After the ludicrous early season international break, the Premier League returns in all its glory this weekend. Even though only three of the thirty-eight fixtures have been played, it hasn’t stopped the fans and media alike hyping up the top of the table and dismissing the bottom tier. This is not a unique occurrence, seeing as how after last season’s opening trio of matches I (and many others) were convinced that Manchester City and Manchester United would be vying for the title, only for those predictions to come crashing down by the brutal reality of the long Prem season. I mean, at this point last season Hull City and Middlesbrough were in 5th and 6th position, respectively, and we know how that turned out. So instead of trying to decide the winner after just three matches, let’s take a look at three teams that could surprise and/or overachieve this season; it should go without saying that these predictions exclude catastrophic injury hits, which can blow up any season and obviously cannot be predicted (though things like squad depth can help in that regard).
West Bromwich Albion (currently 5th)
West Brom might just be the most underrated team in the league at the moment. Their manager, Tony Pulis, has become a walking meme due to his unfashionable sideline attire and the unabashedly English style of play his teams employ. However, his success with mid-table teams cannot be overlooked. His teams compete hard, they are tough to break down defensively and they look to counter over the top, which can hurt teams that like to play a high defensive line. His team added great depth over the summer transfer window, with Grzegorz Krychowiak (!?!) landing on loan from PSG, Kieran Gibbs from Arsenal, and young winger Oliver Burke from RB Leipzig.
Jay Rodriguez, Salomón Rondón, and Welsh legend Hal Robson-Kanu are a brutal, powerful front line. If Nacer Chadli gets out of the doghouse, he and Matt Phillips, along with Burke, provide pace and goals from the wings. The ageless wonder Gareth Barry mans the middle of the park next to Jake Livermore (who Pulis has somehow turned into an England international), with Jonny Evans and Ben Foster providing good quality at the back. All in all, it’s probably Pulis’ best-ever team, and with his penchant for grinding out wins and draws, they could definitely compete for a Europa League spot.
Watford (currently 6th)
If the Hornets have finally stopped their coaching carousel and settled on a manager, they could not have done much better. Marco Silva almost kept Hull City up last season despite the side being woefully under-skilled at most positions and lacking any backing from the owners. He should do well with a pretty stacked Watford unit. Captain and human battering ram Troy Deeney will lead the line with summer transfer Andre Gray, and their styles should mesh well together. The additions of Mauro Zárate and Will Hughes to the midfield are excellent, as they should provide quality and depth behind team star Roberto Pereyra and Étienne Capoue, with a serviceable Tom Cleverley and rising star Nathaniel Chalobah also vying for time.
However, it’s the back-line and the keeper that will make or break this team. Last season they gave up far too many goals (68), and they may not have done enough to stop that from happening again. Christian Kabasele is a decent young central defender and Heurelho Gomes can still have his unbeatable days but he has always been prone to high-profile errors. The back-line, on the whole, seems to be made up of fullbacks who would rather attack than defend and central defenders who can defend but are slow. That isn’t a recipe for success, but Silva has done more with less before and he could very well do it again this season.
Burnley (currently 10th)
This is the hardest of the three on this list to predict. On the one hand, they have a capable manager in Sean Dyche who helped them achieve promotion two seasons ago and has provided a blueprint for a team that is tough to beat—especially at home where they were second only to Tottenham last season. And yet, despite that excellent home record, they still only finished 16th in the league, and lost their best defender and arguably their most valuable player in Michael Keane to Everton this summer.
If their home form comes even remotely close to last season, then staying up should not be a problem. And if they can fix some of their away issues, they are easily mid-table and sniffing at something even better. Up front, they will be relying on target-men Sam Vokes and Chris Wood to provide goals, with Jon Walters coming off the bench to make a nuisance of himself as always. The central-defensive pairing of Steven Defour and Jeff Hendrick provides some class and some bite, respectively, and they have a pair of left footed wingers in Robbie Brady and Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson who can always make something happen. They have the England number three goalkeeper in Tom Heaton, who has saved the side plenty of points in recent seasons and should be able to do so again. Like Watford, the backline is the weak point of the team, but a naturally defensive outlook can accrue draws and unlikely wins over the course of a long season.