The 2021 Unibet Premier League Darts season begins in Milton Keynes on Monday evening, and it promises to be another enthralling campaign, as Glen Durrant bids to retain the title that he captured so magnificently on debut last October.
The Premier League is renowned for its unpredictability and this year’s edition promises to be no different. Dimitri Van den Bergh, Jose De Sousa and Jonny Clayton make up the trio of debutants having scooped their first major titles last year, while former winners Michael van Gerwen and Gary Anderson look to extend their Premier League hauls.
Former finalists Peter Wright, Rob Cross and last year’s runner-up Nathan Aspinall all feature in the ten-player field, which is completed by 2009 champion James Wade, who features as a last-minute replacement for world No 1 Gerwyn Price, who is unfortunately ruled out after testing positive for Covid-19 upon arrival in Milton Keynes.
Who will top the table? Who will be battling it out for play-off qualification, and which two players will be eliminated on Judgement Night on April 22? Check out my predictions below…
Michael van Gerwen
The five-time winner saw his Premier League monopoly unceremoniously curtailed last year, as he failed to top the league table for an eighth consecutive campaign. In fact, Van Gerwen missed out on Play-Off qualification altogether, finishing in sixth position after losing seven of his 16 matches.
‘The Green Machine’ may not be the indomitable force he once was, but he will still be a major player in this year’s showpiece. Only three players boast a higher seasonal average on the Pro Tour than MvG, and it took an inspired display from Luke Humphries in the UK Open semi-finals to deny the Dutchman, who averaged 106 in defeat.
Van Gerwen has not featured since the UK Open after opting out of Super Series 2, and it remains to be seen whether the break has revitalised the world No 2, or if he’ll be lacking sharpness. However, given the inconsistency displayed by many of this year’s field, it seems unthinkable that Van Gerwen will miss out on top four qualification for a second straight campaign.
It’s been a case of feast or famine for Wright throughout his Premier League career. He spurned six match darts against Van Gerwen in their infamous 2017 final, while he performed superbly last term to secure a second-placed finish, only to succumb to Aspinall on Finals Night.
Nevertheless, he’s also finished 9th, 7th and 8th in three of the last five years, and his proclivity to tinker with his set-up makes it difficult to back the 2020 world champion with any degree of certainty. The Scot endured an abject start to the ranking season, and his performances at the opening Super Series and the subsequent UK Open were concerning.
‘Snakebite’ prevailed in his last outing however, easing past Price 8-3 to claim the Players Championship 8 title with a tournament average in excess of 102. Wright reverted to a more conventional set-up and reaped the rewards, and if he resists the urge to tinker, he has a wonderful chance of a top-four finish. The question is, will he stick or twist?
Price’s misfortune is Wade’s gain, although few could begrudge Wade a spot in this year’s field. ‘The Machine’ reached two major finals in 2020 and was ranked fifth in the world when the initial line-up was announced, yet last month he added a third UK Open title to his growing haul, which saw him leapfrog Rob Cross to return to the world’s top four.
The left-hander is something of a Premier League veteran. This year’s edition will mark his 11th appearance, and he’s featured in the play-offs in six of those seasons – including his last appearance in 2019. Given his current form and the fragility of his peers, Wade will be confident of capitalising on his unexpected opportunity.
There’s a strong case to say that the 2009 Premier League champion is the best combination finisher in world darts under pressure, but his averages are also indicative of a man playing close to the top of his game. Consistency is key in the Premier League, and few can rival Wade in that department.
This promises to be a defining year in Cross’ career. With a sizeable chunk of ranking money to defend over the coming months, he faces the possibility of relinquishing his top 16 status unless he can regain the consistency that saw him scoop three major titles inside two years.
He displayed glimpses of his brilliant best in reaching the quarter-finals of Players Championship 1 back in February, but since then, ‘Voltage’ has failed to progress beyond the last 32 in any of his last eight events. The 2019 runner-up is speaking far more positively about his game, but until that translates into consistent results, the jury remains out.
Cross is the only player in this year’s field without a major title to their name in the last 12 months, but he sealed his spot due to being ranked inside the world’s top four when the line-up was announced. I have seen enough to believe he can avoid elimination for a second straight year, but I still believe he’ll be embroiled in a battle to beat the drop.
Which Gary Anderson will turn up in Milton Keynes? ‘The Flying Scotsman’ remains one of the sport’s ultimate enigmas, but he boasts an enviable record in this competition, as he begins his bid for a third Premier League crown.
The two-time world champion struggled for large parts of 2020 but still reached the World Championship and World Matchplay final, while featuring in the Premier League semi-finals. He appeared to rediscover his hunger at Ally Pally and vowed to roll back the years in 2021, but that resurgence has yet to materialise.
Only Cross, Aspinall and Durrant boast a lower seasonal average than Anderson in this year’s field, although the Scot’s record is impossible to ignore. He has made the Play-Offs in each of his last six seasons, and as evidenced last term, the condensed nature of the tournament may help him build momentum when it comes down to the crunch.
Dimitri Van den Bergh
Talking of unpredictable characters, enter Dimitri Van den Bergh. The Belgian is one of three debutants to feature in the 2021 edition, and where ‘The Dream Maker’ is concerned, anything is possible. He had consistently been touted as a future major winner and he fulfilled his potential to prevail in emphatic style at last year’s World Matchplay.
Van den Bergh has an incredibly high ceiling. The two-time World Youth champion has produced some eye-watering averages over the last 18 months and he notoriously comes alive on the televised stage; though ironically he’s thrived in the behind closed doors environment, with the sense of serenity aiding his concentration and composure.
Consistency could be an issue for Van den Bergh, although he insists he feels ‘reborn’ after undergoing knee surgery and losing his leg brace ahead of the competition. The 26-year-old has not recorded the results that his performances merit in 2021 thus far, but I think the opening few nights could define the Belgian’s fortunes on debut.
Aspinall was riding the crest of a wave 12 months ago. He flourished on his Premier League bow, defeating the decorated quartet of Van Gerwen, Price, Wright and Anderson in reaching his second major final. ‘The Asp’ has enjoyed a magnificent spell since his breakthrough late in 2018, although he’s currently enduring his first prolonged ‘slump’.
The former UK Open champion uncharacteristically changed his darts at the start of 2021 and his renewed optimism saw him register back-to-back semi-final appearances on the Pro Tour. Despite this, he could only muster a brace of victories across four days at Super Series 2, and his decision to revert back to his trusted set-up speaks volumes.
Aspinall has failed to advance beyond the quarter-finals in any of his last seven televised events and his seasonal average on the Pro Tour places him 50th. His tenacity and spirit have been instrumental in his rapid ascent up the darting pyramid, and those qualities will be required in abundance if he’s to enjoy a successful season this time around.
Durrant enjoyed a dream Premier League debut in 2020. The three-time Lakeside world champion was the epitome of consistency as he became just the third player since the tournament’s inception to top the league phase, and he duly capped off a magical campaign by beating Aspinall to scoop his maiden PDC televised title.
However, less than a fortnight later, Durrant contracted Covid-19, and by his own admission, he’s been on a ‘downward spiral’ ever since. ‘Duzza’ insists that his coronavirus battle isn’t the main reason for his struggles, but he’s endured a nightmare period over recent months, suffering early exits in a multitude of major tournaments.
His performances in the opening eight Super Series events have been concerning. Durrant’s seasonal average on the Pro Tour places him 89th out of 132 players – 50 spots adrift of the next lowest Premier League participant Aspinall. The Teessider will be hoping to draw on last year’s inspiration when he begins his title defence, but based on current form, it’s difficult to make a case for Durrant avoiding elimination.
Jose De Sousa
Few players have divided opinion like Jose De Sousa in this year’s Premier League. Given his incredible scoring power, many are tipping ‘The Special One’ as an outsider to challenge for a play-off place on debut, while others are forecasting the Portuguese to be embroiled in an elimination battle.
De Sousa is the least experienced of this year’s field, particularly on the televised stage. The unassuming ‘Man O’Scores’ sealed his spot in this year’s showpiece following his fairy-tale Grand Slam triumph in November, although he has failed to go beyond the last 16 in any other televised major.
Despite this, the statistics are encouraging. De Sousa’s seasonal Pro Tour average of 98.30 is only usurped by four players, and he’s hitting a higher percentage of 180’s than any other player in the tournament. The concern is his counting and unorthodox approach in the finishing department, because any mistake could prove fatal in the short format. If he can limit those basic errors, he could be a potential dark horse.
Clayton wasn’t even in the Premier League conversation prior to the Masters. What a difference a week makes! Fresh from winning his first PDC televised title, ‘The Ferret’ became the tenth and final participant in this year’s competition, and he’s unquestionably the form player on planet darts.
In the ten events played in 2021 thus far, Clayton has reached five finals – triumphing in three of those contests. The Welshman has posted an astonishing 23 ton-plus averages during this period, boasting a higher average than all nine of his Premier League peers.
The main criticism levelled at Clayton was his inability to close out tight encounters on the biggest stages, yet his World Cup success alongside Price has transformed his fortunes from a psychological perspective. Who knows how Clayton will fare on debut, but if he can continue in a similar vein, he’ll be a major contender for the title.
Image Credits: Lawrence Lustig/PDC