Rowan’s big 2020/21 Premier League Season Preview

After the crazy events of 2020 and Project Restart getting last season finished, incredibly it has only been seven weeks and it is the start of the 2020/21 when Fulham host Arsenal tomorrow. Personally, as a Newcastle United fan, it has been a rollercoaster of emotion the past few months with the takeover business. Is it happening, is it not? Then the saga keeps rumbling on with statements from the club and counter-statement from the Premier League. Despite signings this week, I have not really felt so much apathy coming into a new season but the quick return of football will be a joyous occasion for most football fans.

Last season saw Liverpool eventually win the Premier League title having gone 30 years since their league crown. Jurgen Klopp’s side were relentless as they beat every team, had the best start to a season of any Premier League side and were unbeaten until February. Manchester City missed the influence of Vincent Company and at the back, they were circumspect as their pursuit of a third successive league title fell by the wayside. Both teams will be seeking t battle it out for the title again.

There are a host of intriguing questions as we come into the new season. Can Jurgen Klopp guide Liverpool to a successful title defence? Can Manchester City reclaim the title? Will Chelsea be able to close the gap after their large summer spend? Will Leicester be able to recover from their late heartbreak missing out on Champions League football but how will they respond to the demands of European football too? Will fireworks spark between Jose Mourinho and Spurs hierarchy? Can Ralph Hassenhuttl and Southampton build on their post-lockdown form? What will happen at Newcastle?

Then there are the new boys. How will they get on?

New Clubs

Norwich City’s short-lived Premier League return lasted only one season with scoring goals and leaky defence to major issues that don’t end well. They were joined in relegation by Bournemouth and Watford after five-year stints in the Premier League and replaced by three new-boys: Leeds United, West Brom and Fulham.

Leeds United

Due to my family links to Leeds, I count them as my second club and couldn’t have been more delighted for the club and its supporters to be back in the top flight for the first time in 16 years. Relegation left the club in an even more difficult financial situation and fan favourites Mark Viduka, Alan Smith and co left but they were able to rebuild almost come back in 2006 only to be beaten by Watford in the play-off final. They dropped to the third tier the following season and into liquidation. In League One, it took them a few goes but Simon Grayson got the club back to the second tier where they seemed to stagnate before the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa in and the rest they say is history as he guided the club to promotion in his second season in charge after the play-off heartbreak against Derby.

West Bromwich Albion

After two seasons away from relegation in 2018, the baggies are back for their 5th Premier League spell. Club legend Darren Moore was given the managerial reigns permanently to try and bounce immediately bac but he was sacked in March 2019 with the club sat in 4th. They still made the play-offs but were beaten in the semi-final by Midlands rivals Aston Villa. Like Leeds, they were able to bounce back but under new management as in came Slaven Bilic. The Croatian delivered promotion at the first attempt holding off a late challenge from Brentford.

Fulham

After a season hiatus, Fulham are back in the Premier League and they will be hoping to stay longer than they did last time. They lacked stability in 2018/19 having spent over £100m on new players and gong through three different managers including caretaker Scott Parker. Parker remains the full-time coach and with much the same team intact, he successfully guided them back at the first attempt (not a mean feat these days) with a play-off final victory over London rivals Brentford.

New Managers

Well, with no managerial changes between the seasons, the three new managers in the Premier League are the three that brought their teams up…

Marcelo Bielsa
Nationality: Argentine
Age: 65
Current Club: Leeds United
Former clubs:
Newell’s Old Boys, Atlas, America, Velez Sarsfield, Espanyol, Argentina, Chile, Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, Lazio, Lille.
Honours: 5 2004 Olympics Gold, Primera Division Argentina (3), EFL Championship
Marcelo Bielsa of Leeds United. [Image from TalkSport].

One of the more experienced and influential coaches in the game having influenced the likes of Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino, Bielsa began his coaching career with the Newell’s Old Boys youth team after retiring from his playing career in 1980. After a decade, he was given the top job and won two successive league titles. He took charge of his native Argentina and oversaw their disastrous 2002 World Cup Campaign but also their 2004 Olympic Gold medal. Staying in international football, he took Chile to the 2010 World Cup before returning to club management where he’s had a bit of a rocky path. Guiding Athletic Bilbao to the Europa League and Copa Del Rey finals in 2011/12 before a season in Marseille, a six-day stint with Lazio and 13 games in charge of Lille. Leeds took a chance on the Argentine in 2018 and he seems comfortable in Yorkshire.

Slaven Bilic
Nationality: Croatian
Age: 51
Current Club: West Bromwich Albion
Former Clubs: Hajduk Split, Croatia U21, Croatia, Lokomotiv Moscow, Besiktas, West Ham, Al-Ittihad
Honours: 0
Slaven Bilic is now in charge of West From.

Slaven Bilic came to most peoples attention as a coach when he guided his native Croatia to Euro 2008 at the expense of Steve McClaren’s England and excelling at that tournament. His playing career ended with Dadjuk Split after spells in Germany and England with West Ham. After leaving the Croatia role after Euro 2012, Bili had an unsuccessful spell in Russia with Lokomotiv Moscow and a two-year stint with Turkish side Besiktas before returning to West Ham in 2015. After a successful first season guiding the Hammers to 7th, his second was a bit more of a struggle and he was sacked in November 2017. An unsuccessful spell in Saudi Arabia followed before West Brom came calling in 2019 and having guided the Baggies back to the Premier League he has a second chance at managing in the league.

Scott Parker
Nationality: English
Age: 39
Current Club: Fulham
Former Clubs: 0
Honours: 0
Scott Parker is in his first managerial job and guided Fulham back to the Premier League. [Image from The Evening Standard].

A playing career that largely stayed in London apart from three years at Newcastle, Scott Parker played for Charlton Athletic before moving to Chelsea as well as gaining 12 England caps. After Newcastle, playing spells with West ham, Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham followed before he hung up his playing boots at the end of the 2016/17 season. He began coaching the Spurs U18 side before Slavia Jokanovic brought him back to Fulham as a first-team coach. It worked well for Parker as after surviving the Serbians sacking and Claudio Ranieri’s brief spell, he was handed the reigns on a caretaker basis at the end of February 2019. He did enough to secure the job on a full-time basis and after getting the club back in the top flight at the first attempt and a three year deal behind him, can he make his mark?

Video Assistant Referee

Yes, VAR is still in use for the 2020/21 season. The use of the technology was a big talking point last season especially in the way it was being implemented. Be it very tight offside lines with even a foot or a hand offside cancelling goals off or the technology not being switched on as it was for the first game of Project Restart. The technology took a bit of a whacking.

The use of VAR will be slightly different this season and hopefully more efficient as a result. [Image from The Premier League].

One thing that did not happen often was the referee using the pitchside monitor to check decisions for themselves. This was because they were advised to use it in minimal ways to help the flow of the game. Instead, they ended up listening to the earpiece from the VAR referee sat at St George’s Park. Now, they have been encouraged to use the screens more and in my view, that should improve it. If the referee is looking at the pitchside monitor, seeing the footage with their own eyes then the decision rests with them and what they have seen for themselves.

New Signings

Despite the impact of COVID-19 on finances of clubs, they have still been fairly busy in the transfer window. The transfer window runs until October 5th so there is still time and makes the predictions later on even more difficult. Teams could do even more business by that time that changes the picture. However, there are some signings I am excited to see play in English football.

Timo Werner is the first! The German International joined Chelsea for £45m which for a player of his quality is a bargain. He probably could have gone for more than that if not for a release clause in his contract but the centre-forward has been prolific for RB Leipzig in the past few seasons. He scored a career best 34 goals in all competitions and seeing what he brings to Chelsea. That said, I’d also be excited to see how the additions of Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz will mix with the squad such as Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount and co on the pitch. It could be very entertaining football at Chelsea this season.

How much of an impact will Timo Werner make at Chelsea? [Image from Transfermarkt.com].

Donny van de Beek: Manchester United’s big summer signing so far is another relative bargain in my eyes. £34m is a lot of money but like the deal with Werner, a player of his quality could have been sold for a lot more. He made his breakthrough at Ajax during their 2018/19 Champions League semi-final run and while his midfield teammate Frankie De Jong made a big-money move to Barcelona he waited an additional year. That patience has been rewarded but as a box to box midfielder it will be interesting to see how he fits into the Man United midfield alongside

There are more such as James Rodriguez and Allan to Everton, Rodrigo at Leeds, Timothy Castagne replacing Ben Chilwell at Leicester and the next batch of Portuguese players coming into Wolves but I would like to leave that until the transfer window has closed and I hope to review each sides business in a separate post.

Predictions

Champions: Liverpool

Champions League: Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United

Europa League: Tottenham Hotspur, Wolves, Arsenal

EFL Cup: They’ve won three in a row so why not again, Manchester City

FA Cup: Chelsea

Relegation: Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion

The Sack Race: David Moyes
Last season, I had concerns over how long Frank Lampard would remain at Chelsea given Abramovich’s short patience with managers in the past; Dean Smith after Aston Villa spent over £100m in the transfer market and Ole Gunnar Solsjaker at Manchester United before opting for the Aston Villa man. Watford was the first team to dispense of their managers’ services last season with Javi Gracia sacked on 7th September and they went through two more coaches. All three remain in post so that was an awful opinion.

I still have a concern over Lampard at Chelsea. It is a rebuilding project there but after a trophyless season and now spending around £200m and counting. While I think it’s a fairly exciting squad he’s putting together that could do well, there is always the risk that it will not gel together. With Jose Mourinho at Spurs, you don’t know how that is going to pan out. At the time of writing, Roy Hodgson is favourite with the bookmakers but he has done wonders at Crystal Palace and I cannot see that happening. Steve Bruce is next but Newcastle had invested next to nothing in the team before this week and I cannot see Mike Ashley being all too willing to fell the axe on Bruce’s job too quickly to get someone new in.

Unfortunately for David Moyes, i’m not sure he will get a full season in his second stint in charge of West Ham. [Image from whiff.com].

Looking at the new boys, Scott Parker has agreed to a new three-year deal recently so it would be costly to get rid of him in a hurry and Marco Bielsa is comfortable at Leeds. If West Brom have a difficult start could they dispense of Slaven Bilic? Quite possibly. He kept them up last season after his slightly surprising appointment but West Ham have a difficult opening eight fixtures, facing pretty much all of the top 6. If they get a slow start it could be difficult for Moyes to pick up the team and he may well be the first manager getting his P45.

League Table?

Predicting the league table and where all 20 teams is not an easy task and one almost impossible to correctly predict. But, yes, I am going to take a stab at this.

I tried it last season and got it hopelessly wrong! Zero. Absolutely nothing I predicted came right and the nearest I came was a position or two away from a few teams. The most glaring examples of last seasons attempts were Sheffield United who I predicted to finish bottom (eventually finished 9th) and failing to predict any of the three teams to go down. Watford, I predicted to finish 11th finished 18th.

A few comments before I get into it. I do expect the top clubs to be closer this season and a bit more of a title race. The battle for European football I think will be close with maybe teams stretching down to 9th being in contention going into the final few weeks. The same for the bottom half. It should be majorly competitive and could go either way.

Anyway, here goes…

1st Liverpool: The runaway Champions last season. There is a question over whether they can do it again as they are the scalp everyone will want to beat. Jurgen Klopp knows how to defend league titles and will not be complacent but their form after lockdown might be a concern as well as the difficult big early encounters. I still expect Liverpool to retain it.

2nd Manchester City: They have spent a fair bit this summer and attempted to address their defensive deficiencies with the signing of Nathan Ake. He feels confident he can fill the gap but I am not too sure it will be enough this season when you also consider David Silva is not there now. Like Kompany, he was a talismanic player for Man City and they missed him last season. They’ve brought in Ferran Torres and have Phil Fofne who can fill the gap but are they ready? I think it will be closer this season but Man City will fall just short.

3rd Chelsea: Chelsea have turned heads in the transfer window with their flurry of activity with Werner, Haverts and Ziyech coming in. I will be interested to see how Frank Lampard integrates them all together and how the spirit of that team is impacted as the likes of Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham took their chance but now have to fight for their place. Questions still remain over the defence. Thiago Silva is a shrewd addition and brings a wealth of experience to what was a leaky defence last season but at 36, does he have the pace for the Premier League? Then, there’s Kepa. Will he improve or be replaced in goal? Either way, I can see Chelsea closing the gap to the top two but will still finish 3rd.

4th Manchester United: The Red Devils benefited greatly post-lockdown and reached the top four. Signing Bruno Fernandes in January changed their fortunes so could the £34m signing of Donny Van De Beek from Ajax have a similar impact? It’s a coup for Man United as he could have gone for double that. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford had improved seasons last term with 17 goals each while Mason Greenwood was a revelation. Keeping Dean Henderson for this season means there will be more pressure on David De Gea who made a few errors last season but they haven’t invested in the defence yet. That is what is holding Man United from a title bid but they should have enough to finish top four.

5th Tottenham Hotspur: A topsy turvy season for Spurs saw them sack Mauricio Pochettino after a disappointing start and in came the special one! Jose Mourinho initially struggled and if not for lockdown they would not have secured European football. Give him a transfer window and a summer with the squad and he will improve them. Their spending has been shrewd so far but they are still missing a backup striker of Harry Kane were to be injured They might still get one and while I think they will be closer to the top 4, I think they will fall just short.

6th Wolves: A very long season the la tasted over a year and with a small group of players, Wolves surprised me in getting a top 7 finish especially as the struggled in the first few months balancing League and Europa League commitments. This season, they don’t have that and is mainly why I think they can get in the top 6. They still have tome for a like for like replacement for Matt Doherty but the signing of Portuguese teenager Fabio Silva is exciting. Hopefully, he can adapt and be the cover and competition they need for the ever influential Raul Jiminez.

7th Arsenal: Unai Emery paid the price for a poor start to last season and Arsenal took a punt on the inexperienced Mikel Arteta. He had a slow start but it worked out well for them as they won the FA Cup. This year they will be hoping to build momentum off the back of that success and build a more winning mentality. Saliba signed last summer but having him in the squad could make a difference to a leaky defence as well as new boy Gabriel while keeping Pierre Emerick Aubameyang is key for them going forward. I can see a slight improvement in the standings for the Gunners but they have a way to go to get back to where they want to be.

8th Everton: Carlo Ancelotti coming in was a real coup for Everton! How did they pull it off? He transformed their fortunes, in particular the exploits in front of goal from Dominic Calvert Lewin. Lockdown put a little spanner in their momentum and it was expected Ancelotti would want an overhaul to mould Everton into his style. His acquisitions so far have been interesting with high calibre midfield additions Allan and James Rodriguez but 8th is the maximum they should be aiming for.

9th Leicester City: They did fantastically well last season and for much of last season looked a shoe in to qualify for the Champions League. They were comfortably 3rd when the league was suspended in March and while they had seen a little dip n form beforehand, they could not find for when football resumed. Consequently, they finished 5th. They still qualified for European football which is a success but that represents some challenges. I may be wrong having been proven so by Wolves last season but it will be a challenge for them to maintain performance levels across the season and balance European football. Leicester will know this after they struggled the following season after their 2016 title win. So far, they have not strengthened, only really replaced Ben Chilwell. There is quality there for better than 9th but maybe not a big enough squad to cope with both the Premier League and Europe.

10th Southampton: They will hate being reminded of this by 0-9 Leicester. The worst home defeat in Premier League history yet they managed to recover and finished 11th in the table. All credit needs to go to the board for giving Ralph Hassenhuttl time to regroup and recover from it as he did an excellent job. Danny Ings and James Ward Prowse were key to their success and rewarded with England call ups but can Ings replicate his 22 goal haul? They haven’t brought a striker in so their goal threat remains on his shoulders instead focusing on defensive signings so far. Based on their lockdown form, if they can replicate that they could be on for a decent season.

11th Sheffield United: Another success story of last season was Sheffield United. The blades shone and were battling for European football until near the end of the season but finishing 9th on their return to the top flight is an excellent return. Chris Wilder’s management deserves recognition and his side really worked hard for him. This season will be harder for them; the second season back in the top flight always is. Teams will suss them out a bit more, know what to expect but if they can keep that mentality, the workmanlike spirit they should be fine. Replacing Dean Henderson with Aaron Ramsdale is a shrewd move given the former is staying at Man United but I think they still need an out and out striker who can get goals at this level.

12th Burnley: A top 10 finish was a magnificent achievement for Burnley and Sean Dyche deserves immense credit for it as his squad depth was depleted more than others with player contracts expiring. The lack of any signings so far is, therefore, a concern. Are they standing still or falling back? A lop will depend on the group spirit and Dyche pulling off another managerial masterstroke and it would not surprise me if Burnley finish lower but they should have enough to stay up.

13th Brighton & Hove Albion: Last season was always going to be difficult for Brighton as they transitioned to a more possession-based, passing style of football under Graham Potter. They had their moments, they had their bad moments but he succeeded. Can they push on? The summer spending has been limited but very shrewd business Adam Lallana brings a wealth of experience and Joel Veltman is a versatile defender that brings a different style closer to what Potter wants to play so it should be another season staying up.

14th Newcastle United: Steve Bruce kept Newcastle up, mission accomplished. Now he needs to fo it again and goals were a big issue last season. Bog money signing Joelinton only scored two as goals were more frequent from the defenders. Transfer business had been quiet until the last week or so but bringing in Ryan Fraser, Callum Wilson and Jamal Lewis bring a bit more excitement on Tyneside coming into the season while Jeff Hendrick will help keep a professional mindset into the group.

15th Leeds United: Marcelo Bielsa liked his side to play attacking football in the Championship and if they bring that to the table they will be entertaining to watch this season. However, they need to adapt and there are days they will need to be better defensively. They’ve spent a lot on players this summer to try and compete but the question is always will it gel together, will they adapt to the top flight or will they ship goals and capitulate. With Bielsa at the helm, I believe they have a solid chance of staying up.

16th West Ham United: David Moyes returned, who would have expected that when they started last season under Manuel Pellegrini. Moyes managed to keep them up, got the best out of Michail Antonio in the final weeks while record signing Sebastian Hallier after a promising start struggled a bit. Getting him firing again is the next challenge but they have done sensible business in keeping Tomas Soucek. He did really well for them last season. The departure of Grady Diangana has split opinion with even Mr West Ham himself Mark Noble speaking out, the fans aren’t onside again but maybe no fans being in stadiums might help them. The opening eight games are shocking though. They play 6 of the big boys in the opening 8. I know everyone plays everyone twice but it is important to get points on the board earlier rather than chasing them hence why I think they’ll struggle.

17th Fulham: Fulham are back straight away and they seem to be on a more stable footing than they were two seasons ago. They haven’t spent massively in the transfer window and with Scott Parker, on a three-year deal there seems to be some stability in management too but much of their goal threat relies on Aleksandr Mitrovic. I like Mitrovic and he had an excellent season in The Championship but so far his record in the Premier League hasn’t been great but hopefully, the Serbian can deliver.

18th Crystal Palace: Not a lot has changed in the weeks since last season finished. Roy Hodgson will have his team highly organised so you can never rule them out in games but goals will remain an issue. They were the lowest scorers to stay up last season and why I never really predicted them to win as I could not see where the goals are coming from. They were relatively safe when football resumed after lockdown but if their form is carried over into this season there is a cause for concern. Exerechi Exe is an exciting signing but will Hodgson manage him well and is he a replacement for Wilfreid Zaha?

19th Aston Villa: Only just! Aston Villa stayed up but only just by 1 point. They spent a lot last season and struggled with Wesley struggling for form and then fitness, Samanta struggled for goals too and Kienna Davis is a young talent. Ollie Watkins is an exciting addition and was coveted by a few clubs but have Villa paid a premium for him? There will be pressure on him to deliver and Jack Grealish if they can keep him fit will always be giving them a chance but like Sheffield United, teams will be sussing them out in how they play and I just don’t think there’s enough there to keep them up this time.

20th West Bromwich Albion: How long will West Brom be in the Premier League this time? At the moment, I don’t think very long. Most of their business this summer has been on keeping Matheui Perreira and Grady Diangana on permanent deals but I’m not sure they have enough to keep them up. I like Slaven Bilic, I think he’s a good coach and I would like to be wrong on this prediction but this is a team that struggled over the line in the closing weeks of the Championship and I just wonder if that will impact their form coming into the Premier League.

Those weekly Predictions?

Last season, despite the break and then thick and fast action of Project restart, I managed to make predictions of all 380 games and published the vast majority on posts. These were compared with the weekly predictions made by BBC Sport’s Mark Lawrenson, Sky Sports Charlie Nicholas and the infamous PR stunt, the BT Script. How did that pan out?

Well, using the scoring system used by Sky Sports for their Super 6 game (5 for correct score, 2 for correct result), Lawro victory on 476 points. I finished 2nd on 462 points with Nicholas on 452 points and the BT Script finishing bottom of the scoreboard on 414 points.

Lawro won the 2019/20 Season Predictions comparison. [Image from iNews].

Lawro won but compiling each set of predictions through up some interesting league tables with some surprising results. The biggest gap in his predictions and where teams actually finished was Watford who would’ve been 7 places higher in 12th than where the finished in the relegation zone. He rightly predicted Norwich would finish bottom as one of four teams whose finishing positions his positions got right (the others being Arsenal in 8th, Chelsea in 4th and Wolves in 7th). His predictions would have seen Norwich joined by Brighton and Crystal Palace.

My predictions would have seen an unprecedented two teams (Liverpool and Man City) finishing on over 100 points. I predicted Liverpool to drop points only once and would’ve finished on 11 points. They would have finished as champions as one of four teams my predictions (same as Lawro) resulted in the right position; the others being Man City in 2nd, Burnley 10th and Southampton 11th. It is just as well for Palace fans, my predictions mean nothing. The lack of goals for Palace in real life was an issue in me not predicting many wins for the Eagles; they would’ve finished bottom and joined by Aston Villa and Norwich joining them in the Championship.

Nicholas predicted Man City to have a 100% season; winning all 38 games. Now that would’ve been something. The other surprising outcome of his predictions were Wolves. They would have qualified for the Champions League in 2nd, a position they haven’t finished in since 1960 while Arsenal would’ve finished in the top four after scoring 97 goals. Incredible! In total, Nicholas had four teams finishing in the right position including Norwich in 20th. The Canaries would’ve been the worst team in Premier League history on a meagre 7 points.

Predictable, the BT Script finishing last on the scoreboard it was also the most out of place table of the predictions with only one team finishing in the same spot: Chelsea in 4th. Only Norwich of the predicted three teams (Newcastle and Sheffield United the other two) were relegated while two teas who were in the relegation battle Watford and West Ham were predicted to be comfortable mid-table; 7 places higher than where they actually ended up. The biggest gap was Sheffield United who were predicted to finish bottom. The Blades finished 9th.

What will I be doing this season?

After completing the set of predictions last season and with the on-going situation with the pandemic and everything else (at the time of writing, retaining my current employment is slightly up in the air with furlough coming to an end next month, anyone advertising for writing roles or any type role, please hit me up. My email is michaelrowan2@hotmail.com). 

Writing on the blog may be reduced in general for a while. The situation has led me to reevaluate things personally and writing week in week out while it is something I like doing, it might not be something to feasibly maintain for a while.

So, this season what will I do? I will pop up with some posts on football developments and events that have pip my interest such as the UEFA Nations League, how Newcastle United are getting on, transfers, managerial changes etc. That is all provided I do not need to seek employment anytime soon.

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