Two seasons ago, Leicester City confounded the odds by winning the Premier League. Since then normal service has resumed, with the Big Six clubs dominating but is another smaller club now getting ready to gatecrash the Champions League party? Watford has just come away from The Emirates with three points to climb up to fourth place, with Burnley just two points further back.
Manchester City seems unstoppable but the other big clubs are dropping points, so there is an opportunity for an outsider to make a move.
Eight games into the season Burnley and Watford are keeping pace with the big boys. Logic says they will fall away but we all said that about Leicester two years ago.
Marco Silva has been a revelation at Vicarage Road. He nearly worked a miracle at Hull City after taking over in January with the Tigers bottom of the table. An unbeaten run followed and it was only on the final day that relegation was confirmed. Silva left at the end of May and two weeks later was in charge at Watford.
He has recruited a number of players across his squad who have integrated smoothly. The stand-out performer has been Richarlison, signed from Fluminense in Brazil. He has scored just three times but his all-round contribution has been outstanding. His total of 26 shots puts him just behind Kane, Lukaku and Salah.
Midfielder Abdoulaye Doucouré has been another revelation with three goals and nearly 500 passes. Elsewhere in the squad, veteran Troy Deeney (above) remains dangerous and Tom Cleverly has settled in well after making his loan move from Everton permanent.
Another midfielder who made a loan move permanent is Nathaniel Chalobah. A product of the Chelsea Academy, he has spent much of the past five years out on loan, including a spell at Watford in 2012 while also building a reputation in the England age-group set-up. He has appeared 40 times at Under-21 level, a total beaten only by James Milner.
Burnley Keeping Up
Up the M6, Sean Dyche has been quietly building a Burnley side that has become tough to beat.
Turf Moor is becoming a fortress with just seven defeats in 23 games since Burnley’s return to the Premier League. The Burnley board kept faith in Dyche after relegation in 2015 and that is now bearing fruit. His tactical smarts were shown by the opening day win at Chelsea and draws at Anfield and Wembley.
His squad, like Watford’s, boasts no stars, just a group of players who know their jobs and how to execute instructions. At the back, the loss of Michael Keane to Everton has been offset by the superb form of Ben Mee and James Tarkowski. Their central defensive partnership has been brilliant and they top the stats tables with 146 clearances. Alongside fullbacks Matt Lowton and Stephen Ward, the back four has provided rock-solid protection for goalkeeper Tom Heaton.
In midfield, the Irish duo of Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick has been commanding, ably assisted by Steven Defour, Ashley Westwood and Johann Berg Gudmundsson. The defensive solidity and midfield organisation is there to support perhaps Dyche’s best signing of the summer. Striker Chris Wood, prised away from Leeds United at the end of the transfer window, is starting to realise his undoubted potential. Alongside him is Sam Vokes, another international forward who thrives under the guidance of Dyche.
Burnley and Watford will not be on many lists of potential Champions League qualifiers, but do not underestimate the jobs being done by Sean Dyche and Marco Silva. Both have assembled squads of players totally committed to the cause and, on their day, capable of giving any team a hard game. Does this sound familiar? Think Leicester City under Claudio Ranieri and perhaps it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
by Ian Hine