Who will be the EPL’s dark horses and surprise packages?

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Football player running with ball in stadium
Football player running with ball in stadium

AS A new English Premier League season approaches, there is the overwhelming temptation to write it off prematurely as the familiar tale of two super clubs. But that clearly isn’t the case. The upcoming campaign feels like an inflection point for key clubs and footballers. It’s difficult to plot a path for the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal or even Chelsea, let alone lesser lights in what promises to be a refreshingly unpredictable jaunt through 380 games.

There are always dark horses, but this season offers genuine uncertainty, at both ends of the table, with the hope of twisty narratives that could confound expectations or, at the very least, challenge the established order and give the status quo a bit of a shake.

In the surprise package stakes, here are a few of the most intriguing contenders.

1) The power breakers – Tottenham Hotspur

The EPL no longer has patience for the well-planned caper, the long scam that pays out a couple of seasons from now. It’s not so much Ocean’s XI as it is Antonio Conte’s XI, the smash and grab specialists who treat every campaign like an impatient, frenetic, action-packed trailer. They go in. They take what they want. They implode. Conte leaves, usually with a tidy swag of silver slung over his shoulder.

The Italian’s heroics last season were arguably underappreciated, almost dismissed as typically Conte-esque, turning comatose footballers into Champions League qualifiers.

But the enigmatic Italian is arguably the greatest hope of challenging - or at least getting close to – the duopoly of Manchester City and Liverpool.

As it stands, bookmakers have offered 16/1 odds for Spurs winning the title, which seems rather generous considering Conte’s track record of upsetting the apple cart, quickly and briefly, at both Chelsea and Inter Milan.

Talking titles with Tottenham is a little premature, but Conte inherited a broken, bewildered side languishing in eighth position and lacking direction and motivation. He turned them into Duracell Bunnies. They ended up in fourth, via 17 wins and five draws from 28 games.

A lover of fast, relentless wingbacks, Conte took a drifting Ryan Sessegnon and threw him forward. The 22-year-old transformed himself into one of the most reliable left wing-backs in the EPL, let alone at Tottenham.

Another wide player, a little further forward, also benefitted from Conte’s turbo-charged attitude to training. Dejan Kulusevski, also 22, only joined from Juventus in January but ended up with eight assists. A controlled, intelligent passer, Kulusevski embodies Conte’s methodical approach in midfield, taking the ball quickly and distributing it wisely.

While Manchester United seek a new identity, line-up and playing philosophy under a new manager, Conte’s Spurs are settled, prepared and ready to run, relentlessly, for the most impatient manager in the business.

And the recent acquisition of Richarlison in attack only adds to the expectations.

Third spot is a real possibility. If everything clicks quickly enough, the restless and permanently dissatisfied Conte might even set his sights a little higher, especially if he ends up with the player of the season …

2) A new leading man - Son Heung-Min

The South Korean is no dark horse, but he’s never been a leading man, not quite. If Hollywood ever sought to cast an EPL movie, a respected character actor would portray the Tottenham forward, putting in a decent, commendable performance, but mostly at the edge of frame. Kevin De Bruyne, Mo Salah and even Harry Kane continue to dominate EPL screen time, unfairly, considering the stellar efforts of the South Korean. As character arcs go, starting the season as a rusting, neglected vehicle under the hapless Nuno Espirito Santo and ending the campaign as a Golden Boot winner took some beating.

Son shared the award with Salah. Both scored 23 goals. But Son does not take penalties. Son plays alongside the definitive No.9 of his generation. He’s expected to share the load, chipping in with seven assists and still finding the time to outscore everything else in the league apart from Salah.

The South Korean’s unassuming, humble personality may pander to Asian stereotype – his father’s recent, underwhelming comments ticked every box on the tigerish Asian parent’s checklist – but the 30-year-old has reached a peak of hypnotic creativity not seen at Tottenham since Gareth Bale. It’s time to step away from the long shadows of De Bruyne and Salah. The most selfless of team players has earned the right to stand alone.

3) The greatest comeback still to come – Christian Eriksen

Six months ago, such a prediction could’ve been dismissed as silly sentimentality. Not anymore. At Brentford, Eriksen turned a Disney-like fantasy comeback into a very human, visceral and committed return to fall. In the EPL, romance earns a standing ovation after a near-death experience. Only form earns longevity.

The best story of last season was also one of the most productive. After his cardiac arrest at Euro 2020, Brentford’s Danish gamble contributed to seven victories from his 10 games started. His elegant touch and understated midfield mastery have already merited a place in Brentford folklore, but Eriksen wants more. His new employers, Manchester United, will benefit from his cultured services. His miraculous story warrants a dignified epilogue. The Red Devils will be lucky to have him.

4) The Potter magic trick – Brighton and Hove Albion

Once Graham Potter absorbed the culture of his seaside home, the manager took his club to unprecedented heights. Brighton is an English hipster hangout for the bearded and the beautiful, a funky town for vintage fashions and original vinyl, but the local football club was rarely considered trendy. Last season, Brighton and Hove Albion were drifting towards obscurity, flirting with relegation in fact and then Potter grew a beard, threw on a turtleneck, looked like a university don sipping a craft beer and suddenly the Seagulls took flight.

On a net spend of just £15 million, he steered Brighton towards ninth position and a record points total, missing out on European football by five points.

He’ll attempt to close the gap this season, relying on Marc Cucurella to continue to impress. The left-back was a revelation last season, offering a terrific attacking outlet and catching the eye of Manchester City.

Potter will hope to keep Cucurella. Together, the bearded duo can push for Europe.

5) The kids who would be kings – Arsenal

Inexperience saw them fall just short of the top four last season, but Arsenal’s youngsters have the makings of a boyband ready to step up and make that serious, critically-lauded second album. Their creative output really could go either way, but the unpredictability makes the Gunners such a curious proposition. In the previous campaign, manager Mikel Arteta selected the youngest starting XIs by average age 20 times in the EPL. His midfield of Emile Smith-Rowe, Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard belied their tender years – all were 24 or under – but gave credence to the old, misplaced criticism of Manchester United’s Class of 92, the one about winning nothing with kids. The Gunners didn’t. But they are so often fun to watch, galloping through midfield like tongue-flapping puppies who can’t quite believe that their owners have let them off their leashes.

Of course, the standout prospect of the upcoming season is Saka. After the Euro 2020 penalty miss and the abhorrent racist abused that followed, the left-sided winger might have been forgiven had he drifted to the periphery. Instead, the 20-year-old drove for the byline like one of those puppies chasing a lost bone. Arsenal’s fortunes may depend, to some extent, on the form of their nascent star. Frighteningly, Saka can only get better. With Gabriel Jesus joining from Manchester City to add attacking experience, the boyband analogy might stand up after all, as the Gunners make the trophy-chasing transition from boys to men.

6) The biggest shockers – West Ham United

David Moyes will know the history of his mercurial men. The happy-go-lucky Hammers achieved their highest league placing in 1986, finishing third. They were relegated three years later. Predictable unpredictability is a way of life in East London. Of the 20 teams in the EPL, only one could build a viable case for both Champions League qualification and relegation at the same time. If they hang on to both Declan Rice and Jarrod Bowen, a top-four chase remains a faint possibility. Lose either and a descent towards the bottom three cannot be ruled out. Under Moyes’ remarkable stewardship, the Hammers have overachieved and underspent, but one wonders how long the manager’s tactical alchemy can stop a small, weary squad from fraying at the seams. Qualifying for the Europa Conference League ensures heady nights in Europe for fans and leggy performances for the players, who clearly struggled towards the end of last season. So Bowen must stay, to share the attacking burden. His 12 goals and 10 assists earned him an England call-up and a prominent place in the transfer window, alongside Rice. The English midfielder makes for an incongruous presence, an obviously sleek Manchester City or Real Madrid gatekeeper in a West Ham jersey. Moyes knows that his side’s future depends not so much on the players that he signs, but the irreplaceable ones that he can persuade to keep.

The element of surprise is most welcome in the EPL and, historically speaking, the Hammers have always been happy to oblige.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author who has covered the English Premier League since 2000, and has written 26 books.

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