james debate
james debate

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Created by Mike Flanagan (based on the works of Henry James)
Network Netflix
Starring Victoria Pedretti, Olivier Jackson-Cohen, Amelia Eve, T'Nia Miller
Genre Supernatural
Running Time 45-65 minutes

netflix haunting of hill house bly manor mike flanagan best new show 2020
I had high expectations coming into this. Creator Mike Flanagan is establishing himself as one of the leading names in horror through a growing filmography of spooky hits that include the likes of Oculus, Hush, and Ouija. The first season of his The Haunting anthology series, The Haunting of Hill House, has so far been his crowning achievement: just the right amount of scary with a level of production quality and artistic ambition far beyond its peers - one episode is audaciously filmed as (seemingly) a single camera shot, while another "The Bent-Neck Lady" remains some of the finest horror story telling of the past thirty years. In particular, I was impressed by the subtle attention to detail of the series - the first season famously would do things like change the position and expressions of statues in between camera shots and hide ghostly figures in plain sight without drawing attention to them. Subtle and barely perceptible details that are nevertheless noticeable enough to create a general sense of unease. The Haunting of Hill House earned a runner-up place in the end of year Debbie Awards for best new TV series.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is the second season of this series. Same actors, but completely different characters, setting and source material. Whereas Hill House was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, Bly Manor is based on numerous works of 19th Century author Henry James, most notably 1898's The Turn of the Screw. But while this is ostensibly a continuation of Flanagan's Haunting anthology, viewers would do well to temper their expectations. This is in no way The Haunting of Hill House 2.

Without wanting to spoil too much, the setting is this: a young au pair arrives at the country estate of Bly to look after its two young children who have lost both their parents to tragedy. The manor is populated by a team of full time staff and various other entities, but as the au pair begins to settle in to her new life she finds herself haunted by the pain of a past romance. To be honest I'm not even sure I would classify this as a horror series (I have gone with the genre "supernatural" instead). Sure, there are ghosts, but for the most part the ghosts aren't anything to cause fright. In Bly Manor, ghosts are more like sad memories than malevolent entities. A reminder of lost loves and unspeakable wrongs, rather than Hill House's cruel tricksters. That's not to say that the show lacks for scares or chilling imagery, but these moments are used more sparingly and do not take the primary focus of the series in the way that was the case with Hill House.

Bly Manor is essentially a gothic romance where the true evils reside in the base instincts of man and the unjust machinations of society. The spooks and ghouls, such that they are, are more tragic figures to be pitied than feared, and the main drivers of conflict lie in the weight of personal duty and familial obligations. It all makes for an impressively complex and psychological tale, albeit a slow burning one that never feels fully formed until its final moments.

While this may be a very different type of show, the quality is still generally high. Bly Manor is well made, with gorgeous visual and audio and a slick production (and yes the hidden ghosts return, although to a much lesser extent). The filmmaking in general comes off as a bit less artful and ambitious than its predecessor, which is perhaps not surprising with Flanagan largely stepping back from directorial duties, but this is still a very competently composed series. I will say that the narrative feels a bit weaker than Hill House, perhaps due in part to its slow-burning nature. The story itself is not bad, but the way it unwinds over some ten hours feels less focused, less tight, and a bit more self-indulgent. It almost feels as if they had to stretch it out in order to fill Netflix's ten hour runtime request. Ultimately it does all come together in a satisfying, if emotionally manipulative, ending, but I can't help but feel that they could have been more disciplined in editing and cut out a fair bit of the repetition in getting us there.

I have to commend the creators of this series for being willing to try something so completely different to what worked in the first season. Television is an industry where fans and critics alike like to be able to neatly categorise everything, and from its first season The Haunting was neatly categorised as horror. But as Bly Manor reminds us, that word "haunting" can have many different meanings. If the first season gave us a haunting of nasty thrills and chills, Bly Manor gives us a haunting of a more lingering and tragic nature. It is nevertheless a very bold move to switch up genres to such an extent, one that risks alienating an existing fanbase. But the payoff is that The Haunting is now much more than just a genre pastiche. This is a vehicle capable of exploring any creative niche its creator so chooses. I, for one, am excited to see where he takes us next.

Bly Manor is good, but not as good as Hill House. Viewers coming into this series expecting more of the same will probably be disappointed - this is more Patrick Swayze's Ghost than Wes Craven after all. But those who can come into this with an open mind will find a polished and strangely nostalgic haunting of a different nature.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

At this time last year, with Donald Trump on the verge of impeachment for high crimes, I said that there was little doubt we were witnessing the final days of the Trump Presidency. So it has turned out. The results of the 2020 election are in. It's done. Trump is out. He will lose by a substantial margin in both the popular vote and electoral college, and in doing so become only the fourth President in modern history to lose a bid for re-election. Here's how it happened.

2020 us presidential congress election house senate results roundup 46 trump biden democrat republican single term president
First I would like to clarify, the purpose of this post will be simply to discuss the election results. What happened, what they mean, and what happens next. This is not going to be a review or retrospective of the Trump Presidency as this blog posted back in 2017 for Barack Obama. That will come later. Now it is time just to observe and digest the events of the past week.

Joe Biden has been elected President. While the results in many places have yet to be finalised, it now appears likely that he will end up having won the national popular vote by several million votes as well as the electoral college by a significant margin that includes the "blue wall" that Clinton lost in 2016 and adds formerly deep red states such as Arizona and Georgia. Joe Biden has won more votes than any Presidential candidate in American history and will likely win by the second largest margin since 2000 (the largest being Obama's first victory in 2008).

Meanwhile in the Congressional races Democrats have once again won a majority in the House of Representatives. As I have previously discussed, this is no mean feat considering how historically gerrymandered the House districts are; an anti-democratic practice essentially meaning that Democrats need to win by a wide margin just to scrape a bare majority. This majority looks like it will end up being slightly less than that won in 2018, which itself is no great surprise given that they were up against an incumbent President this time, and still represents a solid majority of the national vote.

As expected, Democrats will also make gains in the Senate, however at the time of writing it remains to be seen whether they will take a majority. With the two races in Georgia entering a runoff election, we will likely not know the answer to this until January.

These results are largely in line with what was expected pre-election. My own prediction at the start of the week had Biden winning 313 electoral votes. It is currently expected that he will win 306, with every state having been called correctly aside from Iowa (6 votes) and Maine's 2nd Congressional District (1 vote). I say this not to brag, but to show how close to pre-election expectations the results have ended up being. The forecasts were, once again, more or less correct.

Despite this, a narrative seems to have formed early on that the pollsters were all wrong. It is fair to say that the margins are narrower than predicted, but the discrepancy appears to have been greatly exaggerated by the unprecedented election day/mail-in vote difference that has been caused by the combination of Covid-19 and the Republican party's own deliberate machinations. 

When all the votes are counted it appears likely that Republicans will have over-performed relative to the polls by about 2-3%. Such a polling error easily accounts for an underperformance in the House of 10 or so seats. Difficult to comment on the Senate with races still outstanding. The potential results range from -3 to +1 as compared to my prediction. If you land somewhere in the middle and say that Democrats underperformed by 1-2 seats in the Senate, that is also very much in line with a 2-3% polling error. It's a modest discrepancy, but hardly unusual and potentially explained by causes other than polling error.

For starters, a 2-3% polling error is well within historical expectations. In most cases it is also well within the pollsters' stated margin of error. To the extent that there may be any actual polling error, there are many plausible explanations for why this may be. If there was momentum in Trump's direction in the closing days of the election then it is entirely normal that his performance would beat the polls by 1-2% (conversely this effect may also be behind Joe Biden's surprise win in Georgia). 

My readers will also recall that I raised in my election preview the possibility of there being an unaccounted for "pandemic factor" in the pre-election polling, ie perhaps Democrats were less inclined to turn out because they were worried about catching the virus, whereas Republicans have been told for months that the virus is not a big deal or even non-existent and so had no such reservations. Alternatively maybe the pandemic presented a response bias where those who were able to work from home had a greater response rate than those who were out in the world. Personally this is what I consider to be the most plausible explanation for any apparent broad polling miss, and could easily explain a 2-3% discrepancy.

That is not to say that there were not some anomalous results that require further analysis. There were clear significant polling errors in Florida (just as there were in 2018) and Wisconsin, as well as the Senate race in Maine that are not explained simply by the broad 2-3% error suggested above. But despite the hype you may have heard, the level of polling error apparent across most results appears to be neither unusually large, nor particularly surprising.

I think the main takeaway for you all is this: despite all the noise, all the drama, the shenanigans and the slow trickle of results, it looks like the election has gone basically as expected. There was no massive shock, no credible claims of malfeasance (though that evidently hasn't stopped them from putting forward a litany of non-credible ones!).  We expected the election night results to be skewed in Trump's favour, but it has been pretty clear since at least Wednesday that this election would end with a Joe Biden victory. Perhaps the most surprising thing from the 2020 election is just how unsurprising the final results appear to be.

These results are not surprising. The outcome has been clear for weeks, if not months. Anyone who says otherwise simply hasn't been paying attention. 

Donald Trump entered this race as the incumbent President. Incumbency advantage is a very real phenomenon in American politics. Americans do not like to admit they were wrong, and to be quite frank a lot of people don't really follow political news that closely and simply vote for the person they know. Under any other circumstance, he should have been heavy favourite to win this election. But Donald Trump entered this election with a historically low approval rating, a pandemic raging out of control, and the ignominy of being the only President in modern history to oversee a net reduction in jobs over the course of his tenure. Those weaknesses have ultimately cost him re-election.

It is worth noting that even before the pandemic began, Trump trailed Joe Biden in the polls. This was not some late game-changing shift, Trump has been historically unpopular throughout his Presidency. A constant cloud of corruption and scandal has left Trump as one of only four President in modern history to have majority disapproval at the end of their first term. So perhaps it should come as little surprise, then, that he will become one of only four Presidents in modern history to lose a bid for re-election.

Really the only thing that has made this election feel even vaguely uncertain has been the unprecedented disparity between election day/mail-in votes and the deliberately drawn out counting process. In truth this has been little more than a mirage that has resulted in an election that feels markedly less decisive than the final results are likely to show. It is important to stress here that this is absolutely by design. Trump and the Republicans spent months telling their voters to vote in-person rather than by mail, then fought tooth and nail in the courts and state legislatures to delay the counting of mail-in votes as much as possible. It's a baffling and cynical strategy. The intention was clearly to have numbers look as favourable as possible on election night, with a view to claiming victory before all the votes were counted. As far as electoral strategies go, this has to be one of the most asinine I can recall. It didn't work, and it's baffling that they really thought that it would.

These sad, silly games aside, the outcome of the election was rarely in doubt. The outcome was obvious to most people as early as Wednesday morning when it became clear that Biden would carry the rust belt. Once the final vote tallies have been counted Joe Biden will lead by decisive margins close to those predicted. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been looking at the numbers, not just in recent weeks and months but years.

A defining feature of this Presidency has been the perpetuation, by the President, of an alternate reality bubble. This is an alternate world where the news outlets are fake, where literally fictional terrorist attacks become real, and where every scandal and negative event is simply a non-existent hoax. It's an alternate reality bubble where 20,000 lies become true. Millions of Republican voters bought into it, because they wanted it to be true, and Republican officials played along, because they like winning elections.

What we are seeing now is that bubble crashing hard against reality. Donald Trump's pretend world was never real. All those bad things that happened under his presidency really happened, and the news media for the most part reported it fairly. I don't want to come off as overly harsh, but there really is no other way to say it. Facts are facts regardless of whether you like them. This is reality, and in 2020 reality bites hard for Republicans.

The election is over now, but the hard work begins. This country needs to be rebuilt, our divisions need to be healed. It is time to call an end to the conspiracy theories, the silly games and hyper extreme "partisanship to the bitter end" that we have seen in recent years. Donald Trump's rhetoric over the last few days has indicated that he is willing to burn down the country rather than accept his defeat. This cannot be tolerated by his supporters. Enough is enough Republicans, it is time to end the nonsense and move forward together.

On a final note I would like to pay great tribute to the election workers throughout the country and from both parties who have largely conducted this election in a smooth and orderly fashion despite unprecedented circumstances and unique pressures being applied from various sources. In recent weeks we have seen disgraceful attempts to influence or suppress the vote, to pressure the electoral process. We've seen armed protestors making personal threats against poll workers and their families, and now we appear to be ending the Trump presidency amid a fog of delusion and conspiracy theories. They have faced deliberate attempts at sabotage from forces both domestic and foreign. Yet, throughout it all America's proudest institutions have held strong and prevailed. It is a great victory for America and a victory for democracy in general.

So there it is. Democrats win the White House, the House of Representatives, and make gains in the Senate. There will be much more to discuss in the coming weeks and months, including a final retrospective on the Trump Presidency, and a preview of the priorities and expectations of the Joe Biden administration. Until then, rest easy, the national nightmare is over. 

Thursday, 29 October 2020

We are now less than one week away from the 2020 Presidential election and so far it has been a pretty uneventful and traditional campaign... nah just kidding, it's been every inch as much of a muck fight as one would have expected. The first term of Donald Trump is coming to a fittingly chaotic conclusion. The question now is whether he will in fact win a second term, or be replaced by the challenger Joe Biden. In this post I will attempt to shed some light on the likely outcome and make a few final predictions.

2020 us presidential congress election house senate trump biden democrat republican
To say that this has been an unusual election would be to put it mildly. Donald Trump is not a usual President and even as an incumbent he has seemed intent upon a "burn everything to the ground" approach to campaigning. He began the year as one of the most divisive and least popular incumbents in modern American history, freshly impeached for high crimes, amid a backdrop of near constant scandal and criminal investigation. This was before the pandemic even started.

What to expect? First let's begin with the fundamentals. An incumbent President usually does win re-election. In the last hundred years, only four out of eighteen Presidents have failed to win re-election on attempting to do so. Incumbency advantage is very real at the Presidential level. The economy is weak at the moment, but fortunately for Trump he seems to have been attributed only minimal blame for this. On top of this, the nature of the electoral college system appears to give Trump something of an advantage, to the point where he was able to win in 2016 despite losing the popular vote by millions of votes. In an ordinary year, you would expect a sitting President in this position to be a comfortable favourite for re-election, perhaps even as much as a 75% favourite. But Donald Trump has been an unusual President at the best of times. He was hugely unpopular even before the pandemic hit, and routinely trailed Biden in the polls. Then the pandemic did hit, Trump (rightly) took massive criticism for his response, and his polls sunk even lower to a point from which they have never really recovered.

Despite all the drama the polls have painted a pretty consistent and unambiguous picture. Biden leads, and pretty comfortably. His current national polling average of around 9-10% would be one of the largest margins of victory in the popular vote in modern history, far greater than Clinton's 3% popular vote victory in 2016 and greater even than Obama's landslide 7% victory in 2008. The state-level polling suggests a slightly closer race, with an implied national margin more in the order of 7-8%, but this is still pretty substantial by historical standards. The polls are pretty clear, Biden is ahead, and in any other election year this would be looking like a foregone conclusion. But from the lack of debates, to the global pandemic, to the attempted kidnappings and literal threats to overrule a democratic vote... this has not been a normal election.

So why isn't this a foregone conclusion despite Biden's commanding lead in the polls? First let's address the elephant in the room, the 2016 election. In 2016 the polls also pointed towards a Trump defeat and yet he won. If the polls were wrong in 2016, couldn't they be wrong again in 2020?

This idea that the polls are wrong or that they can't be trusted is something of a myth, albeit a persistent one. In 2018 the polls were pretty much spot on. Meanwhile the polling error in 2016 was nowhere near as significant as is commonly believed, and should not have come as a surprise given the high level of uncertainty being shown in the polls at the time. Hillary Clinton's final polling average in 2016 had her at a 4% national advantage and she won by 3%, pretty accurate indeed. The error at state-level was a little worse (WI, MI and PA in particular), but can be easily explained by the high level of uncertainty evident in the polls. While Hillary did lead in the state-level polling, she was still only polling in the mid 40s, with undecided voters numbering in double digits. That implies a high degree of uncertainty in the polls that people simply missed or ignored. Even with this uncertainty, the polling error was still mostly within or close to the margin of error. The reality is not so much that the polls were bad, but that people were simply misreading them and far more confident in Hillary's narrow polling leads than they should have been. 

That is the big difference this year. To put it quite simply, the 2020 polls don't look like the 2016 polls. Biden is not polling in the mid 40s, he is polling at or above 50% nationally and in key states. Undecided voters are basically non-existent. Biden's margins are bigger than Hillary's, the polls show far fewer undecideds and thus less uncertainty. For Trump to win at the polls he needs a much bigger polling error than we saw in 2016. 

This is not to say that Donald Trump does not have a chance. Just that the main uncertainty in the race comes not from the polls, as is commonly claimed, but from other factors. The biggest such factor, by far, is Covid-19.

The truth is, no one really knows what an election this year is going to look like. There has not been anything quite like this in recent memory, and we can only guess as to how, if at all, the pandemic will affect voting. We simply don't know whether or how the pandemic will affect turnout on election day, nor if such an impact would materially benefit one side over the other. 

Nor, unfortunately, can we rule out a significant impact from various electoral shenanigans. The Trump regime's attempt to sabotage the postal service has been the subject of much criticism, and he has been completely open about his willingness to challenge the election results in the court if need be. Trump has stated on more than one occasion that it was important to have conservative justices on the Supreme Court to ensure he could swing a close election. Reportedly, there is at least one state government considering legislative manoeuvres to flat out overturn the vote if need be. Then there is good old fashioned voter suppression. This ranges from removing voters from the registers without notifying them, to reducing the number of ballot drop-off boxes in Democratic-leaning districts, to voter intimidation.

Perhaps most troubling, Trump's politicisation of mail-in voting has created a dynamic where the mail-in vote leans heavily democratic and the in-person vote is expected to lean heavily Republican. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the President could hold a lead based on the election day in-person votes and then challenge in the courts to have states stop counting, or dismiss entirely, the mail-in vote. 

That such nightmare scenarios can't be ruled out is a damning indictment of American democracy. But ultimately I doubt that anything of this nature will have enough of an impact to truly swing the election. Many mail-in votes are cast days or weeks before election day and for a lot of states will be counted even before the in-person votes. Nor is it particularly clear that voter suppression efforts will really work, or affect Democrats so disproportionately as to materially change the result (especially if such measures are targeted at in-person voters that, as we have already discussed, are expected to lean Republican). The fact is that every election has these theories and stories of purported efforts to "rig" the election, and they usually amount to very little. Trump is using these inflammatory claims to depress voter turnout, Democrats are using it to fire up their base. Barring something truly unprecedented, I expect the election to be determined by the vote, as always.

That we haven't even mentioned the ongoing foreign election interference (mainly Russia but also allegedly China and Iran) speaks to how completely insane this election already is. That being said, I don't consider this to be a significant cause of uncertainty as to the election result, simply because any impact of these efforts, by their nature, one would expect to already be represented in the polling.

To be clear, none of this is to suggest that Trump does not have an ordinary electoral path to victory. He does, albeit a narrow one in the area of 20% (don't kid yourself, 20% chances can and do happen!). But increasingly it is looking as though his re-election chances depend on a combination of inherent pandemic uncertainty or anti-democratic shenanigans, and that is not a good position in which to be.

So this is the state of the race in a nutshell. Joe Biden leads and, barring something truly unprecedented, appears likely to win. But this is a year of unprecedenteds. Despite what anyone tells you, there remains enough uncertainty that no prediction can be called truly sound.

But to hell with that, we're going to predict anyway. Now let's give you the summary verdict that you came here for: The Ephemeric predicts Joe Biden to win the Presidency and the Democrats to hold the House of Representatives and retake the Senate.

Presidential Election Verdict: Joe Biden Elected President

election 2020 presidential race map republican democrat trump biden electoral map forecast Predicted Electoral Map: Joe Biden (D) - 313, Donald Trump (R) - 225.

The above map is based on data from a variety of aggregators, including Pollster, Fivethirtyeight, and analysts including Sabato and Cook Political, and shows the expected electoral map. The rest is pretty self explanatory: dark blue represents safe Democrat wins, light blue leans Democrat, grey is toss up. Meanwhile on the other side, light red to dark red represents lean to likely Republican.

First thing's first. This is an unambiguously bad map for Donald Trump. He could win all of the toss up states above and still lose the election. He could win all the toss up states plus any one of the Democratic-leaning states and still lose the election. Those states won't even be enough and currently he trails in the polling average for all of them except Ohio. That sums up how difficult a position he is in heading into this final week.

A closer look at the polls shows Trump facing difficulties across the board. The suburban shift towards the Democrats that handed the party a blue wave in 2018 has continued through 2020. Women, a demographic that already leaned Democratic, have shifted even further to the left, including white women, a demographic that actually tilted towards Trump in 2016. Incredibly, Biden leads Trump among seniors, a demographic that almost always votes Republican (turns out seniors care a lot about Covid-19). The only demographic that bears any good news for Trump is among minorities, with whom he still does poorly but better relative to 2016.

You can see the impact of these trends on the map above, where Biden currently holds substantive leads in the key rust belt states and has even made in-roads into traditionally red states like Arizona (where Trump's animosity towards McCain has surely hurt the incumbent), Texas, and Georgia.

Looking at the toss up states, Trump could conceivably lose all of them but I don't think he will. His lead in Ohio has been small, but consistent, and the district level data looks promising for him. I also think he will win Florida. Biden has led in Florida for basically the entire year, but the state has a pretty clear track record of overestimating Democrats' in the polls, even in the 2018 midterms which were otherwise a blow-out for Democrats. Similarly while Biden has led consistently in North Carolina (another state that tends to overestimate Democrats), that lead does appear to be narrowing and I expect that this (admittedly minor) momentum could take Trump over the finish line there.

The opposite appears to be true of Georgia. Trump has led this state narrowly for most of the election cycle, but recent polls indicate a late surge for Biden. This is a state without a history of overrating Democrats that came extraordinarily close to going blue in both 2016 and 2018. If this momentum holds then there is a good chance that 2020 could be the year for Democrats in Georgia. The X-factor in this state, sadly, is corruption. In 2018, Georgia was widely criticised for voter suppression tactics, its lack of transparency, and suspiciously destroyed voting records in the wake of a razor thin vote. It could be enough to swing an otherwise close election.

But while these may be the closest and most interesting states at the moment, they are not the most important. Biden doesn't need to win any of these states. If he does, then it is almost certainly game over for Trump, but Biden could lose them all and still quite handily win the election.

No the key states, as in 2016, will be the rust belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and in particular, Pennsylvania. These are the must-win states that will determine who wins the election. If Biden wins them, he will almost certainly be President. If Trump wins them, he will almost certainly be President. The problem for Trump is that right now all of them show pretty decent Biden leads.

Of these, Wisconsin in particular looks rough for Trump. As one of the nation's worst-hit Covid states, Wisconsin was always going to be in an anti-incumbent (and anti-Trump in particular) mood. But the real damage was done in Kenosha over the summer where Trump was widely criticised for his handling of peaceful protests, which ultimately resulted in several dead at the hands of armed right wing militia. Wisconsin is a state that had been shifting right for several years now and not too long ago appeared to be Trump's most favourable in the region, but at this point it looks a safe bet to be carried by Biden.

Michigan is another state that Trump just about edged in 2016, but in which he has been polling poorly throughout this cycle. The most left-leaning of these three states, run by a popular Democratic Governor with whom Trump has inadvisedly insisted on waging a war of words, to the point where he almost appeared to have called for an armed rebellion, an accusation that can't have been helped by the recently foiled attempt by right wing militia (see the pattern here?) to kidnap the Governor.

But let's not mince words, Pennsylvania is the state. If you watch one state this election, it's this one. With 20 electoral votes, Pennsylvania is one of the most electorally valuable in the country. Trump has basically no plausible path to victory that doesn't involve winning this state. Conversely while Biden does have a plausible path to victory without it (by way of Arizona), he arguably becomes the underdog if Trump carries the state (also taking into account that if Trump overperforms in PA, he likely also overperforms in other demographically similar states). There is simply no state that is as important to this election as PA and there is a very good chance that this will be the single most determinative state.

To be quite frank, Pennsylvania also has a Republican controlled legislature and bizarre electoral laws that block the counting of any early or mail-in votes until after election night. So if there is any state where Trump could conceivably pull some shenanigans to block or overrule the popular vote, it's this one. To be clear, I still think this is incredibly unlikely to happen (or to work if it does happen), but tragically in today's America it can't be ruled out as a possibility.

Fortunately for Trump, Biden's lead in Pennsylvania has also been narrower than his lead in Michigan and Wisconsin. Despite being a sort of second home state for his opponent, Trump has managed to avoid making the sort of catastrophic blunder here that may have well have put WI and MI beyond his reach. To be clear: Joe Biden does lead the polls in this state and has done so consistently, but the race is close enough that it would only take a larger than normal polling error to put it into play, and the entire election along with it.

But just as this race could plausibly move in Trump's favour relative to the polls, it could equally do so in the opposite direction. Incredibly, Trump appears to be holding leads in deep red states like Montana, Kansas and (above all) Texas that are at least as narrow, if not more so, as the key rust belt states he needs to take from Biden. So yes, this is still a map where Trump could conceivably win, but it's also a map where Joe Biden could run the board and produce a truly historic landslide.

Whichever way you look at it, this is a bad map for Trump. Trump really has only the one plausible path to victory through Pennsylvania, but Biden has several potential options. More importantly, Biden leads in all the key states and either leads or is close enough in enough non-key states that you would expect him to pick up a few of those as well. That the closest battleground states appear to be the likes of Georgia, Iowa and Texas, rather than Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania is a very, very bad sign for Trump. He is playing defence at a time when he is already behind, and time is running out for him to turn it around.

House of Representatives Verdict: Democratic Majority

2020 us congress election house senate gerrymandering rigged illegalCurrent House Map: Democrats - 232, Republicans - 197.
Predicted House MapDemocrats - 240, Republicans - 195.
Approximate Net Change: Democrats gain 8-12 seats.

This is going to be the shortest part of this article. Very few analysts consider the Republicans to have any chance at all of taking back the majority in the House, and I concur.

In 2018, Democrats rode a blue wave to a House majority with a historic 8-9% national margin. This result was achieved despite the fact that midterm elections are typically less favourable for Democrats and despite the fact that House is gerrymandered to the point where Democrats need a strong majority of the vote just to break even (see my 2018 post for a reminder of what "gerrymandering" means and why it is an antidemocratic stain on the country). In 2020, the national environment appears to be at least as favourable as 2018 (or at most 1% or so worse), plus the addition of the inherent benefits that the Democratic party typically sees in higher-turnout Presidential years. It is also material that progress has been made in numerous states to end the practice of gerrymandering. 

All these factors suggest that Democrats should not only hold onto their majority, but are even poised to expand it further, even with all else remaining equal. My expectation is for a modest gain in the region of ten seats. No fewer than five, but no more than fifteen.

Senate Verdict: Democratic Majority

election 2020 biden trump senate map forecast
Current Senate Map: Democrats - 47, Republicans - 53.
Predicted House MapDemocrats- 51, Republicans - 49.
Approximate Net Change: Democrats gain 4 seats.
Key states to watch: AZ, ME, CO, NC, IA, GA, KS, MT

If there has been one silver lining for the Republican party these last two years, it is that they managed to retain control of the Senate against the blue wave of 2018. This was not a surprise, even with a national situation that was highly favourable to Democrats that year. The Senate map in 2018 was one of the most lopsided in recent memory, very favourable to Republicans with Democrats defending several seats in deep red states. The 2020 map, in fairness, is also a decent Senate map for Republicans, though not nearly so much as in 2018. The combination of a more favourable Senate map plus strong national conditions make Democrats a slight favourite to win a majority of the Senate.

There are 35 Senate races this year. Democrats need to pick up a net of four for a majority, or three if they also win the Presidency (with the Vice President casting the tie-breaking vote). It just so happens that there are three clear pick up opportunities where I would consider the Democrats to be favourites to win: Arizona, Colorado, Maine.

First Colorado. This is, for me, a non-race. Colorado has been a solid blue state for the last few elections and it looks especially so in 2020. The Democratic candidate is John Hickenlooper, a huge name in Colorado and a popular former Governor. I'm not going to beat around the bush here, I don't see any shot for Cory Gardner. Given the national mood and where the state is at in 2020, Democrats should pick this one up comfortably and I really can't see any other outcome.

Arizona is a pretty interesting one. Historically a fairly deep red state, Arizona has been low-key shifting towards the Democrats over a few electoral cycles. 2018 proved to be the breaking point, with Democrats very narrowly winning a Senate race, the first statewide race the party has won in many years. But 2020 has been a completely different beast, with Democrats leading consistently and comfortably in both the Senate and Presidential races for basically the entire cycle. The Republican party's self destruction in this race has been baffling to watch, appointing the losing candidate of 2018 Martha McSally to this seat (and thus to become the presumptive party nominee). Losing candidates rarely do any better the second time around, especially when they've been holding the seat by appointment without having won it in the first place. She is an awful choice for a candidate and she has run an awful race. By contrast, her opponent is Mark Kelly, former astronaut and national hero without a political bone in his body, whose wife is a beloved former Congresswoman and mass-shooting victim. It seems incredible to say, Arizona is not a race in which the Democrats expected to be competing, but they're winning this race and at the moment they are doing so quite comfortably.

Then there's Maine. The Republican incumbent Susan Collins has been in big trouble since her vote for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. I don't think there's anyone in the world who would envy the tightrope she has had to walk as a Republican in a solidly blue state, but even under challenging political conditions she has done an exceedingly poor job of it. From her much derided, fawning speech announcing support for Kavanaugh, to her flip flops, she has (whether fairly or unfairly) become a poster-child for spineless sycophancy in politics, and it looks like her luck may have finally run out.

So that's three pick ups. But Democrats are almost certain to lose a seat in Alabama, where incumbent Doug Jones only eked out his unlikely victory by merit of being up against an accused pedophile (and even that was narrow). So they need at least one more, preferably two. But beyond these three, the map starts to look tougher for Democrats. 

Cal Cunningham had been looking a tidy favourite to win in North Carolina, but recent polls have shown that race (and the state as a whole) narrowing in recent days in tandem with a minor sexting scandal that Cunningham has faced. He still leads in this race, but it's tight, and with the momentum arguably against him I don't think Democrats can rely on this race.

Elsewhere, Democrats appear to have taken something of a surprise polling lead in Iowa and trail narrowly in a Kansas race that has proven divisive on the Republican side. Montana, of all places, appears to be a pure toss up, with popular former governor Steve Bullock running neck and neck with the Republican incumbent. Then there's Georgia, a state that is not only crucial in the Presidential race, but also features two Senate races and polling that appears to be trending in the Democrats' favour in recent days. Both races in that state appear to be tied at the moment, with Democrats either slightly ahead or slightly behind depending on which poll you look at. The Georgia races represent good pick up opportunities, but it should be noted that due to Georgia's run-off system, if no candidate gets 50% of the vote on election day, the top two candidates head into a run-off at a later date, by which point the political environment may not be as favourable for Democrats.

These are the key races, but there are a few more that are still worth watching. First up is Michigan, one of the few states that Democrats are defending and a potential GOP target if they have a good election night. Currently, as in the Presidential race, Democrats look to have a consistent if modest polling lead, but it's worth watching. Keep an eye also on South Carolina, of all places, where Jamie Harrison has staged an unlikely, record breaking insurrection against prominent Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

So there's a good six or so close races here, with Democrats only really needing to pick up one or two. All else being equal with such a number of close races, historically you would expect them to prevail in at least a few of them. Democrats will feel good about picking up the additional two seats they need.

So there it is. By no means a foregone conclusion, but the polling right now strongly suggests an election night that results in a Democratic trifecta, perhaps as much as a 7 in 10 likelihood. The unique conditions of 2020 and unprecedented threats being made against the democratic process are certainly setting a national mood of uncertainty. But for all the drama and theatricality, more often that not these things end up going more or less as expected. I understand the doubt, but ultimately expect the polls to be proven correct. 

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Developed by Paradox Development Studio
Published by Paradox Interactive
Genre Grand Strategy
Platform PC, Mac OS

crusader Kings 3 III 2 paradox europa universalis 2020 mac pc game

So I finally conquered Europe. It took more than a century of carefully planned marriages, more than a few strategic assassinations, and a faustian bargain with an old mystic, who in hindsight may just have been a crazy person. Either way, it's done. Now I just need to keep my greedy siblings from ganging up to overthrow me and find a way to defang that one powerful vassal of mine who's always an asshole just for the hell of it. Plus my beloved horse died after some dozen years and it's sending me into a mini-mental breakdown. 

This is the world of Crusader Kings III, the latest in a series of strategy games quite unlike anything else you will have played. The specific genre is grand strategy and what sets it apart from other strategy series like Total War or Civilization is its focus on people rather than factions or states. You don't play as, for example, England or France, but the king of those countries. If you fancy it, you can play as a lowly count or duke in charge of a more local province instead.

The significance of this focus is twofold. One: the political mechanics of this game are far more robust than what you would normally see in a strategy game. Rather than a single united entity, each country is a melange of different leaders, nobles and other assorted characters, each of whom has their own talents, interests, and ambitions. Two: by playing a specific character, your focus is less on painting the map and more on developing your character's skills, reputation and dynasty (characters marry, have children, and create huge branching dynasties - spreading your dynasty to seats of power across Europe can be as rewarding as actual conquest). In that respect, the Crusader Kings series is as much of an RPG as a strategy game and the newest iteration of the series leans heavily into that aspect.

Many of Crusader Kings III's features are a matter of evolution more than revolution from its predecessor. This ensures that the game feels immediately familiar to long time fans of the series. At the same time it is clear that a great deal of effort has gone into streamlining and simplifying at least the interface, if not the actual mechanics. In particular, the addition of an actual in-game tutorial helps introduce newcomers to the myriad of basic features that can otherwise seem daunting. It's not perfect; I can recall a few occasions where I (an experienced player of the series) struggled to find how to execute important functions because they were inexplicably and illogically placed in the interface, or mapped to unclear and easily missable random buttons. No doubt this will improve further as the game is patched. 

The result of these efforts is that this is easily the most accessible game developer Paradox Interactive have yet put out and should be both familiar for longterm fans and easy for newcomers to pick up. Once you've played a bit more, however, it becomes clear that Paradox have actually added quite a lot of additional depth that reveals itself over time. 

Many of these new features are ideas taken from the previous game's expansion packs that have now been rolled into the base game, notably alliances, religion customisation, ruler "focuses", and the more complex interpersonal relationships brought in by later expansions. CK3 adds to the formula with a number of bold additions of its own, particularly with respect to the RPG-like features of gameplay, which now includes full blooded skill trees to further develop and fine tune your leaders/dynasty. However the most significant (and brilliant) new feature has to be the stress system. 

In previous games, ruler personality traits were little more than a skill point modifier. Players still ultimately had total agency in the game, meaning that a leader with cruel or arrogant personality traits could still just go ahead and act in kind, humble ways if the player so chose. The stress system fixes this apparent incongruity, with leaders now generating stress any time they act in such a way that is contrary to their personality. Accumulate enough stress and your character can have a psychotic break, with bad things happening as a result.

There have also been substantial improvements in presentation. Previously characters in this game were depicted in static portraits that would only change at certain age points (birth, 16, 30, 50), leading to numerous memes of cute children suddenly metamorphosing into fat, hairy men in a single day. In CK3, portraits are animated and dynamic, constantly changing and reflecting not just age but weight, health and other traits. In-game events are also depicted through more than just text and an image, with the scene fully depicted using the animated portraits and various backdrops. These might seem like minor, superficial changes, but cumulatively they really do make a big difference to immersion, whether its actually seeing the scars and bruises of my warrior-knight, the silver radiance of my albino warlord, or simply seeing the characters actually in a bar or royal hall when the story calls for it.

My criticisms mainly relate, perhaps unfairly, to features from the game's heavily expanded predecessor that have not been implemented here. Most notable is the lack of the ruler designer that allowed players to create their own characters and dynasties rather than use one of the pre-existing ones in the game. This had become such an essential part of the Crusader Kings experience that I was honestly surprised to recall that it had not always been a base feature of the game, and I was additionally surprised not to see it rolled into the base game for this sequel. There is also currently a general lack of flavour for characters in settings other than the classic European Catholic leader, which becomes more apparent if you try playing as someone in Africa, the Middle East or Asia. These are all things that will undoubtedly be fleshed out further in future expansions, but for the time being it results in a game that is undeniably lighter in depth than its predecessor.

In fairness, it is always difficult making a sequel to a game like Crusader Kings II that has been so heavily expanded over the years. No matter how much work you put into the sequel, there is no way it will have as much content as its predecessor with ten years' worth of expansions and patches. This dilemma is what leads to the much derided "Sims" model of development, where each iteration strips back to the same barebones base game, and then sells players the same handful of expansions over and over again. Crusader Kings III definitely has this issue and it can be jarring right now to switch from the old game to the sequel and realise just how many of the predecessor's features come from expansion packs, but at the same time it is clear that Paradox have made a concerted effort to include many of the expansion features of CK2 into the base game here and they should be applauded for that. 

The Crusader Kings series has always been, at its core, a story generator. In this newest iteration, Paradox Interactive have created one of the greatest story generators in gaming. The story events are richer and more vividly presented, while the sense of place and character generated by the game's clever mechanics mark a substantial evolution from what has come before. While there are plenty of features still to be fleshed out, the base game here is arguably the most impressive they have yet put out in terms of features, and welcoming both to experienced players of the series and newcomers alike.

Friday, 9 October 2020

America is (quite literally) burning. The nation has never been more divided, weaker and less influential. Its officials self-deal and abuse the vital services of government for their own personal enrichment. For a hundred years it has not been so wracked by economic crisis and never in its history been brought to its knees by so rampant and ill-handled a health crisis. The people take to the streets for justice while unshackled armed vigilantes sow murder and carnage. Enough is enough, the chaos must end.

2020 election trump biden endorse democrat republican florida ohio pennsylvania coronavirus covid

I have been thinking a lot lately about the novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a key theme of which is the extent to which people adapt to and normalise even the most horrific of circumstances. The constant threat of nuclear war in the 1960s, the threat of terrorism throughout the early 2000s, even something as fundamental as the inevitability of death, all things that from another perspective might seem horrifying and unacceptable, and yet we accept as simply an ordinary part of life. 

I was thinking about this the other day while watching A Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Instead of the usual grand auditorium, there was Colbert filming his show from an office with a cheap handicam, chatting with his wife off-camera and interviewing his guests via intermittent Zoom connection. What struck me as odd (aside from the obvious) was how no one was mentioning just how unusual this arrangement was, it has simply become a normal way of doing a late night talk show. Four years seems like a long time ago. It is easy to forget that things were not always this way. That the America of 2016 was a stable and functioning nation seems almost unthinkable. 

Economic crisis, hundreds of thousands dead from an uncontrolled pandemic, a never ending circus of scandal and corruption, and civil unrest tearing the country apart. This is the "normal" in Donald Trump's America. Let's be clear, Donald Trump absolutely deserves criticism for all of this. 

In 2017 Donald Trump entered took the reigns of a healthy country with a robust pandemic response infrastructure, one that had successfully kept the ebola outbreak of 2014 at bay. He gutted that infrastructure and the result is a nation in chaos with millions of known cases and hundreds of thousands dead. He inherited a booming economy and record low unemployment rate, now we have an economic crisis and unemployment that hit double digits (and yes, there were economic problems even before the pandemic: record inequality, high regional unemployment, market instability). 
In 2016, America was a stable, prosperous nation and a world leader.  Now it is a pariah state, isolated and quarantined from the civilised world, beset internally by flames and carnage. 

When it comes to the man himself, so much has already been written that really what more is there to add? I could talk about Trump's moral failings, his racism and sexism, his rampant dishonesty, his petulance and ill temperament for the job. I could talk about his scandals, the abuse of power for which he was impeached, the obstruction of justice described in the Mueller Report, the well-documented campaign finance violations with respect to Stormy Daniels, and the alleged tax improprieties for which he is currently under Federal investigation. 

I could write a whole piece on all of these points and still only be scratching the surface and frankly what would be the point? Everyone already knows all of these things, they've been discussed to death over the past four years. By this point everyone in America has already heard these things and either decided that this behaviour is abhorrent or totally fine and will vote accordingly. I won't waste any time rehashing these things. Instead I will simply focus on one key point: the most abhorrent legacy of Trump is his corruption of America's institutions. 

Over the last four years this country has transformed into one where every facet of Government exists solely to benefit the ruling party (and in particular its leader). An FBI Director forced to make a loyalty pledge, an Attorney General chosen to act as the President's personal fixer, IRS directors whose sole purpose is to protect the President from investigation, a President who insists that criminal charges should not be filed against members of his party, NASA directors who conjure up phony and impossible moon missions timed conveniently for immediately after the election, a postal service whose directive appears to be to disenfranchise voters. 

Every part of Government, even those which historically have been completely apolitical, has been corrupted for the sole purpose of serving the personal interests of the President. Gradually America is being transformed from a nation of law and democracy into a sham mafia state that more closely resembles the petty autocracies of nations like Belarus and Russia. Such things have no place in America.

Let's be blunt. There is no good reason to vote for Donald Trump. There are a million reasons to vote for anyone who runs against him regardless of who they are. But equally as important as why Donald Trump needs to be removed from office is why Joe Biden is the best man to guide us out of this mess.

What America needs right now is a calm head. Someone who will do what is right even if it doesn't directly benefit them. No election is going to magically make the pandemic or other crises vanish, but at the very least the country needs a leader who won't exacerbate our problems further with their ego and desire for attention.

That Biden is an experienced set of hands goes without saying. The man has spent years in the highest halls of power. He knows Government and he already knows the key players and world leaders personally. He is ready to hit the ground running on day one and pick up from where the country left off four years ago. But it's not just experience, it's good experience. As Vice President, Biden was part of an administration that shepherded the country out of our last national crisis into an era of record prosperity. He was part of an administration that established one of the most robust public health and pandemic response systems in history, which successfully held both swine flu and ebola at bay, and most likely would have significantly mitigated the tragedy of Covid-19. Joe Biden is a known quantity, and one whose track record shows that he perhaps more than anyone else is capable of handling the problems that currently wrack the country.

But most importantly, Joe Biden is a good person. An authentic everyman in a world of political cynicism, for decades he has been a tireless fighter for working families. His commitment to bipartisanship and unity may seem naive in today's America, but it is a view that he is right to advocate. He represents the lost ideals of America, the ideals that we want the world to see in our country once again. 

Four years does seem like a long time ago. That the America of 2016 was a stable and functioning nation truly seems unthinkable. But it was, and it can be again if we do the right thing. This isn't a difficult decision guys. This administration has been a failure of historic proportions. Vote this laughing stock out of office so that America can rebuild and get back on track.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

It's weird. Football is back, but it doesn't really feel like it. The confetti has only just been cleared out of Wembley, Mason Mount has only had time to grow the whispiest of stubbles, and Liverpool fans are still nursing the hangover of champions. We are so used to the usual summer break, replete with its longwinded transfer sagas and flashy new kit reveals, that it hardly feels as though a new season is upon us without it. What should be a giddy thrill instead just feels like the next match of the season. But this is a new year of Premier League football and we are here for it. So let's pretend like everything is normal and dive right in.

premier league 2020/21 preview
For anyone wondering why I still use the old school Premier League logo, know this: I'm an old school kind of guy.

Premier League 2020/21 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Liverpool
Champions League qualifiers: Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea
Relegated: Crystal Palace, West Brom, Fulham
Golden Boot winner: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal)
Golden Glove winner: Alisson (Liverpool)
Player to watch: Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United)
New signing to watch: Timo Werner (Chelsea)
Young player to watch: Reece James (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: David Moyes (West Ham)
Shock of the season: Arsenal to mount a serious challenge for top four

Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 8th
Manager: Mikel Arteta

It has been a rough few years for Arsenal. A series of managerial changes and midtable finishes has left the club looking adrift, without any clear direction. Last season's 8th place finish would have marked a new low for the club if not for a somewhat controversial cup win that was mired in scandal and questionable officiating.

Indeed Arsenal would be foolish to let this undeserved victory afford any delusions about where they currently are as a team. The squad is still sorely lacking in the depth that many of their rivals enjoy. The defence is still leaky. The dressing room is still beset with bad influences. Yet there are signs that Arsenal may be turning a corner under Mikel Arteta.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a force of nature, while the likes of Granit Xhaka and Lacazette seem to have a new lease on life. The addition of Willian will prove to be an exceptionally shrewd transfer along with Gabriel Magalhaes. The duo being signed for a combined fee of only £25 million is a true bargain, a sharp contrast to recent seasons' expensive flops.

For the first time in a long time, Arsenal fans can feel rightly bullish about their chances. Will it be enough to get them back into the top four? The competition is tough, but I think they genuinely have a great chance. 

Key Signing: Willian
Key Man: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Verdict: Top five at a minimum.

Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,095
Last season: 17th
Manager: Dean Smith

Last season saw Villa's long awaited return to the big league. They did well to survive the difficult transition amid a backdrop of ambition and uncertainty. Now can they take the next step and firmly establish themselves as a Premier League club once again?

A lot depends on whether Villa can keep ahold of their star players. The media typically fixates on Jack Grealish and his bag of tricks, but equally vital to last year's exploits was Douglas Luiz as the engine that kept the team's midfield in shape. Along with John McGinn and Tyrone Mings, this spine of players will be the key to building on last season's accomplishments.

If this team had one glaring fault last season it was up front. It is telling that last season's top scorer was midfielder Jack Grealish rather than one of the team's strikers. Indeed, no striker exceeded six goals last season (Grealish for his part netted eight). Step up Ollie Watkins, the big money signing up front who won the golden boot in last season's Championship. A lot of weight has just been placed on his shoulders, but so far the signs are promising.

Key Signing: Ollie Watkins
Key Man: Douglas Luiz
Verdict: Likely to be in the relegation battle for a while, but should have enough about them to survive.

Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 30,750
Last season: 15th
Manager: Graham Potter

Two years ago owner Tony Bloom pledged to turn Brighton into a top half side. He backed up those words with an ambitious transfer policy that saw no fewer than twelve players join last season, albeit on a shoestring budget, including some key investments in Leandro Trossard and Adam Webster that may well have saved his club from relegation. He's not resting on his laurels either, with a further thirteen players signed this summer. This is a club that intends to go places.

But this is more than just a campaign of brute force strategy. Mananger Graham Potter has his side playing good football, responsible at the back and ambitious going forward. Lewis Dunk was superb at the heart of last season's team and backed ably by Mat Ryan in goal. Neil Maupay shows promise up front, while the club is fortunate to have strong midfielders in Leandro Trossard and the newly signed Adam Lallana to play off of him.

It is also pleasing to see such a focus on young talent, with Potter promoting the likes of Alzate and Connolly from the academy, while youngster Ben White returns from a fantastic loan spell with Leeds. Then there is Tariq Lamptey, the bargain signing from Chelsea's academy who has been a revelation since joining the Seagulls. That the U23s finished strongly again last season suggests that there may be more talent incoming.

So can Brighton push on? I still expect the club to be as close to relegation as to a top half finish, but any improvement above 13th would mark a best ever finish for the club.

Key Signing: Adam Lallana
Key Man: Tariq Lamptey
Verdict: Should avoid the relegation struggle, but a push into the top half may be tricky.

Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,944
Last season: 10th
Manager: Sean Dyche

Now firmly established in the Premier League, no one can deny the remarkable job that manager Sean Dyche has done at Burnley. Still, having seen the club finish in the top ten for the third time in two seasons, one has to ask if Dyche has reached the ceiling of what he can achieve with this club.

Rumours abound that Dyche could depart, particularly if stories of the manager's financial frustrations prove accurate. With the club unwilling or unable to invest, keeping him on board will prove crucial.

A lack of signings means that Dyche will have to make do with what's available to him. Fortunately that includes one of the league's best performing goalkeepers last season in Nick Pope, and a solid lineup of defenders in Ben Mee and James Tarkowski. Chelsea academy product Jack Cork remains an ever present rock in the midfield alongside Ashley Westwood, and while Ashley Barnes remains a potent force his advancing years mean the club increasingly relies on Dwight McNeil for its attacking threat.

Key Signing: None
Key Man: Nick Pope
Verdict: Can't be ruled out of relegation, but should have the consistency for a solid finish.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 4th
Manager: Frank Lampard

I find myself bemused, as I often am at this time of year, with the media view on Chelsea. Chelsea have spent big this summer, to the tune of £200 million, on flashy new attacking footballers. The media have jumped on the hype train accordingly, declaring Chelsea as new title contenders, as one would do with such an expenditure. The problem is that money alone doesn't win titles, you can't block a goal with literal stacks of cash. You need to buy players that help you win games.

Anyone who watched Chelsea last season will know that the attack was not their weakness. Academy products Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount had breakthrough seasons in blue, while Christian Pulisic was a revelation in his first season in English football. This Chelsea side was entertaining and knew how to score goals. The problem was in defence. You can spend however many hundreds of millions on new strikers and wingers, but that won't fix a dodgy defence or a subpar goalkeeper. At the time of writing Chelsea have done little to fix these fatal flaws and so still need to be considered a long way off from a title challenge.

Chelsea's young academy-produced defenders Fikayo Tomori, Reece James and Andreas Christensen show great promise, but are still very raw and need an experienced hand to organise and drill them. The ostensible solution to this problem, Thiago Silva, was a fine player at PSG, but at 35 his ability to adapt to the pace of the Premier League is in doubt. Meanwhile what was by far Chelsea's biggest problem, the goalkeeper, remains completely unaddressed.

That is not to say that Chelsea have not done good business this summer. Timo Werner is the real deal and could set this league alight. Ben Chilwell, while not the solution to their defensive woes, is a clear improvement at left back. Hakim Ziyech's creativity should more than make up for the departure of Willian. Bigger questions remain over Chelsea's record signing Kai Havertz, a player who's inflated fee and meagre accomplishments to date just screams of over-hype.

Frank Lampard did a remarkable job getting a youthful and threadbare Chelsea side into the top four last season. But expensive vanity signings notwithstanding, Chelsea have done little to address their problems at the back, and will struggle to improve upon those successes.

Key Signing: Timo Werner
Key Man: Mason Mount
Verdict: Will compete for top four again, but not as far improved as the hype would have you believe.

Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,486
Last season: 14th
Manager: Roy Hodgson

Stability has been tricky to come by for Crystal Palace in recent times, through a slew of managerial changes and squad upheaval. This season could be Hodgson's toughest yet at the club, as he struggles to manage an ageing squad that is increasingly dependent on one player.

Whether Wilfried Zaha stays or goes could well be the difference between survival and relegation, such is the influence of the lad. Zaha is consistently rated as one of the best non-top six players in the league, and a move to a bigger club seems inevitable every time the transfer window opens. But even Zaha's talents are not enough to solve the team's problems up front.

This is a side that struggles with goals, and last season became only the first side to avoid relegation having never scored more than two goals in a single match. Last season's start signing Jordan Ayew has gone some way toward solving the problem, but more attacking threat is needed. Palace may find what they are looking for in Eberechi Eze, the new £16 million signing from QPR, but otherwise the summer's transfer activity looks like slim pickings for a side that often flatters to deceive.

If the trio of Zaha, Ayew and Eze can pick the Premier League lock, then Crystal Palace will be safe and stake a comfortable midtable position. If not, they could well see themselves sucked down into the relegation tussle.

Key Signing: Eberechi Eze
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha
Verdict: A genuine relegation risk if they are not careful.

Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 12th
Manager: Carlo Ancelotti

So established are Everton as the perennial "best of the rest" in the Premier League that it has become one of football's most pervasive memes, even when the club languishes firmly in the middle of the pack. Last season ended with the club in 12th, but in bringing in managerial legend Carlo Ancelotti they may finally have the man to take them forward.

Consistency remains a problem for an Everton side that boasts the enviable talent of Richarlison, Lucas Digne, Jordan Pickford, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. On their day, this is a side that can match up against the best of them. Yet any time their fans begin to dream of greater things, the wheels come off. Now with one of the game's best managers at the helm, there can be no excuses.

The club has made a few interesting acquisitions this summer as well. The headlines will no doubt be grabbed by former next big thing (and former Ancelotti acolyte) James Rodriguez, but the reinforcements of Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré will add much needed impetus to the midfield, and may prove to be the more significant additions.

There should be no underestimating the challenge that confronts Ancelotti at Goodison Park, particularly when you consider the high level of competition in the top half of the table from the likes of Tottenham, Wolves and Leicester. Still, for the first time in a while it feels as though Everton may finally be on the verge of a genuine step forward.

Key Signing: Abdoulaye Doucouré
Key Man: Richarlison
Verdict: Targeting a top half finish, but face plenty of competition.

Nickname: The Cottagers
Ground: Craven Cottage
Capacity: 30,000
Last season: Promoted (Playoff)
Manager: Scott Parker

Welcome back to the Premier League for the cheeky younger brother of Chelsea. Fulham's trajectory over the past few seasons has been something of a seesaw, last promoted to the Premier League in 2018 amid hype and heavy (£100 million!) investment only to go down straight away. They have bounced back at the first attempt, but is there any reason to think this time will be any different?

The good news is that this is a more settled Fulham squad. One of many reasons why that 2018 team flopped was the sheer instability of bringing in so many new faces and not giving them the time to learn how to play with one another. Two years later and it's a different story. Key players such as Mitrovic and Cairney have been tied down, while loan players such as Knockaert have made their moves permanent.

But this is still a team with problems. Manager Scott Parker shows promise but is still green and at times proved tactically naive last season. The club still retains a lot of the dead weight of that infamous shopping spree of two years ago that will need to prove themselves here or move on. But the biggest problem is an over-reliance on Mitrovic for goals. Right now it's hard to see where else they may come from should he suffer injury or a dip in form.

While there are signs of progress and a more disciplined strategic approach, this is still a very thin Fulham squad. I could see them struggling.

Key Signing: Anthony Knockaert
Key Man: Aleksandar Mitrovic
Verdict: A tricky season and among favourites for relegation.

Nickname: The Whites
Ground: Elland Road
Capacity: 37,890
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Marco Bielsa

Undoubtedly one of the big stories of the new season. It has been a long sixteen years for Leeds United but the Yorkshire side and certified Big Club™ are finally back in the Premier League where many will contend they have always belonged. The collapse of a former football heavyweight, relegated just a year after reaching a Champions League final and sinking as low as the third tier of English football, is one of the great footballing stories of recent decades, and so too is their recovery.

Marco Bielsa have succeeded where many have failed, and has done so by implementing his trademark high energy and relentlessly disciplined style of football. Their style made them a dominant side at Championship level, but the Premiere League is a different prospect altogether and it remains to be seen how it will fare against similarly determined opposition. The manager is not shy of controversy either, outspokenly critical of media coverage and embroiled in his own fair share of scandals. It will be fascinating to see how he reacts to the increased scrutiny of the Premier League.

While they have made some moves in the transfer market, most notably the big money signing of Rodrigo from Valencia, this squad will largely consist of the same group of players as before. Newly called up England player Kalvin Phillips sits as the anchor in this hard fighting midfield and will be crucial in holding the team's shape, while Chelsea academy product Patrick Bamford will be relishing the prospect of a season in the top flight after setting the Championship alight over a number of seasons.

The return of the Damned United to the top flight promises an array of tactically and narratively fascinating moments. Despite their long absence, this is an ambitious club that still sees itself as one of the big boys and will play accordingly. I fancy them to stay up.

Key Signing: Rodrigo
Key Man: Kalvin Phillips
Verdict: The Premier League comes with a steep learning curve, but Leeds look well placed to succeed.

Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,261
Last season: 5th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

Leicester City were one of the stories of last season's Premier League, before lockdown at least. Their shock title victory a few years back is the stuff of legends of course, but while everyone was writing them off as a one hit wonder, Leicester have been quietly leveraging their financial muscle and newfound notoriety to build a team that is potentially capable of challenging, not as rank outsiders, but as equals. They started the 2019/20 season with a bang and by the time lockdown struck they were looking comfortable in third place and a sure thing for Champions League qualification. But the team that emerged after lockdown looked like a different side entirely, bereft of confidence and energy. Their end of season collapse, which saw the club drop down to 5th and out of qualification, has got to go down as one of the most dreadful ends of a season in recent memory.

So what went wrong and which Leicester will we see this season? I still contend that the fundamentals of this team are strong. Former Chelsea youth boss Brendan Rodgers is an underrated manager, and his Leicester boasts a strong side full of talent. Most notably the talismanic duo of Jamie Vardy and James Maddison, but also the likes of Ayoze Perez Çağlar Söyüncü, Ricardo Pereira and Youri Tielemans all make for a first XI that can compete with any.

One of the big problems last season was the lack of depth outside that XI, particularly in defence, a problem that has been exacerbated by the departure of Ben Chilwell to Chelsea. That Jamie Vardy is now will surely also be a concern. Vardy has been one of the league's best performers in recent years, but eventually his age will start to catch up with him and I don't feel the club have an adequate replacement.

Add to this the increased competition from clubs like Arsenal, Wolves and Everton and the toll of Europa League football, and it is not clear to me that enough has been done to take this team forward.

Key Signing: Timothy Castagne
Key Man: Jamie Vardy
Verdict: Will struggle to credibly compete for top four and will instead be looking at a best of the rest finish in 6-8th.

Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: Champions
Manager: Jurgen Klopp

What more can be said about Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool side? The German manager has unequivocally succeeded where many of the most prominent names in football have failed and transformed an also-ran Liverpool side into arguably the best team in football at the moment. His tenure has seen both the Champions League and Premier League return to Anfield, the latter for the first time in thirty years.

Theirs is arguably the best first XI in world football. The rampaging fullbacks Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, the monstrous Virgil van Dijk in the middle, Jordan Henderson rock solid in midfield, and then the incomparable front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah. They have not made any notable moves in the transfer market this year and really they don't have to. This has been the best team over the past three seasons and everyone else is playing catch up.

But eventually they have to slow down, no side can keep up this level indefinitely and now they no longer have the same obsessive hunger for that illusive title that had been driving them in recent years. On top of this Manchester City will come back hard. Pep Guardiola knows that the board will not tolerate another failure and they will be up for this title fight in a big way. Can Liverpool hold firm and retain their crown? Sure, but it will be tough.

Key Signing: None
Key Man: Mo Salah
Verdict: There or thereabouts.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,017
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Pep Guardiola

Liverpool may be the team to beat right now, but make no mistake Manchester City are still right up there. After last season's disappointment they will be itching to return to the summit of the table, and Pep Guardiola knows that his job may depend on it. Eighteen points adrift does not cut it when you spend hundreds of millions on new players every year, especially when that is paired with failure in Europe, a competition where Pep has now failed to progress past the quarter-final stage four times.

Their first XI may not be quite as dazzling in every position as Liverpool, but this is still a lineup that includes Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, and they have reinforced well in signing Chelsea academy product Nathan Aké and Ferran Torres. But it is in the squad depth where Manchester City truly are peerless. That they have the likes of Gabriel Jesus, John Stones and Riyad Mahrez as depth options just underscores the options they have available. While XI vs XI they are certainly no better than equals of Liverpool, thirty vs thirty they are arguably unmatched on the planet.

But as we saw last season, City are not invincible. Pep, as always, is tactically predictable, and when his system doesn't work he rarely has a plan B. The defence in particular can be shaky if Fernandinho is out of shape and the club's all time top scorer Sergio Aguero is starting to get on in the years. Add to that the departure of the irreplaceable David Silva and it's clear that this city still faces a number of difficult questions for the season ahead.

So can they win back the title? Personally I think the gap between them and Liverpool exaggerates the difference in their quality. The depth of City's squad in particular will prove invaluable given the lack of a proper summer break. We are looking at a very even competition between these two teams.

Key Signing: Nathan Aké
Key Man: Kevin de Bruyne
Verdict: Title contenders who will push Liverpool all the way.

Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 74,879
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

The other club in Manchester have struggled in recent years to move on from the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. Solskjaer's boys will feel bullish after last season's resurgence, but they would do well not to get ahead of themselves. After all United have seen false starts in recent years, finishing second under Mourinho only to slump to sixth the following year.

Their fine end of season form notwithstanding, improvement will be needed in order to cement their top four status and push on. Their front four of Martial, Greenwood, Rashford and particularly Bruno Fernandes has been hugely impressive, but questions still remain over their defensive depth, particularly if goalkeeper Davide de Gea continues to struggle.

Despite this there has been only meagre activity in the transfer market, with creative midfielder Donny van de Beek the only signing at the time of writing. The club has been the subject of heavy fan criticism in recent years for failing to attract the kind of elite players that the club needs to move forward, and that does not look to have changed this season.

This is a United side playing with confidence and character, transformed completely with the arrival of Fernandes last January. There's the will and talent here to build something impressive, but is that matched by the ambition of the board? And is Solskjaer really the right man to make it happen?

Key Signing: Donny van de Beek
Key Man: Bruno Fernandes
Verdict: Top four contenders, but face a stern challenge from their improved competition.

Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,305
Last season: 13th
Manager: Steve Bruce

The Newcastle rollercoaster ride is as ubiquitous to English football as the twin towers of Wembley and Des Lynam's moustache. In spite of this, Steve Bruce does seem to have brought some semblance of stability to the club, but is it real or just paper over the cracks?

Mike Ashley is still here, but against type he has allowed for something of a spending spree this summer. The signing of experienced forward Callum Wilson is the most prominent, but Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis should also prove to be shrewd moves from Bruce. Otherwise it will be a familiar looking lineup, relying heavily on the likes of Jamaal Lascelles, Jonjo Shelvey and in particular the promising Allan Saint-Maximin.

The loss of star goalkeeper Martin Dubravka to injury will come as a big early-season blow for the team. This squad still needs more strength in the midfield and greater incisiveness up front. But once again the biggest issues at Newcastle right now remain the turmoil off the pitch, an unwelcome distraction at a time when they should be looking to build on their recent midtable finishes.

Key Signing: Callum Wilson
Key Man: Allan Saint-Maximin
Verdict: Good enough to survive, but could find themselves in a relegation battle if they're not careful.

Nickname: The Blades
Ground: Bramall Lane
Capacity: 32,125
Last season: 9th
Manager: Chris Wilder

I think it is fair to say that I, along with just about everyone else, was wrong about Sheffield United last season. No one could have predicted their explosive start to the season, claiming a number of big scalps on a path that took the relegation favourites into the top five by Christmas. It didn't last, but a 9th place finish was still a hugely credible result far beyond anything that had been anticipated. The question everybody is asking is can they do it again, or will it be a case of second season syndrome?

It's a very difficult question to answer, as this is a side that has defied expectation at every turn. Sheffield United were in League One just three seasons ago, yet last season they damn near made a push for Europe. Surely they can't continue their climb up the ladder of English football, but at the same time this team has retained most of the talent that made them such a tough prospect and look good to hold onto their midtable status.

They key to last season's success was organisation. Sheffield will be pleased then to have kept ahold of the key members of that unit, most notably defensive stalwarts Jack O'Connell and Chris Basham. The loss of Manchester United loanee goalkeeper Dean Henderson is a loss, but they have ably replaced him with Aaron Ramsdale. Promising youngster (and Chelsea academy product) Ethan Ampadu will bring additional depth to the defence and midfield in what seems to be a shrewd loan move.

Key Signing: Aaron Ramsdale
Key Man: Jack O'Connell
Verdict: Surely the upwards trajectory will cease, but to even match last season's accomplishments will be a remarkable feat.

Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 11th
Manager: Ralph Hasenhüttl

Southampton are riding a wave of optimism after a strong finish to last season under the impressively named Ralph Hasenhüttl. But while Ralph Hasenhüttl has done a fine job in steadying the ship after a few rough seasons, there is still much work for Ralpha Hasenhüttl to do if he is to cement his club's status in the middle of the table and push on into the top half.

There's plenty to like in this team: the width offered from the back by Ryan Bertrand on the left, the mercurial talents of Redmond and James Ward-Prowse. Danny Ings in particular is a potent force up front and his team will rely heavily on his presence. They've added shrewdly with Kyle Walker-Peters at the back, but this is still a vulnerable team at the back, and sorely lacking in depth should their key players suffer injury (as Ings is wont to do).

But for all the problems, stability can only be a good thing, and it will be reassuring for Saints fans that the steady stream of outgoing talent appears to have been stemmed for the time being. If Southampton can back their ambition with some investment, and if the academy production line continues to produce gold, then the club has a bright future ahead. For this season, however, they will do well just not to fall too far down the table.

Key Signing: Kyle Walker-Peters
Key Man: Danny Ings
Verdict: Should be safe from relegation, but too lacking in depth to progress from their midtable position.

Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Wembley
Capacity: 90,000
Last season: 6th
Manager: José Mourinho

Imagine running Tottenham Hotspur and thinking that Mauricio Pochettino was the problem, rather than the driving force behind most of the club's success. Well that actually happened, and the perennial top four candidate subsequently slipped to a distant sixth place finish that arguably flattered their anonymity in the 2019/20 season.

For how fashionable it has become to criticise him, Mourinho remains a talented manager and one who is capable of turning Tottenham into a top side. But the fact remains that the institutional issues at the club have not been addressed. Key positions that have needed improvement for several seasons remain unfulfilled and instead of a bold new frontier, the club paints a portrait of a team in stagnation, lacking in any form of direction.

Mourinho needs to turn this around, and fast, if he is to succeed here. To this end he has signed experienced Premier League talent that should be ready to hit the ground running with the likes of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Joe Hart and Matt Doherty joining the squad. But while Harry Kane remains a world class talent, elsewhere we see a squad that simply looks not ready for prime time. Ryan Sessegnon is promising, but not there yet. Eric Dier has not yet become the defensive leader his team needs.

Then there is the whole debacle with former golden boy Delle Alli. Two seasons ago Alli was the hottest talent in world football, now his exit looks inevitable following a falling out with Mourinho. And that right there is the big problem with Mourinho as manager, it's always about him.

Key Signing: Pierre-Emile Højbjerg
Key Man: Harry Kane
Verdict: Not good enough for top four and may not even get top six.

Nickname: The Baggies
Ground: The Hawthorns
Capacity: 26,688
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Slaven Bilic

West Brom are in big trouble. They won automatic promotion, but it was not pretty and ended the season with more of a whimper than a triumphant show of force. Slaven Bilic is a wily and tested manager, but he faces a tough fight to keep his side in the top flight.

To be frank, their squad looks decidedly Championship. The defence is erratic and none of their strikers were especially prolific last season. Johnstone often looks rocky in goal. They look vulnerable under pressure and don't offer much to frighten opposition defences.

On the positive side they have done well to recruit Matheus Pereira on a permanent transfer after he excelled on loan last season. Pereira instantly becomes a key figure in this team with his high work rate and will be an interesting prospect to keep an eye on in his first top flight season.

The fact is this team still needs reinforcement and they are running out of time. The standard in the league is high these days and right now West Brom look among the clear favourites to make the drop.

Key Signing: Matheus Pereira
Key Man: Matheus Pereira
Verdict: Relegation favourites.

Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 16th
Manager: David Moyes

2019/20 proved to be a stuttering misfire of a season for a side that is perennially tipped for greater things. Having spent a few years pushing into the top half of the table, they ended up languishing just above the drop zone and there is little to suggest an improvement is on the horizon. The golden age romanticism of the ex-football brigade is always dying for a West Ham resurgence, but it never quite clicks for them.

But there is some real talent on this team. Sebastian Haller is a potent force up front, while Declan Rice and Mark Noble embody the very image of consistency in the middle of the park. Tomáš Souček and Jarrod Bowen should prove to be astute purchases for the money involved and in David Moyes they have a manager experienced in getting more out of his team than their raw quality would suggest.

These days it's trouble off the pitch that's most holding back the club, from financial difficulties relating to the terms on the Olympic Stadium to divisions in the dressing room over, among other things, transfer policy. West Ham are not a bad side, but they do not cut a unified figure. Without that, they're never going to be a top ten team. Then there is the risk of losing Declan Rice, whose departure would be a significant blow.

Key Signing: Tomáš Souček
Key Man: Sebastien Haller
Verdict: Unlikely to shift from the bottom half of the table.

Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 32,050
Last season: 7th
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo

One of the more interesting clubs to watch in recent years. Formerly a Big Club™ as recently as the mid 20th Century, buoyed in recent years by a wave of foreign investment. Their rise has been meteoric and they marked their return to the top flight with two consecutive hugely credible 7th place finishes. Increasingly they are proving to be an underrated force at the top of the table. Now the question is can they push on and become genuine top four contenders?

The core of this team is strong, with a spine of Rui Patricio, Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Adama Traore. Raul Jiminez in particular has proven to be a genuine Premier League star, a remarkable 27 goals in all competitions setting a club record. This is a dangerous side blessed with real talent. But they need to hold on to those key players and add some more depth to the squad. They need to get more ruthless and close out games against weaker opposition (they notably took 11 points from a possible 30 against last year's bottom five) and another top level centreback is a must.

The club record signing of Fabio Silva makes for a big statement of intent, but once again this is a club that wants to be going places. They see themselves as a big club and want to compete at the highest level. They may be a lesser known name for modern football fans, but this is a strong team, and not to be taken lightly.

Key Signing: Fabio Silva
Key Man: Raul Jimenez
Verdict: A top six contender.

Predicted table:
1. Liverpool
2. Manchester City
3. Arsenal
4. Chelsea
5. Manchester United
6. Wolverhampton Wanderers
7. Leicester City
8. Tottenham Hotspur
9. Everton
10. Sheffield United
11. Leeds United
12. Burnley
13. Brighton
14. Newcastle
15. Southampton
16. West Ham
17. Aston Villa
18. Crystal Palace
19. West Brom
20. Fulham

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