So, less than a week since the Olympics finished, and only 33 days since the European Championship final, the Premier League is back! And it starts tonight with a fixture that has me torn. My second team, Arsenal, away to my local club, Brentford. The mighty Bees, back in the top division of English football for the first time in 75 years. And with a shiny new ground, sandwiched between Kew Bridge and Gunnersbury Park, with a lovely view of the M4 flyover. It’s a nice ground, actually – I went there the other day with my friend Tony, to watch the Bees take on West Ham in a pre-season friendly. The Irons cruised to a 1-0 victory, which made me feel quite optimistic about the new season; but read on…
Let’s look back briefly at my 2020-21 predictions. I got the top two right; Man City and Man Utd. Not a lot of people did, as they were so fixated on Liverpool. I had them fifth, thinking they might be found out and would focus on the Champions League. As it happens, I was almost right – they just snuck back into the top four in the last week of the season. They did well to do that after a horrendous run of home defeats in the first months of 2021. Injuries wiped out their central defence, and with that their wide and pressing games went out of kilter. They showed tenacity in getting back to some kind of form late on. I had Chelsea third; they came fourth, and were lucky that Leicester imploded in the last two games. Still, they did win the Champions League! That was City’s to win, but Pep fell prey to overthinking again and put out a team with no defensive midfielders. Chelsea took advantage then shut up shop. Quite a turnaround after sacking Frank Lampard in January, when the club were ninth in the league.
I got plenty wrong of course. Spurs did not make the top four under Mourinho – in fact he got the chop in April, days before Spurs played City in the League Cup final. They flashed brightly in the autumn, topping the league in December. They came down with the Christmas decorations. Arsenal were even worse than I expected, and ended up eighth. I had Sheff Utd at tenth, after their excellent first season back in the Premier League. They couldn’t score goals and finished bottom. Conversely, I didn’t fancy Aston Villa to avoid the drop after surviving by the skin of their teeth in the preceding season – they finished a creditable 11th. But maybe the biggest surprise was the excellent season enjoyed by my team, West Ham. I had them twelfth – they finished sixth, only two points behind Chelsea in fourth. If only Declan Rice and Antonio hadn’t been injured in the run-in… Credit to David Moyes and his coaching team for instilling a resilience and discipline in the team which we’ve not seen since…when? 1986? (The year we came third – our best ever season). There was attacking brilliance too, especially after Jesse Lingard arrived in the transfer window. And the reward? Thursday evenings in the Europa League!
Anyway, enough of last season, how about the new one? Can we look beyond Man City, especially if they add Harry Kane to their squad, as well as Jack Grealish? It’s not fair! I think Grealish is a great footballer – I wish Gareth Southgate had used him more in the Euros, especially the final. But will he make that much difference to City? It just gives them yet another attacking midfield option to go with De Bruyne, Foden, Sterling, Mahrez and Silva. Like I said, it’s not fair! Kane, on the other hand would give them a nailed-on goalscorer, someone who can be relied on to be at the end of all those brilliant crosses and cutbacks. He could be the final piece in the Champions League jigsaw – except that PSG now have a forward line of Mbappe, Neymar and Messi! Like I said…
It will also be intriguing to see whether City adapt their game to revolve around Kane, or whether Kane has to become just another of those fluid attacking midfielders. The former, surely. He has also been quite injury-prone in recent years, as has De Bruyne. Could that hold City back? And will other teams figure out how to put their defence under more pressure? Chelsea showed how in the Champions League final. I’m going to take a punt on that happening, with City’s focus even more on the holy grail of the Champions League. And I am going to say Chelsea for the title. Tuchel has already transformed the team; he now has the goals of Lukaku at his disposal. 115m euros is a lot of money for a player you had on your books as a youngster, but if he helps win the league it will be deemed worth the investment. I heard an interesting discussion on the BBC Football Daily questioning whether Lukaku has the pressing game which Tuchel will want; and there is the memory of his sluggish performances for Man Utd before he went to Inter. But I suspect he will deliver for Chelsea and provide the focal point that they sometimes lacked last season. Their main weakness may still be the centre of defence: while Thiago brought much needed calm and experience last season, he is getting on. But I’m banking on their midfield and attacking riches restoring the title to Stamford Bridge.
Liverpool haven’t invested all that much yet, but they will have Van Dijk as well as Gomez back in defence soon, if not right at the beginning of the season. And they have spent £36m on French centre back Ibrahima Konate. This should be the trigger for the other parts of the team to get back to their best. Salah and Mane have both had proper pre-seasons, though will they both be off to the African Nations cup early in 2022? I think third – but with less angst this time – is where they’ll end. As for Man United, they have bought Varane to improve the defence, and Sancho to provide yet more speed in attack. But can you win the league with a central midfield of McTominay and Fred? Fourth, I say.
Right now it feels like the gap between those four is getting bigger, though Leicester have been top four for much of the past two seasons, before falling away at the end. Questions for them include whether Vardy is still a goal-scoring machine (though Iheanacho really came on last season) and how they will cope with the loss of Fofana, who has broken his leg. I think there is a case for Arsenal clawing their way back into the top six, with the youthful talent at their disposal. And Ben White will shore up the defence. It could all still fall apart though. Jury’s out on Spurs, with the future of Kane unclear, and some doubts about Nuno as a manager. I’m assuming they will slip further, to make room for Villa, who have spent well again – losing Grealish was a major blow, but they have brought in Buendia from Norwich – and Leeds, who looked better and better as the season went on last time. They have crazy levels of pressing compared with all other teams, but are fit enough to keep it going.
Down the bottom, I can’t see Watford surviving and there have to be doubts about Norwich and Brentford. I’m assuming Norwich, who won the Championship by a mile, have strengthened their defence since the last venture into the Premier League. Selling Buendia wasn’t great for them, but they seem to have good attacking options. I think they may have learned lessons from last time and will survive. As for the Bees, much will depend on Toney’s goals. I just don’t know whether they have the quality to last 38 games against the teams they will face in the Premier League. They have good spirit and pass the ball well these days. Their fans will love just being in the elite. Could they surprise everyone? I’m going to give them my sentimental vote and predict 17th. But I’m not all that convinced. If Norwich and Brentford stay up, that means two of the more seasoned Premier League teams will face the drop. I’m going for Burnley and Wolves. I just sense that time is running out for Burnley, while Wolves slipped quite badly last season and have lost their manager. Is the Portuguese experiment unravelling? They will have striker Jimenez back – they really missed his goals last season. But can he be the same player after that terrible head injury? I wish him luck. Crystal Palace are a team I often tip for relegation. They could be anything under Patrick Vieira. I have them staying up, which could be the kiss of death.
That leaves us with West Ham. A magnificent sixth last season. No Lingard now – at least not yet – but Benrahma has been in scintillating form in pre-season. I have three concerns at the moment. First, will Declan Rice move before the window closes? Chelsea or Man United would be likely destinations, though I think he could do a great job for Liverpool too. It will be a major loss for us if he goes. Second, can Antonio stay fit? We really need some reinforcements up front. Maybe the Czech connection will bring Schick – who starred at the Euros – to East London. Third, do we have the squad depth to cope with the Europa League fixtures? For these reasons, I have my doubts about whether another sixth place, or better, is realistic. So I’ve gone for a respectable if slightly disappointing tenth. We need some serious investment in new players, or some really good youngsters coming through. I’m not sure if either is forthcoming.
So, in summary, these are my predictions. Feel free to disagree. I know some who will!
Champions: Chelsea. 2. Man City. 3. Liverpool. 4 Man Utd. 5. Arsenal. 6. Aston Villa. 7. Leeds. 8. Leicester. 9. Tottenham. 10. West Ham. 11. Everton. 12. Newcastle. 13. Brighton. 14. Southampton. 15. Norwich. 16. Crystal Palace. 17. Brentford. 18. Burnley. 19. Wolves. 20. Watford.