Back with a bang: Weekend one of the Premier League, season predictions

(Image courtesy of Manchester United/Getty Images)

After a summer filled with transfer rumours and pre-season tours, the Premier League returned in style.

And breathe. With the summer break characterised by rumour and epitomised by money splurging, the commencement of a new Premier League season was welcomed with open arms.

For a while, the transfer window and pre-season tours can simultaneously provide relief from the previous campaign and a fresh dose of excitement in the lead up to the next, but this summer felt different as transfer fever reached new levels. While fans and reporters alike can get swept up by the prospect of new arrivals and long-awaited outgoings at clubs, there comes a point where it all becomes slightly tedious. That point was weeks ago. Now, as the window of the transfer market is firmly shut, slammed in the face of fabricated online rumours in the process, Premier League sides awaited this past weekend’s big kick-off. Weekend one did not disappoint; here are some of my predictions and wishes for the season ahead…

The title will be won by either Manchester City or Liverpool.

While their top six rivals have attempted to strengthen and ultimately get closer to the top two, the points gap between City and Liverpool and the rest from last season cannot be ignored. The key for the top two this summer has been stability: largely keeping the same successful teams of last season together, with the only notable signings to bolster squad competition both being made by the champions — bringing in Rodri from Atlético Madrid and João Cancelo from Juventus.

What’s more, despite indifferent pre seasons, the Community Shield was a further eye-opener to the Premier League, as a game of elite tactical, technical and physical skill unfolded in an exceptionally competitive and tense game to suggest both sides were ready to go toe-to-toe for the duration of the campaign yet again. In weekend one, the two continued where thy let off last time around, with ruthlessly clinal displays highlighting the ever-growing divide between themselves and the rest, perhaps making a mockery of the division’s reputation as “the most competitive of Europe’s major leagues.” The weekend reminded us that the Reds and the Citizens are the two best teams both in England and in Europe right now — at the peak of their powers and ready to battle it out for the Premier League title once more.

The North London clubs have strengthened the most and look best placed to compete for the remaining Champions League places.

Despite a shaky start to their game against promoted Aston Villa on Saturday, Spurs were able to find their feet and eventually cruise to victory, primarily thanks to the effortlessly pinpoint finishing of Harry Kane. The first half saw a distinctive lack of creativity, with Kane cutting a frustrated figure and Villa seemingly playing the role of party poopers as they looked comfortable back in Premier League surroundings following their painfully-extended absence. With the introduction of Christian Eriksen complimenting the driving force of Tanguy Ndombele in behind their razor-sharp goal-getter and captain in the second period, Spurs proved too good for Villa and displayed why many people are backing them to emerge as the best of the group desperately hoping to remain in the slipstream of last season’s top two.

Across North London, Arsenal put in a largely assured performance against lowly Newcastle. The Gunners fielded a youthful side, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles providing the assist for the game’s only goal, courtesy of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, himself starting as he means to go on: in contention for the Golden Boot once again. All three of Arsenal’s substitutes were handed their competitive debuts by Unai Emery — Gabriel Martinelli, Dani Ceballos and Nicolas Pépé — with David Luiz and Kieran Tierney yet to come into the side. If Luiz can improve the Gunners’ rear-guard, they look in a good position to progress further under the guidance of Emery and an increasing sense of optimism among fans with the arrival of the new season. With the likelihood of Tottenham making up the top three, it will be up to Arsenal to stay in touch of their greatest rivals, returning to the Champions League in the process.

The ‘best of the rest’ race could be just as exciting as the title race. Chelsea or United will be replaced by one of the two sides that faced each other on the opening weekend: Leicester or Wolves.

Two of the opening weekend’s games featured two sets of teams that will likely battle it out below the top four in 2019/20. Leicester and Wolves played out a 0-0 draw at the King Power before Manchester United put Chelsea to the sword in a game that was deceptive in terms of its final score. However, popular pre-season predictions were provided with reason as it seems that one, or both, of Leicester and Wolves are now ready to crash the top six.

As a consequence, Chelsea’s dismal defence and/or United’s capacity to crumble at any moment and be overrun in midfield could lead to them slipping from that previously solid top six make-up. Leicester and Wolves are at a similar stage in their development as sides; the only thing that could prevent Wolves from an assault on higher European qualification is ironically the Europa League itself (as a result of last campaign’s seventh-place finish). Under Brendan Rodgers, Leicester have flourished since his appointment and are a hungry, settled side looking to achieve big things again, albeit not the heady heights of 2015-16. United and Leicester will make up the top-six, although not necessarily in that order…

Leander Dendoncker (left) of Wolves and Ben Chilwell (right) of Leicester compete for the ball during their sides’ 0-0 draw on Sunday. (Image courtesy of Getty Images).

Villa look best equipped of the promoted sides to stay up; Norwich and Sheffield United will teeter on the edge and one or both will fall short.

This is based not simply on their first games back in the big-time but considering a variety of factors. Each of the three promoted sides have prepared for life in the Premier League in their own ways, after differing periods of absence.

With regards to money spent, it is always a difficult decision for promoted sides to make in terms of finding a balance between entrusting those who were part of a promotion-winning team in a lower division and adding necessary experience and quality in certain areas. Sheffield United made some Championship-level signings, adding to a competitive squad with Chris Wilder hoping to replicate last season’s form and perhaps following the model set by Neil Warnock and his Cardiff side.

Norwich, on the other hand, have barely spent a penny, with the duo of manager Daniel Farke and sporting director Stuart Webber rewarding a number of players with new, long-term contracts, hoping to re-energise them and boost their chances back in the Premier League while not needing to bed-in any new arrivals. After a four-year absence, it seemed that Aston Villa were ready for promotion when it came about, and their transfer business proved as much. Spending over £130 million, they will want to disprove the notion that they are this season’s Fulham – who themselves outspent their fellow promoted sides last summer before miserably plummeting back to the Championship.

Refreshingly, all three of the promoted sides aim to play attacking football, albeit with their own twists. Whether it be Wilder’s overlapping centre-backs, Farke’s flying full-backs and entrusted hitman Teemu Pukki or Dean Smith’s creative midfield core, all three sides demonstrated that they will not alter the styles of play that served them so well in getting here in the first place. However, a sense of naivety may be attached to this defiance, particularly in the case of Norwich, but only time will tell. Had the Canaries taken one of their numerous good openings in the first-half against Liverpool and not played themselves into trouble on occasions, the outcome could have been different on their top-flight return.

As for Villa, led by boyhood fan of the club Smith, it is their creative dynamism provided by midfield – typified by two players — that could be the positive difference in their quest for a competitive campaign. Club captain Jack Grealish and their goalscorer in the defeat to Spurs (John McGinn) will be vital in working both ways, continuing to establish a connection between defence and attack, supplying new signing Wesley Moraes with enough ammunition on his way to a respectable goal return. Grealish in particular will be out to prove a point – with increased responsibility since the last time he performed at this level and with the ultimate goal of being selected by Gareth Southgate for next summer’s European Championships.

With a positive opening-day draw at the Vitality Stadium, Sheffield United could prove a tricky opponent for many in the weeks and months ahead. As for Norwich, they will score goals and are fervently supported: last season they scored the highest number of goals in their games for a Championship-winning side since the league’s 2004 rebrand. It will be tight, but Villa will be comfortably safe and one, or both, of the other two promoted sides could return to where they came from.

VAR will cause carnage and improve decision making in equal measure.

One of the weekend’s primary talking points was (shocker) the introduction of VAR. The Premier League is behind its major competitors in terms of implementing the technology, but one thing is for certain: VAR will always be a polarising debate. In Manchester City’s mauling of West Ham on Saturday, the constant and wearying application of VAR to check major incidents somehow overshadowed the real story of the ruthless nature of the champions’ start to their title defence.

It seemed as if with every defence-splitting pass and clinical attack, a halt to subsequent celebrations was needed — in the likely event that the goal could be chalked out for an infringement that would previously have gone undetected but later sparked outrage. This was the case on two counts — one decision going each way as City had a goal ruled off for a fractional offside against Raheem Sterling in the first half, but were later awarded a retake of Sergio Aguero’s missed penalty as Declan Rice encroached into the box.

The Premier League’s philosophy for its application is “minimum interference, maximum benefit.” On the whole, the introduction of VAR to the league can ultimately only be a good thing, as more decisions will be correct and unfair criticism of the refereeing human eye will eventually be eradicated from the game. Yet, it is the process which irks fans, even more so when the decision is made against their side. If “minimum interference” can be achieved, VAR will hopefully become a positive influence on Premier League football. Regardless, it is here to stay.

VAR checked to confirm that Raheem Sterling was offside in the build-up to Gabriel Jesus’ goal, before ruling it out. (Image courtesy of BT Sport).

Salah will score 20+ goals again, potentially winning a third consecutive Golden Boot.

In many ways, Mohamed Salah is unique. Unlike his other expected Golden Boot rivals, he doesn’t always dispatch limited chances. However, Salah is also never on the periphery of games: he is a different type of goalscorer to Kane or Aubameyang who occupy centre-halves and wait for their time to pounce. The Egyptian drifts inside at will, performing the role of inverted winger to perfection as he drags defenders across the backline, always aided by the sheer brilliance of Roberto Firmino and constant marauding runs on his outside provided by Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Against Norwich at Anfield, Salah was a constant threat and this time out only needed a couple of chances, slotting away one of his two shots on goal and assisting Virgil Van Dijk’s headed third goal for Liverpool. Salah finds ways to score goals, and in this consistent Liverpool side his inevitable goalscoring ability cannot be questioned. He will be in the reckoning for a third consecutive Golden Boot.

The south coast teams (Bournemouth, Southampton) will continue to push on, playing exciting, attacking brands of football.

In their season openers, Bournemouth drew 1-1 at home to newly-promoted Sheffield United and Southampton were steamrollered 3-0 by Burnley at Turf Moor. However, this is by no means a sign of things to come. Both of the teams situated on the south coast (separated by approximately 30 miles) will be looking for improvement this time around, building on their respective 14th and 16th-place finishes in 2018-19. What’s more, Bournemouth and Southampton share similar footballing philosophies and are led by ambitious young managers leading squads with a talented British core. This season, expect the two of them to maintain solid seasons — epitomised by good home form — and stay clear of the relegation dogfight for the season’s majority.

Palace and Brighton could struggle and have relegation fights on their hands, while Newcastle will be relegated.

Another of the Premier League’s less-heralded rivalries is the A23 or M23 derby between Crystal Palace and Brighton. However, this season, both could be taking the one-way road down to the Championship. After a disruptive summer in which Roy Hodgson’s side lost their star defender Aaron Wan-Bissaka to United and were left until the transfer deadline to discover that key man Wilfred Zaha would be staying (despite making it abundantly clear that he wanted to leave Selhurst Park), the Eagles entered this campaign with an overwhelming sense of pessimism.

Despite a decent performance in their opening 0-0 draw with Everton in which Zaha only appeared as a substitute, the loss of Wan-Bissaka will be huge and it is likely that Zaha’s form of last season — largely winning games single-handedly with the hope of making his move this summer — will not be replicated. If it is not, Palace could struggle, Hodgson may get the boot, and relegation could be on the cards.

As for Brighton, their plight is a difficult one to predict and things could go either way with Graham Potter replacing Chris Hughton as manager. Potter’s style could provide something different but may not fit the resources he has as his disposal: Hughton had his side set up to defend, relying on the defensive solidity of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy in front of Matt Ryan and leaving an excess of midfielders to feed off scraps supplied to them by a lone target man. Brighton may have had their day in the Premier League and could come to regret the sacking of Hughton who simply delivered on his remit, which was to keep them up. Despite all of this, the Seagulls shocked last season’s FA Cup runners-up and a lot of punters in the process by dispatching Watford 3-0 on Saturday.

Finally come Newcastle. With the fans in uproar about the club’s ownership and ill-feeling being heightened by the mutual termination of Rafael Benitez’s contract, there seems to be only one direction in which Newcastle are heading this season. Benitez, largely the only reason Newcastle fans continued financially supporting the team by attending games last season (such was their faith in the Spaniard), has been dismissed and unpopularly replaced by former Sunderland manager Steve Bruce.

The Toon may be boosted by the record-breaking arrival of Joelinton (despite his poor debut against Arsenal) and the return of the prodigal son Andy Carroll in the transfer market, but these signings only serve to paper over the cracks of the void left by the outgoings of Salomón Rondón and Ayoze Pérez. It was largely negative for Newcastle fans, of which some are known to be ready to accept relegation, should it lead to Mike Ashley finally selling up and leaving the club to rebuild itself. To be frank, this might be the best they can hope for…

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