Premier League Preview - Part 1

 

Here it is. Screenshot it. Bookmark it. However you intend to take a picture of this and recite it to me throughout the season, just do it. It’s every writer and pundit’s worst nightmare, prediction time. Here is the Lowe-Down on my Premier League predictions.

Part 1.

Mid-table safety
West-Ham are the embodiment of a story where the ending outweighs the plot throughout. West Ham’s Europa Conference League triumph was an incredible achievement for the club and a message to other Premier League clubs to try and follow suit. After what had been a disappointing domestic season, where Moyes was on the brink a few times, the win against Fiorentina saved their season. It certainly cemented Moyes’ legacy as one of tremendous success at West Ham. Hook or by crook, Moyes will have taken West Ham into Europe for three seasons in a row. That’s a tremendous achievement.

However, new season planning has not been going well. West Ham knew Declan Rice would be leaving the club this summer, yet two weeks after his departure, there’s still not been a single replacement signed. They had a deal agreed with Man City for the transfer of their talented winger, Carlos Borges, however Ajax have now gazumped them at the last minute and are set to land the Portuguese youngster. What is going on? Jacob Steinberg of the Guardian reports that there is tension between Moyes and new technical director Tim Stiedten.  After losing both Rice and Mark Noble, Moyes is seeking British players as replacements and is targeting James Ward-Prowse, Scott McTominay, and Harry Maguire. Stiedten, on the other hand, is seeking for more value and is looking abroad for signings. So far, no one has arrived. The impasse remains.

West-Ham have a Declan Rice sized hole and will require at least one midfield reinforcement to replace him, if not two. Rice took on the mantra last season as the defensive midfielder as well as someone who carried the ball from deep, driving West-Ham up the pitch. He covered up the deficiencies. West Ham will also require strengthening up front with both Scamacca and Antonio linked with moves away. Whilst the squad on paper is too strong to be considered as a genuine relegation candidate, last season’s league performance fell way below par and Moyes will need a good start to ensure the pressure does not begin to mount again.

 

Crystal Palace start this 2023/24 season with Roy Hodgson in charge. Who would have thought that? Hodgson was called in to steer the club to safety last season and did just that and with aplomb. Hodgson had Palace playing scintillating attacking football as they scrambled clear of the bottom three in style. One of his magicians, however, has left the club this summer. Palace’s talisman, Wilfried Zaha, deciding to weigh up all of his options before deciding to join Turkish side Galatasaray. Yeah, work that one out.

Still, when one man leaves, another one steps up and angling to be that guy is Eberechi Eze. He showed his ability last season, picking up the ball centrally before going on mazy runs and creating chances. Eze also scored 10 goals last season and will be looking to add to that as he cements his bid to become Palace’s main man. Another jewel in the crown at Palace is winger Michael Olise. He, too, will look to step up in Zaha’s absence with his pace and trickery from wide positions. Olise, however, has been linked with a move away to Man City so we’ll have to see how that one develops. Palace should be secure in mid-table this season.


Fulham will be hoping the “second season syndrome” doesn’t creep in at the Cottage this season. They had a fantastic first season back in the top flight, playing attacking, entertaining football under Marco Silva, earning lots of plaudits in the meantime. Keeping hold of their head-coach has proved a challenge, however, Silva rejected a mouth-watering £40million deal to leave Fulham for Saudi Arabia. The same cannot be said for their talisman Alexander Mitrovic. The Serbian has had his head turned by Al-Hilal and is reportedly furious at Fulham’s high valuation of £52million. How this one turns out, I’m not quite sure.

Another man Fulham will be relying upon this season is their stalwart in midfield, Joao Palhinha. An unlucky candidate to miss out on the team of the season, Palhinha made 147 successful tackles last season which was by far the highest in the league. Second place, Moises Caicedo, made 100 in comparison. He’ll be crucial in ensuring mid-table safety which I expect will be Fulham’s destiny.

 

Burnley and Bournemouth back with a bang

You know that ex you had that disappeared, and suddenly came back into your life a completely transformed person? Say hello to, Burnley FC! Despite leading Burnley to the Championship title last season, perhaps Vincent’s Kompany’s biggest achievement has been revamping the style of play. Managing to combine the results with transforming the entire club’s philosophy in one season is nothing short of incredible. No one wonder the Belgian was strongly linked to the Spurs job this summer.

How will they play in the Premier League? Well, if you’re not an avid watcher of the Championship, you may be pinching yourself watching this Burnley 2.0. Last season, they averaged around 61% possession which is approximately 25% higher than in Sean Dyche’s final season with the Clarets. Kompany, who clearly learnt a few tricks from Guardiola, likes to invert his full backs to ensure stronger ball retention and option availability. Kompany will not compromise his principles of how he wants his team to play. Their first game presents the biggest test of this. Treble-winning Manchester City at home.

They will be without their top scorer, Nathan Tella, who was deemed not needed by relegated Southampton and scored 17 goals on loan at Burnley last season.  Zeki Amdouni, aged 22, has been signed from FC Basel as his replacement. The recruitment under Kompany evidences the change in culture at the club with younger players being targeted. The average age of the squad is 24.7 and thus the evolution from Dyche-ball to Kompany-ball is complete. I will be fascinated to see how they get on.

 

Whilst Burnley underwent their revamp last season, there has been a sea of change at Bournemouth this summer. Gary O’Neil was thanked for keeping Bournemouth up in true football fashion, by being sacked and replaced by Andoni Iraola. With a change in “style of football” cited as one of the reasons for the change, just what can we expect from Andoni Iraola? Well, as he puts it; “I prefer to play at a high pace, even if it means a touch of hastiness, than play at a slower pace and have more control”. In today’s game, Iraola is an outlier. 

 

I’d suggest this philosophy is in part down to Vallecano having the second lowest expenditure in La Liga as well as it being part of his DNA. Seeking control when you have the best players is normal and expected. Opting for chaos and anarchy, when you do not, is smart. Xavi, called them the biggest pain in the arse in La Liga as Barcelona failed to beat Vallecano in four games last season.  

 

Iraola’s team play high, vertically and at a ferocious tempo. Only Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao spent more time in the opposition’s half. They also had the top three players in La Liga with the most high-intensity sprints, Alvaro Garcia, Ivan Balliu and Fran Garcia. It’s no surprise one of Iraola’s biggest influence’s is Marcelo Bielsa.

 

With a reasonably young squad makeup at Bournemouth, where the average age of the squad is 26, Iraola will be relying on the younger attacking players to run and press all game. If their aggressive counter press is done effectively, appropriate service to Dominic Solanke will guarantee goals.

 

Just how Iraola will implement his principles will be fascinating and there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be using their underdog status to their advantage. The football will be risky, but without risk, there is little reward and where’s the fun in that?

 

 

Everton and Forest seeking comfort

Two teams who will be seeking steady progress towards mid-table this season are Everton and Nottingham Forest.

Touching upon the former first and it was only a few years that Everton were aspiring for regular European football with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm. Dominic Calvert-Lewin couldn’t miss in front of goal, and James Rodriguez was pulling the strings. Fast-forward three years and Everton have been on the brink of oblivion. Sean Dyche was brought in as a fire-fighter in January this year, and did just that, keeping Everton up on the final day of the season.

Looking ahead to this season and Everton have not made wholesale changes this summer.  They have managed to keep hold of their key man, Amadou Onana. At the age of 21, he has proven himself to be Everton’s anchor in midfield and his numbers show this. Onana had an average of 2.63 tackles per game, winning 92% of these and, 7.06 winning ground duels per game as well as 2.13 winning aerial dules per game. All three of these are higher than Declan Rice’s numbers which only show the high performances Onana put in consistently last season. Another season like that and he will be the next combative midfielder wanted by all the top clubs. Get in line.

In terms of additions, Everton finally added January target Arnault Danjuma to their ranks on a loan deal. He, of course, has Premier League experience at Bournemouth however it’s at Villareal where he has enhanced his reputation and he will add pace and directness to Everton’s attack. The man Dyche will hope to partner him up front with is Dominic Calvert-Lewin. One could only wonder where both he and Everton would be if he had avoided his torrid injuries. Firing 16 goals in 33 games in his last injury free season in 2020/2021 shows the quality he possesses and getting and keeping him fit will be vital in Everton’s pursuit for progress.

 

Moving to Nottingham Forest now, and it was certainly an unforgettable return to the Premier League for them. They were written off before a ball had been kicked and written off after a ball had been kicked off the back of making 23 summer signings. How would this all fit together? For a while, it didn’t. Whilst head-coach Steve Cooper slowly got to grips with all the tools he had, Forest kept their grip firmly away from the panic button and stuck with him.  They were rewarded as he led them to safety with a home win vs Arsenal.

This summer has been a little quiet for Forest’s recent standards which could be considered normal but also raises some concerns. Anthony Elanga has joined from Manchester United and Forest will be hoping Steve Cooper’s talent for improving young players bears fruit. So far, their pursuit of fellow teammate, Dean Henderson has been unsuccessful. It doesn’t appear that Forest and Manchester United are too far away, both agreeing on a loan deal, just the amount of games to trigger an obligation to permanently buy Henderson being the sticking point.

Forest’s starting 11, providing they add a keeper of suitable quality, is strong and would appear good enough to keep them up again. They, do, however, lack real depth in the squad. Forest were particularly strong on counter-attacks last season and keeping the spearheads, both Morgan Gibbs-White and Brennan Johnson fit, will be key to Forest’s survival hopes. Whilst this counter-attacking style was particularly effective at home, Forest’s away record was tepid and one solitary win, against the bottom side Southampton, would ordinarily not be enough to survive. Forest will need to improve their away record as they may not pick up as many points at home this season. It’s also important that Forest don’t seek unnatural progression too quickly. Sticking with Cooper, a cult hero amongst the Forest faithful, will boost their chances of survival and he has earnt the chance to lead the club towards consolidating itself in the Premier League.

 

Wolves Woes

Wolves’ season can be categorised as a season of two halves. Pre-World Cup, they had amassed a lowly total of 11 points from their opening 16 games and this resulted in Bruno Lage’s dismissal. In came Julien Lopetegui, the Europa League winning, former Real Madrid manager. Not your usual firefighter. Lopetegui proved to be up for the job and lead Wolves to 14th position. This was the lowest since Wolves’ return to the Premier League and was a sign the club had been standing still and was now going backwards. With a mere 31 goals scored in 38 games, the lowest in the Premier League, Wolves had lost their bite.

Their transfer window has been alarming and has even resulted in Lopetegui to speak out for the need for reinforcements. Those who have left Molineux this summer include Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho, Diego Costa, Adama Traore, Nathan Collins, Raul Jimenez and Conor Coady. Over the last few seasons, all these players have been mainstays in the team at some point. Only Matheus Cunha, Boubacar Traore and Matt Docherty have joined the club this summer.

Wolves have had success in recent years in doing business with super-agent Jorge Mendes and his everlasting talent pool of Portuguese players. The relationship has certainly been a profitable one for Mendes with an estimated £330m being spent on players who were either represented by his agency or in deals facilitated by Mendes. Early on, the results lived up to the hype with Neves, Moutinho, Jota and Patricio all impressing and taking Wolves to new heights. However, for every one of those, there has been a Fabio Silva, a Goncalo Guedes and a Nelson Semedo, who joined for a combined £99.5million.

It turns out spinning the Mendes wheel of fortune does not guarantee a superstar every time. No refunds. No recruitment policy is 100% foolproof, however relying on an agent to ship the “hottest” new talent across isn’t destined to work long-term. Having rolled a die too many, Wolves have now decided to take their shopping elsewhere, parting ties with Mendes. The damage, however, has been done.

There’s a malaise that has set in at Wolves. A slow decay at the club which was present even during the end of Nuno Esperito Santo’s reign. 14th, 10th and 13th in their last three seasons represents solidity in mid-table, however Southampton fans would be all too quick to tell you how mid-table security can quickly turn into relegation worries. A manager of Lopetegui’s calibre deserves better and I wouldn’t be surprised if he left the club, one way or another, this season. I predict Wolves to be in a fight and as it stands, I doubt whether they’ll be ready.


Promoted Sides

Luton Town are Premier League. I can’t lie and pretend I wasn’t rooting for them in their play-off final against Coventry in May. Luton have had a meteoric rise that began with their promotion to League 2 from the Conference only 9 years ago. Their incredible rise is matched by their Head Coach, Rob Edwards, who last summer was reflecting on his League 2 success at Forest Green before moving to Watford, Luton’s bitter rival. This detail makes the triumph a whole lot sweeter. Edwards, appointed in November 2022, won 14 out of 25 games and lead the Hatters to the promise land.  At 1/3 odds of being relegated, the bookies, however, believe there is a 75% chance Luton go down. So, what chance do they have of defying those odds?

Luton play in a compact 3-5-2 system which morphs into a 5-3-2 out of possession, similar to Brentford’s system. They are unashamedly direct in their approach and ranked 21st in the Championship for accurate passes per game. Rather than opting for control with possession, Luton are aggressive pressers and won the ball in their opponent’s final third as many times per match as almost any other side in the Championship last season. They’re gritty, tough to beat and the compact Kenilworth Road stadium and narrower pitch should ensure it’ll be a tough place to go next season. Luton, whilst not having the best home record in the Championship (only 9th best), will be pinning their hopes on Kenilworth Road being a fortress. There are shades of Huddersfield Town in Luton Town  with their low budget and style of football and despite being written off, Huddersfield survived their first season in the Prem. If Luton were to survive relegation this season, it would be one of the greatest survival stories of the Premier League era.

 

Speaking of Yorkshire sides, let’s talk about Sheffield United. Promoted back to the Premier league at the second time of asking, Paul Heckingbottom’s team quietly went about their business. They lacked the razzmatazz of Burnley and the fairytale story of Luton. Ask your friends who the three promoted teams were and I bet Sheffield United is the forgotten one. Sheffield United’s last stint in the Premier League was one that bring back joyous memories of overlapping centre halves, the only tactical trend that Pep Guardiola didn’t invent, and an incredibly spirited 9th position in 2019-2020. The less said about their next season, the better.

How sharp are the Blades now then? Similarly, to their promoted counterparts, Luton, Paul Heckingbottom lines his team up in a 3-5-2 shape. Boasting the 2nd meanest defence in the Championship, the Blades will look to be solid and tough to beat. Going forwards they also had the 3rd most prolific attack in the Championship and just like Luton, again, they look to counter-press high up the pitch before playing quick passes into their forwards. They averaged 51% possession last season which evidences the ability to apply a more patient approach should their opposition choose to be more cautious. Sander Berge will be crucial in the middle of the park, ensuring the Blades don’t surrender possession too easily.

However, the fulcrum of their attack, Iliman Ndiaye has signed for boyhood club Marseille. Ndiaye chipped in with 14 goals and 10 assists last season and losing him is a huge blow for the Blades. Sheffield United will need to replace him quickly as well as bring in further additions in order to compete.


Conclusion:
In an ever-competitive landscape, the Premier League is a beast that will swallow any complacency and lack of quality. The gap between the Premier League and the Championship is a chasm these days and unfortunately, I see both Sheffield United and Luton struggling.  Those two are my picks for 19th and 20th respectively.

As for 18th, it’s a worst of the rest. As I have outlined, I see a disconnect at Wolves and believe they’ve let rot set in and have yet to react. I fear for Wolves and they’re my pick for 18th.


Here are my 11th to 20th predictions:

11th – West Ham

12th – Crystal Palace

13th – Fulham

14th – Burnley

15th – Bournemouth

16th – Everton

17th – Nottingham Forest

18th – Wolves

19th – Sheffield United

20th – Luton

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