With the Premier League season nearly upon us, I take a comprehensive look at the 20 competing teams. Hopefully this guide can help you to decide to have a punt on who could win the league or get relegated this season over at https://matchbook.com/.
Any sane England fan should have wanted Eddie Howe as the next national team boss. Howe has demonstrated himself as a highly capable manager and what he and his side achieved last season was nothing short of remarkable.
Having lost Callum Wilson, Max Gradel and record signing Tyrone Mings earlier in the season, you would have been forgiven for writing off the Cherries’ survival hopes. The consistency and faith in the strategy implemented by Howe allowed Bournemouth an extended stay at England’s top table.
From Howe’s perspective, he must be licking his lips at the prospect of pitting his wits against some of the finest coaches in the game this upcoming season. His decision to sanction the departures of Matt Ritchie and Tommy Elphwick – two senior figures in their dressing room – perhaps indicates his desire to re-energize the squad and keep them on their toes for what is sure to be another long, hard season ahead.
Despite what the pessimistic supporters of Arsenal Fan TV will be willing to believe, this does actually look like being Arsene Wenger’s last season in charge of the Gunners. Adamant to see out his contract, there is a sourness surrounding the Frenchman’s tenure that few could have envisaged when his side last lifted the Premier League title back in 2004.
Once the architect of the first unbeaten Championship winning side since 1889, Arsene and his football team have fallen into the interminable cycle of being slap bang in the middle of a title challenge until an increasingly inevitable post-Christmas nosedive.
Last season was a huge opportunity missed and the ins-and-outs both on and off the pitch at Arsenal’s rivals suggest their task this season is going to be even harder.
Granit Xhaka’s introduction will solidify a midfield often seen as lacking the necessary physicality and their embarrassment of riches in attacking midfield will always have them competing at the right end of the table. But, as ever, the expectation at the Emirates will be to lift the title. It would be fairytale stuff for Wenger to see out his Arsenal reign as champion, but I don’t think even the most optimistic Arsenal fan can see it happening. They’ve been burned too many times.
When Burnley were last promoted to the Premier League, Dyche used the parachute payments to reinvest in the infrastructure at the club. Millions of pounds were spent on injecting money into their Gawthorpe Training Complex. In a results-based business, it was refreshing to see a manager unselfishly thinking about a team’s long-term prospects for a change.
Their key man is likely to be striker Andre Gray, who scored 25 goals last season en route to finishing as the Championship’s top goalscorer. Question marks do have to be raised, however, as to whether or not they have the quality to sustain that title-winning momentum at the highest level.
Bouncing back up to the top flight is testament to the positive atmosphere Dyche has created there and one thing you can guarantee with Burnley is that they will work damned hard. In their last campaign in the Premier League, it took the Clarets eleven games to get their first win on the board. A quicker start might give them a fighting chance but you sense it could be a long season for them.
Chelsea’s campaign last season was something nobody could have predicted. Only three points adrift of the relegation zone in December, the once untouchable Jose Mourinho was sacked and replaced by Guus Hiddink, who was armed with the task of stabilising a club that had romped to the title just six months previously.
It is difficult to assess just what the expectations at the Bridge will be this coming term. Antonio Conte brings with him a tremendous pedigree – his Italy side were arguably the stand-out team of the European Championships too – but most importantly for Chelsea is the fact that he brings a no-bullshit approach that certain figures in their dressing room desperately need.
Without European football to contend with, Conte will have a lot of time to embed his philosophy among his players. The signings of N’Golo Kante and Michy Batshuayi bring quality and youth to an ageing spine and if the squad as a whole can rekindle that title-winning spirit, and deliver the work-rate and defensive solidity Conte will demand, there is little to doubt that they will be right back in the mix for the title.
It was a season of two halves for Crystal Palace. Many people tipped the Eagles for a top-half finish after they flew out of the traps. In the end, Alan Pardew’s job was perhaps only saved by the club’s run to the FA Cup final.
As we saw with Leicester City last season, momentum in football means a lot. Pardew needs to spark the fire. Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha will cause teams in this league problems, particularly in Palace’s typically counter-attacking style of play. What their squad lacks right now, however, is firepower. A lot of their hopes rest on if, when and who they manage to buy in to replace the hole left by the departures of Gayle and Adebayor.
Things went a little bit sour for Everton under manager Roberto Martinez. Initially welcomed due to the attractive style of play he promised and at times delivered to Goodison Park, there was a sense that the club quickly stagnated under his leadership.
A main bugbear among Toffees supporters was that Roberto Martinez was not flexible enough from a tactical perspective, which is something new manager Ronald Koeman promises to bring in abundance.
Poaching Koeman from Southampton has arguably been one of the coups of the summer, with the Dutchman’s stock continually rising in the game. The arrival of Steve Walsh as Director of Football – alleged to be a key player in Leicester City’s incredible rise to prominence last season – suggests this is a long-term project for the blue half of Merseyside and new Iranian owner Farhad Moshiri. For the time being, you would expect Koeman’s coaching to improve a squad that underachieved last time out.
As far as pre-season preparations go, Hull City’s has been about as bad as it gets. The Championship play-off final win against Sheffield Wednesday may seem like a distant memory to Tigers supporters, who have seen their club lose manager Steve Bruce and fail to bring in any new players to a squad that has been hit by something of an injury crisis.
It is looking increasingly likely that club vice-Chairman Ehab Allam will offer the vacant managerial post to Mike Phelan, who had been assistant to Bruce since 2014. First jobs in football don’t come much harder and if the club stand any chance of surviving relegation Phelan must harness the spirit that saw Hull fight their way back into the Premier League. But on top of that, he desperately needs quality and numbers added to his squad. Time is ticking. We will see over the coming few weeks just how serious the club’s owners are about keeping their time in the big time.
The biggest question at Leicester is just how on Earth do you follow *that* up? The 2016/2017 season is in danger of being the footballing equivalent of a giant hangover for the Foxes who, along with the challenge of trying to compete once again in the Premier League, have the small matter of Champions League football to contend with.
Having lost N’Golo Kante to Chelsea, Ranieri has lost a critical component in his system. Given their previous success in identifying talent in the transfer market though, who would dare write off their new imports such as Ahmed Musa and Nempalys Mendy, brought in for a combined £29m?
Balancing European commitments may see Ranieri readopt his old ‘Tinkerman’ handle as he attempts to keep his squad fresh. I’m not entirely sure what would constitute a successful season for Leicester. They’ve created a special atmosphere at the club. They went beyond overachieving underdogs and began delivering when the heat was on. If the previous 18 months are anything to go on, then expect then unexpected again.
It is difficult to assess the impact that new manager Jurgen Klopp had at Liverpool last season. In one week, his side could look scintillating, defeating Manchester City 4-1 at the Etihad. In another, they were being taken apart 0-3 by Watford at Vicarage Road.
The Reds had their eyes firmly fixed on the prize of the Europa League towards the end of last season. There will be no such distractions this term. Jurgen Klopp, like Antonio Conte at Chelsea, has a full week with his players on the training ground ahead of games and that could be the biggest factor in Liverpool’s season.
Klopp is well fancied at Liverpool. Quickly cementing himself as a favourite among the fans, the club’s American owners have seen fit to extend his contract, despite only arriving on Merseyside in October last year. You sense this could be an important season for Liverpool and the seven months of last season Klopp used to fully assess the strengths and weaknesses of his squad could serve them well.
Manchester feels very much like it could host the biggest storyline of this coming season, as the latest chapter in the Pep Guardiola vs Jose Mourinho saga is set to be written.
Rarely does a manager enter the world of football management with as much as consummate ease as Pep Guardiola and he arrives at the Etihad promising beautiful football. His step into the spotlight of the Premier League is undoubtedly his biggest test yet. Not just because of the amount of immense competition, but also because of the squad he inherits. The spine of Manchester City’s is undeniably world-class, but it is also brittle.
Already highly active in the transfer market with impressive-looking signings like Gundogan, Sane and Nolito, Guardiola will hope to build a foundation as well as implement a style that is less dependent on individual talent. For too long City’s form has wavered in the absence of key members. The transition into an all-dominating possession-style football is one that may take time.
It’s been made clear for a long time now that Manchester United is Jose Mourinho’s dream job. There is nothing – save, of course, for what occurred in the first half of last season at Stamford Bridge – to doubt Mourinho’s credentials for the role.
It seemed a case of when, particularly after the struggles Manchester United faced in replacing the winning mentality that left along with Alex Ferguson in 2013.
Having finished outside the top five in two of the three seasons after Ferguson’s departure, perhaps the level of expectation isn’t as intense as perhaps it may have been.
No Champions League football has not made Manchester United any less of an attractive proposition to Europe’s leading talent. It hasn’t taken Mourinho long to stamp his authority on the team: an entirely new spine of Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have immediately made the United starting eleven look like a different prospect.
It has been a summer of risk. The reward is yet to be determined. You would expect a top four finish and a trophy would be a minimum requirement for Jose.
It has been seven years since Middlesbrough were last in the Premier League. There will have been times within those past seven years when the Boro faithful will have questioned whether they will ever see their side back in the top flight again. Under the guidance of former Real Madrid number two Aitor Karanka, Middlesbrough have finally forced their way back in and their transfer activity so far suggests they’re desperate to grasp this opportunity with both hands.
Lauded as a meticulous thinker of the modern game, Karanka’s side conceded the fewest goals in the Championship last season, with just 31 goals against and 22 clean sheets in 46 games. If they can maintain any semblance of this impressive defensive form at a higher level, then the strike partnership of Jordan Rhodes and new boy Alvaro Negredo is one that looks pretty handy on paper. You can’t help but draw potential comparisons to Watford’s pairing of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo last season. A lot of newly promoted clubs struggle to find a goalscorer and they potentially have two.
You can really have nothing but respect for Southampton. They have made linear progress over the course of the past three seasons – finishing 8th, 7th and 6th – despite being handicapped each summer, with key components of their squad continually moving on. They build, they rebuild and then they rebuild again. It is a highly sustainable business model, but I think it is safe to say that Saints fans’ would happily swap it for a touch of consistency for a change.
Whatever they are doing, they are doing it well for now though and it’s an exceptional scouting system and infrastructure within the club that they have to thank for it. Claude Puel has been handed the reins as the club look to replace the hole left by the departing Ronald Koeman.
Puel has a Ligue 1 title to his resume, but it is perhaps the work the Frenchman did at both Lille and Nice, developing young talent while playing an open and attractive style of play, that will have endeared him to the decision makers at St Mary’s. In short, he fits the bill. And while topping last season’s league standing may prove a difficult task, it’s hard to see them being anything but their usual competitive selves again.
There may be limitations to Mark Hughes. There was no doubt, for instance, that Manchester City were right to look elsewhere in their quest to force their way in among the elite clubs of this country.
With that said, he is a damned good manager. At times last season, his side looked exceptionally good. The combinations of Shaqiri, Bojan and Arnautovic behind the lone striker have quickly changed people’s perceptions of Stoke City. They are no longer a side strangled with limitations. They can mix it up and play now and, as evidenced in their Christmas time home wins over Manchester City and Manchester United, they have proven that, on their day, they can do it against the very best.
There are question marks over the consistency of their three attacking talents, but the wily recruits of Giannelli Imbula and Joe Allen in the transfer market have given them a strong platform to supply these players with greater quality and frequency. A lot has changed at Stoke as they have transitioned themselves into an established Premier League side, but just as it was with Tony Pulis and the Rory Delap long throw, nobody still really wants to play Stoke City.
It is quite remarkable how Sunderland have now survived eight seasons in the Premier League. Seemingly in an endless cycle of finding a manager fit to motivate short-term but fail to instil a long-term philosophy, Sunderland fans have to ready themselves every summer for a relegation battle.
Sam Allardyce’s survival task was arguably more difficult of any of his predecessors, leaves the club pondering what their future holds. The big plus for Sunderland is that their new manager David Moyes is somebody who needs them as much as they need him. Moyes needs to rebuild stability in his managerial career. Things have undoubtedly gone off the rails since he left the comfort blanket he found himself in at Goodison Park. He has plenty to prove.
When it came to managing a side with expectations of dominating the opposition and coming up with a strategy to break down stubborn sides, Moyes came unstuck. However, when it comes to creating one of these stubborn sides, Moyes most definitely has previous.
It was interesting to see Swansea at the lower reaches of the table last season. As much as I am sure the Swans’ faithful could have probably done without it, they will have definitely taken solace from the heart and fight exhibited from their side.
Playing aesthetically pleasing football is admirable, but teams in this league sometimes need another layer to them. They will do well to remember the feeling of panic that will have crept in when push came to shove at the back end of last season so that they ensure they don’t have to go through it again.
In the end, Swansea survived the drop at a canter last season, but Francesco Guidolin is tasked with having to find a formula that allows them to play the kind of football that they pride themselves on, while also garnering results that enables them to breathe easy when we reach the final third of the season.
The caveat to Spurs’ progression is that their attentions will be turned away with their inclusion in the Champions League. Whether it was due to Pochettino’s frenetic style or not is open to your interpretation, but energy levels clearly dipped in the final run-in, so Tottenham may have to learn how to better manage their squad.
They have bought little, but smart in the transfer window. Gone are the days of their previous scatter-gun approach to assembling talent. They are a well-oiled machine now and are only adding cogs that are absolutely necessary help it run better. Jansen will ease the pressure on Kane; Wanyama will help share the defensive burden on Eric Dier.
Spurs stacked up a legitimate assault on the title last season and while they ended up finishing in third place, they will have learned a lot from the experience. Mauricio Pochettino, who is only 44 years old himself, has created something quite special at White Hart Lane with a young squad who are learning all of the time. You would expect them to compete at the top end again next season.
‘Adapt or die’ seems to be the Watford board’s approach to developing their football club. It’s impossible to endorse the strategy of the Pozzo family. However, it is impossible to deny the success that they have had using it.
We shouldn’t have been surprised that Watford saw fit to look beyond Quique Sanches Flores, despite leading the side to a mid-table position and the semi-final of an FA Cup. All may have not been what it appears, with some questions being raised over Flores’ desire to take the role on, anyway. One thing is for sure, however, and that is this is a role than new manager Walter Mazzarri shouldn’t get himself comfortable in.
With that said, the appointment of Mazzarri definitely represents a step up in calibre and a sign of just how far the Hornets have come in the past few years. Mazzarri was once regarded as one of the hottest properties on the managerial market when his unique system saw Napoli rise to prominence in Serie A.
It is likely Mazzarri will try to implement a new system at Watford, having favoured the 3-4-3 formation in his time in Italy. With a tough set of fixtures to start the season, the transition may prove to be tricky. If the Pozzo family’s ruthless strategy continues to flourish in the same manner that it has done to date, however, it may just prove to be inspired.
While Tony Pulis remains West Bromwich Albion, it is hard to put up a case for them to go down. Will they ever reach a stage where the Baggies will demand more? I’m not sure. Perhaps still recovering from the scars of their pre-Roberto Di Matteo ‘Boing Boing Baggies’ days, this is a club that rightly treasures their Premier League status.
As you can always guarantee with a side managed by Tony Pulis, there is a solid foundation in place at the Hawthorns. There were a few signs that, having now been at the club for a year and a half now, there was room for the team to try and break out and try to play some more football. Whether this trend will continue to develop is open for debate. What you can always guarantee with a Pulis side is a stubborn defence and a midfield that makes life tough for the opposition.
If, as seems likely Berahino leaves the club before the end of the window, a lot will depend on who they get to replace him. If they get that signing right, they will be more than OK because in Solomon Rondon they have a player who can cause defences a lot of damage.
West Ham Utd
The impact made by West Ham on the Premier League was testament to the managerial prowess of Slaven Bilic. West Ham, for my money, have got themselves one of the best in the business at the helm.
In their first season at the Olympic Stadium there will be a lot of expectation. It’s an exciting time to be a fan of the East London club, no doubt. Dmitri Payet and Lanzini elevated the club to a higher status last season and the signings they have made this summer look interesting. Andre Ayew will add more goals to a team that seem to have more matchwinners in their starting eleven than most.
Of course, like others, they have the small matter of having to juggle the pressures of domestic and European football. This may have an impact on whether or not they can build on last season’s impressive 7th place finish, but you would expect the Hammers supporters to have plenty to cheer about regardless. Particularly with a manager who (refreshingly) places such high regard to winning silverware.