james debate
james debate

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, Manchester United, 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


ARSENAL
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.


ASTON VILLA
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.


BRIGHTON
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.


BURNLEY
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.


CHELSEA
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.


CRYSTAL PALACE
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.


EVERTON
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.


FULHAM
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.


LEEDS UNITED
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.


LEICESTER CITY
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.


LIVERPOOL
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.


MANCHESTER CITY
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.


MANCHESTER UNITED
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.


NEWCASTLE
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.


SHEFFIELD UNITED
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.


SOUTHAMPTON
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.


TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
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.


WEST BROMWICH ALBION
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.


WEST HAM UNITED
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.


WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS
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. Manchester United
4. Chelsea
5. Arsenal
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







Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Developed by Asobo Studio
Published by Xbox Game Studios
Genre Flight Simulator (duh)
Platform PC, Xbox One

microsoft flight simulator 2020 xbox pc game

I can honestly say I never expected to be reviewing a flight simulator game. But then this is no ordinary flight simulator. Microsoft's newest iteration of the classic franchise is a technological marvel and pushes the genre in a bold new direction.

Let's start with the basics. Microsoft Flight Simulator is exactly what it says on the tin. It's a flight simulator and the latest in a long line of such sims dating back to the series' debut in 1982. But despite the franchise's storied history, this is the first iteration in the series since 2006. The long hiatus is certainly understandable, after all there is only so much one can really do with so niche a genre. They said it would take something fresh and worthwhile to bring the series back, and that's exactly what they've done.

As a flight simulator, this is absolutely peerless. Real aircraft models are rendered in this game in incredible minute detail, from the flight mechanics and control surfaces to the interiors (dashboard, flight stick and even the leather upholstery of the seating all recreated immaculately). The flight physics are detailed to a high enough level to be used as professional training, with highly advanced weather effects taken into account.

But the big innovation here is its world map. Rather than implement limited local maps to navigate, as was done in previous versions, Flight Simulator makes use of Microsoft's Bing Maps technology to render the entire planet in-game. That is not an exaggeration. Every inch of the entire planet is in this game and you can fly over all of it. Bing Maps processes its satellite data to turn its flat images into 3D land and cityscapes (to impressive albeit mixed success) with additional handcrafted detail added for particularly noteworthy landmarks (think Eiffel Tower, the Vatican, etc). While most locations will be procedurally generated in this fashion, some cities (New York City being a prime example) will make use of state of the art photogrammetry data to render in full, photorealistic detail.

Add to this live weather data (if it is stormy outside, it will be stormy at that location in-game) and live flight data (if you see an airplane outside you can probably find it and take control of it in-game) and you have a remarkable simulation of the world around us. You can even find herds of wild animals roaming geographically appropriate locations.

I really can't overstate just how much of a technical marvel this is. The idea of a 1:1 Earth map in a videogame has long been an impossible dream and yet here it is in sublimely rich, photorealistic detail, integrating live data to create the most accomplished, most complete flight simulator experience ever created and a true next-gen technological milestone. It's rare to see a game provide a true glimpse of the medium's future, but quite often Flight Simulator does exactly that.

More importantly, it's a joy to play. There's something very relaxing about taking an aircraft out for a flight over beautiful scenery. If you are the type to play Eurotruck Driver or Farming Simulator, or if you are the type to play games like Forza Horizon just to go out for a peaceful drive, this game will scratch a similar itch. That you can travel to any nation on Earth seems particularly timely given the ongoing global situation and its impact on our ability to travel. I won't pretend that flying over Tuscany is the same as actually being there, but it certainly satisfies at least a bit of that wanderlust.

At the same time, it is also clear that Microsoft have gone to great lengths to make this a more accessible Flight Simulator, one that appeals as much to the gamer crowd as the niche flight simulator community. The game can now be played from a gamepad for a start, no expensive specialist hardware needed. Time can also be sped up in game to allow quick transit between locations (especially useful considering the massive size of the game-world).

It is surprising, then, that Microsoft have added so few "game" features. You have landing challenges and longer "bush" flights (essentially long-distance navigational challenges), but that's basically it. Older versions of Flight Simulator included at least basic missions, ranging from "Transport passengers from A to B" to "deliver humanitarian aid to location C". Considering how much effort has gone into making Flight Simulator more attractive and accessible to casual gamers (indeed a console version is still upcoming) it is very surprising to me that they haven't implemented more content of this nature. It would be extremely easy to do so as well. The end result is a game that, while initially engrossing, I suspect will not be successful at holding the interest of anyone but the hardcore Flight Simulator aficionados in the longterm. I can see most players buying this, flying to their house, flying to some famous landmarks, maybe a few favourite vacation spots, and then getting bored.

The technology, while very impressive, can also be inconsistent in places. While the Bing Maps 3D algorithm is able to come up with a somewhat plausible depiction of your average modern city, it struggles with more niche architecture. It looks amazing when you fly over Vancouver or Manchester, but less so over small villages in the English countryside, for example, where old medieval cottages can often be rendered as bizarre modern office blocks. You can also see a big difference between cities that have received specific hand-crafted attention and those that have not, and this bizarrely includes some fairly prominent locations. London, for example, is shockingly incomplete in the vanilla game; a 2D texture where St Paul's should be, a horiffic office block where Buckingham Palace should be. For London, at least, they have already released DLC that improves upon the unique landmarks but, guess what, you have to pay extra for it. There are other prominent cities that are not even so lucky as that.

Microsoft Flight Simulator is undoubtedly a technical milestone, but as a game it is surprisingly lacklustre. These features may yet be added in the future, but for now given the extent to which they are trying to expand their fanbase to the casual gamer, that comes as a disappointment. Nevertheless, there has never been a game that has accomplished what Microsoft Flight Simulator has done. This remarkable marriage of AI and data offers a glimpse of gaming's future, and may yet impact the industry in a profound way. As a flight simulator it is top of the range and a wonderfully relaxing experience for those chafing under the current lack of global travel. The term "open world" has been used a lot in gaming in recent years, but never has it felt so appropriate.











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