By law, I always hold back my English Premier League (EPL) season predictions till the start of September. Simple logic dictates that its safer to punt once the transfer window closes. No different this year and with the window slamming shut on Friday at 11pm, I can comfortably place my bets.
Manchester City will be chasing history, becoming the first team to win four consecutive titles in Premier League history. In the EPL era Manchester United won three consecutive titles under the incomparable Sir Alex Ferguson from 1998-2001 and 2006-2009, but even the great Scot could not accomplish what Pep’s very own “Manchester Globetrotters” are on the verge of achieving. Arsenal run them a close second and many will expect them to build on a memorable campaign and take that extra step forward. Liverpool and Chelsea will look to fight their way back into the top four, having been forcefully ejected by Newcastle United, who will shoulder the burden of balancing European football with the league challenge, under a European novice but neverthelessstill smart young coach in Eddie Howe.
Westham under the tutelage of the wily David Moyes and England’s very own “total football” inventers Brighton & Hove Albion will lead the chasing pack and hope to keep their European places secure for another season. I now bravely look at the top 4 of the EPL season 2023-24 and recognise the best and worst of the rest.
I can’t seem to remember any single player who played an entire Premier League season at an abnormally high level and performed consistently over the 38-gamestretch without injury. Perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2007-08 season when he banged in 31 goals in 34 games. The 36 goals in 31 games from Erling Halaand last season put him a level above any marksman in the world right now. He has already scored 6 goals in his first four games, and it is imaginable he can replicate last season’s performances despite the amount of football his body has endured over the past 16 months. Without Halaand, this City side is not as fearful, and a few teams will fancy their chances, but Julian Alvarez, a world cup winner already has stepped up early in the season and his consistency will ensure they slug out a few results should the Norwegian giant sit out.
Ilkay Gundogan, a leader and scorer of crucial goals that willed the tired looking treble winners across the finish line is now trading his skills at the Camp Nou while another ever-consistent squad member in Riyad Mahrez decided to taste the petrol dollars with Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia. Added to Aymeric Laporte’s exit, you feel Man City have slightly weakened despite making reasonable purchases of Mateo Kovacic, Josko Gvardiol, Jeremy Doku and Matheus Nunes.
However, with the Holy Grail of the Champions League now safely in their hands, that distraction is now in the past. History is within grasp and the chance to silence the now noisy neighbours on the red side of the city will be all the motivation they need, and I expect them to do just that.
Five games into the start of last season, Arsenal had collected maximum points in contrasting fashion. Then came the collapse against eternal enemy Manchester United at Old Trafford. Fast forward 12 months, and roles reversed as the Gunners claimed a nerve shattering 3-1 win over Erik Ten Hag’s counter attacking machine. I mention this because fixtures against the big boys had been a challenge in the past but under Mikel Arteta the Gunners seem to have mastered how to get results, unless you are Manchester City. Key will be avoiding confidence shattering losses to the champions and the Community Shield penalty shoot-out victory will have lifted part of that mental block.
The lack of defensive additions before the window slammed shut was concerning if not careless. With Jurien Timber’s season almost over, the Gunners released Kieran Tierney, Nuno Tavarez and Rob Holding, the latter on a permanent deal. Constant niggles to Aleksander Zinchenko and Takehiro Tomiyasu will leave the Gunners down to bare bones. This will be their downfall and the winter window can not arrive any sooner already.
Outside their defensive concerns, they have a balanced team with so much firepower that they can afford the luxury of Kai Havertz lumbering around the Emirates turf. I expect the goals to flow once Arteta realises that club record signing Declan Rice is the actual replacement to Granit Xhaka, allowing Thomas Partey to return to his sole anchoring role. Rice & Jorginho will also solve the worry of losing Partey in that critical holding position, something they struggled with last season. A return to the UEFAChampions League will be a positive distraction and I believe the main priority for Arteta. Expect that distraction to extend their league trophy drought to a second decade.
I had massive concerns about this Liverpool side when they released the experienced trio of captain Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and James Milner all in one window. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Naby Keita soon followed the exit sign and Jurgen Klopp left it late bringing in new bodies to add up the numbers. Despite the early signings of Alexis MacAllister and Dominik Szoboszlai, it’s the late additions of Ryan Gravenberch and Japanese hard man Wataru Endo that might push the Reds back into the top 4.
Liverpool’s average age in midfield has lowered impressively and for a team that functions around the gegen press, this will be crucial in suffocating teams higher up the pitch. Mohamed Salah will score the goals as expected, but it’s the re-emergence of Darwin Nunez that could well be the difference. He appears to be re-invigorated and hungry to prove the doubters wrong.
They still look short at the back in numbers, if not in quality and will do well to add an injury-free centre back as able deputy to Virgil Van Dijk and Ibrahim Konate.
Their ‘unwanted’ participation in the Europa League will eventually take a toll on theirPremier League campaign and I won’t be surprised to see Klopp make every effort to win this tournament. That and a return to the champions league places will be a successful campaign for a team in rebuild mode.
Firmly back in their place, as the shadow to the Gunners in North London, this Spurs team would not have been in many predictions for a top four bet. The loss of Harry Kane compounded that, and the appointment of a manager little known outside Scotland did not help matters. But fair play to Ange Postecoglu, he has remodelled this Spurs team into an exciting free flowing orchestra that have already impressively slalomed past Manchester United in an impressive victory.
They are already the second highest scoring team in the league and that alone might have answered the first part of questions about the post Kane era. The second part of this equation will inevitably surround the form and consistency of Richarlison, the heir apparent to the England captain. He appears overly desperate to impress and a complete shadow of the player who dons the Brazil national team jersey.
Yves Bissouma is reborn in midfield, flowing with confidence alongside an equally athletic Pape Sarr, with the experienced hard man Pierre-Emile Hjorberg providing experienced cover as back up. James Maddison as expected has hit the ground runningwith two goals and two assists in his first four games. Its their backline however, that will limit their push as a title challenger. Davidson Sanchez has finally left for more playing time in Turkey while Clement Lenglet’s loan spell has been transferred to Aston Villa, leaving them short of experience and quality at the back. Micky Van de Ven has gone about his business quietly but looked shaky once faced with pacey forwards.
The North Londoners will sit out European competition this season and the extra weeks of rest will probably be the difference between them and the rest in completing the top four positions.
BEST OF THE REST
Having had a full season in the hot seat, and tested beyond measure with his handling of Cristiano Ronaldo, Erik Ten Hag seemed to have won over many doubters that he was indeed the man to restore the club at the pinnacle of English football. His recent public fall out with Jadon Sancho will have brought back unfond memories of a divided dressing room that still has the giant shadow of deposed captain Harry Maguire hovering above.
The lack of a natural goal scorer will not help matters despite the acquisition of the relatively unknown Rasmus Hojlund. Sofyan Amrabat is probably their biggest acquisition this window considering how much Casemiro has aged over the summer. Andre Onana will create an 11th outfield player, and this will be key in unlocking teamsthat attempt the high press. The return to the Champions League coupled with limited goal scoring options will however condemn them to a spot just outside the top four.
Newcastle United made some exciting additions in the summer that included Harvey Barnes, AC Milan midfielder Sandro Tonali, Tino Livermento and Chelsea youngster Lewis Hall. Good depth for a team that excited and surprised many last season as they gate-crashed the top four and secured their place in the Champions League for the first time in twenty years. A group that has PSG, AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund will limit them to mere participants while taking a toll on their league form. They lost 5 games in the entirety of the past season but have already registered a 3 in the loss column after four games. Hard to see how that changes once the European calendar begins. Sixthplace will be satisfactory enough before the bigger name signings arrive in the summer of 2024.
Brighton & Hove Albion and Westham United will strike a few times and claim some big scalps, but once Thursday night football gets into full gear, they will be forced to prioritise their participation in the different competitions. I don’t expect them to finish above the seventh position.
At the opposite end of the table, I have a strong feeling Wolverhampton Wanderers luck runs out this season, making them strong contenders for the English Championship trophy in a few months. Luton Town have made everyone proud, but it will end in tears for them as well. Completing the hattrick will be Sheffield United who have now made it a habit to move between the Premiership and Championship at will. A quick thought about Everton; if there ever was a case of money to being able to buy success, then Goodison Park is ground zero. The experience of Sean Dyche in their ever-revolvingmanagerial door will perhaps be the difference between them and Gary O’neil’s boys.Farhad Moshiri must wonder if this was a worthy business venture.
Chelsea FC deserve the parting shot. Having spent over £1billion in the last three transfer windows, the Blues have looked anything but impressive. Moses Caicedo will eventually come good alongside the Argentine engine Enzo Fernandez. Thiago Silva and the ever-injured club captain Recce James complete the list of players you would categorise as super stars. That says a lot about their way of doing business. Another mediocre campaign awaits Mauricio Pochettino’s squad.