And so to the other half of the Premier League, the sides that, whether they admit it or not, will simply be glad just to be in next season’s EPL preview.
By Dave Bowler
That might seem harsh on Brighton who were a top half team last term with Graham Potter possibly deserving the manager of the year award after masterminding their surge to a half century of points. As long as Brighton can keep hold of him, you’d expect him to continue to keep Brighton’s heads above water, but replicating the success of last term might be a big ask, not least with Yves Bissouma off to Tottenham and Marc Cucurella’s future very uncertain too.
Of course, the departure this time last year of Ben White brought similar messages of doom with it and the Seagulls rose above it, but it’s a difficult trick to keep repeating, not least after losing sporting director Dan Ashworth too. Brighton will have enough to stay up, but they’ll likely have a less comfortable time of it this term.
A club like Everton should be looking at far more than survival, according to the odds at THA BET but it’s a case of small steps after they came perilously close to the drop last time around. Richarlison has gone and Toffees fans don’t seem thrilled by the arrival of Dwight McNeil and James Tarkowski from relegated Burnley, which may be a little unfair on them.
Frank Lampard has a great deal to do to convince the naysayers about his managerial credentials and while it might not meet the longer term ambitions of Everton as a club, a season where they consistently hover between 9th and 12th, with no alarms or excursions, wouldn’t do them any harm. It’s a long way back for the Toffeees and you can’t do all the journey overnight.
We spoke of Leicester, Wolves and West Ham inhabiting something of a twilight zone where for all their qualities, it’s hard to see them breaking through into the top six. Crystal Palace might feel likewise about the top half of the table. A model of stability under Roy Hodgson, they took a step forward under Patrick Vieira last season and became a side that was easier on the eye to boot.
A relegation battle looks highly unlikely for a side that looks to have too much about them, but ultimately will they too succumb to that dissatisfaction that sems to envelop clubs who have spent too many years fighting for 11th place, the way West Brom and Burnley have for instance? Not this season, but where do they then go from there?
Similar conversations might be being had at Southampton for few teams can blow more hot and cold than the Saints. Ralph Hasenhuttl is a manger who might well be under pressure from day one for again, the nature of Premier League finances leads you to question just what it is that Southampton are for. When the battle to reach 40 points is all that you’re really in it for, when does that become just a bit boring?
That means no disrespect to a great football club like Southampton – nor Palace, Villa etc – but as we’ve said before, once you get established in the Premier League, but can’t threaten the European places, what are you for? I hope the answer for all these clubs will be to take the FA Cup and the League Cup ruthlessly seriously, but I suspect that boards of directors will think otherwise if they think, wrongly, that that will impinge on league survival. But I do fear for Southampton that they might be this season’s Burnley.
Aston Villa have much to do too, for Steven Gerrard has yet to fully convince at Villa Park. After coming in in a relative blaze of glory, just two wins in the last 11 fixtures – and those against Burnley and Norwich – leave plenty of question marks about manager and squad.
A lot will rest on Philippe Coutinho giving them the spark they need in front of goal, but it might be another term of toil for Villa. Again, they should have too much to need to worry about going down, but a good start is important, because once you get sucked into that scrap, it’s hard work getting out of it.
BEES COME WITH A STING
That was Brentford’s special weapon last season, starting off soundly and never really looking back. The signing of Christian Eriksen in January was a masterstroke and that they couldn’t hold onto him is a great shame, for he was the real gamechanger for the Bees.
Aaron Hickey and Ben Mee look solid enough signings and they should fit into the collective spirit that has been such a positive force for Brentford. Thomas Frank has them playing intelligent football and they will be a sprightly force in the Premier League once again this term, though second time around, it will be infinitely harder for them to keep their heads above water.
If this season is going to have a Brentford, I think it will come in the shape of Nottingham Forest. Back in this league for the first time this century they clearly don’t intend to muck about. The signing of Jesse Lingard was genuinely one of those that makes the jaw drop, not simply because of the money involved but because of what the club, and especially manager Steve Cooper, must have said to persuade him to throw his lot in at the City Ground when there were more obvious moves for him to makes, especially in a World Cup year.
They have spent heavily and excitingly and with the likes of Neco Williams, Omar Richards and Dean Henderson coming in, they are certainly going to be the team to take note of early on. It could, of course, be catastrophic if it goes wrong, for a failed spend of that magnitude could set them back years, but it’s the kind of ambition that has to be lauded. Such is the momentum it has generated, like Brentford last term, they could be out of sight of the bottom three by Christmas and able to speculate again from a position of strength.
Leeds enjoyed that kind of run in their first season back in the Premier League, but it was a last gasp survival last term and now Jesse Marsch has to build his own team out of the ashes of Bielsa’s. Raphina and Kalvin Philips have gone and that is a heavy blow to the side.
They have been busy in the transfer market, bringing in Tyler Adams, Sonny Perkins, Luis Sinisterra, Brenden Aaronson among others and they will have been buoyed by a 6-2 win over Cagliari in their final friendly last weekend. Defensive frailties from the Bielsa era remain a concern and this might be another season of struggle for Leeds as they adjust to new demands. The raucous, white hot atmosphere at Elland Road will be vital in them earning enough points to keep their heads above water.
Fulham have made such a complete shambles of their last two tilts at the Premier League that surely things will be better this time around? Marco Silva is a well organised manager but there are certainly alarm bells ringing at the lack of depth in their squad, particularly defensively.
Like most promoted clubs, they are down the pecking order in the transfer window and generally have to wait until the last week of the window before making some signings, but Silva was muttering darkly last week about only having 16 senior players, and that’s no way to go into a season. The arrival of Bernd Leno has bolstered that, while the earlier signing of Joao Palhinha looks promising, but with the caveat that we’re looking at the squad as it stands today, the responsibility for survival appears to hang almost entirely around the neck of Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Bournemouth are in a similar position to Fulham, waiting their turn on the transfer merry-go-round. They seem dreadfully light at present and have suffered as many clubs do when they go int the loan market – there’s a big hole when the player goes back. Nat Phillips is the particular issue here, as stand out at the back for the Cherries last season, but presently back at Liverpool.
Both Bournemouth and Fulham are after him again, and their survival hopes will certainly be swayed one way or the other by who eventually gets him. Again like Fulham, some shrewd late signings could turn everything around, but at the moment, it’s hard not to see an immediate Championship return for the Cherries. Beyond that, it’s two more from Fulham, Brentford, Leeds and Southampton I suspect.
Part One Of Dave Bowler’s EPL Preview Here – Who can challenge City & Liverpool this season?