In the first instalment of a three-part series, Sport analyse the sides languishing in the bottom seven of their predicted Premier League table.
Newly-promoted Fulham will be looking to avoid a repeat of their last foray into the top-flight. 2018 saw a whole host of players brought in, including a trip back to 2008 with the signing of Ryan Babel. It ended predictably disastrously with relegation, so much so that ‘doing a Fulham’ has worked it’s way into common parlance. However, Scott Parker has brought the West Londoners back at the first time of asking, which is no mean feat, via play-off victory over much-fancied Brentford.
It will, though, likely be a struggle again. If Aleksandar Mitrović can keep his temper then they have a chance with his goals. Defensively, Michael Hector is impressive but needs a partner. Overall, it feels like a squad that lacks the quality required to survive. Parker has recently signed a deal until 2023 signalling that those in charge are willing to give him time. The former FWA Footballer of the Year will take heart from the success of Sheffield United, who excelled under Chris Wilder with a squad largely made up of players who had plied their trade in the lower leagues. He will be wary too of the other side of that coin, as Norwich meekly returned to the Championship at the first time of asking. Unless a few more arrive through the door, it feels like survival may be beyond them. If anything, it’s just dessert for having a ‘neutral zone’ at Craven Cottage.
19th: Aston Villa
Villa’s return to the Premier League saw a mini great escape, ultimately narrowly avoiding relegation by just one point. They’ll be hoping to properly establish themselves with a more comfortable finish this time around. Talisman Jack Grealish remaining at Villa Park will be crucial to that. So too will midfielders Douglas Luiz and John McGinn, the latter missing much of last season through injury.
If they are to avoid relegation, Villa must invest at both ends of the pitch. Their defence was the second-worst in the league last season so reinforcements will be necessary. Goals are also a problem, as links to Brentford’s Ollie Watkins and bids for Callum Wilson have reflected. A new keeper may be on the cards too, as Ørjan Nyland failed to impress towards the end of last season and Pepe Reina’s loan has ended. Only Nottingham Forest’s Matty Cash has arrived in a squad in desperate need of reinforcements. Should Watkins arrive along with some defensive steel, however, then they have a fighting chance at the very least.
18th: West Bromwich Albion
The Baggies find themselves perennially bouncing between the top two divisions of English football and, despite stuttering towards the finish line last year and now led by Slaven Bilić, West Brom find themselves once more in the big time. However, this is a very different side and style of football to the previous iterations of West Brom that Premier League fans will be used to. The evergreen Jake Livermore is now partnered with Romaine Sawyers, who has worked his way up the lower leagues and will provide an attacking thrust and creativity from deeper in midfield. Further forward, the permanent signings of Diangana and Pereria, who both impressed on loan last season, give them pace, trickery, and end product from both wings.
The task for Bilić and West Brom will be to tailor and adapt their free-flowing football to the top flight, in much the manner that Norwich failed to last year. And with a defensive line that lacks experience in the top flight and the lack of a proven Premier League striker in their ranks at present, it could be an uphill battle for the Baggies in their first venture back up to the top flight in three seasons.
17th: Newcastle United
Something is rotten in the state of Tyneside. Steve Bruce may have proved the naysayers wrong last season, finishing 13th and pulling off some shock results along the way, but these are uncertain and unstable times for Newcastle United with Bruce’s job security in perpetual limbo, and a protracted takeover bid that inspired a moral crisis among their fanbase. It seems that Cavani, Coutinho and Koulibaly will not be making their way to St. James Park after all, with the Saudi investment now seemingly off, but to the relief of Newcastle fans Mike Ashley has finally loosened his purse-strings as the Magpies look set to complete the formidable triple-signing of Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis.
The highlight of this trio is undoubtedly Wilson, who is precisely what fans have been crying out for: a proven figure of confidence up top who can link-up play and consistently find the back of the net. If the former Bournemouth talisman fails to deliver, however, then the Magpies could be in grave danger. While the energy and eccentricity of Almirón, Saint-Maximin and now Fraser may give a surface impression of dynamism, major doubts surrounding Bruce’s tactical agility continue to persist amid a climate of doom and gloom that will be difficult to quell.
16th: Crystal Palace
Ageing, stale, toothless. All words that have been used to describe the current Crystal Palace squad who endured a nightmare finish to the 2019/20 season: picking up one point from a possible 24 with a net goal difference of -15. While the consensus is that Roy Hodgson has done relative wonders with the resources available to him over the past three seasons, fans are crying out for rejuvenation.
The signings of Ebere Eze and Nathan Ferguson, along with the imminent arrival of Conor Gallagher on loan, have helped to freshen things up around the place and wind down an average squad that was dangerously approaching 30. They should bring a more lively impetus that represents a shift from an approach that, in recent times, has been over-reliant on Luka Milivojević spot kicks. Their success has also been largely dependent on the penetrative influence of Wilfried Zaha, but with the Ivorian seemingly intent on leaving and goals desperately hard to come by as it is – a meagre 31 last season – it will almost certainly be another trying season for Eagles fans. While it won’t be pretty, there is ultimately more than enough know-how in their ranks to secure an eighth consecutive season at the top level.
With the eighth best form after lockdown, Burnley enter this campaign confident in their solidity but not necessarily joyful. Dyche is frustrated that squad members Jeff Hendrick, Aaron Lennon and Joe Hart departed for free in June, and they have only made one signing: a new third-choice goalkeeper, Will Norris.
Standing still could be their fatal flaw; completing the least passes but the second-most long balls and scoring the third-most headed goals last season, their formula lacks invention and they perennially struggle to score. To be fair, Chris Wood bagged 14 league goals last term (just two less than Sergio Agüero!) but only Crystal Palace fielded an older team on average and a lack of pace and dynamism could hamper Burnley going forward. Dwight McNeil is young and exciting but is yet to set the world alight. Bournemouth are 2020’s cautionary tale that old weaknesses can only be masked for so long, and Burnley probably need an injection of razzmatazz just to offer themselves an alternative playing style in case lobbing it to the totem poles up front stops working. However, in Nick Pope, James Tarkowski and Ben Mee, Burnley have a defensive core which should compensate for their attacking deficiencies.
14th: Sheffield United
Very much the surprise package of last season, Sheffield United, led by the charismatic yet dogged Chris Wilder, flirted with the possibility of European football before fading to a still-remarkable 9th place finish in their first Premier League campaign since 2006-07. Despite their solidity the Yorkshire side have dipped into the market, with Monday’s triple-signing of Ethan Ampadu, Max Lowe and Jaydon Bogle adding real depth in defence. Elsewhere, Aaron Ramsdale comes in to fill a Dean Henderson sized hole in net, who has returned to fight for the no.1 jersey at Manchester United.
The task for Wilder and his team will be to stave off the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’ as oppositions adjust to their tactical approach. But there is still plenty of reason for optimism for Blades fans. Ben Osborn and Jack Robinson look set to continue their development after their promising showings in ‘Project Restart’ whilst Sander Berge will look to flourish in his first full season and fully justify his £21m price tag. Much of the defensive robustness remains and Ollie McBurnie and Lys Mousset will hopefully provide the goals following full pre-seasons and a year to bed into Chris Wilder’s system. It may not be as exciting as the first year for Sheffield United fans, but will hopefully be a solid step towards solidifying their status as a deserving Premier League outfit.
Image: Ben Terrett via Creative Commons