Premier League Early-Season Predictions: Chelsea Will Compete For Title. United For Fourth. Everton For Sixth
The Premier League is underway again, and it promises more chaos and unpredictability than ever before. While a substantial amount of that is down to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic laying waste to our plans and schedules, some of it is also down to the level of quality that the Premier League now has on show.
Whether it is the recent influx of more top players like Timo Werner and James Rodriguez or the presence of excellent coaches like Marcelo Bielsa, the Premier League is now, at least by the looks of it, more competitive and high-quality than at any time in the past.
Naturally, this feels as good a time as any to put myself on the spot and predict, here in September, how certain teams will fare in the upcoming season and which of them will finish in, or near, the top four places.
(The author also released a recent podcast episode on the Premier League top 4 prediction here).
No one needs to be told how much money Chelsea have spent and how much quality they have brought into their squad in this transfer window. However, their transfer activity does bring up a fundamental question: how much does this huge influx of quality change things for Chelsea?
Ordinarily, in any other league or in any other time, you could reasonably think of them as potential title-challengers. The amount of quality bought in would surely allow them to put their foot in the door and enter the room. And then once you’re in the room, it is anyone’s game.
But this is no other league, and this is no other time. The “gap” that Lampard has to bridge is because of Liverpool and Manchester City. At least one of those two teams have finished with over 97 points in each of the last three seasons.
Yes, Liverpool and City might not reach the same heights again this season, but regardless of that they are two well-oiled efficient title-winning sides that have destroyed everyone in their paths consistently over the last few years. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect Chelsea to turn into the same animal overnight even with the incoming talent.
The squads of Liverpool and Man City are much more advanced in terms of their cohesiveness, unity, and chemistry. They have shared experiences of playing and winning together. Chelsea will need to build all of that from scratch. It is uncertain how the new signings will settle in and gel together, not only individually but also as a unit on the pitch.
Even more uncertainty surrounds the Chelsea defence and how that will shape up. An argument could be made that unless they fix their goalkeeping situation, they will repeatedly struggle to impose themselves on matches. Either way, we will find out this season whether Chelsea’s defensive problems under Lampard are due to individual errors or if they point to a structural problem, especially in defensive transitions.
Additionally, it is also true that Frank Lampard is not on the same managerial level as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. That will obviously factor into this in some way.
Both Lampard and Abramovich know all of this. Therefore, I do not believe the huge investment is a ticking time-bomb for the Chelsea manager. This is not the Abramovich of old, whereby he expects instant gratification. The general expectation would be to build a proper team and system this season, and then aim for consistent improvement that eventually results in a league title in the coming years.
As far as top four debate is considered, I think there is huge expectation to secure a place there. In case they don’t, Lampard might not be around for too long. How he copes with this pressure will be a big part of how successful he is at Chelsea.
For Manchester United, last season almost felt like two separate seasons. The reason for that, broadly speaking, was Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese hit the ground running in the Premier League and was instrumental in reviving, and then seeing through, United’s top four aspirations.
Before Fernandes arrived, United didn’t have a proper playmaker and were struggling to create chances against deep-lying defences. All that changed, especially after lockdown, when United collected 20 points and won six of their eight matches against teams outside the conventional big six.
However, there are still problems that need to be addressed. In my opinion, if things remain as they are right now, they will be handicapped by two broad problems during this season.
Firstly, United might still face issues with breaking down deep defences. Football is about constant improvement and evolution; you cannot stand still. Solskjaer and United will have to constantly evolve and remain unpredictable in order to avoid being found out. Whether the Norwegian can do that effectively will impact United’s progression this season.
The other reason why they might not be as creative might be a bit sensitive. Post-lockdown, United won six out of nine matches. In three of those six matches, their first goal or the goal that put them in the lead was a penalty. The sample size is small, and it is unclear whether it will hold any statistical significance. However, if we can draw some positive conclusions and expectations from this small sample size (of post-lockdown matches), then we can also use it to temper said conclusions and expectations.
The sheer volume of penalties awarded, and the timing of them in terms of United’s game state (whether they were losing, drawing or winning the game), might not be sustainable over the course of this new season.
Secondly, a lack of squad depth and bench strength might be a significant problem. It is not physically possible or reasonable to expect Fernandes, Martial and Rashford to play every game, especially in the most hectic season in modern history. Signs of fatigue and weariness were already visible towards the end of last season, and they will only get worse if Solksjaer does not rotate and rest them properly. The problem for him is that when these players aren’t playing, the drop in quality is stark and quite obvious.
Donny van de Beek is a versatile player and a shrewd signing, but United are still lacking depth in attacking areas. Any long-term injury to either Rashford or Martial might derail their top-four hopes severely.
Jose Mourinho has already been at Spurs for 27 league matches. His record in that time is won 13, drawn six and lost eight. If the Premier League had started on the day of his appointment, Spurs would have finished fourth. That is a decent achievement considering the rot that had set in there and that he had no pre-season with the players.
Now that he has had his pre-season and his time in front of the camera, Spurs make for a very curious case. Firstly, I think people are writing them off too quickly. They are not giving Spurs or Mourinho their due. Everyone seems to have forgotten two things. First, that this squad has quality. They were brilliant under Pochettino before the slump and have added further quality by refreshing and reinforcing key areas.
This refresh was hugely important, because the main reason for the decline towards the end of Pochettino’s reign was a lack of reinforcements and recycling of the squad. Hojbjerg, Doherty and Sergio Reguilón are smart signings that will serve Tottenham well in the long-term. Gareth Bale, on the other hand, is a classic Mourinho signing. He is there for the short-term, he is old, but he is a world class player at his best and has the experience and mentality of a pure match-winner.
Second, Mourinho is a proven world-class manager. Yes, he has recurring issues that have become clearer and more pronounced in recent times, but they usually manifest themselves later in his tenure. In his first full season, I would not be surprised if they do well and finish in the top four. They certainly have the capacity for it.
But at the same time, I would also not be surprised if they underachieved and finished sixth. That would simply reinforce the belief that Mourinho has lost some of the quality that made him one of the greatest coaches of his generation.
Arsenal and Mikel Arteta are curious case number two. The Spaniard has managed 22 games as Arsenal manager, winning 11, drawing six and losing five. Like Mourinho, he did a commendable job without having any pre-season training with his squad.
Arteta’s improvement of Arsenal is quite clear and obvious to see. There is a great detail of tactical sophistication and coaching that has manifested itself in Arsenal’s football. The way they move from 4-3-3 in possession to 4-5-1 out of possession, with players switching roles and positions seamlessly, is a testament to Arteta’s ability as a coach. Each player has a well-defined role within a well-oiled and stable structure. Arteta’s success in building defensive solidity in a team that always felt like succumbing to individual errors by the likes of David Luiz and Granit Xhaka is highly praiseworthy.
But they do not have the best of squads. In fact, they might have the weakest one compared to the rest of the top six. One injury to Aubameyang will take a huge bulk of the goalscoring supply away and cause huge problems for their season.
The reason they are a curious case is because they still might finish higher than people think. But at the same time it will not be a disappointment or underachievement if they finished sixth. If they end up finishing fourth, I will be surprised but it will make sense and I will be able to rationalise it.
I do not think Leicester City are going to repeat their top six finish from last season. They have not reinforced the squad. In fact, they have lost their primary left-back Ben Chilwell. The primary reason for their downfall last season was that mental and physical fatigue set in after January. They did not have the bodies or the legs to sustain their level for the rest of the season. In an even more hectic season, and with top six teams strengthening massively, they will surely not have enough to repeat the same achievement as last year.
The one team who I feel have an outside chance to break into the top six are Everton. Carlo Ancelotti is a proven manager with immense pedigree. Everton walked the talk of acting like a big club by bringing the Italian in. Now they have gone a step further and secured the forgotten world class talent James Rodriguez. Like Bale, his mere presence will increase standards and improve the mentality and confidence of Everton players. Other new signings Allan and Doucoure have added much-needed solidity and steel in the middle of the park. With flair and quality up front, and a solid core behind them, Everton might be this season’s surprise package.
It is quite bold of me to sit here in September and predict how things will happen in this potentially chaotic season, but (knowing the current situation of each squad) here goes:
2) Manchester City
4) Manchester United