After what seems like just a couple weeks off, the Premier League starts again this coming weekend with 2015-2016 Champions Leicester City taking the pitch against Hull City bright and early 7:30 AM EST Saturday morning. The offseason was, as usual, full of interesting developments and changes for every club from new acquisitions to new management, including the Big Four (Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea) making moves to try to restore order after Leicester’s shocking run to the top. With so much to catch up on before kickoff on Saturday, our local fútbol experts have run through a few of the biggest stories and things to watch for this season.
Biggest Offseason Winner:
Sean Demetrakis – One would assume that the obvious answer, without any doubts, here is Manchester United after their additions of Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Jose Mourinho. To be honest with you though, I am more inclined to give this offseasons biggest winner award to Leicester City. Sure they lost one of their top midfielders N’Golo Kante to Chelsea this summer but that was it. They were able to retain Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, Wes Morgan, Shinji Okazaki, and Kasper Schmeichel. All were rumored to be on the move when the Premier League season ended last year, but they are all coming back. Leicester has also brought in some new pieces like F Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), M Nampalys Mendez (Nice), and young M Bartosz Kaputska (Cracovia) that will add depth to this squad as they will be playing in the Champions League this season.
Jordan Curet – For me, there is no question it has to be Manchester United. With this past weekend’s confirmation that Paul Pogba is taking his talents to Old Trafford, the Red Devils have secured one of the continent’s most exciting young players to be deployed under new manager Jose Mourinho. United was also smart to bring in perhaps lesser known Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who starred for the German Club Dortumand last year and will combine with Pogba to make United’s midfield one of the best in the Premier League. The math really is, add Pogba and Mkhitaryan’s creative talents to United’s existing talented but underperforming roster, multiply by new striker Zlatan Ibrahimović (on a free transfer no less), mix in a little Mourinho magic and you have everything you need to see Manchester reassert itself atop the table. The only question is how much longer Wayne Rooney has with the club with Pogba clearly a superior option at the forward midfield position.
Biggest Offseason Loser:
SD – My biggest loser would have to go to Chelsea. This really pains me to say because if I had to pick an allegiance to any team, it would be the Blues. After a disaster of a season in 2015-2016, they did not do too much of anything to better themselves for this upcoming season. They have brought in a new coach in Antonio Conte and brought in F Michy Batshuayi and M N’Golo Kante. They have however missed out on F Romelu Lukaku and D John Stones. They have also been rumored with several other center backs around the world with Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli as their current top target. Napoli rejected Chelsea’s 42.5 million pound offer earlier in the week. This team desperately needs help along the back line and sorting out their transfer fee with Napoli will be a huge step in the right direction. They allowed 53 goals last season and their two starting center backs (John Terry and Gary Cahill) are both another year older. The Blues really needed to shore up that back line this summer and have not been able to get anything done to this point. They also still have Diego Costa on this roster despite all the rumors that he is on the move. Costa is one of the great finishers in today’s game, but he comes with some serious baggage. I often wonder if Chelsea would play better as a team with him on the sidelines or even playing for a different club.
JC – A toss up between Arsenal and Leicester. For Arsenal’s part, the club was embarrassed when they tried and failed to lure Jamie Vardy away from the Foxes. It may not seem like much, but playing for the Gunners is supposed to be one of the most desired achievements for players. Yet they were upstaged by Leicester who, despite last season’s success, are still viewed as sitting at the metaphorical kid’s table. Worse, Arsenal struggled with many of their targeted transfers this summer, only adding midfielder Granit Xhaka. As for Leicester, they may have retained Vardy’s services, but likely took a bigger hit when N’Golo Kante left for Chelsea. Kante was the true maestro of the Foxes’ success and playing without him will be a tall task. Although Leicester would love to repeat they face an uphill climb against the weight of new expectations and the stress of added European competition. It seems inevitable they will fail to meet perhaps unfair expectations.
League Winner/Europe League Qualification:
SD – Despite not picking Manchester United as my biggest offseason winner, I do still think they will eventually end up winning the title. Mourinho is a Premier League genius and will push this Manchester United team over the hump and get them their 14th league title. United was very solid on defense last season and have one of the best goalkeepers in the world in David De Gea. Their biggest problem was scoring goals so they went out and added Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Problem solved. This team will now have the offense to go along with its stout defending. Tottenham will once again also be at the top of the table. They return studs Harry Kane and Dele Alli. They also added Victor Wanyama and Vincent Janssen to help out with the attack. I also really like what Liverpool has done in this offseason. My fellow writer is a big Reds fan and he has to be excited about what they have added. Jurgen Klopp has had his first offseason with Liverpool and is in full control making the moves he wants to make. Manchester City will round out the top 4 as Pep Guardiola gets his new Premier League club into the Champions League. Chelsea, Arsenal, and Leicester will all be fighting for that 5th spot and a trip to the Europa league. As much as I want to give this last spot to the Blues or the Foxes, I don’t know that they have done enough to make them better than the Gunners. Arsenal will find their way to a 5th place finish and a spot in the Europa League.
JC – As I alluded to, I think Manchester United enjoys a resurgence behind the classic early Mourinho success story and their new signings. They simply have the talent and creative vision to guide them against a Premier League that was turned upside down last season. Close behind them will be, in no particular order, Manchester City, Tottenham, and Liverpool, with Chelsea just missing out on guaranteed Champions League competition by coming in fifth. Klopp gets a full year with Liverpool and hopefully just a couple less injuries, which ought to be enough for him to see his side into the top four. Tottenham’s offense behind Harry Kane is too good and they have firmly established themselves as a year-to-year contender. Manchester City has too much talent to not be in the mix and now have Pep Guardiola pulling the strings. Chelsea actually has added a few pieces, most notably Kante, and gets the brilliant Antonio Conte managing this team which has no European competition to deal with, meaning all efforts can be focused on finding 2014’s form. And Arsenal will, in classic Arsenal fashion, achieve but fall short, but this time it will cost Wegner his job.
Teams to be Relegated:
SD – The battle to stay above the relegation line is often times more entertaining than the battle for the league cup. Watford, Bournemouth, Hull City, Burnley, Middlesborough, and Sunderland will all be looking to stay above the relegation line this season. Watford and Bournemouth both finished strong at the end of last season and I think that experience keeps them in the Premier League for at least another year. Middlesborough has brought Brad Guzan back to the Premier League from Aston Villa which is basically a recipe for relegation. Middlesborough heads back to the Championship along with Burnley and Hull City meaning all three promoted teams will be relegated after just one season.
JC – I foresee interesting relegation-battle seasons for Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Hull City, Watford, and West Bromwich. Of those, Bournemouth is most likely to find staying power. On the other hand Burnley, Hull City, and Watford will be heading down to the Championship. Not enough in any of those sides to hang around, and in particular Burnley seems to have given away their best player with no replacement brought in to shore up the team. Hull City, too, is practically without a full roster of legitimate Premier League players on the eve of the season.
Sleeper Team to Watch:
SD – With the top of the table looking so dominant this year, we will have to look to find our Cinderella towards the middle. I think the Cherries (AFC Bournemouth) have a chance to be that team. They will be playing in just their second Premier League season ever. This club was almost completely out of professional soccer in England when they were almost relegated from Division Four (lowest level of English professional soccer). They were very active this summer and have bolstered their lineup by adding depth and players with Premier League experience. Bournemouth also earned some confidence last season with wins over storied clubs Chelsea and Manchester United and ties with the league champion Leicester. The Cherries won’t be in any kind of position to make a run at the title but keep an eye on them as they push towards a spot just outside of the top ten.
JC – There’s unlikely to be the Cinderella we saw with Leicester this year, or probably ever again for that matter, but I do think Bournemouth will find a way to surprise with a few gifted wins and a second season in the Premier League. There’s just too much talent with all of the traditional powers restocking for a smaller club to really make a run up the table this season. Elsewhere, I think Stoke City has a better year, fighting for a Top 8 spot this year, instead of the habitual ninth placed finish.
A couple other things to keep an eye on:
- Arsene Wegner’s contract is up after this season, which is a big deal for the long-tenured manager. How Arsenal goes, so goes Wegner this year so if the Gunners are playing strong into January, look for a possible extension. Otherwise, say goodbye to the puffy jacket.
- If Sergio Aguero can find a way to stay healthy, he will be wearing the Golden Boot at the end of the season. Aguero scored 24 goals last season in 30 games, averaging just under a goal per game last season.
- There are a number of Americans plying their trade in the Premier League this year including: Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Emerson Hyndman (Bournemouth), Geoff Cameron (Stoke), Brad Guzan (Middlesbrough), DeAndre Yedlin (Tottenham), Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal) as well as potentially Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham). Miazga, Hyndman, Yedlin, and Zelalem are going to face uphill battles at all of their respective club in finding first team minutes and all may be loaned out. In the case of Yedlin, he ought to be heading back to Sunderland where he will enjoy first team minutes at right back. Cameron should continue to impress at Stoke, although their new additions may have him moving positions again. Guzan was the presumed starter but Middlesbrough brought in Víctor Valdés Arribas (former Barcelona keeper) as well so he may have to fight for the chance to start for his new team right away. Perhaps most promising is Cameron Carter-Vickers (CCV) who finds himself with an opportunity to enjoy real first team minutes both domestically and in the Champions League after captaining the underage team last year. Plenty of Americans in the Premier League to keep a lookout for this year!
- One guy to keep your eye on this season is one of my favorite players, Dele Alli. He is a 20 year old Englishman from Milton Keynes. He stormed onto the Premier League season last year for the Spurs scoring 10 goals in 33 appearances and was last year’s PFA Young Player of the Year. Just take a look at this goal he put in against Crystal Palace last season. This kid is full of talent and should become a Premier League household name for years to come.
- Conte, Guardiola, Klopp, Mourinho. Those are four huge names in the managerial world all with new clubs in the Premier League (Klopp had about half of last season with Liverpool). All of their clubs should be ones to watch as they start to take on their respective managers’ preferred styles and add to the competitive parity of England’s top league. The bigger question is who will be on the shortest leash from ownership if their clubs don’t succeed?
Welcome back to the Premier League!
-Jordan Curet and Sean Demetrakis
Photo Credit: footyheadlines.com