So it’s time for another round of Premier League predictions. The season kicks off this Friday, with Liverpool v newly-promoted Norwich. On Saturday West Ham have the dubious pleasure of hosting the champions Man City. Well, at least we’ll get that one over and done with! I will miss the game as I shall be at Edinburgh festival. My pal, Jon G, a City fan, will be there too; but I don’t think we’ll be trying to find a TV showing the game. Unless, of course, the weather is really terrible…
I never got around to assessing my predictions for last season when it ended. I didn’t do too badly. I had City and Liverpool 1st and 2nd. Not exactly brilliant punditry, but you never know at the beginning of the season. As we know, City and Liverpool were way better than anyone else, and Liverpool were very unlucky to come second with a points tally of 97 (25 better than 3rd-placed Chelsea). But City didn’t crack and got 98. Both sides played superb football, though quite different in style: while Liverpool might batter you into submission, City would just cut you to pieces.
Liverpool, of course, had the last laugh, winning the Champions League final against Tottenham. (A truly terrible game, so unlike what we were used to from those two teams). I suspect Pep Guardiola would have happily traded the Premier for the Champions League. And the FA Cup and League Cup too.
I placed Tottenham correctly in 4th. But my punt on Arsenal coming 3rd was not to be. They had their chances though. But for a truly shocking run of form against teams they should have been thrashing towards the end, 3rd would have been easily within their grasp. Below City and Liverpool, no team stood out. Chelsea almost got 3rd by default – and thanks to moments of brilliance from Eden Hazard. They didn’t really have a great season; though, fair play to them, they also won the Europa League, 4-1 against Arsenal (continuing their feeble end to the season). Chelsea’s season will be remembered for the troubles of their Italian manager, Maurizio Sarri, who never really looked the part, and didn’t establish a rapport with the fans. His nadir was when his keeper, Kepa, refused to come off during the League Cup final, when instructed. Sarri received no support from his players. That told you everything. Still, he’s at Juventus now, his reputation in Italy intact.
My other punt was on West Ham – of course! They did well in the end, after a very poor start, losing four on the trot. They finished 10th rather than my predicted 6th. The highlight of the season was the form of 20 year old Declan Rice in defensive midfield, alongside Mark Noble. So good that he is now a fixture for England. I feared that one of the Manchester clubs might have bought him by now. We’re clinging on until the close of that window! Other successes were Diop and Balbuena in the centre of defence, Fabianski in goal and, most of the time, Felipe Anderson on the wing. So manager Pellegrini’s first purchases worked well, on the whole. A mention too for Robert Snodgrass, who put a good shift in all over the midfield and has a very good left foot. One disappointment was Jack Wilshere’s lack of fitness; with luck we’ll see the best of him in the coming season. If we do, then Mark Noble may not play as much. What a servant to the club though! For much of last season he was superb, bringing Rice along and generally setting an example. He’s lost a bit of pace, and may be best as a sub this season; but I expect he’ll end up having twenty-odd starts and never letting anyone down. The biggest disappointments were the entire set of forwards. Andriy Yarmolenko started well before he got injured and didn’t play again (bad luck rather than flop). Arnautovic sulked after he couldn’t go to China; Andy Carroll was usually injured and just not suited to West Ham’s game now; Hernandez scored one or two, but contributed nothing else; and Perez, from Arsenal, was completely out of his depth. Antonio worked hard when he got a chance; he needs to work on his accuracy though.
I identified Wolves as a team to watch, and they exceeded expectations, coming 7th. I didn’t call the resurgence of Leicester, which I suspect will continue under Brendan Rodgers this season. I picked two of the relegated sides: Cardiff and Huddersfield. Huddersfield were the weakest team to play in the Premier League for some time. The lack of strike power was inevitably the main problem. Still, their fans had fun for two seasons and good luck to them in the Championship (I doubt they’ll be promoted though). I thought Brighton would go down, but they held on thanks to decent home form and a disciplined defence. Desperately boring to watch though; and manager Chris Houghton has now departed. Fulham spent a lot of money, but the team didn’t gel and they went straight down. A lot of people think they may now bounce straight back up, under Scott Parker. An admirable midfielder – gritty and skilful; can he bring that combination to Fulham as a manager?
I haven’t mentioned Man Utd yet. Tee, hee! I thought I was harsh putting them 5th; they came 6th. They had that bounce when Solksjaer took over from Mourinho, but as soon as the club made his appointment permanent the bubble burst. They were all over the place. Plenty of talent, but just not working well as a team. Opinion is divided on Paul Pogba. His stats were quite good, as my son Kieran keeps reminding me; but I rarely saw him assert himself in a game, as he obviously can – see the World Cup final! Something’s not right in the mentality. United were really poor against West Ham at the London Stadium. They gave up the midfield to Rice and Noble early on and we won 3-1. Pogba had a shocker. One of the good days!
Might as well get it out of the way: can’t see past Man City for the title again. They’ve bought a new defensive midfielder, Rodri, from Spain, who is supposed to be very good. That deals with the Fernandinho problem, as he ages and gets injured more. You do wonder how long Aguero will keep banging them in, but there are no real signs of decline, and Gabriel Jesus is an established Brazilian international striker. And Raheem Sterling is now a proper goalscorer. David Silva may play less, but they’ve got Bernado Silva (one of last season’s stars), de Bruyne and Mahrez, so they might just be OK. And the thing about City is that, with seemingly limitless funds, if the team develops a weakness they just go out and buy a good replacement. The interesting thing is that no-one has really started to resent City yet. Even my Man Utd-supporting friends seem rather passive about the matter. That’s down to the style and dignity with which they approach all aspects of the game, the impressiveness of Pep Guardiola and the sheer quality of their football. And maybe because the club knows what it is like to be in the doldrums. But sooner or later you wonder whether more questions will be asked about the funding and the Emirates’ human rights record.
Can we look past Liverpool for second place? I started by thinking they might have peaked last season. I think that might still be the case, and that they might suffer a bit early on from the very recent finish of the African Cup of Nations. Mane, for example, played in the final. And their midfield still lacks real creativity of the City kind. But they do have a very strong defence, and Alexander-Arnold can only get better. And they have Salah. Given that all the other Big Six teams, with the possible exception of Spurs, are in a state of flux, it’s hard to see a serious challenge to Liverpool.
Unless, unless… Arsenal fulfil that potential. They have boosted their attacking riches with the purchase of Nicolas Pepe from Lille. They have some exciting youngsters, not least Joe Willock and Reece Nelson, who both looked excellent in the friendly against Lyon last week. But the defence is still not good enough. Put it this way, the only Arsenal defender I’d like to have at West Ham is Bellerin, when he is fit. And Monreal maybe. But none of the centre backs thank you. Likewise, give me Declan Rice over Xhaka any day. So Arsenal still have that soft centre. They’ve had it for years; and until they solve the problem they are not going to win the Premier League. But maybe third is within their grasp this year. Hold tight Gooners, it may happen!
Tottenham I have doubts about. They’ve done superbly well over the past couple of seasons. They bought midfielder Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon this summer, but otherwise they seem to have weakened the team by selling Tripper and (soon?) Rose. Kane is fit, which should mean plenty of goals; but they are not really building on their success. They have a nice new stadium, but could they slip a little this season? The biggest risk for them is the scenario that Jon G is keen on (as a City fan). It all goes horribly wrong at Man Utd and Pochettino is installed at Old Trafford before Christmas. If I were a Spurs fan, I’d be worried.
Chelsea are interesting. They may even become more likeable this season, under Frank Lampard. Frank is respected across football (except perhaps by resentful West Ham fans, not including me). He has limited managerial experience, but huge credibility from his playing days. Because of the transfer ban on Chelsea he will probably rely more on young English players – though we shouldn’t exaggerate this potential as Chelsea have a huge squad, and have recalled a lot of loanees. So, there is the prospect of an exciting young side, which is capable of anything. They will miss Hazard hugely – who wouldn’t? – but they still have a lot of quality. The biggest weakness is upfront, unless Michy Batshuayi comes good, or Tammy Abraham gets his chance and takes it. I think they’ll be top four.
Man Utd could be anything. Solksjaer has been talking a lot of sense, plans to blood more youngsters and has also made some big purchases in defence. Maguire and Wan-Bissaka are both good players, but Utd have paid exorbitant amounts for them. I mean, £80m for Harry Maguire? I’ve been saying to Kieran for years that Arsenal need someone like him; but £80m? We’ll see. At the time of writing Pogba hasn’t left for Real Madrid, but what will be his frame of mind? If he stays, I suspect Man Utd will once again depend on which Paul Pogba he wants to be. Overall, I think the quality in the Man Utd side will keep them in the top six and if any team is going to spring a surprise and come second, it could yet be them.
Which brings me on to West Ham. How happy will the Hammers be this season? Well, right now I am pretty excited – but we haven’t lost 4-0 to Man City at home on Saturday yet! What if we surprise everyone and win….???? Champions League here we come! Back on earth, I’m pleased with the two buys over the summer: Spanish midfielder Pablo Fornals from Villareal and French striker Sebastian Haller from Eintracht Frankfurt. The owners have given Pellegrini the money to develop the team. Haller’s arrival, for £45m, a club record, has offset the departures of Arnautovic, Perez and Carroll. Fornals has added even more attacking brio to a midfield which could be one of the best. Lanzini and Wilshere both look fresh and fit, which means our six in front of the defence could be: Wilshere, Rice – Anderson, Fornals, Lanzini – Haller. It certainly looks exciting going forward, though Rice may have quite a lot of mopping up to do. It’s the Pellegrini way: attack is the best form of defence. So I’m daring to dream (again) knowing that a few injuries to injury-prone players could leave us with a similar team to last year, and probably a similar placing. But I’ll go for seventh in these optimistic times.
I’m well aware, though, that there are plenty of other pretty strong teams in a similar space to West Ham, with similar aspirations: seventh, with a hope of top six if one of the usual suspects falters (most people would say Arsenal are the most likely). Leicester, Wolves and Everton are all good sides who have strengthened their ranks. I think Leicester are the real danger. They are strong in defence, with two excellent full backs, Chilwell and Pereira. They will cope with the loss of Maguire – Lewis Dunk is expected to arrive from Brighton. They have bought Ayoze Perez from Newcastle to take the pressure off Vardy and have made the transfer of Youri Tielemans, the Belgian playmaker, permanent. They have exciting young English talents like Maddison and Barnes. And Brendan Rogers is a good manager, who got unfair stick at the end at Liverpool, having come really close to winning the title with them. Naturally, all arrogant English people write off all his success at Celtic; but it is not to be sniffed at. Yes, Leicester are probably the team that are most likely to break into the top six; and after all they did win the bloody thing a couple of seasons ago! I’m going to put them eighth, below West Ham, but I must admit that feels too low.
Surprise successes this season? I’m going to go for Aston Villa, back in the Premier League where they belong, via the playoffs. They have been buying a lot of players. Will they gel? Will Jack Grealish fulfil his potential and play himself into the England team? Well, they have a good manager in Dean Smith, who was a success at Brentford, and is a life-long Villa fan. Not that the latter makes much difference, except for an affinity with the fans – useful for when things go a bit wrong. I think they are top ten material.
That leaves us with relegation. Sheffield United surely, and I hope so. They will get an interesting reception at the London stadium, as the club that took West Ham to court and nearly bankrupted them over the Tevez affair. I think and hope that Norwich, who came up as champions, will survive, as a decent footballing side. They will have some hairy moments though. I’m going to plump for Brighton for the third season running, although their new manager, Graham Potter, has a good reputation from Ostersund in Sweden then Swansea last season. Nothing against Brighton by the way – I love the place; it’s just that I feel that they have been living on borrowed time. And to join them I suspect, Crystal Palace. They’ve had a disruptive summer, selling Wan-Bissaka and fighting off Arsenal’s interest in Zaha. If he is forced to stay, will he sulk? He is Palace’s best player by some way. In the same way as Man Utd’s season could be defined by the mood of Pogba, Palace’s fortunes could depend on the mindset of Zaha. And if he goes before the window closes, most likely to Everton now, they are in big trouble.
I guess Burnley are at risk too, but they seem to grind out the necessary results. Southampton, I think, will get better under manager Hasenhuttl, and Watford seem to come up with the goods, though I can never really figure out why. Newcastle are an interesting one. Madness to let Benitez go. Even madder to bring in Steve Bruce – or is it? He’s probably occupying the managerial seat while Mike Ashley continues to try to find a buyer for the club – all Geordies will be keen to see the back of him. Bruce is a Geordie himself, and has a pretty solid managerial record. Old school by reputation, but is that just a lazy assumption on all our parts? I think Newcastle probably have enough quality to survive; and Brazilian striker Joelinton is an interesting prospect. Joe Linton – sounds like a traditional Toon big No 9! The next hero? Good luck to them – Newcastle deserves a decent team.
So in summary, my scores on the doors for 2019-20:
1st – Man City
2nd – Liverpool
3rd – Arsenal (subject to inevitable defensive collapses)
4th – Chelsea
5th – Man Utd (with potential for 2nd)
6th – Tottenham
7th – West Ham (subject to entire first choice midfield except Rice being out injured by October)
8th – Leicester (with potential for 4th)
9th – Everton
10th – Aston Villa
11th – Wolves
12th – Bournemouth
13th – Southampton
14th – Newcastle
15th – Watford
16th – Burnley
17th – Norwich
18th – Crystal Palace
19th – Brighton
20th – Sheffield Utd