When Two Become Three

Our own team’s progress apart, the last couple of PL seasons have been tedious in the extreme. The same must have been the case at the turn of the century when Arsenal and Manchester United dominated with transparent ease.  But, holding a supporter’s interest in that competition cast a rose-tinted hue over what was, in all probability, a league as dull and predictable as the recent Liverpool/City hegemony.

VAR

VAR – good or bad, it has the potential to transform our football

Those two are likely to dominate again, but this year there will be a third member of the big six up there competing for the top prize.  Of all the clubs in with a shout of ultimate glory, Arsenal have enjoyed the best experiences at the summer sales.  Senor Emery has his detractors, but he is a pragmatic kind of guy, and if he genuinely sees the potential in his team, bolstered by the surprising opening of the bank of Kroenke, he could turn it into an outfit capable of beating anybody.

Nothing new in that; the same has been said of United, Chelsea, Spurs, Wolves, Everton and, previously, Crystal Palace.  But Emery’s pragmatism will help supply the missing ingredient in a team that has fallen short in so many matches in recent years – consistency.

With (we hope) no utilitarian Huddersfield to prop up the League and no thinly veneered Fulham to flatter and deceive the relegation fight looks open from day one, with any of eleven teams serious contenders.

And while the fight for the title promises to be more open with its extra contender, so the battle for the final top four position introduces at least three new(ish) kids on the block.

A season to savour awaits.

Brighton

Graeme Potter was becoming a legend in Sweden.  But last season proved that legendary status in Scandinavia does not translate to English success. 

Brighton behaved appallingly in getting rid of Chris Hughton, a fine manager and a fine man.  They deserve the fate which awaits them.  Pity their fans.

Prediction 20th

Crystal Palace

If I was a betting man, I’d think about putting some money on poor Roy Hodgson being out of a job by November.  Missing Aaron Wan Bissaka will be tough; losing Wilfried Saha, very possibly to a European team (at the time of writing, the English window had just three days to play) catastrophic.

And, even if he stays, it seems likely that Wilfried’s heart will be elsewhere.

They’ve caused some shocks in their recent spell in the top division, and they will be back, but for Palace fans this will be the last look at the country’s top teams for a couple of seasons.

Prediction 19th

Newcastle United

We like Steve Bruce.  There, we’ve said it.  Stop reading now if you want to.  He seems an honest sort, a fair manager of lower Premier league standard.

But, if Roy Hodgson works a miracle and keeps Palace out of trouble for long enough to keep his job to Christmas, then Brucey will be the first Premier League manager looking for a new club next season.  It is more than a fair chance that Newcastle could be sitting on the bottom of the league, pointless, after five games.  That could be a position from which they cannot recover.  And in Mike Ashley, they seem to lack an owner who takes setbacks in his measured stride.  Panic beckons.

We all know that Newcastle have sustained their top league status only thanks to the remarkable workings of Rafa Benitez; being a nice guy won’t be enough for Bruce. 

Prediction 18th

Aston Villa

Some clubs identify their weaknesses and seek to address them.  Others spend wildly and go for the scattergun approach, hoping that at least some of their purchases will pay off.  Villa fit determinedly into that category. 

At the time of writing, they have splashed out on twelve potential first teamers, including the player whose name is certain to provoke ridicule among opposition crowds, the dangerously monikered Marvelous Nakamba.  (Given that they also purchased the challengingly titled Tyrone Mings and Matt Targett, they really are setting themselves up for a fall.)

Villa fans’ greatest joy has been hanging onto to talisman Jack.  While not a Grealish convert; he’s average premier league standard, they probably have enough to stay up.  Just. 

Prediction 17th

Sheffield United

Everybody’s favourites to go down are not ours.  A team built from their time in League One, players who will do everything to seize their chance of a second season in the top flight, aided by some interesting acquisitions in the close season, they have the ingredients to make a fight of survival.

But more than that, they have one of Britain’s most underrated managers in their dug out.  A genuine hometown boy, Chris Wilder has performed miracles not just with Sheffield United, but also with Northampton Town and Oxford United, leading both to spectacular success at their respective levels.

He will take his chance.  Most of the season may be fraught with challenges, but this lot will be hard to beat at Bramall Lane, a partisan crowd behind them.  And they might just throw up a shock or two on the road. 

The fixture list has been relatively kind to them.  Some of their more winnable fixtures come in blocks, and although they face a terrifying Autumn, if they are still in touch by December, they face some winnable matches, as there are in February and March, with a run of six of their easier games.

manager

Chris Wilder – the Blades’ secret weapon?

Prediction 16th

Southampton

This season looks like it could be a little more relaxing than those of late, although the fear of relegation will probably not completely disappear until the closing weeks of the campaign, when their final three matches against Brighton, Bournemouth and Sheffield United should see them home and dry.

Danny Ings will add bustle and fight up front, and with Mario Lemina (if they hold on to him) they should just about have enough guile to stay out of trouble.

Prediction 15th

Bournemouth

We are enormous Eddie Howe fans here.  Indeed, if the wonderful Wenger really had to go (he didn’t), he would have been our choice to take over in the Emirates hotseat.  Really, with the astonishingly limited resources at hand, young Ed should be winning the Manager of the Season award every year he keeps the Cherries in the top flight.

But the year ahead is worrying for everybody’s second favourite Premier League side.  Will Ryan Fraser, in the final year of his contract, reach the heights of last year?  Will they cope without the very promising David Brooks, facing the first three months on the side-lines?  We all know that simply regaining fitness does not mean achieving immediate best form.  Will Callum Wilson stay fit?  A no to any one of those questions throws a big gooey lump of treacle into the Cherries’ pie, likely to clog up their Premier league progress.

But even more than this sits a bigger issue.  Eddie Howe is a clever man.   He knows he needs a bigger club soon if he is ever to break into the very top division of football management.  In all probability, he needs one more new challenge before he ascends to his proper level.  Will Bournemouth be able to provide that?  No.  For them, survival is the best they can hope for.  The mid table security he has provided is a down to his genius as a coach. 

But it cannot last.

If a bigger team come knocking…and surely, they will…he might just have to step away.  If that happens, Bournemouth are doomed.

We think they will hold on, probably with some degree of margin.  But that is one more of those heart ruling head judgements that football is so great at promoting.

Prediction 14th

Burnley

Will this be the last time we hear Sean Dyche’s husky tones on Match of the Day?  Probably not, although perhaps with a bigger club than Burnley.

In some ways, the claret bully boys have a lot in common with Bournemouth, achieving above their station.  But if Bournemouth provide a guided tour around a fine art gallery, the Burnley experience is closer to a Brexiteer rally in a dodgy Essex pub.

Still, as much as we might loathe Nigel Farage (OK, OK, not ALL of us) even his detractors have to admit he fulfils his limited remit well.  Burnley will continue to do the same.  We’ll have to wait until the end of MoD to see them, as another 0-0 or 1-0 result bores us, but they’ll continue to prosper, in the sensibly limited way of their ambition.

Prediction 13th

Norwich

One of the promoted teams often does surprisingly well, and this year that could be Norwich.  Starless, but sparkling on the pitch, they will score a lot of goals…and concede even more. 

Under Daniel Farke’s thrilling playing style they will be on the end of some hammerings.  We can see the likes of Tottenham, Wolves, City, Arsenal and Liverpool putting away six or more if the mood is upon them, but lesser teams may well end up out scored. 

To be fair, Norwich could finish easily at the bottom of the league.  But there is something attractive about teams built on Championship players and free transfers.  At the time of writing, their second most expensive summer buy comes from Rochdale and they are yet to spend more than three quarters of a million on a player in the window.  That, we know, is not even chicken feed in these times.

We can’t see Norwich staying in the top flight for many seasons, but maybe they will surprise a few this time round.

Prediction 12th

Watford

Another satisfying season ahead for the Hornets.  They won’t challenge for much, beyond perhaps a cup run, but should avoid any serious threat of relegation.  Which, realistically speaking, is an achievement in itself.

And, sorry Watford fans, that’s all there is to say. 

Prediction 11th

Wolves

In many ways the surprise package of last season.  Once more they have invested widely, if less so than last year, and wisely.  Securing Raul Jimenez and keeping Ruben Neves looks like their best business of all.

However, Wolves struggled against some of the lower sides last time out.  They did incredibly well against top sides, especially with their speed on the break, but these clubs will most likely have found a way of playing them now.

Second seasons are always tougher, and while Wolves will still cause some upsets, familiarity with their system alongside the pressures of playing in the Europa League will come home to roost.  A season of consolidation rather than progress.

Prediction 10th

West Ham

It is not impossible that the Hammers make the top four.  Odds of 66/1 look worth a punt.  They’ve taken on a couple of good players; have Felipe Anderson and, if he ever gets fit, Jack Wilshere – still the most creative English midfielder. 

And they don’t have to put up with the disruptive tantrums of Arnautovic.  That’s a plus.

A relatively straight forward opening set of fixtures could see them enter September with the sort of momentum that gives them a chance of sustaining a run.  Yes, they open against City, yet when could be a better time to play the Champions but at home on the first weekend of the season?

When the grass seed settles, we predict that they will do OK, but just miss out on a European slot, although a cup run beckons – they will be up for beating anybody on their day.

Prediction 9th

Manchester United

manchester united

How United would love a player of the class of one of these icons.

What chance Lukaku is still at Old Trafford by the end of the European transfer window?  What chance Pogba?  Indeed, what chance a promising young manager is in the dugout at the end of the season?  Well, there might be, but we don’t think he will be Norwegian.

The club remains in crisis.  This summer, they have spent £130 million on two defenders; one promising but unproven the other a good player, but distinctly not in the VVD league.  Or even close to it. 

Ten games in takes us to the end of October.  It is more than feasible that by then United could be floundering on five points, all but one earned in August. 

Remarkably, they are nearly even money to finish in the top four, and half the odds of Arsenal to win the title – even before Maguire’s signing was confirmed.  Presumably, those odds are based on the number of United fans who retain the faith, rather than any footballing insight on behalf of the bookies.

Of course, they will recover; they have too many decent players not to.  But champions?  Top four?  Top Six?  No. 

Prediction 8th

Chelsea

We fear (joyfully) for the Blues this season.  The fully justifiable transfer ban (let’s hope City are treated just as harshly for their indiscretions), an absent owner, their one top class offensive player gone, things look tough.

How many games have Chelsea turned over the years thanks to a piece of Hazard magic or deceit in the box?  Plenty.  And as much as he has ‘future National Hero’ stamped on his corrugated brow, we can probably guess why Frank Lampard is sitting behind the boss’s desk.

It’s nothing to do with knowing the club – for year after successful year Abramovich has appointed managers who have little clue about Stamford Bridge.  They probably knew more about the Anglo Saxon battle of the same name; the one in York, not the one between coach and players that rears its head every season when a title fails to be delivered.

And he was certainly not appointed on the back of setting the Championship alight with Derby.  He did ok, a little above average.  No more.  Clearly, Frank is there because he is cheap.

If Abramovich retains any interest in the club, the young boss will be lucky to last more than a season.  As for Chelsea, this could be the year the big six fail to fill the top six slots. They will be one of the sides to give way.

Prediction 7th

Everton

The Toffeemen have invested wisely this summer.  Fabien Delph – what a bargain. £8.5 million for a versatile player who never looked out of place at City.  He will help to make them difficult to beat.  Moise Keane might be the big name to join their books, but we suspect that, by the end of the season, it will be Delph who is the fans’ favourite.

The fixture list has been kind.  Everton are notoriously slow starters but this season it is far from unreasonable for their fans to hope for fifteen points after the first five games; yes they have tricky fixtures against Watford and Wolves, but these are both at the doomed Goodison, while on the road they visit relegation rivals Palace, Bournemouth and Villa.

We could do with a change to the top six.  Everton are about to provide it.

Prediction 6th

Tottenham

So, the media’s darlings have spent some money.  Not a lot, but at least some.  But the bubble is bursting.  Poch appears to be fed up with lack of trophies (congratulations, by the way, on the Audi Cup or whatever-it-is-called mega-triumph.  A fine achievement.  Should definitely get its own section on SPOTY.)

On top of a grumpy manager, there are a couple of big issues facing Spurs in the season ahead.  The first is VAR.  If, and that may be a big one, it is applied fairly, then the likes of Kane and Son will find their effectiveness neutered.  Not only will they ‘win’ (an interesting term, that) very few penalties, they face the prospect of their attempts turning into many yellow and red cards.  They will need to adapt their behaviour or face the prospects of bans (as well as tarnish to their oddly golden reputations.)

Secondly is the fitness and form of Dele Alli.  Unsurprisingly, we’ve never been huge fans, but we recognise our vision is blighted when it comes to the far-from-Lilywhites.  So, he must, at one stage, have been at least a bit good.  Not, it seems, anymore.

Thirdly, the genuinely good player they do have, Christian Eriksen, wants away.  Even if he is still at the club come September, his mind could well be elsewhere.

So, it seems as though the ‘Big Six’ sobriquet is coming to an end.  We see a final season in the Champions League this time out, followed by the Europa League adventures and, soon, back to Tottenham’s true spiritual home, mid table anonymity.

Still, at least they have that Audi trophy to show for their time at (well, near) the top.

Prediction 5th

Leicester

Taken as a whole, with three days to go, Brendon Rodgers takes the title for best transfer window.  The highly talented Ayoze Perez has been secured for £30 million; the impressive Belgian Youri Tielemans is now a permanent fixture.

Jamie Vardy remains a threat to any defence, especially on the break and Leicester have some of the most honest players in the league, plus one of the best keepers in Kasper Schmeichel. 

Losing Harry Maguire is a concern, but not an £80 million one; and wisely invested their compensation will more than cover that issue, even if it has to wait until January. 

If Everton are to be the team who break the top six stranglehold, under the wise stewardship of Brendon Rodgers Leicester will be the ones to topple the top four. Albeit, distantly from the top three.

Prediction 4th

Manchester City

Any behaviourists watch Pep during the Charity Shield?  It was like the end of last season.  For all the debonair charm, signs of stress were evident.  Remember how the Barca job got the better of him in the end?  How he needed a break.  Well it will be seven rest-free years at the end of this season.  Almost twice as many as he spent leading the Barca A team. 

And the pressure is growing.  The club has the biggest transfer pot – effectively a bottomless one since it appears as though financial rules don’t apply to City in the same way they do to other teams.  Money talks.  Especially, in these days of growth of football interest in the region, Middle Eastern money. 

Every other top club has an excuse not to have won the Champions’ League – Bayern Munich undergoing transition as, indeed, are Pep’s other former club.  Real can’t win it every year and are still trying to do the impossible and replace Ronaldo.  Liverpool is the holder.  Juventus might dominate in Italy, but that is no longer the pre-eminent place to play football.  PSG can rival City in terms of funds, but playing in France means no real competition, and the jump up to Champions League level catches them out time and again.

So, City ought to win it.  But they don’t.

We believe that City may take their eye off the league in their attempts to win the CL this season; they have strengthened little and have relied, overwhelmingly in big games, on Aguero and, to a lesser extent, Kompany.  One is gone and age is catching up with the other, as it is with the mercurial David Silva, a player whose moodiness seems to increase with the years.  All told, City will be close, but Champions of either England or Europe?  Not this season.

Prediction 3rd

Liverpool

No serious signings.  Is this a sign of a dab of arrogance about Liverpool? Defensively, they are strong but that is down more than anything else to two players – the peerless Van Dijk and the remarkable Allison in goal.

Certainly, they have the less than mighty Lallana back to some kind of fitness, and ‘The Ox’ is also on a deserved road to recovery.  Good players, both.  Champions?  Not really.  There’s also young Rhian Brewster coming through.  But teams have started to find out Liverpool’s front three.  With their threat reduced the team remains dangerous, but distinctly beatable.

We’d take them to do well in Europe once more – the club has a sort of Disney magic that enables it perform better than par across the Channel, but while we still think they will be there or thereabouts, no better than second, or perhaps third, for the Reds this season.

And that assumes the venerable Virgil stays injury (and suspension) free.

Prediction 2nd

And Finally…

Arsenal

In the week before the big kick off a year ago there was nothing but despondency in the Alan Peters’ household.  The wonderful, talismanic, ground-breaking manager, the last of the old school, was gone.  Betrayed by a hierarchy that, we feared, would not recognise quality if it bit them soundly on the nose.  (And, frankly, we wished it would.)

Well, despite a determined attempt to remain positive, if it wasn’t quite as bad as it could be, then last season wasn’t far short.

Highlights of a depressing campaign included a stuttering run to the Europa League final, topped by a performance of such ineptitude that it took a month to recover.  Some early season promise from the gritty Torreira, before he faded as the season strained his love of London.  A couple of splendid goals.  The smiling face of Auba.

Even the mesmeric Ozil was strangely muted by his treatment from a coach who, with his less than smooth flowing playing style, did little to enamour himself to most fans.

arsenal

Might the coming season deliver Arsenal’s first title since the Invincibles?

But all has changed.  A couple of really promising signings; Ramsey and, perhaps, Koscielny apart no significant losses.  Some good youngsters knocking on the door…surely one of Smith Rowe, Yedley, Nelson, Saka, Nketia et al will break through…compared to strangely inactive summers from most of our rivals has fed enthusiasm into the season ahead.  For the first time for many years, there is genuine strength in depth in the squad.  Even the fabled weakness of central defence is hardly catastrophic.  Every one of the first four players in that position would improve any team outside the top six.  And, to be fair, would be challenging for a spot with those in it.  Defence is weaker than attack and, now, midfield.  But judgements are relative. 

The Gunners are 40-1 for the title; that’s a good price.  With plenty of ‘ifs’, it’s not out of the question. 

If…Emery can find a way to keep our incredible attacking options flourishing and happy we have a good chance of winning every time we hit the field.  Is there, potentially, a better front five in world football than Ceballos, Ozil, Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe?  Passing, intelligence, pace, finishing, understanding, flexibility.  The potential is boundless.

If…Emery can bring the best out of Ozil.  On a bad day, he will produce three or four astonishing passes; on a good day, he can destroy any team.  But…he is a player who performs at his best when his side is the stronger.  He does not go missing against other opposition, as detractors claim.  If he did, he would not have been so successful in the German national team. Rather his role and opportunities are limited when his teammates are under pressure.  This season, with the players at Arsenal’s call, that potential to at least equal and usually dominate opponents is stronger than since the move to the Emirates.

If…Xhaka, Torreira, Guendozi and Maitland Niles (assuming continued rates of improvement from still young players) can establish some kind of defensive midfield consistency to protect a back four that will be at times exposed.

If…Bellerin regains full fitness quickly, Holding continues his progress from last year before injury blighted promise, Koscielny (if he stays) and Sokratis can conjure a good season as they reach the twilight of their careers and the crowd get off Mustafi’s back (he’s really not that bad).

If…VAR is played straight, and judgement calls on whether to apply it are equally determined.

A lot of ifs.  But it can happen.  It is not a bad time to play two of the toughest games, Spurs and Liverpool, in the opening five matches.  The season is still settling down.  Twelve points from the first fifteen would be a good return.  Thirteen or more outstanding. 

My head says we will finish second or third, a lot depending on whether Liverpool fall a little from the heights of the last two seasons.  The heart, though, genuinely thinks it could be time. 

Prediction – 1st

(Read Alan’s  satirical account of last year’s World Cup through the eyes of self-confessed expert, AJ Rutherford – AJ Rutherford’s Russian World Cup (In Russia).  Details in the ‘Books’ section of this site.)

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