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20 Predictions for football in 2022
Yeah, let's play that game
Happy new year, everybody. To commemorate the turn of the calendar, and because I couldn’t think of something else to write, here are some predictions I have for football in 2022. Some are pretty obvious, some a little more surprising, and we can all come back next year and laugh at how I got everything wrong.
1. Manchester City will win the Premier League
This one is obvious. FiveThirtyEight have City at 85% to win the title. The bookies are even more confident, putting the implied probability at around 90-95%. The Christmas period saw them really consolidate that spot as Liverpool and Chelsea both stumbled. As I wrote on the subscribers-only side,
"Things clicked for City last season when Guardiola solved the defensive issues. He added in more controlled possession and made the team more compact without the ball, perfectly adapting to a team with Rodri at the base of midfield rather than Fernandinho. Rodri felt like exactly the piece Guardiola has always wanted to build around, as he’s in exactly the mould the manager himself once defined in his playing days.
This season, City have maintained all of that while adding even more punch in attack. They’re creating nearly half an expected goal more per game. My thinking last year was that the more patient approach gave them better solidity, but cost them in terms of creating shots. This season, they’re just as patient, but they’re taking an extra three shots a game. And those three shots extra have come from pretty much anywhere. It’s not as though one player has suddenly gone supernova to turbocharge this attack, but everyone is doing a tiny bit more to make the collective a whole lot better. This has happened alongside the tightest of defences, conceding just 12 goals and 13.5 xG in 20 matches.”
It’s going to happen, barring a huge calamity.
2. Real Madrid will win La Liga
Again, this feels like a safe bet. FiveThirtyEight have it at 80%, while the bookies are at 86-92%. To be honest, I’m not sure how good they actually are. They’re third-best by xG difference in La Liga, getting results through excellent finishing from Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior (and a little bit on the defensive side). They currently have a goal difference of +24 and an xG difference of +10.7. Real Madrid have beaten their xG in all of the last four seasons, but this really is a lot.
Their position in the table is dominant enough that it won’t matter this domestic season. La Liga is really weird right now. Their closest challengers Sevilla and Betis are themselves massively overperforming xG. The two “best” sides by the metric, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, are miles behind Real. It should be too late to matter, even if I wouldn’t be shocked if the final table ends up tighter than it is right now.
3. Inter will win Serie A
Top of the league and best by xG. Inter shouldn’t let this slip. Things will probably get worse for Inter due to financial issues, so their fans should enjoy the good times while they can
4. Bayern will win the Bundesliga
I mean, duh.
5. Paris Saint-Germain will win Ligue 1
6. Kylian Mbappé will join Real Madrid
Everyone is acting as though it’s done, so I think we have to assume it’s pretty much done. Not since Luís Figo has a player quite ticked all the boxes for Florentino Pérez like Mbappé does. He’s one of the two obvious galacticos of tomorrow, and probably the more exciting one. Real Madrid’s position as the “biggest club in the world” looks a little shaky, and he’s the perfect statement signing to tell the world that, hey, we’re still Real fucking Madrid. But maybe most importantly, new money PSG have become the ideological foe for Europe’s “legacy clubs”, and Nasser Al-Khelaifi was key in spoiling Pérez’ Super League plans. Taking Mbappé is a chance for revenge.
Mbappé himself seems to have his heart set on the move. This is what he wants. This is what the club wants. They’ve moved a lot of money around to make sure it’s happening.
7. But Real won’t fix the defence
Even without a transfer fee, signing Mbappé is an expensive proposition for Real Madrid. They’ve otherwise run a fairly tight ship recently. Last summer, they sold Raphaël Varane and Martin Ødegaard to the Premier League for nearly €80 million1 combined to clean up their finances for Mbappé. The previous summer, they did similar business by shifting Achraf Hakimi and Sergio Reguilón. Big names have also left on free transfers to free up wages.
This coming summer, Gareth Bale’s contract finally expires, which will help. But there aren’t so many squad players who will obviously bring in big transfer fees again. The financial situation is much better than Barcelona’s, but still not great compared to the bigger Premier League clubs and PSG. It doesn’t look like they have the resources to bring in Mbappé while also fixing up everything else.
By xG conceded, Real Madrid have the tenth best defence in La Liga. It hasn’t played out that way on the pitch, because La Liga has become so weird and unmoored from expected goals. But this side won’t have the defensive spine to win the Champions League titles they crave without reinforcements. Mbappé alone does not turn Real Madrid back into the best team in Europe.
8. PSG will do some retail therapy
Post-Mbappé, and presumably post-Mauricio Pochettino, Paris Saint Germain have two options. They could recognise the star-studded approach isn’t working, realise they have enough of that with “just” Lionel Messi and Neymar, and try to build something more holistic in the long run. This could be a moment to really create a culture, running from that huge talent pool in Paris all the way to the first team. They could look at what Man City have done these last few years and recreate that model.
Or, they could go out and spend a huge amount of cash on yet more big names to fill that Mbappé-shaped hole in their heart.
I mean, which one do you think they’ll do?
The thing is I don’t really know who they’ll target. Paul Pogba feels obvious, but there isn’t a superstar forward who screams “going to PSG”. I’m sure there’s one obvious name they will go after, but I’m not sure they’ll succeed, because…
9. Erling Haaland will move to England
Ok, hear me out on this one. The only other conceivable destinations for someone of his calibre outside the Premier League are: Bayern, Barcelona, PSG and Real Madrid (sorry, Serie A). Let’s break down why I don’t think he’ll go to those sides.
Borussia Dortmund changed their contracts after losing Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski to Bayern. I know Haaland has a release clause, but my guess is it’s only applicable for foreign clubs. Regardless, it’ll be another couple of years before they look to replace Lewandowski.
Barcelona have less than no money, despite Joan Laporta’s recent noises. When Xavi made his pitch to Ferran Torres, he reportedly promised that the Spaniard would be Barca’s “franchise player”. If the club bring in Haaland, that’s just a flat out lie.
PSG are surely going to try. They’ll be badly bruised by losing Mbappé, and Haaland represents the next best thing. Is that what he wants? I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right. I could be wrong, but I think he’ll want a club with a clearer structure and somewhere that really can build the side around him to win major titles.
Real Madrid, I’m sure, would love Haaland. But they’re already going to make Mbappé their highest-paid player, and Haaland would demand a comparable salary. I know it’s Real Madrid, but from the perspective of any normal club, this makes no sense. Yes, he’s suggested he’d like to play in Spain. But I just don’t know how Pérez makes the sums work on this. They’ve been saving up for Mbappé. They haven’t been saving up for Haaland.
That leaves the Premier League. Haaland was born in England. His dad played the majority of his career in England. He speaks good English. Premier League clubs have a much stronger financial position than their European counterparts bar PSG. It makes sense.
Man City, one of his dad’s former clubs, could make it happen tomorrow. While they only had eyes for Harry Kane last summer, people in the know have been making noises that, this time, they might like the look of Haaland. There’s a glaring Haaland-shaped hole in the team. He’d get one year of Guardiola before the next manager comes in and the team is slowly rebuilt around him.
Manchester United are also in the conversation. It’s possible that Cristiano Ronaldo takes up their budget for a huge star striker, and Yorkshire’s finest maybe doesn’t love the club whose captain deliberately caused an injury that ended Haaland Sr.’s career. But still, they’re in the race.
Chelsea were desperate for Haaland all last summer before settling on Romelu Lukaku who, err, let’s leave that to one side. If they have enough money in the budget, I’m sure they’ll try again.
There are some rumours about Liverpool, and never say never (commodities trader John Henry could see this as the rare time to make the investment that’ll pay off), but I’d rate it as unlikely.
All the clubs I’ve mentioned could theoretically sign him, and I’m not ruling anything out. He could even stay at Dortmund for another year But I’d say there is a greater than 50% chance he goes to the Premier League.
10. Guardiola will stumble in the Champions League again
This is just pure probability. It’s not really his fault. FiveThirtyEight have City at 24% to win the Champions League. Even the most generous pro-City reading couldn’t put the number at above 50%. And if he doesn’t win it, you can be sure that the same narratives will kick in again. Maybe they’ll be right and maybe they’ll be wrong, but they’ll come regardless until he wins the thing again.
11. Mauricio Pochettino will join Manchester United
Unless he somehow wins the Champions League, PSG will sack Pochettino. Based on early results, Ralf Rangnick will not get the Man Utd job full time. It’s obvious, isn’t it?
They very nearly hired him in 2019 before giving Ole Gunnar Solskjær the permanent job. They probably considered him in 2016 before appointing José Mourinho. This has been coming for a long time.
12. Newcastle will go down
I actually disagree with the bookies here, who think Newcastle are slightly favoured to stay up. But FiveThirtyEight has the Magpies at 75% to get relegated. Ben Torvaney, analyst at [unnamed big European club], ran the numbers and found that for Newcastle to have a decent chance of staying up, they would have to improve to the level of Aston Villa or Wolves immediately. Yes, they’re going to spend, but with a lack of structure and clear targets, I’m betting against them.
My guess is that Eddie Howe will stay in charge to fight for promotion in the Championship. This would surely be the most expensive second-tier squad ever assembled anywhere. You’re probably looking at Newcastle getting promoted back up within a year or two, but it makes the long term ambitions of the PIF much harder.
13. Chelsea will buy either Fikayo Tomori or Marc Guéhi
Thiago Silva just renewed but, as it stands, Chelsea are still looking at Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and potentially even César Azpilicueta out of contract this summer. Even if some renew, they will need to sign a centre back.
If we were simply listing the sorts of players they might target, both Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guéhi would merit consideration. Of course, Chelsea sold both of these players for £25 million and £18 million. Getting them back will cost more, but it’s not clear to me there are too many better options, especially considering they will definitely settle without issue. Chelsea have spent on bringing back former players in the past, with one recent example not working out. I’d bet on them doing it again.
14. Thomas Tuchel will come under pressure
Winning the Champions League gets you plenty of money in the bank, but that never lasts forever at Chelsea. This was the season when many hoped they would push on and potentially win the Premier League title. I don’t think Tuchel is doing a bad job by any means, but since this isn’t happening, surely some voices will start to ask if he’s the right person for the job.
If Tuchel is still at Stamford Bridge this time next year, he’ll have been around for as long as Antonio Conte. Six months more than that and he’ll match José Mourinho’s second spell. This season will make it five years without winning the league, the longest run since Roman Abramovich bought the club. Obviously, the Champions League win sweetens the deal, but the pressure will come.
15. Harry Kane will score again
Sorry, we’re doing some maths here, so bear with me. Since Conte arrived at Tottenham, Harry Kane has been putting up 0.62 xG per 90 in the league. In the last five years, he’s averaged about 30 “90s” per year. Before this season, he very consistently beat his xG by about 20%. He averages a little over 3 penalties scored a year, though that’s a very volatile number. Put this all together, and we’d expect him to score just over…
25 league goals in 2022. I think everyone would be pretty happy with that figure. That does feel like an optimistic scenario, but even if he gets 20 or so, that should be seen as a much-improved return.
16. Christian Pulisic will leave Chelsea
Yes, I had this listed before he started and scored a screamer against Liverpool, but I’m sticking with it. Bar occasional wing-back appearances he doesn’t seem to like too much, he’s competing for a place in Chelsea’s front three. Mason Mount seems to be number one in the pecking order, followed by Kai Havertz. So that leaves Pulisic often competing with Lukaku, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner for one spot. Conor Gallagher is probably going to be added to that group next season, and I would never rule out Chelsea signing another expensive attacker.
Chelsea like to get good value selling in the transfer market. Lukaku is probably locked in for now with his wages. So, of those who aren’t nailed on to play, who has the largest resale value? Who would offer the biggest commercial boost to a buying club? It’s Pulisic with his appeal in America. If he’s not going to play regularly, there’s value for Chelsea in cashing out.
17. Football will see more crypto and weird finance stuff no one understands
Part of this is just that there’s a lot of money in crypto and associated things right when the sport is in a cash crunch. But a tougher regulatory tone, and cultural tone, towards gambling sponsorships has left football chasing that lost money. And they’re landing on this.
A lot of this stuff is pretty shady and seems to exist for clubs to actively rip off their supporters. It doesn’t sit well with me, but unfortunately I think we’ve got more of it to come.
18. Neymar will miss his last chance at the Ballon d’Or
There are only two ways left that Neymar can realistically seal a Ballon d’Or:
PSG win the Champions League in a way where everyone agrees Neymar outshone Messi and Mbappé
Brazil win the World Cup with Neymar playing a starring role.
I’m not putting my money on either of those outcomes. Neymar is destined to retire with a slightly disappointing career.
19. Qatar’s World Cup sportswashing will work
In the buildup to the 2018 World Cup, there was a lot of discussion about the geopolitics of Russia, though not to the same extent as Qatar. It was clear many people felt uncomfortable about the tournament taking place there, and expressed their views as such.
Then the football started, everyone completely forgot about that, and all who went out there told us what a nice country Russia is.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no doubt the people of Russia are lovely, as are the people of Qatar and pretty much everywhere. The issue with regimes is not the people living under them. I expect a lot of talk in Qatar about what a nice show they put on. I think that will drown out the complaints in the end.
20. The World Cup will be won by the team that pulls it together quickly
I don’t know if it’s sunk in how quickly the World Cup will come for the teams competing in it. Players finish with their clubs and then the tournament kicks off a week later. If any managers wanted to tactically drill a certain system then they’re out of luck.
So I think the advantage will go to the teams that need minimal prep. Those who can go straight in and know what to do already. Many of the past winners have started out playing one way then switched to something else during the tournament. We like to imagine those great teams as perfect, but they were often making it up on the fly. I think that will be harder this time. I think the team that has it right before they even meet up in Qatar will be at a real advantage. I don’t know which country that will be, but it’s my gut feeling. I wouldn’t want to be experimenting in autumn 2022.
Thanks for reading!
I do tend to use British pounds to talk about club finances, but this is Real Madrid here, so we’re going with Euros.