The one many of you have been waiting for…
Feature Image by Kelvin Stuttard from Pixabay
The Premier League has returned! Despite all of the questions, doubts, and concerns surrounding Project Restart, it seems that the Premier League (and Championship) season will be completed. But where did we leave off? What are the major stories to follow? Who are the players to watch?
The other major leagues in Europe were or will be welcomed back with a title race, but what about in England? Well…not quite. Liverpool currently sit 25 points clear of Manchester City, on the verge of rounding out a historic season with their first league title in 30 years. They need two more wins, or one win with one Manchester City loss, to clinch the title, so unless a meltdown of equally historic standards takes place, then Liverpool will be champions of England, and it would be absolutely deserved. The talent in basically every position is staggering, and apart from a few bumps in the road, Jürgen Klopp has masterfully managed this team through a nearly unbeaten season. If Arsenal beat Manchester City, then Liverpool have the very unique opportunity of winning the title against derby-rivals Everton. It is not as unique, as there will not be fans present at Goodison Park, but it is still a unique opportunity.
The real major interest starts with the European races, which remain as wide open as they were months ago. Manchester City seem safely set in second, but Leicester City and Chelsea, who occupy the other top four spots, are not quite as safe. The gap between Leicester, in third, and Wolves, in sixth, is only 10 points with nine games remaining. The gap between fifth, currently Manchester United, and 12th, currently Everton, is only eight points. We have a situation where the teams currently in the Europa League places have the ability to catch the Champions League teams or be overtaken by teams below them. I have said it in every other league returning blog, but a fast start is going to be very important for teams in this race. These leads seem to be large, but with nine matches remaining, a quick start by some teams and slow by others can massively change the outlook of the table in a very short time.
There are quite a few teams to talk about here, so to save time, we will group them together. The three surprise packages, Leicester, Sheffield United, and Wolves, have really taken the top six race by storm. Leicester got there on the back of the Brendan Rodgers revolution, creating a system and style that is able to get the best out of their star-studded midfield and rejuvenate a 33-year-old Jamie Vardy. They are also supported by a strong defense, with the veteran presence of Jonny Evans and Kasper Schmeichel paired with the younger vibrancy of Çaglar Söyüncü, Ben Chilwell, and Ricardo Pereira. Wolves’ continued rise was expected, given how good they were last season, but they are still a fantastic team, especially in attack. The major surprise, however, is Sheffield United. Much was said about their team, and especially their manager Chris Wilder, when they were promoted from the Championship, but they were still largely considered relegation favorites going into the season. However, under the leadership of Wilder and his tactical genius, most notably the overlapping center backs, has allowed United to achieve more than the sum of their parts. Not only have the Blades avoided relegation, but they are firmly in the European fight.
Paired with these surprise packages are three of the Big Six sides having disappointing seasons. Manchester United and Arsenal have continued their struggles from last season, and Tottenham have joined them with a season well below their recent standards. United and Arsenal have continued their struggles related to their managers. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has kept his job up to this point at United, but Unai Emery has been sacked at Arsenal, replaced by Mikel Arteta in North London. Both teams have struggled with injuries and had some issues with scoring goals, but Arsenal have had a unique struggle in defense, with a back line that has long since been not good enough for their aspirations. They both had a slight turnaround come January, but each of them find themselves outside of the Champions League places, with Arsenal outside of the Europa League places as well. United will hope that Marcus Rashford can come back healthy into the team, adding to their improved attack spearheaded by new signing Bruno Fernandes. Their new signings have fully meshed in the team, and Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have added quite a bit to their defensive ability. Arsenal will have to continue riding the goalscoring form of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the adjusting-but-talented winger Nicolas Pépé. They will also have to rely more on their youth, even outside of Bukayo Saka, in order to deal with the rotation and fitness issues they will face. The task is much more difficult for Arsenal than for United, but both are still in the hunt for Europe. Spurs have also had quite a poor season, especially compared to their top four, Champions League-finalist season last year. Their disappointing season has led to the departure of manager Mauricio Pochettino, replaced by Premier League stalwart Jose Mourinho. Their players on expiring contracts has been a major story for the season, with Christian Eriksen having already departed, but their struggles are not isolated to that. The defense has struggled all season, but the attack has not been up to standard apart from Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son. Spurs find themselves in the same position as Arsenal, on the outside looking in but able to turn things around with a quick start to the season. They will hope that the lay off will allow their injury issues to subside and key players can return to the team.
Further down the table, we have a very interesting relegation race. Norwich City seem set to be relegated, but the other two places are still up for grabs. Four points separates Aston Villa, in 19th with a game in hand, from Brighton, in 15th. Realistically, Villa, Brighton, Bournemouth, Watford, and West Ham are all involved in the relegation fight. Southampton, Newcastle, and Everton, starting comfortably mid-table, run the risk of being dragged into this fight should they start the season in a Schalke-level of a rut. The staggering thing, which has been mentioned by other writers throughout the season, is that each of these teams mentioned are all at least pretty good overall. There will be some good teams relegated this season, better than some of the usual teams that are sent down to the Championship. While there are various things going wrong with each of these teams, too many to go through in one blog, each of these teams has their own amounts of talent on it. Players like Jack Grealish, John McGinn, Felipe Anderson, Callum Wilson, and Abdoulaye Doucouré are on teams involved in this relegation race, genuine talent that are on teams in desperate situations. That is the most interesting part of all of this. There will really be some good teams going down this season, quite a massive difference to other seasons, and in a season where many considered the Premier League to be weaker than usual.
So some players to look out for? Well, you all will know basically all of the big names in the Premier League, playing for the biggest teams, so I will try to highlight some who are not firmly in the spotlight, while also highlighting some who are but deserve their praise. At the top of the table, everyone knows about Liverpool’s incredible front three and very strong defense, but their midfield has been relatively under-appreciated. Club captain Jordan Henderson has put in a stellar season, earning him consideration for PFA Player of the Year, while Brazilian defensive midfielder Fabinho continues to float under the radar despite being one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe at the moment. Manchester City’s team is another known quantity, with Kevin de Bruyne arguably being the best player in the league this season, but we need to appreciate David Silva and Fernandinho, who are both still important contributors, as it will not be long before they are no longer in the Premier League. With Silva, a City legend, leaving at the end of the season and Fernandinho likely leaving in the next few years, it will not be long before these two Premier League stalwarts leave England for good. In the Top Four/Top Six race, much has already been said about Leicester’s phenomenal season, but it is worth highlighting Wilfried Ndidi once again, among the best defensive midfielders in the league this season. He was always very talented, but Leicester’s rise to the top four has allowed him to show this talent to a wider audience. Chelsea’s young core might be broken up by new signings, but center back Fikayo Tomori will be hard to displace. Having nearly been sent out on loan before the season started, Tomori emerged as a surprise star in Frank Lampard’s team and will likely be a fixture in the back line for years to come. For Wolves, Raúl Jiménez has emerged as one of the best strikers in the league. A complete number nine in so many ways, he has the combination of physical and technical skills that make him so difficult to deal with for opposition defenses. Quick enough to get in behind defenses, tall enough to be deadly in the air, and strong enough to hold the ball up for the wingers, Jiménez is truly the complete package. Bruno Fernandes has truly changed the game for Manchester United, acting as a number 10 that can pull the strings in attack, occupy dangerous spaces, and is still a goalscoring threat himself. Sheffield United have several underrated players and are definitely worth a watch, but I will highlight the effect John Lundstram has had on their team, and likely your Fantasy Premier League team. A transition from a struggling center back to a dominant box-to-box midfielder has allowed Lundstram to become a key cog in the Blades’ engine room. The headlines at Arsenal have been dominated by Aubameyang, for multiple reasons, but Bukayo Saka has emerged as the brightest gem of their latest Hale End Academy class. Originally a winger, Saka has deputized at left back as injuries ravaged the Arsenal defense, and he has emerged as one of the league’s rising stars, despite playing in an unnatural position. His assist for Eddie Nketiah’s goal against Everton is quite possibly the highlight of his season, and it poses an interesting question for Arsenal about what to do when Kieran Tierney is fit.
At the bottom end of the table, probably-relegated Norwich still have some young stars in right back Max Aarons and attacking midfielder Todd Cantwell. They will likely be some of the names that other clubs pursue if Norwich do indeed go down. Despite Aston Villa’s struggles, Jack Grealish has been phenomenal this season and will likely earn a move to a Big Six team regardless of whether Villa go down, but John McGinn has gone a bit under-appreciated, possibly because of his injury issues. A complete box-to-box midfielder, McGinn was arguably Villa’s best player earlier in the season, and his injury issues have had a massive impact. West Ham center back Issa Diop has been handed the impossible task of making that Irons defense look good, but despite their defensive struggles, he has shone as an individual player. He is able to combine his large physical frame with an incredible ability to time tackles and position himself well, especially on set-pieces. None of this is an exhaustive list, but just a few names to look out for as the season concludes.
So, what is going to happen? Well, Liverpool will be champions, Norwich will go down, but I am not fully sure on the rest. I am somewhat confident in Chelsea and Leicester’s ability to finish in the top four, but the other European places are really up in the air. If Manchester City’s appeal of their UEFA ban is upheld, then fifth would be a Champions League place and eighth would be a Europa League place, which obviously changes everything. Things have changed massively for United since Fernandes arrived at the club, but unless Marcus Rashford is able to come back fully fit, I do not think they will finish fifth over Wolves. I think Arsenal and Spurs both have the ability to make a run for the Europa League places if they come back healthy, and I think Sheffield United are the most precariously placed of all of the teams in the top six. Especially for Spurs, if they are able to get a healthy Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son back, then they are a significantly more dangerous team. Assuming eighth is a European place, I believe both Spurs and Arsenal will make it and Sheffield United will miss out. With relegation, it is all about momentum and quick starts. Watford were riding the momentum they got when Nigel Pearson was hired, but I am worried the hiatus to the season will stifle that. West Ham have also been struggling massively, and the hiatus has not given Aston Villa enough time to recover from their significant injury issues. I think Bournemouth are very precariously placed, and that they will be one of the three that goes down. Eddie Howe has done all he can, but I do not think that team is good enough to stay up. West Ham, despite all of the times they want to sabotage themselves, are still too talented to go down in my mind, and I think Watford will find a way to regain their momentum and stay up. The relegation zone will finish exactly as it is now, with Norwich, Bournemouth, and Villa going down.
Well, the Premier League is back! Slowly but surely, football is returning to our television screens. Despite no title race, there is quite a bit of obscurity with the rest of the table, so it should still be a thrilling finish to the season.