With the rest of the Football League already back and underway, the Premier League returns on Friday evening with Arsenal taking on Leicester, which will of course prove to be anticlimactic compared to the pomp and exaggeration it’ll inevitably get from Sky.
Although the majority of my focus through the season will generally be on the lower leagues – as you can find better value away from the over-bet ‘big six’ and in the markets that the average Saturday acca punter has little knowledge of – to make things interesting over the next nine months, I thought I’d put together the usual preview and ante-post selections for the Premier League to go along with the EFL divisions I’ve already covered.
Chelsea: Comfortable winners of the league last season with Antonio Conte showing that tactically he is ahead of the rest. However, the fact that Chelsea had no European competition to focus on meant that Conte spent more time with his players on the training ground and perhaps allowed to paper over the cracks in the squad, with fewer games meaning fewer changes and injuries. Although I expect Conte to have Chelsea in the top four, retaining the title with this squad is likely be beyond reach, with the quality signings of Morata, Rudiger and Bakayoko offset by the departure of Matic and the ongoing issues with Costa. The squad just looks too small to compete at home and in Europe, so unless there are further arrivals, a good run in Europe and a top four finish might be the best they can achieve.
Manchester City: After a strong start Pep Guardiola disappointed on his first crack at English football, with a third place and no trophies not what City would have hoped for. I believe Guardiola underestimated English football last season, not necessarily the top end but more so in the smaller sides, with the quality of those in the bottom half of the table far higher than he is used to and it’s hard to see him making the same mistake again this season. They have spent big this summer and filled a number of problem positions, although I’m not convinced Kyle Walker fits the Guardiola system and it will take time for the young goalkeeper to settle, whilst central defence still looks problematic. The squad looks the strongest in the division, particularly the attacking options, and anything but a sustained title challenge would be a disappointment.
Manchester United: Were it solely based on the league last season would have been a major disappointment, but with a League Cup victory and success in the Europa League giving passage to the Champions League, there were plenty of positives to build on. The squad looks stronger after summer business, with the signing of Lukaku bringing much needed goals, Matic strength in midfield and Lindelof further options in defence, whilst the likes of Pogba and Mkhitaryan will be looking to push on after debut seasons. The big issues last season were goals and too many draws, both of which would have to be addressed to seriously challenge, however, a big part of those issues are caused by the approach of Mourinho and without a more positive or expansive approach those issues might remain. With it more moulded in his image, Mourinho may now get more out of this squad and a top four finish should be the minimum expected, but they may just fall short of being capable of winning the title.
Tottenham Hotspur: For large periods of last season the best side in the division, the fear is that their chance of league title glory has passed, for a few years at least, as Tottenham move to Wembley for the season. So strong at White Hart Lane, the move raises some obvious concerns, although I feel more has been made of their previous Wembley form than is needed, and with no transfer activity so far this summer, the squad isn’t any stronger. The departure of Kyle Walker isn’t that big a loss, with Trippier a more than adequate replacement, however, beyond the first sixteen there isn’t a great amount of depth and any injuries would cause problems. The confidence in the academy is admirable and it would be tough to find players who can improve the starting eleven for value in the transfer market, but the lack of depth and lack of challenge in the squad does make regression a possibility. A top four finish is in reach but a step down from second place likely.
Top Four At Best:
Arsenal: The perennial top four finishers finally failed to end a season in the Champions League spots and I have a feeling that is something Arsenal fans will have to get used to, at least in the short term anyway. The changes to the formation made by Wenger towards the end of last season did lead to an upturn in form, however, I feel that could be something of a red-herring as Arsenal often go through good runs and those changes haven’t really addressed the fundamental issues, and neither has the signing of Lacazette. For years, the big problem at Arsenal has been a weakness at the back and in defensive midfield and the fact that they are incredibly flaky when the going gets tough; nothing has been done to suggest this will be any different this season and a successive fifth place finish might be the best they can hope for.
Liverpool: A return to the Champions League, although qualifying is still to be conquered, should mark as a positive season for Liverpool last season and the challenge will now be for a repeat of that. Summer recruitment has been positive enough so far with Mohammed Salah fitting the Klopp system well, Andrew Robertson showing promise at Hull and Dominik Salanke one for the future. However, there are still noticeable gaps in the squad, with the goalkeeper position still a weakness, a top-class centre back needed and questions over whether the squad has what it takes to deal with the rigours of Klopp’s style across a domestic and European campaign, whilst the potential departure of Coutinho would strip them of a top-class talent. Much will depend on how far they progress in cup competitions but with the added games this season a repeat top-four finish will probably be out of reach.
On Their Own:
Everton: Few sides in the division have made such positive strides in the transfer market as Everton with their summer business looking very good. Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Sandro and Davy Klaasen all look excellent signings and the return of Wayne Rooney could give valuable experience in the dressing room even if the quality isn’t quite there these days. It will be tough to replace the goals of Lukaku but the money will allow them to strengthen further and they could push on again this season. They are in slightly strange situation at the moment though, comfortably above the rest but perhaps a little below the top six, so for now a ‘better’ seventh place finish to build on and a cup run might be the aim.
Mid Table Safety:
Bournemouth: The job Eddie Howe has done at Bournemouth to turn them into an established Premier League side should not be underestimated and, with further quality signings this summer, he should further cement their position in the division. Asmir Begovic, Nathan Ake and Jermain Defoe have come in this summer and are all solid signings who should provide a bit more quality and consistency in the squad. Due to the size of the squad and the way they play, it’s probably inevitable that they will hit dips in form at some points in the season, but they have more than enough quality and tactical nous to beat a lot of sides in the division and a mid-table finish should be in reach.
Leicester City: The heights of the title winning season will probably never be repeated but I’d imagine most won’t care about that. Despite the gloss of the title winning season fading a little with the sacking of Claudio Ranieri, a good run in Europe and twelfth place finish was a fairly decent achievement in the end last season, with results in the second half showing a top half finish should be more than achievable. Business this summer has also looked decent, with the recent signing of Kelechi Iheanacho providing an added threat, and without focus on Europe a challenge for the top-ten and a cup run should be the aim.
Newcastle United: The biggest piece of business last season was keeping Rafael Benitez and an immediate return to the Premier League was relatively comfortable in the end. Despite a relatively slow summer in terms of recruitment they should have enough to survive this season and a push for an upper half finish wouldn’t be out of the question. However, the biggest piece of business this summer could again be trying to keep Benitez, as there have been rumours of a potential departure due to dissatisfaction around transfer policy, and if he was to leave there could be bigger questions around their hopes for the season.
Southampton: An eighth place finish and cup final appearance shouldn’t be sniffed at but it wasn’t a surprise to see the departure of Claude Puel, with the Frenchman underwhelming a little in a number of areas. It’s too early to judge the appointment of Mauricio Pellegrino, but with a similar profile to the last Argentinian they appointed, this looks a better fit for Southampton. Business over the summer has largely been dominated by Virgil van Dijk spitting his dummy, and though he would be a loss the money would help them strengthen further. A top half finish is realistic.
Watford: The Hornets may have a reputation for managerial changes but the replacement of Walter Mazzari with Marco Silva was hardly surprising and looks a coup given the positive impression Silva made at Hull last season. So underwhelming for large parts of last season, I expect Watford to surprise a few this season and step up considerably, with a more positive approach and good business in the transfer market likely to make the difference. Silva showed himself to be tactically astute last season and the players brought in should make a positive impact, with the signing of Andre Gray removing some of the burden from Troy Deeney. A return to mid-table looks in sight.
West Ham United: Last season was slightly disappointing but moving into a new stadium was always likely to have an impact on performance with time required to settle into new surroundings. At first glance transfer business this summer appears to have been positive, however, when looking at it closely doubts can be raised around the business. Javier Hernandez might be the out and out goalscorer they have lacked but last season was very disappointing and will he be able to lead the line for a side like West Ham, Joe Hart has been desperately out of form for a while now, Pablo Zabaleta had a hint of ‘past it’ last season and Marko Arnoutovic can infuriate at times and has a questionable attitude. They shouldn’t be in any danger this season and if the transfers are a success a challenge for the top-half should be realistic, but I just feel the transfers do not appear fully thought through and reek more of signing players on reputation or name rather than need, so it could be more of a struggle in the vein of last season than the progress expected.
Bottom Half, Could be Dragged into a Battle:
Crystal Palace: Last season was one of major upheaval with big summer spending followed by disappointing results and the departure of Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce securing survival despite relegation looking a possibility at one point and then the surprise departure of Big Sam. Its public knowledge that Palace are hoping for a more stability with the long-term in view and Frank de Boer is an interesting appointment. He had great success at Ajax and it’s perhaps best to forgive his short stay at Inter, and if taking a gradual approach to transforming Palace rather than making wholesale changes too quickly, he could have them challenging the top ten. Recruitment has been slow this summer with just Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jairo Riedewald coming in, not surprising given previous spending, but they should have enough to be comfortable during what will be a transitional season.
Stoke City: A mid-table finish shouldn’t be seen as a negative for a club like Stoke, but it must be frustrating for a club who have real ambition to push on to the next level finding itself plateauing, despite their best efforts. They should have more than enough to survive in the division but Stoke might find themselves taking a small step backwards this season, with the departure of Arnautovic potentially a big loss in terms of quality. If Berahino can step-up this season he could add some much needed goals but a finish around 13th place again would be about right.
Swansea City: Despite attempting to sabotage their own league position with the suicidal appointment of Bob Bradley, Swansea managed to dodge relegation after Paul Clement dragged them to survival. They will be better prepared this season and the hope would be that last season was a massive wake-up call, but a season of looking over their shoulders could still be a real threat despite the progress made under Clement. The loan signing of Tammy Abraham could be a very good piece of business if he can repeat his goals in The Championship last season, whilst one that flew under the radar but could be great business is Roque Mesa. However, there is still uncertainty hanging over the inspirational Gylfi Sigurdsson and if he was to leave, a relegation battle would become a clearer possibility.
Brighton and Hove Albion: Brighton have steadily improved under Chris Hughton, who has done a tremendous job to get them promoted, and they may actually benefit from having spent the extra year in the Championship after narrowly missing out on promotion the previous season. There’s no getting away from the fact that it will be incredibly tough to stay up this season, but as a club they are set-up for the Premier League and if they can survive they could become a solid side in this division. They have strengthened in pre-season without making any glamour signings and their hopes of survival are likely to depend on a combination of Anthony Knockaert being able to step-up, home form and being well orgainsed, with Chris Hughton’s experience of similar campaigns key.
Burnley: The Clarets achieved their goal of survival last season with a little to spare, although they did run out of steam towards the end of the campaign with just two wins after January. The aim now should be to push on and really cement their position in the division, in the style of a Palace or West Brom, but I have a feeling it could be tough to do so this season. The key for Burnley last season was that they were incredibly tough to beat, and it’s almost inevitable that Shaun Dyche will have them similarly styled this season, however, they can’t keep relying on that and their lack of real match-winners could find them out. Signings this summer were solid with Jack Cork, Jonathan Walters, Phil Bardsley and Charlie Taylor coming in, but the departure of Michael Keane will be felt and they lack goals, especially with Andre Gray now leaving for Watford. They look very vulnerable.
Huddersfield Town: Massively exceeded expectations by achieving promotion last season and will have do so again to have any hope of survival this season. The positives for them are that they did their business early in the summer and have had plenty of time as a squad to prepare for the season, whereas others who will be battling towards the foot of the table still have work to do. David Wagner has shown himself to be tactically astute and perhaps caught out a few in the Championship, who were unable to react or underestimated Huddersfield, and the same will probably happen again at times this season. However, while I can see them surprising a few this season, it’s hard to see the squad having enough to survive. A good start to the season followed by a gradual fade towards relegation might be on the cards.
West Bromwich Albion: Despite the reliability Tony Pulis generally provides, the Baggies could be in serious danger of a relegation struggle this season. Summer business has been pretty slow, with just Jay Rodriguez coming in and the departure of Darren Fletcher a big loss. Though the squad has a number of reliable performers it does appear to be lacking in top-class quality or match-winners and doesn’t have a great deal of depth beyond the starting eleven, and while they secured safety relatively early last season their form dropped off a cliff and that shouldn’t be ignored. Pulis is brilliant at organising his sides and making them tough to beat, and while that should be admired to a degree, I do question how long that can work. At Stoke it had longevity as he consistently upgraded the squad, but that doesn’t appear to have happened at West Brom, so with little progression in terms of tactics or talent, I have a feeling they could struggle this season.
VERDICT: It’s not rocket science to figure who will be challenging towards the head of the table with the usual top six ‘big names’ likely to be pulling away from Everton, who sit in a league of their own, and the remainder having another few tiers from top half challengers to bottom half safety and relegation strugglers.
I expect the two Manchester clubs to be best equipped to deal with the rigours of a title challenge and European competition this season and although there are still defensive question marks, the attacking riches of MANCHESTER CITY should see them come out on top. Manchester United should make a big step-up in the league from last season, with the goals of Lukaku helping them to convert draws into wins, but I just feel the negative approach of Mourinho will cost them at key points.
Chelsea have the quality to challenge but with the addition of European football this season might just lack the strength in depth to retain the title, while Spurs have to deal with playing in different surroundings and, despite having one of the best starting elevens, also lack depth. Liverpool have similar question marks over their squad, particularly with the addition of Champions League football this season and Arsenal haven’t addressed the same old problems.
At the other end of the table, it will be a big challenge for Huddersfield and Brighton to survive given their respective experience of the division and resources, while some surprising names could be dragged into the relegation battle, with Burnley having a difficult second season and West Brom looking vulnerable.
Manchester City to Win Premier League @ 9/5 (Bet365)
West Brom to be Relegated @ 6/1 (Bet365, Paddy Power)
Gabriel Jesus to be Top Goalscorer @ 9/1 (Bet365, SkyBet, Ladbrokes)
Tony Pulis First Manager to Leave Post @ 16/1 (BetVictor)