The Close But No Cigars
10th – Southampton
Southampton was the talk of the town, or at least the Premier League, last season when they used a lot of homegrown talent to work their way to a surprising eighth place finish. However, the rest of the league noticed and when it comes to players, if you can’t beat them (or develop similar players through your own academy)… buy them, and that’s exactly what they did.
The Saints received more than a total of $150 million from the combined sales of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Rickie Lambert in this transfer window alone. They have started to spend some of it, bringing in goalkeeper Fraser Forster, midfielder Dušan Tadić and forward Shane Long, but there is still a huge chunk of change available for manager Ronald Koeman to spend. The problem is, he hasn’t spent it, and the season has already begun.
You can understand why Southampton might want to hold onto their mountain of money until the right transfer targets are identified, even if that means saving it for a few months or years, but at the moment the Saints have a large portion of their starting XI to try and replace. That they haven’t done so does not bode well for the immediate future. After all, you can’t play large sacks of money at positions on the field
They still have some very talented players left. The likes of José Fonte, Jay Rodriguez, Jack Cork, Gastón Ramírez, Maya Yoshida and others means Southampton isn’t in danger of relegation, but it is doubtful they’ll be able to mount the same kind of challenge they did last year. The Saints are also missing manager Mauricio Pochettino who left to take over the position at Tottenham.
One last note, the transfer of Forster from Celtic is an interesting one considering that Southampton probably have the deepest crop of goalkeepers in the Premier League (Chelsea’s situation with Petr Čech and Thibaut Courtois not withstanding). Forster presumably takes over the starting role with Artur Boruc as the back up. However, Southampton also have THREE more serviceable keepers on the roster: club legend Kelvin Davis, American Cody Cropper and Paulo Gazzaniga. Cropper is the main focal point for me since there have been a sizable number of articles popping up about the young, 21-year-old national-teamer. With so much competition, I’m assuming Cropper will have to go out on loan to the lower tiers to try and get some game time.
9th – Swansea City
Swansea City are an interesting team to try and figure out. The Swans came home 12th last campaign, but if this year’s fast start out of the gate with a road win against Manchester United is any indication, they could be ready to make a little more noise.
Two seasons ago, striker Michu was the toast of the Premier League after a breakout campaign that saw him near the top of the league scoring race. But after an injury-plagued season, Swansea were just as quick to let him go with a year-long loan and option to buy with Napoli in Serie A. Replacing his production up front will be the new breakout star of the Swans, Wilfried Bony from the Ivory Coast. He’ll have some help from Bafétimbi Gomis who arrives from Lyon in Ligue 1 on a free transfer.
Swansea have in fact been very busy in the transfer window with the other two other notable acquisitions in Gylfi Sigurdsson, an Icelandic international from Tottenham Hotspur, and Jefferson Montero, an Ecuadorian international. They’re joined on the offensive by Marvin Emnes, an underrated speedster the past few years in the Championship, who joins Swansea on loan from Middlesborough. Not to mention they already have a couple talented midfielders on the books in the forms of Nathan Dyer and Jonjo Shelvey.
Their biggest weakness is in goal where former Arsenal washout Łukasz Fabiański will be the starter with not too much competition to be expected from the other two keepers on the roster, David Cornell and Gerhard Tremmel. Fabiański taking the reins after Michel Vorm was sold to Tottenham.
8th – Stoke City
I am stoked about Stoke for the upcoming season. I look at the Potters squad and I get excited. Talk about a team that has made some smart decisions in the transfer market. Stoke City brought in five players this transfer window with three free transfers, one on loan and the other a smart business decision that saw them sign former Barcelona prodigy Bojan Krkić for just $5 million. The other players they added: Mame Biram Diouf from Senegal, Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell from England and Nigerian forward Victor Moses on loan from Chelsea.
Add those faces to a roster that includes goalkeeper Asmir Begović, defenders Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron and Robert Huth, midfielders Charlie Adam, Wilson Palacios, Steven N’Zonzi and Stephen Ireland and forwards Peter Odemwingie, Marko Arnautović and Peter Crouch. That’s a pretty impressive line-up. Stoke also has some prospects in the works with young goalkeepers Jack Butland and Dale Eve.
I’ve always had a great appreciation of Charlie Adam and his magical left foot since his days captaining Blackpool. The Nigerian duo of Odemwingie and Moses equals speed and goal scoring ability. Plus, Begović has quietly become a world-class goalkeeper for both Stoke and Bosnia and Herzegovina (ironically, after starting his international career with Canada).
Unfortunately, being the best of “close but no cigars” club is like getting the “win second place in a beauty contest, receive $10” chance card in Monopoly. It gives you sort-of, kind-of bragging rights and a little extra money, but you don’t get to go to Europe (to play in Champions League/Europa League or to compete against other first-place winning beauty queens).
Still, I’ll look for Stoke City to win a bunch of games and maybe even take a few points off the top four teams and play a role in who takes home the title.
The In The Mix-ers
7th – Everton
Everton had a totally respectable fifth place finish last season, but the fact is, they blew what looked like a great chance to nab a Champions League spot ahead of Arsenal as the season wound down. The Toffees simply cracked under the pressure and now have to deal with the somewhat lucrative but normally distracting Europa League. Some of the top flight managers have even complained in years past about how since they didn’t get into the Champions League they’d rather skip the Europa League entirely and just focus on the domestic table.
Everton also made a big statement about their aspirations for the future by paying out a whopping $45 million to permanently sign Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea. Lukaku had a superb season on loan with Everton last year, and even with the large price tag some people are wondering why José Mourinho and company in London didn’t want to hang onto the young prodigy considering their recent struggles with forwards.
This team is built solidly from the back with Tim Howard an experienced rock in goal and defenders like Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Séamus Coleman, Sylvain Distin and Tony Hibbert on the back line. Ross Barkley, Gareth Barry (officially with the team on a free transfer from Manchester City), Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar are capable players in the midfield, with Barkley putting on some good performances for England in the World Cup. Up top, fellow Belgian international Kevin Mirallas and Arouna Koné can take some of the pressure off Lukaku.
However, the fact is this is nearly the exact same Everton squad as the last campaign with Lukaku and Barry now being permanent members of the Toffees instead of just loanees. So why put Everton in the seventh spot when they finished fifth last year? It’s simple, the injury to Ross Barkley. The youngster is such a key component to this team that removing him from the line-up for a significant amount of time is enough to send them back a few places.
6th – Tottenham Hotspur
Tottenham Hotspur should lock up the sixth position in the Premier League table after making a couple of shrewd moves in the offseason. First, they sacked inspiring, but somewhat ineffective manager Tim Sherwood and hired Argentine Mauricio Pochettino away from Southampton.
Next, they got busy in the transfer window, signing left back Ben Davies and goalkeeper Michel Vorm from Swansea, while bringing in England youngster (who ironically was signed and taught the game in Portugal) Eric Dier. Lastly, they took a multi-million dollar flier on U.S. international DeAndre Yedlin from the Seattle Sounders.
Yedlin won’t join the club until either January or the summer of next year, depending on what they decide. Davies and Dier give an immediate boost to their back line while Vorm may be the most interesting signing of things to come. The athletic Dutch keeper appears to be in the back-up role behind French international Hugo Lloris, but 43-year-old American Brad Friedel (he of the 2002 World Cup heroics) is also on the roster. It appears that with the addition of Vorm, Friedel will adopt more of a coaching role with the Spurs.
The club already has talened defenders Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson on the books along with Érik Lamela and Christian Eriksen in midfield and Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado up front on attack. They appear to have plenty of depth to deal with both a Europa League campaign and the domestic schedule and should be right back where they were in 2013-14.
5th – Manchester United
“Oh how the mighty have fallen,” the critics cried when Manchester United struggled to a seventh place finish in the league last year. David Moyes, the handpicked successor to the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, never really got off the mark and the Red Devils sputtered out of the gate. You don’t get much of a chance to settle in at United and Moyes was sacked this summer and replaced by Louis van Gaal who led the Netherlands to a third place finish at the 2014 World Cup.
Van Gaal is an interesting manager. A brilliant tactician who isn’t afraid to disrupt the status quo, van Gaal has a tendency of alienating players who have been at the club in years past. A lot of players have left Old Trafford this summer, some because they were already planning to leave Manchester United and some because they would be deemed surplus to requirements by van Gaal, and more will follow shortly.
Players like Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand who once ruled the roost are now gone, two on free transfers. Nani has been loaned out to Sporting CP and highly touted international players like Japan’s Shinji Kagawa, England’s Danny Welbeck and Mexico’s Javier Hernandez could all soon be leaving as well.
As always, Man U have splashed some cash this summer, spending a combined $120 million on just three players: Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera and Marcos Rojo. The Red Devils still have one of the most talented rosters on the planet with stars everywhere you look. David de Gea will look to continue improving in goal, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will lead and young and talented defensive unit, breakout youngster Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata lead a talented midfield that has about 11 realistic options available and up front new captain Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie provide the firepower.
However, United had a similarly talented squad last year and still managed to fail repeatedly. The long shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson stretches a long way and there will be a lot of pressure on van Gaal to try and turn things around quickly. I think his adversarial managerial style will hurt him in the long run and Manchester United will have to settle for a fifth place finish. Still, it’s better than last year.
While there can only be one winner, the top four spots in the Premier League grant entry into UEFA Champions League, and all the money and potential glory that brings with it.
4th – Liverpool
A near miss on the Premier League title for Liverpool showcased just how fast a team can turn things around after a poor season. A seventh place finish in 2012-13 turned into a second place (by just two points) finish in just one year. However, this season the Reds will also have to deal with European football, something they didn’t have to focus on while making their title charge last season. There is also the matter of the giant bite-sized hole in the line-up after the departure of Luis Suárez (see what I did there).
Now, there are probably seldom few who loathe the racist, cheating, diving, biting Luis Suárez more than I do, and the fact that he is now playing for Barcelona, one of the great creators of football, is a travesty, but I can admit that the Uruguayan forward was certainly an effective player for Liverpool. His 31 goals led all players and earned him the Premier League Player of the Season award. That said, I’m certainly not complaining about his four month ban from football for his latest chomp at the World Cup.
So Suárez leaving this summer for Barcelona is a huge blow for Liverpool’s hopes of mounting another title challenge. They did receive a reported $125 million for his transfer fee, but it’s hard to replace a player who has that big an impact on how you do.
Not that Liverpool aren’t trying to replace him. That hefty transfer fee has already been spent, as the Reds wasted no time putting the money to use. Thus far they have brought in Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Lazar Markovic, Divock Origi, Emre Can, Rickie Lambert and Alberto Moreno for more than a combined $145 million (!!!)!
That’s a good return on their investment for pretty much just one player, but Liverpool still have some work to do on their squad. Goalkeeper could be a position to cause problems if Belgian Simon Mignlolet takes a step back from the level he was at last season, and even then the Reds leaked more goals than any other club who finished in the top five of the table. He doesn’t have much competition either with only Australia’s Brad Jones and youngster Danny Ward on the roster.
Striker Daniel Sturridge, who finished runner-up to Suárez in the goals scored department, will have a lot of pressure on him to keep up the pace. He’ll have the support from a sublimely talented midfield with Raheem Sterling, Steven Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson (not to mention all the new midfielders they brought in) all supplying passes.
Liverpool will be in the race this season, but I don’t think they quite have the talent necessary to push them over the top or quite as far as last year. Still, a top four finish will be a success for them.
3rd – Arsenal
Arsenal are my choice for the number three spot in the table standings. An up-and-down campaign in 2013-14 saw the Gunners go from title to contenders to in danger of finishing outside the top five before ultimately sliding into fourth place. Longtime manager Arsene Wenger, who has been at the club since 1996, has always been a frugal spender in the transfer market, much to the chagrin of the club’s fans. However, this summer Wenger has looked like a genius with the choices he’s made on players to bring in.
Alexis Sanchez is the big, blockbuster move for the unyielding attacker who starred for Chile in the World Cup. He came with a big price tag from Barcelona for a total of $60 million. This marks the second straight summer where Arsenal have raided one of La Liga’s giants for a star player after they signed Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for $50 million in 2013. The Gunners also made a shrewd move for Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle United and bolstered their goalkeeping depth considerably with the addition of Colombian national team keeper David Ospina from French club Nice. The last move seems a bit of a risk with the signing of young and rather unproven defender Calum Chambers from Southampton for not exactly “deal” worthy money.
To help offset the cost of their summer expenditures the club chose to let a lot of players walk away, as Nicklas Bendtner, Daneil Boateng and Chu-Young Park were all released, and several more players (including longtime defender Bacary Sagna) left on free transfers. The club should have plenty of money saved up in the war chest anyway, and they can afford to splurge every once in a while without too much worry.
The end result is that Wenger has a very sleek, skilled and experienced squad at his disposal that isn’t so bulky that he has to worry about players becoming unsettled over lack of playing time. Well done, Arsenal.
Ospina will challenge Poland’s Wojciech Szczęsny for the starting spot in goal. Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, Kieran Gibbs and Debuchy make up a very strong defense. The midfield has Özil, Sanchez, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla all available not to mention speedy wingers Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. As for strikers, Olivier Giroud headlines the pack with German Lukas Podolski right behind him in selection and youngster Joel Campbell will make a case for playing time after a breakout performance at the 2014 World Cup for Costa Rica.
Arsenal are set for another top four finish, but I think the lack of a huge goal scorer (Giroud had 16 last year… good, but not great) will keep them from claiming the crown.
2nd – Manchester City
My how things can change for a club when you get billions of dollars pumped in after a take over by a group from the Middle East. The Abu Dhabi United Group have seen a return on their massive investment by capturing two Premier League titles in the last three years.
Manuel Pellegrini and company haven’t made too many changes to their club, which edged out Liverpool for the crown last season. Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell were the only two players sold (not a huge loss) while many more were released or allowed to leave on free transfers. The biggest departing names are defender Joleon Lescott and goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon. Both played a significant part in last season but are replaceable.
Manchester City didn’t go on one of their many massive transfer shopping sprees this summer like they have in years past. I mean… they still spent more than probably most Premier League clubs, but they only have brought in Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando from FC Porto, Willy Caballero from Malaga and Bacary Sagna on a free transfer.
Joe Hart is entrenched as the starting goalkeeper, even with the addition of Caballero, but questions remain about the England #1’s effectiveness. Defender Vincent Kompany is everything a team could want in a captain and leads the back line. In midfield, Yaya Touré is the player who largely will determine if the Citizens repeat as champs. Last year he was sensational, scoring a career-high 20 goals.
He has lots of help with Samir Nasri and David Silva also in the middle of the park. They even have the services of longtime Chelsea foe Frank Lampard on loan from Manchester City-owned club New York City FC (who will start play next season in MLS). City also appear to have given broadcasters a headache by having both Fernando and Fernandinho (both Brazilian midfielders) on their roster. Up front though, things are kind of sparse. Edin Džeko, Sergio Agüero and Álvaro Negredo lead the attack and will need to provide some more goals to bolster the efforts of Touré.
Bottom line, Manchester City look very talented, but won’t have enough to repeat as Premier League champions.
1st – Chelsea
Chelsea and their manager José Mourinho (the “Special One”) finished third in 2013-14. While they have been near the top nearly every season, it has been a while since the London based club added some meaningful silverware. Chelsea last won the Premier League in the 2009-10 season and lifted the Champions League trophy in 2010-11. Mourinho and company will hope to change that this season.
The Blues can thank French club Paris Saint-Germain for providing them with a large portion of their transfer window funds by buying Brazilian defender David Luiz for the outrageous and astronomical price of $65 million! They also got a cool $45 million off Everton from the sale of Romelu Lukaku. That money has been reinvested to bring in Cesc Fàbregas from Barcelona and Diego Costa and Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid for a combined $135 million. They also brought back club legend but aging striker Didier Drogba on a free transfer.
The big debate for this team is in goal where Chelsea are blessed (or cursed depending on how you look at it) with two of arguably the top five best goalkeepers in the world with the established but still in his prime Petr Čech and the young hot shot from Belgium who took Atletico Madrid to the Champions League final last season in Thibaut Courtois. It appears that Courtois has won the job for now, but you have to worry if your a Chelsea fan that Čech won’t be satisfied with being a back-up and may leave the club.
Fàbregas looks to be the dynamic player in midfield. The Spaniard had struggled in Barcelona to find a position that fit him, often being deployed in the “false nine” role or on the wing, which didn’t necessarily promote his playmaking abilities. He’ll partner with Belgian international Eden Hazard who’s skills and footwork make him appear as if he could dance through a team’s defense on his own.
Striker has been the biggest problem for Chelsea, especially last season. The platoon of Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres never really amounted to much. Two of those three are gone (Torres makes too much money after his mega-deal move from Liverpool to be able to be sold) and Diego Costa should provide plenty of goals while Drogba gives them more bite up front as well despite his old age. Chelsea also have André Schürrle who is fresh off his victory with Germany in the World Cup. The 23-year-old youngster provided the cross on the trophy-winning goal and should have a ton of confidence going into this season.
Chelsea will be hard to beat in 2014-15, and should find themselves back on top.