English Premier League 2019-2020 Season Kickoff
Its time! The 2019-2020 English Premier League season starts tomorrow with Liverpool FC hosting Norwich City FC at Anfield. The game will be broadcast live on NBC Sports starting at 3pm EDT. This season should be like every EPL season. Filled with great soccer, some interesting sideline stories, and plenty of drama. In fact there is already plenty of drama before a single ball has even been kicked. Speaking of balls, the EPL has unveiled a brand new ball for this season going with the Nike Merlin. For Nike this marks the 20th season that the official game ball for the league will be have the Nike swoosh. However, this year is the first time that Nike has produced a match ball strictly for the EPL and its loaded with great features that should be a treat for the players as well as the fans. The new ball features four panels that are fuse welded to provide improved distance and accuracy. There are a number of additional features and you can check them out here.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
What’s new for this season?
There are a number of things that are new to the EPL this season so lets look at some of those.
1) The biggest change this year is in how the final standings will be determined. For teams that are tied in points and their final positions impact the league winner, qualifications for European Leagues, or relegation a new approach is being taken. Historically, the tie breakers were goal differential then goals scored. This year the tie breakers are all based on head-to-head results in this order: points, goal differential, goals scored, goals scored away from home. If teams are still tied after these tie breakers then a neutral site playoff match will be played.
2) For the first time in the history of the EPL, a Cuban born player will be on the field. The 26-year old midfielder take the field tomorrow for Norwich City FC and will become a player from the 114th nation to be represented in the EPL.
3) There will be a two week mid-season break for all EPL teams in mid-February. This will be especially good for teams with players in the UEFA Champions League (UCL) and Eurpoa Leagues (UEL). This break will come just before those competitions knockout stage matches giving those players some much needed rest.
4) Goalkeepers will have a more difficult task to save penalties this year. As if this wasn’t damn hard enough already the new laws of the game just make it so much harder. Keepers are now required to have at least a part of one foot on the goal line when the kick is taken. And they are not allowed to start inside the goal to be able to dive forward at the time of the kick but still meet the inline with the goal line requirement.
5) Referees are now able to give yellow or red cards to team officials. Managers and coaches are going to have to cool down a bit on the sidelines or find themselves in the locker room. A change that should have been made a long time ago.
6) Two new rules for free kicks will be in use this season. First, and this was recently seen in a number of international matches, goal kicks are no longer required to leave the penalty area before they can be played by another player. This gives the team in possession the ability to play quickly to another player inside the area and maintain possession. Secondly, when a defending team sets up a wall against a free kick that has 3 or more of their players the attacking team is not allowed to try and muscle a player into that wall. All attacking players will have to remain at least one yard away.
7) And lastly, the entire 380 matches will make use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). While many fans dislike the potential game interruption, the fact is the game is just too fast for on the spot calls to be make and they key is to get them correct. The VAR guidelines are that it is used only for “clear and obvious errors” or “serious missed incidents” in four match changing situations: Goals, penalty decisions, direct red card incidents, and mistaken identity.
A question that gets asked a lot by casual fans is, “Just how popular is the EPL in the United States?” And of course the answers are always a bit subjective. But here are a couple of more concrete indicators that indeed the EPL is very popular in this country.
A) Today is the last day of the summer transfer season. Similar to last week’s MLB trade deadline, there is a show on NBC Sports as this is being written about the transfers made this summer and what’s happening right up to the deadline.
B) Once again every EPL match will be shown live in the US on the NBC family of channels.
C) And one I find most interesting. There is a tool on the official EPL website for fans to find bars in the US that show the EPL matches. Now how cool is that!
Enough of the backdrop lets get into the actual teams and what to look for this season.
In this group we will look at the teams most consider as having legitimate shots at the EPL title and qualifying for the UCL and UEL. This is where soccer is vastly different from american sports. Here the focus is pretty much singular. Win the league championship for your particular sport. The World Series in baseball and the Super Bowl in football for example. However, soccer, especially in Europe has additional championships outside the domestic leagues that are highly cherished. Those additional targets mean that clubs have to really manager their players work loads depending on where team owners place their priorities. So lets look at the contenders.
Once again City is the favorite for the EPL having won back to back titles. Last year they also became the first team to win the domestic treble (EPL, FA Cup, EFL Cup) in the same season. The best news for City fans is that they have kept their core pretty much in tact. A few players have moved on and they have transferred in several players (Rodri, Angelino, and Jaoa Cancelo) to an already stacked team. When you have a team with familiar names like Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, and Leroy Sane you are pretty loaded. Look for City to be near the top of the table again this year. Three peat?
The Reds are coming off an incredible season. The finished a “disappointing” EPL season finished 2nd. But they finished with the highest point total in history for a team not taking the crown. But they did win the UCL beating Tottenham 2-0. How do things look for the Reds this season? They will again be one of the top teams in the EPL and all of Europe. Not real active in the transfer market but then they didn’t need to. They return all their key players from last season and they have some of the biggest names in the soccer world. And that list starts in the back with Netherlands defender Virgil van Dijk one of if not the best defender in the world. Then they have a midfield with so many good players (Fabinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, James Miller, Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson) that they can’t all even see the field at the same time. Then their attacking line. Who wouldn’t like to have a front trio named Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane!!! They are the team with the best shot to preclude Man City from a three peat.
Tottenham Hotspur FC
The Spurs finished 4th last year again qualifying for the UCL. Speaking of UCL what a season the Spurs had in that league. The made their first ever final and in historic fashion. In their first semi-fianl match they fell miserably to Barcelona down in Spain 3-0 giving them an almost insurmountable deficit. But somehow, someway playing in front of their screaming fans at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium they managed to find the next four times to win on aggregate goals to advance to the final. The Spurs will once again be led by striker Harry Kane, one of the top goal scorers around. They also return most of their core with only Kieran Trippier to Atletico Madrid. The Spurs strength lies up the middle with Hugo Lloris in the net, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in the back, and Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen in the midfield. Then Son Heung-Min up top alongside Kane. They will be a strong team in both the EPL and the UCL this season but don’t look for them in the final.
The big question surrounding the Red Devils this year is just which team will shop up? They had a very up and down campaign last year. Some days they looked flat and like they hardly wanted to play. Then other days, especially once Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over as the manager. If they can find some consistency they could have a good season. They were a fairly active club in the transfer season and look to be building a long term winning approach with younger players. Most noteworthy departure is that of striker Romalu Lukaku who has transferred to AC Milan. Some fans will miss his large frame in front of the opposing net. Others are happy to see him gone as many questioned his weight and work ethic. Biggest newcomer is probably Harry McGuire, the stout defender brought over from Leicester City. McGuire will add some strong play in the back and given that they still have one of the top keepers in the world (David de Gea) teams may find scoring on United a tough task. If Marcus Rashford, Alexis Sanchez, and Anthony Martial can find the net then fans will have plenty to cheer about. But the key is going to be in the midfield and what happens with Paul Pogba. A world class midfileder, when he wants to be but not so much when he is unhappy. Pogba was drawing a lot of interest from Real Madrid but they were, so far, unwilling to meet the huge transfer fee requested by United. If the club can make Pogba happy they could be in for a really good season.
A major name out and a major name in. The problem may be that the name in isn’t quite at the level of the name out, at least not yet. The name out, of course, was Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard who was transferred to Real Madrid. The player in to replace him is a name familiar to most all US soccer fans, Christian Pulisic. Although Pulisic was formally transferred to Chelsea from German club Borussia Dortmund last January, he was immediately loaned back to the German club for the remainder of their season so he didn’t join Chelsea until this summer. Chelsea should find themselves battling for a top four finish and a UCL qualficiation or a UEL spot. They will be led by David Luiz in the back, and Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Pulisic in the midfield. The key for this season is who the Blues find goals from. Not only did Hazard lead the team in goals last season (16) he also lead them in assists (15). That’s a lot of scoring and play making to replace.
The Gunners are the last team to make the contenders group. Preseason odds have them at 30-1 to win the EPL and the next best team after that is way down at 150-1. So chances are that the Gunners will have a good shot to at least qualify for the UEL and perhaps even the UCL. Pretty doubtful they can be a real challenger for the EPL title. Not that they don’t have some talent but there are just to many teams in front of them. But then ask Leicester City fans how they fell about that! Arsenal was a strong scoring club last year and their scoring leader, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang returns again this year as do their second and third leading scorers (Alexandre Lacazette and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. If Bernd Leno continues his heroics in the net (having had an outstanding first season with the club) they may well surprise some people this season.
The Middle of the Pack
As in all sports there is usually a cluster of teams in the middle that likely don’t have quite the players to compete for a “playoff” spot but are strong enough to not be taken lightly and can beat the big clubs on any given day. These teams actually end up being the teams that determine the order of the top teams. All the contenders beat up on the bottom of the table. Its how they fare head to head and against the middle of the pack teams that make the difference over a long season. Last season the difference between 6th place (the contenders) and 7th place (the top of the middle of the pack) was a whopping 14 points. That is just indicative of the quality (and money) difference between the top clubs and the rest.
The Wolves strengths, and most well known players, lie at the ends of the field. In the front they are led by Mexican National Team forward, and team leading goal scorer Raul Jimenez. Jimenez recently led Mexico to the Gold Cup championship and was second in scoring for the tournament. At the back end of the field you’ll find Rui Patricio, the keeper for the Portugal National Team and one of the best in the world. The Wolves should finish near the top of the group middle of the road teams.
Everton is another of the top middle of the road clubs and should finish close to the top of the group but again probably not having enough quality and depth to make it to the contender group. They did bring in several new players this summer with teenager Moise Kean likely to make the most noise. Kean scored 8 goals in 21 matches for Serie A champions Juventus. Of course, he’s likely to get more defensive attention this season as opposing teams won’t have Cristiano Ronaldo to worry about. But they do have Richarlison de Andrade to pair with Kean and that is not a bad duo. And with keeper Jordan Pickford manning goal they could be a team that could sneak into the top 6.
Leicester City FC
Seems like it was eons ago when the Foxes took the sporting world by storm and came from nowhere to win the EPL. The won during the 2015-2016 season when they were preseason favorites to be relegated earning them the nickname the “Unbelievables.” Dont look for the Wolves to make a ton of noise this year but don’t look for them to be in relegation space either. They are a solid club and one of only two teams to finish out of the top 6 last season with a plus goal differential. Lead by Kasper Schmeichel who has 51 clean sheets in 171 appearances they have the defense to win on any given day. And they can score quickly as shown by leading scorer James Vardy who tallied 18 times last season. Don’t sleep on the Foxes.
After being relegated at the completion of the 2015-2016 season, the quickly came back winning the English Championship in 2016-2017 and have been in the middle of the pack the last two EPL seasons. Is this the year they move up the ranks? Doubtful. Like others they do have talent but just not quite good enough or deep enough to make a serious challenge toward a top 6 spot. The good news for the Magpies (seriously who names their team after bird most known for picking up roadkill??) is that they have one of the better defenses among the middle of the pack clubs. They are comprised of a lot of solid players that most fans have never heard of. The simply don’t have any well known players. But sometimes a team is better off the have a group of players who give their all for their teammates than a few superstars that demand all the attention but seem more focused on me than team. They do have at least one player familiar to US fans, in Deandre Yedlin, right back for the USMNT.
West Ham United
West Ham finished right in the middle of the table last year in 10th place. Right about where we should see them this season. They are just about equally spread around between solid defense and offense. They don’t score a ton of goals but don’t give up a ton either. Their scoring stats indicate a pretty well balanced attack with Marko Armautovic, Felipe Anderson, and Chicharito scoring 10, 9, and 7 goals respectively. While Mexican forward Chicharito isn’t the player he once was the 31 year old striker is still very fun to watch. Look for the Hammers to stay comfortably safe.
The Relegation Zone
The danger zone. The area to avoid. Each year the bottom three teams from the EPL are relegated to the English Football League Championship. Beyond the stigma there are signficant financial drawbacks for being relegated. EPL teams each receive a league share of television revenue on the order of $110M. There is a parachute fee for relegated teams on the order of $49M but that leaves relegated teams with a shorfall of just over $60M. And that shortfall is only from the television revenues. They also typically don’t have the game day sales revenue, club specific advertising, and gear sales. That shortfall can be made up a number of ways but typically club expenditures have to go down. So being dropped from the EPL is a very bid deal.
This season it looks like 9 clubs could be working to avoid relegation. And of course there is always the shock season like 2015 Leicester City that turns the sporting world on its ear. Here’s a short look at those 9 clubs. Now before we sound too negative on this group of teams remember that this IS the best soccer league in the world. Even the worst of these teams have talented players and can play with anybody. Do they beat the Man City’s or Borussian Dortmund or Barcelona’s of the world? Not too often. But to give US fans a bit of perspective, the best MLS teams would find themselves at the bottom of the EPL and generally speaking the MLS is about on par with the English Football League Championship.
One of the better teams down in this group of teams, they should be near the top (can you say near the top of the bottom group?) and likely safe. The score more than most of the teams in this group and allow about an average number of goals.
One of the more curios names in the league, going by the Hornets since they dress in yellow and black. Yet their club logo is a hart which is an old English name for a stag or male deer. The Hornets are another team that isn’t likely to present a big threat in the EPL nor are the destined for relegation. They score and allow goals at a similar pace. But fans hope that changes a bit this year with the addition of 21-year old Senegal forward Ismalia Sarr. This kid is big and fast and can play on both wings or striker. He’ll be one to watch this year as he further develops.
Crystal Palace FC
Although they finished last season with a negative goal differential, they did have the best +/- of this group of teams. They have two fine goal scorers in Luka Milivojevic (12, Serbia) and Wilfried Zaha (10, Ivory Coast). Defensively they split time in goal fairly closely between Vicente Guaita and Wayne Hennessy. They may feature Guaita more this season as he had a much better year than Hennessey at least when it came to wins and losses. If newly acquired midfielder James McCarthy can return to his 2017 form and gel with his new teammates. the Eagles could have a better than expected season. McCarthy, who missed most of last year with a broken leg, had helped Everton to a club record 72 points in his first season there (2013-2014).
AFC is a team that scores fairly well, along with most in its peer group. But they let in far too many at the other end of the field. In fact defensively they are one of the bottom three in this group having allowed 70 goals last season. Goalkeeper, Asmir Begovic, lead the team with errors leading to goals with 5. That is just not good enough for an EPL keeper. Hopefully that will improve this year. If not they may find themselves fighting relegation.
Brighton & Hove Albion
They don’t score much but they don’t give up a ton of goals either. Any time a team can play reasonable defense good things can happen. In this case probably not good enough to move up the table much but probably good enough to keep out of trouble. The Seagulls are going to need to find some additional offense. Scoring less than a goal/game last year is not good and if the defense regresses then they could well be in trouble. Perhaps newly acquired forward Neal Maupay who scored 25 goals last season for Brentford in the English Championship.
Aston Villa FC
Newly promoted to the EPL, the Lions averaged over 36,000 fans at home matches last season and look for the number to improve as they moved up to the EPL. The question, of course, being can they do enough to stay. They certainly have the fan support and have added Brazilian forward, Wesley, from Belgian side Club Brugge. Will he have enough around him to keep things interesting?
The key to their survival likely falls on how well keeper Joe Hart fares. The one time keeper for the English National Team still has some serious skills. But he can’t do it alone. They need to score more and allow less. Simple to say not so simple to do. They may be one to watch down toward the relegation zone.
The second team promoted to the EPL for this season. Fans have to like what they hear from manager, Daniel Farke. He says the Canaries will stick to their own beliefs and principals and what made them successful in the Championship. According to Frakey, “they will attack and play to win and the best goal differential we can get.” So no matter who they fare they should be a fun team to watch win or lose (and yes they likely mostly do the later). And if nothing else. as mentioned in the intro, Canary fans get to watch the first ever Cuban player in the EPL.
The third team in the group that has moved up from the Championship. Can they stick around after this year? At 2000-1 odds to win the EPL they are odds on to end up being relegated. Interestingly enough the club did open up the bank this summer, twice setting new club transfer fee records. Probably not enough but at least they are sitting still. They are trying to improve and stick for another season. Time will tell.
So there you have it. A look at the 2019-2020 season for the best soccer league in the world and it all starts tomorrow. But the biggest match of the weekend falls on Sunday as Manchester United hosts Chelsea. The game at Old Trafford will be on NBC Sports at 11:25 EDT and features two giants of the soccer world. Should be a good one!!
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.