The Premier League is back, and with it comes another edition of my season preview complete with predictions on where each club will finish. Last season I managed to nail the top three in the right order and got two of the three relegation spots correct… which really isn’t saying much considering the Premier League is most unpredictable in the middle. This year, I expect the bottom of the table to be very complicated with any of six different teams in danger of falling through the trap door to the Championship, while toward the top, several mid-table teams have a chance to have a real breakout campaign.
Watford – 20th
Watford are a bit of an odd team, and I’m not even referring to the fact that they’re nicknamed “the Hornets” when they have a moose head on their team crest. No, it’s their Italian owners, the Pozzo family, that have many football fans scratching their heads. After earning direct promotion through a second-place finish in the Championship last season, the team is unrecognizable just a few months later. Why? Because the Pozzos decided their team wasn’t anywhere near good enough as things stood.
The owners couldn’t come to terms on a new contract with manager Slavisa Jokanovic (the fourth different manager over the course of that one season, it should be mentioned) so out the door he went, replaced by Quique Sanchez Flores. The squad list looks like a general assembly of the United Nations with players from 22 different countries after a host of summer signings. Yet not one of those was a goalkeeper to challenge Heurelho Gomes whose last season in the Premier League was a dumpster fire of horrible errors. Etienne Capoue is the big name arrival and it’s worth pointing out that many of these players appear to be Premier League caliber, but a squad has to be a team rather than a collection of players to be successful.
Too many changes, too many question marks and too much uncertainty should have Watford falling through the trap door at season’s end.
Sunderland – 19th
How many lives do the Black Cats have left? Sunderland has pulled off miraculous escapes from relegation in each of the last three seasons, thanks to a late-season surge in form and a spirited manager. The first two of those managers didn’t last long after though with Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet both getting fired before the end of the next campaign. Dick Advocaat will look to buck that trend, but only after he reversed his decision to retire after the season to accept a one-year contract.
Jermain Defoe will look to keep his half-season form from last year going for the whole campaign, something Sunderland really need having scored the second-fewest number of goals in 2014-15. Dutch international Jermain Lens is the shiny new arrival from Dynamo Kyiv at the cost of $13 million, and could add some spark up front or on the flanks. Sunderland’s strength lies in its midfield group that includes Sebastian Larsson, Jack Rodwell, Adam Johnson and captain Lee Cattermole, although Johnson could be out of action in February due to his court trial for allegations he had sex with an underage girl.
Off-field distractions and on-field struggles should be too much for Sunderland to overcome. The magic has to run out sometime and I see them heading to the Championship.
Aston Villa – 18th
So… Aston Villa were nearly relegated for the umpteenth time last season and now their two best players, Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, have gone away. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Benteke’s departure was maybe inevitable, as the Belgium international is too good a striker to be mired in the depths of the table for too long. Delph’s departure however, will feel more like a gut-punch to fans. The Villa captain pledged his loyalty to the club on numerous occasions, turning down a move to Manchester City before bizarrely accepting it a few days later. Both players represent sizable gaps to fill.
The team got busy on trying to do just that. Senegalese midfielder Idrissa Gueye arrives from Lille, Ghana’s Jordan Ayew is in from Lorient and Rudy Gestede comes in at striker from Blackburn. Two reinforcements come in from Manchester City as well in the form of a permanent move for Scott Sinclair and a free transfer for defender Micah Richards. Gabriel Agbonlahor should end up shouldering more responsibility up front and in the center of the pitch, while reliable midfielder Charles N’Zogbia is also still there. American keeper Brad Guzan will hope that a strong club season, outperforming Everton’s and fellow American Tim Howard, might help him keep his place as the starter on the U.S. men’s national team even with Howard’s imminent return.
Villa have to hope that their new signings mesh quickly and adapt to life in the Premier League if they will have any hope of survival.
Bournemouth – 17th
Bournemouth has reached the Premier League for the first time in its 125-year history and you better believe they’re going to enjoy the party. It’s a story that sounds like a game of Football Manager, with three promotions (League Two to League One to the Championship to the Premier League) in just six seasons. Not only that, they were on the verge of bankruptcy and relegation from the entire Football League in 2009, before their dramatic turnaround. As Drake once said, “Started from the bottom now we’re here.”
If last season is any implication, the Cherries are going to be fun to watch. They play a fluid, offensive brand of football with a lot of pressure and a lot of passes. The last newly promoted side to go out and actually try to score goals and win games that way was Blackpool, and they missed out on survival on the last day of 2011, with a very respectable 39 points. You have to admire a small club (their stadium seats less than 12,000) that is willing to go out and play positive football.
Like a lot of cash-strapped newly promoted sides, Bournemouth relied on a host of free transfers to add some experience. Goalkeepers Artur Boruc and Adam Federici, speedy winger Joshua King and experienced defender Sylvain Distin (along with the young and talented Christian Atsu on loan from Chelsea) all joined talismanic manager Eddie Howe’s squad this summer. Ivorian forward Max Gradel and club-record signing Tyrone Mings were the expensive buys. They should mix with young attackers Callum Wilson and Matt Ritchie, both of whom really impressed in the Championship.
Overall, Bournemouth has too much belief and too much going for it to get relegated after one campaign. It may be close and it may come down to the end of the season, but I think they’ll stay up. And everyone can enjoy rooting for the little team that could, along the way.
Norwich City – 16th
The last team into the Premier League after defeating Middlesbrough in the playoff final, Norwich City managed to rebound quickly after being relegated following the 2013-14 season. Now the question is, can they avoid being sent down again after just one season?
The Canaries did not have as much success bringing in new blood this summer as other teams. Graham Dorrans’ loan move from West Bromwich Albion was made permanent. His former teammate with the Baggies, Youssouf Mulumbu, adds some grit to midfield while Robbie Brady brings some set-piece mastery to the flanks, joining from relegated Hull City. They mix with a squad that isn’t exactly star-studded. Long-time club player Wes Hoolahan and goalkeeper John Ruddy bring the experience, but the biggest question mark is if Norwich can score enough goals to keep itself up.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel is back after a season-long loan with St. Etienne in France’s Ligue 1, but he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in his first Premier League go-round with Norwich, finding the back of the net just once in 25 games. Cameron Jerome is on his seventh Premier League campaign, but he hasn’t scored more than four goals in a top-flight season since the turn of the decade. Gary Hooper is serviceable if not outstanding and Nathan Redmond has been regarded as a future superstar for a long time, but is maybe not ready to take that next step at just 21. Expect Norwich City to display a lot of grit, but they will need some luck if they’re going to have a shot at matching the three-year stay they enjoyed the last time they gained promotion.
West Bromwich Albion – 15th
Look, I like Tony Pulis, he knows how to get the most out of a Premier League team that doesn’t have as much talent as bigger clubs, but man does he play a boring brand of football. That said, West Bromwich Albion is a team that could use substance over style, as they try to survive another year.
Saido Berahino is far and away the best player on the team. After scoring 14 Premier League goals, the Baggies have done well to hang onto their young striker so far. He’ll get some support up front this season in the form of striker Rickie Lambert. Lambert has a pedigree of scoring goals for hard-working teams and he’ll be looking for more playing time after a hot and cold stay at Liverpool.
West Brom’s biggest strength is at the back. James Chester was the most expensive signing for Pulis this summer, costing $12 million from Hull City. He joins a group that already includes Jonas Olsson, Joleon Lescott and Craig Dawson. They’ll need to be at their best to keep teams off the board and make the job a little bit easier on the other side of the pitch for Berahino and company. It’s certainly a lot to ask when you take a look at some of the monster line-ups other teams have put together. Pulis’ tactical maneuvering might be the difference-maker.
West Ham United – 14th
Oh, you pesky Hammers. West Ham United have been a bit boring in the last few seasons to say the least, but that all may finally change with big Sam Allardyce no longer at the helm as manager. After a surprisingly grand early start, West Ham fell back to finish 12th. I’m not expecting a repeat performance of last year’s opening success, so a more consistent run of form is necessary from new man Slaven Bilic to avoid disaster.
West Ham have a plodding, physical, if not technically gifted team, that should push around enough opponents to keep them in the Premier League, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Hammers’ roster of center backs is nothing to sneeze at. The biggest concern is on the other side of the ball where injuries have already struck. An early season start due to Europa League qualifying means the squad is on very short rest, and star strikers Andy Carroll and Enner Valencia are both out with significant injuries. With Stewart Downing’s summer transfer to boyhood club Middlesbrough, play-making duties will fall squarely on the shoulders of Diafra Sakho.
There is a distinct possibility that things go horribly, horribly wrong here and paint a black mark on West Ham’s final season at Upton Park, before their move to the Olympic Stadium in 2016.
Leicester City – 13th
Leicester City has a giant Esteban Cambiasso-shaped whole in its team, after the experienced Argentine midfielder declined to return for another season. His leadership was a big reason why the Foxes managed to escape relegation with a late surge in form. However, that wasn’t the only offseason loss the team suffered. After a preseason tour to Thailand ended with scandalous headlines involving youth team players and prostitutes (including manager Nigel Pearson’s son), Pearson’s time in charge came to an abrupt halt. In his place, a perplexing choice of Italian manager Claudio Ranieri, who last managed in the Premier League 11 years ago.
Leicester’s main strength lies up front where the hard working Jamie Vardy, high scoring Leonardo Ulloa and newly signed Japanese international Shinji Okazaki all operate. In the back, Robert Huth and Wes Morgan shore up the defense with Kasper Schmeichel entrenched between the posts. It could be a nervy few weeks to open the season for Leicester as they make adjustments, but I expect them to once again stay up.
Newcastle United – 12th
Newcastle United were another entry on the long list of teams that were nearly relegated last season. The fans finally got their wish to see manager Alan Pardew leave the club, when he took over Crystal Palace in January. The result? Newcastle plummeted to a 15th place finish, well below the Eagles, which Pardew took over. Steve McClaren is the new manager, and the former leader of the English national team will hope that he can repair some of the club’s image and engineer a quick rebuild.
A lot of money has been invested in a few transfers from PSV Eindhoven and Anderlecht. Striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, midfielder Georgino Wijnaldum and defender Chancel Mbemba have all arrived to help out a main cast that includes striker Papiss Demba Cissé, defender and captain Fabricio Coloccini, goalkeeper Tim Krul and midfielder Cheick Tioté. A few more reinforcements may be necessary but Newcastle fans will be hoping for simple stability and a step in the right direction, as the Magpies look to rebound to the top half of the Premier League.
Crystal Palace – 11th
Alan Pardew took the Eagles to new heights last campaign with a tenth place finish, the club’s best ever season. Pardew, already a club legend from his time there as a player, only took the reins in January, so hopes are high he can at the very least repeat his success with a full season in charge.
Crystal Palace definitely know how to soar like eagles with fast players like Dwight Gayle, Yannick Bolassie, Jason Puncheon and Wilfried Zaha. Expensive signings Yohan Cabaye, amazingly arriving from Paris Saint-Germain for $20 million, and striker Connor Wickham from Sunderland should help add a cutting edge to the attack, as will Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford who scored 17 goals in 39 games for Middlesbrough last season. Glenn Murray is also still on the team and has a knack for scoring goals whenever he gets a chance to play.
There are some defensive liabilities and young goalkeeper Alex McCarthy may end up replacing Julian Speroni sooner rather than later, but I expect Crystal Palace to finish comfortably in the mid-table.
Everton – 10th
Everton fans thought the sky was falling around them in 2014-15, before ending up in a decidedly mid-table 11th place finish. They should probably expect about the same finish this year but without the doom and gloom surrounding the proceedings.
While Everton could use a bit more depth at certain spots, they do have an excellent starting group on both offense and defense. Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman are top quality Premier League fullbacks while Phil Jagielka and youngster John Stones start at center back. Up front, Belgian duo Kevin Miralles and Romelu Lukaku should provide the goals while Arouna Koné and Steven Naismith provide cover off the bench. In the midfield, Ross Barkley will hope for a bounce back season in terms of production, after a disappointing year following the World Cup. He’s joined by Everton’s main acquisitions this summer, Tom Cleverly, on a free from Manchester United and winger Gerard Deulofeu, who arrives from Barcelona after a loan two seasons ago.
The risk for the Toffees is if some of their players end up not looking like themselves, which happened last year. Tim Howard had a down season before rebounding toward the end, Ross Barkley looked out of sorts and Romelu Lukaku started slowly after his big money transfer. The other huge concern is if Everton can hold onto some of their best players, particularly John Stones who could get snapped up before the transfer window closes.
Tottenham Hotspur – 9th
Tottenham Hotspur, otherwise known as the fighting Harry Kanes, managed a fifth-place finish last season. A then 21-year-old English striker Harry Kane announced himself to the Premier League with an incredible 21 goals, which helped make up for Spurs’ leaky defense that allowed 53 goals, more than any other team in the top half of the table. If Kane’s production falls off even slightly, Tottenham could go tumbling back into the pack.
Kane wouldn’t be the first Premier League striker to burst onto the scene with a world-class caliber season only to fade the following year. Swansea City fans will point to Spanish forward Michu as a recent example. Club-record signing Roberto Soldado has been a massive disappointment in his two seasons at White Hart Lane and experienced players Emmanuel Adebayor and Aaron Lennon appear headed out the door as well.
The bright spots in midfield are Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Érik Lamela who can score and provide final passes. Captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has played exceptionally at times despite Spurs’ horrible goals against record. The major coup this summer was buying defender Toby Alderweireld who had a fantastic season last year on loan at Southampton. Still, the best Tottenham seem to be able to hope for is an identical fifth-place finish and if the goals scored drop off it could be much, much worse.
Southampton – 8th
Manager Ronald Koeman had a phenomenal first year, leading Southampton to its highest-ever Premier League finish. The Saints looked like a Champions League caliber team for much of the season before fading near the end, but it was a stark difference to how things looked following a massive amount of star players being sold before the campaign. It’s a new season, but the script looks familiar as two more big pieces of the squad are out the door.
Nathaniel Clyne is off to Liverpool, while Morgan Schneiderlin has been bought by Manchester United, two pieces of business that leave the Saints $60 million richer. Some of that money has been reinvested. Dutch international Jordy Clasie reunites with Koeman to take over the vacated holding midfielder spot, while Spanish youngster Juanmi and defender Cédric Soares were reasonably prices additions. The defensive side of the ball is still an issue for Southampton. Maya Yoshida Goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg is on a season-long loan from Fulham, and will battle Fraser Forster for the starting spot. Captain José Fonta and Japanese international Maya Yoshida will try to nail down the defense at the center back positions. Up top, Sadio Mané and Graziano Pelle should be a deadly duo, while youngster James Ward-Prowse is your latest Southampton starlet to keep an eye on.
The Saints are on to something here in their approach to the game. Smart scouting means they can replace the players who are big purchases by more established Premier League clubs, and that money has also helped the team build and improve within. It’s a refreshing change to what life is like at the top of the table and you can’t help but hope Southampton succeed with it.
Stoke City – 7th
For so long, Stoke City were known as a team that played bruising, kick and chase football, clogging up the pitch and grinding out points under manager Tony Pulis, satisfied with keeping themselves in the Premier League year after year. They rarely faced the threat of relegation, but never mounted anything close to a serious challenge toward the top of the table. My how things can change in just a few short years.
Stoke have gone out and rebranded their image. Now under manager Mark Hughes the club plays football that isn’t dull. They’ve been ambitious in their transfer targets and this season brought in two more players from Barcelona, Ibrahim Afellay and Moha El Ouriachi, to go along with last year’s surprise package Bojan Krkic. Bojan’s season was cut short by injury last year, and if he can avoid that fate he should be a real treat to watch making Stoke’s midfield tick. Spanish striker Joselu was the big money signing this offseason and should battle Mame Biram Diouf for minutes up front.
Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic has left the starting role with the Potters in favor of a seat on the bench at Chelsea. Jack Butland takes over for him and I believe he’ll have a breakout year. A very young and talented keeper himself, Butland appears to have a lock on the future England top spot and could make his presence known with a full Premier League year in between the posts. Steven N’Zonzi is perhaps a bigger loss in midfield, having been sold to Sevilla, but talented pieces like Charlie Adam and Marko Arnautovic are still in place, and at least one more big signing could be in store. It should be a very fun season at the Brittania.
Swansea City – 6th
Swansea City is one of the fun teams to watch in the Premier League. Manager Gary Monk has shown that he can have the team playing attack-minded football. Now it remains to be seen if the club can mount a serious challenge for a European football spot.
U.S. men’s national team fans will recognize a couple of Swansea’s new additions from the 2014 World Cup, with Ghana’s André Ayew and Portugal’s Éder both having played against the Stars and Stripes in the group stage. They will both lend support up front to star man Bafetimbi Gomis, who will be looking for a more consistent season after scoring seven goals last year. Dead ball specialist and assist machine Gylfi Sigurdsson should have no trouble finding players to get on the end of his deliveries, while in goal Poland’s Łukasz Fabiański will need another surprisingly good season, much like last year’s performance, to help the team push up the table. And I’ll be keeping a closer eye on South Korean midfielder Ki Sung-Yeung, so I don’t miss out on another very good, under the radar season.
Liverpool – 5th
As if Liverpool didn’t have enough to worry about with trying to keep pace with the top teams in the table, the Reds went and lost out on their best player. Sure they made out like a bandit in Raheem Sterling’s $75 million transfer to Manchester City, but the fact that they once again couldn’t hold onto their best player has to be concerning to the storied club. Talismanic leader and captain Steven Gerrard has moved on, which at this point in his career doesn’t hurt the team too much skill-wise although his leadership may be missed.
Without Sterling, attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho will be counted on to shoulder a larger brunt of creative play. The Brazilian tallied five goals for the second straight season in 2014-15 and was also named to the PFA’s Team of the Year. He’s joined in the midfield by free transfer James Milner and Roberto Firmino who cost $40 million from Hoffenheim. New captain Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana should also see plenty of playing time. A healthy season and return to form for striker Daniel Sturridge would also greatly help things. He’s joined in the rotation by new arrivals Christian Benteke (Aston Villa, $50 million) and Danny Ings (Burnley, pending tribunal). Mario Balotelli is still there, but the Italian is unlikely to see any playing time after a horrible 2014-15 campaign.
Nathaniel Clyne is the last big addition to mention, costing $20 million from Southampton. He joins fellow former Saints Lallana and Dejan Lovren. Meanwhile, youngster Jordan Ibe could be a player to make the leap into more regular first-team minutes, as Brendan Rodgers starts to feel the pressure and desperately takes a run at a top four spot.
Manchester City – 4th
Manchester City might have finished second in the Premier League last season, but they were a long way from taking the title from Chelsea. An experienced roster, the Citizens dropped the average age in the starting line-up quite a bit with the purchase of Raheem Sterling from Liverpool. He’ll be alongside the heartbeat of Manchester City, Yaya Touré in midfield. David Silva is the other star in the middle of the pitch. The Spaniard known for his deft touches and perfect passes also contributed 12 goals in 2014-15. Fabian Delph arrives from Aston Villa to occupy the holding role in front of a defensive unit that struggled at times last year. Captain Vincent Kompany and company (that’s fun to say) will work to tighten things up.
Goalkeeper Joe Hart, for all his critics, still managed to lead the league in clean sheets last year with 14. This team is a locomotive up front though, and it’s strength lies in offense. A league-best 83 goals blew the doors off everyone else. Top scorer Sergio Aguero and his 26 tallies is the number one reason why. The Argentine is electric with the ball and shouldn’t have any trouble maintaining his high standard.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side still seems to be missing a piece or two to really grab that Premier League title. Luckily for City fans, the club still has bags of money at its disposal and should make some more noise before the end of the transfer window.
Manchester United – 3rd
Louis van Gaal’s second summer in charge of Manchester United was another where the Red Devils splashed the cash. Huge payouts totaling $120 million in order to secure the services of Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Matteo Darmian show once again that the team is going for it. Then again, last year it was a similar story and the best they could manage was fourth place.
The truth is United are spoiled for choice when it comes to talent. Their roster is full to the brim with top quality players. In the midfield alone there is Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, Adnan Januzaj, Daley Blind, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera to go along with Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin. Van Gaal can’t possibly keep them all happy, so he has to get rid of a few. But how do you choose among a lot that have all performed very well for United at one time or another. Some of it just comes down to who van Gaal happens not to like. For evidence of that, look no further than the goalkeeper position where Victor Valdes, Anders Lindegaard and to some extent (because of his rumored move to Real Madrid) David de Gea are all on the wrong side of the manager.
Somehow, United’s once-clogged striker positions are now their thinnest spots on the pitch. Robin van Persie and Radmel Falcao are gone, and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is another of the players in van Gaal’s doghouse whom he is looking to offload. That leaves just captain and star player Wayne Rooney up front with 19-year-old James Wilson for support. There is no question that United are talented, but until van Gaal gets things organized and gets a finalized first-team settled in, I can’t see them getting close to overtaking Chelsea or Arsenal.
Chelsea – 2nd
José Mourinho led Chelsea to the top of the table in his second season back in the Premier League. With only three losses, the Blues were a cut above everyone else and had three games left to go when they locked up the trophy. Now the quest begins to become the first team to win the title twice in a row since 2009-10 when Manchester United won the league for the third year running.
Mourinho has left his squad essentially in tact from the team that lifted the trophy last season. Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic arrives as the new back-up from Stoke City while Radamel Falcao will try and restore his once glittering reputation after a forgettable year at Manchester United. If club legend Petr Cech couldn’t even get playing time ahead of Belgian youngster Thibeault Courtois, you have to assume that Begovic will barely see the field. Captain John Terry and Gary Cahill anchor a stellar defensive unit. Eden Hazard has become one of, if not the best player in the Premier League, with Cesc Fabregas, Willian and Oscar also in midfield. Up top, Diego Costa will look to avoid injury after scoring 20 goals in 26 games last season.
If there is any concern it’s that Mourinho’s tactic of hardly rotating his squad at all may come back to bite him if the injury bug strikes. There’s also a risk of Mourinho spontaneously combusting at some point as he continues to get worked up and start media fights with anyone and everyone who poses the slightest threat or dares disrespect him.
Arsenal – 1st
After finding a way to both appear to mount a title challenge to Chelsea and throw it away nearly simultaneously last season, Arsenal are my pick to finally get over the hump and win the Premier League for the first time since 2003-04 (*double checks that figure* Really?! Holy crap that was a long time ago!).
Arsene Wenger has been the man with a plan for so long, he’s the longest-tenured manager in the Premier League by a long way. He believes in developing talent rather than just going out and paying for it, but that model has changed a little bit recently after Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie were all whisked away by other clubs in the middle of their prime a few seasons ago. In response, Arsenal cracked open the war chest to bring in Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez from Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. The result? A team that plays beautiful football, the kind Wenger aspires to, and can get results.
The big transfer is goalkeeper Petr Cech who comes over from rival Chelsea in search of first-team football. The Czech Republic international has a fantastic Premier League pedigree and could be the first player to nail down the Arsenal position in between the posts in a long, long time. Up front, Olivier Giroud should be the main man after scoring 30 goals over the last two seasons, with Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott providing support. In the midfield, Aaron Ramsay, Jack Wilshere and Francis Coquelin slot in along with Özil and Sanchez, while Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny hold down the fort in the back.
With other talents I haven’t even mentioned yet like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla and Calum Chambers it’s no surprise why Arsenal are title challengers, but winning the thing for the first time in more than a decade will be a tough task.