(Photo Courtesy of Reuters)
With the beginning of the new campaign just hours away, Sean Coots and Zac Hirschbeck share their thoughts and predictions as to what the “Premier League Script Writers” have in store for us this year.
Zac: The best league (which also contains the best sport) in the world is back!
Much like the NBA, the Premier League has truly developed into a 12-month source of entertainment for fans. Although top players from each side have likely spent a least a portion of the summer gallivanting across Europe’s most beautiful beaches, club executives have been hard at work in their respective boardrooms, scouring the transfer market for both frugal additions and star-studded signings. While rumors will continue to swirl as the transfer window remains open through the end of the month (“Deadline Day” is on Aug. 31), this weekend features a slate of games that will launch a thrilling 38-game ride that will ultimately crown a new Premier League champion.
Sean, due to my top-club bias (as my recently selected fantasy Premier League team would indicate), I’d like to start our brief discussion here with an evaluation of the top of the table.
From my estimation, and perhaps you’d disagree here, I believe that there are seven clubs, being Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham, that are poised to be chasing a top-four finish.
Starting with the Gunners, despite longstanding rumors suggesting otherwise, Arsene Wenger and Alexis Sanchez are both back. Wenger, who put pen to paper on a new two-year pact in late May, continues to stamp out any inclination that his diminutive Chilean superstar will leave, even in the face of repeated inquiries from both Manchester City and PSG. After tallying an incredible 24 goals and 10 assists (while appearing in all 38 league fixtures), Arsenal will hope that Sanchez sticks around so that the club can improve upon last season’s disappointing fifth-place finish. If he does stay, Sanchez could potentially form the league’s most dangerous striking partnership alongside newcomer Alexandre Lacazette. Following a three-year stretch that saw the 26-year-old Frenchman tally 76 goals in 97 league appearances for Lyon, Lacazette may finally give Arsenal the elite forward that it has long lacked at the Emirates.
The defending champions have had a fairly tumultuous offseason, and Antonio Conte’s dissatisfaction with the current depth of his squad has been well-documented. Following the departure of yet another member of last year’s title-winning first-team squad to a key rival (Nemanja Matic to United), Chelsea has work to do revamp it’s squad if it has any chance at repeating as champions. While the concerns regarding the size of the squad are understandable, if the upcoming additions possess the same level of quality of those that have already arrived, Conte can surely piece together a winner.
For Everton, it will certainly be challenging to jump up from last year’s seventh-place finish, particularly after seeing Romelu Lukaku leave for United. However, Ronald Koeman’s side has been plenty active in their offseason recruitment of talent. Through the addition of two English youngsters in Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane, and Dutch midfielder Davy Klaassen, the Toffees have injected three proven young commodities into their first-team. With that being said, even when taking into account the storybook return of Wayne Rooney, it will be tough to replace the goal-scoring efforts of the departed Lukaku, especially considering Everton’s current options up front.
Out of all the seven team I mentioned, Liverpool might represent the club I’m most pessimistic about. Though I do love Jurgen Klopp, the Reds have failed to keep pace with their league rivals in the transfer window. While the addition of Mohamed Solah will give Klopp another dangerous winger to torment opposing defenders, Liverpool have failed to land two players that were perceived to be top targets (Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk), and naively fell short in an attempt to lure French teenager Kylian Mbappe to Anfield. Likewise, the rumored departure of the club’s best player to replace Neymar at the Nou Camp would prove a heavy blow. While Klopp will still have a fairly balanced squad, with or without Coutinho, it’s hard to picture Liverpool improving upon its fourth-place finish from a season ago.
The Manchester rivals are the apparent favorites to win the league this year, and rightfully so. Despite failing to capture the UEFA Super Cup earlier this week, Manchester United are set up to stylistically reflect the desires of Jose Mourinho. They are big. They are strong. They will be lightning-quick on the counter, and the addition of Lukaku will likely provide the club with a seamless transition to L.A.Z. (Life After Zlatan). Meanwhile, United’s neighbors have (shockingly) splashed the cash to reflect Pep Guardiola’s attacking style of football. Between the pricy acquisitions of three talented wing-backs (Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, and Danilo), a goalkeeping replacement (Ederson) for the disastrous Claudio Bravo, and yet another dynamic playmaker in Bernardo Silva, it’s fair to say that Manchester City continue to possess the most talented, and the most deep team in the league. I suppose a seemingly limitless amount of spendable money will do that…
From a neutral perspective, Tottenham may be the team that is easiest to root for among the Premier League giants. Unlike their rivals, the Spurs continue to avoid big spending in the transfer market. However, they’ve continued to retain their (largely English-born) core that has led them to two straight second-place finishes in the league. To keep things simple, Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Mauricio Pochettino are all really good at their respective jobs, and they should provide Tottenham with another chance at capturing the league title.
Sean, now that I’ve so eloquently and effectively set the table for our exchanges here, how do you see the top of the table playing out? Are you confident that your beloved Red Devils can claim their first league title since Sir Alex’s final season in 2012-13?
Sean: Zac, I wish I could say I was wholly confident that Jose will lead us to a title this season, but I fear we faithful supporters will have to wait another year. I think that the signings have been very good ones; Lukaku will score goals, Lindelof shores up the back, and Matic is a great competitor who will (hopefully) unshackle Pogba to impact the game creatively. I hope that Shaw can overcome his fitness issues and have that breakout year that we have been waiting for since he was signed. In summary, Jose’s rebuild is nearly complete, and what we have is a strong defensive team with a hard-working, physical midfield, pacey wingers, and an established, imposing center forward. So why is this year not the year? Because our cross-town rivals will be a force of their own.
City’s summer spending make them odds-on favorites this season. Pep rebuilt the midfield and attack last season, and they were fluid and terrifying for most of the season. However, they were – as Pep’s possession-heavy teams often are – woefully exposed on the counter. Walker and Mendy (presumably the starters) give Pep the fullbacks he desperately needed last season, while Ederson provides a necessary improvement to Bravo. Sterling and Sane will presumably mature and with their pace and De Bruyne and Silva pulling the strings, it doesn’t matter much whether Aguero or Jesus or starts up top – goals will be scored in buckets.
Defending champions Chelsea have had an underwhelming summer, as you’ve already detailed. Two things in particular tell me that Conte will have a sophomore slump: their lack of depth is myopic (expounded by the baffling sale of Matic to United) and they will have to navigate Champion’s League in addition to defending their PL title. Bakayoko is a bit of an interesting signing himself, as he is a very similar player to Kante. Granted, no midfielder is going to look forward to pitting himself against two of the best defensive midfielders in the game, but I wonder if they’ll struggle to create in the attack. Champion’s League action, on a related note, has shown to massively impact the English game in recent years, much more so than in other countries. The last two PL champions have not had Champion’s League to contend with, and have looked fresher through the first half of the year to run to the top of the table.
Which leads me to Arsenal, who finished out of the top 4 for the first time in almost 20 years. It will be a great coup if they hold onto Alexis this summer, and the addition of Lacazette makes them formidable in a way they haven’t been in a number of years. If Aaron Ramsey can replicate his sublime form of 2013-14, it could mean a true title push for the Gunners. Injuries have seemingly derailed every season in recent memory, and one less competition will surely have Arsene excited for his team’s title hopes. I think they are a center midfielder away from being a guaranteed top-four team this season.
Spurs, who I agree are the easiest to root for, have had a miserly summer. No major signings, the high-profile sale of Kyle Walker, and little depth set the stage for what could turn into a difficult season. If Harry Kane is injured for any length of time, they are in a world of trouble. Couple this with a season away from the fortress that White Hart Lane has become and Champion’s League football, I expect a lack-luster season rife with frustration. You can’t help but feel like last year was their chance, and they just couldn’t pull it off.
I’ve reserved Merseyside rivals Liverpool and Everton for last, and their summers could not have been more different. The Toffees, partially funded by the sale of Lukaku, have had a major overhaul. I especially like the signings of Pickford and Keane, though it will be interesting to see how Koeman deals with the phasing out of Phil Jagielka, who has always been a favorite of mine. Their season hinges on the ability of Rooney and Sandro to fill the goal-scoring void left by Lukaku. Liverpool, who seemed to have ruled out a Coutinho sale before his official transfer request, have made little noise in the transfer market. I’m not convinced that Salah was the signing that was needed, given their defensive woes last season. Their goalkeeper situation is by no means resolved, and the signing of a center back (Van Dijk’s recent transfer request may be telling) is an absolute necessity if Klopp truly wants to challenge for the title.
Zac – now that we’ve discussed the battle for the top four, what are your thoughts on the always-entertaining relegation battle this year? Will the PL’s newcomers struggle to keep pace, or will it be other bottom dwellers that find themselves in the Championship in 2018?
Zac: Sean, while I agree that City’s offseason spending and their existing depth makes them logical favorites to recapture the title, I’m going to go with United for two reasons.
First, I’m not sure I believe in The Citizens’ defensive capabilities. Although Pep certainly spent considerable cash on his new goalie, Ederson is young (23), and he has very little top-flight experience (55 appearances for Benfica in Portgual’s top domestic league). I’d be surprised if he doesn’t encounter some growing pains during his first year in England. Likewise, City’s depth at center back isn’t nearly as promising as it is elsewhere within the squad. Captain Vincent Kompany has appeared in only 25 (out of a possible 76) games over the past two years, and his next ailment always seems to be just around the corner. In his first year, 23-year-old John Stones didn’t exactly justify the hefty price-tag that City paid to acquire him two summers ago. I’ve never quite understood why the world seems to value Nicolas Otamendi’s abilities so highly, and castoff Eliaquim Mangala is one injury away from playing an important role in the team. While Pep has certainly bolstered his defense (and his offense) with the additions on the wings, I’m not convinced City boast the caliber of center backs that are necessary to consistently topple the other big English clubs. Perhaps I’ll be wrong.
Second, I think Mourinho’s know-how of the Premier League, and his results-oriented approach to each fixture is reflected in his squad. Despite new faces and injury concerns (I’m looking at you Phil Jones), United has a deep collection of competent defenders (that appears to be growing) that will protect David de Gea, who remains one of the world’s top goalkeepers. As you spoke to Sean, I think Matic’s addition will encourage Pogba to venture forward on a regular basis, and I think the 24-year-old Frenchman will more consistently demonstrate why United forked over a then-world record transfer fee for his services a year ago. I think the key for United will be to support to Lukaku. Due to his goal-scoring record in the Premier League over the last five seasons (85 combined goals with West Brom and Everton, which includes a career-high of 25 last season), I’m certain that Lukaku will quickly adapt to his new side. However, United were far too reliant on Zlatan last season, and Mourinho will need to allow supporting playmakers like Mata, Martial, Rashford, and Mkhitaryan to express themselves in the attacking third. I think Mourinho will do so, and I think United will stand atop the league when all is said and done.
As far as the relegation battle, I think two out of the three newcomers, being Huddersfield Town and Brighton and Hove Albion, will return to the Championship in 2018. Huddersfield Town’s ascension to the top-flight was truly surprising. The Terriers obtained promotion (through a penalty shootout victory over Reading) despite finishing last season with a negative goal differential, and they struggled to consistently score goals. While I’ll be pulling for Huddersfield to prove me wrong due to their American ties (manager David Wagner and midfielder Danny Williams), I think their stay in the Premier League will be a brief one. Likewise, I think Brighton and Hove Albion are destined to drop back down. Although The Seagulls have hovered around promotion for the last few years, I don’t think Chris Houghton’s experience, and the togetherness of the squad can compensate for a lack of top-end quality. Lastly, I think Burnley are a good bet to be relegated this year. While “The Ginger Mourinho” will always have his side well-organized and willing, I think the losses of Michael Keane (to Everton) and Andre Gray (to Watford) will prove difficult to overcome, and despite what will surely be a valiant effort, I think the Clarets will prove unsuccessful in staving off the drop zone.
Sean, am I misguided in my relegation picks? Is there another mid-table side that you believe will come up short? And, setting aside the battles at each end of the table for a moment, are there are any other clubs or storylines that you’ll be intrigued to watch this season?
Finally, before we wrap things up here, I want you to give me two more predictions…
Who will be this year’s Player of the Season?
And, who will be this year’s Manager of the Season?
To briefly answer my own question, due largely to my predictions above, I’ll go with Lukaku and Mourinho…
Does my all-in belief in United this year encourage or frighten you?
Take us home Sean!
Sean: I think you’re spot on with your relegation picks. Huddersfield will be in over their head this season. Wagner did a fantastic job with a team of loanees and Championship mainstays, but they do not have the talent to really compete in the top-flight. Likewise, Brighton will have a difficult time with their limited talent and will be reliant on Anthony Knockaert to keep them afloat offensively. Burnley seems to have gone the Hull City route this summer, allowing their two best (and most-promising) players to leave and investing very little of that money in replacements. I’m a fan of Sean Dyche, but he needed reinforcements this summer even if Keane and Gray stayed, given their miserable away form last season. He hasn’t gotten them, and time is running out. I think Swansea also has a massive task ahead of them to stay up, but I think that their experience in the PL will guide them to another season. They needed to invest this summer as well to overhaul a porous defense and a weak midfield, and their activity suggests that they have not done enough. If they lose Sigurdsson (which seems only a matter of time), I expect another relegation struggle for the Swans.
I’ll also say a few things about the other projected bottom-dwellers that make me believe they’ll stay up. Newcastle, back in the top-flight after a year away, have a team composed of PL-experienced players, an over-qualified coach (regardless of personal opinions of Benitez, he has been immensely successful), and the financial backing needed to invest in the squad. They’ll finish mid-table comfortably. West Brom and Palace, though somewhat quiet this summer, have proven players and, more importantly, supremely experienced managers who will keep them out of serious danger. Tony Pulis is a master at engineering mid-table sides from nothing, and he’ll have to do it again this season.
Since you’ve asked, there are two teams in particular I will be curious to watch this year: West Ham and Southampton. The Irons had a lack-luster 2016-17 season in a new stadium with what should have been a more talented squad. Losing Payet made matters worse, but I believe their additions this summer have been calculated and will give manager Slaven Bilic the tools he needs for a push into the top 7. So’ton, on the other hand, have been embroiled in a tense battle to hold onto star Virgil Van Dijk, and it seems that a move is inevitable before the end of August. Signings of Bednarek and Lemina will give fans cause for hope, but their status as a selling club is going to continue to hinder their growth. Throw a new manager in the mix (even one as experienced as Pellegrino), and suddenly Southampton seems a bit less stable than we’re used to. I don’t predict trouble for them, but I think this season may be a bit more difficult than years past.
My player of the season prediction is another Belgian playing in Manchester. I think De Bruyne will continue his great form from last season and will lead Pep’s attack to the top of the table. I don’t like to throw all my eggs in one basket though, so I’ll also give my manager prediction to Mourinho, who I think will make a real challenge this year.
Does your faith in the Red Devils scare me? A bit. We need to break this habit of drawing matches at home, and I’m not convinced we’ll have the free-flowing attack that was omnipresent when Sir Alex was at the helm. But I’m hoping for more field time for Rashford, who looks the real deal, and I think an unchained Pogba will help the attack flourish.
The opening match should be a fun one, with both sides looking to start the new campaign fresh after disappointing outings in 2016-17. My money is on Arsenal to make a big statement on Friday.