Ladies and gentlemen, we are just three days away from a new season of English soccer, and I’m sure the anticipation is killing you. Or maybe not. Maybe you’re just now getting into the game on this side of the pond (as if the whole “soccer” thing didn’t give away my roots). That’s OK. There are no judgments here and only one kind of football in our minds.
Bro Jackson has amped up our coverage this year. We were only bold enough to go with a top 10 prediction at this point last season, but this year we’re doing all 20, and expanding to Spain, Germany, and Italy as La Liga, Bundesliga, and Serie A, respectively, ramp up. How’d we do last year? Somewhere between “son of a bitch” and “meh.” Hopefully, this season goes a little better for us. It’s always tough to forecast the winners and losers this early in the year with transfers still possible until September 1, and again in the winter for a brief period. We also can’t forecast injuries or club chaos. I’m looking at you, Tottenham. That being said, we’ll do our best, starting at the bottom.
20. West Bromwich Albion
Oh, West Brom, what a beautiful, chaotic mess you are. The Baggies only just survived to play another year in the English top flight, losing four of their last five games, and finishing 17th. They then promptly appointed Scottsman Alan Irvine out of nowhere to right the ship this season. The most sparkling notes from his resume? Getting fired from Sheffield Wednesday a couple years ago in his last foray as manager. The Albion board now have a puppet master in charge, but Irvine does know a thing or two about developing talent, playing a major role in bringing along the youth progressions of Wayne Rooney, and more recently, Ross Barkley. The West Brom defense was able to glean Joleon Lescott in the offseason and is an unspectacular but somewhat stable unit of competence. The midfield and forward lines however, are essentially slow moving dumpster fires of flotsam that belong in a stagnant pond just outside the Hawthorns.
Perhaps no team will be more fun to root for this season than Burnley. In fact just about every preview of this season’s Premier League will include some sort of anecdote about the wondrous motivational powers of charismatic young manager Sean Dyche and how he’s going to miraculously keep Burnley from being relegated. Make no mistake, Burnley will be a tough squad to breakdown this year. It’s a team with chemistry and youth, and the squad that had the tightest defense in the Championship last season, garnering promotion with a second place finish. There will be great atmosphere for Burnley home matches, and they will surprise a few folks here and there, but more than likely 2014-15 will prove to be an audition year for manager Dyche and his two brightest young stars, 22-year-old forward Danny Ings and 23-year-old right back Kieran Trippier.
Is there life after Mo? No team got a crash course in real-world pecking order in recent memory quite like Southampton did this summer. This is a team with a proud history of success and player development (Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale to name a few), but when the big fish come, it’s lights out. Gone are manager Mauricio Pochettino, midfielder Adam Lallana, forward Rickie Lambert, and defenders Calum Chambers, Luke Shaw, and Dejan Lovren. The good news is those sales raised $175 million to be spent on replacements. Ronald Koeman was brought in from Dutch club Feyenoord, where he oversaw a return to the UEFA Champions League for the traditional Dutch power and helped bring along the likes of the young core of the Netherlands’ successful back line at this summer’s World Cup in Bruno Martins Indi (now at Porto), Daryl Janmaat (now at Newcastle), and Stefan de Vrij (now at Lazio). In Southampton, Koeman will have the luxury of working with more up-and-coming academy prospects, but he won’t have the luxury of time like he did at Feyenoord. While many are lauding this as a major coup for the Saints, note that Koeman was either a marginal success or a complete failure in his other managerial stops at PSV, Ajax, Valencia, and Benfica. Throw in that he also has to completely overturn a culture of betrayal that many of the players feel toward the club itself, and it just feels like a mission too big for the up-and-coming Dutchman.
17. Aston Villa
Let’s be honest here, Aston Villa will be safe this year only because the complete organizational clusterfucks Southampton and West Brom are currently facing and Burnley’s lack of resources. It’s a lesser of all evils pick here, but Aston Villa survives. Barely. First of all, you don’t bring in Phillipe Senderos as a defender if you take yourself seriously. Seriously. Google ‘France 5, Switzerland 1.’ That’s all you need. Senderos just does not have the speed to deal with any of the mediocre to world-class speedsters he’ll face in the Premier League. Joe Cole probably won’t ever suit up sober. He hasn’t been a decent option at the top level since the mid-to-late 2000s. Why you would waste roster space on bringing those two in this season doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. One person kept the Villans afloat last season, and that was American goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who made some spectacular saves to get the London club here this season. Villa opened last year by shocking Arsenal, announcing the summer arrival of Antonio Luna (now gone, LOL) and Christian Benteke on the big stage. Everything pretty much went awry from there with injuries and managerial dysfunction at the root of it. The offseason has seen the aforementioned arrivals of Cole and Senderos as well as the peculiar assistant manager appointment of Roy Keane (Can you say start sending out resumes, Mr. Lambert?) The beginning of Aston Villa’s season should absolutely mirror the chaos of Paolo di Canio’s exit from Sunderland last year. In other words, get your popcorn ready for the first two months.
That being said, there is some real talent on this team. Dutch defensive hero Ron Vlaar was, by some miracle retained, as well as injury-prone Belgian stalwart Christian Benteke. The midfield is solidly mediocre, bolstered by the likes of Fabian Delph, Kieran Richardson, and Ashley Westwood. Even the front line goes deeper than Benteke with Darren Bent, Gabriel Agbonlahor, and Andreas Weimann who has shown limited flashes of brilliance. Villa stay up, but only just, in a sprint to the finish.
16. Queens Park Rangers
Ain’t no party like a Harry Redknapp party because a Harry Redknapp party . . . performs to expectations? A respected manager and the most recent person to have any relative success under the Daniel Levy regime at Tottenham, Redknapp was let go after finishing fifth by a single point to Arsenal in 2012, which makes zero sense, but neither do most of the decisions surrounding English soccer. Anyway, Redknapp found himself at QPR and helped lead the Rangers to a pretty underwhelming, yet successful push for promotion a season ago. In QPR Redknapp has way more financial resources than probably half of the clubs in the English top flight, but what he ends up doing with those funds remains to be seen. Rio Ferdinand, while not the player he once was, is a solid addition in defense. Holding on to striker Loic Remy after his strange, failed move to Liverpool should also pay dividends. Maybe most surprising is that Redknapp, with all the financial clout at his backing, made a pair of impressively shrewd buys in Cardiff pair, Steven Caulker and striker Jordan Mutch. The rest of the roster is filled with some decent players whose names you might recognize, but whose best years are probably behind them in Bobby Zamora, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Adel Taarabt, Charlie Austin, Armand Traore, and Joey Barton.
15. Hull City
We expect a slight improvement on last season’s 16th-place finish but not much of one. In come Robert Snodgrass and Tom Ince, as well as the return of Tom Livermore. Steve Bruce is a master of survival in the Premier League, and Hull should comfortably stay up but not expect much more. Nikica Jelavic fell out at Everton with the arrival of Roberto Martinez and found himself in Hull orange by the winter, he’s the one player that has the talent to decide some games for the Tigers, much like Dimitar Berbatov did for Fulham for a few seasons, but other than that roster is just kind of ho-hum.
Leicester has spent the last few seasons flirting with its first return to the Premier League since 2004, and finally, they achieved it running essentially wire-to-wire as top dog last year in the Championship. There is a great mix of youth and talent on this team and it looks like the one Championship squad poised to grow into its time in the Premier League, much like Swansea has over the last three seasons. Expect 21-year-old Luke Moore, 22-year-old Chris Wood, 22-year-old Antony Knockaert, and 24-year-old Danny Drinkwater to take the mantle of “up-and-coming youth all-star team” from Southampton this season as trusty Nigel Pearson guides Leicester to a surprising 14th position.
It was a tale of two seasons for the Magpies in 2013. They surged up the table, well into the top 10, behind the creative genius of Yohan Cabaye until January, where he was quickly sold for a hefty profit, only to collapse with no adequate replacement down the homestretch. Dropping to a disappointing 10th-place finish when it was all said and done, Newcastle will hope to shore up their inconsistency in the middle of the field and move back up into Europa League contention.[ref]Note for noobs: fifth and sixth place make the Europa League, a 2015-2016 tournament full of the kinda good teams from the European leagues.[/ref] Not happening. There has been some solid business this summer in bringing over Dutch international Daryl Janmaat to replace the outgoing Mathieu Debuchy, as well as the highly touted Remy Cabella and Siem de Jong. Still while the defense and midfield appear solid, there’s nothing to lend us to believe that there will be enough firepower in attack or creativity behind it to power Newcastle to anything but startling mediocrity.
12. Stoke City
This isn’t Tony Pulis’ hard-nosed, batton-down-the-hatches squad of old that makes you wish you were going to a craft fair instead of a soccer game. This is what’s left of those squads, now piloted by the offensive-minded former Manchester United winger, Mark Hughes. Optimism is high at Stoke this season with the arrivals of Bojan and Peter Odemiwingie. Peter Crouch and Cameron Jerome as other forward options are definitely worth their salt. The defense is solid in Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron, Phil Bardsley, and company. Though they finished ninth a season ago, we like the Potters to slip back in the pack a bit. A comfortable year with a team that would not surprise anyone should they go on to a top 10 finish.
In one of the most entertaining escape adventures ever engineered, manager Gus Poyet took the mantle and helped Sunderland out of its cellar-dwelling ways with four wins in its final five games to lift the Black Cats to a 14th placed finish. Along the way there was a League Cup finals appearance as well as a win at Chelsea. This year Poyet will look to improve on the successes of last season. Adam Johnson is one of the least-appreciated midfield talents in the league, pairing him with new signing Jack Rodwell, and the electrifying Emmanuelle Giaccherrini should pay immediate dividends. Up top the Black Cats should see more production out of Connor Wickham, Steven Fletcher, and (fingers crossed!) Jozy Altidore.
The Swans have been consistently mid-table since their arrival from the Championship a few seasons ago. They were fun to watch with Brendan Rodgers at the helm, and it looked like successor Michael Laudrup would continue in those footsteps. Instead it was chaos, and in the winter Laudrup was let go and Garry Monk was named player/manager. Monk guided the Swans through a roller coaster of a second-half of the season, eventually finishing 12th. Expect this team to be much more offensive than defensive. They weren’t spectacular last season in either department, but still finished dead even on goal difference. This year, Chico Flores and Ben Davies have moved on out of the back, with deadly Michu also going on loan to Italian title-challengers Napoli. But, Swansea appears to have one of the most formidable front sixes you’ll find in not only English soccer but possibly European soccer. Wilfried Bony was a revelation up front a year ago, producing 17 goals and completely justifying Swansea’s transfer-breaking record expenditure on him. This season Lyon’s Bafetembi Gomis moves over to join Bony up top, as well as Gylfi Sigurdsson’s return from Tottenham to play in the whole. Playing alongside Sigurdsson in midfield will be former Liverpool product Jonjo Shelvey with speedsters Wayne Routledge on one wing and new signing Jefferson Montero on the other. Expect some exciting games when the Swans are on.
9. Crystal Palace
This team was most certainly destined to finish dead last a season ago, that was until they dug up Tony Pulis and brought him in to save the day. Pulis, the miracle worker, transformed a hapless bunch of relegation-bound zombies and charged up the table to a shocking 11th place finish, beating Everton and Chelsea along the way, as well as ending Liverpool’s title challenge by spectacularly overturning a three-goal deficit to earn a draw late in the year. This Palace team will be characterized by its hard-nose Pulisian philosophy in the back, but it will also have some spark up top. Mile Jedniak is a world-class midfielder and showed it in lighting up the Dutch for Australia in Brazil. Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie also found their footing at the end of the year and sparkled for the Eagles in the middle of the park, but it is 23-year-old Dwight Gayle that I would keep an eye on. The young Englishman came back from injury to score four goals in the final two games. You couple that talent with new signing Frazier Campbell and Tony Pulis could have a mighty fine squad on his hands here.
8. West Ham
There appears to be nothing but dysfunction going on at West Ham in the back room, but I’m tipping the Hammers to surprise a lot of folks with a return to the top 10. I think there will be a significant drop-off between the top seven and eighth place this season, but I like West Ham to be the top dog of the second tier of teams in this season’s Premier League. Purchasing Ecuador front man Enner Valencia for only 12 million is an absolute steal, and I expect the former Pachuca man to make a major impact early in the year once he’s match fit. Stewart Downing, Mark Noble, and Kevin Nolan are experienced, talented technicians in midfield. Ravel Morrison appears to be poised for a big England career on the near horizon. Mauro Zarate should also be a solid, if unspectacular addition for the Hammers. Carl Jenkinson’s loan move from Arsenal should hopefully add some stability to a back line that will follow the leadership of New Zealand international captain Winston Reid. If things are going well the first half of the season, they could get even better upon Andy Carroll’s return.
This is the homestretch. I think spots seven through four are extremely close and could shake out any number of ways. Before you lose your shit and put a fist through a keyboard, wall, or monitor, look at the remaining clubs left for us to stack them up against – Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Chelsea, and Arsenal – and tell me you can see them beating those teams in a one-game playoff. More than likely you can’t. It’s close, and expectations are high for Spurs, but they’re probably a year away under new coach Mauricio Pochettino from launching any sort of bid for the top four. The top third of the Premier League is extremely loaded right now, and Tottenham will suffer from a bit of a rebuilding phase. They’ll win some big games with Adebayor, Eriksen, and Paulinho providing some big moments, but the depth up top just isn’t there yet.
Roberto Martinez wasted no time making his mark at Everton. He immediately secured the services of Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku on loan, turned young star Ross Barkley loose on the rest of the league, and engineered an early season victory over Chelsea en route to a fifth place finish. It was a good year to be a Toffee last season. Barry and Lukaku are back full-time with permanent moves, and Everton will be featuring in European play in the Europa League. I do, however, have the team falling one spot this year, and again, I ask you to give their squad the same test you gave Tottenham. Lukaku is obviously on the precipice of becoming an international superstar, but there are few options to support him up top. Steven Naismith and Arouna Kone are OK, but nothing that lends you to think they can compete with Danny Welbeck or Lazar Markovic. The midfield is absolutely loaded, and the defense is captained by Leighton Baines, who is one of the top players in his position in the world. Everton will make some noise, but this will be a much tougher season with Manchester United rejuvenated by Louis Van Gaal’s appointment. Expect the Merseyside Derby to be just as thrilling and scintillating as it was in mid-80s when Liverpool and Everton routinely duked it out for top spot in the league.
Gone is Luis Suarez, and I fear, so is Liverpool’s passport of entry into Champions League play. Suarez would be considered the greatest talent in the world if it weren’t for his overactive upper and lower mandibular extensions and the gaudy statistics Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been putting up for the last five years. Daniel Sturridge is a world-class player, but there will definitely be a drop-off in the offensive juggernaut that was Liverpool a season ago. Expect Raheem Sterling and Phillipe Coutinho to have career years, but also expect Steven Gerrard to fade quietly into retirement. For all the talent Liverpool has purchased this season, they’re probably a year or two away from a major championship run, especially with the added burden of European play. This will be a transition year with growing pains for the Reds, but come back and see me next season once the defense has had a year to gel, Lazar Markovic and Emre Can have had time to settle into their English digs, and Divock Origi arrives from across the channel. Then we’ll talk title.
4. Manchester United
What a difference a man makes. Manchester United appear to be playing with confidence again and look to be pretty terrifyingly efficient after the appointment of new manager Louis Van Gaal. However, defense has been the problem for the Red Devils as of late, not their goal scoring prowess. After all, Wayne Rooney finished tied for fourth last season with 17 goals. What United have this year appear to be organization and a coherent game plan, at least in the preseason. Preseason should never be considered a reliable indicator for what the season ahead holds, but Manchester United look poised to return to the Champions League and should outgun the likes of Everton, Tottenham, and Liverpool.
This was my preseason pick last year to win it all, and I looked really, really smart for just a little while. Then the Blues collapsed. In the end, the lack of a reliable goal-scoring forward undid the Blues. They’ve invested in Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas this season, while letting Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku go. I think it’s another tight race again this season, but I’m not convinced Costa will be able to stay healthy for an entire season and the Blues will find themselves relying on the likes of Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba to carry the load when it matters most, which would be fine, if it were 2009.
Now that the new stadium has been paid off, the fans can get what they want. The nine-year wait for a trophy came to an end last year with that dramatic FA Cup final victory over Hull, and now Arsene Wenger has decided he can spend money again. Arsenal’s midfield was already insanely deep last year. Now they’ve added Alexis Sanchez to the fold, who will more likely play as a striker. Also, the Gunners have added Southampton’s Calum Chambers and Newcastle’s Mathieu Debuchy. Arsenal finally has the depth all around the park they’ve been missing, and we think this will be the first season in a while where we see an Arsene Wenger team play all 38 games to its fullest. It will be tight, but we don’t think they’re quite there to edge the current champions . . .
1. Manchester City
The Blues have continued to upgrade, and after a successful first year under Manuel Pellegrini, we think they’ll be better in year two. Bacary Sagna, Fernando, and we think Eliaquim Mangala will only add more depth and strength to an already stacked squad. We don’t see anyone out there who has surpassed the champions this offseason though Arsenal has probably come closest. It should be a fun year with the emergence of Stevan Jovetic adding to what Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko already provide. Expect Yaya Toure to drop off a little bit but only to share a little bit more pie with the rest of the attacking juggernaut.