It seems foolish to handicap the relegation race before it’s even started, but the bookies do it and they’ve come up with a fairly consistent set of numbers. Five teams start the season as the most-likelies, so let’s run the rule over their chances before the actual football ruins everyone’s predictions…
Huddersfield Town (average price around 8/13)
The last three sides to get promoted through the play-offs all went straight back down, so it figures the Terriers are first choice wherever you place your bet. But it’s not that straightforward, for two reasons.
The first is that David Wagner plays an aggressive style, similar to his mentor Jürgen Klopp’s, which might lead to a few spankings but could also pick up some unexpected results. With three points for a win, that could be enough to make a difference.
The second is that the club have acquired an unusually large number of new players. In goal, there’s Jonas Lössl, on loan from Mainz. He didn’t thrill anybody in the stats department last year, but Wagner certainly knows the Bundesliga. Mathias Jorgensen, known as Zanka, is a powerful defender from FC Copenhagen, who looks like a natural partner for Christopher Schindler. Scott Malone is an attacking left-back off a very good season with free-scoring Fulham.
In attack, record signing Steve Mounié from Montpelier, tall and mobile, will be the focal point. Then there’s Laurent Depoitre, a big man with a surprising turn of pace, who didn’t get much of a look-in at Porto last year. Don’t forget Tom Ince, who has yet to show Premier League quality, but has fit perfectly into the system in pre-season.
That’s half a new eleven, and though not all may succeed, as a group they should raise the overall level of the side. Add in a healthy dose of gegenpressing and (of course) the support of Sarah Winterburn, and the Terriers shouldn’t be cut adrift.
Burnley (average price around 6/5)
The Clarets are second choice with the majority of oddsmakers, third behind Brighton with a few. Unlike the Seagulls, though, they’re very much a known quantity. Sean Dyche isn’t likely to become Pep Guardiola overnight, and the club’s prudent transfer policy means the playing staff won’t be changing dramatically.
On the surface, it doesn’t look promising. They lost Michael Keane this summer, and probable replacement James Tarkowski is untried at this level. Their four summer signings are uninspiring: Phil Bardsley (one of the few players in the universe going for less than £1m), Jonathan Walters (back-up for Sam Vokes and Ashley Barnes), Jack Cork (useful but hardly transformative), and left-back/centre-half Charlie Taylor from Leeds (might break the starting XI, but no guarantees).
The sale of André Gray to Watford was unavoidable – he clearly wanted to leave – and they got a good price for a player on the last year of his contract. But he was their one striker with pace, and the front line is now very limited in approach. Hopefully they have a like-for-like replacement in mind. (Ahmed Musa, maybe?)
On the positive side, they’ll have Robbie Brady in the line-up for a full season, assuming he’s learned how to defend, and a healthy Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Steven Defour would be additional pluses. And if all else fails, there’s always Tom Heaton.
Expected goals say Burnley overachieved last year, and when that happens, there’s usually a drop next time around. So the easy pick is relegation, and the bookies seem to agree. But there’s the Gray money available, and the right purchase could change the equation. Either way, the Clarets are nothing if not battlers, and should it go to the wire, as is very possible, they’re as good a bet as any to come up with the needed result.
Brighton and Hove Albion (average price around 5/4)
If someone mentions Chris Hughton, odds are your first reaction will be ‘nice guy, well-liked’. Your second reaction might be ‘pretty good Championship manager, couple of promotions’. But conspicuous by its absence will be ‘great man in a relegation scrap’. It’s no surprise that all the bookies have the Seagulls near even odds to go down.
The jury remains out on Hughton at Premier League level. His half-season with Newcastle was erratic; he barely kept Norwich City up one year; he didn’t the next. His style of play is functional, defensive. His two years with the Canaries found them 17th and 20th in goals scored. Despite nearly winning the Championship last year, and with Player of the Year winger Anthony Knockaert, Albion finished only fifth in the league in goals scored. Where David Wagner might pick up three points against the better sides, Hughton is more likely to get you a series of draws.
Summer acquisitions have naturally emphasised the attack. They’ve added two playmakers, Pascal Gross (Ingolstadt) and Davy Pröpper (PSV Eindhoven), perpetual Chelsea loanee Izzy Brown, and attacking left-back and set-piece expert Markus Suttner (Ingolstadt). Since their top scorer last year was Glenn Murray, the very model of a Championship striker, they’re also hunting for quality in that spot.
At the other end, keeper Mathew Ryan (on loan at Genk last year) has been brought in to replace David Stockdale, who was excellent last season but left for Birmingham City. Add it up and they’ve spent a little more than half Huddersfield’s outlay so far.
Doubts are permissible, but Brighton finished only a point behind Newcastle last year, and so deserve respect. If Hughton can keep them up, he’ll deserve quite a bit as well, and next time your first reaction might be ‘nice guy, well-liked, proven at Premier League level’.
Watford (average price around 13/8)
The Club Of A Thousand Faces. Watford change their manager and players as often as I change my [redacted]. Maybe that’s why they’re fourth choice to go down, but they’ve survived with ease the last two years, and the price seems a bit short. You’d have thought Marco Silva would be cause for confidence, but Hull City’s relegation may factor in as well.
One thing Silva is good at is the short passing game, and new midfield acquisitions Nathaniel Chalobah and Will Hughes should fit his approach perfectly. Abdoulaye Doucouré is growing into the DM role, and If Roberto Pereyra is all the way back from injury, the side might have the creative player so badly lacking over the last two years.
There remain question marks front and back. Isaac Success may finally be ready to contribute on the wing, but Troy Deeney is the only proven scorer. Stefano Okaka has not convinced, and Richarlison, just off the plane from Fluminense, has yet to kick a ball in Europe, and is probably more of a winger anyway. André Gray, picked up this week from Burnley, had one-third of a very good season with the Clarets, and now finds himself in an attacking system better suited to his talents.
Defence was inconsistent all last year, and while new right-back Kiko Femenia from Alaves adds depth to Daryl Janmaat’s position, left-back and centre-half still need significant reinforcement. Heurelho Gomes could probably use some competition in goal as well.
But this is Watford, and the owners seem to know what they’re doing, even if the rest of us don’t. We should see infusions of talent at the appropriate times in the appropriate places, and Silva has shown he can put together a useful side from disparate parts. Besides, you’d hate it if Paul Merson were right, wouldn’t you?
Swansea City (average price around 9/4)
Icelandic bards know a saga when they see one, so ‘Sigurðsson’s Transfer’ will be ringing out in Reykjavik for centuries to come. But since his departure seems inevitable, Swansea will be glad to get the whole thing over with. Which still leaves a big hole in the Swans’ midfield.
In fact, Swansea’s situation seems at least as precarious as Watford’s, even though Paul Clement’s side nipped Silva’s Hull City at the wire last year. Although the new owners are using analytics-based recruitment, the Swans have no reliable stream of new talent. And if Silva is untried over a full season at this level, so is Clement.
The squad hasn’t been inordinately strengthened so far, probably because the club is waiting on the Sigurdsson deal. We’re all looking forward to Tammy Abraham, but this is his first shot at the top flight, and in any case he’ll need service. The other acquisition of note is midfielder Roque Mesa, an excellent passer and tackler who played deep or central for Las Palmas. But perhaps we should also count Alfie Mawson, who improved significantly towards the end of last season, and hopefully will make his mark from the beginning.
The Sigurdsson money will play a big role in survival. The owners invested well in the transfer market last January, picking up Jordan Ayew, Martin Olsson and Tom Carroll. Similar canniness will be required this season, with a right-back and a Gylfi replacement the chief priorities. A couple of successful transfer windows should do the job, but until we see the new boys in action, it might be touch-and-go.