Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Way too early Premier League predictions: Arsenal to win the title, Crystal Palace to challenge for Europe

The 2023-24 Premier League season is only just in the bag and there is an awful lot of transfer window activity to take place between now and kick off on August 17. Still, what do you expect us to do, just put our coverage of the English game on ice for two months? Let’s take a premature look at how we’re expecting the top flight to look in May 2025.

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1. Arsenal to win the league

Perhaps this is all just the afterglow of Mikel Arteta’s rallying cry on the Emirates field moments after the full time whistle, bringing hope where minutes earlier there had been abject despair. “We want much more than that, and we’re going to get it.” Those lines rang round the Emirates like a warning shot to the other 19 teams in the Premier League. So did Arteta’s frequent referrals to the need for more “bite” in his side. Arsenal are hungry.

Since the day he was appointed, Arteta seems to have grasped that coaches at the biggest clubs have more to do than just get the tactics and man management right. They need to sell a universal story to a global fanbase. The Spaniard grasps this, taking an active role in videos like the one that played in the stadium before a 3-1 win over Liverpool in January. There is more to it than building atmosphere on the game. Arteta is crafting a narrative for themselves that becomes so irresistible as to seem inevitable. The story of the champion that has to wait their turn before a win all the sweeter for it is one of the most familiar narratives in sport. Arsenal seem to have already convinced themselves and their supporters that it is their tale to tell next.

That goes from players who shared in their captain Martin Odegaard’s response to being pipped at the post by Manchester City — “come back even stronger and even more hungry, and push to win everything” — to co-chair Josh Kroenke, who insisted even before the title slipped away that “no one at the club will stand still.” There is ambition to improve across the board spurred further by the knowledge that one more big push might be all it takes.

Arsenal are set fair, much more so than a year ago. In the summer that followed Arsenal pruned and refreshed to a level quite rare for a second placed side who had added 15 points on the previous years’ total. Two-thirds of the 2021-22 midfield was pushed out of the XI, either down the depth chart or to Bayer Leverkusen. Aaron Ramsdale, so emblematic of a club growing around a young British core, was cast to the side because Inaki Cana and Arteta had always wanted David Raya. Mainstays of last season — most notably Oleksandr Zinchenko, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli — saw their minutes chipped away at in the run in as they struggled for the fitness and form of early in 2021-22. Of the XI that started at Manchester City in late March, only five were mainstays a year prior.

Such radical changes to the starting lineup is not expected this summer. Arsenal will be active and one of their chief priorities is to secure a midfielder to round out the Declan Rice and Odegaard triumvirate. The Gunners hierarchy are great admirers of Frenkie De Jong, whose future at Barcelona is the subject of much speculation. Within the Premier League there is interest in Bruno Guimaraes and Amadou Onana, the latter of whom could come at a more affordable price tag given Everton’s financial difficulties.

Arsenal have been scouring the center forward market throughout this season without necessarily finding an immediately transformative central attacker. If Alexander Isak were available their thinking might change but every indication is that Newcastle want to build around the Swede. CBS Sports first reported back in April that the Gunners were interested in Benjamin Sesko of RB Leipzig, who has been offered a contract extension by the Bundesliga club. A strong, mobile 20 year old, he would represent more of a depth piece, as might wingers such as Michael Olise. Versatility is a key watch word as Arsenal look to deepen their squad rather than overhaul their XI. Similarly, in defense a left-sided option would be expected to back up the likes of Takehiro Tomiyasu and Gabriel in the short term rather than immediately supplant them.

For Arsenal to rise, Manchester City might need to fall and yet that outcome seems more credible than one might expect for a team who dropped eight points in 23 league games. For once their expected goal difference was not Premier League leading, their grip on games a little looser, even if they did tend to end in victories. Injuries to Kevin De Bruyne, Mateo Kovacic and John Stones hampered them, but those players are in or very close to their 30s, the future of the former no clearer than Pep Guardiola’s. Bernardo Silva, Kyle Walker even squad mainstays like Manuel Akanji and Nathan Ake have a lot of minutes on the clock.

Add in the 115 charges looming large on the horizon and there is plenty of cause for uncertainty at City. Arsenal, meanwhile, seem certain of how their story will end.

2. Crystal Palace push into the European places

If the other two predictions here are at least somewhat informed by the business that might happen, this is rather contingent on events not taking place. It is perfectly plausible that Crystal Palace will be carrion to the Premier League’s vultures over the months to come, but just for a moment imagine that Eberechi Eze and Olise stay fit and stay together, that their supporting cast remains in place, let alone any more additions arriving. Should Oliver Glasner stick with the system that got the Eagles six wins from their last seven with an aggregate score of 21-4 then there might hardly be a weak link. Try this out for size:

Sam Johnstone; Marc Guehi, Joachim Andersen, Chris Richards; Daniel Munoz, Cheick Doucoure, Adam Wharton, Tyrick Mitchell; Michael Olise, Jean-Phillipe Mateta, Eberechi Eze

There is not a weak link in that lineup, hardly a player whose best years might not be ahead of them. Even without the impressive Doucoure, once wanted by Liverpool, this team have reeled off impressive and comprehensive victories over the likes of Newcastle, Manchester United and Aston Villa. Glasner has not undone everything that Roy Hodgson put in place, this is still a side that trusts its defense and the quality of its forwards enough to sacrifice possession. There has been an uptick in possession won in the final third — 6.2 per game under new management as opposed to 4.5 under old — but there might not be quite the same delirium around Selhurst Park if Mateta weren’t on an almighty heater, his 13 goals since Glasner’s appointment coming from just 29 shots and 8.1 xG.

Still getting a tune out of talented strikers was something Hodgson often struggled to do. Perhaps that speaks to the caution that the manager imbued into his still effective sides. It has been notable that Glasner has spoke of the biggest challenge being convincing his squad to believe they could win every game. They do now. It must surely be easier to do so when Olise and Eze are fit.

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How Eberechi Eze compares to Premier League central midfielders this season TruMedia

If those two stay then Palace will attack this season with two high-grade Premier League attackers. In a fairly low sample size of just 1,275 minutes, Olise has averaged 0.74 non-penalty xG + xG assisted per 90 minutes, a top 10 mark in the Premier League. Eze is not too far behind at 0.59. While it is worth caveating that they play a more outsized offensive role, it is still the case that both are ahead of Phil Foden.

Such output will inevitably catch the eye of richer clubs who might view the reported £65 million mechanism in Olise’s contract as a bargain. There is also long-standing interest in England international Guehi and with just two years left on his deal and no sign of a renewal, he seems a logical candidate to go for good money. However, a scouting network that has picked up the likes of Wharton, Munoz and Doucoure for bargain prices — to say nothing of the Football League-bred attacking duo — can be trusted to replace him wisely. Dougie Freedman may go to Newcastle but he won’t take his plans for Palace’s summer with him. 

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How Michael Olise compares to Premier League right attacking midfielders this season TruMedia

For his part, Glasner is not treating the departure of Olise or Eze as anything like a foregone conclusion. “We showed them we have ambition,” the Palace boss said, “how we want to play, what pathway we want to go and which journey we want to ride together. They can all play a crucial part in it, show their qualities and strengths. They can express themselves and it fits together. This is what we can do.”

Give this team a chance to stay together and that journey might take them all the way to the top six.

3. Wolves head back to the Championship

There has been much hand-ringing about what it means for the Premier League that the three sides who came up from the Championship at the start of the season went straight back down. The gap may well be widening between what looks like an established coterie running to 11th in the table and the rest but the lesson of 2023-24 might really be that subpar second tier leaders tend not to make for solid top flight outfits.

None of the teams that come up had been as impressive as Fulham, Leeds or Brentford in years gone by and they did not particularly position themselves to change that. Luton Town were a great addition to the Premier League experience but simply lacked the players needed. Sheffield United might have got closer if ownership hadn’t sold some of their best players from under them. Burnley had a chance but it would have been much greater if promotion stars Nathan Tella and Ian Maatsen had returned (that much is evident from their form in the Bundesliga) or they had spent their £93 million on a few more experienced bodies.

Expect those who come up this season to make a better fist of survival. Leicester City aren’t quite the side they were when they went down but they may only need to add a smattering of talent to core options such as Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and Stephy Mavididi. Crucially this time they will have a goalkeeper they can count on. Whichever of Leeds or Southampton triumph in the playoff final will return to the Premier League with plenty of talent. Twice-promoted Ipswich Town are the real unknown but it is hard to see all three falling down.

Who, then, should have their eyes on the trap door at the start of this summer? The obvious answer is 17th placed Nottingham Forest, but their performances under Nuno Espirito Santo were more impressive than results that only started coming in the final weeks of the season. The same was true of the other team to get a points deduction this season. Everton might lose big name players, but Sean Dyche is by far their greatest asset. Brentford tapered off too frequently, but even wracked by injuries they also had the xG difference of a comfortably midtable side.

Fulham continue to defy reason, but the more likely candidate for the drop might be Wolverhampton Wanderers. Gary O’Neil did sterling work shepherding many people’s tip for the drop to safety early in a season where he was appointed at the 11th hour. A midfield of Mario Lemina and Joao Gomes is hardly peak Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho, but this was a team that was rarely outworked. With Pedro Neto on the field they looked to be ok and getting more than 1,519 minutes from their star winger would be a major boon for next season.

Still this is a team that had the 16th best goal difference in the league, the 17th best xG difference, picked up just five points from their last 10 games and, crucially, looks a little light on talent. It has been suggested that there will be no need for another firesale to satisfy Profit and Sustainability Regulations like there was 12 months ago but O’Neil himself has warned Wolves “won’t be blessed with resources as in money to spend”. If this and returning loanees is what they have, it might not be enough to keep Wolves in the division.

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