The time has come. This week Premier League football returns and though it made me utterly miserable for nine of its ten months last season, there remains nothing quite like it to fill the gap. In order from first to dreaded last, I’ll briefly predict and preview every side’s chances for the coming season.
Once again, there should be few surprises up top (indeed, I’ve gone for the same ten teams to be in the top half with a few shifts in order). However, the bottom half looks far tougher with a few of the decade’s recent mainstays potentially growing a little stale and all three of the promoted clubs having built solid foundations to avoid the drop within a year.
First off, here is my predicted Premier League table in full:
1. Manchester City
5. Manchester United
10. West Ham
11. Crystal Palace
14. Aston Villa
19. Sheffield United
And now, here’s my overview of each club’s chances as we enter the first week of the 2019/20 Premier League season:
1. Manchester City (Last season: 1st)
There’s little Pep Guardiola can do to improve and yet so little margin for error either. That Liverpool got within a point and a couple of centimetres of the title last season was a surprise in itself, but there was little fluke about it. City’s side is now ageing and withering slightly, with captain Vincent Kompany semi-retiring to home club Anderlecht and David Silva and Fernandinho well into their thirties.
Guardiola appears to be keeping faith with John Stones as Kompany’s replacement as he hasn’t signed a centre-back this window while David’s namesake Bernardo is simply a livewire version of the Spaniard. Meanwhile, the one significant bit of cash-splashing activity at the Etihad has seen Rodri come in as holding midfield competition for Fernandinho with a full season now likely to stretch the limits of the Brazilian’s fitness.
Incomings, however, were always likely to have less of an impact than a fully fit Kevin De Bruyne. If he can stay away from the physio’s table for long enough, his consistent presence could even push City to newer and increasingly unbelievable heights.
2. Liverpool (Last season: 2nd)
Sunday’s Community Shield, though it was lost on penalties, would have given Reds fans renewed optimism that they can challenge the Sky Blue juggernaut to the very end once again. Without Sadio Mane to complete their famed attacking triumvirate, they more than matched City throughout the 90 minutes and were arguably unlucky not to walk away victorious.
There’s been even less transfer activity on Merseyside than in Manchester this Summer. Save a couple of youthful signings in Sepp Van Den Berg and Harvey Elliott, Liverpool’s roster remains untouched. The returns of both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin and Adam Lallana to full fitness will provide competition and added depth though there’s still fewer obvious replacements for first-teamers than at City.
It ultimately boils down to whether Jurgen Klopp can keep his squad fit throughout the season again. He performed incomparable heroics on that front last season, but any six-week injury to one of key players Alisson, Van Dijk or Salah could derail them enough for City to pull away once more. Nevertheless, they’re well clear of the rest.
3. Tottenham (Last season: 4th)
The fact that Tottenham were in with a shout of the title for two-thirds of 2018/19 and reached a Champions League final without having signed a single player makes Mauricio Pochettino worthy of a statue. This year is different, with Daniel Levy parting with £62.5 million for Tanguy N’Dombele to join from Lyon.
As it stands, Christian Eriksen stays, having looked likelier to be wearing the white of Real Madrid than Spurs earlier in the summer. However, the biggest problem may not be keeping players at the club, but keeping them fit. Harry Kane’s record when returning from injury has been publicised of late, but he shouldn’t be getting so many knocks to start with while Dele Alli is already said to be missing the start of the season this weekend.
Their new stadium already feels more homely than Wembley and so maintaining a standard starting XI will be the key if they are to have any chance of improving upon the clear third they earned in May. Realistically, the top two continue to look too strong, but the rest of the big six still need to catch up.
4. Arsenal (Last season: 5th)
Now we’re onto the interesting stuff. None of Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United are good enough to finish fourth and yet all of them are simultaneously. Last season ended with a sort of Schroedinger’s Football problem in that none of the three were getting results, but all of them continued to battle for positions.
Arsenal might win this rather trivial argument this time around. All of these clubs should be challenging for titles, but none of them are remotely ready yet.
Arsenal’s defence will be shambolic at times when they least require it again this season, despite being solid enough when they’re 3-0 up. The signing of Nicolas Pepe up top will ensure they have a dependably dangerous front three instead of two and Iwobi or Welbeck.
There will be games when Arsenal look as capable as any side and others where you question how they’re not destined for relegation. Remarkably, in spite of that, they’re in a better overall position than Chelsea or United to return to the Champions League.
5. Manchester United (Last season: 6th)
This prediction may look horribly ambitious or pessimistic come the end of the season. For twenty years United were the most reliable club in Europe to compete at the top. Now they’re as two-faced as their owners.
If they can produce even 80% of the performance levels they achieved between December and February, United will cruise to the top four and could even finish third. If they begin where they left off at the end of the season, they’ll struggle to finish top half.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire are imperative signings to sure up the leakiest defence the Red Devils have ever had in the Premier League era while up front, though only Daniel James has been added to the Carrington collective, promising youngsters like Mason Greenwood and Jesse Lingard could produce as much firepower as any £100 million signing.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a beloved character at Old Trafford, but he can’t rely purely on adoration to get him through the season. He needs results and fifth won’t be enough. Sadly, United’s dressing room isn’t ready to play 38 games to a steady level.
6. Chelsea (Last season: 3rd)
Frank Lampard may be a very talented manager now, let alone in time. His Derby County side were attractive to watch last season and were only two goals from returning to the Premier League for the first time in 11 years. That’s good going for a novice.
Chelsea are, of course, an entirely different prospect and it seems odd that the club would move to hire one of their legendary players in such difficult circumstances.
They’ve only been able to sign Mateo Kovacic this summer, which is hardly a new addition after his loan spell, and Eden Hazard and his atlas bearing shoulders have departed for the Galacticos.
They enter this season without a talismanic character, so perhaps that’s the reason for Lampard’s appointment. Furthermore, their squad, though more balanced all round than the previous two clubs, is the weakest overall, particularly upfront. Olivier Giroud is currently the main striker and he surely won’t score enough on his own.
It is time for youth and in Callum Hudson-Odoi, they have one of the league’s brightest hotshot wingers. He’s unlikely to drive them into the Champions League places, however.
7. Wolves (Last season: 7th)
Second season syndrome has seen many a promotion success story fall by the wayside, but Wolves looked of a different calibre for much of last season.
They achieved seventh with relative ease despite having a better overall record against the top six than the bottom six. Remarkably, they lost both games to Huddersfield. Complacency clearly affects this squad at times, which is why they could tumble down the league this season.
Nuno Espirito Santo is wise enough to know no squad is ever safe from a loss of form and moved quickly to sign former loanees Raul Jimenez, one of a multitude of star turns last season, and Leander Dendoncker. Moreover, Patrick Cutrone, fourth in the Golden Boy award celebrating the best young prospects in Europe, has joined for pennies relative to this transfer window (£16.2 million).
With no significant departures, Wolves look even stronger than last season and the top six would not be a forlorn hope for an immensely talented unit. For a side that has seen such an overhaul within the last two years, they are tight knit and confident in their abilities. Now they just need to beat the sides who get relegated.
8. Leicester (Last season: 9th)
Brendan Rogers’ side are in a transitional state, but sometimes that can be a good thing. Moving on from the drab football under Claude Puel saw some fine performances: drawing at Anfield, dismantling Arsenal etc. They’ve also signed Youri Tielemans which may yet prove a golden decision by the board such is his potential.
Losing Harry Maguire late on in the window has left them precious little time to replace him and their back four would appear the troublesome area. Caglar Soyuncu looks like he’ll be given the majority of the game time alongside Jonny Evans, but aside from them, club captain Wes Morgan is ageing and well below the form from their title winning season. Goals may be shipped too regularly for them to build up results.
Their successes in the past relied upon defensive strengths and counter-attacking blitzes, but their roster from the midfield forwards is too talented. Now, they must rely on having more possession and unpicking the weaker sides.
Ayoze Perez should provide the necessary back up to the evergreen Jamie Vardy. Goals will be scored and attractive ones at that, but they’ll likely be flying in the other end as well.
9. Everton (Last season: 8th)
Two years ago, Everton’s goal was to make the top six a sevenfold for the seasons to come. That didn’t materialise and until the end of last season, where Everton authoritatively beat both Arsenal and Manchester United, it looked like the Toffees were finding reverse gear.
However, Marco Silva has signalled an intent to return the forward momentum with the fascinating signing of Moise Kean from Juventus. At times, he tore up Serie A last season and his best football is yet to be played. He could prove the transfer of the year.
Idrissa Gueye was probably Everton’s best player of the last two years and his absence, after a move to PSG, will be felt. Jean-Phillipe Gbamin has been signed to be a replacement and has shown potential in Germany while Andre Gomes and Fabian Delph may also prove shrewd pieces of business in midfield.
Everton have their moments in most seasons where they look set for a groundbreaking move up the table, but much like those battling for the Champions League, have their toothless moments in spades. With Leicester and Wolves also upwardly mobile, the Europa League places may be the best they can hope for.
10. West Ham (Last season: 10th)
Manuel Pellegrini is finally being recognised in England for what he is: a manager with the correct football philosophies, able to deliver consistently with what is at his disposal. Last season, 10th was acceptable for West Ham. It might not be now.
For one, the talents of Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini will now combine as the latter recovers from injury. Pablo Fornals and Sebastien Haller add further spice to an extremely promising front-line that no side will enjoy facing.
This is West Ham, however. They have endured as much off-field criticism as Newcastle in recent seasons despite the football gradually improving year on year. Their fanbase is perennially more demanding and top 8 will be seen as satisfactory rather than successful.
The London Stadium is entering its third season as West Ham’s home so there are no excuses for making it anything other than a fortress. Too often, this won’t be the case and while their squad is as talented as the three above them, they are the most fragile to peaks and troughs.
11. Crystal Palace (Last season: 12th)
For now, Wilfried Zaha stays. There has been no forcing of the issue by the winger desired by so many and the respect he has for the club means he may well remain in South London for the season to come.
If they hold onto the unofficial “best player outside the top six”, Roy Hodgson’s men look best poised to break into the top half. However, there are two results-based areas in which Palace must improve.
Firstly, they need to start in much better form than they have the last two seasons (remember Frank de Boer’s infamous four game spell?) If they do, their occasional spells of Europa League level form will enable them to forget about being surprise relegation candidates. This is a team that thrives upon freedom, both creatively and mentally, and the quicker they banish any needless niggles of demotion, the better placed they’ll be.
Secondly, Palace must win at home. Over the last two seasons, they’ve picked up more points on their travels than at Selhurst Park, a statistic that makes it so much more difficult to improve. Regardless, their squad is full of Premier League level talent and coasting to safety should be straightforward.
12. Southampton (Last season: 16th)
In hindsight, Ralph Hasenhuttl moving to a Southampton side engaged in the deepest crisis since returning to the Premier League was massive for the club and an immaculate decision for the board. All of his work in Germany pointed to a man capable of a sterling job and he duly delivered.
Now, the players at his disposal must step up and display the level of football he expects on a regular basis and challenge for the top half once again.
Transfer dealings have been sparse: Danny Ings’ move from Liverpool has been made permanent, but he didn’t fire on all cylinders last term and a more potent signing may be that of Che Adams, prolific for Birmingham last term.
There’s healthy competition throughout the pitch, most notably in goal, with three Premier League quality keepers as well as multiple full back options. They have work to do to catch up with the Leicesters and West Hams, but the strength in depth, combined with Hasenhuttl’s guile and craft, should ensure that underperforming is a thing of the past.
13. Watford (Last season: 11th)
For the first time since their current top level stint began, Watford have gained stability. Javi Gracia becomes their first manager to begin a season having been there for the entirety of the previous campaign and though they faded late on in the Premier League to finish 11th, their main focus come May was the FA Cup final.
Reaching Wembley was a terrific achievement (we won’t mention the score) and the scattergun approach to signings and loans that never truly gelled has ceased, with only Craig Dawson arriving at Vicarage Road in the off-season.
The champagne names have remained intact. Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu would fit swiftly into a top six starting XI while Abdoulaye Doucoure is as sought after a midfielder as any in the league.
Yet, it feels as if something is missing. Their approach to the transfer market has matured, but one or two bigger names than Dawson would not have gone amiss. Their stuttering finish to last season showed that this side is capable of burnout and though the Europa League will still be the aim, it appears less achievable than a few months ago.
14. Aston Villa (Last season: 5th in the Championship)
It was an exceptional second half of the season that enabled Villa to dream of a Premier League return. Manager Dean Smith often avoided the headlines due to John Terry’s presence on the touchline, but his is the name that deserves all the credit.
Had Fulham not limped tamely to 19th last season, Villa’s transfer dealings would strike the casual observer as ambitious and exciting. Because of Fulham, fears reign that such new names will only cause disruption and turmoil.
Tyrone Mings and Wesley, the Brazilian forward signed from Club Brugge, have both surpassed the £20 million mark, but Villa’s signings look far more monitored than the Cottagers’. Anwar El Ghazi has re-signed permanently having scored in the Playoff final, while securing Tom Heaton’s signature could prove a masterful touch.
There will be disturbance and nervous tremors, but as Mings was with them in the Championship, the spine, including top division talents, John McGinn, Jack Grealish and James Chester, should provide a solid foundation for a true Premier League club to survive. At the very least, they look the most secure of the three teams to have come up.
15. Burnley (Last season: 15th)
So, which Burnley are we going to enjoy this season? The almighty 7th placed finishers of 2018 gave way alarmingly quickly to a side that was in desperate trouble come Christmas.
Sean Dyche’s side had been figured out. Grit, determination and stout defending can only get you so far and they needed a spark. Cue youngster Dwight McNeill’s break out into the side and a more dynamic Burnley emerged.
The confidence began to flow, rubbing off on the defence, who produced their sternest efforts in the second half of the season as Burnley drew away from the drop.
Up front, Ashley Barnes is the most Ashley Barnes player to have ever played the game while Chris Wood and his lumbering, clumsy frame will score goals. They’re to be aided again this season by Jay Rodriguez, returning to the club from West Brom.
However, Tom Heaton, arguably one of the league’s best stoppers, has left for fellow claret-and-blue’s Aston Vila, a painful loss. They will point to earning £8 million for a 33-year-old and replacing him with youngster Bailey Peacock-Farrell from Leeds for less as part of a long-term strategy, but short-term the loss of quality could stall them.
16. Norwich (Last season: 1st in the Championship)
Had Norwich not romped to success in the second division last season, this may be seen as a free hit at the Premier League. They weren’t expecting promotion, yet they finished 13 points clear of the playoffs and a steady 5 in front of runners-up Sheffield United.
Naturally, expectations have risen and surviving the Premier League will not simply be the aim, but the minimum requirement. This is in spite of spending little over £1 million to improve the squad, by far the smallest outlay of the 20 clubs.
There may be fears the club as a whole simply wasn’t ready for promotion at this time. There’s no doubt, however, that Daniel Farke, another who came through Borussia Dortmund’s immense coaching system, is prepared and has prepared meticulously.
If he can eke out similar levels of effort from his squad once more then survival is likely. Emi Buendia, Onel Hernandez and Teemu Pukki all produced beyond initial expectations last term. They need only to meet them this time around to satiate the fanbase.
17. Bournemouth (Last season: 14th)
I’m afraid this is the season. This is the season in which Bournemouth are finally involved in the relegation scrap predicted of them since they gained promotion in 2015.
Their incomings are, as ever, based around future gain. Lloyd Kelly and Jack Stacey have shown potential at Bristol City and Luton respectively while Philip Billing has outgrown Huddersfield.
However, Bournemouth’s transfers in the past have looked to obviously have improved the squad in certain positions. Kelly is the only necessary name on the previous list. Billing and Kelly add depth, and much needed, but improvement? I’m not so sure.
Ryan Fraser and David Brooks had breakout seasons last season and their attacking line-up remains sharp. Eddie Howe, meanwhile, is the longest serving coach in the league and garners the respect of clubs and journalists nationwide for his affluent manner and tactical nous.
This is the strongest the Premier League has been since they emerged as a genuine top-level side, though and there remain serious questions over the defence and in goal. They might be as leaky as ever and it could cost them.
18. Newcastle (Last season: 13th)
Though a club record signing has entered St James’s Park over the last month, transfers of players at Newcastle have paled in comparison to the possibilities of a change of manager and owner.
It is not just the £40 million Joelinton that would otherwise cause rejuvenated excitement, but exciting left-handed players Jetro Willems and Alain Saint-Maximin. However, instead of getting the opportunity to express themselves under Rafa Benitez, it will be Steve Bruce who leads them out on Sunday against Arsenal.
Bruce is less glamorous, decorated and has an awkward habit of being involved in Premier League relegation scraps. Even then, Newcastle fans would be at least cautiously optimistic had Mike Ashley finally relinquished his control of the club. Alas, he has not.
The unrest will only continue while he is in charge and if they get off to a slow start, Bruce and co may succumb to that sinking feeling before the new year. They have enough talent to at least make it a battle, but the club is in turmoil and a third Ashley relegation looks a decent bet at this stage.
19. Sheffield United (Last season: 2nd in the Championship)
It’s been a universal theme in pre-season to predict that Sheffield United will finish in 19th. They’re the most obvious candidates for relegation, having been promoted with a host of excellent Championship players with little Premier League experience and an inexperienced manager, despite the success stories on his CV.
However, they also play such weird and wonderful football and possess the steel fitting of their geographical base that you feel they must at least best one of these 20 teams, some of whom have far greater problems to face up to.
The Blades have taken chances on Swansea’s Oli McBurnie to score their goals after a club record move from the Championship, as well as left-field rogue Ravel Morrison and former youth product Phil Jagielka, now well into the autumn of his career. His presence alongside Chris Wilder could provide the sort of inspiration promoted clubs thrive upon.
At just £58 million, the squad’s transfer value is comfortably the lowest in the league, but Wilder has achieved beyond any Blades fan’s wildest dreams to date, and yet survival would arguably be his greatest achievement so far.
20. Brighton (Last season: 17th)
Football runs its own imperfect universe and Chris Hughton’s sacking appeared exemplary of its unjustified order. Brighton’s hierarchy will argue otherwise having flirted too overtly with relegation in the closing months of the season.
Brighton can only prove their board correct by staying up and doing do in style this time around. Leandro Trossard and Neal Maupay have been additions to an ageing and relatively tame roster, fit with a number of underachievers. Realistically, are they enough?
Probably not. And so Brighton’s best hope will be a union between the tough psychology of back-liners Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk, linked with a £45 million to Leicester such were his performances last term, and new manager Graham Potter’s motivation and philosophies.
They’ll likely play better football compared to last season and, at last, they shouldn’t have to rely on Glenn Murray. He’ll be a brilliant backup option if necessary, but this is a flimsy squad. A repeat of last season’s travails will end with the inevitable result.