Predictably – and perhaps understandably – the hype for the new football season has centred on the top six in the Premier League. Can Pep Guardiola’s City side continue to dominate? Will Klopp’s Liverpool additions make them genuine title contenders? Can Mourinho snap out of his sulk and conquer his great rival? What will Arsenal be like post-Wenger? Can Sarri breathe new life into Chelsea? Were Spurs smart to avoid spending big in the transfer window?
These are all key questions, of course, but they’re pretty obvious. The Football League is full of lesser-known stories that are set to grab your attention between now and May. Whether you’re a gambler looking out for smart bet, a fan looking for a day out to see some live action or a casual viewer wanting the inside track, where can we expect to see the best stories in the 2018/19 season?
Here are five teams we think it’s worth keeping an eye on for a good story below the Premier League radar…
Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds
There’s only one place to start in our search for a story and that’s Elland Road. Football hipsters across the country collectively choked on their expensive espressos when the legendary Argentinian was announced as the new mam at the helm of Leeds United. Bielsa is a renowned tactical innovator – described as the best in the world by Pep Guardiola no less – who deploys an intense, high energy 3-3-1-3 formation.
He’s best known for spells in charge of Argentina and Chile and comes to Leeds after short spells with Marseille, Lazio and Lille. It’ll be fascinating to see how he adapts to the rigours of the Championship and whether he can breathe new life into a club that is desperate to return to the big time.
The early signs are certainly good – with promotion contenders Stoke City and Derby County both swept aside in the opening two fixtures. However, last season’s bitter experience will weigh heavily on Leeds fans. After seven matches they were unbeaten, top of the league and winning plaudits from all corners for their scintillating football. That fizzled out and they ended up 13th. Bielsa, too, has developed something of a reputation for causing players to burn out over the course of a season.
Whatever happens, however, it’s bound to be exciting to watch.
Dean Smith’s Brentford
Leeds might well steal the headlines under Bielsa, but that will mean that Dean Smith’s sensational job at Brentford continues to go under the radar. The Bees play some of the best football of any the 92 league clubs – including many in the top flight – all with a modest budget and a collection of players who aren’t household names.
The attacking talents of Neal Maupay, Ollie Watkins and Sergi Canos give Smith’s side a dynamic attacking edge and the squad is full of well-scouted, smartly-developed and technically gifted players who have every chance of firing Brentford to the play-offs and making some expensively-assembled Championship sides look silly. Smith himself must surely be working his way into the thoughts of a few Championship chairman after making the step up from Walsall.
The opening day 5-1 win over Rotherham was a warning of what others can expect – and a sign of the entertainment you might well get from a ticket in 2017/18. Fans might also want to get to Griffin Park while they can. While the ground might no longer quite have the ‘pub on every corner’ of folklore, it’s full of character and charm – and is soon to be replaced by a new ground nearby.
Kenny Jackett’s Portsmouth
Most people’s attention in League One will be on Sunderland and how they cope with dropping to the third tier. Their story will be fascinating, but it shouldn’t divert your attention completely away from Portsmouth.
Kenny Jackett’s men narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season, with eighth place an impressive finish for a Pompey side that had only just been promoted from League Two. They’re a smart bet to go one better this time around and the capture of Derry City winger Ronan Curtis already looks an astute bit of business, with two goals and an assist in his first two outings in a Portsmouth shirt. Jackett’s sterling work with Millwall and Swansea in particular should stand him in good stead to translate last season’s promise into a promotion push.
While Barnsley and Sunderland will be strong, you certainly wouldn’t bet against Portsmouth making the top six.
Steve Evans’ Peterborough
From one team that narrowly missed out on the play-offs to another – and Steve Evans’ Peterborough United. Many pundits thought Posh were play-off bound when the larger-than-life Scot took charge in February – a sentiment he agreed with – but the top six proved a step too far for his high-scoring side.
Jack Marriott’s departure to Derby was inevitable after his 27-goal league campaign but, ever the wheeler dealer, Evans has shopped around to fill the void. Jason Cummings, on loan from Forest, had a formidable record in Scotland’s second tier with Hibs and could well thrive in League One. A number of clubs were chasing the signature of Newcastle forward Ivan Toney, who joins after a series of successful loans away from Tyneside and Matt Godden makes the step up from Stevenage.
Expect goals and plenty of drama at London Road with this squad and this manager.
David Flitcroft’s Mansfield
Evans’ former employers Mansfield Town might also be ones to watch when it comes to goals. While the Stags might have faded under David Flitcroft – and faced a row with Evans over striker Danny Rose’s future– they start the season full of hope that they can go on to secure the promotion that many felt could have been within their grasp last season.
Pre-season performances against the Sheffield clubs and Derby County gave course for optimism, and 11 goals in their first three league and cup games suggest that this optimism wasn’t misplaced.
Tyler ‘son of Des’ Walker has arrived on loan from Forest and has the ability to set League Two alight, while the £100,000 arrival of Otis Khan at Yeovil is another good bit of business by the club’s highly-ambitious owners.
If it’s goals, entertainment, drama and great stories you’re after, keep an eye on Leeds, Brentford, Portsmouth, Peterborough and Mansfield in 2017/18.