Friday, September 11, 2020

2020-21 Premier League Predictions

Two prediction pieces in three days? Must mean the writer is getting lazy and wants to shill for content. That's definitely true, but it's a strange 2020 coincidence that the Premier League and NFL seasons start so close to one another that two prediction pieces are needed. Perhaps this should wait until the transfer window closes in October, but these games still matter. So here are the sure-to-go-wrong as always predictions for the Premier League:

Standings predicted from worst to first.

20. Fulham

When Fulham was promoted a few years ago, they spent wildly and all that got them was three managers, 26 points and an immediate return to the Championship. After winning the promotion playoffs, they're back, with considerably more financial restraint and a squad that doesn't look nearly as enticing on paper. That might mean better for the balance sheet but not form the performance on the pitch. They won't be as bad defensively as they were two years ago, but they may also not be as good going forward either. Staying up is a success, and that success looks hard to come by.

19. West Bromwich Albion

West Brom stumbled out of the Premier League just like Fulham did two years ago, and spent largely on their manager to get them back to the top flight. Slaven Bilic proved to be right the man, and with a few shrewd signings (and dumb luck at the end of last year), they won promotion. Most of their money spent this window was re-signing players who were on loan, and that can only be part of the equation. They need a striker as a focal point to be the line leader, which every promoted club needs, and as of now they don't have that. Bilic has the managerial chops, but the squad is lacking in some key areas, which will prove to be fatal.

18. Burnley

At some point, this club is going to go down because they will get outstripped by clubs with more resources. Sean Dyche is a miracle worker keeping this club in the Premier League as long as he has, but even he might not be able to do much with a squad that rapidly thinned out and has made no additions this window outside of a reserve goalie. Somehow, even through Dyche openly feuding with management about money invested in the squad, he's back, and he might be enough to keep them up again, and safely. But at some point, predicting Burnley to go down will be correct, and this year may be just weird enough that even miracle workers can't pull another rabbit out of their hat.

17. Aston Villa

For most of last season, it looked like Villa would go the way of Fulham: big spenders whose transfer outlay barely papered over the cracks of a squad that was barely Premier League quality. But, they found a great escape last year, perhaps solely because of an incident against Sheffield United when Hawkeye failed to give a clear goal that almost assuredly would have sent them down. They still have Jack Grealish, who could and probably should be at a bigger club right now, and they spent lavishly on a new striker from Brentford in Ollie Watkins. They need to get those goals from one of their forwards if they're going to stay up, and it would help if their defense settled a bit. Will they be bitten by second season syndrome? 

16. West Ham United

This club, for all its faults, has no business being in relegation battles. They've spent and spent on countless players with potential who failed to meet it, which has meant a mid table club has ended up here. Now, they can't spend without selling, and David Moyes, for all of his faults, needs players to work with and doesn't really have a squad to do the job. However, they haven't sold Michail Antonio, Declan Rice or other key cogs, meaning that they should have enough quality to scrape by once again. But for this club, scraping by should never be good enough.

15. Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace were basically safe by March, when last season was suspended due to the pandemic. It became obvious after the restart that they knew they were safe, since their run of form, particularly towards the end of project restart, was horrific. Roy Hodgson knows this and always manages to get more out of a squad that is in a desperate need of a major refresh, but after last season when the squad was even more stale, he was still able to get results. Bringing back Michi Batshuayi on loan from Chelsea is a move that should do plenty to ease those concerns, at least temporarily. Wilfried Zaha, as of this writing, is still at Palace, and that bodes well as he's still their best player through all the transfer turmoil. This club will have its ebbs, but should be relatively safe come the end of the year.

14. Brighton & Hove Albion

Graham Potter's team at times looks absolutely overawed when they play the Premiership's big boys, but at times, they pull off amazing results, like against Spurs and Arsenal at home last year. Potter was able to get Brighton to play better looking soccer last year, which worked well against teams at their level. They were always a bit wasteful with their chances, but they made their chances count when they needed to. They were also relatively poor defensively, but adding Joel Veltman from Ajax and bringing back a star from Leeds' promotion campaign in Ben White should help solidify things somewhat. They also are developing some young players with promise. The Seagulls should be a good neutral watch this season, and a club that looks to be sticking around, too.

13. Sheffield United

Overlapping centerbacks. That sounds off, but the tactics worked, because Sheffield United spent no time in the relegation zone and conceded the fewest goals of any promoted side in Premier League history. Part of that has to do with Dean Henderson, the Manchester United loanee that is now back with his parent club, but the team buy in to the tactics and approach was truly amazing to see. While they didn't generate many chances, when they did, they finished them. That combination made the Blades much tougher than anyone saw coming. No player stands out above the rest, and that's what makes them unique. There's almost no way they compete for Europe this season, but there's little reason to see them going down, either.

12. Leeds United

If you have never watched a second of Premier League soccer, watch Leeds United this year and you'll be hooked for life. Leeds are a gigantic club that once made a Champions League semifinal, but was mismanaged into the dirt and only just returned to the Premier League this season. Their manager, Marcelo Bielsa, is nicknamed "El Loco" for a reason. His teams run, and run, and run. Bielsa's inspiration on managers like Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and others cannot be overstated, and now the man himself gets to tackle the Premier League challenge. Last year, they were even better than their points haul indicated because they wasted so many good chances; according to Sky Sports, they underperformed their xG by 11 last year. You can't have that in the top flight. But this team is a little like Wolves; they're not any real threat to go down and could become a top half team in short order. And most importantly, they're going to be fun as hell.

11. Newcastle United

No club in this league has squandered more potential than Newcastle. They are a gigantic club that too often flirts with outright disaster. They were to be taken over by a group with ties to the Saudi Arabian government, which fell through in spectacular fashion, so the loathed Mike Ashley is still around. There are concerns, as always with this club. Their preseason has been dour, and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka could be out for months. But this club has quality, or at least enough of it, to stay away from relegation. Miguel Almiron is still special, Allan Saint-Maximin has been a bright spark and bringing in Jeff Hendrick and Ryan Fraser on free transfers is worth the risk. There is always something going on with Newcastle, and if they survived last season in tact, they'll probably do well enough again.

10. Southampton

Southampton have been a staging post for some of the greats in the Premier League in the last decade to launch. Players and managers alike have found their careers taking off on the South Coast, though there were moments where that looked almost impossible. They flirted with relegation a few too many times, and they lost 9-0 to Leicester at home last season when the whole project was on the verge of falling apart. But Ralph Hassenhuttl survived, and his team started to play a high pressing, high energy style that lead to success. Last season, Saints were absolutely terrible at home, which makes basically no sense. Should that turn around, they could and should challenge for Europe.

9. Everton

Carlo Ancelotti is one of the best managers in recent time, so to see him managing Everton is quite a shock, even now. It's even more of a shock to see players like James Rodriguez in Toffee blue as well. Their squad features players with so much potential: Richarlison, Allan, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, etc. They now need to reach it, which has been a problem for Everton in recent years. This manager has achieved so much, but this is his biggest challenge yet. Can they break the Sky Six hammerlock? They have the grit, but now they need the guile.

8. Leicester City

Watching Leicester lay waste to the league in the fall of last season was truly impressive, which makes it even more stunning to see them finish fifth when it looked like they had a Champions League spot in the bag. They really did collapse towards the end of last season in spectacular fashion. Key players like Jamie Vardy and James Maddison aren't leaving, but not many new players are coming. Their exquisite transfer business from the past also doesn't look to be continuing into the Brendan Rogers era. Add the Europa League to the mix and you get a club destined to slide down the table a little. It's now a matter to see whether they've hit their ceiling.

7. Wolves

An aside: Wolves apparently spent 40 million Euros on a young player from Porto who has played less than a dozen games, whose agent happens to be an adviser to Wolves ownership and also has direct ties to the manager and much of the squad. Hmmm... if you're not a Jorge Mendes fan, Wolves is not the club for you. But if Jorge Mendes FC doesn't turn you off, you'll find that they're still a fun team to watch that plays great soccer and has impressive talent that clubs around them envy. Raul Jimenez is one of the best strikers in the league, Adama Traore is a bulldozer on the wing with great skill and intelligence to boot, but their squad is extremely thin. With so many games in such a short period of time, even with the additions of young players from Jorge Mendes rolodex, at some point that's going to bite them. No Europe this year helps a tad, but it seems like this team found its ceiling last year and is now butting up against it. Maybe turning outside the Mendes sphere of influence would be worth it.

6. Spurs

Going from Mauricio Pochettino to Jose Mourinho was one of the biggest managerial shocks in recent years, especially for a club that seemed so in love with its manager for the first time in decades. Mourinho was able to scratch a European finish out of last season, benefited morbidly by the pandemic shutting down the season when most of his squad was on the training table. During the restart, Harry Kane recovered lost form which helped Spurs only lose once during that period. They've also signed players prior to deadline day in Matt Doherty and Pierre-Emile Hojberg in two spots of need, which is a welcome change. They will play a ton of games this season thanks to the Europa League, and the demands for Mourinho are what they were when he came in: Champions League and/or a trophy. It feels long past due that this Spurs team will get the latter, but they haven't yet. Is this the year, or is this the year the Mourinho shtick starts to wear thin?

5. Arsenal

Arsenal supporters are almost never optimistic, and that's with good reason: the club has frayed in recent years during the latter tenure of Arsene Wenger and the failure of Unai Emery. He's already won  a FA Cup and Community Shield, so some of the worries about his tenure have already been soothed, at least temporarily. They were able to beat Liverpool, City and Chelsea in that run of form too. Can Arteta fix Arsenal's chronic, ever-lasting problems in central defense and central midfield? Gabriel from Lille and William Saliba should help the former, but they're not the first centerbacks to come to Arsenal with hype and not meet it. Having one of the best strikers in the world in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang certainly helps paper over those cracks. They're developing a distinct identity and playing style, which has been lacking for a few years. Making the Champions League doesn't seem so far fetched now, nor does finishing ahead of Spurs for the first time since 2016 either, but there's still a noticeable gap between them and the top four for a reason.

4. Manchester United

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the right manager for this club that has been looking for far too long to find their true next man up after Sir Alex's retirement seven years ago. He's getting the most out of young players and those already there, and with additions like Bruno Fernandes, Harry McGuire and Donny Van De Beek, There was no silverware to back up the distinct progress made, but returning to the Champions League is an important milestone. If United sign Jadon Sancho, which is oft rumored but doesn't seem likely to happen, that could push them up a step or two. Clubs in their position see incremental progress, and incremental might not be good enough at United considering who and what is ahead of them. But for the first time in a long time, they're on the right path, and for good this time.

3. Chelsea

Roman Abramovich apparently has no idea that the world is in the grips of a global pandemic/financial crisis the likes of which we haven't seen in generations, because he's spending money like a drunken sailor. These are splashy signings too in Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. They're exciting additions to a group of young players and holdovers that Frank Lampard melded together into a great attacking force after a transfer ban and losing players like Eden Hazard. They'll score goals, no doubt, but they might give up a ton too, especially when their big addition to central defense is 35 year old Thiago Silva, which may help steadying the ship, but not raising it above the water line. They're better than last year's team that finished third for sure, but how much better? Are they still a cut below City and Liverpool? Oh, and we can't forget Kepa. Don't forget about Kepa. 

2. Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp's methodical build finally brought Anfield a title, and they did so in such spectacular fashion that the wait was worth it. But repeating as Champions is going to be extremely difficult, as City and others learned the hard way. This task is made harder since the only new signing they've made is a back up left back. That's not to say that their squad has suddenly begun to fall apart, but more is needed to keep up the pace with those around them. Will some of these hyped young players from the academy fill in the gaps? There's no doubt Liverpool are going to have a great chance to retain the title, but repeating will be harder than winning it the first time.

1. Manchester City

For all of Pep's spectacular collapses late in the Champions League, his teams know how to win trophies at home. And it's not like City were that "bad" last year either; in most other years, they'd have won the title. But they set such a standard that Liverpool did so well to beat that at some point, they were inevitably going to have to step aside. They're in transition away from the era of David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany to younger players like Phil Foden and others. Last year, the surprise for City was not that their attack wilted, but the defense didn't play up to standards. Signing Nathan Ake from Bournemouth should help a little in that regard. Winning the title might not even be the biggest goal for City this season considering their European misadventures, but they are currently favorites to do it, simply because they might be less flawed than everyone else around them.

So those are the predictions for 2020-21, sure to be wrong in May or whenever the season ends if the pandemic flares up again, which is more than possible, and might be the surest bet in all these words. 

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