Is this season starting earlier than ever? The first game, Crystal Palace v Arsenal, takes place this Friday, 5 August. I think that’s a week earlier than last season, and presumably has something to do with the intervention of the World Cup in November/December. Something to have a rant about another time; I’ll stay focused on the PL in this blog!
Let’s start with a brief review of last season’s predictions.
Like a lot of people, I fancied Chelsea to win the league, after their Champions League victory and the addition of Romelu Lukaku to the squad. The last piece of the jigsaw we thought, a proper striker. It didn’t happen. Tuchel stuck to his fluid front three formation, and Lukaku didn’t adapt. He had injuries – and clearly wasn’t happy. Maybe Tuchel didn’t really want him. All this transpired before Russia invaded Ukraine and Abramovich became persona non grata, the club seized by the government, before being sold on to the Todd Boehly consortium. In the circumstances Chelsea did well to maintain a pretty high level of performance, and come third, 18 points behind second-placed Liverpool.
It was a season utterly dominated by Manchester City and Liverpool, City winning the league by one point, after a dramatic end to the season, Liverpool winning both cups – both on penalties against Chelsea, after 0-0 draws. Was this all very boring? No, not really – City and Liverpool were both great to watch, and both the finals were as entertaining as 0-0 draws can be. The League Cup penalty shoot-out went down to the two keepers at 10-10, with Kepa, brought on for his penalty saving prowess – non-existent on the day – hilariously ballooning his shot over the bar.
But please, we don’t want a repeat of the same teams dominating this season! That really would be boring.
Elsewhere, I overestimated the potential of Aston Villa and Leeds, and underestimated Tottenham and my own team, West Ham. My local team Brentford also did much better than I expected, though I didn’t predict them to go down. I got two of the relegation teams right: Burnley and Watford. It was sad to see Burnley go down after a few seasons punching above their weight, but they shouldn’t have sacked Sean Dyche – he might just have found a way to keep them up. Norwich were the bottom team – I thought they’d do better, after walking away with the Championship the previous season. Watch out Fulham this time!
Now for my two favourite teams: starting with the second, Arsenal. I correctly predicted fifth for them. But really, they blew a great chance to get back into Champions League football, with a couple of feeble results against lesser teams late on. So typical of recent seasons; but there’s a sense of things coming together under Arteta, with some talented young players establishing themselves. As for West Ham, seventh was a good achievement, but again, we could have done better. The lack of squad depth was our undoing towards the end. But, with the Europa League semi-final, this was objectively one of the Irons’ best seasons of all time. Add that to sixth the previous year, and huge credit must be given to David Moyes and his management team. Aaah, but we were so close to Champions League football, via the Europa League. The team seemed to freeze a bit against Eintracht Frankfurt, who were not a superior team. Inexperience at this level, perhaps. We would surely have beaten Rangers in the final. Anyway, a good season, but expectations are now raised. The only problem is that the “Big Six” continue to reinforce their squads. What chance for anyone else? And yet there are always teams that break through…
Which brings me on to this season’s predictions.
I don’t want to do it, I really don’t, but I can’t see past Man City and Liverpool for the title. The rest have an 18 point gap to make up. That could come from City and Liverpool getting fewer points, which might happen if the competition gets better; but neither side is standing still. City have taken some risks in selling Sterling and Jesus – both to potential rivals in Chelsea and Arsenal. But they have added Erling Haaland from Dortmund, a goal-scoring machine, as well as the young Argentine striker Julian Alvarez. Cue a more direct attacking approach, with Jack Grealish playing a more prominent role in his second season? Could be interesting. Liverpool have refreshed up front too, replacing Sadio Mane (sold to Bayern) with the Uruguayan Darwin Nunez, from Benfica. Like Haaland, a more conventional No 9 than his predecessor. So are we about to see a more English-style game from the top two teams? The end of the false nine? Tell that to Thomas Tuchel.
As to who will come out on top, I’ll go for City to do it again. They have just a bit more quality, especially in midfield, where they have reinforced their defensive side with Kalvin Phillips from Leeds. We always wonder whether they’ll be distracted by the so-far thwarted desire to win the Champions League. I think there’s enough depth in the squad to cope with both challenges.
The competition below the top two looks more interesting. It could be a London thing, a three-way battle between Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs, though you can’t rule out Man United coming good under ten Hag (I’m going to though, while Fred and McTominay remain at the heart of their midfield). ‘Tis the season of optimism about Arsenal, newly boosted by the arrival of Jesus and Zinchenko from Man City. They have been on great form in pre-season friendlies, beating Chelsea 4-0 and Sevilla 6-0. Is Gabriel Jesus their final piece of the jigsaw, providing the finishing that was still lacking last season? I think it could be enough to propel them into the top four, and I’m going for third. But I still think the gap between them and the top two is too wide. The question for Arsenal is so often about resilience, especially in central midfield and defence. I think the defence is now pretty sound, and in Ramsdale they have an excellent goal keeper. But what of that midfield? A Kalvin Phillips, or, heaven forbid, Declan Rice, would make all the difference. My son Kieran, an Arsenal fan, is a great defender of Xhaka, and likes Partey. I think Xhaka will always be too combustible, while Partey is injured too often. Still it will be fun to see how it all works out. Palace away will be a good first test.
Spurs have bought well in the summer, particularly in bringing in Richarlison from Everton. The thought of him teaming up with Son and Kane must be pretty exciting for Spurs fans. Lenglet is an interesting addition to the defence, while Djed Spence, who starred for Nottingham Forest on loan last season, could provide some interesting options at right back. Conte is a top quality manager and will get the best out of this team. If Son and Kane stay fit, Spurs look to be real top four contenders. They got a bit lucky last season, sneaking in at the end when Arsenal imploded; this time they will have City and Liverpool in their sights. Fourth for me.
That leaves Chelsea in fifth. I expect they’ll confound that, and grind their way into third place (yaaawwwn!). Maybe Sterling will give them the spark they lacked up front last season. Or maybe Tuchel’s system is just a bit too cautious to get the best out of their attackers. Then again, maybe Timo Werner will rediscover his goal-scoring touch, to add to his pace and work rate, which have made him a favourite with the Chelsea crowd. I look forward to keeping an eye on Chelsea’s progress after the odd three course lunch in the Harris suite, courtesy of my friend Dave!
And what of West Ham? The good news is that Declan Rice and Jarrod Bowen haven’t been prised away yet. The addition of the Italian striker Gianluca Scamacca should add variety up front, and take some of the pressure off Antonio. It’s a shame that the new centre back Nayef Aguerd picked up an ankle injury in a friendly and needed surgery, but Ogbonna should be back. I’m assuming Flynn Downes from Swansea will be a back up to Rice and Soucek in midfield. I’m all in favour of picking up promising players from the Championship – Jarrod Bowen is a case in point. The squad still needs to be deeper, to cope with the inevitable injuries, especially in the last weeks of the season. Twice now there have been flirtations with the top four that have come to nothing because the squad has become too stretched. It’s not just us – Leicester have had the same problem. It’s all about the money in the end, and I’m not sure West Ham’s owners are willing to make the big step up. Maybe their approach is right – a gradual, manageable strengthening; not putting the club at risk. It’s a formula for upper mid-table stability, and West Ham’s fans should be grateful for that, after all the relegation traumas of the past. But expectations rise, and the grumbles get louder. Seventh again, with a run in the rather pointless European Conference, I’d say.
The team that could overtake West Ham and gatecrash the top six is Newcastle. Eddie Howe is slowly strengthening his squad, and bids have recently been made of Leicester’s James Maddison. That would be a real coup. The Saudi money is there for the long haul – expect Newcastle to be “Big Six” soon. It wouldn’t be the first time…
As for relegation, I’m going for Leeds, Fulham and Bournemouth. Fulham were supreme in the Championship; but have they the resilience for the Premier League? Can Mitrovic score even half as many as he did last season? That may be the key to Fulham’s survival. Bournemouth don’t look to have a strong enough squad to stay up. Nottingham Forest on the other hand, have been on a spending spree, and beat West Ham to Jesse Lingard. They have a well-respected manager in Steve Cooper. I’m predicting they will stay up and maybe even frighten a few teams, like Brentford last season. Maybe there’s a bit of wishful thinking – it’s been so long since Forest were in the top division; but many of my generation will always remember the team of the late 70s and 80s, managed by Clough and Taylor, with great affection. It will also make my friend Jon very happy if they stay up!
Leeds have provided great entertainment in the Premier League over the past two seasons, but the Bielsa magic wore off last season and they shipped so many goals. They brought the American Jesse Marsch in, and just survived on the last day of the season, by beating on-the-beach Brentford. They have spent the summer selling their two best players: Phillips to Man City and Raphinha to Barcelona. They have bought reinforcements, some of whom have played under Marsch before. It’s not terribly convincing. If I were Leeds fan, I’d be worried. Fingers crossed for them that striker Patrick Bamford stays fit this season.
There’s a case to be put that Brentford will suffer from second season syndrome, and struggle. Teams will have sussed them out. They have lost Christian Eriksen, who turned their season around last time, when they started to wobble. On the other hand they have made two good buys defensively: Ben Mee from Burnley and Aaron Hickey, a Scottish full back, from Bologna. They showed last season that they have a strong team spirit, play some good football and have an excellent manager in Thomas Frank. They need to hold on to Ivan Toney – a player I’d still like to see West Ham go for. On balance, I think they’ll be OK, but it may be tougher than least season.
So, in summary, these are my predictions for the 2022-23 season:
Champions – Man City. 2 – Liverpool. 3 – Arsenal. 4 – Spurs. 5 – Chelsea. 6 – Man United. 7 – West Ham. 8 – Newcastle. 9 – Leicester. 10 – Aston Villa. 11 – Everton. 12 – Crystal Palace. 13 – Brighton. 14 – Brentford. 15 – Southampton. 16 – Nottm Forest. 17 – Wolves. 18 – Leeds. 19 – Fulham. 20 – Bournemouth.
I got three placings exactly right last season: Arsenal (5th), Leicester (8th) and Burnley (18th). A low bar to exceed. Just as long as Man United don’t go and win the bloody thing!