Premier League Stories - Episode 9Sep 28
Martial to hit gold and Captain America for individual honours - BTSport.com’s 10 bold predictions for the Premier League season
In what could be the most unpredictable of Premier League seasons, BTSport.com have looked into the crystal ball and made 10 big calls ahead of the 2020/21 campaign.
The Premier League season is upon us once again. Following the briefest of breaks, BT Sport get things underway with exclusive live coverage of the first match of the new campaign - Arsenal’s trip to Fulham on Saturday 12 September.
After an extended season that lasted 50 weeks including a three-month break due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Premier League begins just six weeks after the FA Cup final brought the 2019/20 domestic campaign to a close.
A miniscule pre-season, a transfer window lasting until mid-October and no fans – at least initially – means the 2020/21 Premier League commences on unprecedented footing.
For that reason it promises to be the most unpredictable English football season in recent memory, so BTSport.com have taken the opportunity to make 10 bold predictions about what’s to come.
Southampton to win the Carabao Cup and challenge for European places
It was the humiliation to end all humiliations, a result so shocking that the match commands it’s own Wikipedia article. When Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton were trounced 9-0 by Leicester in October – the heaviest home defeat in English top flight history – the Austrian’s days looked to be numbered.
Instead Southampton’s board, who’d dismissed three managers in 18 months previously, demonstrated some newfound restraint and resisted the urge to sack Hasenhuttl.
It turned out to be the correct decision as Southampton enjoyed an instant upturn in results by winning seven of their next 10 matches and eventually finishing 11th in the Premier League.
Now Southampton are responding to Hasenhuttl’s coaching and improving month-on-month. And with red-hot Danny Ings up front, Che Adams finally finding his feet in pre-season and James Ward-Prowse in the form of his life, Saints fans can stop looking over their shoulder and start dreaming. A Europa League spot is a realistic goal.
The prolific Southampton academy also continues to provide a new clutch of talented youngsters, many of whom will find the Carabao Cup to be the perfect stage to continue their impressive development under Hasenhuttl.
Aston Villa’s qualification for the final last season and Southampton’s own runners-up medal from 2017 show it’s not always about the big boys in the League Cup. With a bit of luck, Saints fans may have a trophy to celebrate by February.
Leeds to finish in the top 10
There’s been a lot of excitement and anticipation about Leeds’ promotion to the Premier League after a 16-year absence and much of it is centred around their enigmatic manager Marcelo Bielsa.
And the hype is justified. Leeds were arguably the most exciting team to watch in the country last season and play a brand of football few in the Championship could live with. “Murderball,” midfielder Kalvin Phillips calls it.
Of course, the Premier League is a big step up and Leeds won’t dominate possession in the same way this campaign. But Bielsa’s disciples arrive with clear an identity as any side in the division and a system of pressing that can cause any opposition problems.
They have signalled their ambitions in the transfer market already with the arrival of record-signing forward Rodrigo and defender Robin Koch. While Rodrigo is unlikely to start in the Premier League opener at Anfield, he represents an upgrade on Patrick Bamford who was profligate at times last season.
Leeds will be too hot to handle for a lot of teams next season and if they negotiate a tricky start should be well clear of relegation trouble and in without a shout of 10th place.
Willian to score double figures for the first time aged 32
Arsenal fans were less than happy with handing a 32-year-old a three-year contract but there’s no doubt Willian represents a significant upgrade on what the Gunners already have.
Mikel Arteta’s men are lacking a creative player but are stacked on the wings with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bukayo Saka, Nicolas Pepe and Reiss Nelson all competing for two wide spots.
It means Willian could find himself featuring more centrally for Arsenal than he did at London rivals Chelsea and Arteta will likely look to the 32-year-old to lead by example on the pitch. “He can play in three of four positions,” said Arteta on his new signing.
While not in the mould of a classic creative No 10, Willian’s dribbling ability will create opportunities for Arsenal and the Brazilian boasts a sweet strike from long range in open play and on free-kicks.
Willian netted nine Premier League goals for Frank Lampard’s men last season, his highest total since arriving in England in 2013. With added responsibility at Arsenal, now could be the season he finally reaches double figures.
Christian Pulisic to win Premier League Player of the Season
After initially struggling to nail down a regular first-team spot due to injury and inconsistency, Christian Pulisic came out of lockdown like a man on a mission.
The American scored five goals and two assists from Chelsea’s remaining 11 matches including a sensational solo run and finish against Manchester City – exactly the sort of goal Eden Hazard scored during his time in west London. “Incredible form,” was how his manager Frank Lampard saw it.
If Pulisic is to emulate the man he replaced and secure Player of the Season honours he’ll have to keep that up across a whole campaign. But the signs are there that he’s capable of being a game-changer for Lampard’s side.
Having scored Chelsea’s goal, Pulisic’s injury after half-time was undoubtedly a huge factor in Lampard’s men losing last month’s FA Cup final to London rivals Arsenal.
With Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz joining Chelsea this summer, Pulisic will have better talent around him which can only raise his game further.
He’ll face stiff competition from the usual suspects but if Chelsea launch a surprise title challenge in 2020/21, Pulisic could well be up for individual honours come next summer.
Liverpool's title defence to fall flat
It’s tough to get to the top, even tougher to stay there. Liverpool stormed to the title by 18 points as they recorded 99 – the second-highest total in Premier League history.
But after such an emotional title win, extended over an elongated season, the hangover from ending 30 years of hurt could well be a factor as Liverpool try to rouse themselves once again. It’s notoriously difficult to win back-to-back and there’s a reason Manchester City are the only side to have defended their title successfully in the last 10 years.
After dropping just two points from their opening 27 matches, Liverpool dropped 13 from their final 11 games of the campaign. It’s not disastrous but Jurgen Klopp’s men failed to hit anything like the heights of their early-season form after football resumed.
The trend continued in a flat display against Arsenal in the Community Shield as Liverpool lost on penalties to a Mikel Arteta side with significantly less rest than them.
Bringing in adequate back-up to Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane has once again proven difficult this summer and an injury to one of those front three could spell trouble for the champions.
It certainly won’t be a canter this time. Manchester City and now Chelsea look set to launch a sterner challenge to Liverpool’s dominance this season. Continue the form they ended last season with and Klopp could even see the title wrestled from his grasp.
Dean Henderson to start more Manchester United games than David De Gea
Dean Henderson is a confident young man and reports suggest the 23-year-old made it clear he would only be returning to Manchester United as a No 1 not as a back-up.
Henderson enjoyed a stellar season on loan with Sheffield United in the Premier League as Chris Wilder’s men upset the odds to finish ninth when many tipped them for the drop. With his tremendous shot-stopping and a solid command of his area, Henderson was a huge part of it.
Many expected him to return for another season at Bramall Lane but Henderson has opted to stay fight for his place at Old Trafford with David De Gea and Sergio Romero.
That would have seemed fanciful two years ago but De Gea’s mistakes are becoming more and more common. Performances like his in the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea – where his errors led to two goals – are no longer a surprise.
Henderson sees himself as a future United No 1 and it seems unlikely he would return without at least some reassurances over his first-team opportunities.
If he gets chances in cup competitions and De Gea continues to look shaky, the younger man will surely force his way into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Premier League team.
Matheus Pereira to earn a move to a top-six club in January
Little was known in England about Matheus Pereira before the Brazilian joined West Brom on loan from Sporting CP in August 2019.
Yet the attacking midfielder took to life in the Championship like a duck to water. Pereira scored eight, assisted 16 and decorated The Hawthorns with his technical brilliance for Slaven Bilic’s side.
Having hit the threshold of appearances required, West Brom triggered an option to buy Pereira for just £8.5million this summer in what looks to be one of the bargains of the window.
Matheus Pereira recorded 16 assists last season in the Championship - the highest total in the division
Pereira’s role at West Brom is not dissimilar to Jack Grealish’s at Aston Villa. The Brazilian drives his side forward and creates chances while drawing fouls left, right and centre.
A creative midfielder who thrived in his first season in the Championship, Pereira looks set to make the step up seamlessly in the top flight and will be West Brom’s main creator.
Should he impress again, Tottenham and Arsenal could do a lot worse than making a move for him to inject some creativity into their side for a fraction of Grealish’s price tag.
Wolves to finish in the bottom half
Promotion as Championship winners and two successive seventh-placed finishes in the Premier League; it’s been up and up for Wolves under Nuno Espirito Santo.
But is this the season where progress stalls at Molineux? Eight of Wolves’ squad made over 50 appearances in a gruelling season which saw them make the Europa League quarter-finals before getting knocked out by eventual winners Sevilla
Santo has preferred working with a close-knit group since he’s been at Molineux and notably did not rotate his XI for Wolves’ first eight games of the 2018/19 season.
Yet after the Sevilla defeat the Portuguese coach admitted: “We need more players to help us, it’s a small squad.” The only significant business they’ve done thus far is allow starting wing back Matt Doherty to join Tottenham.
Santo demands a lot from his players and with barely any break between the two seasons it wouldn’t be a surprise if Wolves begin to tire towards the second half of 2020/21 even without the added demands of Europa League football.
A tricky period in December when the fixtures begin to pile up sees Wolves face Arsenal, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Burnley, Tottenham and Manchester United in the space of a month. It’s here that Wolves’ players might start feeling it in their legs.
They have too much quality to be troubled by relegation but unless they strengthen heavily, Wolves could struggle to hit the heights of the previous two campaigns.
Eberechi Eze to earn an England call-up
They love their attackers skilful and direct down at Selhurst Park and that’s exactly what their new signing offers. The 22-year-old terrorised Championship defences with his dynamic play and ability to pick out a pass for his team-mates.
Eze finished the season with 14 goals and eight assists as the focal point of QPR’s attack and looks to possess all the right attributes to make the step up seamlessly.
As early as March last year, QPR director of football Les Ferdinand talked up Eze’s chances of breaking into Gareth Southgate’s squad: “People are going to start talking about him playing for England.”
Currently in the England Under-21 set-up, if Eze replicates the kind of form he showed last season then he could well force his way into Southgate’s thinking.
The England boss has shown he’s not afraid to call up players with little top-flight experience having selected Leeds midfielder Phillips – without a Premier League appearance to his name – for his latest squad.
As for Roy Hodgson, he’ll be delighted to have another attacking option to help ease the load on Wilfried Zaha. Palace’s star man endured a down season in 2019/20 as Hodgson admitted the winger’s form was affected by his desire to leave the club.
Should Zaha’s big-money move away from south London finally materialise in the next couple of windows, Hodgson may well have a ready-made replacement already in his set-up.
Anthony Martial to win the Premier League Golden Boot
Ever since scoring a brilliant solo goal on his debut against Liverpool in 2015, Anthony Martial has flattered to deceive at Manchester United. The Frenchman’s career at Old Trafford has been characterised by purple patches where he looks unplayable, followed by weeks where he fails to impose himself on proceedings.
Yet last season as United began rediscovering their attacking verve under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and with in-form Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes alongside him, Martial enjoyed the best goalscoring form of his career.
In the period before and after the Covid-19 postponement, Martial netted 10 goals and recorded three assists in 14 matches. He finished 2019/20 with 23 goals in all competitions – comfortably his most productive of his five seasons at Old Trafford.
“He’s a Ferrari,” said BT Sport pundit and former Man United player Owen Hargreaves on Martial after watching him in the Europa League. “He’s a £100million player.”
Now aged 24, Martial must find the consistency that will see him regarded as a truly elite player. He’ll certainly have the platform to succeed.
Solskjaer’s improving United team look set to play a tantalising midfield three of Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek next season.
If he puts on his finishing boots consistently Martial could be in with a real shout of reeling in Golden Boot winner Jamie Vardy’s total of 23 goals last campaign, having finished six shy of the Englishman during 2019/20.