In the second instalment of a three-part series, Sport take a look at the sides who make up the numbers in their predicted Premier League table.
13th: Leeds United
Bielsa’s relentless pressing style has worked for two long seasons at Leeds and they avoided the infamous ‘Bielsa burnout’ last season, so they should be comfortable translating that energy to a shorter Premier League campaign. Teams are better at space manipulation and ball retention at this level, but do not expect Bielsa to surrender his philosophy. Leeds will continue to run hard and press cleverly, and it will probably work well against sides less comfortable in possession.
Leeds have recruited nicely in forward Rodrigo and defender Robin Koch. The former is excellent for link-up play (he got 10 assists last season) but has never been prolific so Patrick Bamford needs to be more clinical. Failing to permanently prise Ben White from Brighton will hurt, but he was not the only reason Leeds had the Championship’s best defence last year. Liam Cooper and Luke Ayling have been good Championship defenders for years and should be able to make the step up to the Premier League. Kalvin Phillips is the fulcrum of the team, playing an essential role in winning the ball and moving it into dangerous areas. At once a midfield enforcer and a playmaker, if he shines again, a top-half finish is very achievable.
12th: West Ham United
Predicting where West Ham will finish in the Premier League is an impossible task that comes around once a year, kind of like buying your dad a birthday present. Hammers fans always dream of Europe, which on the face of it never seems entirely implausible given the club’s infrastructure, though for whatever reason these hopes are very rarely realised. While the full-back department could do with strengthening, this is a squad that should comfortably avoid another relegation scare. The appointment of David Moyes last December was met with derision, but to his credit he has brought some stability to the London Stadium, which should continue into next season with the vital permanent purchase of Tomáš Souček. He forms an engine room with the ever-improving Declan Rice, and should facilitate an athletic and powerful attack that has found their feet in front of goal since Moyes’ arrival.
However, rumblings of discontent and disenchantment with the owners continue to rage on off the pitch. The sale of Grady Diangana was met with outrage en masse; for many it was symbolic of the board’s automatic readiness to move on promising homegrown players against the fan’s wishes. Their own captain, Mark Noble, even publicly confessed how ‘gutted, angry and sad’ he was. There are whispers of prodigious Brentford star-man Saïd Benrahma replacing him, but his arrival wouldn’t be enough to dispel the unrest around East London. Until the negative atmosphere in and around the club subsides, Europe seems unattainable.
11th: Brighton and Hove Albion
Potter’s first season at The Amex brought stylistic revolution but their insistence on passing led to the ball being given away cheaply in dangerous areas. They should be better at their own game this time; though Aaron Mooy’s creativity will be missed, marquee midfield signing Adam Lallana is an upgrade, while the return of Ben White and the addition of Joël Veltman, who spent almost a decade learning fine football at Ajax, create competition for places at the heart of the defence.
Tariq Lamptey looks Alexander-Arnoldesque and could enjoy a frolicsome season on Brighton’s right flank, though he is only 11 games into his senior career and should therefore be afforded patience. Wing play is crucial in feeding Brighton’s attack; six of Neal Maupay’s ten league goals came from wide balls, with his positioning and reactions in the box oftentimes startling, while Leandro Trossard is adept at stretching defences with his runs and fizzing a neat ball into the box. Glenn Murray is a type of striker defenders hate to play against and his physicality will be missed, but his loan move to Watford is almost emblematic of a culture shift at Brighton and the Seagulls look set for a promising season.
Southampton simmer with unfulfilled potential. Sofiane Boufal embarks on labyrinthine dribbles with no end product. Shane Long presses to Ancient Egypt and back but leaves his shooting boots there. And Fraser Forster is still a brilliant goalkeeper, as he proved with a 75.8% save percentage at Celtic last season, but his Premier League career has faded.
Hassenhüttl is a thoughtful and inspiriting coach. Christening Danny Ings as the priority in their attacking patterns has led to Southampton picking up the sixth most points in 2020, but Ings scored more last season than he did in the previous five. Relying on him to score almost half the team’s goals might work for now but is unsustainable in the long run. Moreover, departed former captain Pierre-Emile Højbjerg was crucial to Hassenhüttl’s system. Having been tutored at Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, his reading of the game is impeccable, and only three other midfielders regained the ball more times than him last season. That said, James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu provide as solid a mid-table midfield as any, but should either of these or Ings falter, Southampton currently look light on Europa League quality.
Everton’s managerial appointees and willingness to spend in the transfer market suggest aspirations of continental qualification. However, for whatever reason, it has not panned out that way for some years. There are genuinely quality players in this team, Lucas Digne and Richarlison to name but two, and promising young talents in Gordon and Branthwaite who fans will continue to see develop after their introduction into the team following the restart. However, this is also an ageing squad filled with plenty of deadwood that don’t feel capable of leading the Merseyside team towards the promised land of Europe.
Their transfer recruitment almost embodies this sentiment entirely. Doucoure, Allan and Rodríguez are promising on the surface but signing three midfielders, all above 28, with the latter two carrying injury problems and feeling somewhat past their best years, stinks of short-termism and feels like classic Everton. Carlo Ancelotti remains, and if any man can re-invent James Rodríguez, it could be the veteran Italian whose tenure at Real Madrid saw the Colombian playmaker enjoy his best years. But without the necessary youth and dynamism in midfield, and having not addressed weaknesses nor replaced dead wood, it could well be another ‘what if’ season for Everton and their fans.
8th: Leicester City
For much of last season it seemed Leicester were destined for the Champions League. However, 2020 saw the Foxes’ form fall off a cliff in tandem with injuries to key players. A lack of depth was quickly exposed when a very strong starting XI became depleted. It’s something yet to be addressed by Brendan Rodgers, with only Timothy Castagne brought in to replace the departed Ben Chilwell. It is all the more concerning given their participation in the Europa League and its gruelling schedule of games. Clubs around them are strengthening and it may see the 2016 Premier League champions left behind.
They are though some way ahead of the chasing pack as a new top eight appears to be emerging for this season at least. If key players like Wilfried Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira can remain fit amidst the deluge of games then Rodgers’ men may well challenge higher up. On their day, Leicester’s first choice XI have the ability to match any side in the league. However, if Leicester are to have any hopes of finishing higher then quality depth must be the focus, if only for those Thursday night trips to Eastern Europe.
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