Premier League 2021/22 predictions: Champions, top four, relegation, best signing, biggest flop, top scorer and more

The Independent’s football writers take a look ahead to the new season

Sports Staff
Friday 13 August 2021 16:42
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Jack Grealish enjoying 'every minute' after £100m signing for Manchester City

A new season is upon us as Manchester City, now armed with the £100m signing of Jack Grealish, defend their Premier League crown.

It was the arrival of Ruben Dias that proved so instrumental to Pep Guardiola’s success last season, and the champions still hope to prise Harry Kane from Tottenham before the end of the transfer window – a signing that would only further their reputation as favourites.

As it stands, though, they seem destined to face fiercer competition at the top of the table. Thomas Tuchel guided Chelsea to spectacular success in the Champions League and now has sights on domestic dominance, with the £97.5m arrival of Romelu Lukaku only bolstering the Blues’ chances.

Manchester United have also recruited very impressively with deals for Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, while Liverpool should provide a far greater threat after a lacklustre display last season. Leicester will attempt to upset English football’s financial heavyweights again, while Arsenal and Spurs look to reverse their recent fortunes.

At the other end of the table, Norwich and Watford have returned to the top-flight alongside newcomers Brentford, while Patrick Vieira has taken charge at a Crystal Palace side in transition. Newcastle, Brighton, Southampton and Burnley face familiar jeopardy in what promises to be a thrilling season at both ends of the table.

Here are our writers predictions for what lies ahead:

Manchester City lift the Premier League title in 2020/21

Champions?

Miguel Delaney (chief football writer): Chelsea. The Champions League will take them up a level, and the signing of Romelu Lukaku will complete the team.

Mark Critchley (northern football correspondent): Manchester City. The best team in the league, though Chelsea blurred that distinction under Thomas Tuchel in the second half of last season.

Melissa Reddy (senior football correspondent): The automatic answer to this question, especially if Harry Kane joins Jack Grealish in supercharging their ranks, is Manchester City. The title should be a natural consequence of their spending married with an excellent manager and structure. Anything less than first place is, let’s not pretend otherwise, failure for Pep Guardiola’s charges. There will be increasing pressure on Thomas Tuchel to build on the Champions League triumph and return the championship to Chelsea given their investment over the past two summers, while there will be competition from a Liverpool without multiple major injuries and with Virgil van Dijk back. The only factor counting against Jurgen Klopp’s charges is the star quality they will cede during the African Cup of Nations (Afcon).

Vithushan Ehantharajah (sports feature writer): Manchester City.

Jack Rathborn (assistant sports editor): Manchester City.

Lawrence Ostlere (assistant sports editor): Chelsea. They have the momentum from winning the Champions League, they have a squad overflowing with talent and they have an elite manager with a plan. They are good enough to get the 90-plus points they will probably need to top City.

Tom Kershaw (sports writer): Chelsea.

Alex Pattle (sports writer): Manchester City to retain their title in a closer-run race than last season.

Karl Matchett (sports writer): Liverpool have a very nice start in terms of their fixtures, have lots of key players back after injury and have reason to push on and show they remain capable of being the best. There are three potential winners, City and Chelsea being the others, and it’ll be a much closer race than the last two years.

Top four?

MD: Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United. It feels like a new big four, with maybe even a split within that.

MC: Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United. For the third season running, you wonder whether we are entering the era of a “big four” rather than six, on the pitch at least.

MR: Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United.

VE: Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United.

JR: Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United.

LO: Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool.

TK: Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool.

AP: Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool.

KM: Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United.

Three teams relegated?

MD: Crystal Palace, Southampton, Norwich City. I keep changing this every time I’m asked so there could be a different answer in an hour, which maybe points to the volatility at that end. Other candidates would be Brentford, Watford, maybe even Burnley.

MC: Crystal Palace, Watford, Norwich. Southampton are a worry but Ralph Hasenhuttl should have enough to keep their heads above water.

MR: Norwich, Burnley, Watford.

VE: Southampton, Norwich City, Watford.

JR: Brentford, Watford, Newcastle.

LO: Crystal Palace, Watford, Norwich.

TK: Burnley, Watford, Norwich.

AP: Brighton, Brentford, Watford.

KM: Lots of time to change this with transfer arrivals but Brentford, Watford and Burnley look a little light in one or two areas right now. Wolves and Norwich are not far ahead.

Player of the season?

MD: Romelu Lukaku. I think, like Antonio Conte at Inter Milan, Thomas Tuchel’s coaching could ensure we see the Lukaku England never had.

MC: Kevin De Bruyne, who did not always reach his usual heights last season but remains the best player in the league.

MR: N’Golo Kante.

VE: Kevin De Bruyne.

JR: Romelu Lukaku.

LO: N’Golo Kante. If Chelsea win the league he will probably have been their best player.

TK: N’Golo Kante.

AP: Kevin De Bruyne.

KM: N’Golo Kante is at the heart of everything for Chelsea in a system and role which suits him. If he stays fit, there are few more consistently brilliant performers.

Golden boot?

MD: Romelu Lukaku – provided Harry Kane does not go to Manchester City.

MC: Mohamed Salah. It’s between him and Harry Kane. Salah’s Africa Cup of Nations may hamper his chances but Liverpool should be more free-scoring than Tottenham.

MR: Mohamed Salah – his sheer consistent brilliance – would have been the answer here if not for the Afcon. The uncertainty around Harry Kane leads me to Romelu Lukaku.

VE: Harry Kane.

JR: Romelu Lukaku and more than 25 as the most since Mohammed Salah’s 32 in 2017/18.

LO: Mohamed Salah. Romelu Lukaku is unlikely to be on penalties while Harry Kane’s season could be disrupted by the transfer window, so that leaves Salah as the most obvious candidate to top the scoring charts.

TK: Mohamed Salah.

AP: Romelu Lukaku.

KM: Mohamed Salah was just short last season but his consistently clinical return is so impressive. Twenty-five this year.

Manager of the season?

MD: Jurgen Klopp. I think there’ll be a Liverpool resurgence with players returning from injury, and that will be seen as alchemy given how bad last season got.

MC: Graham Potter. Brighton are not far away from being a good side.

MR: Thomas Tuchel. I suspect Chelsea will have a very good season domestically and on the continent. Such is the nature of the club, however, that he could actually turn out to be the answer to “First manager sacked?”

VE: Pep Guardiola.

JR: Daniel Farke, if Norwich survive, demonstrating a willingness to learn and adapt, while promoting positive football two years removed from a dismal return of 21 points.

LO: Thomas Thuchel. If he adds the Premier League crown to the Champions League he won last season, having picked up the club in mid-table, it will be some achievement.

TK: Thomas Tuchel. If the Chelsea manager can clinch the title in his first full season in charge, even with the immense squad depth at his disposal, it’s hard to choose anybody else. Marcelo Bielsa and Thomas Frank could be outside contenders if they can exceed expectations with Leeds and Brentford respectively.

AP: Brendan Rodgers.

KM: Automatically Rafa Benitez if he keeps his job all year long without the fans chasing him out.

Signing of the season?

MD: Patson Daka. Many in the game were wondering why more clubs than Leicester City weren’t in for the forward, and it could become like Wesley Fofana, where the biggest clubs instantly realised they missed an obvious one.

MC: Raphael Varane, given his price, is the obvious choice. Patson Daka, Boubakary Soumare (Leicester) and Enoch Mwepu (Brighton) look like smart buys too.

MR: With so much of the transfer window still to run and big deals to come, it seems premature to make a predication on this.

VE: Leon Bailey (Aston Villa).

JR: It would surely be Lukaku if he snatches the golden boot and PFA Player of the Year, but I’m expecting great things from Ibrahima Konate at Liverpool too. If he stays fit, the partnership with Van Dijk will be colossal. It also feels like Ashley Young, on a free, is a smart acquisition given the upheaval at Villa. His experience should prove vital in establishing some early success without Jack Grealish.

LO: Emiliano Buendia. His underlying statistics have been through the roof for a few seasons and now he has the perfect scenario to rack up Premier League assists, with an almost certain starting berth at Aston Villa after Jack Grealish’s departure and high-quality strikers to supply in Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings. Patson Daka could also shine at Leicester and help take the strain off Jamie Vardy in what will be a long season with the Europa League thrown in.

TK: Romelu Lukaku. The striker should fit seamlessly into Thomas Tuchel’s side and score goals in abundance. Raphael Varane may not single-handedly spur Manchester United towards the title, but his confidence and winning experience will radiate throughout the team. Emiliano Buendia should thrive at Aston Villa.

AP: Raphael Varane will take Manchester United’s defence up a level.

KM: Lots of appreciation for the signings of Emi Buendia, Enock Mwepu and Michael Olise (Crystal Palace), all smart additions who can be very impressive this year. But the best of the lot so far for value and quality upgrade in a key area is Spurs’s Cristian Romero, an incredibly good defender who will fit in perfectly if Nuno reprises his three-man back line at his new club.

Biggest flop?

MD: Little things I’ve heard – about his motivation after the World Cup, about former teammates talking about previous tactical protections – make me inclined to say Raphael Varane, but he still has too much class. I think I will say Jack Grealish, not because of any doubts about his ability, but more the adaptation of such an individualist to Pep Guardiola’s structure. It might take a while to see the real Grealish.

MC: It’s harder to say every year as clubs become savvier in the market. Danny Ings’ price felt high given his age and injury history but he’s still an excellent player.

VE: It’s potentially Jadon Sancho, isn’t it? The profile (earned), the fee (not bad relative to today’s numbers), the expectation (out of his hands). Basically, he could do “well” and still be considered a flop.

JR: Danny Ings. Around £30m is a lot from Villa’s perspective when Ollie Watkins could conceivably kick on and hold down the No 9 role. Both could play, of course, but Dean Smith will surely want to bring out the best in Leon Bailey as the present and future and with other exciting wide options it might eventually be tricky to include Ings week in, week out, which would be disappointing for the price and his age at 29.

LO: Jack Grealish. To be clear, I think he’s brilliant and has the talent to play at the highest level, and “flop” is probably the wrong word here. But City’s biggest signings rarely hit it off from the start, especially attacking players, through a combination of having to adjust to Pep Guardiola’s unique coaching and a lack of minutes. I expect Grealish to eventually come good after an underwhelming debut season at the Etihad, similarly to Riyad Mahrez.

TK: Arsenal’s failure to address key areas. The Gunners head into a new season without a solid back-up goalkeeper and are yet to bring in an attacking midfielder. If they struggle, their priorities this summer should come under serious scrutiny. Milot Rashica dipped in form during a difficult season at Werder Bremen and faces an almost impossible task of helping to fill the gap left by Emiliano Buendia at Norwich.

AP: Ben White. To be clear, this prediction is much more about Arsenal than it is about White. I think the club’s struggles will continue, undermining the centre-back’s qualities and failing to give him a platform to succeed.

KM: Tough call without too many huge deals so far, but there will definitely be expectation on Jadon Sancho to deliver something along the lines of 15 goals and 15 assists or else his impact will be questioned. Steering clear of that deal, £25m or so for Leon Bailey – talented but wildly inconsistent – has more capacity to backfire for Villa. For less money, Wolves have also had a shocker, replacing Rui Patricio with a far inferior keeper in Jose Sa.

Club with the best window?

MD: This is basically who has solved the most issues, and that is probably Leicester City.

MC: Manchester United have earned a lot of praise but Leicester have strengthened well for relatively little.

MR: Aston Villa lost their gold dust, but have sprinkled a fair bit of shine on the squad with their incomings. Leicester, as usual, have made some interesting buys.

VE: Really like what Aston Villa have done, from Emi Buendia right down to bringing in Axel Tuanzebe on loan.

JR: I really like Crystal Palace’s business. Marc Guehi is fast developing into a magnificent centre-back, Joachim Andersen was excellent for Fulham and should settle quickly, Conor Gallagher is another outstanding prospect ready to perform and Michael Olise is an exceptional talent with huge potential.

Aston Villa signed Emiliano Buendia from Norwich

LO: Manchester United. From a financial point of view it is hard to look beyond Aston Villa, who have brought in four players and still have money left over from the sale of Jack Grealish. But in straightforward footballing terms, United have bought Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane in two positions which needed strengthening, and in doing so have improved their first XI more so than any other side in the league.

TK: Leicester have, as so often, signed astutely. Boubakary Soumare and Patson Daka are terrific talents who’d won admirers across Europe, while signing Ryan Bertrand on a free transfer should prove excellent business. Jannik Vestergaard can be prone to the occasional chaotic moment but will also provide excellent cover in defence.

AP: Manchester United, for adding world-class quality in defence and attack without paying as much as one would expect.

KM: Leicester have been very good in identifying players to fill specific needs. Crystal Palace may be edging them out for top spot as their transfers are very smart and playing a long-term game too, after lots of departures.

First manager sacked?

MD: Patrick Vieira. It’s hard not to see this going a bit like Frank De Boer, especially as Crystal Palace try to change so much so quickly. If they are going for a drastic change of style, they could probably have done with a manager who is a touch more of a proven thing. This isn’t a slight on Vieira, but he doesn’t have much experience if it goes badly.

MC: Patrick Vieira. There are so many unknowns around Palace that is is hard to predict how they’ll do but their opening run isn’t kind.

MR: Several clubs are saddled with a manager they don’t really want (hello Everton and Tottenham), while some are unsure about the capabilities of the man at the helm (nod to Crystal Palace) and then there’s a make-or-break feel around Mikel Arteta, while Ralph Hasenhuttl could be in trouble at Southampton – but given Watford’s history, can you really look beyond Xisco Munoz?

VE: Ralph Hasenhuttl.

JR: Xisco Munoz.

LO: There are plenty who won’t be given long if things go south and Ralph Hasenhuttl could be one of those.

TK: Xisco Munoz.

AP: Xisco Munoz.

KM: Bruno Lage.

How will the English clubs fare in Europe?

MD: Domination along with Paris Saint-Germain and maybe Bayern Munich. Tottenham Hotspur to win the Europa Conference.

MC: Everyone will fancy a City-PSG final. The other three should reach the knockouts. Tottenham win the Conference League.

MR: More dominance. PSG and Bayern are now the only real threats outside of England.

VE: Same as last year: strong across all competitions. We might even have a finalist in the Europa Conference League.

JR: Expect all to progress to the last 16 in the Champions League and at least three to advance to the quarter-finals. City should be back in the final four at least, too. Leicester should make a run to the Europa League semi-finals, too, as the next step for Brendan Rodgers given the difficulty in finishing in the top four. West Ham may squeeze out of the groups. Spurs could tank in the Conference League given the pressure on Nuno to at least challenge for a top four finish.

LO: Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool and Man United can and probably will all go far in the Champions League – I could see all four in the quarter-finals and one of them winning it. Leicester to reach the Europa League semis too.

TK: All four sides should advance to the knockout stages and either Chelsea or Manchester City should make the final. Leicester can reach the latter stages in the Europa League, although West Ham may struggle to make it out of the group stage. Tottenham can win the Conference League.

AP: Man City and Chelsea: UCL semi-finals. Man United and Liverpool: UCL quarters. Leicester: UEL semi-finals. West Ham: UEL last 16. Does anybody care about the Conference League? I don’t even think Spurs fans do.

KM: Liverpool, Chelsea and City all to reach the quarter-finals at a minimum in the Champions League. Man United to at least make the knockouts this time. Knockouts of the Europa for Leicester, group stage for West Ham, no clue for how seriously Spurs will take the Intertoto Milk Vanarama Conference League Vase.

Record signing Jack Grealish is formally unveiled by Manchester City

What does Jack Grealish have to do to justify his £100m price tag?

MD: Double last season’s goal tally and win a Premier League medal, at the least. Anything else and it will be seen as a waste.

MC: Win Love Island.

MR: Nothing in my opinion. City paid that on account of what he has already done and his worth to Villa. He didn’t demand that price tag and is already an elite attacker that will hopefully get the opportunities to prove he is more than a one-man machine.

VE: Probably win the title while making 40 appearances (the majority of them starts) across the board.

JR: Grealish has to start in most of the big games and become a go-to match winner, thriving despite fierce competition. Though not a player entirely dependent on goals to influence games, double figures in the league feels both attainable and essential.

LO: I think his career so far has already justified a big price, but reaching double figures in Premier League assists would be a good target.

TK: To quickly establish himself as a key player, feature in the club’s biggest games to dispel any myths about being an unnecessary luxury and prove he can consistently change matches in an instant at the highest level.

AP: I’d say the bare minimum is helping City to retain the Premier League title, but they were expected to do that even before he signed. Maybe winning the Champions League is the answer here, although luck will be needed along the way, so it will hardly be all about Grealish.

KM: Start the big games. Simple as that. If he’s not just a luxury addition for a mega-rich side then being trusted by the most tactically inclined manager on the planet is his end goal here, signifying personal improvement and match-winning ability at the same time.

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What are you looking forward to and what are you dreading?

MD: I’m most looking forward to games that are “events” again, and no more dismal lockdown Sundays where bad matches are played out in front of empty stands and there was a sense of everyone just completing a procedure for the sake of it. This is the real thing. Also, travelling to games, and all the colour that comes with it.

Dreading: awful train schedules, that lead to uncomfortably packed trains. It doesn’t feel like the long break will have seen train companies give much consideration to travelling supporters. More immediately, there was a really enjoyable purity to Euro 2020, that had none of the tedious tribalism that comes with the club game. Could do without that.

MC: I’m most looking forward to the return of a relatively normal schedule with multiple 3pm Saturday kick-offs and dreading any enforced changes to that.

MR: The noise, colour and emotion regularly inside stadiums again.

Dreading: the toxicity via social media or otherwise, the invariable scapegoating of football by government and the unhealthy trend of expecting players to do more to combat the wrongs of the game and society than the people in power tasked with doing just that.

VE: Looking forward to having fans back at the grounds that missed them most, such as Selhurst Park and Elland Road.

Dreading: a potential winter lockdown scuppering that.

JR: The genuine prospect of a title race that stretches into April, at least. How the Premier League evolves and adjusts to facing three/five at the back. Billy Gilmour playing football every week.

Dreading: the always premature first international break.

LO: Looking forward to seeing United, Chelsea and Liverpool be stronger this season to challenge City and hopefully create a serious three or even four-way title race.

Dreading: football social media and its steaming hot takes.

TK: The atmosphere finally returning to stadiums and, with it, the buzz of proper matchdays. Hopefully, a fierce and even battle between the top-six teams and seeing how Brentford handle their first season in the top-flight.

Dreading: endless VAR debates, comparisons to refereeing at the Euros, and watching Arsenal.

AP: Looking forward to the return of fans and thus the real feel of football coming back.

Dreading: the unfortunately inevitable incidents of racial abuse towards players. On a much less important note, I’m also dreading more debates over VAR.

KM: Like most, I’m looking forward to fans returning, atmospheres improving and the matchday “experience” returning from the opening weekend. Also to visit new teams and grounds such as Brentford, and watch last year’s on-the-verge youngsters take the next steps in different leagues around Europe.

Dreading: the brilliant summer of international action reverting to its soul-sapping, irritating, mid-season interruption form.

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