to expectations. The likes of Jesse Lingaard, Brandon Williams and Daniel James are some way off being ‘United quality’, though Williams is still very early in his career so it is perhaps premature to pass judgement on him yet.
Those on big wages have tied up funds that could have been better spent on securing the best young talent in world football, as the club are now starting to do by targeting Jadon Sancho. That transfer, as well as the transition of United to a title challenging side again, will take time. One year too early, perhaps.
5) Arsenal (50/1 Betway)
Pros – Great mood amongst the squad; some talented youngsters making positive impact; tactically flexible; goalscorer in terrific form
Cons – Away record needs drastic improvement; lack of creativity from midfield; squad needs investment to be able to challenge for top four
Despite finishing a lowly eighth last season, the club’s lowest placing for 25 years, Arsenal enter this campaign amongst the happiest of camps following such a quick turnaround after securing yet another FA Cup triumph at ‘second home’ Wembley in early August.
The buzz word you will hear so much about the Gunners in this rather short pre-season is ‘transition’, but it is indeed a true reflection of the status of the club both on and off the pitch. On it, there’s no doubting the baby steps Arsenal are taking towards being perceived as back amongst the big boys at the top of the Premier League.
Off it, there’s a lot to learn from mistakes of previous years and conundrums over transfers and player contracts which has lead to a lack of balance in the squad, but Arteta as the lead figure for footballing matters is starting to address those issues by putting faith in the players that are happy to invest in the project.
Ideally, Arteta would like his team to adopt a possession based approach that are inspired from years studying Marcelo Bielsa and then working under Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola. However, the young Spaniard recognised the need to sure up a defence that was leaking 1.46 goals per league match under Unai Emery before the change of style can fully take effect.
By moving to a back three, the Gunners have looked more composed but it does stifle the creativity from midfield somewhat, an area that must be addressed if a four-at-the-back system is put into place more regularly but with many weeks left of the transfer window, that gap could well be addressed if (and it’s a big IF) the owners are willing to back their manager.
Arteta has been able to rely on some very talented youth prospects to help the team through a turbulent period after his arrival but the likes of Bakary Saka and Gabriel Martinelli will need to managed with care if they are to continue to flourish.
The signings of Cedric and Willian on free transfers received mixed reviews from Arsenal fans but they add experience of winning trophies at international and domestic level which is invaluable, as well as providing more competition down a rather weak looking right flank in prior seasons.
Pablo Mari’s permanent arrival alongside William Sabilia returning from a loan spell in France and towering Gabriel signing from Lille give the North Londoners more centre-back depth but Peirre-Emerick Aubameyang aside, the squad still lacks star quality.
The Gabon striker looks set to sign a new contract which will be the cornerstone to any success Arsenal have this season and a repeat of his 29 goal season just gone will have the Reds running close to the top four, but I think they may just fall short unless they can make further improvements to help them become more consistent across the season, especially away from the Emirates.
Strides forward, but there’s perhaps best value in backing the Gunners to have success in the cup competitions again given their recent records and squad additions than causing too much of a storm in the Premier League.
6) Tottenham (66/1 SkyBet)
Pros – Harry Kane back fit; right-back problem solved
Cons – Mourinho yet to win over fans; inconsistent form; still too easy to score against
Tottenham’s season has not even begun but it’s already turned into a soap opera. Admittedly, that’s only as a result of the Amazon ‘All or Nothing’ Documentary, but it’s something that incumbent manager Jose Mourinho would have rather done without when he entered the club last season.
The decision to sack Mauricio Pochettino after the Argentine steered a team without a signing all season to the Champions League final still seems bizarre, but it’s the harsh reality of football. Having just moved into a new stadium, Spurs could ill-afford to finish as low down the table as they were when Pochettino left (14th) and Mourinho reflected a safe yet uninspiring appointment to help get the team back on track.
The football may be far from exciting but there’s no arguing that Mourinho improved Spurs last season, guiding them to a sixth-placed finish which secured Europa League football which looked unfathomable when he arrived. A 48% win percentage may be the manager’s lowest since his spell at União de Leiria in 2001, but it’s a realistic indicator as to where this current Spurs squad are at.
During much of his 37 games in charge, Mourinho has been without top scorer Harry Kane after the England striker limped off during the New Year’s Day defeat to Southampton with a hamstring injury. Kane was expected to miss the remainder of the season but the enforced break allowed him time to recover and feature during the restart.
The 27 year-old is constantly linked away but, for the time being at least, is set to stay in North London and is unsurprisingly favourite to be top goalscorer in the Premier League with his goal every 0.65 games record there to be shot at.
Kane is ably supported by Dele Alli, Lucas Moura and Hueng-Min Son who can all blow hot and cold in terms of form but on their day are real creative talents – Son especially enjoying another stellar campaign last time out with 11 goals and 10 assists, even featuring through the middle at times.
In terms of departures and arrivals, the aggressive Giovanni Lo Celso has signed permanently from Real Betis after a mixed loan spell to give the squad greater midfield depth, even if his true role is not yet known in the Mourinho system. There’s also question marks about how well Matt Doherty will do in a four-man defence that Tottenham play compared to his wing-back deployment at Wolves
Those are naïve questions however, as the Irishman will be afforded more attacking responsibilities once Spurs retain possession with one of the covering midfielders dropping into the back three. It’s certainly an improvement on Serge Aurier, that can be said without hesitation.
Pierre Hojbjerg was a long-term target for the Lillywhites and arrives following a solid few seasons at Southampton. The former Bayern Munich anchor man will see the move as a step up towards his ambition of playing Champions League football, even if he was to wait a little longer for that.
The Dane is industrious, breaking up play well but should not be relied upon for using the ball well. Mourinho will surely recognise this and ensure that possession is given to those that can create – the aforementioned attacking trio – for Spurs to cause most damage.
Central midfield still seems a problem area with a lot of similar players in the squad, none of whom are standout players in terms of quality. Harry Winks is tidy, Eric Dier capable yet clumsy and Tanguy Ndombele seemingly unwanted so although the Hojbjerg singing is a start, it’s unlikely to be the end of the fixes in that area over this and the next couple of transfer windows.
Centre-half has to be a worry too now that Jan Vertonghen has moved on, leaving just Toby Alderweireld and Davison Sanchez as natural players in that position.
Although Mourinho will be confident, as he always is, of breaking into the top four, it seems a tall order given the strength of their rivals. A deep run in the Europa League or a real go at either the League Cup or FA Cup seems a more realistic target this season, with Spurs still limited on their spending power now that the move to the ‘new’ stadium has been completed.
7) Wolves (250/1 SkyBet)
Pros – Can fully focus on league with no Europe; only one major loss to squad; Jimenez looks set to stay
Cons – Doherty sale a real blow; inconsistent form after restart; slow starters in games
Whether it was the marauding wing-backs, Nuno Espirito Santo’s fist pumping celebrations or Adama Traore’s arms being covered in baby oil, you couldn’t help but admire Wolves’ second season back in the top flight.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that they suffered back-to-back relegations to drop in League One as recently as 2013. Four managers and a takeover later, Wolves were back in the big time and caused many an upset against the big boys on their way to a seventh-placed finish.
Fast forward a (rather long!) season, and Santo’s men had achieved the same feat again, albeit missing out on a Europa League place this time around due to Arsenal’s FA Cup success.
That slight disappointment should not be used as a stick to beat Wolves with however as it was another campaign which excited the supporters and contained some magical nights under the lights at Molineux.
A run to the Europa League quarter-finals, only to be beaten by eventual winners Sevilla, can be seen as a triumph and wins and doing the double over then Champions Manchester City will live long in the memory of fans of the Old Gold.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s 51% win record as boss is the highest of any Wolves manager in history, beating the legendary Stan Cullis who won three Division One titles and two FA Cup trophies which is some claim for the ex-goalkeeper. Backed of course by some significant investment by owners Fosun International, Wolves have not only bought in some top talent but managed to keep hold of it too despite interest from much bigger clubs.
Raul Jimenez is wanted by Juventus but such is the backing behind Wolves’ owners, there is no need to sell. The Mexican striker continues to go from strength to strength, finishing 2019/20 on 27 goals in all competitions and winning Wolves’ Players Player of the Year crown. Outside the top six, he’s probably the deadliest finisher in the box and his partnership with Traore was a joy to behold at times.
Traore setting up Jimenez goals was the best ‘assist to goalscorer’ partnership in the Premier League, occurring on seven different occasions despite the former making 10 of his appearances from the bench. If the pair can repeat their tango in this coming season, it’ll take some stopping, no matter how much the opposition try and take out Traore on his route to goal!
Adama was just one part of such a successful right flank which also contained Matt Doherty, who has now left for Tottenham. The adventurous Irishman had been at the club through the dark days in the third tier and had become such a key part of the makeup in the Midlands, doing the basics well at the back during one-on-one defensive duels but also becoming a real threat going forward with his runs between the lines. His replacement will have big shoes to fill.
Other positives have to be in midfield, with the likes of Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves bringing a touch of class to proceedings with a stupendous amount of technical ability and consistency. When they’re fit, they keep this outfit ticking over and rarely will they be outfought (or outthought) in a game. The 3-5-2 system suits the pair and this whole squad so well, it’s now about finding some more players which can slot into the stable environment that currently exists.
That lack of depth is the glass ceiling at the moment for Wolves. Although they will have no European football this year and therefore less of a hectic schedule for a set of players that looked jaded post-lockdown, there have yet to be any new signings through the door in the Midlands club and Nuno will want to rectify that by the end of the transfer window should Wolves wish to maintain their current standing.
Another area of improvement this summer, as well as more bodies in the building, will be for Nuno to make sure his team start games better next season. Wolves sat 19th for first-half results last season and although they bagged so many late goals, testament to their fitness levels, they need to be quicker out the blocks if they are to become more consistent.
A third successive top-seven finish looks a goer but they’ll need another centre-back, a right wing-back and to start matches on the front foot more often for that to happen. Jimenez should continue to lead from the front though, and is a decent top goalscorer shout in my view.
8) Southampton (500/1 SkyBet)
Pros – Quick turnaround (positive momentum); settled first team and formation; everyone buying into manager’s philosophy, Danny Ings in form of his life
Cons – Owner unwilling to invest; need to offload deadwood before being able to buy; home form not good enough
Pre-season optimism? I’ve got a sense of déjà vu here. Having just gone through six months of a Ralph Hassenhuttl great-escape act and much improved albeit far from perfect performances, I sat here in early August last year previewing a top-half finish in 2019-20.
Truth be told, the Saints finished only one place and two points behind that marker but it was another stress-inducing campaign that looked like going very, very wrong in the depths of Autumn.
Any Saints fan will tell you just how sick we all were of hearing the references to THAT Leicester game repeatedly during every broadcast, but it was being used as a reference point to how well things were going in the second half of the season.
Saints actually went on to pick up more points than Leicester after that match, a testament to the club’s hierarchy sticking with Hassenhuttl and believing in the project he was trying to develop.
The miss-match across the season could also been seen in the respective home form (only Norwich were worse) and away record (third best in the Premier League). The St Mary’s hoodoo did somewhat relax after the restart to football as wins against Manchester City and Sheffield United attest to but should Southampton want to enjoy a positive new season, the home form – which has been dreadful for the past three years – has to be rectified.
The Reds were one of the best teams to watch post-lockdown, playing on the front-foot and pressing teams into defensive errors which were clinically taken advantage of on most occasions by Danny Ings, enjoying the best season of his career, and the likes of Nathan Redmond, Stuart Armstrong and new captain James Ward-Prowse – who played every minute of last season.
Although the goals were shared around between that quartet quite frequently, Ings will need strike partner Che Adams to step up and carry on his form of the back end of the season to ease the burden on the shoulders of Saints’ top goalscorer.
Going forward, there isn’t too much that needs to be adjusted by Hassenhuttl. Every player knows their role and Saints have so far shown in pre-season (admittedly not always an accurate marker for future success) that they’re carrying forward the positive momentum from the end of 2019-20, going 7-0 up against Swansea after just 60 minutes.
At the back is where the work is required though to cut out costly individual errors. Alex McCarthy is a great shot stopper but as his mistake against Arsenal showed, he’s not entirely comfortable with the ball at his feet. He’ll have able competition this season though, with big Fraser Forster returning to be part of the squad following a successful loan spell north of the border at Celtic.
Ryan Bertrand is settled at left-back, Kyle Walker-Peters signed permanently following an impressive loan move from Tottenham to solve a big problem at right-back whilst Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek will finally have some decent back-up in the form of Mohammed Salisu, a smart addition from Real Valladolid. The pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit together therefore, but the team need to learn to take less risks on the ball in certain areas if they are to concede less this season.
Pierre Hojbjerg’s absence is perhaps not the loss some outsiders may think it is, with Oriol Romeu stepping in as the ‘destroyer’ very nicely following the Dane’s dropping as captain after the restart. A new addition is needed in the middle of the park though to replace Hojbjerg which could well be the difference between the top half and the often mediocre rest.
It’s likely however that getting high-earners off the books will be the pre-cursor to any new signings with expensive mistakes Mario Lemina, Guido Carrillo and Wesley Hoedt still earning a decent wage from Saints without attracting too many top suitors who are willing to buy permanently.
Hassenhuttl is becoming the next in line of in-demand Saints talent and if the team can take advantage of an unusually kind set of fixtures to start the season by picking up where they left off, ninth place and even a push for Europe could not be totally out of the question.
9) Leicester (250/1 SkyBet)
Pros – Vardy still a great goalscorer; Maddison signed new contract; European football to look forward to
Cons – Sale of Chilwell and Pereira injury leaves quality gaps at full-back; lack of effective plan B
2019/20 may not have been title winning, dreamland territory but it was another campaign filled with so much emotion for Leicester for many different reasons.
Still coming to terms with owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s tragic death the prior October, it was a fitting tribute to the man who had brought so much success to the football club for a Champions League push to be produced, even if the end of the season was such a disappointment.
To describe the final few months as Leicester ‘limping’ over the line to a fifth placed finish is an indication of just how good the first half of the season was, setting records just as they did back in 2016. A 9-0 success at Southampton in October had the team in third and by the time the Manchester City and Liverpool fixtures came about in December, the Foxes had climbed to second after just two defeats to that point.
The football the team was playing was a joy to watch, unless you just so happened to be on the receiving end of one of those big wins. Full-backs bombing on to create and score chances, an impenetrable defence, unbelievable levels of belief away from home and Vardy and Maddison banging in the goals from every conceivable scenario – Rodgers was receiving plaudit after plaudit for what he was leading and deservedly so.
The defeats that followed to City and Liverpool seemed to jolt the confidence of Rodgers’ men somewhat, the team not possessing the same swagger after that and a fragile streak entered their game at both ends of the pitch.
Jamie Vardy began to become starved of support and a defence without Ricardo Pereira, who had suffered a season-ending knee injury were too often picked apart– all leading to the team would win just four of their final seventeen games, a quite astonishing collapse of form.
A big criticism of Rodgers throughout his managerial career has been a lack of plan B, even back to his early days in the dugout. At Reading, he insisted on playing with a 4-3-3 system even though he didn’t have the players to set up correctly within it and he was ultimately sacked.
At Swansea he fared better, winning promotion with the same tactics, but at Liverpool another spectacular collapse when seeking a Premier League title led to the Reds never recovering their form under the Irishman and the resulting season was a disaster.
Memories of that may give Leicester fans the sweats, especially as they saw with their very eyes how unsuccessful the three-man defence proved in the back end of the season. When Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu were struggling during the sticky patch, there was no defensive quality in the rest of the squad to be able to change personnel effectively.
Youngsters James Justin and Luke Thomas were handed their Premier League berths but it is unfair to rely upon them week-in-week-out at such infancies of their top flights career if Leicester have similarly ambitious targets for this season.
Timothy Castagne has arrived from Atalanta with the Belgian able to play at both right and left wing-back. Although a good signing for his versatility, there seemed to be better targets available who would have been better natural fits as a Chilwell replacement, although the Belgian should settle with countrymen Youri Tielemans and Denis Praet already in the squad.
Unless Rodgers can add quality additions to the squad in the remaining weeks of the transfer window, a repeat of the heights of last season are incredibly unlikely. Vardy will no doubt continue to pester opposition defenders and be lethal when given a clear sight of goal, supported by the improving talent of James Maddison, but he’ll need fresh faces around him if the Foxes are to go again and finish inside the top 10.
Ninth seems a fair reflection and not an overreaction to their collapse, with the core of the squad still possessing quality. Their opening fixtures look okay on paper which should allow them to start afresh and start well.
10) Everton (300/1 Betfred)
Pros – Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison formed a good partnership; promising youngsters being given a chance
Cons – Lack of clear identity; lots of deadwood in the squad; lack of quality in wide areas
Carlo Ancelotti has won the biggest prizes in the game but steering Everton towards consistent European football and maybe one day the Champions League may just be the biggest test of his career.
The Toffees have spent big in the last few transfer windows and parted with plenty of cash to bring in the desired managers to lead their charge towards their stated goals without any success to date.
A £450m outlay on players alone has left them no stronger than when Farhad Moshiri bought the club, with a bloated squad containing plenty of dead wood that has been inherited by previous managers Ronald Koeman and Marco Silva.
The likes of Alex Iwobi, Cenk Tosun and Theo Walcott don’t look like making the desired grade at Goodison Park and will be on big wages which could be better used elsewhere. Moise Kean is another gamble signing which is yet to work out but the 20 year-old has time on his side, unlike the previously mentioned players.
Although moving these players on is not necessarily a blocker for Ancelotti strengthening the squad, it has to be one of the priorities of the transfer window.
The biggest area of concern for the experienced Italian will be in midfield, a part of the pitch Everton have repeatedly struggled to find the right formula for. Destroyer Allan is set to arrive from Napoli and will provide some much needed bite in front of the back four, allowing the creative players in front of him more freedom to support the front two players.
The imminent signings of James Rodriguez and Abdoulaye Doucoure signal a more attacking intent from a side that created next to nothing from the middle of the park last season, and perhaps is a sign that Ancelotti may be moving towards a 4-2-3-1 rather than the current 4-4-2 formation, deploying an extra creative player rather than relying on ineffective wide men to lay on chances for Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin.
The front pairing perhaps seem like an odd couple but their partnership has flourished, both getting the best out of each other’s game so it would be a shame to see that break up should the set-up change, but it could be a necessity if the Toffees are to score more.
Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin scored 26 of the Blues’ 44 goals last season with the next top scorer, Bernard, weighing in with a very small three strikes which just goes to underline the problems Ancelotti is trying to address.
Of course, one of the current front two could be deployed as wide forward in the 4-2-3-1 which would likely suit Richarlison better but even if that does turn out to be the case, another wide man is desperately required.
Further back, the Toffees look more settled. Ancelotti spoke several times post-lockdown about Jordan Pickford’s form and the need for his first choice goalkeeper to become less erratic which he surely will have had time to work on during pre-season.
Michael Keane and Yerry Mina compliment each other well and Lucas Digne had another very positive season at left-back although the end of Djibril Sidibé’s loan spell has led to an alarming need for another right-back.
Whoever signs in the summer, Ancelotti needs to develop an identity at Goodison Park that the fans can get behind. They will back him for now given his expertise in the game and reputation but they will want to see the fruits of such heavy investment soon in the form of progress in style and substance.
10th is an improvement on 12th but it may just take another year or two for Everton to undo the damage of the last couple of rounds splashing the cash and set themselves on the right track again.
11) Leeds (200/1 Bet365)
Pros – Signed well; Most of squad capable of making step up; clear way of playing exciting, attacking football
Cons – Lack of fans at home could hurt; Bielsa inexperienced at this level; Need another creative influence in midfield
Leeds are back, and they mean business.
Led by the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa who has fallen in love with the club and the city, just as the city has with him, the Whites finally got over the line to win the Championship and returned to the big time, not without causing their fans palpitations along the way. I mean, it’s Leeds – would they do it any other way?
Motivated by the play-off semi-final defeat to Derby in 2018-19, Leeds’ squad all stepped up to levels of game dominance we haven’t really seen in the second tier before, leading the way on nearly every data metric. By the time the 46th game had finished, the team had registered on average 16.4 shots per-game, 9.4 of those in the penalty area.
They would suffocate their opponents with an average of around 60% possession and their high-press, winning the ball back in dangerous areas of the pitch. Those performance levels would naturally not be as high against a higher standard of opposition this season but you would expect this team to cause a few upsets along the way this campaign and get the better of several established, bottom half sides too.
‘Bielsa-ball’ is the blueprint for how to play football for some of the best coaches in the world but there is always that niggling doubt as to whether the Argentine will stick around if the extra media scrutiny gets to him in the Premier League. Previous jobs at the likes of Lazio and Lille did not last long so the club will need to do all they can to allow their head coach to focus on the football as much as possible.
Looking at the squad and you’d have confidence that most of the players can make the step up.
There is question marks around the goalkeepers with their tendency to make individual errors but that sometimes comes with the territory when trying to play out from the back. The rest of the backline is solid and dependable, although they are weakened by Brighton refusing to sell the Whites Ben White.
The young centre-back had established a great partnership with Liam Cooper so the latter will need to build an understanding with new boy Robin Koch quickly.
Koch however is a decent signing. He played in a Freiburg side that were used to doing a lot of defending and is very good in the air, something which Leeds struggled with against the more industrious Championship sides in the past two seasons, with 12 of their 35 goals conceded last year coming from set-pieces. If they can fix that issue, there shouldn’t be too many worries defensively.
Kalvin Phillips recently earned his first England call-up having shielded the back four brilliantly for the past few seasons. The Leeds born midfielder will continue to attract interest from some of the country’s Big-Six but there is no real reason for him to move if his current club keep going on their upward trajectory.
Perhaps a missing ingredient is more creativity in the middle of the park. Often in the Championship, Leeds would rely upon 35 year-old Pablo Hernandez’s vision and eye for a killer pass to find a way through deep opposition defences but with the Spaniard’s advancing age, the club appear to be looking for another player in that mould.
Rodrido de Paul would be perfect but at the time of writing there are doubts around that move. Get him in the door, I’d confidently predict a top 10 finish.
The absence of fans at Elland Road for the first chunk of the season is also a blow. Leeds’ style of play needs an element of adrenalin to push them through the 90 minutes and the supporters would help them with that. A packed out Elland Road and even their massive away following on road trips seems a long way off so Beilsa’s troops will have to raise the tempo on their own for now.
Leeds’ finishing position depends on the team becoming far more clinical than they were at times in the second tier. If they continue to miss guilt-edge chances in the Premier League, they’ll be punished as they were at the Emirates in January’s FA Cup tie.
I would expect them to replicate Sheffield United and Wolves’ recent first seasons back to amongst the elite (to a degree) but a mid-table finish should not be sniffed at as a platform to build upon.
12) Sheffield United (750/1 BetVictor)
Pros – Settled squad; terrific home form; more new signings to come; manager with high standards
Cons – Became too easy to play against in final few weeks of last season; Dean Henderson not returned
Sheffield United’s return season back in the Premier League may have ended disappointingly but the campaign as a whole has to be looked back upon as successful.
Written off by so many, including some pundits who were incredibly patronising and ignorant about the way Chris Wilder’s side played football, it was great to see United battling at the top end of the table for much of the season. Of course, even the most optimistic Blades fan would have scoffed at the team falling just short of a top seven finish but for so long that seemed a likely reality.
To the highly ambitious Chris Wilder, the post lockdown drop-off in form was not acceptable which just goes to show how high he has set standards within the club. From managing in non-league with Alfreton and Halifax to becoming one of the most respected coaches in the Premier League,
Wilder has earnt his opportunity to keep building this Sheffield United line-up with the aim of continuous progression each season. However, with overachievement comes prying eyes from elsewhere and the challenge for Wilder and the club’s hierarchy, who he has not always seen eye to eye with, is to keep the nucleus of this squad together to at least maintain their top-flight status for many years to come.
Dean Henderson of course was never truly ‘theirs’, with his loan spell from Manchester United expiring at the end of last season. The future England number one was incredible last season, recovering from an early season mistake against Liverpool to set the bar in terms of goalkeeping performances.
His loss is a blow but has been mitigated somewhat by the signing of Aaron Ramsdale from relegated Bournemouth whom, without which, the Cherries may have dropped down into the Championship sooner than they did. Ramsdale will fit into the way United play with relative ease so there’s no concerns about the time it may take for him to adapt to new surroundings.
Activity elsewhere in the transfer market has been quiet, although there is a predicted surge of new signings imminent post international break which will excite Blades fans. The squad, the core of which has been together for many years now needs freshening up if the team are to avoid standing still of even falling backwards. Sander Berge arrived in January and performed well when given the opportunity to play so is a perfect example of the need to add to the current set of players from time to time.
Adding depth is vital as the Blades only used 21 players last season. By the end of July, the Reds started to liked tired so again, new signings are vital and it’s clear that Wilder recognises that. Under the English gaffer they rarely come across a dud in the transfer market so if they can bring in the right characters, United should continue to show no fear up in a league where they are continually underestimated.
More goals need to be added but it must not be at the sacrifice of losing the balance of play they maintain so well under a Wilder set-up. Only four sides scored less goals that the Blades last season so they need to create more whilst continuing to utilise their strength from set plays where John Egan and Jack O’Connell, who both enjoyed excellent seasons, were big threats.
There’s no doubt that Wilder, a Sheffield United man through and through, will have his team ready to go again but going one better than last season under the dreaded second season cloud will be tough. A respectable 12th placed finish should be another welcome return, even if their manager wouldn’t say so.
13) West Ham (750/1 BetVictor)
Pros – Some great talent in the squad; various options in forward areas
Cons – Moyes yet to convince; continuing toxic relationship between fans and owners; not enough young talent
Just when you think it can’t quite get worse at West Ham, they go and prove you wrong with another woeful season from the boardroom to the pitch.
David Sullivan and Gold may have purchased the club in 2010 out of necessity, saving the club from almost certain administration and a slide down the league pyramid but what has followed since is arguably worse in the eyes of many Hammers fans.
A move to the soulless bowl that is the London Stadium which doesn’t come close to representing a football arena was supposed to signal a ‘new era’ for the club which would allow them to push on towards Champions League football. Instead, West Ham fans trudge to Stratford in trepidation as to what might be served up for them following summer after summer of wasted funds spent on players past their peak and looking for a big day.
That may seem harsh, but it’s reflective of the mess the club finds itself in. Ironically, it’s only the astute January transfer window signings of Jarrod Bowen and Tomas Soucek which signalled some form of strategy in the market and helped the team across the line to survive.
Messrs Sullivan and Gold’s retail empire has been hit hard by the COVID pandemic and funds and therefore lacking in relative comparison to previous pre-seasons, meaning the David Moyes will have to look to offload players such as Jack Wilshere, Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini – all commanding top six wages – before making any marquee signings of his own.
Instead, strikers Jordan Hugill and Albian Ajeti have moved on for £5m each and Grady Diangana, who did so well on loan at West Brom, has been sold to the Midlands club – much to the anger of Hammers fans who saw the DR Congo born winger. It’s hardly the start to the window that the supporters were looking for and, with a month to go until the window ‘slams’ shut (copyright Jim White), will it really get much better?
In terms of the current squad, it’s a rather mixed bag. On the plus side, the Claret and Blues have some good options in forward areas with the unorthodox Michail Antonio deputising well for Sebastian Haller up front towards the end of the season, finishing as top scorer with 10 goals including smashing four past hapless Norwich.
Haller himself has returned from injury but Moyes needs to figure out how to best use the target man. Between Bowen, Snodgrass and Yarmolenko, the Eastenders possess some great crossers of the ball so deliveries from wide and from set-pieces, which the team benefitted from so much in 2019/20, will be crucial to Haller and the team’s overall success.
Declan Rice, for the time being at least, looks set to stay at the club and the team should be built around the England international being a crucial shield to a weak back four. The Hammers however need to bring in a quality centre-half to ensure that Rice is not having to drop back and cover that part of the pitch as, quite simply, your best player needs to be playing in his best position.
A centre-back with better concentration and movement would surely bring down the woefully high Expected Goals against tally of last season which, by the conclusion of the 38th match, was higher than both relegated Watford and Bournemouth. Constant chopping and changing in the full-back positions has not helped either so Moyes needs to nail down his preferred choices in those positions quickly.
Rice playing in the deeper defensive midfield role should allow Soucek to support the advanced three midfield players in attack. The Czech star has joined permanently from Slavia Prague and contributed three goals before the end of the season, causing chaos in the box from corners and other dead ball situations.
Moyes’ style of football is not exactly in line with the ‘West Ham way’ but Hammers fans may just have to bite their tongues if it leads to more consistent results and eventually gets them climbing the table. Against Moyes however is the fixture list, with the majority of the top-eight to play in the opening weeks of the campaign.
Whether or not the Scotsman lasts the season remains to be seen but no matter who is in charge, this squad needs quite major surgery. Until the required upheaval takes place, it’s hard to see West Ham finishing too much higher than their 2019/20 effort of 16th but Haller being fit should get them a few more goals under a full season with the impressive Bowen wide-right.
14th – Burnley (1000/1 BetVictor)
Pros – One of the best goalkeepers in the division; Dyche tactically astute; settled in their system
Cons – Doubts over Dyche’s future; lack of goals from midfield; unable to significantly strengthen squad
Burnley enjoyed another superb season, finishing 10th after a run of just one defeat in 16 to the end of July.
Despite a shaky start in which they sat as low as 15th by mid January, manager Sean Dyche never lost faith in his squad of players to keep applying themselves and eventually turn the tide which is exactly what they did.
The ‘bunch of hoofball merchants’ tag will keep getting thrown at Burnley but anyone watching the team over the past few seasons will know that this is a side that can mix things up and, at times, play excellent football. Sure, the Clarets won more aerial duels than any other Premier League team last season on average (25.5 per-game) but when you have the towering Chris Wood in your line-up, that can hardly come as much surprise.
Wood’s fitness, along with striker partner Jay Rodriguez, is crucial to Burnley’s success with the pair doubling up for 22 goals between them in 2019/20, a successful return for their first full season playing together.
New Zealander Wood is one of the best in the league at finishing in the box when the ball is floated towards him but as he showed away at Norwich in the season’s penultimate match, he has the skill to covert in all sorts of ways rather than just his head.
This squad are certainly worth more than the sum of their parts but it’s the lack of depth that will continually worry Dyche, especially if a bad spell of injuries hits at some point. Jeff Hendrick left to join Newcastle on a free transfer and at the time of writing, no inbound signings have taken place.
Dyche has publicly battled with Chairman Mike Garlick about the lack of funds available for him to improve the squad. With the manager sitting on two years remaining of his current contract and some key players in the squad in their final year, you get the sense that something is going to have to give at some point – either more funding is given to the boss or Dyche walks away. He wouldn’t be short of offers elsewhere given the job he’s done in the north-west but I’m sure it’s a situation he would rather avoid.
Despite those ongoing doubts over Dyche’s future, he will continue to eek every possible ounce out of this squad of players who don’t hesitate to run through brick walls for him. The defensive unit is the envy of most other teams in the bottom half with Nick Pope amongst the best goalkeepers in the division. If they can keep him at the club for the foreseeable future, the Clarets’ Premier League status is all but secured with the amount of points he wins them alone.
Fourteenth would represent regression but it’s the unfortunate reality of sides that finished in-and-around mid table last season growing in strength whilst Burnley stand still in the transfer window.
All the indispensable players mentioned will do their bit, as will Dyche, but more bodies through the door are required for Burnley to sustain their current standing and repeat feats such as the win at Old Trafford, draw at Anfield (the only side to claim a point there last season) and a top half finish.
15) Brighton (1000/1 BetVictor)
Pros – Behind the scenes set-up very good; Maupay should continue to flourish
Cons – Not tactically flexible enough against top sides; not yet settled on bet midfield combination
Graham Potter’s first season at Brighton was one that avoided too much in the way of drama and for Brighton fans, that suits them just fine.
After sacking Chris Houghton, a change of style was obvious as the club look to try and establish themselves as a top half Premier League side. Whilst that may seem overly ambitious to many outsiders, the foundations have put in place to achieve this over several years which has seen the club rise from League One strugglers to more than holding their own in the top flight.
A superb, modern stadium is complimented by a state of the art training ground but it’s not just the facilities which are impressive along the South Coast. Dan Ashworth was poached from the FA to assist Potter with all footballing matters in the role of Technical Director, the same position he held in the national team set-up.
Ashworth will have played his part in bringing recent signings Tariq Lamptey, who looks set to become a real star, and Adam Lallana through the door. Both players are really smart additions in areas that Albion required a bit more quality.
The full-back positions have seen several individuals occupy them since the club’s promotion so Lamptey, with his quick feet and extraordinary pace gives this rather slow looking Brighton team a bit more athleticism. Dan Burn has been filling in well on the opposite flank but is not a natural left-back, so Potter will know that he needs to solve that problem area with a new purchase.
Lallana arrives back in his more familiar southern surroundings with the winning experience gained at Liverpool. In truth, the attacking midfielder has always been part of winning teams through two promotions at Southampton, the Saints’ ultimate rise up the Premier League table and then his move to Liverpool where the club continued to grow in strength under Jurgen Klopp.
His qualities on the ball will be crucial to linking up play with the forward players, something that was sometimes lacking during last season with Maupay having to drop too deep to obtain possession.
Joel Veltman cost less than £1m from Ajax which adds to the squad options and at the price, it appears a real bargain for a player with his experience and versatility to play at either centre-back or right-back. Ben White is going to remain at the AMEX and a partnership with the brilliant Lewis Dunk should give Brighton fans the reassurance that, from a defensive point of view at least, they’ll be able to keep away from the drop zone.
Potter has experimented with a five-man backline during pre-season so it will be interesting to see if they line up like that more often once the regular season commences. It would afford Neal Maupay a strike partner which could be of real benefit and help the striker get more goals than the impressive return of 10 that he managed to July.
All eyes will be on Potter to be more tactically flexible this season as, against the top six in particular, Brighton were far too easy to play against and cut through. They took some hammerings against the likes of Manchester United and City, which of course can happen to any team, but there didn’t seem to be much of plan B when playing out from the back in a rather open, expressive system was being picked off time and time again.
If Brighton can covert some of the 14 draws earned last season into wins then they could better the 15th placed finish of last season but they would need to improve their 39 goal return for that to be the case. They have enough to survive for me but like nearly all sides near the bottom, they’re two or three players short to say for certain.
16) Aston Villa (1000/1 BetVictor)
Pros – Record at Villa Park decent enough; big set-piece threat; Grealish set to stay for time being
Cons – Desperately short of a quality striker; concede far too many goals; awful away record
Watching on from the touchline at the London Stadium in late July, you wonder how much of Dean Smith was acting as the manager at the time and how much of him was acting as a Villa supporter given the emotion of the occasion.
Regardless, Aston Villa managed to survive by the skin of their defeat thanks to the slight uptick in form they had established in the weeks following the Premier League restart and the club are looking to build upon the foundations set to ensure they are not involved in a relegation scrap again.
Despite the ambitions of the board however, it’s hard to look past Villa for another battle with the dreaded drop. The Claret & Blues conceded 65 goals last season – only Norwich possessed a worst record. Although they were much more competitive at a boisterous Villa Park, just two wins on their travels is a very poor return and simply has to get better if the Villans are to push away from the bottom three.
Although the defensive record across the season is enough to make any Villa fan wince, there were marked improvements within that department after the restart as games involving Smith’s side became much tighter affairs. This was partially helped by Ezri Konsa shifting to play at his more natural centre-back position rather than covering the right-back weak spot and in partnership with Tyron Mings, Villa were more physically imposing.
Konsa put in towering performances against Arsenal and Everton at both ends of the pitch to help the team to four vital points which ultimately secured survival, so it’s a double act Smith will look to build upon again for this coming campaign.
Konsa was not the only player who contributed from set plays, with 15 of the team’s goals arising from those scenarios. With John McGinn and Conor Hourihane over dead balls, it’s little surprise that there are so many quality deliveries being put into the box for the big men from the back to get their heads on to.
One simple instruction from the manager will surely be ‘give the ball to Grealish’. ‘Super Jack’ is certainly the most indispensable player for his club in the Premier League and his fitness and form will likely be the difference between Villa staying in or dropping out of the top flight.
The boyhood Villan travels with the ball so well and unsurprisingly topped both the assists and goalscorer charts for team last season, despite the attempts of every team in he came up against fouling him repeatedly. At this current time, Grealish looks set to stay but the captain needs a striker in front of him capable of finishing to get the best out of his creative output.
Keinan Davis deputised at the top end of the pitch towards the end of the season but looked out of his depth, as did January signing Mbwana Samatta who is yet to settle into English football. Wesley looked the best option in that position all season but an injury on New Years’ Day ruled him out for the season and even when he returns, he is still yet to convince that he is of sufficient quality to score the goals required to keep the club up.
A perfect addition would be Ollie Watkins from Brentford put the price tag may be too much to pay. If Villa’s board are however true to their word about their European ambitions, they surely have to back Smith in this transfer window again with that one crucial signing that would propel them away from danger.
A signing that has been sealed is Matty Cash who arrives from Nottingham Forest with a very good reputation as an attacking full-back. With the aforementioned Konsa and Guilbert rotating between right-back throughout the 2019/20 campaign, it became a problem area in the team so Cash’s arrival provides a more natural fit there and an additional threat from long range with the defender not afraid to shoot from distance.
Sergio Romero should sign soon to replace Pepe Reina in goal and his leadership will be crucial at the back to help Villa concede far less goals. Although Reina was a good shot stopper, he was too erratic at times so Romero should provide a more safe pair of hands.
Overall, Villa need that crucial striker signing to give themselves the right platform to survive but I have more faith in their squad than some of the teams around them and therefore think they will stay up again, just.
17) Crystal Palace (1000/1 SkyBet)
Pros – Eze signing an exciting one; Zaha still at the club; Hodgson well respected by the squad
Cons – Lack of goals a real worry; midfield options far too similar; end of season form concerning
A common theme amongst the sides I am expecting to finish down near the bottom is their lack of goals and that can be echoed no more louder than at Selhurst Park, where the Eagles scored a poultry 31 across their 38 matches last season.
Managed by 73 year-old Roy Hodgson, Palace did incredibly well to finish 14th in a campaign where they found scoring goals such a task. Many strikers have come and gone without success, some still remaining on the books.
Christian Benteke has scored just six league goals in three seasons, enough to make any Palace fan cry I’m sure. Of course, his hold up play when featuring has been of vital importance to the team but the Palace hierarchy at the time did not part ways with nearly £30m for him to trap a ball and lay it off every now and again.
Jordan Ayew did a terrific job last season to reach nine goals but he should not be relied upon to get the goals to keep Palace up as I think he’s a better option drifting in off the flank rather than as a central striker.
A new signing in that area is absolutely vital, with the team’s Expected Goal indicators at both ends of the pitch declining to real red flag degrees. Ayew is one of the hardest working forwards around though so even if he’s not played centrally, he must retain a place in this side for how much his work rate contributes to the team’s final third output.
Hodgson has recognised the need to bring in some fresh young faces into an ageing squad to bring the energy required to play at a much higher tempo. Nathan Ferguson signed on a free from West Brom to provide more athleticism at right-back and competition for Joel Ward who has enjoyed a solid few seasons, with respect.
Eberechi Eze’s arrival however has the potential to be the signing of the transfer window. Adding more central flair was crucial was Palace given how similar their current midfield options are. The likes of Luka Milivojevic, James McCarthy, James McArthur and Cheikhou Kouyate all do a job but are not creative enough when paired alongside each other so Eze’s move to South London should help the Eagles become more of a front foot side.
His dribbling and goalscoring/creating contributions will go a long way this season and many fantasy league players will be clambering to include the youngster in their new season squads given his numbers at QPR. There’s little doubt from many that he’ll make the step up but he needs to be used correctly in the same team as Zaha if the Eagles are to get the best out of such a brilliant talent.
Conor Galagher is set to sign on-loan from Chelsea but Palace fans shouldn’t expect the same attacking output from him as he achieved at Swansea given how low the Eagles’ possession numbers are compared with the Swans. More depth in the squad, particular a younger head, is important though.
Goalkeeper Vicente Guaita was a difference maker in 2019-20. The ‘keeper ranked only below Emiliano Martinez and Hugo Lloris for shot stopping in the Premier League last season (StatsBomb) and with another busy season expected of the Spaniard, he’ll need to perform at similar levels to prevent Palace from conceding too many.
If you offered Palace fans a 17th placed finish at the moment, they’d snap your hands off. Zaha and Eze’s moments of magic could well be enough but they need a new frontman to bounce off of.
18) Newcastle (750/1 Betfair)
Pros – Saint-Maximin a top talent; attacking set-piece threat
Cons – Low mood and expectation throughout club; only one creative threat; poor strikers
Oh boy, there was so much hope for Newcastle fans.
Unless you’re a Sunderland (or perhaps Middlebrough) fan then you can’t help but feel for the Magpies fans who continue to have to put up with Mike Ashley the buffoon in charge of their football club.
So many potential lies in the football mad city’s club but it has been hindered by bad decisions over a number of years and then a controversial decision taken by the Premier League to block a Saudi takeover of the club.
Instead of dreaming of world class signings, Newcastle fans are left wondering how on earth they will manage to survive in the Premier League again given the continual overperformance from the team in relation to the data.
Now that the imminent takeover has fallen through, there is unlikely to be much of an appetite from Ashley to invest more than is absolutely necessary into the club and that only spells trouble for the campaign ahead.
To put Newcastle’s 13th placed finish last season into context, they outperformed their Expected Points total (31) by 12 points. Had they lived up to their xG for and against totals, they would have finished bottom of the pile. Of course, football isn’t as straight forward as that but it’s a stark reminder that this squad continues to overperform and there should be a natural fallback at some point unless some quality is added.
Confidence in Steve Bruce is low with the team looking far less solid than it did under Rafa Benitez. Sure, the football on display then was hardly glittering, but it was effective far more often and set-plays have become the backline’s Achilles heel.
Bruce’s ‘buy British’ plan this summer has so far brought in Jeff Hendrick, a hard worker in the middle of the park and Ryan Fraser who’s Bournemouth exit will surely leave him playing catch up at the start of the season fitness wise.
One or two other loan moves are touted but unless sufficient quality comes in to help talisman Allan Saint-Maximin, we’re not likely to see an improvement in the key metrics. The Frenchman looked to be carrying his teammates single-handedly at times with his superb pace and trickery but should anything happen to the wide player (sale or injury) then the Magpies would be staring down the barrel of a third relegation to the Championship under Ashley’s tenure.
A striker is desperately needed like so many of the teams around them. £40m was splashed on Joelinton last summer and the Brazilian looks about as useful as a chocolate fireguard in front of goal, scoring just twice to date. There will always be doubts about Andy Carroll’s fitness despite the odd flash of brilliance and the Geordie striker just doesn’t look mobile enough to cope with the pace of the Premier League consistently.
The lack of creativity outside their star man, potent finisher to convert the minimal chances created and possession to hurt teams sets the alarm bells ringing. Once fans can return to stadiums, a flat St James’ Park can be one lonely place to play at and a million miles away from the atmosphere we know it can generate when the club is on a high.
Something needs to change but it doesn’t look likely any time soon so a battle to avoid the drop, perhaps unsuccessfully, looks on the cards.
19) Fulham (1500/1 Betfair)
Pros – Proven goalscorer in Mitrovic; appear to be learning from past mistakes at this level
Cons – Parker’s tactics questionable; defensive personnel unlikely to be good enough; poor discipline at home
Fulham registered an immediate return to the Premier League via the play-offs after a topsy-turvy campaign.
The longest Championship season in history culminated in the play-off final at Wembley which saw the Whites upset the odds against Brentford to win a prestigious place back in the top flight and the TV revenue money that goes along with it.
The key message and mantra that Fulham are trying to portray this time around however is that they have learned their lessons from the complete an utter disaster which was the 2018/19 season. Eighty-one goals conceded after in excess of £100m spent (the first ever newly promoted team to do so) was a perfect guide book of how not to go about things for a side new to the division.
Manager Scott Parker pulled off a tactical masterstroke in the final to get the better of London rivals Brentford but his decisions during the season did leave Whites fans scratching their heads at times.
Parker is clearly very switched on but the Premier League will be a massive test of his credentials as a manager having only taken charge of a few games at this level before during that ill-fated relegation season two years ago.
Unlike last time out, there is no need for Fulham to go transfer crazy and the focus clearly needs to be on quality over quantity and making sure they bring in the right characters.
As of the time of writing, Harrison Reed has sealed a permanent switch from Southampton which is an astute deal. The ginger-haired midfielder is tough in the tackle and has a good range of short passing in his locker so will look to be Parker’s first choice defensive midfielder as part of the 4-2-3-1 set-up.
Mario Lemina also arrives from Southampton, this time on-loan. The Gabon international clearly has talent but it’s too often missing when it really matters and he isn’t the type of character you would want in a relegation battle. Time will tell of course but it so far appears to be one tick and one cross for Parker in the transfer market.
I’ve further concerns when looking at the backline. Michael Hector did well when coming into the line-up towards the latter period of the season just gone but has never played at this level before. His partners do not inspire much confidence either, with Tim Ream and Alfie Mawson big parts of the defensive unit that conceded so many goals in the Premier League during 2018-19.
It’s an area that needs to be addressed if Fulham are to stay up, highlighted by the fact that they conceded 10 more goals than fellow finalists Brentford last season. Some Premier League experience is a must.
The other area I think needs to see improvement is discipline throughout the squad. Fulham racked up a very high 97 cards last season, five of them reds. Parker simply cannot afford his team to register similar numbers if they are to remain suspension free and stay completive in games, particularly at home where they picked up more cards than any other side.
On the positive side, Alexander Mitrovic is a proven goalscorer as his 26 strikes from last season attest to, in addition to the 11 times he found the net in his Premier League bow with the Whites in 2018. He needs to keep his own temper in check as the lack of other striker options is glaring within the Fulham squad.
Bobby DeCordova-Reid fills in during times Mitrovic is out but does not possess the same natural instinct to find the net as the Serbian does so again, more depth is needed there.
Josh Onomah was another shining light for the Cottagers. He lit up the play-off semi finals and should play a big part in a Fulham side full of decent ball carriers.
How Parker sets his team up will be fascinating. Fulham played the most short passes in the Championship last season but if they try and be too expansive in the Premier League, they’re likely to come unstuck against superior opponents.
There’s better signs than last time out that they’re a squad with much more grounding and put together through clever scouting rather than big splashes of cash, but I don’t think they’ll win enough games away from home to pick up the required points to stay in the league.
20) West Brom (1500/1 Betfair)
Pros – Bilic managed at this level before; good youngsters embedded within first team
Cons – Who will score the goals?; not a very big budget to improve the squad; stumbled over the line to win promotion
West Brom’s Championship promotion winning campaign can only really be described as a season of two halves. The team amassed 50 points by the half way stage, a brilliant return which demonstrated a level of consistency. The second half of the season will cause Baggies fans concerns however that the tall order of retaining their Premier League status is likely beyond them unless serious improvements are made.
Their second half showing of 33 points from 23 games was only the 10th best in the division confirming that, although their promotion seemed a formality for the most part, the Black Country side stumbled across the line thanks to Brentford failing to capitalise on the penultimate Friday’s defeat to lowly Huddersfield.
Squad additions are vital but despite the windfall that a Premier League return will land the club, there isn’t a huge budget for manager Slavan Bilic to play with. The Croat himself has been quoted as saying their spending will be “more like Sheffield United than Aston Villa” when comparing the activities of two of the promoted clubs the previous summer.
The won’t fill many pundits with much confidence the Baggies can stay at the top level for very long and I’m struggling to make a case for them finishing any higher than bottom based upon their most recent run.
Granted, star men from last year Grady Diangana and Matheus Pereira have signed permanently from West Ham and Sporting Lisbon respectively. The pair were superb across the season, the latter in particular in contributing eight goals and 16 assists.
Diangana’s trickery and direct wing play makes you wonder why on earth West Ham have parted ways with his services, a decision that could come back to bite them when Bilic faces his former club. Diangana’s absence was a major factor in the Baggies’ form falling off a cliff over Christmas so to register the numbers he did is mightily impressive.
Filip Krovinovic retains possession well and he looks increasingly likely to join permanently too, another boost to the Baggies. He produced a good supply line to Pereira throughout the season and at times played in a more advanced role himself, including a match winning performance at the London Stadium in the early rounds of the FA Cup.
In key areas however, West Brom look short of quality. The biggest concern has to be up front, where all the club’s current options are not good enough for this level.
Charlie Austin simply isn’t fit enough, rarely completing a 90 minutes of action so despite being a threat from the bench, cannot be relied upon to start through to May. Hal Robson-Kanu works incredibly hard but again will not be able to fire the goals to keep the Baggies up and the less said about Kenneth Zohore’s move to the Hawthorns the better.
At the threat of sounding like a Fulham repeat, West Brom are too short of a quality centre-back. Semi Ajayi enjoyed a good season under the stewardship of his manager, a former defender, but Bilic interchanged between his other options in that area due to a lack of trust in any of them to consistently do the required job.
Without a reliable partner for Ajayi, who has never played at this level himself, will leave the Baggies boing boinging back down the yo-yo to the Championship.
Slaven Bilic’s recent managerial record, despite winning promotion with his current club, along with the floors in this squad means it’s an instant return.