In this third and final instalment, Sport size up the top seven of their predicted Premier League table for the 2020/21 campaign.
7th: Wolverhampton Wanderers
When Wolves failed to pick up a win from their opening six games at the start of last season, it seemed that their fruitful first campaign back in the big time may have been a flash in the pan. However, to the chagrin of those who were quick to brandish the one-season wonder card they once again ended up in 7th, reached the Europa League quarter-finals and proved their worth as a fearsome outfit at the top level. They are now firmly the ‘best of the rest’, but there has always been that lingering question of depth, the kind of monolithic over-familiarity that was laid bare when they got found out by Sevilla – totally unable to find a plan B when it mattered. Matt Doherty’s strange departure leaves a big hole that urgently needs attention; some believe that the Irishman’s departure may send this delicately constructed ecosystem spiralling into disarray.
But in truth Nuno’s men should enjoy yet another successful season in the top flight. His squad maintain a healthy blend of youth and experience, along with a sense of common understanding that will be reinforced by the arrival of two more budding Portuguese talents – record signing Fábio Silva and the highly rated Vitinha – following another raid of Porto’s sparkling jewels. Wolves should theoretically knock on Europe’s door and topple the big dogs once again, but with the hegemony of the ‘top six’ looking likely to reassert itself their ceiling remains just on the periphery for now, which we often forget is still an extraordinary feat given that they were playing in the Championship as recently as 2018.
The Gunners have been languishing in the shadow land of Europa League qualification for years now, a reality that may well persist for at least another season despite Arteta’s promising start at the helm. After years under Pep’s stewardship at Manchester City, the Spaniard has arrived at the Emirates with that all-important plan: a viable blueprint for the future and a coherent philosophy that his players seem to be buying into. His disciplined and decisive impetus has shifted their image from being one big comedy of errors to a competent and threatening force, but whether Arsenal’s personnel can consistently actualise his lofty ambitions is another question. Retaining Aubameyang is everything. Losing such a talismanic influence would be devastating, even if Willian’s arrival adds extra zest to a strike force that looks to pack a real punch.
What will determine their top four hopes is finally finding stability at the back and putting a stop to their infamous leakiness. This seems increasingly possible with a wealth of sound centre-back options, including the arrival of Gabriel from Lille and the return of William Saliba from loan. Together, they will bring a level of athleticism and poise to the back three, alongside the experienced but incurably capricious David Luiz. Finding balance in midfield will also be key. Mohamed Elneny has held the fort for now, but the potential arrival of Thomas Partey would add real sturdiness alongside either the born-again Granit Xhaka or the newly-returned Dani Ceballos. Youthful, determined, streetwise, you can see this Arsenal side flirting with the Champions League spots, but starting with the manager there is a ring of inexperience about this team, with everyone not quite sure how they fit.
5th: Tottenham Hotspur
José Mourinho has won the title in his second season at Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, and Chelsea … twice. He will not do it at Spurs. If he does, Gary Lineker might as well present Match of the Day in his underpants again. The problem is that Mourinho’s usual course towards self-destruction has been accelerated in north London. He has already criticised his squad’s mentality and application, embarrassed the club by training players in a park during lockdown, established a siege mentality, and played Dele Alli too advanced for him to work effectively. Spurs needed a bit of positivity and animation after Pochettino went – Mourinho, so dour and self-contained, is the antithesis of these things.
Spurs picked up nine points against the other ‘big six’ sides last season – the joint-worst record within the group alongside Arsenal. The departure of defensive hero Jan Vertonghen further separates them from the top four, but Japhet Tanganga showed the makings of a great defender last season and could step up to support Toby Alderweireld more permanently. Mourinho has also tapped into Spurs’ potential for blistering counter-attacks, with marauding full-backs supporting the formidable Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son, who can win matches on their own.
4th: Manchester United
It was a season of two halves for United. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men laboured through the season until lockdown. They returned revitalised, especially by the signing of Bruno Fernandes. This has led to understandable optimism at Old Trafford for what feels like the first time in a while, however United are far from the finished product. They are impressive going forward, but there are still question marks at the back and in midfield. A lack of progress in the transfer market has been a source of frustration. Jadon Sancho has been linked for the whole summer to little avail thus far, while links to the likes of Jack Grealish appear wide of the mark. The focus on Sancho, however, feels misplaced. United desperately need reinforcements elsewhere. The signing of Donny van de Beek is encouraging, though a centre-back, left-back and defensive midfielder should remain the priority. Without the requisite transfer activity, it’s difficult to see United mounting a challenge on the top two, who are miles ahead of the chasing pack. However, a top four finish should be more than achievable.
Chelsea’s transfer ban last year left them and Frank Lampard reliant on youthful exuberance in the form of Mount, Abraham and Pulisic with a dusting of veteran Premier experience with the likes of Willian and Giroud. However, the money saved over those windows combined with the money received from selling Eden Hazard last summer have allowed Chelsea to splash in a window when most are seeing the effects of Covid-19 dash their dreams of lavish summer spending. Bundesliga’s hottest prospects in the form of Havertz and Werner have arrived alongside Ziyech from Ajax to give Lampard a plethora of options for his forward line. Chelsea conceded as many goals as 16th place Brighton last year, but Chilwell and Thiago Silva will bring some much-needed cover and undoubtedly aid the defensive responsibilities. The responsibility will now fall to Lampard, who had a free pass last year but now carries the weight of expectation after a summer of spending. It remains to be seen whether he can fit all these pieces together into a coherent tactical system but if he can, it should be no surprise to see the Blues right near the top of the table.
The Premier League champions, albeit in subdued circumstances, enter this season hoping to repeat their title winning season and once more pip Manchester City. A quiet summer, which has been a trend for Liverpool in recent years, sees Kostas Tsimikas arrive from Olympiakos to provide some much-needed left back cover for Robertson. Rumours of Thiago’s arrival from Bayern continue to swirl with Wijnaldum exiting the obvious transfer out, but as time progresses it looks like disagreements over price might eventually fail to get this one over the line. This will thus leave Liverpool looking almost identical to last season. Minamino showed signs of beginning to fully grow into his role in the team and Brewster could well add some more depth up front.
However, despite feeling like clear winners last season, it was a disappointing ending for Liverpool and the Community Shield performance has raised eyebrows as to whether this squad has it in them to do it again. They will still be hard to beat, and undoubtedly will finish second at worst, but City aren’t often quiet for long and Guardiola will have his team trained like a pack of rabid dogs ready to snap at their Merseyside rivals’ heels from the first whistle. It will be an intriguing race, but it could just be too much to expect Liverpool to hold off City for another season.
1st: Manchester City
City will undoubtedly be out to put things right after a disappointing season by their standards last time out. They were some way off champions Liverpool but are likely the only ones with the necessary quality to pose a challenge to Klopp’s men. The addition of Nathan Aké addresses the previously problematic issue of centre-back, while Ferran Torres replaces the outgoing Leroy Sané. They join an already star-studded squad with quite frankly outrageous depth, something that will surely be an advantage in this more compressed season. They will be without David Silva for the first time in a decade, though local lad Phil Foden is starting to look like the real deal as his replacement. All this sets up what will likely be a tight title-race between themselves and the red half of Merseyside. It feels somewhat like a make or break season for Guardiola, particularly in the Champions League, and this may spur City on to greater heights. It will probably be too close to call at the top, but we have to, and we’ve tipped it in favour of City.
Image: Dr Gray via Creative Commons