Premier League Preview: Part 2

With all teams now nearing full fitness after a short but gruelling pre-season, I am back with part two of my Premier League preview, where I try to pick apart the second half of teams ahead of the new season. Look out for who I’ve chosen as the Champions and also who may be doomed for relegation come May.

Leicester City

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Last season’s finish: 9th

Major ins:James Maddison (CAM, Norwich), Ricardo Pereira (RB, Porto), Caglar Soyuncu (CB, Freiburg), Filip Benkovic (CB, Dinamo Zagreb), Rachid Ghezzal (RW, Monaco), Danny Ward (GK, Liverpool), Jonny Evans (CB, West Brom).

Major outs:Riyad Mahrez (RW, Manchester City), Ahmed Musa (ST, Al-Nassr), Ben Hamer (GK, Huddersfield), Leonardo Ulloa (ST, Pachuca).

First choice XI: (4-2-3-1) Schmeichel; Pereira, Soyuncu, Maguire, Chilwell; A. Silva, Ndidi; Ghezzal, Maddison, Gray; Vardy.

Leicester boss Claude Puel is the favourite to be the first Premier League manager out of the door this season. After poor performances at the tail end of last season and the departure of star man Riyad Mahrez, Leicester are in for a turbulent season and pundits are not sure if Puel is the man to steer that.

Despite this, The Foxes have a healthy squad that has potential to do well this season, so can not be underestimated (remember – do not underestimate Leicester City).

Transfer window grade: B

Riyad Mahrez was Leicester’s most instrumental player for the last three seasons, with a PFA Player of the Year to his name in that season, as well as a plethora of goals and assists in the two to follow. The loss of the Algerian will be damaging and the signing of Rachid Ghezzal does not fill any gaps – he may be likened to his Algerian counterpart but has never looked anything special at Monaco.

Despite this, the signigns of Caglar Soyuncu, Ricardo Pereira and James Maddison are very welcome for Leicester. Puel has strengthened his team in positions that were weak and added quality players that have been courted by bigger clubs. Jonny Evans was also signed for West Brom for a meager fee and he will add valuable experience to the ranks, to tutor the young Soyuncu and Maguire.

 Where points will be won or lost

If Jamie Vardy was five years younger and played for a top six team, he would be valued around the footballing world as one of the most prolific in the world. The Englishman has the best record against top six teams since 2015 and that is no fluke. If he is on form again this season, Leicester will have no problems scoring goals.

Leicester have a very decent squad, but it is whether they can all play together which was often the problem last season. In Demarai Gray and Rachid Ghezzal they have two players who on their day are excellent, but are far too inconsistent – this must change.

Verdict – 10th

Another season of mid table security for Leicester is my prediction. They are building a good team that is a few signings away from a great team, but I think there are better teams around them that will finish above them.

Liverpool

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Last season’s finish: 4th  

Major ins:Alisson (GK, Roma), Naby Keita (CM, RB Leipzig), Fabinho (CDM, Monaco), Xherdan Shaqiri (RW, Stoke).

Major outs:Danny Ward (GK, Leicester), Jon Flanagan (RB, Rangers), Emre Can (CDM, Juventus), Danny Ings (ST, Southampton), Ben Woodburn (LW, Sheffield United)

First choice XI: (4-3-3) Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk, Lovren, Robertson; Henderson, Keita, Fabinho; Salah, Firmino, Mane.

Oh so close, yet so far. Last season was a typical Liverpool season – brilliant attacking football, a joy to watch, but ultimately no rewards. Jurgen Klopp’s won the hearts of the footballing world playing some of the best football seen in years to beat Guardiola’s City in the league and Europe, but ultimately fell at the final hurdle.

Kiev would have hurt them. As much as Mr Klopp put a smile on his face, that would have hurt deep. It is the one thing that has escaped him as a manager, not being good enough in finals. Yet, Liverpool have had a very promising summer and are serious candidates for their first Premier League title.

Transfer window grade: A-

Naby Keita could be the signing of the window. The Guinean born midfielder has been touted as one of the best midfielders in the world for his performances with Ralf Ragnick’s RB Leipzig side, and with Liverpool’s front three in front of him, he could excel.

Alisson and Fabinho are also very smart buys. The former only really shipped goals once last season, which was against Liverpool. He gets the nod over Ederson for Brazil, so must be doing something right. His style of play is perfect for Klopp, as he can get the ball forward quick, bypassing the defence, to start attacks. Perfect for Salah et al.

Despite this, the back four still looks like it has a couple of pieces of the jigsaw missing, especially if Van Dijk got injured. Fabinho doesn’t really improve on what they already had with Emre Can, whilst Coutinho’s loss will still be felt, despite Liverpool fans denying it.

Where points will be won or lost

In the attacking trio, Liverpool have the best front line in the league. Mo Salah’s 2017/18 campaign will go down in history as one of the best the league has ever seen – he may not reproduce said stats, but he will be up there for the golden boot come May.

The latter of the Salah-Firmino-Mane trio was potentially the one who got the least plaudits last season. However, naturally, Sadio Mane is potentially the best. He could be the one to drive Liverpool to a title this season.

Can Liverpool go all the way? They seem to be the favourites with many pundits, but I am not so sure. In Lovren I do not see a defender that can lead Liverpool all the way to the title, whilst the full backs are still young and inexperienced.

Verdict – 2nd

I think Liverpool will fall just short. They seem to have everything in order, but something doesn’t feel quite right. Klopp will push Manchester City all the way, but I predict they will come up just short in the business end of the season.

Manchester City

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Major ins:Riyad Mahrez (RW, Leicester), Philippe Sandler (CB, PEC Zwolle(, Daniel Arzani (LW, Melbourne City), Claudio Gomes (CDM, PSG)

Major outs:Angus Gunn (GK, Southampton), Joe Hart (GK, Burnley), Larry Kayode (ST, Shakhtar Donetsk), Jack Harrison (RW, Leeds*), Yaya Toure (CM, without club), Lukas Nmecha (ST, Preston*), Brandon Barker (LW, Preston*), Tosin Adarabioyo (CB, West Brom*)

First choice XI: (4-3-3) Ederson; Walker, Stones, Laporte, Mendy; Fernandinho, De Bruyne, B.Silva; Mahrez, Aguero, Sane.

From the first kick to the last (literally), Manchester City were by far the best team in the league last season, perhaps the best side we have ever seen in the Premier League. With pundits having to delve deep into lists of superlatives to describe Pep Guardiola’s side, the country watched in awe as City broke record after record. After a relatively short pre-season, City are back and the target is to do it all again and be the first team to go back-to-back for ten years.

Transfer window grade: C

It’s been a very quiet window in Manchester, but the addition of Riyad Mahrez is one of the signings of the window. The Algerian was probably the best player outside of the top six for the past few seasons and is a player that Manchester City have courted since Guardiola’s arrival in 2016.

In truth, City didn’t need much.

Not signing reinforcements to cover for Fernandinho could cost City, especially when they try to compete on four fronts. Jorginho already looks a smart addition for Chelsea, and despite what Pep may say, he will be disappointed not to add to this area.

Where points will be won or lost

Man for man, City still have the best team in the league. On the back of a very pleasing World Cup, the star man will again be Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian made games looked effortless at times last season as he helped City coast past tough tests on the way to the title.

One man who could have an exciting season is Bernardo Silva. The Portuguese man racked up the most appearances at City last year, but many felt Pep was using the season to ease Bernardo in to the new league. With David Silva now ageing and Guardiola admitting he will not play every week, his namesake may play in a central role in order to dictate the games more.

Verdict – 1st  

Not signing a defensive midfielder could cost City points in some big games, but I think they have enough to go back to back. Guardiola is assembling a young squad that is ready for the very top. It certainly will not be as easy as last time out, but I think City can go all the way again.

Manchester United

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Last season’s finish: 2nd   

Major ins:Fred (CM, Shakhtar Donetsk), Diogo Dalot (RB, Porto), Lee Grant (GK, Stoke)

Major outs:Daley Blind (LB, Ajax), Sam Johnstone (GK, West Brom), Axel Tuanzebe (CB, Aston Villa*), Joel Pereira (GK, Vitoria Setubal*), James Wilson (ST, Aberdeen*), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (RB, Fulham*), Michael Carrick (retired)

First choice XI: (4-2-3-1) De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Lindelof, Shaw; Matic, Fred; Lingard, Pogba, Sanchez; Lukaku.

The Premier League would be boring without Jose Mourinho, off the pitch anyway. Whilst Jose is criticized for his dull style of play, the Portuguese coach is never too far away from a controversial news story. This summer was no exception, with Mourinho dubbing his pre-season tour a waste of time, whilst he put on and exaggerated his discontented demeanour. We know you Jose, it’s all a front.

After a trophy-less second season at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho’s United look to close the gap on their rivals Manchester City. Although last season was disappointing for the high standards of United, the Red Devilsdid manage a second place finish, with their best points tally since their 2012-13 title win.

Transfer window grade: C-

You may think: why have City only signed Mahrez and got a C, whilst United have added Fred and Dalot and got a worse grade? The answer is simple, as is the thought process for the transfer window grading’s: how good are the reinforcements? Have they strengthened all weak areas? Have they replaced lost players?

These are the questions I ask with every club and can only conclude it’s been a disastrous window for Manchester United. Fred is a good signing and excelled in Ukraine for Shakhtar. He looks super talented on and off the ball, potentially perfect for a Mourinho side and could unlock Pogba, but he cannot win titles on his own.

Despite this, Manchester United failed to sign a central defender, after failed attempts at Harry Maguire, Toby Alderweireld and Diego Godin. For United to mount a serious title challenge, I suspect they may regret not getting in defensive reinforcements. Mourinho sides are always built on solid defences, but Mourinho hasn’t got the profile of player he once had at Chelsea, Inter or Madrid – a ‘destroyer’ or leader. 

Where points will be won or lost

Despite Manchester United’s apparent crisis, they have a very good squad. On the back of a positive World Cup, this season could finally be Paul Pogba’s time to shine. The Frenchman on his day is in the top bracket of midfielders – the problem is this day comes once every six or so weeks, which isn’t enough for a team like United.

Despite United’s strength in depth in the attacking positions, they look poor at the back. Valencia and Young was the tried and tested full back pairing last season, but this duo is now ageing and United will hope the likes of Luke Shaw can bounce back from a few injury ridden seasons.

Verdict – 4th

The crisis is not as bad as Jose Mourinho wants you to believe. United are in a very bad way but should have enough for top four. Is that enough for the clubs ambitions? If you look at the past two times they have finished outside it, the club have splashed the cash in both windows. That would indicate top four is the aim for the club now. Manchester United can do better than that and maybe next summer will be another one of rebuilding.

Newcastle

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Last season’s finish: 10th   

Major ins:Yoshinori Muto (ST, Mainz), Federico Fernandez (CB, Swansea), Fabian Schar (CB, Deportivo La Coruna), Martin Dubravka (GK, Sparta Praha), Jose Salomon Rondon (ST, West Brom*), Sung-yong Ki (CM, Swansea), Kenedy (LW, Chelsea*).

Major outs:Aleksandar Mitrovic (ST, Fulham), Mikel Merino (CM, Real Sociedad), Chancel Mbemba (CB, Porto), Matz Sels (GK, Strasbourg), Adam Armstrong (ST, Blackburn), Ivan Toney (ST, Peterborough), Dwight Gayle (ST, West Brom*), Massadio Haidara (LB, Lens), Jack Colback (CDM, Nottingham Forest).

 First choice XI: (4-3-3) Dubravka; Yedlin, Lascelles, Lejeune, Dummett; Diame, Shelvey, Ki; Ritchie, Rondon, Kenedy.

Another summer of disappointment for Newcastle off the pitch has left fans with little hopes for the season ahead. In Rafael Benitez, The Magpieshave one of the best managers in the league, but he has not had the necessary backing from the board to get Newcastle to where they could be.

Transfer window grade: D

The Toon splashed the cash in the Championship, but Mike Ashley has not backed Rafa Benitez in the window since their prompt return to the Premier League. The permanent signing of Martin Dubvravka coupled with extending the loan of Kenedy is good business for Newcastle, whilst the additions of Ki and Rondon could be wise additions.

Aside from that, it has been very poor. Benitez himself admitted that Newcastle would have to smash their £16.8m record of fee paid for a striker, on Michael Owen in 2005, if they were to sign a striker to hit at least double figures in a season. Newcastle failed to do so, instead signing Yoshinori Muto, who is not proven at this level. 

Where points will be won or lost

 Had Benitez walked in summer, I would fear for Newcastle. However, he still remains at the helm, for now. Newcastle have a good core of players and always look solid at the back, with Jamaal Lascelles and Florian Lejeune particularly impressive regularly, but going forward they lack goals.

Goals tended to be few and far between last season for Newcastle and despite the signings of Muto and Rondon, this may still be the case. Whilst Matt Ritchie is a more than capable player, he doesn’t have the ability to come up with clutch moments and get points for Newcastle.

Verdict – 16th

 Despite having potentially one of the worst squads on paper, Newcastle have one of the better managers in the division. Therefore, I think Newcastle will survive in the Premier League. Their fans have every right to protest at Ashley, who is running the club to the ground.

Southampton

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Last season’s finish: 17th

Major ins:Jannik Vestergaard (CB, Monchengladbach), Mohamed Elyounoussi (LW, Basel), Angus Gunn (GK, Manchester City), Stuart Armstrong (CM, Celtic), Danny Ings (ST, Liverpool)

Major outs:Dusan Tadic (CAM, Ajax), Florin Gardos (CB, Craiova), Sofiane Boufal (CAM, Celta Vigo*), Guido Carrillo (ST, Leganes*), Jordy Clasie (CM, Feyenoord*)

 First choice XI: (3-4-3) Gunn; Stephens, Hoedt, Vestergaard; Cedric, Romeu, Lemina, Bertrand; Elyounoussi, Austin, Ings.

For the first time in three years, Southampton have a steady ship – on paper at least. The past three June’s have seen the arrival of a new manager, whilst many summers prior to this have seen The Saints dragged into a battle to keep their prized assets, with many of their best players taking centre-stage of a good old transfer saga.

Last season was extremely poor for Southampton’s standards, but they survived. It went from a sixth placed finish to a relegation scrap in the space of two years, but the main thing is that Mark Hughes’ men lived to fight another day.

Transfer window grade: B+

The transfer window started disastrously for Hughes and co, with star man Dusan Tadic departing for Ajax, whilst both Sofiane Boufal and Guido Carrillo headed for the same exit door. But as ever at St Mary’s, the top scouts were assigned with the task of replacing some of the best players, and that is what they have seemingly done.

The winger Mohamed Elyounoussi is a very exciting buy. The Norway international joins from Basel, on the back of impressive performances, most notably his goal against Manchester City in March. Other signings include Stuart Armstrong and Danny Ings, both of whom will score goals and take the burden off Charlie Austin.

At the back, Southampton have acquired a man mountain defender in Jannik Vestergaard that will fill the void left by Virgil Van Dijk (disclaimer: I am not saying he is as good as Van Dijk). The 6 foot 6 inch Dane will add leadership and experience to help young Jack Stephens develop.

Where points will be won or lost

Hughes has evolved from the stubborn coach we have known in the past, adopting a 3-4-3 formation at St Mary’s. In Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand, he has the best wing back pairing outside the top six, as the duo will bomb up and down their respective flanks, whilst being more than competent defensively.

The shape allows the likes of Elyounoussi, Armstrong or Danny Ings to support the striker and help Charlie Austin, who is always heavily relied on in these parts.

Oriol Romeu is brilliant at what he does, whilst Mario Lemina is excellent on the ball and was rightfully courted by the likes of Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund in the closed season.

Verdict – 13th

Southampton have a very good squad and are more than equipped to bounce back from last seasons disappointments. I think a solid mid table finish is on the cards. Hughes has addressed the transfer market well, but they may just lack the individual quality that other mid table teams have.

Tottenham Hotspur

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Last season’s finish: 3rd 

Major ins:N/A

Major outs:  N/A

First choice XI: (4-2-3-1) Lloris; Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Wanyama, Dembele; Lucas, Alli, Eriksen; Kane.

If there was a metaphor to use to describe Tottenham of the past three or four years, it has been written perfectly the last couple of weeks: the new stadium. The unveiling of the new fortress started so well, but ultimately isn’t ready for the big time yet. It has almost fell at the final hurdle, just like Spurs in the league the last few seasons. They have been great, but have lacked a cutting edge time and time again – whether it be losing a big game or bottling a cup semi final, Spurs have been through it a lot.

But, on the pitch, things aren’t that bad. Despite a stagnant summer, Pochettino has a developing squad on his hands that can only get better. But will Spurs be up there in May? We ask this nearly every year and many write them off, but the North London boys always silence critics, going about their business quietly but effectively.

Transfer window grade: E

“But…not signing a player represents strength…the players must be good enough”. No. It does not work like that – you can always make a team better. There’s not really much else to say. Spurs needed to strengthen a couple of positions, but failed. Trippier and Davies are competent but the so called strength of Spurs two seasons ago is becoming the downfall, they miss Walker and Rose of 2016/17 – the best full back pairing in the league by a mile.

Another area they could have strengthened is support for Harry Kane. Heung-min Son chipped in when he could last season, as will Dele Alli, but another goal-scoring wide man has alluded Spurs, despite attempts.

All in all, it has been a disastrous window at White Hart Lane (or Wembley, or even Twickenham!) 

Where points will be won or lost

Despite not the best of windows by any stretch of the imaginiation, Mauricio Pochettino still has one of the best squads in world football at his disposal. If Harry Kane can get firing as he has done since he broke through in the first team, Spurs will be a mean feat yet again.

Dele Alli has received a lot of criticism on social media, with many branding him ‘overrated’. Whilst I don’t fully believe he is the finished article, Alli should be hoping for a big season, as he looks to add more and more goals to his game. At his age, he has more goals than the likes of Gerrard and Lampard did at the same age.

The problem lies in the big games: to win a league, you need to beat those around you. I never fancy Spurs against fellow top six, especially away. They have spontaneous games where they are excellent, but others where they are poor. Pochettino must address this if Spurs are to have another exciting campaign.

Verdict – 5th

Whilst Spurs have a settled squad, not signing fresh faces could cost them, as the squads around them have spent big and evolved their team. I’m not sure Pochettino’s side have the strength in depth to get another impressive top four finish, as the problems with the new ground overshadow what I predict to be a poor season for Spurs.

Watford

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Last season’s finish: 14th   

Major ins:Gerard Deulofeu (RW, Barcelona), Adam Masina (LB, Bologna), Ken Sema (LM, Ostersund), Marc Navarro (RB, Espanyol), Bel Wilmot (CB, Stevenage), Domingos Quina (CM, West Ham), Ben Foster (GK, West Brom).

Major outs:Richarlison (LW, Everton), Nordin Amrabat (LW, Al-Nassr), Mauro Zarate (ST, Boca Juniors), Costel Pantilimon (GK, Nottingham Forest), Jerome Sinclair (ST, Sunderland*). 

First choice XI: (4-2-2-2) Foster; Janmaat, Catchcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Doucoure, Hughes; Pereyra, Deulofeu; Gray, Deeney.

Whilst many see Watford as a settled Premier League side, the bookies have The Hornets to be relegated at the end of the season, as they did for the previous two campaigns. Watford have never really toyed with the idea of relegation since their promotion in 2015, mainly in part due to fast starts to the season, but the model that the hierarchy employs sees many managers come and go, and long term success seems a bit unrealistic.

Last season, the side led by Marco Silva started brilliantly. The Portuguese coach, now at Everton, was sacked after a poor Christmas period, with some fans citing loss of focus as the reason for Watford’s disappointing run of results. A few months on, Watford still don’t look in great shape, and many of their fans are fearing for the season ahead.

Transfer window grade: D

 Apart from the permanent capture of previous loanee Gerard Deolofeu, it has been an extremely underwhelming summer at Vicarage Road. Star man Richarlison left the club for a big fee, but the use of this money never followed. Ben Foster represents an upgrade on previous goalkeepers such as Gomes and Karnezis, but apart from this Watford have been too reluctant to splash the cash, whereas teams around them in the relegation battle have done so.

Where points will be won or lost

Javi Gracia has not been backed greatly by the board, which may indicate another unsettled coach. Whether Javi Gracia is the man for the job or not, the players and fans deserve reassurance. If Watford have a poor start, I am confident that the board would sack Gracia instantly, creating more uncertainty.

Abdoulaye Doucoure had a very promising season last time out, whilst the Argentine assassin Roberto Pereyra could be set for a big campaign should he stay injury free. Apart from this, the Watford squad is not loaded with talent, and I think they may struggle.

Verdict – 18th

 Uncertainty over the manager, not enough goals in the side, an uninspiring defence, reluctance to spend cash, fans feeling doomed before a ball has been kicked – many little factors add up at Watford and it doesn’t look good for Hornetssupporters. I think they will go down, despite potentially having a typical Watford good few months to start the season.

West Ham United

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Last season’s finish: 13h  

Major ins:Felipe Anderson (RW, Lazio), Issa Diop (CB, Toulouse), Andriy Yarmolenko (RW, Borussia Dortmund), Lukasz Fabianski (GK, Swansea), Carlos Sanchez (CDM, Fiorentina), Lucas Perez (ST, Arsenal), Fabian Balbuena (CB, Corinthians), Jack Wilshere (CM, Arsenal), Ryan Fredericks (RB, Fulham).

Major outs:Cheikhou Kouyate (CDM, Crystal Palace), Reece Burke (CB, Hull), Domingos Quina (CM, Watford), Jordan Hugill (ST, Middlesbrough*), Sam Byram (RB, Nottingham Forest*), Sead Haksabanovic (LW, Malaga), Edmilson Fernandes (CM, Fiorentina), Patrice Evra (LB, without club).

 First choice XI: (4-3-3) Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Masuaku; Rice, Sanchez, Wilshere, Anderson, Arnautovic. Yarmolenko.

Manuel Pellegrini’s last act as a coach in the Premier League in his first stint was to secure top four football for Manchester City. They did that thanks mostly to West Ham, who dramatically overcome Manchester United in the last ever game at Upton Park or The Boleyn Ground. TheHammerswere supposed to move into their new home and challenge for European spots, but it hasn’t happened.

After two depressing seasons filled with protests against the owners, West Ham have finally splashed the cash in the transfer window and look set for an exciting year. Manuel Pellegrini is now back in England with the east London club and will be looking to put a smile back on the faces of the West Ham faithful, especially Sir Trevor Brooking, who was often shown sitting alone in the directors box, looking dejected.

Transfer window grade: A-

Firstly – the manager: after missing out on Shakhtar Donetsk’s Paulo Fonseca and then Newcastle’s Rafael Benitez, David Sullivan hired league winning coach Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean has a rich brand of attacking football that will have The London Stadium full of fans on the edge of their seat.

The signings West Ham have made have been excellent. Felipe Anderson is one of the coups of the window. The Brazilian was touted for a move to one of Europe’s elite, but West Ham managed to capture his signature. If he hits the ground running early, he could be in for a frightening season.

Lukasz Fabianksi and Carlos Sanchez are super additions in areas that needed strengthening, whilst Jack Wilshere will hope to settle at his new club. With a run of games, I, as a football fan, hope Wilshere can finally discover his true potential.

The only reservation is whether West Ham have an ample central defender. Diop and Balbuena look smart buys but I am unsure if they have an experienced head to see West Ham through big games or not.

Where points will be won or lost

As we know from his time in Manchester, Pellegrini plays a very attacking style of play, often adopting the mantra: “we will out score the opposition.” This may work brilliantly in many games for West Ham, but I could see them on the receiving end of a few hammerings from the big boys.

Marko Arnautovic enjoyed an exciting first season in London, especially towards the end of the season, growing into his role as a central striker rather than a wide man. With the support of the new forwards and Wilshere signed up, West Ham could be in very good hands going forward.

Verdict – 8th

 An 8th placed finish, for me, would be very good for West Ham. They have had one of the best windows in the league and I think their squad is littered with talent, including a number of different weapons off the bench.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

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Last season’s finish: 1st(Championship)  

Major ins:Adama Traore (RW, Middlesbrough), Diogo Jota (LW, Atletico Madrid), Willy Boly (CB, Porto), Joao Moutinho (CM, Monaco), Leo Bonatini (ST, Hilal), Raul Jimenez (ST, Benfica*), Ruben Vinagre (LB, Monaco), Rui Patricio (GK, Sporting), Jonny Castro (LB, Atletico Madrid*), Leander Dendoncker (CDM, Anderlecht*), Benik Afobe (ST, Bournemouth).

Major outs:Benik Afobe (ST, Stoke), Barry Douglas (LB, Leeds), Ben Marshall (RM, Norwich).

First choice XI: (3-4-3) Patricio; Dendoncker, Coady, Boly; Doherty, Moutinho, Neves, Vinagre; Traore, Jimenez, Jota.

After relegation in 2012, Wolves had what seemed for fans like a lifetime wait to get back to the big time. It was worth the wait. Optimism is as high as it has been for decades at Molyneux and for good reason. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side arrive in the top flight looking as well prepared as we have seen for years from a newly promoted side.

Just over a year ago, Wolves were starting their Championship campaign on the back of a poor 15thplace finish. The board invested heavily in the transfer window, but nothing was certain. They may have been backed by the bookies, but no one saw the 99-point haul coming.

Transfer window grade: A+

 Whereas Cardiff were criticized earlier in this preview for being too loyal to the players that got them there, Wolves did the opposite, which is the best way to survive. As well as signing the impressive loanees of last season on permanent deals, Wolves have added to their squad with a mixture of exciting young talents and renowned names from across the globe.

Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho are said household names that will now take centre stage in Wolverhampton. The former is a Euro 2016 winner, whilst Moutinho has tons of experience at the highest level.

Adama Traore, Leander Dendoncker and Raul Jimenez represent ‘wildcard’ selections. If you have watched them regularly, you will know they are super talented players, but whether they can produce that on a consistent basis will be crucial for Wolves.

Young Ruben Vinagre, snatched from the rapid producing factory of talent AS Monaco, made the team of the tournament at the U19 Euro’s this summer and will hope to break into the Wolves side and prove his worth in the most competitive league in the world.

Where points will be won or lost

 Ruben Neves at times last season looked like an adult playing on a kids playground, bullying the opposition. If he can reproduce and hopefully for him, better his form of last year, Wolves will do well to hang on to his services for much longer, as I am sure some of the big clubs will be after his signature.

The 3-4-3 formation Espirito Santo adopts allows for fluidity in transitions, whilst striking a good balance between defence and attack. It is unknown whether Adama Traore will play in the ‘wing back’ role or in the front three, but the ex-Boro man will hope to prove his critics wrong in the Premier League, older and wiser than his last stint two seasons ago.

If you were to pick a criticism, it is the lack of a born goalscorer – a man who will grab 10 to 15 goals for Wolves this season. Raul Jimenez is an unknown quantity and against some of the best defenders in world football, Wolves may come up stuck.

Verdict – 11th

 Some fans have been predicting Wolves a top half finish. Nuno Espirito Santo will be first to admit the target is safety. From there, Wolves can dream. They have a great squad and I have predicted a solid mid table finish in their return to the top flight.

Talking Tactics: Arsenal v Manchester City review

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Welcome to Talking Tactics: the home of weekly tactical analysis, whether it be a comprehensive breakdown of themes I have spotted over the weekend of football, or previewing an exciting battle that is around the corner.

The first edition focuses on the Premier League’s opening weekend blockbuster fixture between two heavyweights in Arsenal and reigning champs Manchester City.

On the day Pep Guardiola’s City got the better of The Gunners in Unai Emery’s Arsenal debut, despite not being at their best.

Let’s have a look what tactical themes Guardiola employed to get the win, whilst also keeping an eye on Emery’s gameplan and how it may have helped Arsenal’s ultimate poor performance…

LINEUPS: 

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles; Guendouzi, Xhaka; Ozil, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan; Aubameyang.

Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Ederson; Walker, Stones, Laporte, Mendy; Fernandinho; Mahrez, Gundogan, B. Silva, Sterling; Aguero.

THEMES: 

  • City playing with inverted full backs
  • Arsenal sitting deep and narrow, defending in a 4-4-2 inviting City to play wide
  • Pep’s transition between 3-4-3 and 4-3-3
  • The varying roles of Benjamin Mendy
  • Stones and Laporte’s ever growing importance

City’s use of inverted full backs

It’s not a new invention, in fact we’ve seen City play with inverted full backs many times in Pep Guardiola’s tenure in Manchester, especially in his debut season.

The reason in the first season was Guardiola’s acknowledgement that Sagna and Clichy were not capable of bombing up and down the touchline like the trademark Guardiola full back seen in Barcelona, Bayern and now with Walker and Mendy at City. He instructed his full backs to come narrow to overload the midfield and gain a numerical advantage. Often, this paid dividends, but it left City susceptible to the counter attack, as his defenders didn’t have sufficient recovery pace.

“If you’re a full back, you’re a failed winger or failed centre-back, no one grows up wanting to be a Gary Neville” 

Jamie Carragher made this joke at the expense of Gary Neville and although it was humorous, it was an underlying realism of football of a decade ago. Full backs were seen as the least important players on the pitch.

In modern times, they are as important as any other player. In a Guardiola system, they could be viewed as the most important. There is no coincidence that Pep Guardiola spent circa £130m on full backs in summer 2017 and then went on to break all those records – they are pivotal to how his teams play.

Benjamin Mendy yesterday was no exception to that rule. After an injury ridden first season at the Etihad, Benjamin Mendy is back. City fans salivated at the thought of him back bombing up and down the left flank, utilising his venomous low cross.

At the Emirates, however, we saw a different Benjamin Mendy. Yes, he still did get forward quick at every opportunity, but often it would be in the left half-space.

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In the above image, you can see when Aymeric Laporte, the left centre-back, receives the ball, Benjamin Mendy is in a narrow position as an auxiliary central midfielder. This gives City the necessary numerical advantage, whilst creating space for the winger, in this case Raheem Sterling.

Fabian Delph often occupied this role last season, but in a less aggressive manner and mostly deeper. In fact, Mendy’s role against Arsenal was probably the middle ground between the Delph role of last season and the Mendy ‘wing back’ tactic of very early 17/18.

It is not just on the ball that this tactic helps City, it is off. Mendy occupied the half space with his body shape open, allowing him to read and intercept many balls to prevent the counter attack.

City concede so few chances not because their back four is simply unstoppable, but because the first line of defence is so quick to get the ball back. If it goes through the first line of press, there is another, and if it escapes that, there is Fernandinho. No surprise that Fernandinho accumulates so many yellow cards per season.

Indeed, it was this occupation of the half space in a defensive manner that led to City’s opener.

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As you can see, when Riyad Mahrez crossed the ball into the Arsenal penalty area, Benjamin Mendy (#22) and Fernandinho (#25) were positioned in similar positions, ready to intercept a clearance.

Mendy did pick up the loose ball, before passing into Sterling. The Frenchman made an overlapping run which left Bellerin in two minds, allowing Sterling to take it round him and finish well.

The inverted full back is a role that I am sure we will see many times this season from City, especially away from home, as they look to assert dominance.

Pep’s fluid formation changes

One feature of Pep Ball that makes him stand out from other top coaches is his in game management.

He often says he spends the first ten or fifteen minutes analysing the opposition and then gives his instructions. He has four or five tactics up his sleeve that he works on leading up to the game and then utilises them in play.

For example, against Manchester United at Old Trafford last season, Pep deployed Gabriel Jesus as a ‘false nine’. He would often drop deep allowing Sterling and Sane to tuck in behind him and make runs inside the full backs. The United defence wasn’t educated enough to know how to cope with City.

Although City only won via two goals from set plays that day, they tore the United defence apart and the 2-1 scoreline was very flattering for United.

At the Emirates on Sunday, Pep started with his base 4-3-3 formation, or 4-1-4-1, depending on how you look at it.

Often, however, City would employ a 3-4-3 shape.

Guardiola starts with a base formation, but often it looks different in and out of possession.

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In the above image, you can see Mendy (#22) occupying the left wing position, whilst Sterling and Bernardo Silva are playing off Aguero in a trio. Kyle Walker (top right corner) would occupy a right centre back position, similar to that he played for England in Russia. This left Riyad Mahrez (furthest right) in space, allowing switches to both Mendy and Mahrez easy for City.

Off the ball, however, City would defend in a 4-4-1-1 shape.

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You can see the transition from the 3-4-3 to a 4-4-1-1 within eight seconds in the above images. Sterling would drop in, as would Mendy, allowing two banks of four, helping City win the ball back easier, whilst limiting Arsenal’s space.

These are just a couple of examples of the fluidity of City’s transitional play, illustrating how quick they can change shapes.

Against a deeper block, which we may see next week when City play Huddersfield, who knows what shapes we may see City in. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw them play with a base of Stones and Laporte, supported by Fernandinho, but with every other player in an attacking role.

As was said, Pep will weigh up his opponent in the opening stages then make a move. When you see the master gesturing with his arms, it isn’t for no reason – he is instructing his players on what shape to use. A lot comes naturally, but Guardiola makes in play changes based on his opposition. He did so yesterday and it helped City on and off the ball.

Arsenal’s flawed game plan and painful playing out from the back

Before I start, this is not a scaling attack on Unai Emery. The first game of the season against the best team in the league is a big, big ask. But, Emery got his game plan wrong.

He instructed his players to be very narrow out of possession, probably to stop City playing through the middle. In some ways, it worked. Sergio Aguero was quiet, whilst Ilkay Gundogan struggled to make an impact from midfield in De Bruyne’s absence.

However, this just invited City to play it wide. John Stones and Aymeric Laporte both finished the game with a 93% pass completion rate, as Stones would often look to fire the ball early into the feet of Riyad Mahrez.

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As is evident, Arsenal looked to shut off any balls through the middle, limiting Aguero. However, this left a lot of room for the likes of Riyad Mahrez to get the ball and pick a pass or cross.

It was all new for most of these Arsenal players, who are not used to Emery’s ideas. It was almost painful watching Arsenal play out from the back. Playing out from the back is an approach most modern coaches use, but it is not done for the sake of it.

Many football fans think playing out from the back is used by some teams simply because they are against ‘lumping the ball up’. It is not. Far from that, in fact. Playing out from the back has a purpose to draw the other team out and create space at the other end of the pitch.

Arsenal seemed to take note from City, setting up from their own goal kicks with the centre backs on each corner of the box and one of the midfielders dropping in to create a triangle. This allows the wing backs to push up. The aim is to make the pitch bigger. The image below shows City’s ideal setup on a goal kick:

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From Ederson’s goal kick, because of the spaced out players, they have a three on three with Everton’s back line. The ball in this instance was chipped to Sane, who played in De Bruyne to set up Jesus for the goal.

Arsenal tried to play out from the back yesterday, but it just did not work. That doesn’t mean Emery should do away with it. It comes with practice. I’m sure the same can be said for Sarri’s Chelsea who are also implementing this for the first time.

However, against Manchester City wasn’t the best place to start. Cech was lucky on a couple of occasions, whilst Arsenal looked shaky when City’s trio of Sterling Aguero and Bernardo Silva pressed them in the 3-4-3 shape.

Overall, it was a pleasing afternoon for Guardiola and a big lesson for Emery. It is only match day one and I am sure Arsenal can bounce back stronger.

As a footnote, the importance of Stones and Laporte was crucial to City in every department at the Emirates, whilst on the other hand Arsenal’s back four looked very poor.

Check back soon for more ‘Talking Tactics’ pieces!

Premier League Preview: Part 1

After what seemed like a long wait between the World Cup and now, football is back. The Premier League kicks off on Friday night, fans up and down the country rejoice at the thought, whilst teams enter their final stages of preparation for a gruelling season of football.

I have had a look at each and every club in the division, grading their transfer window, whilst trying to plot where points may be won or lost this campaign.

Welcome to Part 1, previewing every team from Arsenal to Huddersfield.

Arsenal

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Last season’s finish: 6th

Major ins:Lucas Torreira (CM, Sampdoria), Bernd Leno (GK, Bayer Leverkusen), Sokratis (CB, Borussia Dortmund), Matteo Guendouzi (CM, Lorient), Stephan Lichsteiner (RWB, Juventus).

Major outs:Santi Cazorla (CM, Villarreal), Jack Wilshere (CM, West Ham), Per Mertesacker (CB, retired), Chuba Akpom (ST, PAOK), Calum Chambers (CB, Fulham), Lucas Perez (ST, West Ham).

First choice XI: (4-2-2-2) Leno; Bellerin, Sokratis, Mustafi, Monreal; Torreira, Ramsey; Mkhitaryan, Ozil; Lacazette, Aubameyang.

You can be forgiven if you don’t remember an Arsenal side not led by the French coach Arsene Wenger, I don’t. Yet, that time has arrived as the leader of ‘The Invincibles’has hung up his boots (or very long managerial overcoat) and handed the reigns to Spanish tactician Unai Emery. The task on hand is simple in writing, but very hard in reality: lead Arsenal back to where they belong – challenging for titles. It certainly won’t happen overnight, but a fresh face with new ideas will surely be healthy for the football club.

Transfer window grade: C

 Lucas Torreira looks a bargain and a smart buy for Unai Emery’s squad. The ex-Sampdoria midfielder enjoyed a very positive World Cup with Uruguay and could develop into one of the best deeper lying ‘registas’ in the league. Aside from this, Arsenal’s business has been poor. Bernd Leno and Sokratis have both shown that they are prone to mistakes in the Bundesliga, whilst the other additions don’t really strengthen what Arsenal already had.

Where points will be won or lost

Signing in January, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hit the ground running quickly and made headlines for Arsenal in a season that will be quickly forgotten for poor league form. The Gabonese striker represents a serious candidate for the Premier League Golden Boot this season.

Despite the defensive signings, Arsenal look short at the back, on paper. This could cost them a place in the top four, as the resilience of the defenders doesn’t look strong enough to hold out attacking lines as strong as the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool.

Verdict – 6th

The target for Unai Emery has to be top four, however I am not sure the summer business has been good enough to do so. Whilst the attacking quartet looks fierce, questions will still be asked at the back.

Bournemouth

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Last season’s finish: 12th

Major ins:Diego Rico (LB, Leganes), David Brooks (CAM, Sheffield United), Jefferson Lerma (CDM, Levante).

Major outs:Benik Afobe (ST, Wolves), Lewis Grabban (ST, Nottingham Forest), Max Gradel (LW, Toulouse), Adam Federici (GK, Stoke), Harry Arter (CM, Cardiff*).

First choice XI:  (3-4-2-1) Begovic; S.Cook, Ake, Mings; Ibe, Cook, Lerma, Rico; Brooks, King; Wilson.

After two seasons of defying the bookmakers by avoiding relegation with exciting football, Bournemouth can now be described as a settled Premier League club. However, as we have learned so many times, not many teams are safe in this division.

Transfer Window Grade: B-

Since their somewhat surprising promotion to the Premier League, Bournemouth have slowly added to their squad at a steady rate whilst still remaining faithful to the now experienced players that got them said promotion. The signing of Diego Rico and a record breaking coup of Jefferson Lerma is very smart business as far as Eddie Howe will be concerned, whilst the capture of the young prodigy David Brooks from Sheffield United will be exciting for the youngster who excelled in the Sheffield derby last season.

A centre back would’ve been welcomed on the south coast as Howe’s team always look relatively shaky at the back and I am not overly convinced on some of their defenders, albeit some very experienced. 

Where points will be won or lost

Outlets all summer have reported that Bournemouth midfielder Lewis Cook is a wanted man by clubs such as Tottenham and Everton, so holding on to him was crucial for Bournemouth. At 21, Cook can really excel in this Bournemouth team, especially alongside Colombia international Jefferson Lerma.

Whilst Callum Wilson will always score goals, the midfield and other attacking options may not be of sufficient quality to allow Bournemouth to really improve on previous seasons.

Verdict: 17th

Eddie Howe’s men have enjoyed a positive transfer window, strengthening their starting eleven in needed areas, but I worry for them in the long run. The strength in depth isn’t good enough and the goals could dry up if Callum Wilson were to suffer an injury. Despite this, I think they will just have enough to stay up.

Brighton and Hove Albion

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Last season’s finish: 15th 

Major ins: Alireza Jahanbaksh (RW, AZ Alkmaar), Yves Bissouma (CM, Lille), Bernardo (LB, RB Leipzig), Florin Andone (ST, Deportivo La Coruna), David Button (GK, Fulham), Percy Tau (ST, Sundowns), Jason Steele (GK, Sunderland), Leon Balogun (CB, Mainz), Martin Montoya (RB, Valencia).

Major outs: Sam Baldock (ST, Reading), Connor Goldson (CB, Rangers), Jamie Murphy (LM, Rangers), Jiri Skalak (LW, Millwall), Christian Walton (GK, Wigan*), Tim Krul (GK, Norwich), Niki Maenpaa (GK, Bristol City), Uwe Hunemeier (CB, Paderborn), Liam Rosenior (retired), Steve Sidwell (without club).

First choice XI: (4-2-3-1) Ryan; Schelotto, Dunk, Duffy, Bernardo; Bissouma, Propper; Jahanbakhsh, Groß, Izquierdo; Andone.

Under the tutelage of Chris Hughton, Brighton enjoyed a superb debut season in the Premier League, and have invested very wisely in the transfer window to improve on that even further. The ex-Norwich coach has defied the odds a number of times at Brighton, taking them out of an extremely tricky league, before keeping them up when they were pre-season favourites for relegation with the bookies. The novelty factor may have worn off for The Seagulls, but this is a well run club only going in one way – fans in the AMEX Stadium may dream of top half finishes, or potentially a Burnley-esque route to Europe, but the primary aim for now remains another season of consolidation in the top flight.

Transfer window grade: A-

Brighton have added to their squad well in the summer. Chris Hughton’s formation and tactics mean that his wide men are vital, thus has smashed the clubs record signing with the purchase of Iranian international Alireza Jahanbakhsh from AZ Alkmaar. Yves Bissouma from Lille and Bernardo from RB Leipzig also look very educated buys for the Albion.

In the most dramatic of fashion, Brighton added the signing of Martin Montoya from Valencia with minutes to spare. The full back has played many times for Barcelona and has been coached by astute managers such as Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique. Montoya strengthens a position that was weak with the ageing Bruno Saltor and unproven Ezequiel Schelotto.

The only worry on a transfer front is that none of the additions are proven in the Premier League, so may take time to settle. When you are fighting for survival, you do not have much time on your hands. 

Where points will be won or lost

Pascal Groß remains Brighton’s best player going into the new campaign. The German was bought for a small fee from FC Ingolstadt upon promotion and enjoyed a brilliant first season. He matched the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Mesut Ozil in creativity stats and is potentially the most underrated player outside the top six.

In Dunk and Duffy at the back, Brighton have a better defensive duo than most in the league. The tenacity and resilience of the two is crucial to Brighton’s success.

Glenn Murray was the main goal scorer last season, but is not getting any younger. Jurgen Locadia and Florian Andone have been bought as reinforcements for that position, and the duo will have to step up to expectations, or Brighton could be baron in front of goal.

Verdict – 12th

Another mid table finish is the aim for Brighton this season. Brighton do not concede many goals, but may not have the qualities to break down some of the better teams in the division, therefore a steady improvement on last year is forecast for Hughton’s men.

Burnley

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Major ins:Ben Gibson (CB, Middlesbrough), Joe Hart (GK, Man City), Matej Vydra (ST, Derby)

Major outs:Scott Arfield (LM, Rangers), Dean Marney (CM, Fleetwood), Chris Long (ST, Fleetwood).

First choice XI: (4-4-1-1) Pope; Lowton, Tarkowski, Gibson, Ward; Lennon, Cork, Defour, Gudmundsson; Vydra; Barnes.

Ah. Little old Burnley are in the Europa League (or, the qualifying rounds at least). No one would have thought that the yoyo club that could never nail a solid survival bid in the Premier League would make it that far. It isn’t quite Leicester City 15/16, but we have to hold our hats high to Sean Dyche and Burnley.

Transfer window grade: C

The Championship top scorer Matej Vydra looks like a different player to the typical Burnley fit. He isn’t the typical ‘Number 9’ striker, more of a second striker that feeds off others. This could work for Burnley as Dyche’s men look for knock-downs and flick-ons from the direct style of play. Ben Gibson is a good steal, given the fact he was closely monitored by the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea this time last summer, but he may struggle to dislodge the steady partnership of James Tarkowski and Ben Mee.

Apart from that, it has been a quiet window for Burnley. Should they qualify for the Europa League proper, they may be a bit light to compete Thursday-Sunday regularly. 

Where points will be won or lost

Sean Dyche’s team boasts one of the most resilient defences in the league. No team looks forward to playing Burnley. They have little superstar quality, but they play together as a unit that is frustrating to play against and hard to beat. Burnley are also good on the counter attack, and Ashley Barnes is prolific.

Other mid table teams have spent lots of money to bridge the gap between themselves and the likes of Burnley and Leicester in the top half, so whether Burnley have it in them to compete with their amazing 2017/18 campaign is unknown, but it seems unlikely.

Verdict – 14th 

I think Burnley will be safe. Had Pep Guardiola’s City not been so dominant last season, I am sure Sean Dyche would have won the managerial awards. The Claretswill remain solid at the back, but may struggle with the games coming quick and fast should they qualify for Europa.

Cardiff City

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Last season’s finish: 2nd (Championship) 

Major ins: Josh Murphy (LW, Norwich), Bobby Reid (CAM, Bristol City), Alex Smithies (GK, QPR), Greg Cunningham (LB, Preston), Harry Arter (CM, Bournemouth*), Victor Camarasa (CM, Betis*).

Major outs: Omar Bogle (ST, Birmingham*).

First choice XI: (4-3-3) Etheridge; Manga, Morrison, Bamba, Bennett; Gunnarsson, Paterson, Ralls; Mendez-Laing, Zohore, Murphy.

For the fifth time, one of the biggest pantomime villains in English football is back in the top flight – Neil Warnock. The manager that everyone loves to hate has brought Cardiff City back to the big time after a spell of mid-table mediocrity in the Championship for half a decade. Warnock knows his Bluebirdsside are up against it, but if he could keep them afloat, he has admitted it may be time to call it a day in football, noting it would be his greatest achievement.

If the topic of relegation arises in a conversation on the street, in the pub, at the match, I can assure you 95% of people you ask who they predict to face the drop will say Cardiff, without much of a thought. It will be tough for the Welsh side, who have replaced their country rivals Swansea in the top flight this season, but they are a team that are tough to beat and may get a few shock results along the way.

Transfer window grade: D

Have Cardiff fell into the age-old promotion trap of not adding sufficient quality, giving the reason of ‘being loyal to the players that got them here’?

Josh Murphy is a very exciting player that has been one of the bright sparks in Norwich’s side over the last couple of seasons, along with James Maddison who has now joined Leicester. He is the sort of winger that looks to run at his full back at every given opportunity and this can cause problems for all defenders.

Despite this, Cardiff have struggled to buy anyone of sufficient Premier League quality. Whilst a Neil Warnock side will always remain solid, fans may have reasonable fears over whether they have enough players in the side to win them games that will ultimately keep them up.

Where points will be won or lost

Striker Keneth Zohore is a natural striker who will score goals at any level, which is why he has been subject to bids from Premier League clubs in the past two summers. New signings Josh Murphy and Bobby Reid In midfield, Cardiff boast experience in the Iceland captain Gunnarsson, while Joe Ralls earned many plaudits for his campaign last year. At the back, Warnock’s side is built on a partnership of Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba, the latter who is better than £75m Virgil Van Dijk… according to Neil Warnock.

Verdict – 20th

Cardiff have a few handy players but no one capable of winning games on their own on regular occasions. A Neil Warnock side will always be hard to beat and I am sure they will pick up a scalping of a top six side along the way with a deep block and a counter attacking goal, but I cannot see them staying up.

Chelsea

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Last season’s finish: 5th

Major ins:Jorginho (CM, Napoli), Robert Green (GK, Huddersfield), Kepa Arrizabalaga (GK, Athletic Bilbao), Mateo Kovacic (CM, Real Madrid*).

Major outs:Lewis Baker (CM, Leeds*), Matt Miazga (CB, Nantes*), Eduardo (GK, Vitesse*), Thibaut Courtois (GK, Real Madrid), Mario Pasalic (CM, Atalanta*), Jamal Blackman (GK, Leeds*).

First choice XI: (4-3-2-1) Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Christensen, Alonso; Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic; Pedro, Morata, Hazard.

New season, new manager – how many times have we said that in the last ten or so years at Stamford Bridge. After a long summer of speculation linking Antonio Conte out of the proverbial door, Chelsea appointed Napoli tactician Maurizio Sarri. The Italian coach known for his smoking in the dugout will bring a rich brand of fast attacking football that saw Napoli fall just short of the Serie A title despite achieving over 90 points.

As it was when Antonio Conte took over two seasons ago, Chelsea fans head into the season not knowing what to expect. Another similarity to Conte’s first season is that many have been quick to write Chelsea off in terms of the title race, but as we know, this is a club littered with top talent that has the quality to challenge for the title come May.

Transfer window grade: B+

Signing Jorginho under the noses of Manchester City is a definite coup for Chelsea. Sarri knows him well from Naples and the Brazilian midfielder, who actually plays his international football with Italy, is one of the best passers of the ball in world football. The departure of Thibaut Courtois will disappoint Chelsea fans, but Kepa Arrizabalaga looks a great talent that is better suited to Sarri’s system.

What may cost Chelsea, however, is the fact they failed to sign a striker. Alvaro Morata had a poor start to life in England and has not looked great in pre-season. Constant links with Gonzalo Higuain eventually came to nothing, as the Argentine joined AC Milan. Maurizio Sarri likes his wide men to get in behind and work off the forward, however the likes of Hazard will have to come short to help the build up in areas where Morata is incapable.

 Where points will be won or lost

In Eden Hazard, Chelsea have one of, if not the best player in the league. The Belgian enjoyed a very positive World Cup and will be given freedom in Sarri’s system to express his true talents. New signings Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic will sit in midfield with N’Golo Kante, which forms one of the better midfield trio’s in the league.

Again, though, what could cost Chelsea the title is the lack of goals. Morata isn’t great, whilst Pedro and Willian are too inconsistent. In league competitions last season, Kante, Kovacic and Jorginho managed just one goal. Aside from the front three, I struggle to see where goals could come from.

Verdict – 3rd

Despite the potential lack of goals across the board, Chelsea will have a positive season. In another season, third for Chelsea would be a failure. However, I would see it as a success this time round, perhaps coupled with a run in a cup.

Just like when Pep Guardiola arrived in England with his expansive style of play, ‘Sarri Ball’ may take a while to implement and Chelsea will not adapt from a 3-4-3 to a fast flowing 4-3-3 overnight.

Crystal Palace

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Last season’s finish: 11th   

Major ins:Cheikhou Kouyate (CDM, West Ham), Vicente Guaita (GK, Getafe), Max Meyer (CAM, Schalke), Jordan Ayew (ST, Swansea*)

Major outs:Damien Delaney (CB, Cork City), Yohan Cabaye (CM, Al-Nasr), Cheong-yong Lee (RW, without club), Bakary Sako (LW, without club).

First choice XI: (4-5-1) Guaita; Wan-Bissaka, Tomkins, Sakho, Van Aanholt; Townsend, Milovejevic, Meyer, Kouyate, Schlupp; Zaha.

The annual assessment of Crystal Palace is tough. Have they strengthened well enough? Do they have enough players capable of helping them to a solid season? Perhaps the answers are no, but in Roy Hodgson and Wilfried Zaha, there is reason to believe they can have another pleasing mid-table finish and extend their stay in the Premier League

Transfer window grade: D+

Flicking to the early pages of a textbook of football clichés, you will find the age old: “The best piece of business done in this window is keeping X player”. Yes, it is. Wilfried Zaha is potentially the best player outside the top six, so no wonder he is constantly courted by big clubs. Keeping hold of Zaha is key, and the signing of Max Meyer on a free looks one of the bargains of the season, despite question marks over why Palace went fairly uncontested to his signature.

Vicente Guaita was a regular for Getafe who had a satisfactory campaign in La Liga last season. He is rather unknown but could address a weak area that Wayne Hennessey seemed to be a stop gap for the last few years.

Other than that, it has been a relatively disappointing summer for The Eagles, who have been reluctant to spend money that other teams around them have. Three of last seasons regulars have moved on to pastures new, leaving evident holes in the team.

Where points will be won or lost

Roy Hodgson said “the chairman has made it clear to me that, certainly this next season, it is all about survival again”. It was a dose of realism that potentially avoided the Palace faithful, but he is right. It won’t be easy for Palace to stay up at all.

Despite this, in Wilfried Zaha Palace have a talent that can win matches on his own. If he stays fit and the likes of Meyer and Milovejevic chip in with goals, Palace will be fine.

This will be Palace’s sixth successive season at this level, which is their best ever spell.

Verdict – 15th

Although Palace have lost Yohan Cabaye and their loanees who were key – Ruben Loftus Cheek and Timothy Fosu Mensah – Palace look better equipped than this time twelve months ago. Frank de Boer will go down as the worst manager in Premier League history (yes, maybe he should have been given more time), but in Roy Hodgson they have a sensible manager that can steer them clear of the drop once more.

Everton

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Last season’s finish: 8th 

Major ins:Richarlison (LW, Watford), Yerry Mina (CB, Barcelona), Lucas Digne (LB, Barcelona), Andre Gomes (CM, Barcelona*), Bernard (LW, Shakhtar Donetsk).

Major outs:Davy Klaassen (CM, Werder Bremen), Ramiro Funes Mori (CB, Villarreal), Ashley Williams (CB, Stoke*), Henry Onyekuru (LW, Galatasaray*), Kevin Mirallas (RW, Fiorentina*), Joel Robles (GK, Betis), Wayne Rooney (CAM, DC United).

First choice XI: (4-3-3) Pickford; Coleman, Mina, Keane, Digne; Gueye, Gomes, Sigurdsson; Bernard, Tosun, Richarlison.

It’s that time of the year again, where we say “it’s been a great window for Everton, but not quite good enough to bridge the gap between them and the top six”. Last season was extremely disappointing for The Toffees, appointing Sam Allardyce mid season to steady a sinking ship. Big Sam did a job, but his football wasn’t pleasing to the Evertonian’s who are used to entertaining brands of play.

This time round, they have their man in Marco Silva. Originally not permitted to leave Watford in January time, the impressive manager has the reigns at Everton and fans have every right to be excited.

Transfer window grade: A

It has been a very pleasing window for Everton. Eyebrows may be raised at some of the fees paid, but in this day and age, you have to spend big to reap rewards. Marco Silva has clearly assessed his squad and concluded he needs wide forwards and defensive reinforcements to replace an ageing back line. He has done that.

The signings of Brazilian duo Richarlison and Bernard will please Evertonian’s, both of which look brilliant additions. The former flourished under Marco Silva at Watford in the first half of last season, whilst Bernard always impresses in the Champions League for Shakhtar.

Everton fans have took to social media to salivate at the signing of Barcelona trio Yerry Mina, Lucas Digne and Andre Gomes. All are very competent players, especially Andre Gomes. The former Valencia man often played in a two at Barcelona, often having to cover for the ageing Iniesta or the reckless Paulinho – in a three with the support of the great Gana Gueye, he can excel.

Where points will be won or lost 

Signed in January, Cenk Tosun started scoring for fun when he got a run of games. I am expecting big things from him this season (as is my Fantasy team), especially with the support of new wingers.

On the back of the World Cup, Jordan Pickford and Yerry Mina will look to spearhead a solid defense for Everton, after the latter nodded past the former in the World Cup last sixteen tie between England and Colombia.

With Marco Silva in charge, Everton will have a very positive season, and I am also expecting Gylfi Sigurdsson to step up to a higher standard after a poor debut season in Merseyside.

Verdict – 7th

The question I asked at the top of this section was whether Everton are good enough to break the top six barrier. I suspect they may fall just short, but not for the want of trying. Everton supporters have reason to be excited for a season for the first time in a few years.

Fulham

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Last season’s finish: 3rd(Championship) 

Major ins:Jean Michael Seri (CM, Nice), Andre Zambo Anguissa (CDM, Marseille), Aleksandar Mitrovic (ST, Newcastle), Alfie Mawson (CB, Swansea), Joe Bryan (LB, Bristol City), Fabri (GK, Besiktas), Maxime Le Marchand (CB, Nice), Andre Schurlle (LW, Borussia Dortmund*), Sergio Rico (GK, Sevilla*), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (RB, Manchester United*), Callum Chambers (CB, Arsenal*), Luciano Vietto (ST, Atletico Madrid*).

Major outs:David Button (GK, Brighton), Ryan Fredericks (RB, West Ham). 

First choice XI: (4-3-3) Rico; Fosu-Mensah, Mawson, Chambers, Bryan; Seri, Anguissa, Cairney; Vietto, Mitrovic, Sessegnon.

The setting was a sunny day in May at Wembley Stadium. Fulham’s star man Tom Cairney scored the £160m goal that saw The Cottagerspast Bruce’s Aston Villa in a gritty play off final. Neutral football fans around the country rejoiced at the sight – a football club with vast history, that plays with a blueprint style, with one of the most sought after managers in the country and some of the best young players – were promoted.

Fast forward a few months, Fulham are still making headlines after spending over £100m – the first ever newly promoted club to do so. I admire the ambition of the chairman Shahid Khan, who has intentions to buy Wembley Stadium. Alright for some.

Transfer window grade: A*

Wow. What a window. I would go as far as saying it is one of the best windows I have ever seen in this league – strong words coming from a fan of Sheikh Mansour’s Manchester City. Can they gel? Will they flop? Potentially so, but if even just a few of these players perform to their expected level, Fulham will do well.

Jean-Michael Seri was courted by Arsenal, Barcelona and Manchester City for the past few windows, so the signing of him by Jokanovic’s men was a true statement of intent that set up a chaotic few weeks at Craven Cottage. A mix of experienced Premier League heads, with exciting young talents from across the continent, makes for a positive output.

Mitrovic, the man who got them here, with his goalscoring in the latter half of last season, was trusted to spearhead the attack in the Premier League, much to the disappointment of Newcastle fans who thought he could solve a problem or two up north. He will have support from the likes of Luciano Vietto, who is a highly rated name in La Liga. 

Where points will be won or lost

I can’t believe we have got this far without mentioning a certain Ryan Sessegnon, the young prodigy that earned very high praise for his performances last season, including some calls for him to be in Gareth Southgate’s plans in Russia.

However, Fulham have to be real. Before anything else, focus on staying up. They had good players last time, but under poor management, they plummeted and experienced a few subpar years in the second tier.

It may take a few weeks for the side to gel, but once they get going, they have the perfect balance in experience and youth, so it will be exciting to see how The Cottagersflourish.

Verdict – 9th

I’ve thought long and hard about this one. Can Fulham defy the odds and achieve a top half finish? I’ve concluded – why not? In Alfie Mawson and Calum Chambers, they have more than ample defenders, with a brilliant midfield trio that boasts a perfect balance, topped off by an attacking set of exciting players like Sessegnon, Schurrle and Vietto, spearheaded by the prolific Mitrovic.

Huddersfield Town

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Last season’s finish: 16th

Major ins:Terence Kongolo (CB, Monaco), Adama Diakhaby (ST, Monaco), Ramadan Sobhi (LW, Stoke), Florent Hadergjonaj (RB, Ingolstadt), Lossl (GK, Mainz), Juninho Bacuna (CM, Groningen), Erik Durm (RB, Dortmund), Isaac Mbenza (RW, Montpellier*).

Major outs:Tom Ince (RW, Stoke), Michael Hefele (CB, Nottingham Forest), Rob Green (GK, Chelsea), Tareiq Holmes-Dennis (LB, Bristol Rovers), Sean Scannel (RW, Bradford).

First choice XI: (4-2-3-1) Lossl; Durm, Schindler, Kongolo, Lowe; Hogg, Mooy; Diakhaby, Pritchard, Sobhi; Mounie.

Last season was a historic campaign for Huddersfield, as they stayed up against all odds in the Premier League. Yet, the same questions are asked over whether they can survive. The challenge is to evolve a little, but the overall objective must remain the same.

To avoid ‘second-season syndrome’ will be hard, but a task that David Wagner will look forward to.

Transfer window grade: D+

Huddersfield have retained all of their key players, but they haven’t really strengthened in much quality. The double signing of Kongolo and Diakhaby for a combined fee of circa £40m looks good business, but whether Adama Diakhaby can hit the ground running straight away is unknown or unlikely.

Ramadan Sobhi looks a tidy player, but whether he can be a consistent performer for Huddersfield is also unknown.

What Huddersfield needed was a proven Premier League goalscorer. In 38 matches last season, they failed to score in 21 of them, scoring on only 6 of 19 away trips. The problem last season was the lack of support for the striker – often Mounie – who enjoyed a good campaign. Huddersfield have not addressed this well enough, which could cost them. 

Where points will be won or lost

In Aaron Mooy, The Terriers have a player capable of dictating matches at all levels. Signed for a relatively low fee from Manchester City, the Aussie was the best player in the blue and white of Huddersfield last season, and fans will be hoping for more of the same.

Wagner is a realist, he knows if his side threw everything forward to score, they would be picked off with ease. Thus, Huddersfield tend to sit back and invite pressure, looking to get teams on the counter attack. Despite having a solid defence, I am not sure if this strategy is sustainable in the top flight.

Verdict – 19th 

David Wagner is a manager that, despite what happens this season, will manage again in the top flight. In a club with money to spend, he could showcase his talents. I am not sure Huddersfield is that place, and I think the Yorkshire club are doomed in their second season in the top flight.

Check back in the next days for Part 2 of my Premier League Preview.