Premier League Preview - Part 2

 

Pushing the boundaries

Brentford:

Brentford have become a club that your club hopes to emulate. Smart, data driven signings, rarely flattering to deceive as they continue to punch above their weight in the middle of the pack in the Premier League. This will be their third season in the top flight and yet, they belong. No one deserves more praise than their mastermind, the man who took them into the promised land, and that is Thomas Frank.

Brentford are a master of set-pieces with only Liverpool scoring more than their 16 goals from set pieces last season. Frank has spoken about the need to evolve his Brentford team “towards Brentford 2.0” and will no doubt be referring to the fact he will be without top scorer Ivan Toney who is suspended until January 2024. In his absence, Bryan Mbuemo looks best placed to fill the void but Toney’s absence will mean Brentford could adapt their game to be less direct. For any Fantasy Football fans out there, I’m sure he’ll be a popular pick.

This summer, Brentford have replaced the wantaway David Raya with Mark Flekken for £11million which looks like excellent value in this market. Nathan Collins has arrived from Wolves too for a club-record £23million and joins a Brentford backline which ranked joint third in the league, only conceding 46 goals last season. Brentford have managed to keep hold of their key players and thus I don’t see them struggling. The absence of Ivan Toney will no doubt hurt them and their pursuit of European qualification. A mid-table finish in the Premier League would, again, be an impressive season for the bees.


Brighton:

And now we draw our attention to everybody’s favourite second team. The club we love to praise, and rightly so, it must be said. Brighton are the “super club” in the Premier League right now. Brighton’s owner Tony Bloom made his money in gambling and each year his Brighton team defy the odds. Season upon season they improve despite losing their best players to top six sides. Last summer they sold both Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella to Tottenham and Chelsea respectively as well as Leandro Trossard to Arsenal in January. All for a combined fee of just over £100million. Two direct replacements were already at the club in Moises Caicedo and Kaoru Mitoma and Pervis Estupinan was signed later.  How many Brighton fans would take Cucurella back over Estupinan or drop Caicedo for Bissouma? The answer is none and it shows the remarkable job Brighton’s recruitment team do but also how well the club integrate players.

Another replacement Brighton got spot on last season was replacing Graham Potter (remember him?) with Roberto De Zerbi. Potter did a terrific job at Brighton, installing a sophisticated style of football, attracting the attention of Todd Boehly who stumped a record £21.5million for his services. Sadly, we all know how that turned out. Brighton identified De Zerbi as their man and despite some classic “Who is he?” jibes, has proven himself to be an upgrade on Potter and taken Brighton’s game to a remarkable new level. The Seagulls were playing some of the best football in the country towards the end of last season as they marched to a 6th place finish.

In the off season, Brighton have typically lost one of their stars to Liverpool in Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo is strongly linked with Chelsea and Liverpool in the last 24 hours. Brighton have sought to compliment their talented assortment of young players at the club by signing experience such as James Milner and Mo Dahoud on free transfers. Brazilian forward Joao Pedro and goalkeeper Bart Verbrugen have also joined to bolster the ranks.

Brighton’s squad depth will be tested next season as they navigate their way through the Europa League and for this reason I don’t see them reaching the lofty heights of 6th position again. It will be fascinating to see how De Zerbi will continue the development of talents like Mitoma, Ferguson and Enciso and the team overall. Be on the look out for the breakthrough of an unknown talent too, it’s simply how they do it down there. A joy to watch, look out for Brighton this season.

 

Europe hopefuls

Spurs:

Spurs face a cross-roads, not only this summer but this season. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, they are clinging onto their status as a top club and Champions League hopeful. Ange Postecoglou has sought to implement a new style of play and philosophy at the club and will certainly need time to properly implement this.

Spurs have added smartly this summer. James Maddison provides end product and a goal threat from midfield and Vicario has replaced the departed Hugo Lloris in goal. Yesterday, Spurs finally announced they had got their man, in Micky Van de Ven, signing for £43mllion (including add-ons). The former Wolfsburg centre half is left footed and will compliment Cristian Romero in Spurs’ defence. Suddenly, their starting two centre halves look solid. As it stands, they have accepted a bid for Harry Kane from Bayern Munich and it’s up to Kane as to whether he stays or leaves.

I urge Spurs fans to treat this season as a transitional one. Results come first, of course, however Spurs need a season to progress their style. Playing in such a daring manner has its caveats and there will be shock defeats. It won’t always click but it will be fun. Sit-back and enjoy the ride, Spurs fans!

Want a deeper insight into Spurs, their problems, and their current situation? You can read all about this in my first blog of the Lowe-Down.

 

Aston Villa:

One side that has conducted their business very impressively this summer is Aston Villa. The Villian’s first piece of business, this summer, is one you may not be aware of. The highly respected Monchi joined Villa on 12th June as sporting director of the club. Monchi’s appointment emphasises the trust that the Villa board have instilled in head coach, Unai Emery, with Monchi and Emery having success together at Sevilla. When Emery first took over in November 2022, Villa were 16th having amassed 13 points from their first 12 games. Fast- forward 7 months and the Villains finished 7th. Had the season started when Emery took over, Villa would have finished 5th. The trust in Emery is justified.

In terms of improving the starting XI, Villa have done exactly that. Pau Torres, a full Spanish international at 26 years of age, joins from Villarreal for £31.5million, despite competition from Spurs and Juventus. Another signing who attracted Premier League interest is Moussa Diaby, the pacy, versatile forward from Leverkusen.  A partnership with Ollie Watkins looks lively and should be Emery’s first choice front two in his traditional 4-4-2 shape. Youri Tielemans has also joined on a free transfer to add some quality to their workmanlike midfield.

What can Villa fans expect this season? Well, there’s a feeling that giving Emery a full season may just yield something spectacular. The question is, just how far can he take them?

 

Champions League scramble

Newcastle:

Only two years ago, Steve Bruce was the manager of Newcastle United and they were owned by Mike Ashley. I hope every Toon fan reading that shivered as much as I did writing it. Fast-forward two years and the club are owned by Public Investment Fund (PIF) the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia making them the richest club in the world and are managed by Jason Tindall. Sorry, I mean Eddie Howe! Oh, I forgot.. and they’re in the Champions League! That’s some glow up.

Under their new stewardship, Newcastle have resisted the urge to use their new found wealth to lay down markers and go after big names such as Phillipe Coutinho, Eden Hazard and Neymar. A decision that has no doubt paid off as they have a hungry squad who play like their careers are on the line. Howe has been shrewd with his signings throughout, slowly, and efficiently, upgrading all areas of the pitch. Key standouts have been Nick Pope, Kieran Trippier, Dan Burn and Bruno Guimaraes. With the exception of “Bruno G”, these signings are not the most glamorous, but all have been instrumental in Newcastle’s resurgence into the top four.

Special praise must go to Howe for this complete turnaround. His tenure at Bournemouth had many on the fence about whether his neat and tidy teams had enough defensive resolve to ever be successful. Well, off the fence lads because Howe’s Newcastle are tough, streetwise and savvy.  Boasting the joint meanest defence in the Premier League last season is testament to Howe’s work on the training pitch. They’ve been accused of being masters of the “dark arts” by Mikel Arteta and the Spaniard is not the only one to voice discontent at the Magpies’ style. Do you think the Newcastle fans care about that? Not one bit. They are loving being public enemy number one.

This season will be harder. Juggling the challenge of competing amongst Europe’s elite in mid-week and domestic pressures will push Newcastle. Accordingly, they have added to their squad this summer, albeit staying mindful of FFP concerns. Harvey Barnes and Sandro Tonali add genuine quality to their squad and both will look to break into the first team. The Champions League anthem blaring all round St James’ Park will be a spectacle you will not want to miss. A season to remember for Newcastle fans and with unlimited finances, perhaps the first of many.

 

Chelsea:

Mauricio Pochettino, the new Chelsea head-coach, finds himself in a unique and luxurious position. Realistically, he can’t and won’t do any worse than his predecessor. Chelsea finished the season abjectly with club-legend Frank Lampard at the helm. So confident in his stock, and also aware of Chelsea’s plight, Pochettino didn’t feel the need to employ an agent to negotiate his Chelsea deal on his behalf. Oh, you want me? These are my terms.

His first task as Chelsea head-coach has been to assess a severely bloated squad and trim to his liking. Pochettino has always preferred to have a tight-knit squad, a feature of his success at rivals, Spurs. The second biggest task, and the most overlooked one, is to repair a fractured and fragmented dressing room. By all accounts, Pochettino has raised the spirit sand hopefully the “standards” that Frank Lampard repeatedly referred to. Jacob Steinberg of the Guardian reporting that Pochettino hosted his inaugural summer barbecue for his coaching staff to improve the spirit. Successfully trimming his squad, with 13 senior players leaving the club permanently, has meant Pochettino has a little less on his plate to deal with.

How does the squad look now? Well, when a club signs and hoards a lot of young, talented players, you end up with a pool of young, talented players at your disposal. Chelsea’s squad has a youthful exuberance about it and Chelsea’s fans are understandably excited for Pochettino to lead them, begrudgingly looking fondly at his time in Spurs in a similar situation. Players like Enzo Fernandez, Mykhailo Mudryk and Christophe Nkunku look set to take on the Premier League and excite the Bridge faithful. The only criticism I have of Chelsea’s business comes at both ends of the pitch. Arrizabalaga looks set to be Chelsea’s number one, yet has never convinced, and Chelsea’s most likely starting striker, with Nkunku currently injured, looks set to be Nicolas Jackson who is young and raw. Chelsea also need a centre midfielder to partner Enzo Fernandez and their lengthy pursuit of Moises Caicedo looks set to be concluded, one way or another, imminently.

This season is one of transition for Chelsea. They will undoubtedly improve on their retched season with Pochettino at the helm. Todd Boehly seems to have learnt a valuable lesson in squad formation, that bigger is not always better, and won’t be as visual or vocal this season. He, and the ownership group, ought to let Pochettino get on with the job. No European football will be a blessing for Chelsea, allowing maximum recovery in between games, and this will play into Pochettino’s hands as he seeks to instil his high-intensity pressing game.

 

Manchester United:

As first seasons go, a 3rd place finish guaranteeing Champions League football and a trophy would rank pretty high. Erik Ten Hag, the Manchester United head-coach, was measured in his attempts to re-invent this United team and utilised the glaring strengths of his players. With £164million spent this summer, the United faithful will want to see continued progression this season. What does progression look like? And, if we all agree the natural progression would be a title challenge, would United be capable of this?

My short answer is no. United’s signings go some way to address the weaknesses of the squad last season and all add quality. Onana is a substantial upgrade to De Gea, not just as a traditional save-stopping goalkeeper, but of course in his ability to be a ball-playing sweeper-keeper. Mason Mount will add dynamism and a counter-pressing ability to United’s midfield and more importantly signals the end of the infamous “Mc-Fred” partnership. Where United are still short is at upfront. 20 year-old Rasmus Hojlund has been plucked from Serie A for £64million off the back of scoring 9 goals last season. Given his age and scoring record, it seems a massive gamble for United to solely rely on him being their leading number 9 this season.

United go into the new season with stability of Ten Hag and his methods, albeit all under the huge cloud of uncertainty of if and when the Glazers will sell the club. Champions League football will thrill the Old Trafford faithful and United should look to continue their development of “Ten-Hag ball”. With their current squad, I see a title challenge as slightly too much for them. However, if they were able to lure Harry Kane from Spurs late on, they could be right in the mix.

 

Liverpool:

Liverpool came into this summer with hope of conducting a smooth rebuild.  It was all going so well for new sporting director, Jorg Schmadtke, with two release clauses paid for both Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai, Liverpool’s midfield had fresh life breathed into it. However, shock interest in seasoned stalwarts Fabinho and Jordan Henderson from Saudi Arabia led to their departures and Liverpool suddenly had more holes in their midfield than there were last season. Losing their sole defensive midfielder and their captain was not in their plans. The reaction to their departures has not been good as their public chase of Romeo Lavia of Southampton has seen three bids rejected with Liverpool reluctant to meet the £50milllion asking price. Liverpool are currently in talks with Brighton over Moises Caicedo and this signing would be a “game-changer”.

How did Liverpool fare last season? The reds evidenced somewhat of a soft underbelly, hence the need for a midfield rebuild this season. They were overrun, outworked and the “mentality monsters” of years gone by were non-existent. Despite being below par for most of the season, there is genuine cause for optimism at Liverpool with their unbeaten 11-game run at the end of the season. Jurgen Klopp stumbled on a new formation lining up in a 3-2-2-3 with the mercurial Trent Alexander-Arnold being deployed in a new inside full-back position. This tactical change provided both Alexander-Arnold and Liverpool the catalyst they needed, as Alexander-Arnold sparkled for both club and country. Playing this formation will mean it is imperative a true defensive midfielder is signed to compliment Alexander-Arnold at the base of Liverpool’s attacking fulcrum.

At the other end of the pitch, Klopp has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. Salah, Nunez, Gakpo, Diaz and Jota represent unrivalled firepower and I expect Liverpool to be one of the top scorers in the league. Will they be able to win games by simply out-scoring other teams? That remains to be seen. The last word on this segment is about Jurgen Klopp. Recently described by Gary Neville as the best “pound for pound” coach in the Premier League, accounting for budget and achievements, he is the man who makes everyone believe. Behind the scenes he will no doubt be baying for one if not two midfield reinforcements before 31st August, but he seems bullish about Liverpool’s prospects this season. If Klopp believes, anything is possible.

 

Title tilt

And then there were two. Last season’s top two look set to battle it out again this year. Their first duel took place at Wembley last Sunday with Arsenal winning the Community Shield on penalties. If previous years are anything to go by, then last Sunday’s showdown doesn’t mean a thing. As Pep Guardiola pointed out, Manchester City had lost their last three, but had won the last three Premier League titles. Even if the wound inflicted doesn’t penetrate City’s skin, perhaps the win, for Arsenal, gives them an internal boost, a self-belief shot in the arm.

Arsenal:

Arsenal were indeed victorious on Sunday but most importantly, they matched City for large periods of the game and appeared an equal counter-part. A worthy opponent. This was a far cry from the “Title Decider” at the Etihad in April where City dismantled Arsenal easily, winning 4-1. Mikel Arteta knows only too well the juggernaut he is up against so any win, no matter how small, could provide an ounce of confidence to his players and this could make a big difference come the end of the season.

Their summer business has been impressive and conducted with razor-sharp precision and vision. Top targets Declan Rice and Jurrien Timber were secured early, the former moving for a record fee of £105million for a British player. Rice will provide more dynamism and stability in midfield and Timber’s versatility to play right back and centre-back will prove invaluable to Arteta. Kai Havertz joined from Chelsea and is being considered to play behind Gabriel Jesus, which is the role, he thrived in at Bayer Leverkusen.  Sought after keeper, David Raya, is also set to join from Brentford in a surprising move and will provide genuine competition to Aaron Ramsdale.

As of now, the years of pretending are over for Arsenal. Arteta’s young guns have been growing up throughout his tenure, improving, year upon year. Last season, Arsenal had the youngest squad in the Premier League and it was refreshing to see their exciting team pushing City all the way. It was there for them. Arsenal had the title in their grasp and still, it never seemed like we were convinced they actually would do it. Until they get over the line, the doubts will remain.

With over £200million spent this summer and with significant investment in recent windows, Arsenal will be expected to challenge for trophies on all fronts and the pressure is on this team to make the next step.

 

Manchester City:

Moving to Manchester City now and what else is there to say about this team and their 2022-23 season? City notched up a third straight Premier League title, equalling Manchester United’s feat, won the FA Cup and won their first ever Champions League, winning the treble in fantastic style. The feat mad even more sweet by matching their arch rivals, Manchester United’s triumph in 1999. The “noisy neighbour” no more, simply a permanent fixture and not intending to go anywhere. In fact, they’ve just got planning permission to extend their mansion. City do not intend on going anywhere and such dominance, the kind we’ve seen in Germany and France, has never been more likely. Guardiola’s standards too high, his innovation too cutting, to ever ensure a drop-off long enough to derail them. What’s in store for the citizens this season then?

Well, straight off the bat, Guardiola has said it will be “impossible” for City to repeat last season’s treble, labelling it as “once in a lifetime”. What Pep can’t escape from however, is City are still favourites to win every competition they are in this season. Pep is wise enough to know that football is football and somehow, some way, it is likely City will be pipped in one or more of the four competitions this season. Logic would dictate that it would be in a cup competition such as the Champions League, being a cup competition where you’re more likely to encounter a single moment that can decide a tie. Guardiola has won 11 league titles in his 15 seasons as a manager. Such mesmerising numbers point to Guardiola’s ability to produce brilliant teams who win consistently over the course of a season. On this basis, why would this season be any different?

City have said emotional goodbyes to some key players this summer. Ilkay Gundogan left on a free transfer to Barcelona, and winger Riyad Mahrez has also left, leaving City with a hole to fill on their right flank. Gundogan’s replacement, Mateo Kovacic is a tidy footballer, however he’s not in the same ilk as Gundogan nor even a similar kind of profile. Guardiola has also lost his assistant manager Enzo Maresca to Leicester where he has become head-coach. City have, though, spent £80million on centre-half Josep Gvardiol who is ready-made to slot in either at centre half or left back in City’s new system.

City’s rivals have all improved, particularly their closest rival Arsenal, and on this basis I see a genuine title race between these two. City, as of today, have been in talks with West Ham for Lucas Paqueta and will also look to sign a winger, perhaps Jeremy Doku, to replace Riyad Mahrez. We mustn’t forget about the quality City have at their disposal, Ruben Dias, Rodri, De Bruyne, Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Julian Alvarez and of course, the inevitable Erling Haaland. The list of players is endless and more importantly so is the potential of this side, managed by Guardiola. We will, no doubt, see more tactical innovations this season from Guardiola as he seeks to ensure maximum motivation and erase any complacency. Should he be successful in doing that, I can’t look past City to win another Premier League title, and putting their names in the history books again, as the first team to win four Premier Leagues in a row.

Sadly, it’s City’s to lose. Again.

 

 Final Predictions:

10th – Brentford

9th – Brighton

8th – Spurs

7th – Aston Villa

6th – Newcastle United

5th – Chelsea

4th – Manchester United

3rd – Liverpool

2nd – Arsenal

1st – Manchester City

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