Its a great week to be a football fan! Whether its the NFL or college football or the real football where they actually use their feet. OK just kidding love them all. The NFL starts this Thursday but I will leave previews of that to my colleagues at BSL. Lets dive in to the English Premier League to see whats on tap for the 2020-2021 season. Lots of changes to both the laws of the game and the teams themselves.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
First , the laws. Several changes were implemented across the world this past spring to enable soccer leagues to resume play that had been shutdown due to Covid-19. The international rules body, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), implemented several changes to long standing rules to ensure player safety given the off shutdown of play. These rules were not for safety from the virus but to protect players from having such a long layoff right in the middle of their season then having short windows to train and resume play. Plus matches played well into the heat of summer.
- Teams were allowed to have expanded game day rosters from 18 to 23 players and were allowed 5 substitutions compared to the normal 3.
- Water breaks were instituted roughly half way through each half of the match. The Center Referee determining the appropriate point for the break.
Initially the IFAB ruled that these law changes could remain in place through the end of the 2020-2021 seasons at the discretion of the leagues. However after some significant push back the IFAB rescinded these rules so things are back to “normal.” I have mixed thoughts on this. I particularly liked the expanded rosters and substitutes in that it allowed teams to get minutes for more younger players. But alas its back to the way it was.
Perhaps the biggest change that will actually impact the games thought is that the IFAB has turned the Video Assistant Review (VAR) over to FIFA to manage. The use of VAR will still be to look at all goals, potential offsides, and red cards. However the focus has been enhanced a bit and guidance provided to referees.
- On penalties, if the goalkeeper is off the line prior to the ball being kicked and makes the save then it will be ruled encroachment and the kick retaken. However, if the goalkeeper is off the line and the subsequent shot goes off the post or crossbar then the kick will not be retaken unless the referee determines that “made material impact on the kick being missed.” This will be interesting to see how its handled. The shooters are certainly going to argue that anytime the keeper has moved forward off his line it impacts their shot making.
- Specific instructions are now in place to assistant referees (AR) to not raise their flag on a potential tight or marginal offside violation. They are to let the play continue until the shot is made. At that point the AR is to then raise his flag. Same logic as not blowing a play dead in the NFL.
And lastly, due to the short time span between the end of last season and the start of this season teams are in a different place heading into the start of the new season than they would normally be.
- EPL teams are typically off between early May and late July giving players over two months to recover their energy levels and heal from any nagging injuries. They barely had a month layoff this time around. Yes they also had several months layoff in the middle which will negate some of that. But its going to be interesting to see how fit players are out the gate or whether they will have to play themselves into fitness.
- Perhaps the biggest impact of all has been on the transfer window. The summer window is when teams adjust their rosters shedding excesses in one area while bringing in outside help in areas of weakness. The problem here is two fold. First teams had a much shorter timeframe in which to make those transfers. Negotiating transfer fees with teams, negotiating contracts with the players, and navigating the various rules for getting work permits. Then after all those hoops were cleared there was just very limited time to get new players in camp and working training with their new teams.
So Covid-19 is still impacting the games and will do so for the foreseeable future. Some pundits have gone as far to say that how well a team manages the virus will determine how well they do in the EPL. Clearly roster management is just ratcheted up another level.
Ok enough backdrop lets get into the teams and see what to look for from them this season. As I have historically done I will group them into three pots. The top flight, the middle of the pack, and the bottom of the pack. One thing hat makes soccer so unique is that every team plays the exact same schedule. Each team plays each other team once at home and once at the opponents home. A true balanced schedule and since the number of games is small an upset or two can make a huge impact on the final standings.
Just like in most sports, the EPL has a number of teams that simply have the money to get the pieces they need to compete at the highest level. Certainly those resources don’t always result in a top tier team but its good start! Thee are two clear goals for top flight teams. First and foremost is to win the title. That is why they play the game. But second and not far behind is to finish in the top 4 to qualify for the UEFA Champions League (the best soccer there is) and just behind that is to make the UEFA Europa League. The extra matches in those competitions bring in tremendous revenue and give your players exposure to the toughest competition out there.
So who is in this group heading into this season?
They simply ran away with the EPL this past season having all but won the title before the virus shutdown. They have two things going for them heading into the season. A deep and talented roster and manager Jurgen Klopp. Nobody seems to have figured out how to play against his team. When you take a heavily talented team that is the most tactically prepared, well they just don’t lose. They are just too good in the middle of the field with center back Virgil Van Dijk (perhaps the best central defender in the world and Mo Salah and Sadio Mane up top. This team is just a clear favorite to take the title again this year.
Man C is an enigma. They have the talent with such superstars as Kevin DeBruyne (one of the best midfielders in the world), Ederson minding the nets, and Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero finding goals. Then they have one of the best managers in Pep Guardiola. And they have finished in the top four the last 10 years. And they have won a numerous EPL titles during this run. But for some unexplained reason they don’t seem to fare as well in the UCL as you would think. And they lost Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva in the transfer window. And they failed to bring in Lionel Messi who is staying with Barcelona. So they are still a very strong team but they will get pushed by several teams to bump them down in the standings.
No team in the EPL made the level of transfer moves this summer than the Blues. They had an outstanding season last year and saw excellent development of key young players in Christian Pulisic and Tammy Abraham. There is no way to discount the important of Pulisic to they way manager Frank Lampard wanted the team to operate. Pulisic made huge strides in his first season in the EPL. Unfortunately a couple of injuries put a damper on it. Then the moves. Oh the moves. In a year when teams typically had less resources for transfers, again there’s that virus, they went after and got two monsters. Adding Timo Werner to the wing and midfielder Kai Havertz. If you like attacking football you are going to want to watch these guys. If they can figure out how to correct their defensive and goalkeeping woes they will be very, very good.
The Red Devils played well after the virus break to move up the ladder to qualify for UCL. Most notably was their improved play once they obtained Bruno Fernandes. His midfield play allowed the attackers more freedom. And Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have started to gel. But keep an eye out for Mason Greenwood. This kid might be special. The biggest question for them is that they have not improved during the transfer window compared to their competition. They have time with the window extended into early October. But they need to add a solid defender and goalkeeper David DeGea needs to return to form.
The Spurs are a fun team to watch. Manager, Jose Mourinho has them attacking with pace and has one of the strongest attacking trio in the EPL with Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, and Steven Bergwjin. And they have brought in holding midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. The style Mourinho like to play, control in the midfield is greatly enahnce with this transfer. If the midfield of Hojbjerg, Deli Alli, and Moussa Sissoko gel they could well finish in the top 4.
Tempted to drop this team down even further. They simply had a dismal second half last season. Certainly much of that can be blamed on the virus but they just were very inconsistent and at times looked downright awful. But they have a solid defense and midfield to hang with most teams in the league. Any time you have a keeper the likes of Kasper Schmeicel you have a solid chance. The problem for this side is in the attack. Jamie Vardy led the EPL last season with 23 goals. But their next highest scorer only tallied 8 times. They need to find another attacking option.
When other teams are trying to poach your players you must be doing something right. Seems like almost every day there is another rumor flying around where some European team is targeting a Wolves player. The biggest loss for them is defender Matt Doherty. Hard to replace him.
In the case of the Wolves they seem to have found a great balance between talent and tactics that bring out their best. They just don’t get outcoached. You look at their roster and its filled with solid players but other than keeper Rui Patricio they are mostly players you’ve never heard of. Well until this past season anyway. And Nuno Esperito Santo is hardly a name you hear when discussing top flight managers. But Santo is good and he really has some good stuff happening Molineux Stadium.
What an offball season for the Gunners. They were pretty much an also ran in the EPL last season. Yet turned around and won the FA Cup. Well its 2020 and its just a weird year. They have an outstanding attacking talent in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. And they have a defense led by David Luiz. The problem is that when he’s good he’s really good. But Luiz also has some absolute gaffes giving away poor goals to the opposition. The have brought in Willian from Chelsea and he will help them on the wing. They still need to find an answer or two for the defense. They could just as easily fall into the middle of the pack group as move up in the top flight group.
Middle of the Pack
Truth be told this is the group most teams outside the big money clubs hope to fall in. Competitive and likely to stay in the EPL. Maybe not headed to win many trophies but plenty of fun for their fans. These teams are all closely matched in talent and coaching and their order of finish will depend on if they get some good breaks, unexpected improvements, or well its 2020. So in alphabetical order we go.
The classic good news bad news scenario. They have brought in some better players including Will Norris from the Wolves. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they struggle to score against defensive minded teams and they don’t have the offensive talent to score toe-to-toe with the bigger clubs. So they should stay solidly in the middle of the pack.
On paper they have a solid attack built around Wilfried Zaha, Christian Benteke, and Jordan Ayew. But they didn’t fare well last season at all. They are better than they showed so should improve this season. Newcomer Eberechi Eze should bolster the attack as well. But the problem is that this is a team that for a number of years seems to under perform. But they have enough ttalent o avoid relegation.
They should finish near the top half of the table. While inconsistent at times they seem to have a plan in place, funds available, and a solid coach in Carlo Ancelotti. If young striker Moise Kean takes the next step in his development they could present some trouble for opposing defenses, especially as he learns to combine with James Rodriguez. And with English keeper Jordan Pickford manning the nets they have the makings of s solid team.
The team was set to be sold to a group from Saudi Arabia. That fell threw and that was really bad news for Magpie fans. Their owner doesn’t care and that makes things tough on manager Steve Bruce and his players. The other problem for their fans is that they play a boring defensive style. Looks for the draw and hope to sneak in a goal against weaker competition to earn points. Not a very successful way to run a club but until ownership changes or decides they all of a sudden like soccer its going to be a year-to-year struggle. Frankly getting relegated may actually be a good thing. Get fans up in arms enough to force some changes. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening as they have just enough talent to stay safe. Probably.
“They are who we thought they were.” Yes it’s a corny statement but Dennis Green’s famous line really applies to the Sheffies. They have some talent but not a lot. They have solid coaching but not world class. But what they do have is an entire program that is all on the same page. They know who they are. They know what they need to do to succeed. And they work together to achieve it. And what they are is a compact defense that knows just when to counter. And they are very good at it. Teams will press and press and think they are in total control and them boom. A quick counter and they are down 1-0. There only two criteria for being a Sheffie. First have fun. Secondly, if you play in the attack you have to have facial hair. Hey, I don’t know if that’s a thing or not but there are 7 forwards on their first team roster and they all have facial hair. Now not all of them should….yes Richairo Zivkovic I am talking about you.
They finished the season playing better than they started the season and that is always a good thing. The problem is that they didn’t do anything of note in the transfer window (at least not yet) and that doesn’t usually work well in the EPL unless you already have a top tier club. They did finalize a transfer they made back in January by signing Kyle Walker-Peters. But he played the last half of the season with them so other than having more time with his new team don’t look for that to make much of a difference. They aren’t going to score a lot of goals but they aren’t going to give up a ton either. Likely headed for finish around 14 so. Safe from relegation but that’s about it.
The dreaded fall out of the EPL, lose a bunch of money, and hang your head in shame zone. There is nothing good about getting relegated. Well unless you are Newcastle but that’s for a very specific reason. The glimmer of hope though is that if you are predicted to be down here there is no pressure. You either fall out of the EPL or you exceed expectations.
Lets run though these teams in actual order of expected finish. Remember its only the bottom three who get dumped at the end of the season.
Brighton Hove Albion
They played some good soccer last season, to the surprise of many. Nothing great or earth shattering but competitive in most matches and not often seen as way overmatched. This year should be much the same. Where they will need to continue to do very well is in getting the maximum points from those teams below them in the table. Secure those points like last year and they should be safe again.
Leeds simply crushed the English Championship last season to earn their move up to the EPL. And I believe they have the talent to stick. Plus they have an ownership group that has established a solid business plan and the resources to build this team. I am tempted to move them into the middle group of teams but want to see how they fare this season. And they have already taken a great first step with the signing of Spanish striker Rodrigo Moreno. Don’t be surprised to see this team pushing toward around 12 or 13th.
The good news was that they won down the stretch when they had to so as to avoid relegation this year. But the problem is they haven’t done anything to really improve although there have been a number of potential transfer signings being discussed. The other problem is that a lot of teams are going after their best player, Jack Grealish. While selling him would bring a very good return, and may be good for the team long term, losing him would make their anemic offense even worse. Look for them to drop out.
They aren’t creative. They don’t score much. And they don’t have the defense to keep better teams to 1 or 2 goals. Although signing left back Antonee “Jedi” Robinson will help with the defense. But I’d guess there move up to the EPL will be short lived.
West Bromwich Albion
The other newly promoted team expected to all right back down. The talent is just not there, yet anyway, to see how they could scrape up enough points to sneak up to 17th. It would take a miracle for them to get enough 1-0 wins to make it. But again its 2020 so who knows. Just don’t bet on them. So there you have it. Get ready for the fun starting this Saturday and hopefully a season that can run without interruption. And there are a couple of test matches coming up in the English Championship allowing fans. Lets hope this works well and we can see fans in the stands at EPL matches this season.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O’s. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.