Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham have claimed the top-six places in the Premier League for the past three seasons. In practice, this means that 2015/16 champions Leicester, and Southampton – who finished sixth that season – are the last teams to usurp the current status-quo.
These days, the rich get richer and the less-rich stagnate – if they are lucky. Even so, this cycle must break sooner or later, and in knowing this, many fans wonder which Premier League team has the necessary equipment to disrupt this for-now ‘exclusive’ covenant of six.
There has never been more of an appetite for a change in the makeup of the Premier League’s upper echelons. Three teams in particular seem highly vulnerable to falling away from the top six, and perhaps the most obvious is Arsenal, who looked as dispirited as ever in their 4-1 defeat to Chelsea in the Europa League final.
With that final opportunity for Champions League football being destroyed by an Eden Hazard masterclass, Arsenal’s already-lowered stock plummeted to new depths. While the recent signing of Nicolas Pepe for a new club record is a step in the right direction for the Gunners, they are still arguably the weakest link in the top-six.
Chelsea could also be architects of their own downfall, with the very inexperienced Frank Lampard coming in, amidst a transfer embargo and the departure of Europa League hero Hazard.
Many neutrals believe that the club went for heart-over-head in giving Lampard the job, and with no new talent coming in, even just a podium finish in 2020 would represent an excellent result.
Meanwhile, Manchester United are expected to come back stronger after a summer spending spree. Yet, despite Ole Gunnar Solskjær making all the right moves in pre-season, a squad overhaul carries its own inherent risks. Furthermore, the lack of Champions League football, combined with the high-spending nature of this summer, has increased the pressure on Solskjær to an all-time high.
Just a few poor results will put Solskjær’s job in real jeopardy, and further disrupt a squad that clearly lacked spirit in the closing rounds of 2018/19. Even Tottenham are not one-hundred percent safe, with the psychological effects of their lost Champions League final – exacerbated the sense that Mauricio Pochettino cannot do much more for the club – yet to be truly accounted for.
The situations surrounding the more vulnerable members of the ‘elite’ six are already well accounted for, but predicting the team that will make the breakthrough is much harder. While the last three seasons have seen Wolves, Burnley and Everton finish seventh, those clubs fell drastically short of the sixth-placed team in question.
If current odds for the Premier League winner without the expected top-six are taken at face value, it is the latter team that stands as likeliest to break into the top six of 2019/20.
In 2018/19, it was not until the start of spring that Everton really clicked into gear. A dominant, assured 3-0 win at Cardiff on 26 February sparked an unbeaten home run against four of the top-six elects. Everton conceded no goals during this time, and took ten points from a possible twelve. They undoubtedly saved the best until last in that particular tranche, thrashing Manchester United 4-0 on a sun-drenched Easter Sunday.
This, combined with a belatedly pro-active transfer window, and fresh projections for a proposed new stadium, have reignited hope of better times at Goodison Park. The arrival of hot prospect Moise Kean, along with the return of luxury midfielder Andre Gomes, and the quickfire replacement of Idrissa Gueye with Jean-Philippe Gbamin, is a sure sense of ambition from key personnel at the club.
With Everton spared the presence of top-six opposition until late September, the start of the upcoming season is a golden opportunity for the blue half of Merseyside to lay a foundation for an assault on the top-six.
Even though Leicester always begin a campaign likelier to drop than to win the title, the residual effects of their 5000/1 title win three years ago will last for a generation. Always a force to be reckoned with, thanks much to the wealth and input of the late Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester’s youth development schemes have grown meteorically over the past ten years.
Last season, Leicester fans bore witness to the emergence of Harvey Barnes, who goes into 2019/20 with just over 1,000 minutes of first team action under his belt. Hopes are universally high for Barnes, who has clearly benefitted from the influence of hardened veterans in the final third, such as Jamie Vardy and Marc Albrighton.
Both Ben Chilwell and James Maddison are also still under the age of 23, and enjoyed stellar 2018/19 campaigns, with the latter notably outshining every other Leicester player in the Fantasy Premier League stakes last term. Additionally, Hamza Choudhury has grown into the team and put in some mature performances.
While Leicester’s core of youth is unlikely to be the driving force behind a top-six finish this season, they are talented enough to grow up together in the right way. Assuming that none of emulate Harry Maguire, and seek better short-term prospects at a bigger club, there is no reason to believe that they cannot form a solid nucleus.
While Wolves certainly have the talent necessary to go one better than last season’s seventh-placed finish, the Europa League often proves to be more bane than boon for those who enter at an antepenultimate qualifying round. The last four teams to qualify for the Europa League via seventh place have each experienced short-term decline, with the qualifying rounds proving disruptive to both the pre-season schedule, the development of any new training regimes and the flow of transfer dealings.
Given that, it seems as though any team that is in a reasonably good place can step up and make 2019/20 a success, even if Everton and Leicester are the two main candidates to break into the top-six. Based on the sense of camaraderie, and the positive approach taken by the club’s manager to every match, regardless of the opposition, Norwich could be a worthy outside bet to at least make a top-six challenge.
Much of the optimism surrounding Norwich is generated by the youth prospects the club has at its disposal. Furthermore, with Norwich having already announced an extended contract for 2018/19 Championship top scorer Teemu Pukki, the Canaries have every right to dream big.
Norwich’s success in retaining the services of Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis will also be beneficial, as the two wing backs have played a crucial part in Norwich’s success over the past year, and dually form one of the squad’s most underrated strengths.
The task Daniel Farke has is not an easy one, and even survival is something that a vast majority of Norwich fans would currently take. Yet, if his dynamic style of attacking play proves adaptable, then he is sure to get huge credibility and success. In doing so, he would reap the rewards of keeping the core of the squad together, and make it easier to sell a vision to one or two more vital additions in January.
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