As the 2020-21 Premier League season kicks off on Saturday, where Fulham hosted Arsenal in a 0:3 encounter for the curtain-raiser in a stadium unable to welcome fans and missing one of its four stands.
It represents great symbolism for the campaign ahead: Is anyone really ready to play football?
Half-baked transfer activity, a farce of a pre-season and an international break that interrupted vital preparation time would suggest no. Alas, we move on.
Football is a business that must continue, and as post-lockdown football in June taught us, it will only take a few matches for everyone to get back up to speed and things to feel pretty normal again. Heck, we might even get some fans in by Christmas.
All of these uncertainties make predicting the Premier League table and the winner for the campaign ahead even more impossible than usual, but have we ever shied away from a challenge? Absolutely not. So let’s give it a go!
20. West Bromwich Albion
The summer business has been solid and well thought through, but as so many promoted sides have found over the past few years, the step up in quality is serious.
It’s tough to have faith that West Brom’s collection of strikers (Charlie Austin, Kenneth Zohore and Callum Robinson) can score the goals that keep them up, while the first run of fixtures (Leicester City, Everton, Chelsea, Southampton, Burnley) is rough.
Once you get into a downward spiral in the Premier League, it’s hard to break out of.
Fulham have been promoted as a much more settled unit than in 2018, allowing them the chance at a much smoother summer of business. But like with West Brom, it feels like what they’ve done (at least so far) probably isn’t enough.
That could change in the weeks to come, but concerns over the attack’s potency and the defence’s ability to cope are fair. Captain Tom Cairney needs to shine much brighter than he did two years ago, though injuries played a part in his previous struggles in the Premier League.
18. Brighton & Hove Albion
You’re going to start sensing a theme here: When it comes to Brighton, who scores the goals?
Outside of Neal Maupay, who managed a solid 10 last season, the Seagulls badly need Leandro Trossard to step up more regularly and the talented Alexis Mac Allister to explode.
There’s a lot to like about this Brighton side under Graham Potter, but it’s hard to escape the feeling they don’t feel particularly threatening. They’re one of four clear contenders for 18th, and it’s a tough spot to call, but they’re the pick.
17. Crystal Palace
Palace have committed to freshening up their side and getting a little younger in the transfer market, which is a crucial step for them; it had felt a little like they were sleepwalking toward relegation in previous years.
Eberechi Eze will steal focus from opposing defences and keep them more honest toward Wilfried Zaha on the opposite side. That, plus Roy Hodgson’s reliable coaching in the clutch, is what probably keeps them up.
16. Aston Villa
It’s been a nervy summer for Villa as their pursuit of a striker hit dead end after dead end, but Ollie Watkins has finally signed, and he transforms their prospects in the final third.
Add his speed and potency to the fact that this group of players continue to rise to every challenge set to them—the most recent one being a remarkable eight points in four games to survive relegation in July—and it feels silly to bet against them, particularly with Jack Grealish still around.
15. West Ham
Arguably the most difficult team to place in the table, West Ham are, quite literally, anyone’s guess.
On talent levels alone, they’ll be more than fine; Lukasz Fabianski, Issa Diop, Declan Rice and Michail Antonio form a great spine, Tomas Soucek is emerging as David Moyes’ new Marouane Fellaini and they have a glut of playmakers to sprinkle on top.
The concern is just how combustible the club is. When your captain is tweeting angrily about player sales, you know things aren’t quite right—and that’s a threat that constantly hovers over the Hammers and puts them in relegation contention.
14. Newcastle United
A predicted table compiled two weeks ago would have had Newcastle in the relegation zone, no doubt. There was more than a fair share of fortune attached to quite a few of their results last season, and had the same side continued into 2020-21, it probably wouldn’t have gone well.
But the club clearly recognised this, and in recent days, they have pulled off a series of blinders in the transfer market. Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis have followed Jeff Hendrick (the most Steve Bruce player ever), greatly strengthening the side and solving problem positions.
It’s now pretty easy to see the Magpies gliding to safety.
13. Leeds United
A newly promoted side finishing as high as 13th isn’t such a bold prediction any longer—particularly in light of Sheffield United’s top-half finish last season—but this will still take some by surprise.
Quite simply, it’s all about the manager, Marcelo Bielsa. A figure held up as the tactical inspiration for Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola and more, his high-pressing, abrasive tactics will take many by surprise and take a while to adjust to.
Add this to the fact that they have bought well—Rodrigo and Robin Koch are very good players—and a quick start (that opening game against Liverpool aside) that sees them sail to safety is coming.
12. Sheffield United
Ah, yes—the ominous second season. So many promoted sides fall foul of it, as it can be so hard to sustain momentum over a break and into another campaign.
A 12th-placed finish would be a drop of four places for the Blades on last season, but most fans would accept a stabilisation campaign. They will be less of an unknown but just as difficult to play against in midfield, just as difficult to break down and just as robust up front.
Not a single signing in sight for Burnley, which is probably cause for concern.
But Sean Dyche and his men are bomb-proof; a legion of people have predicted them to go down every season since promotion (this writer did last year), and they continually defy those suggestions.
They have a strong, robust spine, England’s best goalkeeper, an excellent prospect in Dwight McNeil and a battering-ram strike force that still bullies defences.
A 10th-placed finish would probably disappoint Everton, but the gap between where they are and where they want to be is absolutely massive—bigger, perhaps, than they realise.
Signing Allan, Abdoulaye Doucoure and James Rodriguez represents potentially transcendent business, but we’re holding back a little on the Toffees because there’s a lot to put in place before they take off. We need to see it.
If post-lockdown football is anything to go by, Southampton are a rising force that look set to hit the 2020-21 campaign running.
Their behind-closed-doors points tally (18) was bettered only by those of the two Manchester clubs as Ralph Hasenhuttl’s ideas fully set in and his team swept opponents away one by one.
A ninth-placed finish will need Danny Ings to hit top form again, Che Adams to rise up alongside him and the defence to remain as stout and reliable as it was in June and July.
8. Leicester City
We shouldn’t be talking about Leicester City here at eighth because their season prospects should be so much greater.
Their post-lockdown slump saw them slip from third to fifth, missing out on UEFA Champions League qualification as things unravelled a little. It’s hardly an unfamiliar story wherever Brendan Rodgers is involved, and the trend has been that when that happens, Rodgers has struggled to claw it back.
With a crowded schedule because of their Europa League involvement and no Ricardo Pereira (injury) or Ben Chilwell (transferred)—though Timothy Castagne is an excellent pickup—we’re a little down on the Foxes this term.
7. Tottenham Hotspur
Talentwise, Spurs are a top-five outfit, no question.
But the club are up against other issues this season that are beyond their control—namely, the ludicrous playing schedule they face because of their involvement in four competitions.
Thanks to the Europa League qualifiers and the Carabao Cup third round, they could play seven games in September, with the first coming on the 13th. The squad as it stands can’t handle that; they need three or four more through the door to cope, physically, with the demands that beckon.
Perhaps seventh is too much of an adjustment—and were it not for the schedule, Spurs would be higher—but it just seems impossible for Tottenham to play up to their full potential.
6. Wolverhampton Wanderers
While Spurs’ schedule has filled up, Wolves’ looks pretty clean. We’re tipping that as a difference-maker between the two.
Even having lost Matt Doherty to Spurs, Wolves represent one of the strongest clubs in the division, and now they’re able to focus solely on domestic matters, they should rise up the table again.
The quality of Raul Jimenez, Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Adama Traore is undoubted, and the defence will be as strong and combative as ever.
Arsenal in fifth is a big call, but they’re on the up, and there’s a lot to like about what Mikel Arteta has done over the course of 2020.
Adding Willian to an already strong attacking corps gives them incredible flexibility in how they line up, while the addition of Gabriel Magalhaes goes a long way to finally shoring things up at the back.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang spearheading a tactically sound and intriguing side, they’re in line for a very good season.
4. Manchester United
United have been generally superb in 2020, with Bruno Fernandes representing the final piece in what became a very, very good starting XI.
But it’s clear they need more players to take a big step forward this season. As soon as one of the 11 players they came to rely on during that goal-filled run post-lockdown ducks out, the team will take a step back.
Placing them in fourth is a show of respect for how good they can be but also recognition of the fact that they need three or more new faces to be able to sustain that sort of level all campaign long.
Chelsea, they’ve been busy, haven’t they?
Six signings, five of which directly upgrade the first team, have whipped fans into a frenzy of optimism and hope. Can they mount a title challenge, or at least close the frankly cavernous gap to last season’s top two?
The former still feels impossible, but the latter is within their grasp. If they can pull to within 10 or even 15 points of Liverpool and Manchester City (they finished 33 points off the title in 2019-20), riding on the wings of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, that’s a building block toward a future challenge of their own.
The agonising wait for their first Premier League title is over; the 2019-20 campaign, however tumultuous, felt like “mission complete” for Liverpool and their jubilant fans.
It will be interesting to see what their title defence looks like given how this summer’s course has run. While the Reds have invested in just a back-up left-back, passed on Timo Werner and are threatening to do the same with Thiago Alcantara, Manchester City have purchased more aggressively and are threatening to continue, per B/R’s Dean Jones.
1. Manchester City
So, while Liverpool may be 5 per cent flatter, having achieved the ultimate, City will be the opposite. There will be a hunger to them in 2020-21 after a genuinely disappointing previous campaign; the last time Pep Guardiola endured such a season, his side bounced back with 100 points.
None of this is to discredit the Reds’ motivation or professionalism, but in such a tight race between two elite sides, 5 per cent of something either way could decide it. We’ll tip City, the wounded animal with a point to prove, to regain the title this term.
Source: Bleachers Report (RB).