Only one of Gerrard and Lampard will end 2021 in Premier League management. If there is a season at all, of course.
10) Crystal Palace and Roy Hodgson to finally part
The longest-serving boss in England’s top four divisions is Harrogate head coach Simon Weaver. The 43-year-old was born in December 1977, making him 18 months younger than Roy Hodgson’s managerial career. Only Sean Dyche, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola are on lengthier unbroken Premier League spells than Crystal Palace’s current safety net.
Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce and Frank de Boer managed 133 Premier League games for Palace between them; Hodgson has ticked over to 139 without anyone noticing, finishing 11th, 12th and 14th, losing 16, 17 and 17 games, conceding 55, 53 and 50 goals and installing a concrete floor as well as a glass ceiling at Selhurst Park in his almost three full seasons. They will go neither up nor down under his tutelage and at some point an actual succession plan has to be put into place and enacted instead of keeping the club in seemingly perennial short-term limbo. The one-year extension he signed in March expires at the end of the campaign, a natural point at which both parties can amicably go their separate ways and thank the other for their service with survival yet again secured.
9) Burnley collapse after Sean Dyche leaves
Those who make the decisions at Selhurst – or St James’ – Park would be foolish not to keep a close eye on developments at Burnley. It emphasises the brilliance of Sean Dyche that avoiding relegation with a seasonal investment of £1m after losing several first-team players for nothing in the most challenging circumstances in Premier League history would rank around third or fourth in a list of his achievements over eight transformational years at Turf Moor.
Questions of style and suitability might prohibit an immediate step up to a member of the established elite but any team outside of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham must have Dyche on a contingent managerial longlist. He has earned an opportunity with more freedom, more reward for over-achievement and more security than the four-year contract he was given in January 2018 and which remains the same despite impressive finishes of 7th, 15th and 10th since. Perhaps only a move abroad would see Dyche given the appreciation he deserves; Burnley will only truly knew what they had when it’s gone and they’re panickedly asking Tony Pulis to unsuccessfully rescue them by next winter.
8) Sam Allardyce to suffer his first Premier League relegation
The ultimate survival safeguard will be available by then, although Sam Allardyce’s USP as the only guarantee of Premier League preservation has an incredibly limited shelf life. The 66-year-old really might have bitten off more than he can furiously chew with West Brom.
His opening three games do not bode particularly well. Aston Villa and Leeds both thrashed the Baggies at The Hawthorns, the hosts managing a single shot on target in each game while conceding eight goals. A draw with Liverpool at Anfield was an undeniable positive but Slaven Bilic managed stalemates against Chelsea and Manchester City between single-goal defeats to both Tottenham and Manchester United. His fingerprints were all over the result against the champions, no matter how much Allardyce wishes to contaminate the evidence at the scene.
“What the players have to realise is, whatever they think they are at this moment is not enough,” was his assessment of the Leeds capitulation. “I said on day one they had to individually work harder. I’m yet to see that. Tonight put a lot of doubt in my mind about their dedication. The players we’re playing against are better than we are and we have to compete against that and the only way you can compete against that is by being able to play as a team together and to be able to maximise our strengths and nullify their weaknesses.” To play the ‘look what I have to work with’ card after 11 days is bold, while also entirely understandable looking at that squad.
Given that Sam Allardyce was 66 and we were in the middle of Covid when he accepted the West Brom job last month it seems disingenuous that he’s asking for a circuit breaker, during which time he can get players to practice drills he wants to introduce for matches @5liveSport ?
— PriceOfFootball (@KieranMaguire) December 30, 2020
7) Manchester City win the Champions League
Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham, Lyon reads more like the unambitious itinerary of Pitbull after having all his international flights suddenly cancelled than it does a list of Manchester City’s Champions League knockout stage conquerors under Pep Guardiola. In four years he has overcome three teams beyond the group stage in Basel, Schalke and Real Madrid: a slightly more progressive journey plan.
Last season felt like it might have been different with a genuinely impressive win at the Bernabeu, but despite beating the Spanish champions at home in the second leg, the compression of the quarter, semi and final into single-legged shootouts over 11 days worked against a City side that finally seemed ready. Borussia Monchengladbach await this time around as 8th faces 8th, with no one team dominating domestically to establish themselves as clear favourites. City have certainly struggled yet the gap to first is seven points with two games in hand, and their defensive improvement should suit knockout football. Two goals conceded in their last ten games is imperious, consistent and able to mask profligacy at the other end providing one chance is taken.
6) Bruno Fernandes to win Manchester United’s first PFA POTY in a decade
Not since they shared four consecutive PFA Player of the Year awards between three players from 2007 to 2010 have Manchester United been able to claim an individual seasonal crown of any actual note. Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney might finally have their natural successor after a barren decade. Bruno Fernandes looks a solid bet in a campaign with no obvious winner.
It might still depend on the destination of the Premier League title but United’s surprisingly sturdy challenge heading into the new year has largely been sustained on the influence of Fernandes. Ten goals and seven assists is a sensational return beaten only by Robert Lewandowski (21 combined) and Harry Kane (19) in Europe’s top five leagues so far this season. Our player of 2020 is showing no signs of slowing down after his first 12 months at Old Trafford.
5) Steven Gerrard to get a Premier League job
It is a happy coincidence that Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool contract just so happens to run to 2024, the same year Steven Gerrard’s Rangers contract expires. The Premier League champions have made no real attempt to conceal their ideal succession plan; “if you ask who should follow me, I’d say Stevie,” the former once said of the latter.
The Souness vibes would be incredibly strong watching a club legend and former captain cut his coaching teeth in Glasgow before inheriting the Anfield throne almost immediately. Gerrard is already older than his natural predecessor was when taking the Liverpool job in incredibly testing circumstances, Souness spending five years in Scotland before becoming the permanent replacement for Kenny Dalglish in April 1991. But there is no such rush for Gerrard, architect of a current 13-game winning league run in the midst of a campaign which has seen Rangers concede 16 goals in 32 games. Only the most cataclysmic of slips would prevent a first Ibrox title since 2011, with a presentable Europa League tie against Antwerp offering the prospect of a genuinely special season.
The problem then is timing the jump to England which, with no disrespect to Scotland, is the inevitable path laid out for Gerrard. Brendan Rodgers has showed the virtues in waiting just long enough for the perfect role and his old leader will be minded to do the same.
That’s 18 points from 6 league games in December (with 2 Europa League wins for good measure).
That’s fantastic from Gerrard & co. Plenty of potential banana skins overcome this month. Puts us in a great position for Saturday.
— West End Bluenose (@WestEndBluenose) December 30, 2020
4) Chelsea will lose patience with Frank Lampard
The cruel twist of fate is that Gerrard and Frank Lampard simply cannot operate alongside one another to the best of their respective abilities. How fortunate then that Chelsea will call time on this project before 2021 comes to a close, giving us the tantalising prospect of a dizzying, whiplash-inducing press conference full of jokes, no buts and pivots to serious points that will allow Football Cliches to triumphantly wander off into the sunset, his work on this planet irrefutably complete.
2020 has brought an FA Cup final, a Champions League knockout tie and one more successfully navigated group, but also a level of investment that naturally raises expectations. Few people would say Lampard is doing an actively bad job but the relevant argument is whether anyone else could do a better one. When Southampton have accrued one less Premier League point throughout the entire year on a fraction of the budget afforded to a relative managerial rookie, it is little more than stubbornness to state that a more qualified coach should not at least be considered for such a privileged position. Lampard has already been shown more patience than many of his antecedents; that might expire as he enters the final 18 months of a contract it would be ludicrous to extend on the basis of his work so far.
3) The reinforced Champions League glass ceiling to be smashed
As the concept of a Big Six is stretched to within an inch of its very definition, it is worth considering how precarious their purported power really is. Project Big Picture betrayed how far the traditional nobility are willing to go to further reinforce an already closed shop, all while a handful of clubs sneak under the shutters to infiltrate them.
Leicester have recent experience in rendering glass ceilings obsolete but they are joined in their efforts by Everton and Aston Villa in 4th and 5th respectively, with even Southampton part of the resistance. Four points separate them in 9th to Manchester United in 2nd as teams that were not invited to the Champions League party are threatening to crash it thanks to supreme long-term planning, elite coaching and an entirely unique season. Their rise has coincided with the struggles of Arsenal, while Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham have been rocked by challenges to their dominance too. At least one team outside of those four, Liverpool and Manchester United will qualify for Europe’s premier competition.
2) England win Euro 2020
A far stronger upper to mid Premier League table has made for a intriguing and deep pool of talent for Gareth Southgate to wade through as Euro 2020/1 beckons. England need not rely solely on players from the current champions or their closest counterparts when Jack Grealish, Harvey Barnes, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, James Ward-Prowse, Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips and others thrive elsewhere.
The only problem is in knitting it all together. England have wrestled with their post-World Cup 2018 identity, still handily dealing with Iceland and Ireland but inviting debate after beating Belgium when second-best and losing to them as perhaps the superior side. As with the Champions League, the lack of an obvious favourite with no discernible flaw opens up the field somewhat. England have more than enough talent to exploit that if Southgate can harness it on home soil.
Increasingly getting to the idea that England should run 3-4-3 with Grealish Kane Sterling this summer. Southgate Sufferball and let the front 3 cook.
— Kieran Doyle (@KierDoyle) December 23, 2020
1) The season ends early
Therein lies one slight problem: the general uncertainty over where, when and whether a major international tournament can really take place in the midst of a crippling global pandemic. Euro 2020 was and, as yet, still is planned to take place across 12 host countries, rescheduled out of absolute necessity to June and July 2021 and with no realistic hope of being the continent-wide celebration once expected. As Premier League games start to succumb to the inevitable, uncomfortable realities must be accepted.
Not by the competition itself, which almost proudly declared that there were “no plans” to discuss even a pause to the season on Wednesday in a move underpinned by naivety, recklessness or both. Considering the amount of debate that was had with regards to last season being voided when almost three-quarters of it had been played, it is stupid to think that argument won’t justifiably resurface over a campaign not even half-done.
Even if moral obligations are ignored, what of the implications when it comes to fair competition? What happens when Manchester City are 15 points behind Liverpool with seven games in hand and no available days to play them all? Or a team battling relegation is forced to either play youth players or forfeit a match after an outbreak? How do people react when a player or coach understandably refuses to work in such conditions? When does the money involved stop taking precedent over everything else?
These are purely hypothetical scenarios but equally entirely possible ones worth consideration.
It might not be that we reach a point where the season must be curtailed completely. But the domino effect of even an unavoidable and temporary suspension would be immense: it knocks onto each domestic league and domestic cup, which impacts every European competition and, inevitably, major tournaments when players from across the world are expected to come together in the same vicinity for a month before heading back to their own countries and clubs. And this is all without taking supporters into account. The protocol could be followed stringently by everyone and one or two incidents could still slip through the net which brings the house of cards crashing down. It’s a bit morbid but also admirably idiotic to disregard.