10) Manchester United will appoint a director of football
Finally. Perhaps losing Erling Haaland to Borussia Dortmund will be the final straw. United have obviously briefed the press that Mino Raiola’s demands were a red line for them, but Raiola has since returned fire, claiming that his client’s decision was based purely on football – and, actually, that the player would have earned nearly £70,000 a week more at Old Trafford.
Most likely is that both parties are being a little economic with the truth, but it does portray a situation at United which only seems to be getting worse. While their financial allure always grants them an audience with these players, they’re not selling themselves in a way which capitalises on that advantage. Most likely, that’s because the people doing the selling aren’t really capable of articulating the footballing vision properly.
And why would they be, given that they’re in no way qualified to do that?
So this has to change. United being United, they’ll get it wrong at first, employing someone on the basis of a minimalist, irrelevant criteria, but just the existence of an overseer would be some kind of improvement. Ultimately, it might also help to cure this image of them as the rich, thick club who can be manipulated by everyone else in the market and used by players to secure moves and improve their contracts.
9) The Saturday Blackout will end
The blackout rule is actually a longstanding UEFA statute, which gives member associations the right to prohibit live broadcasts for two-and-a-half hours on a Saturday and Sunday.
And guess which Football Association is the only one currently exercising that right?
Not for much longer, though. The winds have been blowing in this direction for some time. Bob Lord’s insistence that television would destroy match attendance has been disproven. Or, at least, superseded by ludicrous ticket prices and other malignancies towards fans which are even greater deterrents.
Further to which, English club football’s claim to be at the vanguard of sporting modernity is increasingly at odds with reality. Other leagues in other sports have been offering streaming services and digital season tickets for several years now, while the Premier League continues as it always has done, with its stakeholders selecting and moving games and the paying public having to accept whatever’s on offer.
It’s completely incongruous with the in-demand culture of the Netflix era, obviously, but also a wholly unacceptable compromise given the cumulative cost of subscription charges.
The current broadcasting deal is only in its first of three years, but the Premier League will be keen to further engage Amazon (or its competitors), and the only way to do that is to signpost towards a future which is heavy on fan choice and which, crucially, doesn’t include the Blackout.
8) Eddie Howe leaves Bournemouth
Maybe it’s just time?
This has not been the season it was supposed to be. Partly that’s due to injuries, because Bournemouth have suffered an extraordinary run of bad luck, but you wonder whether, even with everyone fit, there’s really that much further for this side to go.
Howe could stay. He could continue to bounce between the extremities of mid-table, reinventing a defence which refuses to be properly fixed, or he could begin the next chapter of his career.
Truth be told, he’s probably not going to get a job at one of the best clubs in the country on the basis of what he’s done so far. The Tottenham and Arsenal jobs have been and gone. Even West Ham moved on without a second glance.
He’s excellent. That seems to be the consensus. He’s shown the capacity to solve problems without spending huge sums of money and to reinvent his side without always having to change the personnel. Those are both great virtues and so he deserves his reputation.
But coaches only get to spend so long in the up and coming category. Dawdle for much longer and, with younger, fresher stories emerging elsewhere, Howe will become yesterday’s news. Or worse, people would start to wonder why he’s reluctant to face a new challenge or whether, actually, Bournemouth is simply where he belongs.
Maybe he wants that, but it’s almost time to make that decision.
7) West Ham will sack David Moyes
Because this is what they do. Moyes will be good enough to prevent a talented squad slipping to relegation and at some point, because of that improvement, David Gold and David Sullivan will start believing that they’re above employing him.
Admittedly, the perception of Moyes is a bit of out of date now. His reputation as a provider of stability depends entirely on his work at Everton which, it’s important to remember, is now six-and-a-half years ago. In the time since, he oversaw that notorious mess at Manchester United, while also losing three jobs (Real Sociedad, Sunderland, West Ham) in which he won less than 30% of his games.
The big tell here is the 18-month contract, though. It’s long enough to convince an out-of-work manager to accept the position, but not so long as to prohibit the club from paying him off when something better comes along. Fundamentally, West Ham’s owners believe that theirs is a top-six club in-waiting, if only they could sign that one player or employ that one coach who could help them realise those ambitions.
It’s not going to happen, of course, but these habits aren’t for changing.
6) The League Cup will be abolished
Or that conversation will at least begin.
The complaints of top managers are approaching critical mass now, with the chuntering over the Christmas break probably louder than in any previous year. Jurgen Klopp has been banging this drum for some time, Jose Mourinho described the schedule as a ‘crime’ and Nuno Espirito Santo and Pep Guardiola have also voiced their displeasure. The appetite for change is definitely there.
The League Cup didn’t create it, of course, but with FIFA and UEFA expanding their various competitions at every opportunity and the post- and pre-season calendars becoming more expansive, it is uniquely vulnerable. With the acceptance that something will eventually have to be sacrificed to protect players, the half-serious competition sponsored by the green energy drink company doesn’t have the strongest claim.
Abolition won’t happen this year, but the movement towards it will – if it hasn’t already.
5) Jose Mourinho’s mask will slip
Mourinho arrived at Tottenham talking of reinvention and having updated himself but, barely a month in, the football is stale and purposeless and the only attacking idea seems to be to shovel the ball long and towards the forwards. No sign of an epiphany there, then.
The Laidback, Happy Jose character is also on the retreat, evidenced most recently by the snarky broadside fired at Frank Lampard in the wake of defeat to Chelsea and those opaque remarks made about Tanguy Ndombele after the Boxing Day win over Brighton. He performed an about-turn a few days later, praising Ndombele to the hilt for an excellent performance at Norwich, but shades of Mourinho’s tweaking, mischievous self are beginning to peek through.
But the worst is to come. Spurs and Mourinho seem to have very low expectations for the January transfer window – they’ll presumably sit on their hands – but when summer arrives and Daniel Levy doesn’t march a £200m army into the dressing room, then the trouble will begin. And the pouting. And the sulking.
Because this is about him. Tottenham are being used as a tool to revitalise Mourinho’s image and any obstruction to that aim will be met with the normal volatility. This is such an obviously uneasy alliance that the clock was ticking on it from the moment the contract was signed.
4) Sheffield United will qualify Europe
Let’s double down on the pre-season prediction.
What a difference four months can make. From being described as the no-hopers who weren’t spending Aston Villa’s money, who didn’t have Norwich’s scouting system, Sheffield United have been comfortably the best of the all the newly-promoted teams.
But they’re not just that. Fundamentally, they’re an excellent side and their adaption has gone better than anyone could have expected. So now the question is no longer whether they can survive, but how long can they remain where they are in the table – the implication being that their form is somehow illusory and that, sooner or later, Chris Wilder and his players will be sent tumbling down the table.
But why? United are a little short of goals – that’s a fair observation, and would probably be compromised by an unfortunate sequence of injuries. But there’s nothing in their performances which suggest they’re becoming any easier to beat. Add in the opportunities of the January transfer window and, if the domestic cups are won by top-six sides, who knows where they might end up?
3) Wolves will win the Europa League
It’s such a labyrinth-like tournament that even predicting Europa League semi-finalists at this point seems like a punt. But the draw has still been kind to Wolves, who will face an Espanyol side currently at the foot of La Liga (and under the new management of Abelardo) in the round of 32.
And then, who knows. This isn’t a strong competition this year. The threats come from the usual places – Ajax, Sevilla, Inter, Roma, Arsenal, Manchester United – but Nuno Espirito Santo has shown how seriously he’s taking this first foray into Europe and, on a player-by-player, manager-vs-manager basis, you’d fancy him and his side against anyone left in the draw.
Mainly because, together, they seem so well-built for two-legged football. They have the counter-attack, we know that, but they’ve also become much better at playing on the front foot this season and also more efficient at dealing with the sides they’re expected to beat.
Maybe fatigue catches up with them at some point; they’ll have a lot of miles on their clock by February, March and April. But there’s nobody left who’s obviously superior. Maybe Inter, but who would really back Antonio Conte to succeed in Europe with his record?
2) VAR will be wound back
First of all, let’s deal with another ‘prediction’: this, written by me back in July, was nonsense. The difference between what was promised at Stockley Park and what has been delivered has been vast.
Secondly, though, some home truths about the PGMOL, the Premier League and VAR. They could not possibly care less about supporter experience. There is no amount of chanting in stadiums or hand-wringing on social media which will ever force a change in policy.
Except, that is, if it affects the spectacle and, by implication, the saleability of the Premier League. Then there’s a problem and at that point Gloucester Place would roar into action.
Negotiations for the next broadcasting contract will presumably begin sometime in 2020, possibly 2021. By that point, the league would presumably hope that its games aren’t being interrupted for minutes at a time and that its competition’s singular trait isn’t the PGMOL’s vanity.
If that does remain the case, though, expect some intervention.
1) Liverpool will reach their apex under Klopp
The Premier League looks to be in the bag, while it would also be brave to bet against Liverpool reclaiming the Champions League. As per the situation in England, everybody else just looks far too flawed to be a threat.
But if this season does end with a double, what else is there? Klopp has signed a new contract, so we know he won’t be leaving Anfield to take over the German national team, but what of his players? Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah are all in their prime and could all have their pick of clubs (and wages), while Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk would be in much the same position.
It’s just theory, possibly to be rubbished. Presumably, most if not all of those players are loyal to Klopp and would prefer to stay. But here’s the cloud in the sky: Liverpool are a footballing superpower, but they do not enjoy the equivalent financial dominance. Complete the set of meaningful trophies this season and they could find themselves having to stave off interest in players who, at that point in their careers, would enjoy a different challenge.
At the very least, this team’s cycle – even if everyone stays – isn’t going to last forever and Klopp is approaching a tricky renewal stage which he and Michael Edwards will have to get exactly right if they’re to preserve their side’s chemistry.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter