Hot on the heels of my assessment of the season 2019-20, here come the predictions for 2020-21! Who knows what this season will be like with the pandemic far from over and with every chance of a resurgence of cases in the winter. But, for now, it’s all-systems-go, with one glaring exception – there still won’t be any crowds. At least not at the start – there is talk of some limited admissions in the near future; but in some ways that will be even weirder than empty stadiums. The people’s game – by invitation only.
Anyway, straight down to business, here are my placings for 2020-21.
1 – Man City
2 – Man United
3 – Chelsea
4 – Tottenham
5 – Liverpool
6 – Arsenal
7 – Everton
8 – Leicester
9 – Wolves
10 – Sheffield Utd
11 – Leeds
12 – West Ham
13 – Southampton
14 – Burnley
15 – Newcastle
16 – Brighton
17 – Fulham
18 – Crystal Palace
19 – Aston Villa
20 – West Brom
OK, the thing that stands out is Liverpool’s slide to fifth. Highly-unlikely-to-impossible, I hear you mutter (or splutter). You are probably right, but I had to do something to stir things up. I was going to put them second; but City and Liverpool the top two again – that is soooo boring!
So, let’s construct the argument about how it might happen. First, I think City, after a disappointing last season by their standards, are set to win the title again. I was impressed by the way they cut most teams to pieces in the post-suspension part of the season, including Liverpool. By then Liverpool had won the title and had relaxed a bit, but City absolutely shredded them. David Silva has moved on, but Foden/ Bernardo Silva/ Mahrez aren’t bad replacements. The defence has been strengthened by the arrival of Nathan Aké (admittedly from Bournemouth, whose defence was decidedly leaky) and they are after Koulibaly from Napoli. And, you never know, Messi might still turn up…
After that, I think Man Utd and Chelsea both have a case for finishing second or third. In both instances, it rests mainly on their attacking riches. United with their exciting young front three of Rashford, Martial and Greenwood, augmented by the likes of Fernandes, Pogba and maybe Jadon Sancho; and Chelsea with the results of their recent shopping spree – Ziyech, Werner and Havertz – as well as the players that took them to fourth last season, including English youngsters Mount and Abraham, and the American Christian Pulisic. Both teams had wobbly moments in defence last season – only Liverpool, of the top teams, had a really solid rearguard. United have strengthened their defensive midfield with van de Beek from Ajax, and have the option of playing Dean Henderson – who had two great seasons on loan at Sheff Utd – in goal if De Gea falters again. Chelsea have brought in Thiago Silva from PSG to provide some experience and leadership in the back four. He’s getting on a bit, but may be a good temporary solution. They haven’t sorted out the goalkeeping position yet, but no doubt they will. I still fear, too, that they might come after West Ham’s Declan Rice from West Ham. He would be perfect for them, either in defensive midfield, or as a centre back.
But that would only push Liverpool to fourth. Why Tottenham ahead of them? In two words: Jose Mourinho. This will be his team now, and that should mean they will be miserly in defence and break forward fast, before Harry Kane finishes it off. I’m assuming both Kane and Son will be back to their best. I also think the purchase of Docherty from Wolves is a good move – an excellent right back (or wing back) who is good going forward and chips in with the odd goal. He’s in my fantasy team for sure.
So, Liverpool fifth… Yes, I know it’s unlikely, but my reasoning is as follows. The club, the city, were so desperate to win the league again, after thirty years. They’ve done it now; attention may turn more this season to the Champions’ League. Also, other teams may have worked them out to a greater degree. They are a relentless pressing team and it takes great reserves of energy and purpose to keep on doing that. Furthermore, the midfield, by top standards, is fairly prosaic – they have relied on getting it quickly to their lethal front three, Salah, Firminho and Mané. There has been a brilliant supply of crosses, too, from Alexander-Arnold and Robertson. So teams will look to block those supply routes. And do Liverpool really have a Plan B? Their bench is solid, but not terribly exciting. The club has also been quiet on the transfer front (so far). And let us not forget that these last two seasons have been exceptional. In the previous six seasons Liverpool’s positions were: 7th, 2nd, 6th, 8th, 4th and 4th. I rest my rather flimsy case…
Mention of flimsy brings us nicely to Arsenal. I usually predict third place, more in hope than expectation. There is always a batch of promising youngsters, a couple of interesting purchases. That’s no different this year, and there is the promise of Mikel Arteta as a manager too. But it’s hard to see which of the five ahead of them they could displace. Tottenham are the most likely candidates I guess, but that Mourinho effect, if it is still there, is going to make them steelier rivals. No, I think sixth is the best Arsenal can hope for this season. I hope I’m’wrong – maybe they’ll come third this year!
And then there was West Ham… a perennial tale of hopes dashed by reality, usually after two or three games. And this season the fixture programme has dealt the team a very difficult opening hand. The first game of the season, home to Newcastle, is an absolute must-win fixture, as the next six games are Arsenal, Wolves, Leicester, Tottenham, Man City and Liverpool! We’ll spring a couple of surprises along the way, but that is tough. Bottom by November is a real possibility. Having said that, the season ended pretty well, with Antonio discovering his shooting boots and Soucek and Bowen proving excellent additions to the team. Soucek has now signed a long term contract – he was on loan from Slavia Prague before. There is enough talent in the squad to secure a mid-table place, particularly if the likes of Lanzini and Anderson rediscover their mojos (assuming the club doesn’t find buyers for them). Maybe Haller will prove his worth – all £45m of it – too. Maybe. He has combined well at times with Antonio. I’d like to see a bit more strike power brought in – maybe someone like Ollie Watkins from Brentford. And the defence still needs strengthening. But I don’t think there’s much money available. They just got £17-18m from West Brom for Grady Diangana, a promising youngster who was on loan to the Baggies last season. I don’t think manager David Moyes wanted to sell him; and club captain Mark Noble spoke out against it on Twitter – an unusual move. That suggests all is not well at the club – a worrying sign a week before the season starts. Still, I do think the quality of the squad is mid-table level, and I’m going to plump for 12th place – my lowest for a few seasons. Just don’t sell Declan Rice!
Relegation candidates are many – including West Ham – but I think we’ll see West Brom, of the promoted clubs, head back down. There’s not much in their squad, as far as I can tell. I like their manager, Slaven Bilic (once of West Ham as a manager and a player) but I don’t think he has a strong hand. A lot of people to have Fulham to go down, but I thought the wily way that they performed in the Championship play-off final augured well for this season. They have recent Premier League experience, a proven goal-scorer in Mitrovic, and Scott Parker is shaping up as a good manager. A future West Ham boss? I think the fans would love to have him back at the club. My other two to go down are Aston Villa, who were very poor last season and lucky to stay up; and Crystal Palace, who don’t really have much about them other than a well-organised defence. They’ll have even less penetration up front if Wilfried Zaha finally leaves, although the purchase of Eberechi Eze from QPR was a smart move (they pipped a number of other clubs, including West Ham).
Surprise team of the season? Leeds seem a popular choice. They won the Championship comfortably, have a top manager in Marco Bielsa, and have made some interesting buys, notably Argentinian international midfielder Rodrigo de Paul, from Udinese. And, of course, Leeds is (or was) a big club, brought down by some terrible owners over the years. It’s good to have them back in the Premier League (he says through gritted teeth). So, not really a surprise if they do well, though top eight would be pushing it, with battle-hardened teams like Wolves, Burnley, Leicester and now, Sheffield United, all competing in that same space. Leicester really blew that top four place right at the end of last season – I wonder what impact that will have on them. And how long can they keep only relying on Jamie Vardy to bang in twenty-plus goals a season? I see a slight decline for them this season, with Everton, under Carlo Ancelotti, overtaking them. They have bought ambitiously. It will be fascinating to see if James Rodriguez has it in him to light up the Premier League. If he does, Everton could be the real surprise team and break into that much coveted top six.
So there we have it. The anticipation is always a lot of fun, the reality not always quite so much. It all kicks off next Saturday, 12 September. West Ham 3 Newcastle 0 would start things off nicely. Pleeeeze!