Just as you didn’t need Covid-19 to return, here’s the return of my rubbish Premier League Preview column. Still, take some small amount of solace in this – Covid-19 has upset the established order of things, and my preview column for the Premier League 2020/21 season has been added to its considerable list of victims.
Okay, so in the grand scheme of things it’s irrelevant, but let me say that in writing this I’ve gained more appreciation for the old world, or let’s just call it normality. Last summer’s column was a lot easier due to the English transfer window closing before the first game of the season, so everything was settled. Now we’re one and done and back to the traditional transfer window structure in the new abnormal, with the season beginning before the transfer window closes. Throw in abbreviated pre-seasons, stupidly interrupted by meaningless Nations League games (more on that in a mo), no fans in the ground for the foreseeable future, a slow moving transfer window thanks to the economic downturn and things seem even more nebulous than ever. The stagnant (so far) transfer window, in particular, makes it slightly harder to make good predictions when you have no clue what the squads will look like a month from now. Lionel Messi staying at Barcelona and not joining Manchester City, as prophesised by Twitterites quoting half-baked Sky Sports and ESPN clickbait sensationalism, makes things a little clearer, or does it?
Fixture congestion was already a contentious topic, not a week would go by without a high profile manager moaning about it, usually Jürgen Klopp. God knows what he’ll make of what’s to come. Let’s concede that these moaning managers do have a point. It’s hard not to bristle at the absurdity of the absolutely redundant Nations League continuing on and the games being played on the eve of the season, after an abbreviated pre-season, following on from a hurried conclusion to last season and with a heavily condensed fixture list for clubs to contend with all next season. Not content with having a financial behemoth in the Champions League, UEFA are appeasing a traditional sense of nationalistic pride few care about or dare admit in the open (promoting parity for smaller nations they’ll claim, or to paraphrase The Hitch ‘this is what it means to live in a therapeutic society ran by complete cockmonkeys’). It’s pure greed by UEFA, simple as that. UEFA is desperately persevering, come hell or high water, with preserving international football in the same echelon as domestic club football and the Champions League for leverage, albeit miniscule, against the perpetual threat of the top European Clubs abandoning the Champions League and forming their own European super league.
But anyway, this is about the upcoming Premier League season. As per usual the league is divided into sections; the relegation fodder, the agonisingly boring midtable mediocres (so I won’t be commenting on them), the race for Thursday Night wankerdom, the top four and the title contenders. As Stewie Griffin (or was it Kenneth Williams?) would say, let’s start with the bottom. Ooohh Matron.
Leeds United are back. Will they stay up? Who’s going down?
It’s sixteen years since they got relegated for living Peter Risdale’s dream of lavish failure, replete with kitsch fish tanks filled with exotic specimens, how time flies. Leeds fans may dislike Risdale for his disingenuous naivety, but there’s a reason we should all dislike the fat bastard. He unwittingly developed the blueprint for the thieving oligarchs and murderous human rights abusing regimes to use football to try wash away their sins – side note here, but Everton seem hell bent on following the Risdale blueprint but without Champions League qualification. Risdale too could’ve been beloved – he probably has a cry wank on his Leeds United themed throne every night bemoaning how close they came (to finishing second?) as he climaxes staring at a signed John Giles picture on the wall. Eh, where was I? Oh yeah, Risdale simply didn’t have the financial resources or nouse to pull it off (appointing David O’Leary as manager and giving him access to serious amounts of money was a mistake), but Roman Abramovich and Abu Dhabi’s mobsters do and learned from Risdale’s litany of mistakes by hiring competent managers and directors of football.
And while we’re on the subject, I don’t believe the tired cliché that gets repeated ad nauseam by second rate retired footballers now stealing a living as woeful TV pundits that Leeds are a ‘big club’ and ‘belong in the top flight’. Has anybody missed them over the last sixteen years? Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, now those are big clubs. Still, this iteration of Leeds carries some intrigue – they’re managed by Marcelo Bielsa, and if you follow football you’ll know he’s an interesting character (foreign cheater to EDL dickheads) and tends to favour an attacking brand of football. He also refuses to do interviews in English, ‘no ingles señor’, which will wind up the xenophobes perched on rancid tatty barstools in deepest Brexitville, so that’s in his favour too.
Will they stay up? I just don’t know. I will say this, I hoped for two clubs other than Fulham and West Brom to get promoted with them. The following analogy is contemptuous, illogical and utterly crap but West Brom and Fulham are the most boring yo-yo clubs ever, and so I’m picking them to live up to their type. They’re the Irn-Bru can flattened into the kerb crevice of your street by a thousand truck wheels passing over it. It’s just there, it’s litter, every now and again you notice its withered metal gleaming in the sun but it’s inoffensive enough for you not to care. Then one day in late March or early April the street cleaning buggy thingy finally sweeps up the can, then you check the league table and West Brom and Fulham have been relegated, again.
The best thing I can say about either West Brom or Fulham is that they’re not one those ghastly bright orange Sainsbury’s plastic bags that gets caught on a tree branch during winter, that bleak vista represents Burnley. I mentioned Burnley in relation to relegation, more in hope than expectation that they follow Stoke City back into deserved irrelevance, for revelling in their grim anachronistic, jingoistic, ‘Lionel Messi couldn’t do it at Stoke on cold wet night in February’ embodiment of Brexiteer football, Sean Dyche’s mutant gingerness, but most of all for the White Lives Matter banner attached to a plane that was flown over Turf Moor before Burnley kicked off against Manchester City in June. Karma doesn’t exist, but if it did it would surely intervene here – it already has, to an extent, but why not ask for more justice?
We need one more to go through the trap door. It’ll come from one of the Crystal Palace, West Ham, Brighton, Leeds and Villa group. It deserves to be Villa for the way they unashamedly celebrated surviving with thirty-five points last season. Losers. The expression on Roy Keane’s face was spot on:
I’m picking Villa for the drop this time, if they weren’t so woeful in attack, Callum Wilson snubbing them for Newcastle hurt and their response – paying £28m (plus add-ons) for Ollie Watkins – seems really desperate, I’d be tempted to pick Palace in their stead; aging squad, questionable depth in most positions, useless Owl-faced duffer for a manager, they were fucking dogshit when the league resumed after the lockdown and if Wilfried Zaha leaves before the window closes, well, the bookies currently have Palace at 9/4 for the drop. I’m so convinced of my convictions that I may have a big time baller bet of 50p on that one.
The race for Thursday Night Wankerdom
Arsenal look competent under Mikel Arteta, fifth place. Wolves and Spurs to duke it out for sixth. Leicester to drop off. None of these clubs look or feel equipped to challenge for a Champions League place. If you held a gun to my head the strongest case can be made for Spurs, until last season’s wobble they’d finished in the top four for four straight years. Contemplating these teams is depressing. Life’s too short, so let’s just move on.
Can Chelsea and Manchester United get close enough to Liverpool and Manchester City?
On paper it’s very tempting to talk yourself into Chelsea’s squad. Real quality and depth in midfield and attack, especially if N’Golo Kante remains. However, there’s still a lot of questions. Who else will they bring in? There’s talk of them spending another £100m before the window closes, on top of what they’ve spent already. It’s obscene, even by the thief’s standards. What’s happening with the goalkeeping position? Is the defence good enough – right now, probably not. Is Frank Lampard a good manager? How are they gonna line up in attack, who plays and where?
Too many questions for my liking and so I’m picking them to finish third, but not put in a real title challenge – they finished thirty-three points behind Liverpool and fifteen behind City. Liverpool’s point total may be an exceptional outlier (and they likely won’t match it), but City’s total wasn’t and that, in most seasons, only gets you second or third. Chelsea were way off that, conceding fifty-four goals and barely finishing fourth. Seeing is believing and I want them to prove they can cut it first.
Which brings us to Manchester United, who are proof that perception is an entirely fraudulent measure of reality.
However, I think this myopia can be explained. Most of us are an age, where, for the vast majority of our lives, we’ve been accustomed to seeing United contend for titles year in year out. Like the prisoner who’s been institutionalised after serving twenty plus years, detachment from expectation and adaptation to the new normal doesn’t happen suddenly. Consider how differently these two successive, yet very similar, statistical seasons have been perceived as evidence of this phenomenon;
Season 2018/2019, finished 6th, scored 65, conceded 54, points 66
Season 2019/2020, finished 3rd, scored 66, conceded 36, points 66
Now, the above certainly isn’t regression, conceding eighteen fewer goals is some measure of progress, but it certainly doesn’t scream a title challenge, never mind potential champions, does it? United last won the title in 2013, and haven’t challenged since. They finished a distant second under Mourinho three years ago. That’s as good as it’s gotten.
There are other reasons for scepticism, can they play new signing Donny Van De Beek alongside Pogba and Fernandes? Not without changing the formation. Will David De Gea give a fuck again? And consider the staggering number of penalties they’ve won over the last two seasons. Last season they ‘won’ (‘awarded’ might be the more accurate verb) fourteen. It was twelve the season before last. In 2017/18 they only had three. Maybe it’s a result of working on the dark arts in training, but I suspect they’ve been unsustainably fortunate, with last year’s total assisted further by the imbecile refs who, with the integrity of a worn urinal cake, have shown they can’t be trusted to use VAR properly. Thanks to their incompetence VAR is now viewed with the same level of suspicion and derision as people who wear turtlenecks and shell-suits or someone named Harold Shipman opening a medical practice in Greater Manchester.
And, there’s the small matter of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A very good striker in his day, but is he any good at tactics or man management? He certainly understands how to wield United exceptionalism which is still firmly lapped up by many of those who inhabit the various spheres of football journalism. His uplifting soundbites charm the Sky Sports sycophants, his mates who work there and provides filler for Sky Sports News, but just how effective will that be against Chelsea’s billions, Man City’s gazillions and proven managerial commodities such as Klopp and Guardiola? I’d give Alex Ferguson in his heyday a chance, but not a fella with such a gormless smile (unfair, I know, but it’s unconvincing), Norweigan League titles and a relegation with Cardiff City on his CV.
They’ll finish fourth and should have a better manager in charge this time next year. So, when that happens, we’ll revisit their credentials.
Will there be a title race this time?
Chances are there will be, simply through the dreaded ‘regression to the mean’. This always gets quoted when the algorithms and mathematical formulas used by statisticians and sabremetricians for predictive results modelling (expected goals is for losers) and ‘true’ player and team evaluation is betrayed by those pesky results. Reality and football is often unquantifiable and flawed, just deal with it. Take your model being right 51% of the time as a win. The congested fixture list should add some additional volatility to things, though to what degree is debateable. Two games a week makes the league a bit more of a slog, more points should be dropped unexpectedly. And let’s face it, as City found out last season, it’s very difficult to amass ninety plus points three seasons in a row. It hasn’t been done before. If Liverpool manage that, and given the impediments to that above, they’ll feel very confident of winning back to back leagues.
Another reason it’ll be closer – surely City won’t lose nine games again? That was a pathetic effort from them. Can I suggest something sacrilegious? For all the breathless hyperbole and bodily fluids excreted at the prospect of MESSI IN THE PREMIER LEAGUE FAM! – it might be a good thing that City missed out on the wee legend. They have so much quality in attack that they didn’t miss Leroy Sane being out injured, and they won’t miss him now that he’s fucked off to Bayern. What they do need is central defenders better than Nathan Ake, and certainly not more braindead full backs. I can’t decide if the laughable Benjamin Mendy has been the biggest waste of money since Andy Carroll or Brexit (over a billion so far) and Joao Cancelo is so abject that you suspect he was signed solely for his good amortisation properties.
And that’s why I’m picking Liverpool to retain the title, their defensive personnel are far less prone to injury or misadventure. Just remember, I picked City to win the league last season, so that’ll be season ending injuries to Virgil Van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold with Alisson Becker turning into a drunk version of Jordan Pickford before the end of October. Nailed on.