Let me start off by saying I am far from a pundit, and yes, I’m American, so get over the fact I’m not calling it football or calling it a pitch. But despite those perceived handicaps I still feel inclined to do the obligatory predictions for the upcoming English Premier League season. I’m far from a casual fan, but I don’t live and die with a single club. Though I do have a favorite club (which I will reveal at the end of this piece to avoid readers thinking I have any bias) and there are clubs I despise. I will try to touch on every club, so forgive the length. If you don’t want to read the whole thing I am going to put each of my headers (relegation, top 4, bottom/top half) and each club in bold to make it easier to find.
I am posting this on the eve of the 2016/17 season and will also do an update (new, separate post) after the transfer window shuts. Yes, that can be viewed as cheating, but I am not going to be altering my pre-season predictions, the post will remain here unchanged despite how wrong and foolish they may pan out to be. I doubt much will change after the handful of games are played between this weekend and August 31, but there could still be some big moves between now and deadline day that could alter the table slightly. Who knows, maybe Arsenal will buy a striker.
Before I delve into my predictions, I want to begin with the astonishing number of managerial changes heading into the 2016/17 campaign. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Several high profile managers taking new jobs at some of the big clubs and just the sheer amount of managerial changes in total. Manchester City (Pep Guardiola), Manchester United (Jose Mourinho), Chelsea (Antonio Conte), Everton (Ronald Koeman), Southampton (Claude Puel), Watford (Walter Mazzarri), Sunderland (David Moyes) and even newly promoted Hull City (no permanent appointment) all have new managers.
Steve Bruce at Hull basically took his ball and went home after not getting the England National Team job, which went to Sam Allardyce, forcing Sunderland into a managerial change a few weeks before the season kicked off. Sunderland’s new hire is the aforementioned Moyes, and we all know what happened during his brief tenure as Manchester United boss. Those two stunningly late managerial changes lead me into my relegation candidates.
I am tabbing Sunderland, Hull and Burnley for relegation. I’m also throwing Crystal Palace and Swansea City into the relegation battle as well, as I wouldn’t be surprised if either of those two clubs go down. Sunderland was always facing a tough test to avoid relegation even with Big Sam still at the helm, but with such a late managerial change it leaves their task that much harder. It seems Sunderland are always at the bottom and narrowly stave off relegation in the final week of the season. Same goes for Hull. Both outgoing managers (Allardyce and Bruce) are relegation tested and could’ve help steer their respective clubs out of relegation. Without them both clubs are in dire straits. Their new managers have very little time to get to know their respective squads, and it makes their task of working in the limited time they have in this transfer window even tougher. Hull doesn’t even have a proper hire yet, they’re relying on Mike Phelan, who at least has experience being a caretaker manager.
The odd transfer dealings of Swansea put me in a real bind as to whether or not to include them in the three relegation spots, but I don’t see Burnley (or either of the other two clubs I picked) having the squad or budget to be competitive enough to earn enough points to avoid the drop. Which leads me into my picks for bottom half of the table.
As aforementioned, Swansea and Palace are included. I see both of them narrowly finishing above the relegation zone in 17th and 16th respectively. Along with Swansea and Palace in the bottom of the table will be Bournemouth, Watford, West Brom, Middlesbrough and Southampton. I feel like Middlesbrough has done enough in the transfer window to shore up their squad to avoid relegation in their first season back in the top flight in seven years. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I don’t think Southampton has done enough to finish in the top half. I’m aware many people are picking Southampton to finish higher than I am, but they’ve sold off too many players and haven’t replaced them with any Premier League caliber players. I know Southampton notoriously sell off their bigger names/higher priced players and rely on within to replenish their squad, but based on how poorly they did last season with the likes of Graziano Pelle, Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mane and Gaston Ramirez, I can’t see them mounting a serious charge towards the top half. Especially since most of those guys were sold to other Premier League clubs. Combine all that with a new manager and things seem even bleeker.
Palace had an abysmal second half of the season in 2015/16. And blowing the FA Cup final in the closing minutes won’t help their confidence. After a great start to the 2015/16 campaign, where they were contending for a place in the top four, they only managed to get nine points after Christmas and plunged down the table. If it wasn’t for their great start they likely would’ve been relegated. Their offseason has been busy, but not busy enough. They brought in a new goalkeeper and attacking threat in Andros Townsend, but that is not enough to improve their scoring troubles and shaky defense. Plus if the rumors are true and they sell Yannick Bolasie to Everton their goal scoring options will be even thinner. The Bolasie rumors aren’t influencing my pick, it will just further solidify it.
Bournemouth avoided the drop in their first ever season in the top flight. They should be safe for another year. Yes, they foolishly sold Matt Richie, but they brought in several players who should make enough contributions to help the Cherries stay in the top flight. Watford may be a dark horse for this season, at least in my book. But since they’re run more like a corporate conglomerate than a proper football club, I find it hard to trust that they will bring in the right players. And I feel it’s only a matter of time before they sell Troy Deeney and/or Odion Ighalo. West Brom will be the same West Brom. Under Tony Pulis they’ve made strides, and the work ethic is there, but the budget simply isn’t in order to be able to compete with the big boys. Look for the Baggies to steal points away from them though… cough… Arsenal… cough.
The top half of the table I don’t think will change much from last season. It will be Stoke City, Everton, West Ham, Tottenham, Liverpool and Leicester City. To be honest I had a serious debate between pushing Watford up into the top half and bumping Everton down. But after Everton’s dealings in the transfer window and the departure of Roberto Martinez I feel confident enough in the Toffees to have them back in the top half after a terrible 2015/16. The John Stones saga is finally over and Everton really couldn’t have brought in a better replacement than Ashley Williams. What Swansea were thinking is beyond me; selling your captain, fan favorite and new Welsh hero after the run Wales went on in the Euros is absurd.
Leicester won’t challenge for the title after an unbelievable season last year where they won the title against all odds, but they also won’t have to worry about relegation. The only thing that might derail Leicester’s league campaign would be their Champions League commitments. Not only may the added games be a problem, they’re high profile games against highly competitive teams, which may be a distraction. Leicester lost a key player in N’golo Kante, but they brought in a suitable replacement for him in Namplays Mendy. Locking up Jamie Vardy is huge accomplishment, and on top of that they bolstered their attacking options by bringing in Ahmed Musa. They also added a great number 2 keeper after signing German international Ron-Robert Zieler. Zieler should only make Kasper Schmeichel better, and if he happens to hit a rough patch Zieler can step right in as on most other clubs he is a No. 1 keeper.
Many people are picking Stoke as their dark horse to challenge for a European place. I’m not in that boat, but I’m not far away from grabbing its rails either. Stoke have a great team but I just can’t see them picking up enough points to finish ahead of West Ham or Tottenham to finish in fifth place. Joe Allen will help them greatly, but what Marko Arnautovic will show up? The childish, distractive trouble maker or excellent no nonsense finisher. West Ham is in the same boat as Stoke, but if they manage to qualify for the Europa League group stage it may prove to be too big of a schedule for them to handle. Expectations are high for West Ham as they move into a new stadium (London’s Olympic Stadium) after spending 112 years at the Boleyn Ground. Slaven Bilić brought in more firepower with the signing of Andre Ayew from Swansea and Algerian international Sofiane Feghouli, and you can’t forget Dimitri Payet, who is deadly on set pieces.
I predict Liverpool will finish in sixth place with Tottenham finishing fifth. I still think Liverpool’s defense is too shaky, and Jurgen Klopp didn’t do enough to improve the back line. He needed to bring in a world class center back. So it will be more of the same for the Reds; beautiful football in the attacking third with mind boggling defensive mistakes leading to a high concession rate. If Tottenham can shake off their disappointing finish to the 2015/16 season they should be able to continue their run of success. Spurs collapsed under the pressure of the title chase at the end of the season to drop down to third place behind hated rivals Arsenal. I do think the only reason Spurs finished third was because the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United had awful seasons. But at the same time I don’t think that high of a finish for them was a fluke either. They’re a talented team with young stars who will only get better, and Mauricio Pochettino brought in another striker in Vincent Janssen from Dutch side AZ Alkmaar to help Harry Kane, so he won’t have to carry the entire load anymore. The Janssen signing should really please Spurs fans as they snatched him away from Arsenal, who were also vying for his signature. The addition of Victor Wanyama shores up the midfield, and just like with Kane, this move takes some of the pressure off Eric Dier.
The top four will be familiar faces, with nobody crashing the party like Leicester did last season. In no particular order: Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United. It will be the same old Arsenal; loads of injuries to deal with, Arsene Wenger not spending money (especially not in the right places) and a frustratingly close title chase that sees them not lifting the trophy for the 13th straight season. Per Mertesacker & Gabriel are both ruled out for several months with injuries, so Arsenal is already off to a great start. Arsenal’s injury crisis could prove disastrous. Inexperienced new signing Rob Holding, who was bought from Bolton this summer may be thrust into a starting role for the Gunners. For those who aren’t aware, Bolton were so great last season they were relegated from the Championship down to League 1, the third tier of English football. And on the way to that relegation Bolton conceded a staggering 81 goals, the most in the Championship, on their way to a dead last finish with 30 points. Those 81 goals against were one of the highest in all of League football. And it was only surpassed by five lower league clubs, five. Do you really want someone who was part of that back line starting for your Premier League club? Well if you’re Arsene Wenger the answer is likely yes.
Arsenal lost a lot of dead weight in Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini. But yet again Wenger did very little in the transfer window, only brining in Granit Xhaka; another midfielder Arsenal doesn’t really need, especially when there are more pressing needs. People also seem to forget about Jack Wilshere, but rightly so because he is so often injured seeing him in an Arsenal shirt is a rare sight. But if fit Wilshere adds a dynamic option in the middle. Only problem is it’s an already crowded midfield. And guess what? Wilshere is carrying yet another injury heading into the 2016/17 season. Last but not least, Arsenal is still lacking the world class striker that has been desperately needed for a few years now. Without one Arsenal will not win the league, and I predict they will finish third.
Manchester United made big splashes in the transfer window, brining back Paul Pogba for a record fee, adding Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer, midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund and promising young center back Eric Bailly. But the biggest difference maker may be manager Jose Mourinho; a polarizing manager who will either get the best out of his squad or drive them to mutiny. You saw the later at Chelsea, and you’re already seeing the early stages of it at United before the season even kicks off with Mourinho’s treatment of well respected veteran Bastian Schweinsteiger, who he is forcing to train with the U-21 youth team, as well as Juan Mata, who he has pretty much frozen out. The X factor is definitely Mourinho, and even with all the additions United have made, I don’t see them contending for the title. I see them battling it out for fourth place, with Spurs and possibly even Liverpool nipping at their heels. Manchester United just has a bunch of pieces, great pieces yes, but pieces that don’t really fit the team puzzle.
Here is where many people will be surprised. I am picking Chelsea to win the league. I’m probably the only person to pick them, and I may very well be wrong come May. But it comes down to the fact they don’t have European football to worry about. I thought long and hard about it, it was pretty much a coin toss between Manchester City and Chelsea, but Chelsea gets the nod because they have far fewer commitments and can pretty much focus on the league. Players will listen to and respect Conte, at least more than they did Mourinho. You saw glimpses of the Chelsea that won the league in 2014/15 after Guus Hiddink took over. I’m a firm believer Chelsea quit on Mourinho. Mourinho lost the dressing room and respect of his players. Their tolerance of his antics and behavior finally gave out. They didn’t bring in many players, but the few they did are the right players. Conte is also likely not done with his shopping list either. On top of that no key players left. If Diego Costa leaves I actually think it will make them better because they won’t have that loose cannon to worry about anymore.
Manchester City will be too aspirational under Guardiola and won’t be able to live up to the expectations. Yes, Guardiola has won everywhere he’s went, but he was also gifted some of the best teams and players on the planet, who needed little instruction and motivation to perform. After watching Man City last year I doubt Kevin de Bruyne will figure out the Premier League, and he will struggle again. So will Raheem Sterling. They didn’t bring in a strong enough replacement for Vincent Kompany, who I think all the injuries has finally caught up with and his career is on a downward tract because of it. If John Stones was demoted at Everton he won’t be able to step right in to City’s starting XI. Their back line as a whole is aging and vulnerable. Sergio Aguero may suffer from injuries again, and if he does I can’t see anyone filling his role.
Joe Hart is prone to bone headed blunders in goal, though they seem to be more frequent on the international stage than for his club. While Thibaut Courtois is not, he is one of the most reliable keepers in the world. The few players Guardiola did bring in won’t add much. Ilkay Gundogan will be derailed by yet another injury, which have plagued him his whole career. Leory Sane will need time to acclimate and Nolito is a wild card who may prove to be able to fill in for Aguero should he go down with another injury.
Both clubs have questionable back lines, Chelsea more so than City. But I feel that you can get buy in the Premier League without a great defense so long as you have to players up top who can be a reliable source of goals week in and week out. And if there is anyone who can fix Chelsea’s defensive woes it is Italian mastermind Antonio Conte. We all saw what he did with Italy over the years, especially during this past Euro.
If the hints and jabs at them weren’t enough, I’m an Arsenal fan. To shed some light on why, as an American, I picked the Gunners; since European soccer was sparsely televised in the states going back to 2010, there were few options to get regular European soccer without going heading to a bar or splurging for a special cable package. But starting in 2010 the YES Network started airing Arsenal games and programming, so almost as a default I was forced into supporting Arsenal. But the more I watched the more I enjoyed watching Arsenal because of their style of play, so I stuck with them even after NBC Sports picked up the Premier League, airing every game, starting with the 2013/14 season. And as promised, I despise Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham. As for Manchester United, I know you’re suppose to hate United if you’re not a supporter, but I don’t hate them nor do I want to see them do well. So I’m somewhat in different towards United. Does it tear me up inside if United wins the league? No. But would I prefer someone else win it? If the answer is anyone other than Chelsea, City or Spurs; yes.