We're under three weeks away from the Premier League's return. Mark O'Haire takes a look at the Top-6 Finish market to see if we can spot any early value.
"Few Premier League teams can match Southampton’s high-pressing, intense style and with a few new faces expected to arrive at St Mary’s this summer, coupled with Danny Ings’ commitment to Saints, the side could well push towards a top-six spot at an appealing price"
Leicester were Liverpool's closest title challengers before Boxing Day and Brendan Rodgers' boys appeared comfortably on-course to qualify for the Champions League following a fabulous opening stanza (W12-D3-L4) that included the 9-0 annihilation of Southampton, as well as an eye-catching eight-game winning streak.
Unfortunately for the Foxes, that fine form was unable to be sustained. An inability to beat the elite - Leicester went W0-D2-L6 against the top-four - key injuries and Jamie Vardy losing his clinical edge, all contributed to the downturn that saw Rodgers' troops blow a 14-point advantage in the Champions League places to miss out completely on the final day.
Transfer business is unlikely to be significant at the King Power so the major question resides over whether Leicester can regather themselves and overcome their faltering end-of-season efforts. Rodgers' outfit are understandable market leaders outside of the Big Six but don't represent any great value in posting a second successive Top 6 Finish.
Wolves ended a marathon campaign in August that lasted 383 days and 59 games with head coach Nuno Espirito Santo admitting he needs to sign more players to make his squad stronger. The Old Gold used only 21 players in the Premier League this season, three fewer than anybody else, with eight of the squad making at least 50 appearances overall.
Despite the arduous schedule, Wolves won plenty of supporters for their fine brand of football. At times, Champions League qualification appeared possible, and without European distractions this term, a fourth successive season of progression under Nuno is entirely plausible, particularly if the club can keep hold of Adama Traore and Raul Jimenez.
Performance data rated Wolves as the fifth-best side in 2019/20 and at the prices, the Old Gold look worthy challengers to sneak into the top-six this time around.
Everton haven't finished inside the Premier League's top-six since 2013/14 and last season was another largely forgettable campaign for the Merseyside men. A shambolic start under Marco Silva was saved by the eye-catching appointment of Champions League-winning coach Carlo Ancelotti in December, with the Italian guiding the Toffees to mid-table safety.
It would be unfair to heap full responsibility on Silva, mind. Everton have invested heavily over recent years but a catastrophic recruitment policy has left the squad ageing, unbalanced and lacking in key areas. Ancelotti will expect to be backed as the club begin another rebuild but a top-six finish looks beyond the Blues in their current situ.
In October, when Southampton lost 9-0 at home to Leicester to leave them 18th in the table, a relegation battle looked certain and Ralph Hasenhuttl's future appeared bleak. However, the club's board kept faith with the highly-rated German, who went on to engineer a remarkable turnaround, steering the Saints to a very respectable 11th.
Underlying performance data throughout Southampton's grim opening outings pointed to a team well capable of turning the situation around. But few anticipated seeing the Saints climbing the table with a 43-point return from their final 25 fixtures. The progressive south coast club will now be eying further improvement under Hasenhuttl in 2020/21.
Few Premier League teams can match Southampton's high-pressing, intense style and with a few new faces expected to arrive at St Mary's this summer, coupled with Danny Ings' commitment to Saints, the side could well push towards a top-six spot at an appealing price.
Leeds were the most dominant team in the Championship over the past two seasons, finishing top of the tree across all the major performance data metrics. The Whites were unable to turn their superiority into promotion during Marcelo Bielsa's first campaign, but their 16-year Premier League absence was ended with a title triumph this time around.
Bielsa's boys monopolised possession, carved out countless goalscoring opportunities, whilst limiting the damage defensively. It's an approach that should feel at home in the top-flight, although Leeds have been criticised for their lack of killer instinct during 'El Loco's' stint in English football, an understandable concern that will require addressing.
The Whites are working hard to complete a deal for Brighton centre-half Ben White; his future could be key to whether Leeds are capable of following in the footsteps of Sheffield United and Wolves in tabling top-half finishes in their first campaign back in the big time.
Sheffield United 17.0016/1
Marked up as relegation favourites at the beginning of 2019/20, Sheffield United looked like outside shouts for a top-four finish throughout their first season back in the Premier League. Chris Wilder's underdogs excelled themselves to conclude the campaign in the top-half, playing innovative, committed and largely entertaining football from the off.
Critics will point to the unenviable second season syndrome ahead but the Blades should be taking a leaf out of Burnley's book by aiming for consolidation in the safety of mid-table once more. Dean Henderson's departure is a blow, and Wilder would ideally strengthen his forwardline, but the foundations are in place for United to keep their heads well above water.