Yeah, it’s that time again. The start of August usually signifies a few football-related things – all Irish sides out of Europe, Celtic the only Scottish representation left in Europe but making hard work of it along the way, the three promoted sides labelled ‘relegated’ before a Premier League ball is kicked – and this year has been no different. There’s something weirdly fun about predicting how teams will do before the season begins, especially when you’re under some illusion that you might actually know what you’re talking about, hence why I come back each season to continue doing it.
So let’s get right into it then – here are my thoughts on the 20 Premier League teams and how I think they will do this year:
Arsenal have so much quality throughout their side – whether it be Walcott, Cazorla or Sanchez up front; Ozil, Ramsey, Wilshere (who, as of writing, will miss the start of the season with an ankle injury) and Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield; or new goalkeeper Petr Cech, who many believe will spare them points in games where previously they’d have been lost; they’ve rightly been giving pundits the feeling that this season they could, just maybe, go all the way and win the league title.
The main thing holding some of us back from making said prediction is that we’ve been burnt before; a couple of times in the past four seasons I’ve predicted Arsenal to finish runners-up only for them to underwhelm and settle for 4th. Will it really be any different this year? I think it could be. The side showed hints of a new steel in the Community Shield match against Chelsea last week; if they can become more consistent in grinding out those kind of results as well as handing out the occasional pummelling, Arsenal could be sure bets to push this season’s champions all the way.
Whether they quite have what it takes to reach the next level yet, remains to be seen. They’re probably a decent shout to win the FA Cup for a third year running… By most other clubs’ standards, of course, that kind of sustained success is something they can only dream of; the question is how long it will be before that alone – with another top 4 finish – is no longer considered good enough for this particular club’s fans? My prediction: 2nd
On the other hand, some people appear to be overrating Aston Villa’s chances this year, despite them having a below average team (for this level at least) that has lost rather than gained significant names on the team sheet over the summer transfer window. Star striker Benteke has – as expected – gone to Liverpool; a move manager Tim Sherwood showed a hint of bitterness over, while club captain Fabian Delph also sealed a move to Manchester City, curiously only a week after saying he would stay at Villa. Surely the signs aren’t good?
My general feeling is that Villa’s exploits in the FA Cup last season (in which they reached what turned out to be an anticlimactic final for them), along with a manager whose confident, straight-talking demeanour (rather than his past achievements) has led to pundits believing that while they may remain a bottom six side, they’ll likely also stay clear of relegation. I’m unconvinced. Last season began with me saying their Premier League status would soon come to an end, and their ‘achievement’ last year from a certain point of view (finishing 17th and surviving by just 3 points), rather than convince me otherwise, has only reinforced that feeling. This season, I think they could run out of ideas fast. My prediction: 19th
There is something of an air of optimism surrounding Bournemouth’s maiden Premier League campaign which wasn’t quite there in the same way with the fairy tale stories of Blackpool (in 2010/11) and Burnley (last season), both of whom similarly defied the odds to gain promotion – though while everyone would have loved to see them survive, no-one truly expected them to.
Conversely, when one looks closely at Eddie Howe’s team and how they performed last season, it’s not hard to see why so many people are genuinely expecting them to stay up: their style of play and philosophy is reminiscent of the best of both aforementioned sides. They have the attacking flair of that Blackpool side, without appearing overly haphazard in defence. Like Burnley, they seem determined to secure the club’s future rather than take financial risks to survive at all costs; similarly, their manager comes highly rated and will surely be a huge factor in making the team believe they can do themselves justice in this league just as they shined in the one below. And they did indeed shine in the Championship, winning it with a stylish mix of clean sheets and (lots of) goals. For Bournemouth not to survive would mean they haven’t performed to their best, because at their best I think there’s not just three worse teams than them in this league – there’s around four or five. Though there may be some bumps along the way and it could take them a while to settle into their stride, I’m backing them to stay up. My prediction: 16th
Without doubt any side with Jose Mourinho in charge is never going to be too far off the winning line. For me, though, there are a few question marks hanging over them this season. Were it not for the Mourinho factor, would anyone really be convinced by the signing of Radamel Falcao after his underwhelming (and that’s putting it nicely) stint at Old Trafford?
Part of what people consider Mourinho’s genius is also how he has played the media in the past – consistently taking the pressure off his own players and putting further pressure on his opponents with subtle jibes in their direction. I think it is only a matter of time before his rivals wise up to this and his traditional tactics begin to work against him. Arsene Wenger got the better of him in that Community Shield match – over the course of a full season is a different story, of course, but I trust Mourinho isn’t going to have everything his own way this year, and Chelsea may stumble in some areas where we wouldn’t otherwise expect them to.
One other slight caveat to bear in mind is whether the Champions League might be occupying the back of their minds, the winning of which remains the one feat Mourinho has not yet accomplished with his ‘beloved’ club. If they’re not Premier League champions in 2016, you can bet they won’t be far away from the European crown instead. My prediction: 3rd
Alan Pardew has replicated Tony Pulis before him by reinvigorating Crystal Palace and giving their fans belief that rather than fight relegation every season, they can look forward to pushing for a place in the top half. Not only do I think they’ll get there again but, in Pardew’s first full season in charge, I’m backing them to improve on last campaign’s 10th place finish. My prediction: 8th
Looking at Everton now, my slight worry is that they appear to lack the mental ‘steel’ we associated with them under David Moyes. I’m not so sure they will bounce back from last season’s underwhelming campaign with quite as much vigour as others seem to expect. However, they’ll surely be good enough to get back into the top half of the table. Everton fans may ultimately feel unsatisfied with that bearing recent history in mind, and manager Roberto Martinez could find his job security waning by the time we get towards the end of the season. My prediction: 9th
People are rightly looking at Leicester with trepidation – the team have lost the two main factors lauded for the dramatic surge of form that saved them from relegation last season. Those are: former manager Nigel Pearson along with inspirational and experienced holding midfielder Esteban Cambiasso. In Pearson’s place is the wildcard of Claudio Ranieri, who has a reputation best described as unconvincing in most pundits’ eyes. But perhaps his eccentric style could turn out to be the perfect fit for the club.
Doubts will remain over Ranieri’s long term potential as manager, but I think Leicester will do more than enough to stay up once again – their development from here should also be entertaining to watch. My prediction: 14th
Ah, Liverpool, who almost seem to be falling into the Newcastle category of being notoriously difficult to predict as of late. I would like to say Brendan Rodgers’ team will restore some respectability to their reputation of being among the league’s ‘bigger’ clubs this season; although I do think they’ll push the top 4 closer and for longer this time around, I simply can’t yet have full confidence in them to get there.
Their new signings, Benteke and experienced midfielder James Milner in particular, do instil more optimism and should at least be a bigger hit than those they ended up with last season (hey, they can’t exactly fare any worse than Balotelli in his first year at Anfield). I do get a sinking feeling that the selling of Sterling to top 4 rivals Man City could be the one that comes back to haunt them the most, but at that kind of money (£49million) they’ll probably feel, for now, it was worth the risk. My prediction: 5th
On paper and in terms of financial clout Man City are arguably the best-equipped team in the league and should, in theory, be most peoples’ picks to win the title, especially with further signings to come (one would assume). So why aren’t they?
Possibly because they ended last season feeling a little stale and out of ideas when it came to retaining their Premier League crown from the year before. A drop off in form led people at one point to doubt even whether they’d achieve a top 4 finish, with Liverpool hot on their heels. Despite that dodgy period when they were clearly far from their best, they recovered to finish as Chelsea’s closest challengers, above Arsenal. This year, their only major signing is that of Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling after a protracted transfer saga that has perhaps distracted some from considering the impact and invigorating effect he could have on the team.
The Man City squad, though, will not want last season to set the trend – and rather than falling off further, I think this team will be more fired up than we’ve seen in recent times to prove they’re a better team than they’ve given themselves credit for up until now. Last year we saw a lot of slip-ups in games they should arguably have gotten something from; I don’t think that will continue happening in 2015/16. It may not be the popular consensus right now, but Manchester City are my champions for this season. My prediction: Champions
I’m no more convinced by Louis Van Gaal’s supposed managerial expertise now than I was last season. On paper their squad doesn’t look as strong with the loss of flopped strikers Falcao and Di Maria, but with Rooney given a freer role up front he’ll be keen to make up for that himself. If Liverpool start the season strong then Man United may find they have a real dogfight on their hands to retain their place in the top 4 – I still don’t think yet they’re strong enough to become genuine title challengers again, and only recent history (pre-Ferguson retirement) makes pundits verge towards overrating them. They’re just not the same intimidating team we knew a few seasons ago. My prediction: 4th
Newcastle are typically difficult to predict aside from thinking, ‘well, at least they can’t do any worse’ than their almost catastrophic collapse in the second half of last season. A change of manager and a few other changes in personnel will freshen up the dressing room and should ensure a more comfortable season (I say not with total confidence); whether the quality of their current squad can stretch to much more than that is still uncertain. Voices from the board room are making it clear that they’re willing to invest for improvement on the field at least… and something tells me they’re not quite done with business yet either.
Also, in a rare television interview at the end of last season, owner Mike Ashley claimed the club were going to start taking the cup competitions more seriously going forward. If they do that, Newcastle are real dark horses to pick up the League Cup or FA Cup – I’d consider backing them to win one of them this season. My prediction: 13th (and a cup)
To me Norwich actually look the strongest and most prepared of the promoted clubs to survive in the Premier League. Alex Neil is a fine young manager and the team seems in good hands under him. Form does count for something too, and if the club can replicate how they ended last season’s Championship campaign, even for a portion of this one, then they should be fine if not extraordinary. Furthermore, they have a good proportion of players with recent Premier League experience, with the club having been here just two seasons ago; that will work in their favour if they are indeed to surprise some people by staying up rather comfortably. My prediction: 15th
I don’t see Saints maintaining the same kind of consistency they showed last season, when they spent the first third of the campaign challenging at the top end of the table. This year, they have a Europa League run to contend with as well; that experience along with a comfortable mid-table league position should be enough to keep Southampton fans content… though they’ll perhaps be expecting even better things again the following season. That raised level of expectation is something Ronald Koeman is going to have to manage within his squad as well as outwardly with the fans; he is a skilled manager and one would hope the club’s owners don’t let him go on a whim if they just miss out on a third successive top half finish. Given time, Saints do have the potential to be an established top half club in the near future – but a season of consolidation on the way there is no bad thing. My prediction: 12th
The signing of highly rated Dutch midfielder Ibrahim Afellay alone makes it worth keeping an eye on what Stoke achieve this year. They’ve added to a squad that (as I correctly predicted this time last year) finished 9th last season – though for some reason I don’t feel they can finish quite that high again this year.
Their new signings could take a bit of time to settle to their new surroundings (going from Barcelona to Stoke City might be a bit of a culture shock) and admittedly, one or two question marks still remain over Mark Hughes despite the fantastic job he has done with this team in the past year and a half. He can return them to the top half again in future, provided he is given more time to establish his own little legacy at this club. Maybe at some point they have the potential to go even further than that, but right now, I sense yet another season of mid-table security. My prediction: 11th
Looking at Sunderland’s opening fixtures, they have a tough start in the Premier League this season. Unfortunately that’s not exactly what you want as a club coming off the back of another close escape from relegation the year before. Sunderland are once again firm favourites with me to struggle, though I understand the sentimental affections some have for their manager – who would undoubtedly love to retire knowing he had again helped Sunderland secure safety. I’m afraid I don’t see a fairy tale ending to this particular story… My prediction: 20th
In contrast, Swansea have been rising in estimation by anyone’s standards, and I think their upward tilt is set to continue this season. Garry Monk has a stable set-up at the club; they’re consistently playing well and have an incredible self-belief that makes them think they can beat anybody. Whether it’s winning at Old Trafford or getting a point at Stamford Bridge, even those teams who consider themselves to be in the title race know a fixture against Swansea is no guarantee of anything. Dark horses to snatch a European spot this year. My prediction: 7th
Spurs have become the typical ‘best of the rest’ team of the Premier League; not quite good enough to consistently get a top 4 spot, but enough quality to secure at least the next available place in the table. At this point, if I was in charge of Tottenham, I would try to win the Europa League above all else; not only is it a precious trophy (for most clubs, those don’t come around too often), but the winners are also granted entry into the Champions League.
Spurs are one of the few English teams who can go into the competition feeling confident that they aren’t otherwise in any danger of relegation; what is the worst that could happen? If league form were to suffer as a result and they finished in mid-table, they’d be better for challenging the top 4 again next season without the added distraction. Regardless, I think Tottenham have the quality to maintain their hold on the top 6 this year. My prediction: 6th (and possibly Europa League winners)
Watford are as much an unknown quantity as any promoted club we’ve seen before, which has led many to doubt whether they’ll gel together in time to make a team capable of surviving in the Premier League. But this works both ways; I think Watford, rather than being a disorganised mess, could take a few teams by surprise. Sure they won’t be great (not yet, anyway), though I’m fairly confident they’ll just about do enough to stay up – even if it does require a ‘great escape’ towards the end. My prediction: 17th
West Bromwich Albion
In Tony Pulis, West Brom have a respected manager who’s never been relegated. This has led most people to overlooking them as relegation candidates this season for largely the same reason they consider Chelsea as sure bets for the title – managerial reputation. However, I look at this team and the first thought that comes to mind is ‘below average’.
In addition it is looking like they could be losing prize asset Berahino in this transfer window… so I don’t have a lot of confidence in West Brom this season I’m afraid. They say Pulis is the man who’s never been relegated – but as we know, records are made to be broken, nothing lasts forever, and a variety of other cliches mean Pulis and his team could be set up for a fall. Furthermore, let’s recall Pulis’ curious departure from Crystal Palace around this time last year as a warning that even he may not last the season if, say, he begins to have disagreements with the club’s board as we get close to the January transfer window. An interesting season in store for West Bromwich Albion – and I fear that might not be in a good way. My prediction: 18th
West Ham’s decision to pretty much throw away the Europa League was, for me, nonsensical. I understand not wanting the ‘distraction’ of an extra cup competition which could include long trips, but to treat Europe so flippantly, especially when you already started your campaign extra early (at the beginning of July) to get through the first rounds of qualifying, is a little insulting to other clubs who would relish such an opportunity. Didn’t someone remind them the winners of that competition also now get a Champions League spot?
Nonetheless, I get the feeling that West Ham and new manager Slaven Bilic could surprise a few people this season. They’re a club, rather like Newcastle, with a bundle of potential that one feels is just waiting to be tapped into; and I think Bilic may just get them playing in a fresh way that surprises at least a decent proportion of their opponents. While I may not agree with his throwaway attitude towards Europe, such a decision does show uncompromising shrewdness, especially when it seemed to pay off so well with an opening day victory over Arsenal. If West Ham do achieve a top half finish, I doubt many of their own fans will be complaining either – if they even remember their fleeting European adventure come next May. My prediction: 10th