Every so often, American pundits must preview an NBA or NHL expansion team in its maiden season. Typically, that means that the league has simply created a new club out of thin air, but sometimes other leagues are absorbed a handful of franchises at a time. Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers were plucked from a dying North American ice hockey brand in 1979. Little did the NHL’s bosses know they had welcomed a “dream” team which would soon rival any Stanley Cup or Olympic Games dynasty in skill and execution.
There are advantages to speculating on a team that already exists, of course, starting with the ease of scouting the roster’s cohesion, or lack thereof. Expansion clubs tend to be surprisingly good, or very, very bad, even worse than wiseguys had predicted. Psychology prevents handicappers from applying each outcome’s lessons to the next brand-new roster, since we know that the deck is stacked against 1st-year teams, but find it hard to imagine any group of hungry professional players utterly humiliated in 50 straight appearances.
English football speculators have the double-advantage of not only knowing a club well when it reaches the Premier League, but – through the lens of domestic tournaments – having already watched a new Premiership side take on elite lineups of the sport in the previous cycle.
It’s not all peaches and cream. While the North American system lends itself to safe, milquetoast predictions, Europe’s promotion-and-relegation causes newcomers to be touted above or below their actual potential. A lineup may discover a formula for consistent English Championship victories, soar up the table at a rate of 3 points per week, and earn a promotion to the big time. But that’s not a guarantee of further success or even survival against the highest-paid backs and goalkeepers in the world.
Sides like Millwall exhibit fundamentals, tackling, and teamwork comparable to the finest UK soccer organizations, and have reached late stages of FA Cup play as recently as 2 winters ago. Without superstar strikers or crazy ticket sales to fund contracts, however, such teams struggle to score enough goals to earn promotion. Paradoxically, once affixed in a richer league, they can become the more-dangerous kind of upstart.
Norwich City was considered a promising promoted side in 2019, with attackers like Teema Pukki and Emiliano Buendía spearheading a crisp short-passing style. Outside of a stunner over Man City at Carrow Road, Canaries would accomplish little and be ushered back to the Championship ranks. Meanwhile, Blades of Sheffield United were a cool (+250000) wager on Premier League odds boards during summer friendlies. TV anchors smirked over the club’s 5-across-the-back game plans, and Sheffield appeared to have little to offer at the top level outside of a sturdy GK in Dean Henderson and a quality back-4…or back-5.
Lo and behold, Blades would go down as the 4th-most stubborn Premier League team in 2019-20, allowing just 39 goals in 38 matches and going 14-14-12 to secure a top-half finish. A promoted team winding up in a UEFA competition in Year 2? It came spectacularly close to happening.
What are the lineups, expectations, and handicapper’s odds for 3 newly-promoted Premiership clubs in 2020-21?
At least 1 of the trio expects to play far, far better than in 2003-04, when this year’s Championship winners last fell out of the EPL. Few elite teams have capitulated so quickly as Leeds United Football Club in the mid-2000s. The club had enjoyed a long history in not only the top level of English soccer but among the UEFA’s ranks.
However, quite recklessly, Leeds United had come to rely on, even take for granted, its status in international competitions. Surprise failure to qualify for the Champions League meant that the team owed money on its media contracts, and distractions in the highest club offices soon trickled down onto the pitch. Transfer decisions became solely financially-based, and a weakened lineup was relegated following a pair of sour seasons. Patience in rebuilding the roster throughout the 2010s paid off last cycle as Peacocks strutted through Championship with 28 wins, a 42-goal difference, and 1st place on the table.
Leeds United: Once More, With Dignity
It’s nice that Leeds has more to offer than a single strong unit. Peacocks easily qualify as the stingiest English Championship club of 2019-20 with just 35 goals-allowed, and goalkeeping has been a team effort, with talented young Illan Meslier spelling the suspended Kiko Casilla in midst of a race to promotion. Leeds United posted 5 clean sheets following the COVID-19 break, including shut-outs of Reading, Stoke City, and 6th-place Swansea. Yet the Peacocks attack is just as intriguing, a formation full of midfielders fronted by striker Patrick Bamford, who tallied 16 goals in 2019-20. Attacking midfielder Pablo Hernández, a player with “future lucrative MLS swan song” written all over him, led the team with 9 assists and added 9 goals of his own.
Leeds United is a (+225) wager to finish in the top half of 20 Premiership teams in 2020-21, and a (+350) or 3.5-to-1 “underdog” to be relegated after a bottom-3 finish. Both markets seem a tad generous to Peacocks and stingy toward the other 19 clubs, because of Leeds’ dismal record in recent English tournament play.
FA Cup and Carabao Cup matches may be filled with 2nd-best lineups in the 3rd and 4th rounds, but only on behalf of the aristocrats taking part. The scenario of 1st-lineups of Championship and League One vs 2nd-lineups of the Premier League’s best organizations gives handicappers an excellent window into how a promoted club might fare in fixtures against the Newcastles and Crystal Palaces of the world. Of course a 3rd-round FA Cup contest vs Manchester United doesn’t bear the full brunt of MUFC’s powers, but it does pit an upstart squad against 11 footballers who could easily earn 90+ minutes per appearance for an EPL relegation victim. If Leeds United expects to avoid relegation in 2021, it must begin by grabbing 3 points against vulnerable top-level lineups.
From that angle, Peacocks are by no means a sure-fire success story. In the 2017 EFL Cup, Leeds United barely nicked Norwich City, a club which wasn’t in the Premier League at the time, before losing 0-2 to a Liverpool lineup full of youngsters. Leeds laid an egg in the FA Cup that cycle too. In 2018’s League Cup the team needed tiebreakers against Clarets of Burnley, then blew an early advantage to lose 1-3 to Leicester City (in fairness, Riyad Mahrez spent enough time on the pitch to score the clinching goal).
Leeds simply lost out in the preliminaries of both domestic brackets in 2018-19, then gave up a goal to an Arsenal prospect named Reiss Luke Nelson to lose 0-1 in the 3rd Round of this season’s Football Association Cup. (Because of how domestic events work anymore, it feels odd to say Leeds lost to the “champs.” Superior players wearing Arsenal shirts won a final later in 2020.)
I’m not seeing any historical upside against the big shots – even self-handicapped big shots. We’ll see if Leeds United vindicates analysts’ predictions (or invalidates this analyst’s prediction) in the months to come.
West Brom: Set Bromides Aside for a Promising Cycle
Expansion-team punditry and promoted-team punditry do have a similar vein – the bromides and platitudes. “Welp, there isn’t a lot of elite talent on hand, but if they play for each other, defend well, and earn a few penalties with hard work on the attack, why, Lord willing, there’s no reason a top-12 finish isn’t possible.” Yuck.
No need for such patter with West Bromwich Albion F.C. ascending the ladder. WBA has rebuilt a dynamic squad that scored just as many league goals as Leeds United in 2019-20 but was nonetheless trademarked by streaks of flawless defending, supervised by goalkeeper Sam Johnstone. Baggies kept clean sheets against a number of worthy Championship opponents in 2020, including Fulham, Millwall, and Rams of Derby County F.C.
The club’s back-4 looked fantastic in a 4th-Round FA Cup victory over West Ham, except for center back Semi Ajayi who was ushered-off with a red card in the 2nd half, leaving Hammers 15+ minutes to recover from an 0-1 deficit while attacking with a full squad against just 10 “Throstles.” Still, the Premier League side left the pitch with 0 goals, less than 5 on-target shots, and 1 out of 5 passes gone awry.
In the 5th Round against Newcastle, it was the attack’s turn to shine. Newcastle United broke through for 3 quick tallies halfway through a sloppy, physical match. But the March minnow fought back with goals from winger Matt Phillips and 2nd-team striker Kenneth Zohore to make would-be routine minutes breathless at The Hawthorne.
Scoring depth isn’t an issue either. The 2020 Canaries relegation showed how tough it is for a lone highly-touted striker to buoy a team’s survival chances. Leave those tactics to Major League Soccer or the Asian Cup. Baggies boast of nearly 10 players with 5+ combined goals and assists on the recently-ended season.
‘Twas a fully international effort too, with Hal Robson-Kanu of the Wales National Team and Charlie Austin of England co-leading at 10 goals each and diminutive Matheus Pereira of Brazil serving as the club’s fast-break distributor. West Brom usually lines-up a little more conventionally than Leeds United, and eccentric manager (is there an EPL manager who isn’t eccentric?) Slaven Bilić has no diddy-bump amount of experience as a Premier League CEO.
West Bromwich Albion is an (+800) wager to finish top-10 and a (-125) gamble to remain in the Premiership for another season. WagerBop recommends both of those bets, especially since Baggies survived relegation 7 straight times in the club’s last stint at the top level.
Fulham: No Chore Finding a Sample Size
You know those pages that make it look like there’s gonna be lots of info at the bottom, and then there’s next to nothing? You paid for a subscription to get “more in-depth looks” at sporting events and all you’re “looking” at is a FAQ and some additional injury info. WagerBop promises not to do that this time, but Fulham’s promotion does allow for more-succinct handicapping, or at least simpler betting angles. That’s because Fulham F.C. has played in the Premier League as lately as 2019. The current Cottagers roster doesn’t look exactly the same as the squad of 18 months ago to be sure, but we’ve still got a pretty good bead on the club, now owned by the Khan family alongside the Jacksonville Jaguars and All-Elite Wrestling.
In fact, Fulham Football Club may be as foundational to the Premier League as some of its current top-10 teams. Cottagers were there for the inaugural season back in 2001, and played at the top level for 15 consecutive cycles. However, Fulham’s most-recent EPL campaign suffered a ghastly 81 goals-allowed and 26 losses in 38 league fixtures. It was much the same in 2013-14 after which the team was relegated to 4 years in Championship.
The 2018-19 lineup was stodgy and predictable with the ball, a comic might say, but made up for it with equally-bad defending. 3rd-Round FA Cup and League Cup losses felt inexorable. Fulham hasn’t been to the quarterfinals of either domestic bracket since Barack Obama was still decorating the White House.
When Manchester City met Fulham in the FA Cup this summer, Citizens manager Pep Guardiola chose to put a 1st-team Premier League kind of lineup on the pitch, and the 4-0 formality was over before it even began.
With the historical angle gloomy and optimistic by turns, it will be up to the present-day roster to sink or swim in a deeper EPL than ever. It’ll be a blessing to have Aleksandar Mitrović on board, a legit World Cup forward who scored 26 of Fulham’s 64 league goals in 2019-20. Team captain and midfielder Tom Cairney may be emblematic of Cottagers’ dilemma as a crucial Championship player who struggles to create chances in Premier League apps. Attacker Bobby Decordova-Reid of the Jamaica National Team, conversely, had a promising and productive 27-match stretch at the front of Cardiff City’s formation in 2018-19.
There are 2 factors that concern this blogger, starting with Fulham’s goalkeeping. Marek Rodák just had a fine cycle for a 23-year-old in English Championship, no doubt. Rodák allowed just 33 goals in 33 league appearances, and posted the best clean-sheet percentage of 20 primary GKs. But there are still fixtures in which the Slovak seems overwhelmed, such as in an 0-3 loss to Barnsley on February 15th, a match not played at anywhere close to a Premiership level. The keeper allowed Huddersfield 2 quick goals to nearly draw level in what should have been a winter waltz, only days after the shooting-gallery appearance vs Man City. In consecutive meetings with Brentford and Leeds United, Rodák would rue 5 goals-allowed in 77 minutes of playing time. Evidence of being prepared for what now awaits is scant, and glowing analyses are based on speculation. Rodák’s League Two workload surpassed League One + Championship minutes until 2018.
Next, Fulham’s latest record in Championship doesn’t look superior to last time a promotion occurred, after which Cottagers laid a massive egg in the EPL. There may not be a “Norwich City” to abuse in 2 out of 38 matches in 2020-21, and there certainly won’t be a Cardiff City. Budget clubs like AFC Bournemouth and Southampton have shown frighteningly good form, not to mention Wolves and Sheffield United rising from the ashes to give Premier League football even more mighty brands. If Leeds United turns out as formidable as some expect, Fulham could be the club that always collects 1 point when it should be collecting 3, and 0 points when it should nab at least 1.
There may not be any respite on a schedule of giants.
Fulham’s line to survive a promotion cycle is (-175). I’m not buying those odds at all. Fuham is a much better pick to be relegated at any line north of (EVEN), and West Bromwich Albion is the sleeper to finish top-half.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.