Market expects old foes to lock horns again
One of the most spine-tingling things in sport is the development of a rivalry, a dynamic that compels the combatants to find the very best of themselves, to dig deep and push the boundaries of what is possible. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s three-fight saga springs to mind – Frazier handed Ali his first professional defeat in boxing, only for Ali to avenge that loss in both 1974 and 1975.
We’re now onto Liverpool and Manchester City’s “Thriller in Manila” phase. City edged Liverpool out by single point two seasons ago as the two clubs delivered an extraordinary display of flawless football in the closing stages, the equivalent of a split decision in City’s favour. Last season was far more one-sided, as Liverpool landed crushing early blows and finished a brutal 18 points clear of Pep Guardiola’s deposed champions.
So, now that Liverpool have finally ended their three-decade wait for the title, what next? The Premier League 2020-21 Winner market suggests that City will have the edge, as the Citizens are [2.0] to take the title, and Liverpool are [2.98].
There is statistical merit in that assessment. The Infogol Expected Goals figures suggest that Liverpool hugely overperformed last season, scoring nine goals more than they should have and conceding ten goals fewer. Their Expected Goal difference was +33.4, significantly lower than City’s figure of +61.9. If you subscribe to the theory that these underlying numbers will eventually be reflected in real results (and not everyone does) then it makes sense to back City.
However, if you look beyond the xG numbers, there’s an argument to say Liverpool are overpriced at [2.98]. Manager Jurgen Klopp has delivered extraordinary consistency – LFC have lost four PL matches in two seasons, they haven’t lost a league game at Anfield since April 2017, and last season they dropped just two points at home.
The spine of the team is incredibly strong – Alisson is one of the world’s best goalkeepers, Virgil van Dijk marshals the defence with the ease of an adult winning Monopoly against a toddler, midfielder Jordan Henderson is an outstanding leader of men, and the front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane is one of the most fearsome forward lines in the sport. The lack of an African Cup of Nations next year (it’s been postponed until 2022) won’t harm Liverpool’s cause either.
City lost a staggering nine Premier League games last term, and they carry yet another Champions League scar with them into this campaign. The quarter-final defeat to Lyon once again shone the spotlight on Guardiola, and although he remains untouchable in terms of his position, one wonders whether any doubts are creeping in amongst his players.
When Aymeric Laporte isn’t in the team, City look fragile at times defensively, and they really do need to sign a world-class centre-back to partner him. The loss of David Silva’s experience and wizardry is a blow, although City won’t lack creativity, with Kevin de Bruyne arguably having developed into the world’s best midfielder.
It could well be yet another titanic tussle between these foes from the North-West, and I just don’t see why City are so much shorter than the Reds. If you’re making a play in this market, I’d back Liverpool.
Usual suspects in top-four race
The market doesn’t expect anyone but Liverpool and Manchester City to contest the title race, but Chelsea and Manchester United are expected to make the top four. Chelsea [1.58] have made exciting signings like German international striker Timo Werner and former Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech, but until they tighten up at the back, a title tilt under Frank Lampard seems unlikely.
Manchester United [1.47] had a strong second half to the season, but they finished 33 points off top spot, and their naïve failure in the UEFA Europa League semi-finals against Sevilla shows there is still plenty of work to do for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Arsenal [4.0] are still rebuilding under Mikel Arteta, but winning the FA Cup was a timely boost, not least because it seems to have steered star striker and captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang towards signing a new contract.
Tottenham [4.1] are still a bit of a mystery under Jose Mourinho. They finished the season strongly, with four wins out of six, a run that saw them qualify for the Europa League. There are still some excellent players at the club (World Cup-winning goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, Heung-Min Son and England internationals Dele Alli and Harry Kane) but until we know the extent of the club’s transfer business, it’s difficult to predict a return to the Champions League spots with any confidence.
If we drop into the Top 6 market, Wolves are trading at an intriguing price of [3.1]. They have finished seventh in each of the last two seasons, they don’t have any European engagements this term, and there is optimism that influential coach Nuno will soon sign a new contract. Stars like Adama Traore and Raul Jimenez are expected to stay (although you can never say never when it comes to transfers) and there is a feeling that Wolves are willing to invest in deepening what is a shallow squad.
Saints to keep marching in the right direction
I’m pleasantly surprised to see Southampton trading at odds-against to finish in the top ten. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s enterprising side only finished two points off the top ten last season, and they finished the campaign with a run of four wins and three draws. The faith of the board was tested by a poor start, including a humiliating 9-0 hammering by Leicester City, but their patience with the Austrian has been rewarded.
Striker Danny Ings had an outstanding season, scoring 22 Premier League goals, and technically excellent midfielder James Ward-Prowse has signed a new long-term deal. At odds of [2.4], I think Saints are worth backing to secure a top-half finish.
Eagles to keep on sinking
You can’t always judge a new season by looking at how the old one finished, but optimism is in short supply at Crystal Palace after a run of seven defeats in eight to end the Premier League campaign. The South Londoners were still a comfortable nine points clear of the bottom three, but there are alarm bells ringing.
Star player Wilfried Zaha continues to be linked with a move away, and even with the mercurial winger in the team, Palace only managed to score 31 goals in 38 league games. The Infogol xG numbers suggest Palace should’ve finished 17th, and should’ve conceded a lot more goals than they did.
Although manager Roy Hodgson is vastly experienced, he has a thin squad to work with, and it’s difficult to see where the goals are going to come from. Palace travel to face Manchester United, Chelsea and Wolves before the end of October, and I think they’re in for a sticky start. I’ll back them to be relegated at [3.25].
West Brom [2.08] and Fulham [2.18] are the favourites in the market, but I’d like to see them in action for a few games before making a judgement. Marcelo Bielsa-inspired Leeds United are a chunky [5.0] to go straight back down, while Newcastle are [3.85]. Plenty of people seem to think the Magpies are contenders to suffer the drop, but they have an excellent goalkeeper in Martin Dubravka, and matchwinners in Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin. I think Steve Bruce’s men will be fine.
Sterling the value pick in top scorer chase
Manchester City star Raheem Sterling has just produced a stellar season in front of goal, so it’s a real shame that his campaign will probably be remembered for that awful miss against Lyon. Sterling bashed in 20 Premier League goals and got 30 in all competitions. In the top flight, he outscored both Mo Salah and club-mate Sergio Aguero, and in a team that creates as manay chances as City do, he looks a big price in the Sportsbook’s Top Scorer market at 13/1.
Sadio Mane also looks to be overpriced at 14/1. The Liverpool forward plays almost every game, and has scored 40 league goals across the last two campaigns.