ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE  COVID 19 – RESTART PLAN

 In Gary Mabbutt Blog

Thank goodness, The English top flight restarts on Wednesday after a 100-day break because of the coronavirus pandemic with fixtures played behind closed doors.

The league returns with Aston Villa against Sheffield United on Wednesday at 18:00 BST, before Manchester City host Arsenal at 20:15.

There will then be another 90 games to fit into a compressed schedule.

Congratulations to the Premier league and the clubs for agreeing that Players names will be replaced on the back of the shirts with ‘Black Lives Matter’ for the first 12 matches of the restarted season, as part of the league’s response to the anti-racism protests seen globally since the death of George Floyd.

With the tensions growing high after this disgraceful act, hopefully this will have an impact and help to make change happen.

The Premier League will be supporting any player who chooses to ‘take a knee’ before or during matches.

Please see following the restart position of all clubs.

Arsenal

When Mikel Arteta walked through the doors of the Emirates Stadium back in December to replace Unai Emery, there was plenty of work to be done.

In my opinion he has not yet got the authority that a manager requires within the dressing room, the Gunners had endured a torrid time in the Premier League under Emery. They sat 10th in the table when Arteta took over and while their current position of ninth may not point to the sort of revival many Arsenal fans may have hoped for, the fans are still optimistic.

Arsenal have made improvements under Arteta, losing just one of his 10 Premier League games in charge. It’s a run that has seen them move to within eight points of fourth-placed Chelsea, with a game in hand, and reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.

They were starting to build up some real momentum with three straight league wins before the suspension to the season because of the coronavirus pandemic, and while the break may not have come at the best of times for the Gunners, it has given Arteta more time to get his methods across to the players as he looks to lead a late charge towards the Champions League places.

Aston Villa

Villa are under immense pressure they were in freefall with five defeats from five, and the postponement of the season came at a good time for them, it means key midfielder John McGinn is now fit to aid a push for survival.

Manager Dean Smith says this period has given him the opportunity to watch every game back, and discuss some subtle tactical changes with his side. That must include a more defensive approach, with Villa conceding the most shots (507) and errors leading to shots (24) in the Premier League.

Villa like to play and have been accused of being too open and too expansive against any type of opposition this term, and they sit 19th because of it, there is nothing wrong with wanting to go out and play, but you must first earn the right to play, which has been their problem..

Bournemouth

Bournemouth are fighting relegation and thankfully the season stopped at a good time for manager Eddie Howe, injuries had laid his team bare and at least now he has everyone fit.

David Brooks is in line to return, Lloyd Kelly is set for his first taste of Premier League football and Howe has defensive reinforcements to call upon.

“Fingers crossed we will have a stronger squad than when we stopped playing,” Howe told

Howe will certainly need that stronger squad with Bournemouth, who have had an inconsistent season up until now, set for tricky trips to Wolves, Manchester City and Manchester United in the coming weeks as they look to protect their Premier League status.

Brighton

Purely on a results basis, the suspension of football came at a very good time for Brighton as well, who seemingly couldn’t buy a win in 2020.

It was nine games without a victory in the Premier League for Graham Potter’s side, their last win coming on December 28 against Bournemouth.

This season has seen huge progress on the pitch for Brighton in terms of playing style, and some notable wins against Tottenham and Arsenal, but they have slipped towards a relegation battle again and their run-in could hardly be more difficult.

Their first three games back come against Arsenal, Leicester and Man Utd, while Liverpool and Man City are also opponents still to come. Potter’s side will need some big results if they are to avoid slipping closer to the trapdoor and back to the Championship for the first time since 2017.

Brighton sacked my friend Chris Hughton before the season started and they might just rue that ridiculous decision.

 

Burnley

In their five previous seasons in the Premier League, Burnley have finished in the top half of the table on just one occasion, when they secured a seventh-place finish in 2017/18.

This time around they’ve got the opportunity to do so again but it has, by no means, been an easy ride.

The period between late October and mid-January proved to be particularly sticky, but a 3-0 defeat away to Chelsea 11 days into 2020 – which left them four points above the relegation zone – was a turning point.

In the seven games between that and the division’s suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, they won four games and drew three, with their steely defence shipping just three goals, which lifted them to 10th in the table.

Chelsea

Frank Lampard’s methodology, coaching acumen and relationship with the Chelsea fans has obviously provided the hierarchy enough evidence to make him the man for the long-term at the club.

With transfer riches available and new stars set to join late summer, these last nine games will be a good test of his management mettle at the top level as he looks to steer the Chelsea ship into the Champions League places. It would be a feat that deserves credit considering he’s had to put faith in some inexperienced members of his squad to play leading roles at various points of the campaign.

Crystal Palace

It hasn’t always been the easiest of seasons for Crystal Palace. At times, they have been severely depleted due to defensive injuries, which was compounded by only one win in 11 Premier League games between December and February.

Things began to look up before the football suspension, winning their last three league matches 1-0. At the time, it pulled them away from a potential relegation scrap and with two home wins against Newcastle and Watford, plus an away victory at bitter rivals Brighton, they have the confidence and momentum to be safe from the drop.

Now, they face one of the toughest run-ins of any Premier League side. Seven of their nine opponents are currently above them in the table, including games against Liverpool, Leicester, Chelsea and Manchester United, so and there is always the danger of slipping back into an unwanted relegation battle.

But Crystal Palace are always the team looking to interrupt the status quo. They have beaten Manchester United and taken a point against Manchester City already this season.

Another good friend Roy Hodgson has steered them to relatively comfortable mid-table finishes in his last two seasons and it’s hard to envisage anything other than the same again, hopefully with a few exciting moments along the way.

Everton

By the time Everton take to the field in their eagerly-anticipated Merseyside derby with Liverpool, it will have been 103 days since their last competitive fixture.

The size of the task facing Carlo Ancelotti was laid bare against his former club Chelsea as his side were thrashed 4-0 in early spring.

Ancelotti welcomed talk of European football after taking 17 points from his opening eight games but after defeats to Arsenal and Chelsea derailed that ambition, you could be forgiven for thinking the Italian should use the remaining games with one eye on the future.

Leicester

Brendan Rodgers has shaken off a bout of coronavirus and is raring to go ahead of Leicester’s remaining 10 games, with the prospect of guiding the Foxes into the Champions League for only the second time in their 136-year history a distinct possibility.

City recovered from their wobble after a shock Carabao Cup semi-final exit at the hands of lowly Aston Villa with a 4-0 romp of Dean Smith’s side in the final game before the suspension of the Premier League and still have three of the bottom six left to play.

Rodgers may have suffered his first defeat in cup competitions in 31 games, but with the Foxes also in the quarter-final of the FA Cup and with another assault on Europe’s elite in their own hands, there’s no better time for them to seize their moment. How sweet it would be for Leicester to guarantee a Champions League spot at the expense of Harry Maguire’s Manchester United at the King Power Stadium on the final day, even if it is behind closed doors.

Leicester stunned the football world four years ago when they defied odds of 5,000-1 to win the Premier League and few would bet against them from disrupting the big six again this year. The Foxes have proved they have staying power before and under Rodgers, at least, it seems they will go the distance.

Liverpool

When the season was suddenly halted back in March, Liverpool were within touching distance of finally ending their long wait for a top-flight title, a feat the club’s fans were starting to think may never happen after a series of recent near misses.

Yes, the Reds had suffered a shock 3-0 loss at struggling Watford in their last away clash, but that was their first league defeat of the entire campaign. And having dropped only five points to that point, Klopp’s team are on course to smash Man City’s record-breaking 100-point haul from 2017-18 in their last nine fixtures.

And while it would take a monumental collapse for Liverpool not to get the two wins they need to be ensured of the title, Klopp has urged his players to win all of their remaining games.

Manchester City

It has been a deeply disappointing Premier League campaign for the reigning champions. Manchester City are 11 points worse off than at the same stage of the 2018/19 campaign and, more significantly, they are 25 points behind runaway leaders Liverpool.

Their hopes of defending the title were effectively over long before the lockdown came into force and they now have the threat of a European ban looming over them too. These are testing times for the Etihad Stadium outfit, but there is still plenty for Guardiola’s men to play for.

If they can find form when the season resumes, they could yet finish the campaign with a Champions League trophy and an FA Cup to add to the Carabao Cup they won in March. They will be desperate to end an often difficult season on a high.

Manchester United

With the exception of title-chasing Liverpool, few would have bemoaned the suspension of the season more than Manchester United.

After a start to the campaign beset by inconsistency, there were signs that Solskjaer had finally started to make things click at Old Trafford, only for the momentum of an 11-game unbeaten run to be halted by the coronavirus pandemic.

United’s pre-lockdown upturn was made all the more impressive by the fact that it was done without key personnel, so the sight of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba returning to fitness in time for the restart will only add the sense of optimism at the club.

Second chances are hard to come by in football but, with a fully fit squad at his disposal, Solskjaer has the chance to salvage a league campaign that has threatened to peter out on a number of occasions.

A top-four finish in the Premier League has to be the target for United, failing that, the Europa League and FA Cup may provide a silver-lined ending to a season which looks to have steered the club in the right direction.

Newcastle

Steve Bruce’s side have a lot of work to do, with a takeover that continues to hang in the air, and uncertainty about the mangers future.

It was back in April that Mike Ashley agreed a £300m deal with a Saudi-backed consortium, the prospect of regime change finally tangible, but the wait goes on and the desire for clarity has not been presented.

On the pitch, a side dogged by inconsistency this term will want to strike early to ease away from the drop zone, with games looming against Tottenham, Man City and Liverpool. Joelinton has found the back of the net in warm-up games.

Norwich

It would be perhaps the greatest of great escapes if they could avoid relegation given their precarious position in the table and season long budget constraints.

The Canaries’ saving grace has been their home form up to this point and they showed signs of life with a win over Leicester the last time they appeared at Carrow Road in February.

One thing is for sure, Norwich will need to be far more ruthless in front of goal. They have left themselves little room for error and a sluggish restart could see any faint hopes of survival quickly dashed.

Sheffield United

Sheffield United could yet yield Champions League football, after an incredible season, if they can continue to use the well organised team ethics they have a chance of causing one of the biggest shocks in Premier Legue history.

They have games to relish against lofty rivals- perhaps crucially, they have not lost against those immediately around them and have a defensive record only bettered by Liverpool’s.

This is an opportunity that may not arise again. Wilder is determined to grasp it.

Southampton

Ralph Hasenhuttl embarks on the next leg of his Southampton rebuild, with renewed backing from the club in the shape of a new contract.

These nine games will be about ensuring enough points to survive yes, but also assessing the players that he has and whether they can cut it in the Hasenhuttl mould and improve the team next season.

A number of players will be playing for their futures at St Mary’s, while others like Kyle Walker-Peters and Kevin Danso will be playing for permanent contract offers.

Others may be playing in their last run of games for the Saints, with interest from other clubs in the likes of Danny Ings, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Jannick Vestergaard.

It will be a time of significant assessment for the Austrian head coach.

Tottenham

It’s make or break for Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham as a roller coaster season for the club reaches the final stretch.

The squad is fully rejunvenated after the break, all players are back to fitness and they can qualify for next season’s Champions League, and kick on with the rebuild from there.

Jose has a great opportuntiy to show that he can make this one of hthe best Spurs teams in history, it is in his hands.

An interesting and crucial nine games lay ahead for Spurs.

Watford

When Nigel Pearson took over in December, he inherited a side that looked near dead and buried and looking in a real mess with just nine points from 16 games.

After a remarkable turnaround, goal difference currently separates the Hornets from the bottom three but they will be far more confident of extending that gap with the return of Troy Deeney to the fold, and the club talisman is fully expected to be fit for the opener despite health concerns delaying his own comeback to training.

There were worries that the new manager bounce under Pearson was over shortly before the restart following some poor results in the new year, but the return of the hugely influential Ismaila Sarr shortly before stunning Liverpool 3-0 on February 29 has given the club plenty more ammo in the battle to stay up.

The evidence of Pearson’s short spell so far suggests that whether they can or not, they are not going to give it up.

West Ham

West Ham finished the 2017/18 season with a flourish to secure their Premier League survival, and David Moyes will now need to pull off a similar run of results to what he did then if he is to realise his ambitions of building longer-term success in east London.

There were three wins, three draws and three defeats in the final nine games of that season and a similar return this time around could well be enough. But that’s easier said than done, given this West Ham team have just one win to their name in their previous nine Premier League games.

 

Wolves

With nine games remaining, Wolves are in sixth position which would be an improvement on last season’s placing of seventh and enough to secure another season of European football at Molineux.

The five teams below Wolves are within four points and two of them have a game in hand so the grip on a top-six finish is not firm.

Their form was good before the enforced break and with no FA Cup commitments, there might never be a better chance to qualify for the Champions League. They are two points off fifth and that could be enough given Manchester City’s possible suspension.

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Gary Mabbutt with Paul Gascoigne and Robbie Keane