Let’s finally discuss arguably the only league much care about, and for understandable reasons. While the Bundesliga is the league I cannot keep away from, England’s top division has the competitiveness and star quality that many more casual fans want to see. England’s top-flight currently possesses the best team in Europe and the best team the Premier League has ever seen. There is always plenty to talk about, so let’s get into who will succeed, and who will fail.
Outside Shout – Southampton
Since I’m bored of talking about Leicester, let’s look at another team, one that might finally be on the up. Between 2013 and 2016, Southampton were one of the most likeable clubs in the league. They were getting quality from a host of domestic talent in Shaw, Lallana, Bertrand, Clyne, Rodriguez and Ward-Prowse. They combined this well by picking up players from more inferior leagues, like Tadic, Van Dijk and Sadio Mane. They were consistently finishing in the top half of the table and brought two talented coaches to the league, with Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino both moving on to better things. They weren’t following the trend of other mid-table teams, in making generally bad decisions in terms of appointing the old guard of managers. They were more forward-thinking than most clubs, which enabled them to stand out in a league where the quality of football below 7th was questionable at best.
There were apparent issues off the pitch, but the moment the club’s problems became apparent was during the 2016/17 season. In the previous season, Koeman managed to push his side to finish 6th, ensuring they had European football the following season. After the Dutchman departed to join Everton, Southampton replaced him with the experienced French coach Claude Puel. I saw this appointment as a smart one from Southampton. While he was never fantastic at either Nice or Lyon, he still did a very respectable job. During his time at Lyon, they reached the Champions League semi-finals, the first time in their history. The club attempted to give Puel the players to help him succeed in arguably their biggest season, with the signings of Nathan Redmond, Sofianne Boufal and Pierre-Emile Höjbjerg. Redmond showed at Norwich that he was good enough for the Premier League, while Boufal came off the back of a stand out season in Ligue 1, contributing to 15 goals for Lille. All were under the age of 23, which helped continue their habit of signing younger players and aiding in their development.
The problem for Puel during his reign was the high bar which was set by the previous managers. An 8th place finish alongside a cup final is an acceptable finish for a side which lost their best attacker in Sadio Mane. Southampton were ineffective in the final third and Puel does deserve some criticism for that, but what did they expect? Puel had a reputation for being a defensive coach, and with his lack of attacking talent, it isn’t a surprise his team were quite dull to watch. He was let go at the end of the season, and replaced by Mauricio Pellegrino.
This is where things went from decent to very bad. The club failed to bring in any forwards during the 17/18 summer window and left Pellegrino with very little in attack. There was no rhythm or inventiveness in the final third, which made the Saints one of the most boring sides in recent memory. After being ambitious with their managerial choices, it wasn’t a surprise it finally came crashing down. Poor recruitment throughout the team resulted in a side where goals were a rarity, which resulted in Pellegrino’s sacking. Mark Hughes arrived to steady the ship, and while they were slightly improved, he did not deserve a three-year deal. The idiocy on giving him a long term contract came back to bite them, after Southampton only managed to win a single game in the 18/19 season, before his sacking after a 2-2 draw with Manchester United in December.
After 2 years of ruining the good reputation they built for themselves, they finally made an appointment to match the ambition they once shown. Ralph Hassenhuttl arrived after departing RB Leipzig after a disappointing follow-up season to their second-place finish in 16/17 season, where they crashed out of a relatively easy champions league group. Hassenhuttl is an excellent coach, who built an aggressive, pressing side in Germany that enabled them to compete with the very best. For the first time since Koeman, it felt like Southampton were finally going somewhere.
While his half-season with Southampton wasn’t spectacular, Hassenhuttl did lead them to survival in a comfortable fashion. Redmond went from 0 goal contributions under Hughes to 10 under his new coach, a definite improvement for one of their most important players. There were slight improvements all over the field. A back 3 with an aggressive midfield partnership of Höjbjerg and Romeu and focus on the wing-backs pushing forward saw an increase in results and general entertainment.Embed from Getty Images
Many do not predict Southampton to challenge the other top 6 chasers, but I do believe that once everything clicks, they could be one of the best sides outside of the top 6. They’ve started the season in mixed form, losing 2 of their opening 3 games. However, they have been so unfortunate not to have an unbeaten start. Liverpool were fortunate to win as well as Brighton. Djenepo is an excellent addition and could add that much-needed creativity and dribbling that the team is desperate for. Che Adams is a slight risk at £15 million but has the potential to contribute. This could be another disappointing season, but there is a possibility that everything goes right.
Overachievers – Arsenal
Arsenal are really bad, and at this point, it is getting worrying. Emery’s debut season was dreadful. They had a chance to sneak into that top 4, but three consecutive defeats to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester ensured they would be forced to play Europa League football once again. It wasn’t just the league table where things were looking bad, but especially on the pitch. Arsenal went from a fun but extremely vulnerable side under Wenger to a dull yet weak team at the back. The overreliance on Aubameyang and Lacazette to convert every chance that came to them, which they basically did, is not a practical way to build an attack. Aubameyang ran hot throughout the season and carried Arsenal to at least challenging for top 4.Embed from Getty Images
Arsenal did have a good summer, with record signing Pepe adding an elite player to the right-side. David Luiz and Kieran Tierney added better defensive personnel, and Ceballos finally filled that Santi Cazorla-shaped hole. However, if early season form is anything to go by, I do worry if Arsenal can actually become a champions league-level side. Their shot numbers are still deficient, and if their Gabon forward suddenly hits a dry patch, I have no idea how they will cope. It’s unlikely they will drop out of the top 6, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if Chelsea with a transfer ban or an extremely poor Manchester United finishes above them.
Underachievers – Chelsea
Speaking of Chelsea, I genuinely have no idea what to expect from Lampard’s side. They have a very talented team and still waiting for Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi to return from long-term injuries. This transfer ban, while having apparent issues, does have its positives. Lampard has said multiple times that everyone was going to be given a chance, something we have seen already. Tammy Abraham has started 2 of the first 3 games of the season, showing how faith has finally been put in him. Mason Mount is another to start a majority of the season. Even though I’m not his biggest fan, there is a clearly a decent player in there. The midfield and central defensive options are still elite. Having Ngolo Kante in your team will always keep your midfield functional, and the added addition of Kovacic’s permanent signing is a massive boost in ensuring the middle of the park is secure.Embed from Getty Images
My worry with Chelsea is the strain that European football and potential injuries could have on the side. Emerson is Chelsea’s only real left-back, and Azpilicueta isn’t the most forward-thinking. There is also a very likely chance the attack simply doesn’t click. Pulisic has never put in a lot of goals and assists, We still do not know if Tammy can play at the top level and I’m not sold on Mount. I hope their younger talents live up to the potential they have shown for years and guide Chelsea to a successful season. However, the chances of everything falling apart if these players do not flourish under Frank Lampard.
Best Transfer – Dani Ceballos
As mentioned, Ceballos is truly a great addition. While Ndombele, Wan-Bissaka, Rodri and Iwobi are fantastic signings, Ceballos’ added quality to a lacklustre Arsenal side was what they needed. The former Real Betis midfielder is a perfect allrounder, being able to play as both the teams’ creator, the anchor and the transitioner. It makes Ceballos so useful to have for a manager, being able to change his role based on the opposition or to accommodate specific players on his own team. This versatility in midfield is something Arsenal lack; a problem that intensified after the sale of Aaron Ramsey. Torreira can do a bit of everything, but you’d never play him as the most attacking in a two-man midfield, and Granit Xhaka is a player you have to facilitate due to his lack of speed and defensive awareness. Ceballos will give Arsenal an elite midfielder who could easily find a place in all the other top 6 sides. A masterstroke from the Gunners.
Potential Flop – Jean-Philippe Gbamin
Everton have this habit of making good signings, then suddenly ruining all that in some foolish decisions. This time it was the sale of Idrissa Gueye. I’m fully aware there was no stopping him leaving. The defensive midfielder wanting to go in January but had to wait until the summer to earn his deserved move to PSG. He was Everton’s most valuable player and losing him would mean a lot of money would need to be spent on replacing him. Even from someone who has a love for midfielders in Gueye’s ilk, I had no idea who they could realistically sign. Sangare was linked, but he doesn’t possess the same speed as Gueye. Ander Herrera would have been a decent choice, but, like Gueye, his heart was set on joining PSG. This signing needed to be perfect if Everton want to meet their aspirations of reaching the top 6.Embed from Getty Images
Their choice of Mainz midfielder Jean-Philippe Gbamin was a very odd one. While I haven’t seen much of Gbamin play, I expected his tackle and interception numbers to match that of the player he was replacing, yet they do not seem alike. In fact, it is a massive drop off compared to Gueye. The Ivory Coast midfielder only averaged 3.5 tackles and interceptions last season, an enormous difference to Gueye’s 6.8. Everton cannot afford Gbamin to fail. If he does, that could mean the end of Andre Gomes. As mentioned before, Gomes only had a successful season due to Gueye covering for him defensively, allowing the Portuguese midfielder focus on ball progression. Gomes now has to contribute more defensively, which he has never been able to do. Gbamin could fail to replicate Gueye, which would result in Everton having an unstable midfield.