Thursday, August 8, 2019

2019-20 Premier League Predictions

The transfer window has shut in England, Jim White has been put back in his cryogenic storage chamber until January 31 thanks to the new money from Comcast, and the Premier League's new season is just around the corner. More than ever, the league feels like an hourglass: very little in the middle, but quite a bit at the top and the bottom. Liverpool vs. Manchester City part two will be a spectacular show, the race for the top four will be entertaining as always, and a whole host of teams will try to stay in the big time. There's nothing quite like the Premier League on the planet, and this season should be no different.

Here are predictions you will probably discount and that will probably look dumb by November, in inverse order of predicted finish:

20. Norwich City

Copycats about in English soccer. When Jurgen Klopp proved that a German manager with a German style could bring reward, soon came the imitators on a lesser scale. Huddersfield pulled off multiple minor miracles with David Wagner which earned them two top flight seasons. Daniel Farke at Norwich has practically done the same. With a good dash of German nous, plus some promising young players, he transformed Norwich into a great attacking side. He will be relying plenty on players like Teemu Pukki, Max Aarons along with a couple of new loanees to keep the Canaries up. Farke hasn't exactly been backed with cash though. Their outgoing spend according to Transfermarkt was 3.75 million pounds. Can Norwich do what Huddersfield did a few seasons ago? They have more goals in them than the Terriers did, but they're not quite as solid defensively. Huddersfield staying up was a miracle, and Norwich staying up also will be a miracle.

19. Sheffield United:

Chris Wilder could be the next Eddie Howe, i.e. the next next big thing. Not too long ago, the Blades were in the third tier. They're in the Premier League now, well ahead of schedule. They haven't spent ridiculously, and have picked up quality in players like Oli McBurnie, Mo Besic and they even took a flyer on Ravel Morrison. Continuity will help in a major way, and their manager has proven he can do more with less, but does this group have the same potential as Bournemouth did? Probably not. Like with all teams at the bottom though, they have a punchers chance.

18. Brighton

Any Brighton fan would have taken two seasons in the top flight when they were promoted a couple of seasons ago, but it feels like they aspire to be more than a team that scrapes by to stay up, which is what Chris Hughton brought. Hiring Graham Potter, a manager who cut his teeth in Sweden with Ostersunds and took them from the fourth tier to the Europa League Round of 32 playing Arsenal in eight seasons, is certainly going in a different direction. He wants to play beautiful soccer, which is not exactly what they've been playing in the Premier League. They've made a couple of signings from the Championship, including big scorer Neal Maupay from Brentford because their big signings haven't exactly worked out. When Glenn Murray is still the club's leading marksman, that shows there have been problems in recruitment.

Potter took Swansea to 10th place last year, which isn't exactly amazing. But he could stay with the club for the long haul even if they're relegated. That, sadly, looks like it's in the Seagulls future.

17. Crystal Palace

When the calendar turns to December, that's when Palace wakes up and finally starts winning, no matter the manager. Roy Hodgson has done an incredible amount with what little he has, and what he nearly could have lost if Wilfried Zaha left this window. Thankfully for Palace, he didn't, but that situation is unsettled still. The big additions are James McCarthy from Everton who was lost in the shuffle and Victor Camarasa who was a very good player for a quite bad Cardiff team last term. They still don't have enough goals in their team, but with Roy's "magic" and some veteran experience, they'll have enough to scrape by, but it'll be a close shave.

16. Newcastle

Rafa Benitez finally had enough with the boardroom politics at St. James Park and departed for China, taking a huge amount of success with him. Not only did Newcastle finally feel safe from relegation for the first time in forever, Rafa felt like the glue holding the club together. But now that he's gone, the risk is back. Everyone sided with the Spanish manager and not ownership, which was the correct decision. Steve Bruce doesn't feel like an inspiring choice to replace him, but he has been backed with big signings Joelinton from Hoffenheim and Allan Saint-Maximin from Nice, who both have big potential. But do the players believe in the same way in Bruce as they did in Benitez? Whatever the case may be, the boardroom politics always translate to the pitch in the Northeast, and that means Newcastle are going to have to work hard to stay up, again, which they never should.

15. Aston Villa

Last year when Fulham was promoted, they spent the big bucks on trying to stay up and it flopped spectacularly. Aston Villa, back in the big leagues for the first time since 2016, are trying to do the same. They've spent a lot on players like Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett who have experience in England's top two flights, as well on other like Wesley, the Brazilian striker who came over from Belgium and Marvelous Nkamba, a midfielder who also came over from Club Brugge. The spending is always a risk, especially when it comes to building an entirely new squad. Dean Smith seems like a manager who is able to put it all together, however, and with far more stable ownership than when they went down, Villa looks to be on the right path to sustained success again. But the first year is always one of the toughest, and their saving grace might be just how many other teams are in their position.

14. Southampton

For the last few seasons, the Saints spent a lot of time dancing around possible, if not sometimes probable relegation. Ralph Hassenhuttl, the man who brought RB Leipzig into our lives, did a ton of work to keep Southampton up last season with not all that much. The signings haven't been there either, though there is potential with Che Adams from Birmingham City and Moussa Djenepo from Standard Liege. The squad is still a little bloated, but at times last year, Saints did look truly impressive. They're not what they were when they were a team challenging to break the Sky Six, but they may have enough this year to not dance around relegation for the first time in a while. However, teams like them, including Villa, Swansea and Sunderland, eventually did go down dancing around that fire for too long. There is major risk for Southampton now, but they seem to know just what to do to get out from under the trap door.

13. Burnley

Burnley are the new Stoke. They don't play beautiful soccer, they don't have the most talent around, but they always do enough not just to annoy you, but beat you by being their annoying selves, and they always stay up. In the new fast and fluid Premier League, a club like Burnley should have been relegated ages ago. But they're not going to be, not so long as Sean Dyche is at the club. They're managed well and run well, even though they don't spend a ton of money. Their biggest impact player could be Dwight McNeil, the young attacking midfielder from their academy who really picked up his form at the end of last season. They may never do what they did in finishing seventh a few seasons ago ever again, but until something major changes, rightly or wrongly, they're a Premier League club.

12. Bournemouth

What is more surprising: Bournemouth being in the top flight for their fifth straight season, or that Eddie Howe is still their manager? Both are pretty surprising, but since the latter directly influences the former, it's not as big of a surprise as it once would have been. They will never been in a direct relegation scrap, and they'll probably never push much higher than where they are right now, but so long as Eddie Howe is there and not at a big club, they'll be a consistent Premier League club. Their signings confirm that this summer. David Brooks had a really good season, and he alongside Leicester's James Maddison feel like the next big movers to big clubs in short order.

11. Watford

By Watford's standards, this summer was fairly quiet. The major outgoings were players who were either on loan or on the fringes, and they brought in fliers like Danny Welbeck in addition to their big signing of Ismaila Sarr to augment a squad that was already solid. Keeping Abdoulaye Doucoure, who is one of the most underrated midfielders in England, was a good piece of business. Nothing about Watford is spectacular, but they've become a pretty solid Premier League club that can always pull a shock against one of the league's big boys, as evidenced by their FA Cup Final run last year. It also feels like Javi Gracia is a manager that one day will be destined for a bigger club, too.

10. West Ham

It feels like West Ham are suffering from an old creed from "Bill Nye": inertia is a property of matter. They're never going to be in a relegation scrap ever again, but they never feel like they'll ever seriously challenge for Europe. Sebastian Haller and Pablo Fornals are ambitious signings, but ones that carry enough risk that the big boys stayed away. They have potential as ever. Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko are players who have bigger clubs in their future, but something always holds them back, something that the three clubs above them always seem to possess.

9. Wolves

They had a spectacular season last term playing exactly the way Nuno wanted them do, and they did it to the effect of being the most successful newly promoted team ever. There's no reason to think that they can't do that again with the entirety of their squad back plus smart additions like Patrick Cutrone and Jesus Vallejo, but there is an elephant in the room: Europa League. It's called a poisoned chalice for a reason. Bigger and better clubs have been tripped up by Thursdays in random parts of the Schengen area and beyond, and Wolves have to contend with that and with the grind of another Premier League season with clubs knowing what to do against them now. That's a tough needle to thread. Expect a little regression this year, but they'll still be a top half side.

8. Everton

Remember when the thing holding Everton back was ambitious ownership that would spend big? Well that's not a problem anymore, and they still always hit the glass ceiling no matter the manager. Marco Silva hit it last year, in spite of Everton spending gobs of cash and not doing it so well. They've done it again, but this time losing quite a bit more from their squad, including Idrissa Gana and Ademola Lookman. They've reinvested well in Moise Kean, Fabian Delph and perhaps Alex Iwobi, but it still feels like something is missing. They're deeper than Wolves and West Ham, but they're not seemingly what they want to be, strive to be; mostly because they are what they can be and no more. They could make a European appearance this year, but finishing a relatively mediocre but safe eighth seems like it's Everton's destiny.

7. Leicester

They are not the team that won the Premier League in 2016, far from it. That's not something that will ever happen again. But every summer, they lose a critical piece (last year Riyad Mahrez, this year Harry Maguire) and they don't lose a step. Brendan Rogers has a very good squad to work with this year including two great young Belgian midfielders in Youri Tielemans and Dennis Praet, a budding superstar in James Maddison and that Vardy guy. Bu they're not as strong in central defense as they once were, and if Vardy's not scoring goals, who is? They are the best of the rest in England, especially with their manager (I know we all laugh at Deluded Brendan but he's not really that anymore). It's hard not to be impressed with what they've done.

6. Manchester United

Into the Sky Six we go, and we find Manchester United in a very weird spot. They've spent big on three British players that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted, but yet something is missing. Romelu Lukaku is gone with his replacement possibly being a revitalized Alexis Sanchez or maybe a 17 year old. Paul Pogba is still evidently not happy, and after that initial burst when Solskjaer arrived, Manchester United scuppered to the finish. Would anyone be shocked to see United sack him if they're hovering around 10th in November? Probably not, but the club's problems go deeper than him. Recruitment, structure, vision are all missing. The other five above them seem to have more of that in spite of their issues. United seem not just stuck, but listless.

5. Chelsea

Frank Lampard, after one season of nearly taking Derby County to the Premier League, is now Chelsea's manager. He comes in after Maurizio Sarri won the Europa League and finished third, but left a sour taste in Chelsea's mouth on the way out. Chelsea were also on a transfer ban, so their winter signing of Christian Pulisic is their only true new incoming, if you don't account for young players like Mason Mount. Losing Eden Hazard, the one true transcendent player they had through all the ups and downs, means this club is going to look quite strange. No Ruben Loftus-Cheek for a while will also hurt. Will some of the loan army that is returning give Chelsea a chance at the top four? Yes. Will Christian Pulisic be good, but probably not live up to his transfer fee? Probably. Were they handcuffed this window to do anything notable? Yes. All of this means that while they made the Champions League a season ago, they may not make it again.

4. Arsenal

I'm an unabashed Spurs supporter, and still laugh at pretty much everything Arsenal has done in the last four or five years as their North London neighbors basically lapped them. But this summer, they did put their money where their mouth is and made some good additions. Nicolas Pepe has a chance to be a star forward and combine well with Aubamayeng, Lacazette and perhaps even Mesut Ozil. Dani Ceballos isn't an Aaron Ramsey replacement, but he's going to help fill the void. Torreira and Guendouzi is a wonderful midfield duo for Unai Emery to build around. But that defense is still an absolute mess, particularly at centerback. David Luiz still looks and defends like Sideshow Bob, and who else is going to help him out? At least with Bellerin and Kieran Tierney, they have the fullbacks to cover up some of those ills.

But after what happened at the end of last year with the collapse in league form and the second half in Baku, questions still must be asked. But with United and Chelsea in various states of transition and disarray, the Champions League beckons because at least Stan Kroenke put his money where his mouth is... that is if he ever talked publicly.

3. Spurs

Last year for Spurs was a season of miracles coming together to create magic when it looked like inertia was going to hit the blue half of North London. The stadium didn't open until April, they made no new signings and injuries ravaged just about everyone. Mauricio Pochettino took a team put together with spit and duck tape, got them safely in the top four and they made the Champions League Final. It was an insane ride.

And after an 18 month wait for new signings, the incoming names were major. Tanguy Ndombele is a midfield star in the making, and he already performed on the big stage with Lyon, so slotting in next to Moussa Sissoko or Harry Winks could create a dominant central midfield which Spurs have used so spectacularly in the past. Giovani Lo Celso could be a Christian Eriksen running mate or replacement, and he has all the tools to be one of the best young attacking midfielders in Europe. Ryan Sessesgnon is a young player with promise that Spurs under Pochettino have turned into gold.

So why can't they challenge for a Premier League title? They still lack depth behind Harry Kane, their defense is not spectacular, especially at right back, and that run last year took a lot out of them. While they don't have to worry about the concerns of an entire squad coming in late for the season because of World Cup excursions, it still feels like they're not totally right until the frontrunners are well out of the blocks already. But with the new signings, and the new stadium, it feels like Spurs are finally on solid footing. Maybe this year, it finally leads to a trophy.

2. Manchester City

What City did last year domestically was absolutely insane. They almost never put a foot wrong, and as Pep often does, he recreates his tactics and takes everyone by surprise every time he does. They had a real sparring partner last year in Liverpool and still outlasted them. Getting good work out of Oleksandr Zinchenko and Phil Foden certainly helps, and if they take another step, then that could be it for everyone else. Rodri is also going to be a star. But there are worries. David Silva and Sergio Aguero can't keep this up forever, can they? Leroy Sane's ACL injury is a major concern too. And will they put more resources in the Champions League to finally win it after so many close calls? A triple Premier League winner would be fitting for Pep, but considering their big rival from last year has everything but a domestic crown now, and considering that the allure of Europe is still super strong, perhaps it means there's a swap at the top coming.

1. Liverpool

Liverpool did everything right last year, and still didn't win the Premier League. But once they got a little fortune in Europe, they hoisted another European crown. For this new campaign, they bring back basically everyone, but very little has changed. That's not a bad thing for a team that last year was better than everyone except City, but a little freshening up in some key areas, like up front, may have helped add a new dimension to a team that was already frightening. Perhaps a step up for Naby Keita could be just that.

Having won in Europe, but being denied in England could be an interesting motivator this campaign. Do Liverpool go all out in the league, leaving a little in Europe, to win the one trophy they haven't won? It seems like it's destiny for them to complete that mission, and even after a rough preseason, it seems like that may be the aim. If Liverpool win the league, and City win the Champions League, it would feel fitting. Maybe most fitting would be if those two played in the Champions League final too.

So these are my Premier League predictions, sure to fail as they always tend to. But it's good to have the world's biggest sporting circus back, we all kinda missed it.

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