Premier League: Five tips for 2021 including Liverpool for the title and Villa for top six

The year is almost over and, as we enter the hectic Christmas schedule, the defining stories of the 2020/21 Premier League season are starting to take shape. We have seen enough of each side to make confident predictions about what the table will look like come May. Here are my top five outright bets for 2021:

There are quite a few flaws in this Leicester City team which seems to lurch between big wins and big defeats each weekend. But the strength-in-depth at Brendan Rodgers’ disposal suggests they have a good chance of maintaining their current points-per-game rate through the remainder of the season.

On top of that, Rodgers has a knack for changing formation and tweaking tactics at just the right moment, and his flexibility will prove a bit asset as fatigue sets in during the early weeks of 2021. Leicester remain too reliant on James Maddison and Jamie Vardy, but then again they don’t need to be ruthless in front of goal.

Aside from the dreadful performance in the 2-0 defeat to Everton, Leicester have looked solid since Wilfried Ndidi’s return to the side, and with the experience of last season’s decline to guide them better in 2020/21 the Foxes ought to hold out. What’s more, new signings Wesley Fofana and Timothy Castagne make them stronger than last year, plus we are yet to see the best of Cengiz Under.

They are better coached than Manchester United and more adaptable than Tottenham. Leicester should be among the favourites.

Having two games in hand has perhaps kept Aston Villa under the radar. More people ought to be gushing about the job Dean Smith is doing. Villa – having survived on the final day of last year – are without question the most improved team in the Premier League. Had Villa beaten Newcastle United in their postponed fixture, they’d be in fifth place and six points off the top – still with a game in hand.

Remarkably, Villa are unlucky not to have more points. They were the far superior team in defeats to Brighton and West Ham, in which Ross Barkley was sorely missed, and won the xG battle 2.45-1.00 in their 4-3 loss against Southampton.

Smith’s side are dominant against mid-table clubs and play ruthlessly organised counter-attacking football against those towards the top. They can beat anyone on their day, and with Jack Grealish in the side have an ace up their sleeve who turns even contests into wins.

A few years from now, we will look back on the Villa team that scraped survival with 35 points and scarcely believe they had Grealish, Douglas Luiz, and John McGinn in their ranks – three players who will surely be starring at super-clubs sooner rather than later. The talent running through from Emi Martinez to Ezri Konsa to a front line with Barkley and Ollie Watkins is definitely top-half quality. In this most unusual of seasons, Villa stand every chance of sneaking into the top six.

On the one hand, the Premier League title race looks tighter than ever, and the current leaders Liverpool, having already been thrashed 7-2 this season, have dropped nine more points than they had at the same time last season.

On the other, the best team in Europe is already four points clear, and that 7-2 – their only defeat so far – was a bizarre anomaly that has skewed our sense of Liverpool’s vulnerability. Jurgen Klopp’s side are playing with a tenacity and coherence that nobody else can match, and even more impressively have done so while giving plenty of game-time to fringe players.

Takumi Minamino, Naby Keita, Curtis Jones, Nathaniel Phillips, and Rhys Williams have all come in and played brilliantly, while Diogo Jota and Thiago were superb before their injuries. Liverpool’s incredible squad depth has been put to the test by the worst injury record in the division, and yet even through all of that bad luck they are top of the table.

It looks like Liverpool will win the competition by 10 points or more. And if that happens, then Mohamed Salah – already top scorer with 13 – will keep his place at the summit of the goals chart.

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Sheffield United are doomed. Nobody has ever recovered from the position they currently find themselves in. Despite a combative performance against Brighton on Sunday, there just isn’t enough quality in the side to turn this around. There is no shame in that: Chris Wilder has overachieved more than anyone in Premier League history, bar Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester, and this season is simply a case of regressing to the mean.

Theirs is a Championship squad and it is showing. The same can be said of Fulham who, despite improved performances recently, are unlikely to climb out of the bottom three given 2020/21 has a surprisingly strong bottom-half. Burnley are back, and will surely scrape the points needed, while Brighton are considerably better than their points record suggests.

That’s why Fulham won’t survive – and why Sam Allardyce won’t be able to revive West Brom. A distinct lack of quality makes it a near-impossible job. The only chance for either club is if the bottom falls out at Crystal Palace or Newcastle United. That is unlikely.

Everybody loves Harry Kane: England hero, consummate professional, goal machine. It feels strange that he hasn’t won the PFA Player of the Year already, but he must be nailed on to win the gong this year. Kane has gone up a notch in 2020/21, and he is rightly getting the media coverage to match.

This award is usually won in the first half of the season, when narratives are set, hence Kevin de Bruyne winning last year despite most of his assists coming early in 2019/20. Kane’s brilliant start, in which he has become simultaneously the best number nine and best number 10 in the division, makes him virtually guaranteed to win.

He could even break the assist record while scoring around 25 goals, hitting better numbers than Thierry Henry did in 2002/03 – which ended with him winning pretty much every individual award going.

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