Happy new football season everyone!
And what a season we have in store for us. With the rise of the multi-billion pound television deal, English clubs have really been able to flex their financial muscles, even those considered to be way down the pecking order. Even looking down into the championship, Middlesbrough’s recent £14m bid for Jordan Rhodes demonstrates that we could be entering a new, different era for football on the Isles.
Every team has been throwing money at their problems, desperately trying to out-marquee-signing each other.
It’s brilliant to bear witness to. Is it economically healthy? Probably not.
With that in mind, it’s time to preview what is set to be a defining Premier League season.
What key questions do each team need to answer?
Arsenal – Can they mount a legitimate title challenge this year?
Towards the end of last season, Arsenal looked like title contenders in terms of their form and performances. That’s exactly the issue though.
For the last decade, they have been unable to sustain title winning form over an entire season. They will have a patch of form where they look invincible, but they will also go through a period of average performances and mediocre results. In last season’s case, they started badly.
This season, they need to assert their authority and quality over the teams immediately below them in the table. No more losses to the likes of Swansea and Spurs.
Additionally, firepower to go alongside Olivier Giroud wouldn’t go amiss. He’s been clamoring for more competition upfront, and with Welbeck inconsistent in front of goal, an additional 20 goal a season striker is required for them to push for the title.
Signing Petr Cech is fantastic business, though, and finally puts to rest a goalkeeping dilemma that has been a major issue since Jens Lehmann first left the club.
Player to watch: Mesut Ozil
Aston Villa – Will their French Revolution mirror Newcastle’s?
The Villans have reinvested the money from the sale of Benteke, but have they invested wisely?
From the outside, it seems like they have taken a lot of risks, none less risky than the £12m signing of Jordan Ayew. While only 23, his goalscoring record does not suggest he will be a capable replacement for the big Belgian. 12 goals in 29 games, while solid, isn’t enough to justify that kind of fee.
Additionally, Tactics Tim has decided that a dip into the French market, which is something we saw with Newcastle United in the 2012-13 season. Where did they finish? 16th. A lot will be expected of Idrissa Gueye, Jordan Amavi and Jordan Veretout early as they replace key figures like Fabian Delph in their first team.
Rudy Gestede looks like a solid piece of business. If he can carry his Championship form from the past two seasons into the Premier League, he could be one of the signings of the season.
Player to watch: Rudy Gestede
AFC Bournemouth – Will they live up to their “surprise package” title?
“Everyone loves a feel good story”. Apparently, Bournemouth is that story.
While their rise to the top flight has been nothing short of miraculous and meteoric, it’s easy to forget that they have been bankrolled by the incredibly wealthy Maxim Demin since 2011. With great achievement comes great financial backing.
That financial backing has shown its face already, with 16-goal Max Gradel joining the most promising attack of all the promoted teams. A lot of their season will depend on Callum Wilson, who was incredibly prolific in the Championship and has the pace to cause problems in the Premier League. Sylvan Distin is an excellent signing, bringing experience and fortitude to a young back line.
Tyrone Mings for £8m was a strange deal. He’s a player more well known for his random acts of kindness than his on pitch performances. Their money could have been invested more wisely across their entire squad instead of on an unproven commodity.
Even with their spending, they still remain the potential surprise package of the division. Perhaps not surprising enough to breach the upper echelons of the mid table, but definitely good enough to stay up under Eddie Howe’s management.
Player to watch: Max Gradel
Chelsea – Will a lack of strengthening hurt their title defence?
With those around them spending, Chelsea have been somewhat quiet, mainly because they have so few issues to address after a dominating season.
Defensive cover is firmly on the agenda though, with a new left back a priority after the sale of Filipe Luis. John Stones has been heavily linked with a move, much to the chagrin of Bobby Martinez.
In general though, they remain the team to beat, and still have easily the best squad in the division. Their only real issue of note is Diego Costa, who struggled to remain fit last season. If he can remain healthy, they should have no problem defending their title this season.
Player to watch: Eden Hazard
Crystal Palace – Where will the goals come from?
Palace are a team that have no right to be a solid mid table side, but after 11th and 10th place finishes in their two top flight seasons, people firmly believe that they are now a Premier League mainstay.
And nothing punctuated that notion more than the shock signing of Yohan Cabaye, which acts more as a statement of intent to their rivals over anything else.
The spine of the team is strong, especially with Scott Dann signing a new deal. They also have some of the best wide options in the division, with highly-rated Bakary Sako joining Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha. Menacing.
What isn’t menacing is their striking options. £9m for Conor Wickham is excessive at best and bone-headed at worst. If he has any potential left, he needs to show it this season, or Palace may have to rely on Dwight Gayle (who for some reason never seems to get a look despite his impressive goalscoring record) and Patrick Bamford, signed on loan from Chelsea. A lot is expected of the Championship Player of the Year; will the pressure get the better of him? And can Alan Pardew finally prove that he is a quality manager?
Player to watch: Bakary Sako
Everton – Was last season’s slump a one-off?
Everton were unfortunate last season. Romelu Lukaku was one of the most disappointing players of the season, and they only started picking up the pace in the last third of the season.
A lot of this was down to Roberto Martinez’s one-dimensional tactics. The season before, they narrowly missed out on Champions League football; a lot of this down to the extraordinary form of their full-backs, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman. Last season, they were much quieter.
They got found out. Teams set up to prevent their swashbuckling play. The quieter the wide threat was, the less potent Everton were.
In addition, they were surprisingly leaky, shipping 50 Premier League goals. With Distin gone and Stones unsettles, they need defensive reinforcements and fast.
I expect this season to be much better, though. Martinez is still a young manager, and will have learned from last season. The return of Gerard Deulofeu is huge, and could provide the impetus needed for a top-half return.
Player to watch: Gerard Deulofeu
Leicester City – Can Ranieri keep them up?
Leicester City are in complete disarray. Their situation has a lot of the qualities of Palace at this point last year.
They lost a manager that kept them in the division. For reasons only known to Leicester’s owners, Nigel Pearson was axed after performing miracles last season. The likelihood is that Pearson Junior’s hanky-panky antics with a couple of his fellow players, all laced with a few spoonfuls of racial discrimination, had something to do with his position becoming untenable.
Similarly, they seem to have missed out on a number of their transfer targets. Christian Fuchs and Shinji Okazaki are the two that stand out, but they have failed to replace the influential Esteban Cambiasso, who is set to be a huge miss.
Finally, they both hired past-it, out of touch managers. While not nearly as bad as the man lovingly dubbed Colin Wanker, Claudio Ranieri hasn’t managed a Premier League side since 2004. Since then, his record has been checkered, with the biggest blot on the copybook coming courtesy of a horrific four month spell as Greece manager, where he led them to two losses to the Faroe Islands. Yeh, that tiny place in the North Sea.
At least they retained Robert Huth, who Stoke have let go in favour of more techincally-gifted defenders. Even so, his presence is fearsome and leadership qualities undeniable.
Player to watch: Shinji Okazaki
Liverpool – Can they become a top four mainstay again?
The stars say… maybe?
It’s between them and the two Manchester clubs for the last two Champions League places. Last season was one they would rather forget; they just never really got going. Instead, the season served the function of being one ten-month long testimonial for Steven Gerrard, who was sent off in style with humiliating losses to Crystal Palace and Stoke City.
They’ve had a few pounds to spend following the £49m sale of Raheem Sterling to Manchester City, and have invested some of that money shrewdly. Big money was spent on highly-rated Roberto Firmino, who they are looking to to fill the hole left by Sterling. Christian Benteke comes in to solve their striking issues. With Daniel Sturridge seemingly never fit, they needed someone much better than Balotelli, and Benteke fits the bill. Their attack was bullied last season, not any more.
The rest of the team has been padded out by free transfers in James Milner and Danny Ings, while Divock Origi returns following a loan spell at Lille. Suddenly, they look like a threat again.
Their defence, unfortunately for them, is still awful. The addition of Clyne is brilliant, but at centre back, nothing has been added to a notoriously error-prone selection. They’d better hope they score much more than they concede, but it should still make for some great matches.
Player to watch: Roberto Firmino
Manchester City – How will their aging squad cope this season?
This season will be something of a transitional one for The Sky Blues.
With a lack of English talent amongst their ranks, their transfer policy has been heavily focused on luring English talent to the Etihad, whatever the price. This is the only explanation for forking out £49m for someone like Raheem Sterling. Fabian Delph is cheap and reliable, but not a top 4 player. Patrick Roberts from Fulham was a signing out of nowhere.
Their squad is getting older as well. Yaya Toure is declining as a force to be reckoned with, and the likes of Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy are no longer as potent going forward as they once were.
Their attacking options outside of Sergio Aguero are weak after the sales of Stefan Jovetic and Edin Dzeko, with a misfiring Wilfried Bony and 18-year-old Enes Unal their only other options. Signing Kevin de Bruyne for £60m isn’t going to solve this given that Aguero is relatively injury prone.
City are the club in biggest danger of losing their top four status.
Player to watch: David Silva
Manchester United – Will their latest signings come off?
Last summer, The Red Devils were making headlines with big money signings like Luke Shaw, Falcao and Angel Di Maria. A revolution was afoot.
Fast-forward 12 months, and both di Maria and Falcao have gone. For whatever reason, it didn’t work out.
Still, they made the top 4, which was their primary goal, so mission accomplished on that front. Pushing on should be their target this season, given that they have had to rebuild again.
Despite the £30m pricetag, Memphis Depay could turn out to be the best signing of any club in the world this season if he performs well. He’s versatile, powerful and a great finisher, so hopefully he can be the one to ease the goalscoring burden that lays firmly on the shoulders of Wayne Rooney.
Speaking of Rooney, he will no longer have to cover in midfield, as they have finally solved their problems by signing Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin to compliment Daley Blind, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini.
Another problem area, right-back, has been sorted as well, with Matteo Darmian arriving to replace the departing Rafael. With his versatility, he can also fill in across the backline if needed.
However, their inability to sign a centre back defies belief. Currently, they are pursuing Pedro, who would serve as nothing more than a luxury. They should be actively looking to sign a defender. Instead, they are holding out hope that Sergio Ramos will form part of a swap deal for David de Gea, which seems a bit unrealistic with neither party willing to budge.
Despite this, a top three finish looks to be on the cards this season.
Player to watch: Memphis Depay
Newcastle United – Can Steve McClaren rebuild his reputation further?
Forget Bournemouth as the surprise package. It’s Newcastle who you should be keeping tabs on.
Under John Carver, they were hugely underwhelming last season, and should have been nowhere near the relegation places. Their squad is much better than that.
They’ve not made many signings this season, but the ones they have look the part. Heading up their trifecta of signings is Aleksandar Mitrovic, who is developing into a very complete striker. He’s also, coincidentally, genuinely passionate about Newcastle United. He’s been a fan of the Toon since watching a Champions League game between Partizan Belgrade and Newcastle in 2003, and looks up to the quintessential No. 9 Alan Shearer as his idol.
Joining the big man at St. James’ Park are Georginio Wijnaldum, who was impressive for PSV last season, and fellow Anderlecht alumni Chancel Mbemba, who is a powerful imposing centre back. So, much better than Mike Williamson then, despite his lack of date of birth.
Steve McClaren himself went a long way to rebuilding his reputation in England with an impressive spell at Derby County, where he was unlucky not to achieve promotion in his first season. Unfortunately, last season ended in disaster. They looked like a shoe in for at least the top end of the playoffs all season before a dramatic late season slump saw them finish in a lowly 8th place.
With his reputation just about intact, he still has a lot to prove, especially to the highly volatile Toon support.
Player to watch: Remy Cabella
Norwich City – Will a compact, resolute setup be enough to keep them up?
Norwich were the best outfit in the Championship in the second half of last season, and their momentum carried them to playoff glory.
The good thing about bouncing back immediately after a relegation is that a number of the players that played in the Premier League are still there, notably the likes of Johnny Howson and John Ruddy.
Alex Neil has turned Norwich into a side that is very tough to break down, and they will be heavily reliant on their home form to survive. Their transfer business has been good as well, signing proven Premier League quality on the cheap, with the exception of Robbie Brady.
Their issue is similar to Crystal Palace’s in that their striking options are limited to the untested Lewis Grabban and the tried and tested failure that is Cameron Jerome, who is a Championship level player. Ricky van Wolfswinkel has returned to little fanfare, while Gary Hooper hasn’t been able to reproduce his best form. If they can bring in another striker, one who is a proven outlet for goals, they should be fine.
Player to watch: Johnny Howson
Southampton – Can they build on last season despite more losses?
Southampton have seen all their best players leave over the last year or so, but have been able to replace them with cheaper, better players.
Rickie Lambert was replaced by Graziano Pelle, Adam Lallana by Dusan Tadic, Luke Shaw by Ryan Bertrand and Dejan Lovren by Toby Alderweireld. This summer, they’ve had to do it again.
Morgan Schneiderlin will be a huge loss, by Jordy Clasie is a very capable replacement to slot in alongside Wanyama. Nathaniel Clyne will be missed, but the highly-touted Cedric Soares will provide a great option there. Toby Alderweireld is also a huge miss. Unfortunately, Steven Caulker is far from the man to fill his boots after successive relegations in teams with dreadful defensive records.
Overall, it’s going to be a hard season for The Saints. While a top half finish is a given, they can’t expect this season to bring the successes of last season, especially with the demands of the Europa League too.
Player to watch: Jordy Clasie
Stoke City – Will a less physical approach bring them European Football?
It’s official: the Stoke of old is dead.
Gone are the days of Rory Delap long throws, leg-breaking challenges and bloody physicality. Enter the Hughes era of pace and power combined with finesse, flair and skill.
The departure of Steven N’Zonzi marked the end of a stylistic transformation that has been taking place. That transformation is finally complete.
Nothing accentuates this more than the signing of Ibrahim Afellay, last seen warming the physio’s table at Barcelona between loan spells at Olympiakos and PSV, but has the flair and technique that Stoke now look for when recruiting players.
Filling the N’Zonzi-shaped hole is Chelsea outcast Marco van Ginkel. Robert Huth has been replaced by Philipp Wollscheid.
The issue here is that what made them a success last season was a combination of class and physicality. Now that the physical side of things is nearly gone, are Stoke going to be the ones who get bullied?
Player to watch: Bojan
Sunderland – Is their luck finally up?
Their transfer business hasn’t been great, for a start. Nothing really stands out as an inspired transfer.
Secondly, they have developed a habit of not being able to win games. Last season, they drew 17 games, winning only 7. They’re resolute, but dreadful going forward.
Finally, they don’t seem to have any character. They became famous last season for their ability to spontaneously capitulate at any given moment. Nothing highlights this more than Santiago Vergini’s exquisite own goal against Southampton. After that, they conceded six more goals.
They’ve been living on borrowed time for a while. The perennial survivors surely cannot survive again.
Player to watch: Jeremain Lens
Swansea – Just how good are they?
Last season’s mid table was bizarre. Anyone could beat anyone, and no one was particularly consistent. Swansea took full advantage of this, and nearly claimed an unlikely Europa League spot.
Garry Monk has built an excellent side. Gylfi Sigurdsson was one of the signing of last season, and Jefferson Montero was a standout winger. When Wilfried Bony left, Bafetimbi Gomis stepped up well. Outside of de Gea and Courtois, Lukasz Fabianski was probably the best goalkeeper in the division.
This season, they’ve made the signing of the summer in Andre Ayew on a free transfer, despite interest from bigger clubs, such is the power of the TV deal. In addition, Franck Tabanou is a solid signing to compete with Neil Taylor at left back. Eder from Braga is a dumb signing, as he is just a worse Gomis. Overall, they look like a side that could spring more surprises like last year.
Don’t expect this season to be like last season for Swansea, though. The mid-table is hyper competitive this year, and with Everton expected to be much better this year, holding a place in the top half should be their aim.
Player to watch: Andre Ayew
Tottenham Hotspur – Will they drop out of Champions League contention?
Signing a new defence was a priority, and they have done that well. Toby Alderweireld will likely partner Jan Vertonghen, with Kevin Wimmer providing solid cover. Kieran Trippier is an excellent signing at right-back and a player with much better upside and fitness than Kyle Walker.
However, everything in front of them looks surprisingly weak. They were already reliant on Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane, and it looks like they still will be. They haven’t signed anyone to ease the pressure on Kane, nor have they acquired anyone creative to accompany Eriksen. The wide areas of the squad look thin; while Chadli proved himself to be a great player at this level last season, Erik Lamela and Andros Townsend did not. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the previously exiled Aaron Lennon actually starts ahead of them, or even DeAndre Yedlin.
In central midfield, the losses of Paulinho, Etienne Capoue and Benjamin Stambouli have left them threadbare, with just Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb and Mousa Dembele available.
They seem to have lost out big time this window, and as a result, the squad they have is too thin to compete on all fronts. They shouldn’t worry the top four this season.
Player to watch: Nabil Bentaleb
Watford – Will the new signings gel?
Watford remind me of QPR. That’s not a good thing, by the way. In fact, that’s a terrible thing.
In the Premier League solely because of the transfers they were able to make via their links to Udinese and Grenada, they’ve only gone and added yet more talent for expensive fees.
Language barrier issues are set to be a huge problem. They have Italians, Germans, Frenchmen, Swiss, Czech, Greek, Uruguayan, Spanish… how can Quique Flores expect them to gel.
They could be easy pickings early on this season while they all adapt to each other. We’ve seen time and time again that signing multiple players from different places never works out well. This will cost Watford in the long run.
Player to watch: Matej Vydra
West Bromwich Albion – How far can Tony Pulis take them?
Teeps did what he was asked to, and kept West Brom out of trouble.
This season, the same thing will be on the agenda.
But we know Pulis will keep his side up. The big question is, can they surprise anyone?
It’s possible, but unlikely. They’re a step behind those above them, and will likely be duking it out with Aston Villa in the lower mid-table. Still, they’re a Pulis side, so it’s always possible that they could get some shock results at The Hawthorns.
Their transfer window has been relatively quiet, but the big signing is undoubtedly Rickie Lambert, who is such a Pulis player. He’s big. He holds play up. He can finish. But Big Rick also has a wicked free kick in his arsenal, and an eye for a pass too.
He will be supplied by James McClean, who has been signed to run down the wing and cross the ball, simply.
It’s a simple approach, but one that Pulis has used to great effect before at Stoke and Palace before him. However, a standard 14th place finish is to be expected.
Player to watch: Saido Berahino
West Ham United – Can they leave Upton Park in style?
Judging by their embarrassing performance against Astra Giurgiu, hell no.
Yes, they were playing their second string, but their second string should be good enough to win comfortably. That raises questions about Slaven Bilic, who must be the favourite to get sacked first.
Signing Dimitri Payet was a real coup. The fans get the creativity they crave with him, having claimed 20 assists last season. That’s massive.
Similarly, the arrival of Angelo Ogbonna is a real statement, and the highly-rated Italian will be keen to erase memories of his torrid time at Juventus.
However, the squad they have is still struggling with injuries. Enner Valencia is out of commission for 3 months, leaving Diafra Sakho to pick up all the slack solo, given Andy Carroll’s perpetual lack of fitness.
Next season sees them move into the Olympic Stadium, so a top half finish is a must. From what we’ve seen so far though, there’s a lot of work to do before that’s possible.
Player to watch: Dimitri Payet
Arbitrary Table Prediction Time
- Manchester United
- Manchester City
- Tottenham Hotspur
- Crystal Palace
- West Ham
- West Brom
- Aston Villa
Contenders for Top Scorer
Sergio Aguero – If he can remain fit for a full season, he is guaranteed to get 25 goals. Aguero is the benchmark, it’s up to everyone else to beat him.
Diego Costa – Explosive first half of last season which tailed off due to injuries towards the end. He is a menacing presence in the box and is sure to be a key player again.
Olivier Giroud – Being touted as a “15 goal a season” striker is basically saying that you aren’t good enough. Giroud is still the main striker at Arsenal, and this could be the season he finally bags 20+ goals.
Aleksandar Mitrovic – His pre-season interviews have painted a picture of him as a physical #9 who will literally throw himself at anything. That’s sure to stand him in good stead in the Premier League.
Wayne Rooney – Has hit 25+ goals in a season on two occasions. With a more frequent starting birth at striker, he could hit those heights again.
Thibaut Courtois – If he doesn’t win, something is wrong with life.