Sport Editor Adam Robertson, Deputy Sport Editor Sam Mitchinson and staff writer Seb Brooks look to the season ahead and give their opinions on what it might have in store for football fans.
In the most extraordinary of circumstances, the 19-20 season, eventually culminating in Bayern Munich’s European cup triumph, ended less than a month ago. Remarkably, for the majority of Premier League clubs, their league season will once again begin this weekend. It’s an old cliché but it genuinely means something this time – this could be a season like no other. Here’s our writer’s predictions and we’ll continually live in hope that at least some of this has come true by the end of next season. Hopefully, it’ll come sooner than last year.
How will English teams fare in Europe?
The 2018-19 season represented dizzying heights not seen since the late noughties period of 2007-10 for Premier League teams in Europe. Last season though, it was only really Wolves who really done themselves proud. Reigning champions Liverpool let a 2-0 lead slip away from them at home in the last sixteen, Spurs and Chelsea were humbled by RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich (albeit the eventual winners) respectively at the same stage. Manchester City, meanwhile, still found themselves unable to overcome their previous misfortunes in the Champions League after being put out by Lyon–a club who won’t compete in any form of European competition next year. In the Europa League, Manchester United were not so much outplayed as outthought by a Sevilla side, who showed the kind of experience which was for so long lacking from English teams. So, to this season. This could potentially be Guardiola’s final season in Manchester and, whilst he is already adored, he would achieve legendary status if he could lead the team to their first European cup. Liverpool will want to return to the heights of previous years and, if Jose’s reaction at the end of last season was anything to go by, he looks determined to lead Spurs to their first trophy since 2008–the Europa League might just give him that chance.
Can Sheffield United build on their extraordinary achievements last season?
You could easily be forgiven for initially having low expectations of Chris Wilder’s Blades coming into last season. Many of us had them tipped for relegation. Anything other than that was to be considered a success for a club who were only promoted to the Championship in 2017. A couple of months ago, some were questioning if they could have done better and qualified for Europe. The club’s extraordinary rise helmed by Wilder was nothing short of extraordinary. A unique system involving over-lapping centre-backs but, most importantly, what simply seemed like an elite mentality for a newly promoted club, guided them to a strong 9th placed finish as well as wins over Arsenal and Spurs. At no stage did they look out of their depth with the side boasting the 4th best defensive record in the division. It’s surprising not one of Chris Basham or Jack O’Connell have been considered for international duties yet. Wilder will want to avoid any second season slip-ups but, then again, this was the same man many of us didn’t think was cut out for Premier League management.
Can Liverpool repeat their incredible title-winning season?
For the first time in thirty years, no longer will the question ‘is this finally Liverpool’s year’ be trending. Jurgen Klopp and co have managed to give it a bit of time off – for a year at least. It’s worth remembering that Liverpool have, in any other time, essentially had two Premier League winning seasons; if not in terms of the trophy itself, then in terms of consistency and points tally’s. Their total of 97 points in 2018/19 would have been enough to win the Premier League in every other season. At the time, it felt so typically Liverpool. Now though, they represent the benchmark; the standard which all other clubs will be striving for. For this writer, the biggest threat to Liverpool is still Manchester City and, as my predictions outline at the bottom, they will continue to represent the top two. Guardiola will be angry at how last season ended although the likes of Chelsea, who have had the busiest of summers, Manchester United and Arsenal have strengthened considerably. As the manager has said though – Liverpool won’t defend the title; they’ll attack it once again. It’s that mentality that Klopp will hope can continue to serve them well in the season to come.
Are Man United really back?
It was against PSG in the champions league when Rio Ferdinand uttered those fatal words: ‘Man United are BACK!’ Since then, times at Man United under Ole have been far from simple. Nevertheless, the arrival of Portuguese superstar Bruno Fernandes in January revitalised the side, spurring them on to achieve third place and secure champions league football. The big question is whether they can continue this form into the coming season.
Certainly, the signing of Donny van de Beek will be a help, but one feels like they need to tighten up their defence and answer the big question as to who will be play between the sticks. In fact, while Man United certainly played some good football during the back end of last season, when it came to big games against big teams, such as the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, they performed far from well, with David De Gea yet again showing that they have a big question in regard to their starting keeper next year. Given the remarkable rise of Dean Henderson at Sheffield United, it makes for an interesting dilemma for Ole. With many of the other top sides improving rapidly, it appears that Man United will yet again be in a tough battle for the top four spaces this season.
Leeds have returned but how will they fare?
In 2004, Leeds were relegated from the Premier League, and one of the most spectacular capitulations in English football had only just begun. Within a few short and painful years, Leeds would find themselves playing in League One, and continuously getting closer and closer to the Premier League only to fall apart again and again at the final hurdle. They needed something radical, and to do this they brought in one of the most enigmatic men in world football, your managers favourite manager: Marcelo Bielsa. While in his first season Leeds fell apart in traditional style in the play-offs, losing to Frank Lampard’s Derby (the same team they had supposedly spied on earlier that season), the Argentine’s second year in charge saw Leeds storm to the top of the table and stay there, eventually winning the Championship by 10 points. Thus, Bielsa’s boys are back, and they’ve immediately set their minds to maintaining their position. The signing of Spaniard Rodrigo from Valencia is a mouth-watering prospect and keeping Jack Harrison on loan from Man City is an important step. Having Leeds in the Premier League is great for both the city and the league itself, and one can only hope that they will be here for years to come.
What’s actually going on at Newcastle?
Newcastle United is undeniably one of the most frustrating clubs in the world to support, and that certainly did not change this summer. Yet again, fans were teased with rumours of a big-money Saudi takeover that dragged out for the entire summer, eventually being quashed after the Premier League supposedly refused to make a decision on approving the deal. While naturally, the prospect of being owned by one of the world’s greatest human rights abusers was not an overly enticing prospect, leaving the club in the dark about their future when they were meant to be making deals in the transfer window is poor on the league’s part.
Nevertheless, Bruce has made some enticing deals this summer, replacing hapless striking flop Joelinton with Bournemouth fantasy football staple Callum Wilson as well as his old comrade in goals Ryan Fraser. Combined with Saint-Maximin, Fraser gives Newcastle a threatening injection of pace, and hopefully they’ll manage to stave off relegation yet again this year.
Chelsea have spent big – will fans’ optimism be rewarded?
Chelsea enter this season with renewed optimism. This is not surprising to see given their activity in the summer transfer market. They have strengthened all the areas of their team compared to last season. The experienced Thiago Silva is a shrewd signing on a free from PSG and Ben Chilwell from Leicester is an upgrade on Marcus Alonso and Emerson at left-back. Going forward, the trio of Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner is an exciting prospect. They already have some good players in these positions from last season, most notably Christian Pulisic, and with this added firepower, expect goals from the Stamford Bridge club. However, some have claimed that there is a concept in football such as ‘too many attackers.’ It appears that Chelsea have taken this approach, and team chemistry and fitting new signings in the team may take some time. Mason Mount, for instance, played well last season but now is fighting for the same position with Havertz. As of the time of writing, Chelsea are also still yet to sign a new goalkeeper to replace the error prone Kepa Arrizabalaga. Arguably, the money spent on some of their signings would have been better spent on Atletico Madrid shot stopper Jan Oblak instead. In any case, definitely expect a top-four finish again this season. They did it last season, in spite of their transfer ban, and they will push favourites Liverpool and Man City. Pushing for the title might have to wait another year yet though.
How will Leicester and Wolves fare?
Leicester were, in many ways, the surprise package of the Premier League last year. They finished fifth, despite being in the top three for most of the season, and thus broke the hold of the ‘Big Six’ in those respective positions. However, to end outside of the Champions League places was ultimately a disappointing result given the position they were once in. At one stage in January, they held a fourteen-point lead over fifth-placed Manchester United, sitting in second at the time, but from then their form declined rapidly. They won only four of their last seventeen games, a remarkable turn of events given how they started the season. As a result of this poor finish, many, this writer included, predict that they will struggle to replicate their fifth place result again. This prediction also takes into account that they are playing Europa League football. The whole Thursday to Sunday schedule has taken its toll on teams in the past, and with a small squad, Leicester could once again struggle to balance it up. Looking at Wolves, they are in a position to have another strong season. Nuno Espirito Santo has done an amazing job, taking them up from the Championship successfully, before consecutive seventh-place finishes in the top-flight as well as reaching the Europa League quarter-final. Fabio Silva is a highly rated signing from Porto and expect him to provide firepower to a Wolves attack already featuring the likes of Raul Jimenez, Adama Traore and Diogo Jota. Combined with Ruben Neves pulling the strings in midfield and Conor Coady being solid at the back, they should push for a European place again.
Who’s destined for the drop?
The first teams always in danger of relegation are the promoted teams, given the huge chasm in wealth between the Premier League and the Championship. Looking at the promoted sides, Leeds United should have enough, given their strength in the second division last season and due to their recent acquisition of Rodrigo, a proven Spanish international striker from Valencia. As for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, they are going to struggle in my opinion. Fulham just sneaked up through the play-offs by beating Brentford and it was only two years ago that they really struggled. However, never underestimate Scott Parker as a manager, and provided they make the right signings before the window closes, they could have a chance at staying up. West Brom did well to finish second in the Championship last season, but also expect them to be in a relegation battle. Concerns have been highlighted in particular about their defence, where the goals are going to come from and how they finished last season poorly, with Brentford falling at the final hurdle ultimately handing them automatic promotion. As for the sides in the league last season, the one that stands out in real danger is Aston Villa. They only just stayed up by a single point and are heavily reliant on Jack Grealish. They could be one injury away from another difficult season. But still, anything is possible in the Premier League, and some in fact look at Newcastle, given the continued fan discontent about the club ownership situation, or Crystal Palace, who ended last season eight games without a win, as likely candidates for relegation as well.
- Adam – 1st – Liverpool. Relegation – Aston Villa, Fulham and West Brom.
- Sam – 1st – Chelsea. Relegation – Brighton, West Brom and Fulham.
- Seb – 1st – Liverpool. Relegation – Aston Villa, Fulham, West Brom.