Away from the Premier League’s title favorites stands a collection of outsiders looking to push into European contention or solidify themselves as established members in the world’s richest league.
Here are some questions facing the teams below the elite:
WILL EVERTON AND BENITEZ WORK?
Shaken by the unexpected departure of Carlo Ancelotti, Everton was forced to begin a search for a fifth manager of the five-year tenure of majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri. He’s landed on his most contentious hire yet. Appointing Rafa Benitez, the former manager of the club’s fiercest rival, Liverpool, with a pragmatic playing style hardly in keeping with Everton fans’ preferred adventurous style, is bold and some might say misguided. Some banners were hung outside Goodison Park — one read “We know where you live, don’t sign” — in protest at the arrival of Benitez, who in 2007 called Everton a “small club.” The Spaniard thinks he can win the fans over but it seems there will always be some tension there. Winning silverware looks to be the only solution for Benitez but that looks way beyond Everton, which finished 10th in the Premier League last season and last captured a trophy in 1995. Some will say it’s a marriage destined for a divorce.
CAN BIELSA TAKE LEEDS FURTHER?
Here’s a partnership that’s on a much firmer footing. Leeds supporters cannot get enough of Marcelo Bielsa, their enigmatic Argentine coach beginning his fourth season at Elland Road — longer than any other club he has managed in his storied career. Under Bielsa, Leeds was one of the most entertaining teams in the Premier League last season and ended its first top-flight campaign since 2003-04 in an impressive ninth place. Can Bielsa take them further? The only major addition has been at left back, where Junior Firpo has joined from Barcelona to replace the out-of-contract Ezgjan Alioski. The 66-year-old Bielsa, who famously sits on an upturned bucket while watching matches on the sideline, likes to work with a tight-knit group he can mold into a relentless, hard-working unit that no opponent relishes facing. He could do with maybe another central midfielder if Leeds is to make that next step, but expect Bielsa to carry on squeezing everything out of a team greater than the sum of its parts.
CAN VIEIRA BE EXPANSIVE AT PALACE?
The last time Crystal Palace hired a manager with an expansive approach, Frank De Boer lasted four Premier League matches before getting fired. After four years under the dependable Roy Hodgson, Palace has chosen to roll the dice again in hiring Patrick Vieira for the France great’s first senior managerial role in English soccer. Vieira is promising to bring attacking soccer to the south London club — “I want to see a team who is on the front foot,” he has said — but that contrasts with Palace’s long-held style of playing in the counterattack and being mostly robust defensively. Preseason results have been encouraging, with star forward Wilfried Zaha seemingly in form, but the first real test for Vieira — whose only coaching experience has been at New York City FC and Nice in France — comes in Palace’s opening league match against Chelsea. A tough start sees Palace face Manchester City, Liverpool, Leicester, Tottenham and Arsenal elsewhere in its opening 10 games. Vieira will hope Palace’s board shows him more faith than it showed De Boer.
END OF THE ROAD FOR SOUTHAMPTON?
Southampton has managed to stay in the Premier League for a decade despite constantly selling its best assets, which have included Virgil van Dijk, Luke Shaw and Sadio Mane to name just three. Can they continue to survive? This season may prove to be one too far, with manager Ralph Hasenhuttl having sold two of its most important players in top scorer Danny Ings, to Aston Villa, and left back Ryan Bertrand, to Leicester. Denmark defender Jannik Vestergaard may also be on his way out so Hasenhuttl looks to have a massive job on his hands. Southampton, its fans hate to be reminded, have lost games 9-0 in each of the last two seasons and can often wilt under pressure. The team slumped after a strong start to a 15th-place finish and could well find itself in a relegation battle in the months ahead.
WHICH OF THE PROMOTED TEAMS CAN SURVIVE?
Promoted teams Norwich, Watford and Brentford take their place in the Premier League looking to emulate Wolverhampton and Leeds, who have transitioned well to life in the top flight and managed top-half finishes in their first season. Which of the three looks best positioned to do the same? Norwich comes up as the Championship winner and is likely to have a more rounded game plan compared to the attacking approach that proved its undoing two seasons ago under the same manager, Daniel Farke. Watford had comfortably the best defensive record in the second tier — just 30 goals conceded in 46 games — but might not have the attacking quality to survive. Most of the intrigue surrounds Brentford, a team from southwest London competing in the top flight for the first time since 1947 and which is owned by an entrepreneur — a former professional gambler, Matthew Benham — who uses analytics to unearth talent overlooked by traditional scouting methods. This “Moneyball” method has finally lifted the team to the Premier League and will come under strain against some of the world’s best club teams. It will be fascinating to see how the experiment turns out.
The headline of this story has been corrected to say it is the 2021-22 season, not 2020-21.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80