It’s that that time again, to try to predict the outcome of a Premier League which becomes more unpredictable with every season. Last year was the most extraordinary, with Leicester City, one of the favourites for relegation when the season started, winning the League. And deservedly so – they won in a canter by the end. You can’t just say it was some of the big sides underperforming – theirs was a sustained and superb achievement.
So the first question must be, can Leicester do it again? I haven’t seen a single pundit yet who has said yes. In fact most of them seem to be predicting that Leicester will be lucky to stay in the top half. Distracted by the Champions League, they say; lost key midfielder, Kante, to Chelsea. And weren’t very good anyway. I think the bookies’ odds on Leicester being relegated are narrower than those on them winning the League again.
I think they may surprise everyone again. Maybe not win the League, but make the top four. Yes, the Champions League will add an extra burden – but also an inspiration. They have only lost Kante, and have replaced him with a similar player, Mendy. At least for now they have kept the two goal-scoring stars, Vardy and Mahrez. Vardy turned down Arsenal, and Mahrez is coveted by Arsenal, with the transfer window still open. But they are still there, as is the rest of the team that won the League. With, no doubt, the same spirit. Other teams will know what to expect this time, but they were a very good team last year and I can’t see why they should deteriorate markedly. So I’m going to say 4th.
The big changes in the close season have happened at the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. All three have imported star managers: Mourinho at United, Guardiola at City and Italy’s Conte at Chelsea. Such are the spells they cast that the media can’t see beyond them for the title. Mourinho has a bit of a track record of winning the title wherever he is in his first season. It then falls apart from the second or third year, but it does suggest Man Utd are strong contenders. And they have bought big, with Pogba (absurd sum for someone who left the same club on a free transfer not so long ago) and Ibrahimovich (aging but quality and hugely confident striker). The defence has been bolstered too. But I’m not convinced at this point; I think the midfield still risks being a bit pedestrian, and the presence of Ibrahimovich and Rooney might block the progress of Martial and Rashford. But I’ll go for them coming 2nd.
For City, it’s all about Guardiola, still living off his reputation from Barcelona. He won things at Bayern, but not a Champions League. So there are questions. I wouldn’t say City’s purchases so far are that exciting, although I would love to see John Stones progress at centre back, for England’s sake. City was a slumbering giant last year. The same players are there, a year older. But the quality of previous League winners remains. If Aguero and Silva stay fit, if Yaya wakes up, the strength of the squad will win them a lot of games. The owners may prioritise the Champions League, but they’ll shell out for more players if necessary. So despite some lingering doubts, especially if Kompany stays crocked, I’m going to say 1st for Manchester City.
Chelsea had a dreadful season last year, with Mourinho parting half way through. The Italian manager, previously at Juve, Antonio Conte, has been drafted in. He will no doubt make a difference. But will it be enough to get back into that top four? With the competition, I’m not sure. Kante will undoubtedly strengthen the midfield, but Batshuayi, the other main purchase, remains a bit of a wild card. Will Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas awake from last year’s hibernation? Will the same creaky back four, another year older, be able to cope with pace any better than last year? I’m not sure. I’ll go for 6th.
And what of the glorious Arsenal? Every year I try to make a case for them winning it. They should have done, really, last season. But, as ever, they bottled it at key stages of the season. Why should things be any different this season? They have strengthened defensive midfield with the Swiss star, Xhaka. A good purchase. But at this point they are still too reliant on inconsistent Giroud up front and the defence is looking wobbly, with a lot of injuries before the season even starts. I have faith that they’ll stay in the top four through the quality in midfield, but 3rd is the best I can manage.
So, I’ve selected five of the top six places and still haven’t allocated Spurs, Liverpool and my own team, West Ham. Or indeed, the team that came sixth last season, Southampton. Just to deal with them, they have again lost a good manager and key players in the close season. I’m not sure they can keep on recovering from that. I suspect they’ll slip a bit this season, maybe to something like 10th.
Spurs had an excellent season last year, and looked nailed on for second place, until they ran out of steam at the end and were pipped by North London rivals, Arsenal. They play an attractive, pressing style, under Pochettino, but you do wonder if it is sustainable over a whole season – and the England players from Spurs were clearly wiped out during the Euros. Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp appear to have a similar philosophy. Hopes are high on Merseyside that Klopp is the man to take them back to greatness, but I don’t see the quality in the team yet to do that. So 5th for Spurs and 7th for Liverpool.
As for the Happy Hammers, we are happy under Slaven Bilic, and in our new Olympic Stadium in Stratford. The future is bright. And genius Dmitri Payet hasn’t left! But the new signings only seem to add a bit of depth to the squad without really raising the quality. So with the likely revivals of Chelsea and Liverpool, the survival of Leicester, and the power of the big spenders, I can’t really see how West Ham can break into the top six. Right now, I have to predict a slip of one place to 8th. Fingers-crossed I’m being unduly pessimistic. Well, not pessimistic – I think we’ll have a good season in a hugely competitive league. And, you never know, a decent run in the Europa League.
So, in summary, my top eight is:
- Man City
- Man Utd
- West Ham
Elsewhere, I’d expect Everton to challenge for top eight or better under Ronald Koeman, enticed from Southampton. Crystal Palace have spent ambitiously and should be top ten. And of the promoted sides, I think Middlesbrough might make an impact. I suspect the other two, Burnley and Hull, will go down, probably accompanied by Watford, who have torn themselves apart once again. Hard to get away with it every season.
Anyway, kiss of death for City! Feel optimistic, Chelsea and Liverpool fans…
And please, Hammers, don’t mess up in the lovely new stadium!