2019-20: Look to the Midlands for the element of surprise
Posted on August 7, 2019
SINCE the second world war, the Midlands have provided the Football League/Premier League champions six times, the last occasion being Leicester’s triumph in 2016. From 1992-93, when the Premier was launched, only 11 times has the region had a top six club.
Last season, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City finished seventh and ninth respectively, decent placings but still way behind the top six. However, if you examine the clubs above them, there’s little denying that some of them will go into 2019-20 with self-doubt and introspection hanging over them. If a team from outside the elite is to break through the closed shop of the first half dozen, it might just be from the Midlands.
Only Manchester City and Liverpool seem to be really content, but then with Pep and Klopp in charge, who wouldn’t be? City, obviously, are confident they can keep collecting prizes, while Liverpool may just be on the brink of a glorious new era. It is difficult to look beyond this duo for the destination of that gaudy Premier League trophy.
Manchester United seem an uncomfortable club at present. They’ve had a good summer in terms of transfer activity, adding Harry Maguire to their squad for £ 80 million, but the club appears to have mislaid its joie de vivre.It hurts that neighbours City are in an acquisitive mood, collecting silverware and players, but the club is still in its post-Ferguson daze and there’s no guarantee that Ole Gunar Solksjaer will last the season. In fact, there are many who see the hastily-appointed OGS as the first likely managerial casualty in the Premier League.
Arsenal have also had a decent window and the club has now moved on since “Wenger Gate” and is now beating itself up over its ownership structure (the two things were actually linked, after all). An unhappy place is the Emirates, but if Unai Emery can navigate the politics, he may just give the Gunners a better season in 2019-20. The signing of Nicolas Pépé from Lille for £ 72 million was a surprise given there was constant talk about a limited war chest, but he is an excellent new face for the Gunners. William Saliba and Dani Ceballos, from Saint-Étienne and Real Madrid (loan) are also useful additions. Defence is still an issue that has not be fully addressed, though.
Tottenham Hotspur, with their new ground and new signings – Tanbuy Ndombele of Lyon could be a bit of a sensation – are expected to be among the challengers, but there has to be question marks about whether they can improve on recent seasons without an influx of fresh talent. Chelsea, meanwhile, are hampered by a transfer ban this season and it remains to be seen if Frank Lampard can step-up as a Premier manager. There could be a bit of OGS syndrome for “Lamps”.
While it would be easy to assume the top six will remain unchanged in its composition, this season could see a challenge from outside the usual culprits. Wolverhampton Wanderersand Leicester City. Yes, they’re from the Midlands, that relatively barren corner of English football. A bold prediction, maybe, but don’t be misled by the fact they are not from Manchester, Liverpool or London. Ironically, these two teams meet each other on the opening weekend. Wolves, who may find that the pre-season Europa League qualifiers hampers their start to the campaign, had a successful jaunt to China and have already won through one round in Europe and face a trip to Armenia before they kick-off their Premier programme. Wolves have secured Raul Jiménez from Benfica on a permanent basis for £ 32.5 million. He’s popular with the fans and had a great partnership with Diogo Jota last season.
Manager Nuno Espirito Santo showed in 2018-19 he can extract an awful lot from his squad and also that, from a tactical perspective, he’s a canny operator. Wolves were impressive against the top teams, losing only four of 12 games against the top six and beating Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United at home. They’ve got good financial backing from Fosun and their involvement with Jorge Mendes means players will always be accessible, so if they strengthen their squad in the windows, Wolves could improve on that seventh place. It’s a tall order, but there’s a good vibe at Molineux, so who knows?
Leicester City hired Brendan Rodgers last season and he was quick to explain that one of the reasons he left Celtic was the strength of the squad he would manage at the King Power. Leicester still have players like Schmeichel, Vardy and Albrighton from their title-wnnning team, but Vardy, their talismanic forward is 32 years old. They have signed, on a permanent basis after a loan spell, Youri Tielemans (22) from Monaco for a club record fee believed to be around £ 40 million.
As for the rest of the division, Everton have made some good signings in André Gomes, Fabien Delph and, most of all, Moise Kean. The latter, signed from Juventus, is just 19 and represents a bizarre decision by the Italian champions given Kean was outstanding for them in 2018-19. West Ham United have added the likes of Sébastien Haller, a £ 45 million signing from Eintracht Frankfurt, to their potentially useful squad.
Candidates for the drop could include at least half a dozen clubs. The promoted trio, Aston Villa, Norwich City and Sheffield United, will all do well to stay in the division beyond May 2020, but others such as Watford, Burnley, Bournemouth, Southampton, Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Brighton may also get sucked in. For most of the them, Premier League survival is their goal, but if there is a shock team from this lot, Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United may upset the form book.
And talking of surprises, the Premier rarely has the uncertainty of a National Rail timetable, but we’re going for Wolves to break into the top six, even if it is a one-season wonder. Sadly, the big prizes will be won by the same old suspects – not just in England but also in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Modern football is like that.