Pep v Jose, Ibra in England, Leicester round two, and Spurs set to peak. There’s an awful lot to be excited about as the new season is finally here. Nathan Critchlow sets our tastebuds to drool.
The story so far: Being fair, Arsenal have not underachieved in the last 10 years, especially when you put into the context their modest layouts compared to Chelsea and Manchester City. They have played modern, competitive, progressive football in an environment most fans would love to regularly experience. Being harsh, however, they have not progressed despite having the money to take calculated risks. This bizarre luxury purgatory appears to have created a palpable sense of tension between groups of supporters. Given how competitive the league will be there has to be a sense of ‘now or never again’ for Wenger.
Transfer dealings and wants: Xhaka will add much needed steel, although not in the penalty department. Fans on social media suggesting Rob Holding is a better deal than John Stones are (a) forgetting what happened to Callum Chambers and (b) clutching at straws with a young player from the Championship. Pursuit of Lacazette shows Wenger knows a top striker a priority.
Season hopes: To break the monotony of past years, either through a genuine title challenge or legitimate threat to Europe’s elite in the Champions League. To actually invest in a genuinely world class centre back or striker to take them to that next level.
Realistic expectations: Fierce battle to retain top four status, given the calibre of the other top teams. Good run in at least one cup.
Big year for: Jack Wilshere. Will he finally get over his injuries woes? If not, even the Arsenal fans might start to lose faith.
Fantasy League pick: Alexis Sanchez. After a slightly quiet season last year expect the Chilean to be back amongst the action.
Unlikely to: See Wenger and Mourinho share a warm loving embrace.
Predicted finish: 4th
The story so far: The fairy tale rise of the south coast club culminated in much deserved retention of top flight status, winning a number of hearts along the way with their honest and attractive style of play. Recovered well from the loss of Callum Wilson early in the season, while keeping Eddie Howe away from both the national and international managerial merry-go-rounds means The Cherries will have had a uninterrupted summer to take stock of the past few years. The model for stability exists in Swansea, West Brom and Stoke so Bournemouth will look to be next to follow that trend.
Transfer dealings and wants: Whisper it, but Bournemouth spent big in the January window and neither Benik Afobe (4 goals) or Lewis Grabban (0 goals) really produced the goods in the latter half of the season. Signings of Nathan Ake and Jordan Abe show willingness to improve the squad, although at least one defender would be wise. Calum Wilson being fit is as good as a new signing.
Season hopes: Build on previous survival by making credible challenge to upper mid-table.
Realistic expectations: Second seasons are less forgiving and often very difficult to judge before a ball is kicked. For me, I see them in that mini-league of eight at the bottom. Need to keep heads up and get points on the board and stay out of trouble.
Big season for: Eddie Howe. Another successful season and the big clubs will really start to take note.
Fantasy League pick: Callum Wilson. If he can recreate his form from the start of last season he is likely to make a wise third choice striker.
Unlikely to: Set off without asking Manchester United to check the loos for fake explosives.
Prediction: 17th (just)
The story so far: Relegated from the Premier League with their heads held high and the plaudits ringing in their ears. Rightly stuck with the safe hands of Sean Dyce and reaped the rewards of placing their faith in a manager who clearly knows how to build solid and unfussy teams. Back in the big time more streetwise and cohesive than before and more than raring for a second crack.
Transfer dealings and wants: Mirroring the last time they got promoted, Burnley have a solid and compact first team. One look at the squad list, however, shows it lacks the depth truly needed to survive in the top flight. They have lost an important linchpin in Joey Barton who had a lot of top flight experience, while goal-machine Andre Gray still has not been tested at this level. John Flanagan will replace the attacking impetus provided by Trippier last time they were up. Losing Michael Keane would be bad news.
Season hopes: Andre Gray takes to the top flight like a duck to water and they go into January with points already on the board.
Realistic expectations: Turf Moor will be a tough place to go, so they won’t be humiliated, but surely will be in the relegation mix.
Big season for: John Flanagan. Had to be literally forced out the door at Liverpool. If he fulfils his potential at Burnley he could become a big part of Klopp’s plans.
Fantasy League pick: Andre Gray. If Burnley have any chance of staying up Gray will be a big part of it. Guaranteed starter.
Unlikely to: Spend big even when everybody else is.
Predicted finish: 19th
The story so far: I am pretty certain no pre-season preview this time last year could have predicted the meltdown that engulfed Chelsea. What the Queen would have referred to as an Annus Horribilis. Finished 10th after legitimately flirting with the wrong end of the table, Mourinho was sacked among controversial circumstances and Hazard’s form was as lost as the City of Atlantis. Chelsea’s hierarchy, however, are no mugs anymore. They have been in the game too long. Hiddink was brought into secure the ship, a move which gave the board the luxury of six months to straighten the furniture which had been unturned in the Mourinho hurricane. Now the new era starts under the strict and obsessive hands of Antonio Conte, a man with a proven track record of success.
Transfer dealings and wants: Batshuayi is an exciting signing, a powerful striker with an impressive track record at both Standard Liege and Marseille. Could finally be the heir to Drogba. Hard to argue that Kante would not have improved any side in current form. Some players may find a new lease of life under Conte so hard to know exactly where the weaknesses are. Chelsea are not finished and rumours about Lukaku persist. They could definitely do with shifting some of the squad though. They have more depth than the Atlantic.
Season hopes: A march back to the top of the table playing with a sense of drive and purpose so often missing last season.
Realistic expectation: A march back to the top regions of the table playing with a sense drive so often missing last season. Conte is no mug, and it is hardly likely he was stepping into a club in decline. All the right pieces are there to make a real success of it. The lack of European football is probably likely to be considered a help rather than a hindrance for this season at least.
Big season for: Hazard. His stock could not have been any lower after a dismal season. Showed signs of recovery in the EUROs. Makes Chelsea tick.
Fantasy League pick: Thibaut Courtois. Big stopper is likely to play behind a very well organised and committed defence. Should get a number of clean sheets.
Unlikely to see: Players standing around looking like they cannot be bothered.
Predicted finish: 1st.
The story so far: Palace were very hard to predict last season. The season began brightly under the optimism brought about by Alan Pardew. Many even tipped them as outsiders for European places, while Pardew was talked about for England. A very poor second half of the season, however, saw them sweating on avoiding a relegation battle. Indeed they lost 12 out of 18 in the second half of the season, winning only twice in that period. A run all the way to the FA Cup final will have sent many fans into the summer with a sense of optimism, but it is hard to know what Palace side will turn up this season.
Transfer dealings and wants: Tomkins, Mandanda and Townsend are all Premier League quality and add depth to the squad. It is clear, however, Palace are waiting on something bigger. Goals were a major problem for them last season. That top scorer Dwight Gayle (8 in all competitions) has already been allowed to leave suggests Palace are already working on a big signing. A rumoured bid of £30million from Everton for Bolasie would free up funds to move for Benteke, with Townsend an ready-make replacement on the wing.
Season hopes: Consistency in the team sees them challenging the top eight, as opposed to the bottom eight. Another cup run would satisfy the appetite created by last season.
Realistic expectations: Consistently alternating between looking up and down as fluctuations in form see them hovering mid-table. Far enough away to be safe, but not close enough to realistically threaten those above.
Big season for: Andros Townsend. Career has really stuttered since run in England team a few years ago. Looked bright at Newcastle, but was joining a sinking ship. Will look to capitalise on the similar freedom Bolasie and Zaha have experienced.
Fantasy League pick: Yohan Cabaye. Likely to be involved in all major set places, including penalties.
Unlikely to see: Fans being sad that Brighton ballsed up the play-offs, again.
Predicted finish: 12th
The story so far: Years of predictability and stability under David Moyes had not prepared the Everton fans for the rollercoaster experience of Roberto Martinez. Although a 5th place finish in 2013/2014 suggested promise, 11th and the 10th place finishes in subsequent seasons saw the strong core built under Moyes disassembled and replaced with a side which was unbalanced and full of defensive liabilities. By the end Everton supporters were frustrated almost to the point of tears as the manager attempted to gloss over patently unacceptable performances, inconsistent success in the transfer market and a thrashing by Liverpool. Now a new era dawns. A new owner has arrived in Moshiri and he has shown no shame in publically courting his desired managerial target in Koeman. Christ even Tony Hibbert has been released…..
Transfer dealings and wants: Little activity thus far is largely due to the inevitable sale of John Stones to Manchester City dragging on. No sooner was this deal concluded £12 million was offered for Ashley Williams, while bids of £30 million and £25 million are rumoured for Bolasie and Bony, respectively. If they can hold onto Lukaku and get the best out of Ross Barkley then Koeman already has good tools at his disposal. Arguably any other additions would just be to strengthen the squad depth.
Season hopes: Koeman replicates his success at Southampton by establishing Everton as a side that is knocking on the door of the top six. A cup would no doubt go down well for a big club that has waited over twenty years.
Realistic expectations: Definite signs of improvements, but the quality of teams above will keep them at arms-length from gate crashing the European party, for now.
Unlikely to see: Gareth Barry last 90 minutes without getting booked.
Big season for: Ross Barkley. Stock of the ‘new Gazza’ fell dramatically as the still young playmaker struggled to deal with the fallout of Martinez’s tenure. Needs to be far more disciplined and focused.
Fantasy League pick: Romelu Lukaku. Koeman’s side like to play with a focal man up top so Lukaku is likely to be involved in a lot of goals. Might even end up at Chelsea….
The story so far: It feels like a crisis has been brewing on Humberside for several years, given the relationship with the current owner. Although narrowly relegated in 2014/2015, such instability was not immediately evident on the pitch. Hull regrouped under the experienced stewardship of Steve Bruce who helped them to an immediate return to the top flight, via the play-offs, while also stoically handling the off-field problems (e.g. Livermore’s failed drug test, the anger of the proposed name change). Since, however, the long-running fuse has run out and the flame has hit the dynamite. Hull City are currently an omnishambles. The manager has walked out in preseason, no-one has been appointed, no signings have been made, other players want out, caretaker Mike Phelan is nervously waiting to assess how bad the damage is and there is disharmony among supporters who are planning a protest for the opening day. What a clusterfuckup. Needs sorting ASAP.
Transfer dealings and wants: With no serious signings through the door this threadbare squad lacks top flight quality. Hull need to first get a new manager in and start making some moves for appropriate playing staff, ASAP.
Season hopes: The car-crash that is their off-season galvanises the club to rally against the adversity on the pitch. Avoid relegation and get a new owner.
Realistic expectations: Having let their realistic chance of staying up leave, that it is names like Giggs, Coleman and Zola who are being muted as saviours shows how bad it really is. Swift return back down is hard to argue against.
Unlikely to: See the fans walking around in ‘Hull Tigers’ t-shirts.
Big season for: The new manager. Given out of work managers appear to be avoiding the current meltdown like the plague it is likely whoever is chosen may need to work miracles to keep Hull up.
Fantasy League pick: Whoever their second or third choice keeper is, and hope that he does not get any game time.
The story so far: Do I really need to tell you? Plucky Leicester are at the foot of the table before an incredible end of season runs sees them miraculously survive. Off-field controversies by father and son sees the owners decide to run a Pearson-free ship. In comes Ranieri and amazingly Leicester’s momentum carries on into the following season like an irresistible force. Vardy breaks the record for consecutive games scored in the Premier League, Mahrez fires off assists like they are going out of fashion, Wes Morgan turns into Franco Baresi and Leicester batter everyone except Arsenal and WIN THE LEAGUE. Cue bookies crying, fans crying, Ranieri crying, both Leicester and Vardy having one massive party and new BMWs for everyone. Premier League? Yeah, completed it mate.
Transfer dealings and wants: Most important for Leicester was to keep those gods securely locked in the King Power Pantheon. Vardy turned into Suarez and hilariously turned down Arsenal, while Mahrez appears set to do the same. Although the loss of Kante to Chelsea is sure to have hurt, they have already signed a ready-made replacement in Nampalys Mendy, while Ahmed Musa will reduce the goal scoring burden on Vardy. Hard to believe Morgan and Huth could maintain the same form again, so a defender may also be on their shopping list.
Season hopes: Win the league, again. Enjoy their European adventure by avoiding results like those from preseason.
Realistic expectations: There is no reason why they cannot maintain a high performance level and stay in the European picture. Teams will have thought long and hard about how to combat them, however, and they now represent a big scalp for others. This means the current season will be a stern test. European trips will also add significantly to number of games they play.
Unlikely to: Give a shit if the bubble bursts this season. They are the Champions.
Big season for: Vardy. Having turned down Arsenal, all eyes will be on the England hitman to show that he can maintain his form and retain his international place.
Fantasy League pick: Ahmed Musa. The striker had a-goal-nearly-every-other-game(ish) ratio in the league at CSKA. With defenders paying attention to Vardy and Mahrez pulling the strings in behind the small Nigerian striker could find himself with a lot of space to take advantage of.
The story so far: Liverpool are a hard one to sum-up. While for the last ten years they have not met the standards they aspire too, it has not been as bad as some may suggest. They went agonisingly close in 2013/2014, and reached two cup finals last season. It is not a record other teams would turn down. Brendan Rodgers, however, seemed symptomatic of the flux Liverpool found themselves in. Right ideas, but not the cutting edge or transfer nous to consistently infiltrate the league’s elite. Klopp, on the other hand, is a cut above. Not only does he have an established track record of success in the incredibly competitive Bundesliga, with a side similar to the current state of Liverpool, he also gets the best of out his side and has a relaxed temperament which is ideal to thrive in the Premier League pressure cooker. Also they battered Barcelona at Wembley in preseason. Yes it’s pre-season, but Barcelona do not do ‘getting battered’ often.
Transfer dealings and wants: Although not blockbusters the transfer dealings look sound choices which will provide Klopp with the tools to improve on 8th place. Remember Dortmund were a team first, and talented individuals second. Matip will add no fuss solidity to the back four. Mane adds pace and penetration from the wings, akin to Sterling in 2013/2014, and could combine to form an exciting and quick front three with Sturridge and Origi. Wijnaldum adds dynamism to a flat midfield which appeared to struggle to life post-Gerrard last season. Would not rule out another signing when Benteke leaves for big money.
Season hopes: This is our year lads.
Realistic expectations: Klopp knows a genuine top four challenge is a must, but the quality of the other teams is arguably greater than ever. He always takes cups seriously so expect this season to be no different.
Unlikely to: Get 38 league games out of Daniel Sturridge.
Big year for: Bit left-field here, but Simon Mingolet. The Belgian never seems to be far away from criticism. Last season Liverpool had a goal difference of +13 in the league, compared to Manchester City (+30) and Tottenham (+34) who finished 4th and 3rd, respectively. While goals for among the sides were similar, Liverpool conceded 9 more than City and 15 more than United and Spurs. Has to organise the defence better and concede less.
Fantasy League pick: If Sturridge can stay fit he will score big. If not, Wijnaldum scored well from midfield for Newcastle, even though they got relegated.
The story so far: While the club has made incredible strides in the last two years (extended the stadium, made operating profits and opened the City Football Academy) last season they went backwards on the pitch for the first time since 2008. City basically ended last season as Everton on steroids. Tactically inflexible, a defensive shambles and timid. If Pep had not already been confirmed Pellegrini would have been sacked as City nearly bottled 4th and managed to turn their biggest night on the European stage into a farce in Madrid. He also ruined Raheem Sterling way before the Euro boo boys did. If it was not for Willy’s heroics at Wembley, Pellegrini’s relationship with City supporters could have been damaged for good. Instead he leaves with their best wishes, but no spare key to get back in. Pep Guardiola has already blown away the bad feeling about last season with charm and honesty. Everyone in the club appears to be buzzing. Ever since Aguero won the league in 2012, everything has been working towards this moment. It was the supporters dream. It was the owner’s dream. Now it is a reality.
Transfer dealings: Very Pep Guardiola, but are City finished in the market? Clearly there is one eye on technical and young players who can come in and make a direct contribution (Sane, Nolito, Gundogan, Stones) while also keeping another eye on the future (Moreno, Jesus, Zinchenko). City fans will also be keen to see how Pep can revitalise key players (e.g. Zabaleta, Silva, Kompany) in a squad which was hardly lacking quality anyway. Expect Bony, Nasri and Mangala to go after being left out of the Champions League squad. Angelino and Adarabioyo impressed in pre-season so, unlike Pellegrini, Guardiola will not be afraid to use good young players.
Season hopes: A march to a Champions League and Premier League double results in Joe Hart pouring a keg of Samuel Smiths Taddy Lager over Pep Guardiola in the subsequent celebrations.
Realistic expectations: Pep appears under no illusion that the Premier League will be a walk in the park. I am both a City fan and a realist, and I expect some teething trouble as both manager and team attempt to adapt in a fiercely competitive league. The good thing is I know the board won’t panic if success is not instant. This is a project, not a one-off performance. I think we are likely to fare well in the Champions League under Pep’s brand of football, providing we negotiate the qualifiers.
Big season for: John Stones and Raheem Sterling. Anybody would think the two of them had systematically scored 100 own goals apiece in the Euros and then celebrated in a Germany shirt, given the way they are ridiculed on social media. They are both good young England players who now have an opportunity to establish themselves under a manager known for developing young talent.
Fantasy League pick: Aguero. Will be worth every penny.
Likely to: Hear Souness rant about how Tiki-Taka does not work in the Premier League after every loss.
Predicted finish: 3rd.
The story so far: The club has clearly struggled to work out how to function in the aftermath of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dynasty and David Gill’s influence. History will probably look more kindly on successor Louis Van Gaal than recent memories of dull and unadventurous football. Like his cross-city counterpart, silverware in a season otherwise fraught with frustration meant the eventual parting was more amicable than might have been. Many questions were asked of the club’s hierarchy last season and they have responded in emphatic fashion, recruiting one of the game’s most renowned winners whose superstar agent connections have opened the door for Ed Woodward to recruit some of the best players in the world. After tough respective seasons both United and Mourinho have a point to prove. While the Blue Moon rises on one side of the city, it is not hard to see that that red smouldering embers are startling to catch light again in spectacular fashion on the other side.
Transfer dealing: Very impressive. Paul Pogba is a genuine world-class centre midfielder, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has a whole career worth of winning mentality, and Mkhitaryan brings invention and guile to a midfield that lacked penetration last year. Jury is still out on Eric Bailly, but Mourinho knows his defenders. Unlikely to see them do much more business following the spend on Pogba.
Season hopes: A return to league dominance as Old Trafford becomes a fortress again.
Realistic expectations: Instant success is probable. Mourinho has a lot to prove and will focus on league success, something he has a proven record in doing. Europa League is unlikely to be anything more than a distraction. Mourinho has always taken domestic cups seriously in the past so expect a decent run as FA Cup holders.
Big season for: Marcus Rashford. Broke onto the scene due to a lack of other available personnel, but impressed enough to make Euros squad. He is now competing with genuinely world class strikers in Rooney and Ibrahimovic, but likely to see fair share of action.
Fantasy league pick: Rooney. Mourinho has long admired Rooney and has attempted to sign him twice. Expect him to use him as a focal part of United’s attacking threat.
Predicted finish: 2nd
The story so far: Although the wheels threatened to fall off towards the end of last season, Middlesbrough eventually managed to escape the Championship following a final day result against fellow promotion wannabes Brighton. After the rather dour appointments of Southgate, Strachan and Mowbray, Boro fans must have wondered what Steve Gibson had been drinking with the appointment of Aitor Karanka. Signs of genuine quality were evident in an FA Cup demolition of Manchester City in 2015 and now they have the opportunity to mix it in the big time.
Transfer dealings and wants: I will admit to not knowing much about most Boro signings, with the exception of Victor Valdes and former City striker Alvaro Negredo. Both, however, are shrewd signings and if they can establish themselves at opposite ends of the pitch then they will provide a good platform for survival. The squad works incredibly hard but lacks genuine top flight experience, so it is quite probable that other names might come in once Karanka has seen his charges in a relatively easy start versus Stoke, West Brom and Palace.
Season hopes: Comfortable survival with some giant killings along the way. Will look at teams like Bournemouth and Swansea as a model.
Realistic expectations: The lack of Premier League experience suggests they will struggle. If they get off to a bad start it could be a long season. But they will have no fear and I think that will enough to save them.
Unlikely to: See Valdes and Negredo hanging out drinking sangria in Whitby.
Big season for: Jordan Rhoades. Many clubs have looked at his prolific scoring in the Championship, but have been too afraid to see if he can make the jump up to the big time. Now he has a chance to prove everyone wrong.
Fantasy League pick: Negredo burst onto the scene at Manchester City in 2013/2014. If he starts like that again he could make a good third choice striker.
Predicted finish: 16th.
The story so far: An ideal example of Premier League stability and progression, Southampton have seen their mettle truly tested with Everton poaching their manager. Given the success of their last two managerial appointments, and that Koeman’s departure was always a case of when and not if, it is highly likely Southampton will have had Puel in mind for a while. Given that 6th is probably their ceiling, the main question is where Southampton go from here?
Transfer dealings and wants: Southampton already have a squad brimming with good players, while I think Hojbjerg will prove a very astute signing. Given his moderate goal return it is unlikely many will have been sad to see Pelle go to China. Redmond is unlikely to be quite as successful as Mane, although the large transfer fee for the latter means Southampton still have money in the bank to improve the squad.
Season hopes: Puel repeats the success of last season.
Realistic expectations: Unlikely to reach the same levels as last season, but by no means likely to be even close to trouble. Given their limited chances of breaking the top four they will also wonder whether now is the right time for a proper cup run.
Unlikely to: Universally cheer Koeman when he visits with Everton.
Big season for: Fraser Forster. Return from a long-lay off, coupled with Joe Hart’s horror show at the Euros, means the giant stopper has a real chance to press his case for England’s number one shirt.
Fantasy league pick: Charlie Austin. Struggled after a January move, but he averaged a goal every other game in the league at QPR and will get more chances now Pelle has left for China.
Predicted finish: 9th
The story so far: Mark Hughes appears to have learnt from his experience of leaving Fulham that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Instead he has worked hard and consistently at Stoke to ensure that additions such as Bojan, Shaqiri and Arnautovic have instilled flair into the pragmatic and uncompromising foundations that were left by Tony Pulis. Regular phone in listeners may have heard some Stoke fans question whether, and when, the club may move up a level to repeat the success of clubs like Southampton and Everton. These represent only grumblings, and not an Arsenal level of demand yet.
Transfer dealings: Stoke City go into the season with the focus on quality not quantity. Returns to fitness for Butland, Shawcross, Bojan and Afellay will feel like new signings, while Joe Allen may bring a more cultured use of the ball to the centre of the park, which will benefit more attacking players. Sobhi could be an exciting and unexpected attacking option, although is very much an unknown quantity. We are also likely to see the best of Imbula this season following his January move. Top of any wish list will be a striker with a track record of scoring, possibly Berahino, and more Premier League quality in defence.
Season hopes: To kick on from mid-table and challenge for a top eight position.
Realistic expectation: To finish mid-table again.
Likely to see: Shaqiri attempt to recreate that amazing overhead kick from the Euros.
Big season for: Jack Butland. Like Forster, Butland is returning from a long layoff and has a genuine chance to challenge Joe Hart for the England number one shirt.
Fantasy League pick: Arnautovic top scored in the league with 11 so, providing another striker does not come in, he is likely to be the sharp end of their attack again.
Predicted finish: 11th.
The story so far: After another great escape from relegation Sunderland fans were perhaps looking forward to the humdrum and predictability of Sam Allardyce football for a couple of years. But a summer is a long time in football and, thanks largely to a country with a population only twice the size of Sunderland, everything is back up in the air. Keen to keep the boat upright Sunderland have turned to David Moyes to build upon the solid foundations left by Big Sam. Following a difficult time at United, and a largely underwhelming spell in Spain, this represents an important job for Moyes to restore credibility and confidence in his managerial ability.
Transfer dealings and wants: Activity so far has been relatively quiet, largely due to the change of manager mid-way through preseason. The squad is still only small and while that will not necessarily faze David Moyes, who favours a settled and compact starting XI, the imminent signings of Paddy McNair and Donald Love from Manchester United suggest Moyes knows he has to increase the depth or risk the season being derailed with injuries. Don’t expect Djilobodji to be last one through the door as Sunderland will feel the loss of key loan players Yedlin and M’Villa.
Season hopes: One of stability and safety, without the need for end of season miracles.
Realistic expectations: Moyes’s determination to restore credibility will see him fashion a solid and hard to beat side who no doubt will be streetwise enough to stay clear of the relegation dogfight.
Unlikely to see: Lee Cattermole go 90 minutes without getting booked.
Big season for: David Moyes. If he fails at Sunderland it is hard to see how he will ever put himself back in contention for the bigger jobs.
Fantasy League pick: Jermaine Defoe continues to defy the aging process and still represents Sunderland’s best attacking threat.
Predicted finish: 13th.
The story so far: Last season was a real test for the Swans. Following the departure of Garry Monk, and an extended run in charge for club stalwart Alan Curtis, the decision to appoint Franco Guidolin felt like a gamble given their proximity to the relegation battle. In reality, however, Guidolin turned out to be a robust and experienced operator who guided Swansea to safety, including impressive wins over Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and West Ham, and a final day draw against Manchester City. Following a takeover by an American-led consortium, keeping touch with stability by maintaining Hugh Jenkins as chairman, the off-season appeared to be one of calm and relief in Swan’s fans. As the season has drawn near, however, the club have begun to cause alarm. The best and most consistent players in captain Ashley Williams and top-scorer Ayew have been allowed to leave on the eve of the season, and have been replaced with expensive but risky replacements. This feels like it could go one of two ways…
Transfer dealings and wants: The signings of Fernando Llorente and Borja Baston should comfortably replace the goal threat of Paloschi, Gomis and Ayew. The signing of Leroy Fer also maintains the depth of last season. It is likely the club will look to reinvest some of the combined £32million they have received from Williams and Ayew, with quality in defence probably near the top of their list.
Season hopes: They maintain the upward curve from last season and play attractive attacking football which sees them up looking up rather than down.
Realistic expectations: Form towards end of last season suggests Swansea will be a solid side. Unlikely to do anything spectacular, and enjoy sitting somewhere in lower mid-table.
Likely to see: Swansea fans recreate that Icelandic celebration to help Gylfi Sigurdsson feel at home.
Big season for: Borja Baston. The young Spaniard scored well at Eibar and Real Zaragoza in recent seasons. Can he replicate the impact that fellow Spaniard Michu did in Wales?
Fantasy League pick: Gylfi Sigurdsson. Likely to be involved in most set pieces and attacking moves. Will be a midfield bargain if the front two of Swansea click.
Predicted finish: 15th.
Tottenham: Last season saw Spurs continue their upward curve under Pochettino and it must not be forgotten that for long periods they were more credible title challengers than Manchester City and Arsenal. Fans will have been delighted to see the club qualify comfortably for the Champions League, Harry Kane reaffirm that he was not a flash in the pan and Deli Alli add to the convey belt of young players to flourish under Pochettino. This year promises to be a real test for Spurs though, mainly due to the quality of the teams competing for the much coveted top four places. It will also be interesting to see how key players like Kane, Walker, Dier, Alli, Lloris and Alderweireld react to serious disappointment at the Euros, and whether they have had sufficient rest to get stuck back into Spur’s high intensity brand of football.
Transfer dealings and wants: Just two through the door so far. Janssen should hopefully reduce some of the scoring burden on Kane, while Wanyama will offer steel in the midfield to allow Eriksen and Alli to concentrate on creating chances. Given the quality of their squad it is likely Tottenham will be concentrating more on refreshing players to go again than bringing in new faces.
Season hopes: Maintain their top four status while also having another memorable run in Europe’s top competition.
Realistic expectations: Their brand of football causes a few problems for the European elite, however, their continental exploits prove costly in maintaining their top four place, especially given some rivals do not have serious European football as a distraction.
Likely to see: The North London derbies prove instrumental in which of the clubs makes top four.
Big year for: Deli Alli. After some incredible performances last year the young midfielder struggled to make the impact at the Euros he may have wanted to. He remains on an upward trajectory, however, and this season we will see just how far he can go.
Fantasy League pick: Alderweireld was a shrewd pick last year, but Eriksen is likely to be involved in most of Tottenham’s attacking play and a good consistent point scorer.
Predicted finish: 5th
The story so far: On the face of it Watford had an enjoyable season back in the top flight, finishing comfortably in mid-table and reaching the FA Cup semis. Given this, many were surprised when Sanchez-Flores departed after only one season. In context though, Watford did change their manager even after being promoted, so this suggests the board consider the right leadership to be crucial in taking the next step in the league. It should also be noted that Watford really struggled in the second half of the campaign, losing 11 of their last 18 league games and winning only four, so perhaps the board felt a refresh was needed. The new man, Walter Mazzarri, has managed some big sides in Italy, including Inter and Napoli, so Watford will be hoping he can use his experience to revitalise them for a new challenge.
Transfer dealings and wants: Quite active, yet without many household names. Isaac Success has a brilliant name, though. Jerome Sinclair is still young and unproven, while others signings from Genk (Kabasele) and Marseille (Dja, Djede) are largely unknowns until they are seen in action. Watford will have been happy to keep strike duo Deeney and Ighalo away from admiring eyes. Unlikely to be finished in the market, but Mazzarri appears to be waiting to see his team in action before deciding which areas are a priority to strengthen.
Season hopes: To rediscover their form from the start of last season and maintain it until after the Christmas decorations have come down.
Realistic expectations: There feels like real potential for second-season syndrome. Their struggles at the end of last season suggest the squad lacked depth and quality so it is a worry that, although they have changed manager, much of the personal remains the same. If they get off to a bad start then it could be a long way back.
Likely to see: Costel Pantilimon, how could you miss him? He is a giant.
Big season for: Troy Deeney. Has turned down admiring glances to stay loyal. If Watford are going to stay up he will play a huge part in this. Big Sam is also known to favour big physical centre forwards. A strong run of form could see him force his way into his thinking.
Fantasy League pick: Odian Ighalo. Channelled his inner Shaun Goater to score with all parts of his body. Unless you are trying to pad out midfield or defence he is worth a pick.
Predicted finish: 18th
The story so far: After a recent history of bouncing between the Championship and Premier League, West Brom now find themselves a stable and consistent feature in the top flight. They have been well and truly ‘Pulised’. Towards the end of last season though, listeners of BBC’s 606 will have heard regular grumblings from West Brom fans about the boring and unadventurous football on offer. Changes are afoot though. A new Chinese consortium has taken charge and Jeremy Peace, a man who was a big factor in the ‘safety-first’ approach of the club, has stepped aside. Much of what happens now depends on the ambitions held by the new owners.
Transfer dealings and wants: Pulis seemed relatively happy with the options available to him last season and it is no surprise he has barely ventured in the transfer market, signing only Matt Phillips. A lack of big spending suggests the new owners are willing to let Pulis get on with his job while they find their feet in the top flight. A sensible, but unexciting prospect for all. Expect some activity if a big fee is secured for want-away and not-really-that-good striker Berahino.
Season hopes: Anything but dull, flat-pack, ‘effective’ Pulis football, although preferably not relegation. Perhaps even a cup run akin to Stoke in 2011.
Realistic expectations: Dull, flat-pack, ‘effective’ Pulis football, no relegation, and no decent cup run.
Unlikely to see: West Brom ‘do a Leicester’.
Big season for: Tony Pulis. He knows another season of boring football will bizarrely lead to some questions about whether it is time for a change. Will need to think of a way to bring a new sense of excitement to the side without compromising on staying up.
Fantasy League pick: Defenders in Tony Pulis teams are usually cheap, but reliable point scorers. Johnny Evans may even end up at Arsenal if you believe everything you read so might be a wise punt.
Predicted finish: 14th.
The story so far: Post-Big Sam, Slaven Billic was exactly the kind of gamble the West Ham fans wanted. An entertaining manager with a genuine passion for the club. Whisper it though, the board will be secretly grateful to Big Sam for laying the foundations of a team that Bilic has now taken to the next level. Last season West Ham took many people by surprise with an exciting brand of attacking and fast-paced football, orchestrated by conductor-in-chief Dimitri Payet. This season truly represents the start of a new era as West Ham swap their East End Terrace for an urban palace as they move to their new home in the Olympic Stadium. Moving is never fun though. Everything is in boxes, nothing is where you can find it, and all your mates enjoy coming round to soak up that new-house smell. They have all the right component parts to move up a level now, the big question is how easy will it be to re-create the magic and intimidating atmosphere of Upton Park.
Transfer dealings and wants: Very impressive so far. Not only have they managed to hold into the stars of last season they have added genuine quality in Andrew Ayew, Havard Nordtviet and Sofiane Feghouli. Unlikely to spend much more beyond the outlay on Ayew unless there is genuine quality available.
Season hopes: To go one better than last season by breaking into the top 6 of the Premier League. To go unbeaten at home and make the Olympic Stadium a fortress.
Realistic expectations: West Ham will know that the quality of the top six this year will make breaking into that party no easy task. Instead it is likely they will look to generate some real excitement in their new home by taking the cups seriously. Bilic will know the Europa League potentially offers West Ham a way into the Champions League. If Sevilla can do it…
Likely to hear: All visiting fans praising the quality of their new stadium.
Big season for: Dimitri Payet. Can he recreate the magic that captured hearts in the East End and Paris last season. Also big seasons for Andy Carroll (can he stay fit?) and Mark Noble (Christ, just give him an England cap already).
Fantasy league pick: Carroll and Payet joint top-scored last season with nine apiece. The outlay of £20 million on Ayew suggests he will feature predominately at the sharp end of West Ham’s attack.