And so, after what seems like a ten minute interval the relentless machine that is the Barclay’s Premiership –fresh from the obscene BSkyB deal- rolls back around on Saturday lunchtime, as England’s new biggest spenders, Manchester United entertain north London’s second biggest team, Tottenham Hotspur.
Frankly, we’ve been looking to the 2015/2016 Premier League season with incredibly mixed feelings. England’s top flight will always hold a special, irreparably nostalgic, place in our hearts –who can forget waiting as Teletext cruelly played with your emotions at 4:45 on a Saturday afternoon- but there is so much wrong with modern football. The aping of North American sports has seen the inevitable growth of corporate influence while modern players –can we please blame social media for this- have become far more self-absorbed and precious than their predecessors.
Nonetheless, and for all our griping, we still can’t help but get excited about the coming season. About whether Van Gaal’s aping of Manchester City will pay dividends? If Arsenal’s Community Shield victory is just another false dawn to add to Arsene Wenger’s burgeoning collection? Whether Chelsea will roll on machine-like? Or what ludicrous Deepak Chopra-like comments will faux-sage Brendan Rodgers earnestly gift us this season? And will Sky Sports self-important presenter Jim Whyte spontaneously combust from all the excitement on Transfer Deadline Day?
Agents might disagree, but the current transfer deadline situation seems ridiculous. When teams kick-off their season managers should be safe in the knowledge that this is the squad they will have at their disposal until the January desperation sales. This applies in particular to clubs who are trying to thwart the advances of the Chelsea or Manchester United. In virtually every other sport, the squad/roster has been finalised in advance of the season’s opening round of fixtures. Modern-day managers have a difficult enough task as it is, so in the interest of fairness the Premier League should act appropriately.
Now, on to our pre-season outlook for each team and our picks for champions, top four and the three unfortunates to take the plunge to the almost impossible to escape, Championship (or Division 2 for any of our more seasoned readers)
Arsenal: Last year’s F.A. Cup winners seem to have found some steel as witnessed in Sunday’s Community Shield victory over Chelsea. A 6-0 defeat to the same opposition in last year’s league may have proven decisive. At some point, the unrealistic dream of aesthetic perfection had to give way to practicality. Wenger’s continued stubborn refusal to pay heed to a fundamental aspect of a winning team, a defence, saw fans patience eroded to its breaking point. The squad is overflowing with quality midfielders, but as it’s not under 12s you can’t just start your best players all the time, regardless of their position. Petr Cech has arrived to emphatically deal with Arsenal’s ongoing problem position, but the squad will not be complete without a top-class striker, perhaps Karim Benzema to both complement and challenge the frustrating Olivier Giroud. Another, perhaps final, league title would be just rewards for a fantastic servant of game and club, but Mourinho’s Chelsea should prove that little bit too elusive.
Prediction: 2nd. Nearly men once more.
Aston Villa: Saved in the nick of time by stopgap Tim Sherwood, ‘Villa will be expected to find it very tough this season without streaky, though immensely talented Christian Benteke and progressive, though overrated because he’s English, midfielder Fabian Delph. Sherwood, however, appears to have shopped well with Ghanian Jordan Ayew and Frenchman Jordan Veretout the standout signings. Delph’s departure to Manchester City –carried out with the commonplace deception and greed of modern footballers- will hopefully see him pilloried on his bench-warming return to Villa Park. Last year’s FA Cup final appearance will have brought fleeting memories of the 80s glory days but, for now, survival will be Sherwood’s prerogative.
Prediction: 14th. The 90s seem but a faint memory now.
Bournemouth: Winners of the Championship last season under the tutelage of Eddie Howe, a man who played an instrumental role in saving Bournemouth from the reaper like claws of administration in 2008. Howe departed for seemingly fresher pastures of Burnley in 2011 but has since returned to guide the Cherries to two promotions in three seasons and probably earned himself the freedom of the town in the process. Bournemouth will, as all those before them, have their work cut out, but Howe has spent wisely with the addition of experience in Sylvain Distin and former Leeds winger Max Gradel. Look out for ready-made stars in buccaneering full-back Simon Francis and free-scoring midfielder Matt Ritchie. Unfortunately though Chelsea defend more smartly than Brentford. We love a Cinderella story but fear it may be one and done for Bournemouth. Regardless of what happens, Howe will be a God forever in this town.
Prediction: 19th. But they’ll go down swinging.
Chelsea: Defending champions possessed of the best manager and player in the league in Jose Mourinho and Eden Hazard respectively. Curiously, there have been very few additions to the squad save for the reclamation project of Radamel Falcao’s career. Mourinho, though ferocious, knows the gentle approach to instilling confidence in a player and obviously sees the Colombian as a project worth investing in. The potential of this squad to rest on their laurels is minimal and Mourinho rightly feels that a settled squad is a happy squad. John Stones signing from Everton is imminent and Diego Costa and Falcao’s fitness, or lack thereof, in the next three weeks may necessitate the acquisition of another number nine. The likely challengers, except perhaps for Arsenal, are possessed of too many unknowns. An improvement on last year will be required, but Mourinho will know and demand this. This is a formidable, wizened, understated team and there is no side currently more resilient. Anything other than a repeat of last season would be a surprise.
Prediction: 1st. A second back-to-back Premier League success of Mourinho’s Chelsea career.
Crystal Palace: Mercifully, for all parties concerned, Alan Pardew defected mid-season to Crystal Palace to end a tumultuous, bizarre reign over Newcastle. Pardew is a souf’ London boy through and through and an adopted Geordie he most certainly was not. On returning home, Pardew seamlessly steered ‘Palace to safety and there is optimism in south-east London that relegation need not even be contemplated this year. For all his grating traits, Pardew is a quality manager, one who maximises the potential of seemingly limited players. Yohan Cabaye’s signing was a fantastic coup and Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford should prove a bit of a wildcard. This year is really about consolidation for Crystal Palace, and so as long as a poor start is avoided Selhurst Park –home of a near unmatched atmosphere- will be treated to the somewhat alien sensation of enjoying their football in the spring.
Prediction: 12th. The welcome sight of mid-table mediocrity.
Everton: Was last season an anomaly or is Roberto Martinez a sort of Wenger-lite, a man who truly believes in pure football over results? The problem is that, despite Martinez protestations to the contrary, Everton spend two-thirds of last season playing toothless, ineffective and most importantly losing football. Everton have been on the brink of Champions League football for the past decade so anything less than a top six finish for the Spaniard will raise serious, but perhaps overstated, concerns on Merseyside. There has been little in the way of transfer activity so the hope for Toffees fans is that Bill Kenwright pulls out the cheque book as Gerard Delofelou is the only real signing of note thus far. Always blighted by a lack of financial muscle it is very difficult to see Everton even break into the eight this season. Perhaps, after all, David Moyes did help the club consistently punch above its weight.
Prediction: 11th. The loss of John Stones may just open the floodgates.
Leicester City: As one head-banger goes another walks in. Admittedly from different ends of the eccentricity spectrum, Leicester City will be no more the duller for the replacement of Nigel Pearson with Premier League old-boy Claudio Ranieri. The Italian oversaw the beginning of the Roman Abramovich era and after a pan-European journey gets an opportunity to step into the Leicester City hot-seat. City’s end of season form was spectacular and the squad has been bolstered with seven new signings led by Japanese star Shinji Okazaki. While it was a shame to see Pearson go on the back of shameful, racist behaviour of Leicester City youth players –fatally for Pearson his son was involved- Ranieri will bring a different kind of passion and energy, topped off by an endless stream of golden quotes. Ranieri may not be stable, in the normal sense of the word, but the world needs eccentrics and most importantly he has ample experience. A good start will be more than half the battle
Prediction: 15th. The raucous King Power Stadium may well prove the difference.
Liverpool: While there are crucial seasons in store for a number of players and managers, no club faces a more important nine months than Liverpool. Liverpool need to finish in the top four and prove that they are worthy title contenders. Gone, for the second season running, is their star attacking player, and while we wouldn’t even for a millisecond place the newly departed Raheem Sterling in the same bracket as Luis Suarez, this recurrence has to be alarming for manager, owners and fans alike. Liverpool seem to be have recruited more wisely this summer –frankly the bar was set at an almost subterranean level after last year– and despite criticism on Merseyside, we think Christian Benteke can flourish in attack. James Milner won’t uproot trees but he’s durable and experienced, while Roberto Firminho –purely on the basis that he’s Brazilian- should provide a spark in attack. The defence can still creak however and Rodgers occasional and bizarre separations from reality can’t mask the fact that the team can appear rudderless at times. While Steven Gerrard’s presence last season was almost entirely spiritual it will interesting to see whether Liverpool can prosper without their heartbeat of the last decade.
Prediction: 5th. May not be enough for Rodgers to survive.
Manchester City: Manuel Pellegrini must know that only victory –in the Premiership or Europe- will keep the wolves from the door. Last season’s defending champions were overly reliant on the outstanding Sergio Aguero and to a lesser extent, David Silva. The remaining stars of the side, Yaya Toure –perhaps still smarting from not getting a birthday greeting from the owners- and captain, Vincent Kompany did not approach anywhere close to their best over the course of the season. The necessity to anglicise their squad has seen the protracted arrival of Raheem Sterling and also midfielder Fabian Delph. City lacked bite last year and the hope must be that Aguero, Silva and Sterling will build a rapid understanding to form an attacking triumvirate so beloved of modern managers. However, there is little depth behind Ageuro and, further, a lot will depend on whether the performances of Kompany and Toure last season were merely symptomatic of post- World Cup blips as opposed to being signs of genuine regression.
Prediction: 4th. Probably the end for the likable Chilean, Manuel Pellegrini.
Manchester United: The post-Sir Alex Ferguson years have seen considerable change for the Premier League era’s most successful club. The whole throw a gritty, Glaswegian –David Moyes- into the mix and hope he turns into a carbon copy of Ferguson quite clearly did not work. The club then turned conservatively to veteran Dutchman Louis Van Gaal, who has been given the keys to a seemingly bottomless war-chest to throw endless millions at the club’s problems –ironically a process which Manchester United fans criticised their cross town rivals for at the start of this decade- and after a year of relative consolidation the club will be expected to challenge once more for the Premier League title. The main departee is Angel di Maria –who was never given a chance and is now receiving largely unwarranted criticism from the academics on Twitter- while the major signings, thus far, are Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay. Schneiderlin and Depay may well prove the shrewdest bits of business this summer while reinforcements are sure to arrive out wide and more importantly to shore up last season’s aimless, porous defence. As with last season, this team will take time to gel. Probably too much personnel upheaval to challenge in May but if Wayne Rooney excels in a new ‘Rooneycentric’ attack, the old swagger may just reappear.
Prediction: 3rd. Need to find a settled starting XI to avoid losing ground early on.
Newcastle United: Despite a reasonably impressive record in his time over Newcastle –given the pithy transfer kitty on offer- Alan Pardew just wasn’t fit to cut it up north. His mid-season replacement John Carver managed to steer the club, almost despite himself, to safety and now Yorkshireman Steve McClaren steps into one of the most difficult roles in English football. Owner Mike Ashley, as loathsome as he is, is obviously no fool. Geordies love their football and he knows that while they detest him, they will never abandon their team despite their recent travails. To his credit, Ashley has been uncharacteristically flaithiúlach this summer, although this may have been a pre-requisite of McLaren taking on the role. Exciting youngster Ronaldo Aarons is expected to make the leap this year and Dutch international Georginio Wijnaldum will introduce genuine threat in what was an often acerbic Newcastle attack last year. Meanwhile, marquee signing Aleksander Mitrovic comes with the always interesting, ‘highly talented/head-the-ball’ tag attached. One more centre-back required though for a defence that can sometimes resemble a hungover Sunday League team. Still, McClaren has had success on the continent and should get the best out of Newcstle’s Dutch contingent.
Prediction: 9th. A pleasantly surprising season on Tyneside.
Norwich City: Managed to negotiate the minefield –and incidentally one of the most thrilling stages of the season- of the Championship playoffs, after coming past Ipswich in the ‘Old Farm Derby’ and eventually Middlesborough in the now even more valuable playoff final. An immediate return to the Premier League is a fantastic achievement and this came about largely as the appointment of Alex Neil as manager in January. Neil is a fiery, archetypal Scotsman and he managed to turn around a talented, probably self-pitying squad in a remarkably short period of time. The fact many of the squad have already tasted Premier League football will be of huge benefit. Of the newly promoted sides they’re the most likely to stay up, but new additions Robbie Brady and Youssef Mulumbu won’t be enough so one would expect Neil will acquire a new striker before September 1st. Promoted sides need to make their home ground a hostile, fortress and Neil will hope his attitude seeps into the players and fans alike.
Prediction: 16th. Hindsight may prove otherwise but the most likely of the promoted sides to survive.
Southampton: The thinking man’s club, Southampton have proven a breath of fresh air since their return to the Premiership three seasons ago. Mindful of the fact that they simply could not compete with the big-spenders, the club took the sensible, patient approach of developing an outstanding academy and scouting network. Thanks to Matt Le Tissier, Southampton will hold a soft spot in the hearts of anyone who grew up watching football in the 90s. Despite a fan-base both patient and realistic enough to know –they’ve known the toils of League One football- that competing for the title is probably a bridge too far, anything less than the top eight will be disappointing after last year’s tremendous showing. Tipped by some for relegation Southampton bolted out of the blocks, ultimately finishing seventh. The sharks have circled again this summer with Nathaniel Clyne and Morgan Schneiderlin departed for Liverpool and Manchester United respectively. The latter’s replacement, Dutch midfielder Jordie Clasie, may prove one of the buys of the summer but another striker is required to assist Graziano Pelle. Southampton may not challenge realistically for the Champions League spots, but the club are set for a lengthy residency in the Premier League, something their fans could only have dreamt of three years ago.
Prediction: 8th. May surprise again but this seems more realistic.
Stoke City: Now a Premier League staple, Stoke are undergoing a considerable reconstruction under the tutelage of Mark Hughes. Once feared, mostly by Arsenal, for their unique brand of grindhouse football under Tony Pulis, the team actually began to play some of the most attractive football in the league last year. Pulis’ reign should not be discredited but after five years of ‘it’s our house let’s kick the shit out of them’, it was good to see Hughes attempt to evolve the team’s style. Stoke’s fans are incredibly enthusiastic, hostile and loyal –the perfect combo- and are smart enough to know that survival counts over style but they will no doubt appreciate their team’s new approach. A number of signings from Barcelona and Real Madrid, including the once highly touted Ibrahim Afellay, suggest that the movement away from the ‘Rory Delap’ blueprint will continue in earnest. If Hughes can integrate his new signings quickly –as with most mid-table clubs- then we have a feeling that Stoke may improve beyond last season’s best ever finish of ninth.
Prediction: 7th. This is the year Bojan Krcic may reignite.
Sunderland: Who would miss Sunderland if they fell through the trapdoor to the Championship this season? Exactly.
Prediction: 18th. Hung on by the skin of their teeth in recent seasons. Not this time.
Swansea City: Another side, who like Southampton, recruit wisely and sell when the price is right. Fears abounded when Gary Monk stepped into Brendan Rodgers shoes but the affable Welshman has actually continued on brilliantly from where his predecessor left off. Another side who keep the ball on the ground and one of the best teams to happen upon on Monday Night Football for a bit of entertainment. As in previous summers the incoming players are largely unknown but do keep an eye out for Andrew Ayew, a highly regarded attacking midfielder from Marseille. It’s extremely difficult to see Swansea improving on last year’s terrific eight placed finish but as long Monk ensures his side are looking down their nose at hated rivals Cardiff City, the fans won’t mind.
Prediction: 10th. Interesting to see how they perform with expectations raised.
Tottenham Hotspur: Life as a Spurs fan must be frustrating. A big club but not a huge one. Constantly challenging but never really succeeding. Spurs have hung around the periphery of the top four for the best part of a decade now but a propensity to sell their best players means they will never really compete with the likes of their North London superiors Arsenal or the Manchester clubs. Somewhat chastened by largely wasting the €100 million from the Gareth Bale sale, Spurs have thus far this summer only recruited defenders. Much will centre around Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane, and the latter’s sophomore season will confirm whether last year was an outlier or a sample of great things to come. Another striker is required to make the big-four take note and they face a difficult opening assignment at Old Trafford tomorrow. Making a statement there would be a good way to quieten the doubters.
Prediction: 6th. The squad hasn’t been bolstered enough to truly challenge.
Watford: Watford are an odd one. Despite, last season, mowing through three managers before finally settling on Slavisa Jokanavic they were promoted. Now, despite gaining promotion, Jokanavic is also gone, replaced by Quique Flores, a man who obviously has no regard for job security. Flores comes with serious pedigree, having managed in Spain and Portugal’s tope leagues for over a decade but he will have his work cut out here. Watford certainly haven’t been frugal, spending over €30 million – they will expect a serious contribution from former Spurs midfielder Etienne Capoue- but it is current fan favourite Troy Deeney, scorer one of the most dramatic goals in Championship history, that will be relied on to lead the line. Whatever the outcome Watford will bring a brand of enterprising football but it’s a hard to imagine a scenario where Watford can extend their return to the Premier League beyond a solitary season.
Prediction: 20th. Even their fans will struggle to see how Watford can survive.
West Bromwich Albion: Tony Pulis’ first full season in charge of the Baggies. Don’t expect this to be the season where Pulis throws his footballing philosophies out the window and tries to create a Barcelona of the midlands. Direct and some might say stylistically crude, Pulis knows how to take a team –invariably a side near the bottom- and instil them with military discipline, street toughness and resolve. Stoke City and Crystal Palace will attest to his effectiveness. West Brom will never be far from the news this year as a result of their signing of Republic of Ireland midfielder James McLean. McLean, intelligent though somewhat provocative, has drawn the ire of British fans and media alike, for his refusal to wear a poppy and more recently, his decision to turn away during a rendition of God Save the Queen. Pulis is in danger of starting the new season with a fairly toothless attack though, with Saido Berahino’s move to Spurs imminent. Even with Berahino, goals will be a problem so West Brom fans will likely be in for a nervy May.
Prediction: 17th. Pulis’ experience will be crucial in the run in.
West Ham United: Sam Allardyce was, without question, the most harshly treated manager in the Premier League last year. Having guided his side to almost certain safety by February –this, remember, the same team who played in the Championship as recently as 2012- fans of the Hammers openly booed Big Sam for refusing to play ‘West Ham’ football. West Ham have tasted relegation twice in the space of eight years so it seems a bit trite to mourn to cry for the great teams of the 70s when there are more pressing concerns, such as survival, at hand. Even the occasionally brilliant side of Carrick, Cole, Defoe and the wondrous Paolo di Canio suffered the ignominy of relegation in 2003. Perhaps Allardyce’s greatest sin was his unwillingness, particularly at this stage of his managerial career to even consider a creative overhaul. Former West Ham player, Slaven Bilic takes the reins this year, tasked with bringing joy back to faces of fans in the East End. Dimitri Payet’s arrival brings genuine optimism, the former Marseille man lighting up Ligue 1 for the last two seasons. If he can smoothly transition into English football –no easy feat- then there is hope for West Ham’s unjustifiably expectant fans.
Prediction: 13th. Bilic will need time and patience to give the fans what they want.
Champions League Places: Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City
Relegated: Bournemouth, Sunderland, Watford
Bet Selection: Wayne Rooney leading scorer e/w @ 11/1