It’s that time of year again. On the back of the Lionesses’ magnificent and much deserved Euro’s win, the man’s version of the Beautiful Game kicks off on Friday. It has much to live up to. Crowds who cheer, albeit with higher pitched voices, rather than whinge; the closest to violence being a German on-pitch tackle. Or a little too much exuberance in waving those strangely cheap looking ‘Goal’ banners. Team spirit which could teach the multi-millionaire players of the Premier League a lesson or two. Any harrassment of the referee earning an instant booking. Note that, Manchester United.
Still, a new season is a time of optimism, although like daffodils just budded, expectations can be short-lived. It is also a time for predictions. There are many who are much more informed than me on this subject. Fans, experts and even pundits. Performance wheels, strategy sheets and ghostwriters confidently employed to predict almost identical outcomes. That Manchester City will, surprise, surprise, lift the trophy (again) and Bournemouth will be relegated. Almost everyone agrees that Frank Lampard’s reign at Everton will rapidly end. He’ll win the most unwanted gold medal in sport. Pretty much unchallenged. But let’s be honest, most of us, and them, will be wrong. Or 90% so, at least. Anyway, with the transfer window still having weeks to run, significant changes could be made to squads even yet. So, like poor Frank’s trip to the job centre, forecasts may well be premature.
The Qatar Effect
Plus, this season – for the first time ever – will feature a significant mid-term break. Except, for many, it will be a working break. A busman’s holiday. A staycation of sorts. Certainly, the run up to Christmas will see things likely to warm up (see what I did there?). Beaches await. But a World Cup in Qatar really might turn matters on their heads. Take Manchester City, for example. In recent seasons they have started, relatively speaking, quite slowly, before the power of limitless funds and a squad of two and a half champions league quality teams stifles all opposition. But might their players not return from Qatar exhausted? And if they have not already established a significant lead in the table – which is probably not going to have happened by November – will they be able to accelerate away in their usual fashion?
Wily Riley and the Loss of Moss
Then there is the other totally predictable variable. PGMOL. Nothing transparent has emerged. Would we expect any different? However, vague reports indicate that Mike Riley is stepping down. He may have done so already (if not, it seems a bit late in the day if he is to give his successor a decent run at putting his mark on the new season.) The twin grandads in black, John Moss and Martin Atkinson, seem poised to take over. That’s nice. Although don’t rule out Howard Webb nipping back from the US to place his calming hand on the tiller. Everybody seems to have gone very quiet on the entire topic since about April, as though refereeing has not played a crucial role in the outcome of endless matches over the past dozen seasons. Maybe the controversy around Moss’s astonishing performance in the Championship play off final (they still speak of little else in Huddersfield) has put a spanner in his works. Howard Webb is, from the best of my recollection, a good ref; fair and honest: his mistakes are evenly spread. Which probably, given PGMOL’s record over the past decade and a bit, rules him out. Whatever, along with Mike Dean, Atkinson and Moss will no longer be performing the geriatric shuffle (you know the one, lots of high knee lifting but little actual movement) out on the pitch. Whoever ends up in charge surely everybody agrees that the standard of English refereeing is appalling, and change must occur. A new broom, even if its bristles are sparsely spread, might bring that about.
So, given change at PGMOL combined with the uncertainties of a mid-season World Cup, 2022-23 has the potential to be ‘different’. Which suggests to me that it is time to take an informed (sort of), open minded (of a fashion) and fact based (well…) look at the season ahead, and predict with extreme confidence the final positions come the end of May. (Coughs uncertainly.)
The Final Countdown
The Relegation Candidates
20th – Leeds United – Points Range – 28-33 – Relegated
Leeds’ two best players have gone. They have balanced their books with replacements true, but sadly few of the names coming in generate much excitement outside of Elland Road. Their manager is unproven in the Premier League, and contrary to almost everybody else in the country, I think it will be Jesse Marsche rather than Frank Lampard who is the first to be looking for a new job come around Autumn time. They have a relatively comfortable start to the season but as summer officially ends those Autumn winds will blow chilly and cold. Leeds face Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester City in the space of seven games either side of the World Cup break, the board will take a look at their already perilous position and decide that it is time for a change. As we know, such moves rarely work, and Leeds will soon be facing their return to the Championship. Personally, I think they will be as good as down by March. Literally, and almost poetically.
19th – Nottingham Forest – Points Range – 30-35 – Relegated
It is going to be an awfully big adventure for a team who really will be the Peter Pan of the Premiership. Sadly, the step up will prove too much, although they will also be too strong for the Championship, and maybe a few seasons of yo-yoing will follow. Forest’s style might see them produce a few wins early on, and they could well be battling for mid-table by Christmas. Then it will be downhill all the way to relegation. Sorry. The spirit of Clough deserves better.
18th – Brentford – Points Range – 32-37 – Relegated
Thirty six points is usually enough to stay up. It may not be this season, with the uncertainties that the World Cup will create. To be honest, Brentford could as easily finish mid-table as be relegated. But they will miss Christian Eriksen, and second season blues are bound to strike as teams become more familiar with their style and passion. There is another variable, though, which could prove decisive. Some of the middling teams, Everton comes strongly to mind, are going to struggle. They will want a new manager. Somebody like Frank, having succeeded (relatively speaking) at Brentford is going to be high up the list. Come the January window, he’s going to need reinforcements. Ivan Toney could well be the sort of striker who comes under demand. It will be enough. Relegation will follow.
17th – Bournemouth – Points Range 32-37
Hedgng bets a bit here. Bournemouth will struggle, not too much doubt there. But they will get a very welcome mid-season break, and that might just be enough to refresh them enough to secure enough points on the run in to secure another season in the top flight. And they will be everybody’s second favourite team, even without the mighty Howe at the realm.
16th – Everton – Points Range – 34-39
I don’t think that Frank Lampard will be the first manager to bite the dust in the Premier League this season, but I expect he’ll be gone by the World Cup, giving whoever their fickle owners appoint in their illogical attempts to avoid the drop a few weeks to make some changes. (Additional prediction, free of charge: look out for Lampard hoisted in to provide a manager’s perspective during the World Cup coverage…they are penning his contract already at the BBC.) But surely, a club of Everton’s size and tradition will have enough to avoid the drop. I mean, what is the last time an Aston Villa, or a Leeds United, or a West Ham found themselves in the Championship? Or a Sunderland or Newcastle for that matter. Doesn’t happen. Does it?
The thing is, they don’t have many particularly good players. And the one or two they do possess, Dominic Calvert Lewin for example, do tend to be injury prone or will become targets for bigger clubs come January, if they last that long.
Mid Table Security
15th – Fulham – Points Range – 39-44
Usually, Fulham are nailed on certs for the drop. Not this time. They have an experienced and talented manager, a striker who can score goals (even if hasn’t tended to net many at the very highest level) and an exciting style of play. They will be on the end of some hammerings, no doubt, but will also secure some good victories. Enough for relegation to never really be more than a distant threat. Fulham will be the sort of side who the bigger teams will fear, because they might always spring a surprise. They’ve done a bit of transfer business, brought in a couple of players who could well help to solidify them – Pereira in particular has a goodish pedigree – and should retain their team spirit and collectivity. They might need it, but not desperately so. By September 10th they will have faced Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. It’s probably better to be up against the big clubs early, as they settle into the season. If Fulham reach the end of September in mid-table it should be plain sailing. Hmm.
14th – Southampton – Points Range – 42-47
If there is a team who could as easily face relegation as be challenging for Europe it is Southampton. There is a school of thought which says a bad run (and they always have one at some stage) or a big defeat (ditto) could see Hassenhutl depart. Hard to see though, unless he wants to go. There are no stars at Southampton, and that is their strength.
13th – Wolves – Points Range – 42-47
Wolves are in decline. Probably, though, the slope is not steep enough to see them enter any kind of relegation battle. Nevertheless, the World Cup could see their resources drained. Expect a reasonable start to the season, with a disappointing end. Nothing new there, then.
12th – Brighton – Points Range – 44-49
Bissouma will be a miss, and holding onto Cucurella for another season might be a must, given he was one of the standout players of the last campaign. But Graham Potter is a wily old bird, and probably one who would only consider a major European club as a reason to move. They will be OK.
11th – Leicester – Points Range 44-49
Could this be a season of change for Leicester? They have relied so much on Jamie Vardy’s goals over the years, but the great man is coming to the end of his career. If Tielemans goes as well, with Schmeichel already departed, and James Maddison looking like pastures new might beckon, this could be a make or break season. How much longer Brendon Rodgers is prepared to commit to his project is also up for question. Still, they should have enough quality to maintain a mid-table presence.
Challenging for Europe
10th – West Ham – Points Range 47-52
David Moyes is a terrific manager. West Ham have over achieved in recent times. It might not continue. They will remain hard to beat, but there were hints last season that opponents were beginning to figure them out. Still, chances are they will be in the running for European places at least for some of the season.
9th – Aston Villa – Points Range – 50-55
If David Moyes has quality with experience, then Steven Gerrard offers quality with youth, at least in managerial terms. The problem Villa may face is scoring goals, with both Ings and Watkins fine players in their own right, if neither being overly prolific. Gerrard has built a very good age profile at Villa. Lots of experience but no significantly aging players. Even Danny Ings, who seems to have been playing since the turn of the millennium, is actually only 30. A key factor could be the form of Mings, the big stopper having just endured a middling season. Can they qualify for Europe? Maybe. Are they likely to? Probably not. Shame, Ings and Mings sounds like a double act worthy of a bigger stage than the show in the middle of the Premiership pier.
8th – Manchester United – Points Range 52-57
Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we try to buy the league. (Unless we are City, of course.) What a mess. A striker closer to forty than thirty five who doesn’t ‘do’ the manager’s preferred tactics. Significant, disparate personalities. Top players who just do not perform. Erik ten Hag might really begin to regret his decision to move to Manchester. But, then, everybody needs a challenge. Lisandro is clearly a good defender. But one who occupies the position of choice of the man who should already be their top centre back. Harry Maguire needs to sort his head out before the World Cup. Christian Eriksen is good, but isn’t he just another Fernandes who stays on his feet more readily? How can you press when the player who should start it all cannot do it? This could be a terrible season for United, not least because many of their bigger names will be in Qatar. Plus, you can’t help wondering whether that tournament is their primary goal.
7th – Crystal Palace – Points Range – 53-58 – Conference League (provided one of the top six lift the FA Cup.)
Patrick Vieira is doing a terrific job. Lack of funds will probably do for Palace in the end, but this team of Wilfred Zaha and a squad who over-achieve will run it close. And won’t we all be secretly pleased if they do secure a European spot for 2023-24? As long as they don’t beat our own team along the way…
Champions’ League and Title Contenders
6th – Chelsea – Points Range 60-65 – Europa League or Conference League
Most fans consider a top six finish a success. Not Chelsea, though. What have they done? Tuchel has a bit of a reputation; it is far from certain that he will last the season. Chelsea look unbalanced. Too many strikers, even with Lukaku gone, each of whom is not quite good enough – whether Sterling will change that is open to question. A defence where Rudiger will be missed. Chelsea will be good enough to secure a number of wins, but the feeling exists that their time at the very top maybe coming to an end.
5th – Newcastle – Points Range 63-68 – Europa League
The key will be whether Newcastle’s super rich owners will stick with Eddie Howe, or feel they need a massive name at their helm. Howe is without doubt Britain’s top manager at the moment and he is building a team steadily. Howe has orchestrated a sensible, if unspectacular transfer window. A good season will follow. Unless…the owners go mad and Howe leaves – either of his own accord (we sense a moral man with scruples) or because he is hung out to dry. If that happens, then it could cost them half a dozen places. Not, you fear, that this is the owners’ primary concern.
4th – Spurs – Points Range 65-70 – Champions’ League
Spurs are Son and Kane, spiced with a touch of Conte. Nothing has changed this window. Richarlison is a decent enough player, but is unlikely to suddenly set the league on fire. Son is the man they need to keep fit and fresh. If he is missing for any period, or loses form, then expect both Chelsea and Newcastle to finish above the Lilywhites. The Champions’ League, too, might stretch their resources.
3rd – Manchester City – Points Range 68-73 – Champions’ League
Two thousand three hundred words in we finally hit controversy. It is pretty hard to offer too much logic for putting the super riches of the City squad outside the top two, but here goes.
- Guardiola has been there for a long time now. Does he have the energy and enthusiasm for another stressful campaign?
- Most City players will find themselves involved in the World Cup, often to the latter stages. This might impact on their usual run-in success.
- The one player who probably needs to keep playing, Haaland, isn’t going.
- Player for player, at full strength, there are two better teams in the league next season.
- The Champions’ League. Guardiola needs to win it. In order to do so, he will need to prioritise. Maybe now is the time to do that. (For what it is worth, City fans, I think he will succeed.)
- City’s best player, KDB, is starting to get on, and pick up injuries. This is probably Belgium’s last shot at major championship glory. It will take its toll.
Plus, I think City will miss Sterling and Jesus more than they think. Haaland is a top player, no doubt, but strikers often take a while to settle. (The evidence against Liverpool certainly suggests this.) Jack Grealish is not quite the player that many thought, and that is going to place a lot or pressure on Mahrez. But he is never a shoe-in starter.
And here’s the biggest one of all. The Premier League is a massive business. Aren’t we all bored of City lifting the trophy? When global interest begins to wane, the Premier League are likely to act.
There we have it.
2nd – Liverpool – Points Range – 78-83– Champions’ League
Mane will be hard to replace. Firmino’s powers are fading. But Liverpool are still a terrific team, full of pace and pressure. Fabinho is truly World Class. Salah might benefit from not travelling to the World Cup. Nunez looks, on his brief cameo at the Charity Shield, to be a handful. Diaz made a great start to his time on Merseyside. But there is another side to this story. It is about age. Consider the following players: Milner, Henderson, Matip, Thiago, Firmino, Van Dijk, Salah. The core of the first team. All over thirty. That could, in such a long season, tell. I think it will.
1st – Arsenal – Points Range – 82-87 – Champions and Champions’ League
You could get fifty to one against Arsenal lifting the trophy earlier in the summer. Then came pre-season. The odds are halved, or more. Mikel Arteta is a clever guy. He is building something. Actually, two things. Firstly, the mental toughness which has been sometimes missing from a first XI who could always beat anybody on their day, but lose to anyone if the mood (and referee) was on them. Secondly, real depth to the squad. This is going to be a long season. It will need the unusual combination of youthful energy and experience. This Arsenal squad has both.
Last season there were two, maybe three, factors which combined to stop the team from finishing a comfortable third. Firstly, some truly shocking refereeing. Consider Son elbowing Holding in the face, and getting away with it, before Holding is sent off, or the run of red cards as they made their first run up the table, or MacArthur’s outrageous kick at Saka, which could only be punished by a red, but was not. There were endless examples. Secondly, the lack of a striker who scores regularly. Thirdly, perhaps less significantly, the impact of Covid at the outset of the season for which other teams, later, were allowed to cancel matches.
Then there is the flow of fixtures. For once, this has worked out well for the Gunners. A relatively smooth start (although Palace away for the opening game is tricky) should see them reach October with plenty of points under their belt. That will give them the confidence to tackle a period which sees them face Spurs, Liverpool, City and Chelsea in short time. Crucially, though, the first three are at home, and Arsenal have done well at Stamford Bridge over the past few seasons. They then have a smoothish passage through the season defining (perhaps) post World Cup spell. April is challenging, but get through that and it should be nine points from nine from the final three matches. Of all the serious challengers to the top four, fixtures have fallen best for the Gunners. Conspiracy theorists take note…has somebody on high decided it is time for a change? Talking metaphysically, of course.
Winning the league may well be dependent on better refereeing and Jesus staying fit. If these conditions are met, the trophy will be heading back to North London for the first time since the days of the Invincibles.
And won’t we all cheer that? Most of us, anyway. Well, the Arsenal fans at least.
Alan is a freelance writer and passionate football fan. He has published more than a dozen football related books, many as a ghostwriter, but also under his own name. AJ Rutherford’s Russian World Cup (In Russia) is a satirical look at punditry based around the 2018 World Cup. He has also written a number of football based coaching and reference books. He has written and ghost written many blogs on football for a range of publications – informational, journalistic and coaching. He also specialises in biographical writing, and ghostwrites autobiographies or memoirs for clients.