Following a triumphant showing at Euro 2016, England’s brave lions are now just days away from returning to the comfort of Premier League football. After the unparalleled roller-coaster of last season that saw Champions Chelsea crumble, and Ranieri’s Leicester (who I predicted to finish 2nd and 17th respectively last year) claim the title, the bar has been set high. But with a genuinely all-star cast of managers heading the big guns, up against a nouveau-riche underclass emboldened by Leicester, there’s no reason as to why this season shouldn’t match and surpass last’s for thrills and spills.
Man City – 1st
Ins: Gundogan, Nolito, Zinchenko, Sane
Outs: Demichelis, Fofana
Manchester City’s current state of affairs is a continuing project long in the making. Pep Guardiola has wasted no time in stamping his influence on a squad in dire need of it, whilst strengthening emphatically in the transfer market – even though the jigsaw is probably not yet finished at the time of writing. The title is far from sewn up for City this year – they’ve only won it once out of the last four opportunities and have suffered the same plaguing issues year after year, the league is more competitive than ever, and Guardiola’s philosophy may suffer some teething problems. But considering the squad at Pep’s disposal, his track record, and the effect he has seemingly already had, it’s difficult to see past them with confidence.
Key Player: Sergio Aguero is brilliant, and could enjoy a similar season to that of Robert Lewandowski’s last year under Guardiola’s tutelage.
Man United – 2nd
Ins: Bailly, Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan
Outs: Reid, Rothwell, Fletcher, Dunne, Valdes, Powell, Varela
Mourinho and Manchester United don’t entirely seem a natural fit, except they’re both in danger of losing their aura – that’s largely why he wasn’t given the job 3 years ago. But on a short-term basis, it’s hard to conceive a manager more capable of making an immediate winning impact. United have spent big in the transfer window, and may well do again, restoring some much-needed star quality to a squad that has been in decline for a long time. Even for Mourinho, to take the United team of the last three years to title winners in one go would be an unbelievable achievement, but it’s one I believe the Portuguese will go close to, at the very least.
Key Player: Take your pick of the new signings, but out of the old guard David de Gea. If he can perhaps sort out that pesky near-post issue that according to some critics is plaguing his game (others argue there is no issue at all), he could reasonably be considered the best goalkeeper in world football. Though probably not a key player, it’ll be so interesting to see if the supremely talented Rashford is allowed to build on his meteoric introduction to senior football by Mourinho.
Chelsea – 3rd
Ins: Batshuayi, Kante
Outs: Baker (loan), Ake (loan), Boga (loan), Kalas (loan), Palmer (loan), Kiwomya
You can’t really do justice to the absurdity that was Chelsea last year in a brief précis, but suffice to say that this campaign will not be a repeat of last. Antonio Conte is in and, though his extraordinarily high reputation following an impressive European Championships is ever so slightly unwarranted, he’s exactly what Chelsea need. The Italian’s impact will probably be immediate, and this season it’ll have to be, but with the quality of players available to Conte, including new signing Kante, and the lack of a European distraction, there’s no reason he can’t sustain a firm attempt at the title this year, if not a successful one.
Key Player: The Euro’s showed that Eden Hazard decline was far from permanent, and the Belgian will be one of many Chelsea players looking to drastically improve on last year’s abject display.
Arsenal – 4th
Ins: Xhaka, Asano, Holding
Outs: Arteta, Rosicky, Flamini, Hayden, Silva, Toral (loan), Crawley (loan)
In a summer and season of noticeable flux, Arsenal are the Premier League’s beacon of stability. However, there has to be a point where stability without progress becomes stagnation, and such fan-sentiments are understandable given Arsenal’s missed opportunity of a league title last year. Perhaps too much criticism is afforded to Arsene Wenger considering the much more catastrophic failings of other teams and individuals, but the improbability of complete failure Wenger represents seemingly also comes with a lowered glass ceiling. As such, a battle to stay in the top four is more likely than Arsenal going one better on their previous league finish (as they have done for the last two seasons).
Key Player: After an ever-so-slightly underwhelming campaign last time out, Copa America Player of the Tournament awardee Alexis Sanchez’s form will be vital to any title ambitions at the Emirates. Hector Bellerin could also establish himself firmly as the league’s dominant fullback.
Tottenham – 5th
Ins: Janssen, Wanyama
Outs: Lesniak (loan), Ward
Mauricio Pochettino is a dynamic young manager and Spurs are a team very much in their manager’s image. Indeed it was Pochettino’s influence and system that took Spurs considerably above opponents with more obvious big names, as Harry Kane proved doubters such as myself wrong, at the forefront of a team founded on an excellent pair of central defenders, goalkeeper and the revelatory Eric Dier. There is plenty of reason for optimism at White Hart Lane, but it’s worth putting their season last year into perspective as in terms of points it was remarkably similar to Andre Villas-Boas’, and they ultimately finished below Arsenal (not to mention Leicester). Spurs and Pochettino will impress again, but not quite to the same extent as last season.
Key Player: Mousa Dembele was horrendously overlooked by Marc Wilmots in the summer and makes a massive difference to Spurs’ effectiveness – the engine room in the midfield frees up Alli and will be sorely missed at the beginning of the season due to suspension.
Liverpool – 6th
Ins: Matip, Mane, Karius, Klavan, Manninger, Wijnaldum
Outs: Sinclair, Toure, Vigouroux, Rossiter, Enrique, Yesil, Canos, Skrtel, Ibe, Bogdan (loan), Allen, Smith
Jurgen Klopp’s impact on Liverpool has, in certain quarters of the fan-base that particularly indulge in his cult of personality, been exaggerated slightly, but it’s evident that the enigmatic German’s side are a more fearsome and effectively set up outfit than Rodgers’. Many now will be expecting Klopp’s brand of high energy pressing to take Liverpool back to their glory days, repeating its master’s title-success at Dortmund, but I suspect such ambition is slightly unfounded. There are still large holes in Liverpool’s squad, and the seismic differential in quality between them and some of their North-West counterparts is clear. Of course, Leicester’s title win does highlight the importance of systems above all other things, but I would be surprised if Liverpool finish higher than the Europa League spots domestically this season.
Key Player: Roberto Firmino really found his feet towards the end of the season, and will be hoping to continue in that vein. Though I am no member of the Adam Lallana fan club, he suits Klopp’s approach perfectly, and was one of the few England players to come out of France with his reputation largely intact. Danny Ings could be in for a huge season (emphasis strongly on could, admittedly).
Leicester – 7th
Ins: Zieler, Hernandez, Uche, Mendy, Musa
Outs: Kramaric, Schwarzer, Konchesky, Watson, Hammond, Panayiotou, Kante, Dodoo
After producing what some have described as the greatest achievement ever in team sport last season, one of many intriguing stories this term will be how Leicester follow up their magnificent title. The incredibly influential Kante has gone, as has most of the scouting network that signed him, but Vardy turning down Arsenal was significant, and the always-affable Ranieri and his system will function well again. Leicester showed an ability to both outscore and out-defend their opponents at different points of the season, which bodes very well, as does their recruitment. Having utilised a comparatively tiny number of players regularly last season, Ranieri will not be able to do so amidst the pressure of European football (which may be the focus of the Foxes’ campaign), so a repeat of last year is unlikely. However, so is a return to a relegation dogfight, and it’s important to realise how much a finish such as 7th would have been celebration in early-mid 2015.
Key Player: Nampalys Mendy will have a job on his hands to replace Kante, but Danny Drinkwater is an excellent midfield partner to attempt it with. Mahrez is rumoured to be potentially leaving, but retaining his services would be a sizeable coup.
Everton – 8th
Ins: Stekelenburg, Renshaw, Sambou, Gueye
Outs: Pienaar, Osman, Hibbert, Howard
It’s been a summer of change off the pitch at Goodison Park, with Farhad Moshiri at the helm at the start of the season for the first time, the club has moved effectively to ditch Martinez in favour of Ronald Koeman, and appoint Leicester’s transfer chief Steve Walsh. Both decisive and impressive moves – what is slightly more worrying is the lack of positive change in the playing squad. Though Koeman can dramatically improve the team’s fortunes by a few basic tactical and disciplinary changes alone, more would have to be done after the time of writing in the way of signings in order to suggest a European finish is in the offing after two bottom-half seasons, in a now hyper-competitive league.
Key Player: After a season split into sublime and shocking last year, it’s time for Ross Barkley to iron out a few issues of his game under Koeman, and flourish as the dynamic key cog in the Dutchman’s midfield. Gerard Deulofeu has really impressed in pre-season too.
West Ham – 9th
Ins: Martinez, Nordtveit, Quina, Feghouli, Tore, Fletcher
Outs: O’Brien, Lee, Tomkins
More so than Antoine Griezmann, Lars Lagerback or Renato Sanches, Slaven Bilic was the star of Euro 2016. The star pundit of the tournament displayed the tactical nous and charismatic persona that propelled West Ham to a commendable 7th in 2015-16. It’ll be difficult to improve on that though, even in the new Olympic Stadium as generously gifted by the taxpayer. Although clearly reliant on Payet last year – look at their points per game with/without him – West Ham are far from a one man team, helped by new signings such as Tore, Nordtveit and Feghouli (who, though off the back of a dreadful year, is a tidy bit of business).
Key Player: The answer is Dmitri Payet.
Southampton – 10th
Ins: Redmond, Højbjerg, Pied, McCarthy
Outs: Ramirez, Davis, Juanmi, Wanyama, McCarthy (loan), Pelle, Mane, Gazzaniga (loan).
Once again a summer of upheaval off the pitch for Southampton, and once again they’ll probably be just fine. Koeman is a loss, but Claude Puel is an excellent replacement – a fine manager, who’ll fit in at the club where the whim of individual managers appear to be least relevant to the overall functioning and success of the club, to good effect. Though I’ve predicted 10th, I could easily see them surpassing that. Considering how highly Pep Guardiola rated Pierre Højbjerg at one stage, his progress at St Mary’s will be one to watch closely.
Key Player: Fraser Forster’s effect on the overall fortunes of Southampton after his return was huge. Virgil van Dijk and Jose Fonte form one of the best partnerships in the league – though of course, at Southampton the system is far more important than the individual, especially in defensive terms.
Stoke – 11th
Ins: Sobhi, Allen
Outs: Odemwingie, Sidwell
Stoke have become a very consistent outfit under Mark Hughes, and could have finished higher last season if not for a collapse in form after an injury to Jack Butland. The task for Hughes is to kick on, but unfortunately for Stoke fans that looks to have become considerably more difficult this year. In mitigation, a lack of signings thus far says a lot more the current quality of the squad than it does Peter Coates’ finances – and I expect Stoke to finish with considerably more points than the team below them, albeit in mid-table.
Key Player: For all that Ryan Shawcross is sometimes derided, his effect on Stoke’s defence and points tally is plain to see. Jack Butland could feasibly establish himself as England no.1 this year, whilst Gianelli Imbula could build on a promising start.
Swansea – 12th
Ins: Fer, van der Hoorn, Reid, Byers, Birghetti
Outs: Grimes (loan), Eder, Paloschi, Bartley (loan), Shephard (loan), Hedges (loan), Gomis (loan)
Swansea’s record since Francesco Guidolin, of whom I’ve long been a fan, took over is underrated-ly good, and they will be striving to move up a tier as a club back to where they seemed to be a couple of years ago. There’s certainly talent in the squad, although it could do with a few improved recruitments – the signing of which will probably be the difference between comfortable mid-table or something more.
Key Player: If Swansea can retain the services of club icon Ashley Williams, in the way they have with Gylfi Sigurdsson, it’ll be a massive boost to their defence and prospects.
Crystal Palace – 13th
Ins: Townsend, Mandanda, Tomkins
Outs: Adebayor, Chamakh, Hangeland, Mariappa, McCarthy, Gayle, Gray, A.McCarthy, Binnom-Williams
On New Year’s Day 2016 Crystal Palace were 5th in the Premier League, 7 points ahead of Southampton. Come the end of the season, 15th and 21 points behind the Saints made for grim reading for Alan Pardew – whose career thus far has been defined by long, consistent runs of good, or woeful form. Whether the positive run comes in the shape of a commanding start, or a defiant second-half-of-the-season resurgence remains to be seen, but it is almost inevitable that it will, and be mirrored by an equally long barren run. Palace are a long, long way from the worst the league has to offer though, and have bought reasonably well too.
Key Player: Mandanda will likely hit the ground running without difficulty, whilst James McArthur is the unsung hero of the Palace squad.
West Brom – 14th
Outs: Anichebe, Sessegnon, Lindegaard
West Brom under Pulis are a strange outfit. Although on paper their squad is as lacking in quality as any in the league (with noticeably less so than, say, Newcastle last season), they never seem to be particularly convincing or unconvincing, floating round in 14th place ad infinitum, which is a testament of sorts to their manager. Whether that pleases Baggies fans or not I don’t know. Questions of course still linger over Saido Berahino’s future – will he stay? Will he go? Does anyone at all care?
Key Player: McAuley, Chester and Evans all come back to the Hawthorns after very impressive showings in France, and it’ll be interesting to see if Leko can follow through on the raw promise he showed towards May.
Middlesbrough – 15th
Ins: Fischer, Espinosa, De Roon, McGhee, Valdes, Barragan, Negredo (loan), Ramirez, Guzan
Outs: Woodgate, Abella, Williams, Ripley (loan)
Of all the promoted teams, I believe Middlesbrough have by far the best chance of staying up. Aitor Karanka is a very capable manager – moulded under Mourinho, there are similarities to their management. After a training-ground bust-up in March there were serious doubts over the Spaniard’s future at the Riverside, but automatic promotion was secured at last. Boro’s defensive record, particularly at home, was exceptional last year, and one Karanka will need to (and probably will) transfer successfully to stay in the top flight. Speaking of transfers, Boro’s business (with the exception of Guzan, who is dreadful) seems to have been exceptional so far.
Key Player: Daniel Ayala won the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year last year and is integral to the aforementioned strong defence. Victor Valdes could become a cult hero, whilst it’ll be fascinating to see if Viktor Fischer can resurrect his career to the promise it once had. Failing that, you can always rely on Stewart Downing.
Sunderland – 16th
Outs: Graham, Fletcher, Brown, Mandron, Giaccherini, Vergini, Matthews (loan)
Just as Sunderland appeared to be enjoying something vaguely in the vein of stability, Big Sam goes and nabs himself the England job. Moyes is a shrewd appointment – his year at United looks less the catastrophic failings of him and him alone by the day, and Sunderland are in a very similar situation to Everton when the Glaswegian rolled into Merseyside. The task will be for Sunderland to stay up, and without leaving it to the last few weeks of the season like they seem to do every single year. I suspect Moyes will do that, though not much more.
Key Player: Jermain Defoe defied age last season, and kept Sunderland up with his goals. He may struggle under Moyes though, who has a notoriously bad record with strikers. Where the latter is more accomplished is in defence, where Lamine Kone shone under Allardyce.
Bournemouth – 17th
Ins: Hyndman, Ake (loan), Mousset, Cook, Ndjoli, Travers, Ibe, Smith
Outs: Distin, Elphick, Ritchie, Zubar, Murray (loan), Tomlin, Cornick (loan)
In the underdog-story-glory of Leicester’s title win, Bournemouth’s incredible achievement of defying the odds to stay up in their debut season over Premier League stalwarts such as Newcastle and Aston Villa was unfairly overlooked. Though the start to the season wasn’t entirely dreamlike on the South Coast – defeat to Villa, dreadful injuries to key players, and thrashings from City and Spurs – impressive spurts of form including famous wins at Stamford Bridge and against Man United were enough to comfortably keep the Cherries up, assuring Eddie Howe’s status once again as one of the brightest young managers in world football. However, if Howe does have a blind-spot, it seems to be recruitment, and this summer’s dealings (particularly the decision to sell Matt Ritchie) are as convincing as signing Lewis Grabban for £8million was in January. Combined with Bournemouth’s lacklustre form towards May, I’m slightly concerned this might be a year of flirtation with relegation, but Howe is the man to keep this team afloat.
Key Player: Callum Wilson’s impressive start to Premier League football was cut painfully short by a horrendous injury, and it’ll be interesting to see how if he can return, and potentially form an effective partnership with Afobe. Max Gradel is another whose evident talent was masked by injury last term.
Burnley – 18th
Ins: Dunne, Gudmundsson, Pope
Outs: Barton, Gilks, Taylor, Duff, Ginnelly (loan)
From one talented young English manager to another. Sean Dyche’s Burnley were not the wealthiest, most-talented or most-fancied team in the Championship last year, but yet won the league to ensure their absence from England’s top-table was only a brief one. Much of the personnel has not changed from the Clarets’ last frisson with the Premier League, and Burnley as a proposition essentially is the same as last time out. Hard-working, tough-to-beat, well-managed, but just lacking in quality to stay up.
Key Player: The Clarets had the second best defence in the Championship last year, and any survival hopes will be founded upon that base – within which England international and club captain Tom Heaton, and Ben Mee are crucial.
Ins: Sinclair, Kabasele, Success, Zuniga (loan), Dja Djedje
Outs: Ekstrand, Angella, Jurado, Byers, Pudil, Abdi, Berghuis (loan)
Watford’s season last time out was very much one of two halves, the second ultimately seeing Quique Sanchez Flores losing his job, I believe harshly. Walter Mazzarri has replaced him, and is very much an individual whose reputation hangs in the balance. At one time a promising and seemingly competent Napoli manager whose 3-5-2 of sorts seemed astute, Mazzarri failed at Inter, has been surpassed in Naples by Sarri, and is now a man whose perception of his own qualities seems to be somewhat higher than the reality. Though never troubled by relegation last year, I fear the same will not be able to be said for Watford in this.
Key Player: Last year’s slump coincided with Odion Ighalo’s complete loss of form, and it’s vital that that should return if I am to be wrong in my prediction of relegation. Etienne Capoue, though inconsistent, also impressed last term.
Hull – 20th
Outs: Aluko, Taylor
Hull were an easy pick to finish bottom. If Steve Bruce were still at the helm in happier circumstances, they’d be a decent outside shout for survival, but with no manager at the time of writing, a squad in disrepair, and a highly discontented fan base, it’s impossible to see anything other than a calamitous outing for the #Tigers. Indeed, it’s easier to see them challenging the 2006/7 Derby team in terms of negative records, than clinching survival.
Key Player: Deemed by many as a flop after a calamitous first season, Abel Hernandez had a fine second, and has a point to prove at this level. Andrew Robertson is certainly a Premier League class left back.
Manager of the Season: Tougher to pick than ever this year. One of the Manchester club’s linchpins for the obvious choice, with a nod to Karanka and Conte.
Player of the Season: Again stating the obvious, but one of Aguero, Özil, or maybe Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Young Player of the Season: If he’s working under either Ronald Koeman or Pep Guardiola you’d fancy John Stones’ chances of bouncing back after a difficult year. Rashford and Iheanacho if they’re given a chance too.