Saturday, 23 April 2016

And you thought this year was exciting...

The football season 2016/17 is so far away the 2015/16 one isn't even over, yet because of the abject failure of the Big Four to have much impact on the title, some pundits and journalists are already forecasting incredible things for next season.

Such is the belief of some journalists, by the ultimate week of next season there will be eight team all on 75 points, all with exactly the same goal difference and five more on 74 who could knick something if every result goes against what is needed. The other 8 teams will be vying for relegation. No one is suggesting that Middlesbrough, Burnley or Brighton could do a Leicester. In fact no one is suggesting Leicester can do a Leicester. If they do win it this year, no one is realistically even talking about them retaining it - not even the looniest Leicester City loons. This season is a one-off. Normal service will be resumed. Next season all the top teams will have the top people in place and, of course, next year, Rodney, we'll all be millionaires... Except, the poor joke is on me, next year all the Premier League clubs will almost be billionaires.

So, shifting focus away from my beloved Spurs, I thought I'd look at this coming August:

Arsenal - I know Arsenal fans who believe that Wenger will die in post. This is the one that's too close to call in because I think Wenger's time there depends on where they finish in the league this season. With two easy matches and a game against their rivals for 3rd, you would think Champions League football is guaranteed and therefore Arsene plays out the last year of his contract because he will have fulfilled the minimum requirements of said contract. I expect if that happens it won't get renewed and he'll be offered the chance to 'go upstairs'. That offer might come earlier if they find themselves in 5th, or even 4th, at the end of May, in a season where the top two were Leicester and fierce local rivals Spurs. Not good enough (huzzah).
Next season prediction: With Wenger and without serious investment a top five spot is unlikely; however, even with a new manager and a lot of money, there is no guarantee the returns will be instant, especially with so many clubs now having vast quantities of money. They blew it this season and without a change that will have psychological effects. Plus some of their stars are beginning to look nervously at the door...

Bournemouth - will not trouble the top half of the table and I say that with confidence and then I look at Leicester and 12 months ago you would probably have struggled to put a Rizla between Leicester's narrow-avoidance of relegation team and Bournemouth's Championship winning side. You can't say that now and who knows what investment Bournemouth might make even if their maximum ground capacity falls well short, or what standard of players they might be able to attract. The only drawback to all of that is the last few years have proven almost unequivocally that having a team is proving to be more consistent than having superstars. Eddie Howe is one of the best young managers in the country and he gets his team playing. Yet Bournemouth's success pretty much boils down to their ability to persuade people to go to the south coast, where lots of old people retire to.
Next season prediction: bottom half of the table.

Chelsea - there seems to be this belief in some quarters that Antonio Conte is going to have a kind of first-coming-of-Mourinho effect; in others is the belief that a huge amount of investment is needed. And then there's those who feel the club has more prospective excellence loaned out (40) it should look at itself rather than venture into the hit-and-miss world of hoping a great and mega-expensive footballer fits into your ways and methods. Some don't. Some world class footballers cannot adapt to some approaches. Plus, there really does seem to be something rotten at the heart of Stamford Bridge at the moment, like the fall out of the Eva Carneiro business had been brewing for months beforehand and we just saw the head of it and not all the pus stewing away below it. Has any defending champions ever looked so pallid and disinterested?
Next season: Hazard will go, so to could a few others. If Conte allows the youth to flourish and is given an entire season to oversee the repackaging of Chelsea (but has a couple of Galactico signings, so that Roman can feel all big in the trousers) then the season after next they might be worth a punt on finishing in the top four; but next season... top half only.

Crystal Palace - and repeat... I could pretty much say the same thing, but slightly different for every club, because the amount of money sloshing about in their banks come next season is going to make signing Messi a reality - in realistically metaphoric terms only - for some big named clubs, but is also going to mean some clubs picking up class acts who would normally not look at a club like Palace because if they want to play or want to sit on a bench or in the reserves of a 'top' club then they obviously are more interested in money than playing football. London is Palace's advantage.
Next season: we discover if everything people accuse Alan Pardew of is correct and whether Palace playing in Europe (A cup final spot against Man U would guarantee it) will really hinder the team or bring it forward. If the latter happens I see a struggle because of a lack of real depth - one that has been their undoing in the latter half of this season. Might struggle to make the top half.

Everton - I expect the Toffees will start next season with a new manager, but stranger things have happened at that club. Martinez should be fired for his failure to achieve anything in a season where LEICESTER won the title. At one point in January, the Merseyside club had the sixth best goal difference in the league and yet were 11th. This is a club with some real talent and yet they have the league table appearance of a 1990s Spurs side - high expectations and shit finishes. I liked their manager and I thought they got the better deal when my team got Andre Villas Boas...
Next season: Everton strike me as the kind of club with the right manager in place could hit the ground running. That said, they have to hope that this season of underachievement doesn't stimulate the likes of Barkley and Lukaku into wanting away, maybe to a club showing more ambition? Top half but need to keep their star players.

Leicester City - and here's the rub; Leicester will pocket a shed-load of cash from winning the league, but can they a) invest it wisely and b) keep the ethos of this team together? Can they compete in the Champions League and make a fist of defending the title? Could Jamie Vardy be a one-season-wonder? This season we have seen what the power of confidence can do and the power of a settled team - the top two in 2015/16 used less players than the 18 teams below them; next year the others will have a better chance of countering Leicester's style of play than Spurs' and I say that because history suggests that is what usually happens, while Spurs' style of play begins with them being as fit in the 90th minute as they were in the 1st - the only way to counter that is to match it.
Next season: I'm going to be optimistic. Leicester will scrape into the last 16 of the Champs League (but they enter the draw as a fourth seed given their absence from Europe for ever) and will finish 7th. Equally, they might get tonked in Europe and struggle against teams that mark Mahrez and Vardy out of games, but I think some of this year's momentum will see them all right.

Liverpool - the real threat, but there will be some changes and those changes could be crucial. I expect Klopp's Liverpool to be next season's Leicester or Spurs and that's because they are beginning to look like a well-drilled, organised and attractive GERMAN side. They could win the Europa League next month; they've already beaten a GERMAN team that humbled Spurs and having a fifth team in the Champions League would at least offset the worry that Leicester will bugger up our coefficients. They have started to look like an embryonic Spurs side - the one that started to look good at the back end of 2015, by next season they will have gained some consistency.
Next season: top 3

Manchester City - Pep Guardiola. I'll say it again, Pep Guardiola. So what? He's managed two of the greatest team ever in the same way that Andy Cole played up front for the best Man U side ever. Pep scores with stars. It would be nice to see what he'd do if he managed Orient or Fleetwood. Man City have fallen behind in many ways; they have some of the best players in the world in their side and I'm sure under the right coach they will prove this. But is Pep the right guy? Probably; but when you think about what Chelsea, Man U, Liverpool are likely to do in the transfer market, or the likely improvement in Spurs or the extensive rebuilding Pep has to do in certain areas, I no longer think this is a nailed on certainty. 
Next season will have expectations, but also a wee bit of patience. I don't think they'll win it, but they will finish top 3. They might be the only 'expected' team to place there.

Manchester United - with or without Van Gaal or Mourinho this is a team in transition and given history is likely to struggle to return to the position it believes it should be in. Van Gaal might win the FA Cup and finish 4th thus keeping his job for the final year of his contract. I kind of want this to happen because Man Utd are the new old Spurs - inconsistent but sometimes great. Yet, I don't believe Mourinho is actually that good, so him coming might be a great car crash. Equally, I refer you to comments about Pep Guardiola in the previous entry and ask if this possible manager could do it with no stars at his disposal and no budget?
Next season will probably be a massive disappointment yet like this season will have periods where they pick up plenty of points. The Man U era might be over, but they might still keep on the coat tails and sneak into 4th... Only
might though.

Southampton - if ever there was a collective side who could do a Leicester it's this team, but you just get the impression they don't know how to move up from where they have got. Keep Koeman and some of their outstanding players and you're looking at an outside top 6 club; lose him and it'll get no worse than mid-table. This is a progressive club that is almost single-handedly helping other teams rise above them by letting all their players and staff leave. That said I don't think of Southampton as being a 'new' Premier League side; I view them as a Premier League side who wandered off the plot for a few years (like Leeds, Bolton and the Sheffield clubs), so I'd be surprised if they allowed the club to slip out of the big time again.
Next season: probably won't seriously trouble the top or bottom six and in this era of billions that will probably be enough. Will have a big say in the outcome because on their day, at home, they are very tough to beat.

Stoke - I like Mark Hughes, but like Arsene Wenger, I don't think he's that cutting edge any more. He's been around too long now and seems capable of taking clubs to a certain level, but no higher. On paper Stoke look quite good; on the pitch on Monday night, Spurs literally took them apart and had fun with the pieces. There are some good (in Football Manager) players in the squad, but they seem to be reclaiming the 'thug' tag and also carry a lot of dead wood. Stoke aren't in any danger of doing anything remarkable, but they probably need a progressive manager to get the best out of their quality players and that manager also needs to develop youngsters while ridding the club of the likes of Crouch, Adam and Given.
Next season: nothing to see here, move along mid-table.

Swansea - the fact they're still here is testament to the way smaller clubs have adapted to the Premier League. However, this season while they never looked in danger of relegation, there were moments where they couldn't do anything right and Swansea and Palace both played themselves into a relegation race they should never have been in, considering their positions and points tally after Christmas. They were in danger because they don't seem to have come on and if they don't move up a few gears it will get worse.
Next season: bottom six, whether they will go depends on how bad three other teams end up.

Watford - who can say? Rumour has it that Flores is in danger of losing his job, despite Premier League safety by March and an FA Cup semi-final (maybe even Europa League football next season). An unlikely nomination to be the next Leicester, but as I've said, who would have thought of Leicester? They play nice counter-attacking football and have defied the odds and the pundits - this is a different Watford that has flirted with the top flight in the past.
Next season: mid table mediocrity and all the happier for it.

West Brom - this is an average side with an average manager and are likely to lose a couple of players in the summer. West Brom might think they're too good to go down, but as Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland can attest, reputations means dick. How does this club attract big players and play football that will make them more attractive? I have no idea, but they need something.
Next season: serious relegation candidates.

West Ham - we tend to forget because of Leicester and Spurs that the most common conversation when Slaven Bilic took over was whether he could prevent the Hammers from being relegated. Nine months later they have pushed for a Champions League place without ever looking like they were serious. This is a good side and I expect them to get better; however a new stadium could be a blessing or a curse. Moving to Stratford is one of the biggest 'unknown' factors in next season's league. If they take to it they could do better, if it doesn't fit then this is a team that sometimes fall quite spectacularly.
Next season: top 10, nailed on.

As you can see, I've left out Norwich, Sunderland, and Newcastle because we have no idea which one will still be in the top flight next year, however I think whoever it is will be challenging for the bottom 3 next season.

I expect two, possibly all three, of Burnley, Brighton and Middlesbrough up next season and with the new money fountain, I can't really forecast where these clubs are likely to finish - next year is an odd one because of the levelling of the monetary playing field - clubs will no longer need to sell players in contract, can afford to raise their wages bill and spend more money on better players - so I wouldn't fancy doing any predictions with any conviction until I know who they are and what they're doing.

That said...

It brings us to...

Tottenham Hotspur - I wouldn't have believed you if you'd told me what this current season would bring, because in many ways it was more ambitious than I've dreamt of. There hasn't been any speculation of any seriousness linking any of their players to 'bigger' clubs. Man U supposedly want Harry Kane, but that isn't going to happen - for a multitude of reasons. Could Dele Alli be tempted away with a £50million bid? I doubt it very much; I expect he will play for Liverpool one day - he is a fan - but I also expect him to be in his mid to late 20s when that happens. What about our brilliant defence or the likes of Eriksen, Lamela or Dier - couldn't they go if a Barca, Real or Bayern came calling? Yeah, but not next season - there's no need. Will Spurs keep Pochettino? Absolutely; his project is less than half complete and you see that look in his eye, the look of a man who knows this team is going forward and has no reason to go back, at all.
Next season: First. Top. Champions. Not only will they win it, they'll win it easily, with only two clubs giving them a run for their money. I say this based on the fact Spurs play the best football in the Premier League, have the best defence and next season the draws will become wins because they will have experience added to brilliant raw talent. They are a joy to watch sometimes.

My 'avin'a-larf table for May 2017

1. Spurs
2. Liverpool
3. Man City
4. Man Utd
5. West Ham
6. Arsenal
7. Leicester
8. Chelsea
9. Southampton
10. Everton
11. Stoke
12. Crystal Palace
13. Watford
14. Promoted #2
15. Promoted #1
16. Swansea
17. Bournemouth
18. West Brom
19. Norwich/Newcastle/Sunderland
20. Promoted #3

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