EPL Season Preview Part III

Stoke City

The departures of Jon Walters and Glenn Whelan suggest a long overdue changing of the guard at the Brittania; a battleground once heralded by grit, steel and determination became a playground for the bigger teams. A final day win over Southampton was Stoke’s only win against a top 10 side last season, a dismal record given the Potters’ made their name making life tough for the top sides. Hughes has succeeded in taking Stoke from the “rugby team” Arsene Wenger branded them to one capable of playing modern, progressive football but questions remain over how much further he can take the Potters. Of last season’s 37 goals, only 24 remain. The loss of Marko Arnautovic to a direct rival doesn’t scream ambition, however, Jack Butland is a class act and Kurt Zouma has a point to prove. Up front Bojan oozes class but it’s now or never for the Spaniard, while Saido Berahino simply has to deliver. Stoke’s squad, particularly the attack, needs strengthening, not replacing Arnautovic isn’t an option while a striker and some youthful exuberance, whether it comes from inside or out, is a must, to add a bit of hunger and dynamism to a squad starved of ambition. The question over whether you can ever truly love a Mark Hughes team remains unanswered, but unless Stoke drastically improve in attack, it’s likely fans turn on the Welshman. With a tough start and a depleted squad in mind, the only thing I’m backing Mark Hughes to win is the sack race. Expect an early change in the hotseat at the Brittania, followed by a season-long relegation dogfight.

Key Player – Jack Butland / Surprise Star – Bojan Krkic / Weak Link – Geoff Cameron

Verdict – 17th

Swansea City

Paul Clement performed a minor miracle last season winning 9 out of 18 games to keep the Swans up. This season he’ll likely be without talisman Gylfi Sigurdsson who’s protracted transfer to Everton is helping no-one, however Fernando Llorente looks set to stay amid interest from Chelsea. Should the £50 million for Sigurdsson be reinvested, Swansea boast a manager with a keen eye for a player backed by a team of data analytics experts which saw them bring in Tom Carroll, Alfie Mawson and Martin Olsson last season, all 3 of whom were key in the Swans’ survival. Leon Britton’s long lost Spanish cousin Roque Mesa has already arrived at the Liberty and as a neutral I’m excited to see how Clement could spend the money. Ancelotti’s former assistant overachieved last season, with a repeat of that form relatively unsustainable but the Swans don’t need to match it to finish between 11th and 17th. Tammy Abraham is an exciting prospect up front but performing in the Championship isn’t a guarantor for success. The squad is threadbare and without reinvestment of the Sigurdsson money, could find themselves in a relegation dogfight, however, if Clement is backed in the market, expect a comfortable low-to-mid table finish for the Swans.

Key Player – Alfie Mawson / Surprise Star – Tom Carroll / Weak Link – Wayne Routledge (Siggy’s current replacement)

Verdict – 14th

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs have become the childhood sweetheart girlfriend you fell in love with while your face was covered in acne and your voice was still breaking. But puberty was kind to you while she let herself go. Now she stinges off you for money, she’s packing on the pounds, and she’s not showing any signs of investing in a gym membership. But you fell in love years ago and that hasn’t changed. While the money, the trophy possibilities, and whatever else may be much more attractive elsewhere, the likes of Harry Kane and Dele Alli are romanticized by an affinity to the club which made them. Kyle Walker wasn’t and Danny Rose isn’t. There may be murmurings of unrest in a formerly (?) tight knit, win-or-die squad but players and supporters need to keep in mind that success is not measured by the amount spent on new players. Who were Kyle Walker and Danny Rose before Pochettino got his hands on them? The success of big money signings Moussa Sissoko and Vincent Jannsen suggest new acquisitions aren’t critical to success especially considering Pochettino’s nous at developing youth. With that said, standing still isn’t much good when your rivals are actively moving forward. Spurs need to improve their squad if they are to stand any chance of repeating last seasons feats. The move to Wembley is a potential stumbling block, an arena which cost Spurs the Champions League, Europa League and FA Cup last season. Poch’s men outran their opponents last season but doing so on a pitch which is a substantial 8% bigger is a difficult task. Poch has shown his tactical flexibility before and he must show it again to cope with the increasing demands of the new challenge. Replacing Walker is a must, while adding quality numbers to the squad, be it in the form of promoting the likes of Harry Winks, or recruiting from outside is critical in giving Poch the best chance of reducing any turbulence from the stadium change. Given the expense of the new stadium and Levy’s tight grasp on his purse strings, it’s likely Pochettino is left wanting at the end of August. Repeating last season’s heroics is a tall order and given the difficult circumstances they find themselves in, one which will be just beyond the Spurs squad. Expect a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful battle for top 4.

Key Player – Harry Kane / Surprise Star – Harry Winks / Weak Link – Kieran Trippier

Verdict – 6th

Watford

For the third successive season, Watford start with a new manager at the helm. Walter Mazzarri’s glaring disconnect with fans has already been addressed by Marco Silva who has taken measures to endear himself to the Vicarage Road faithful. Silva’s efforts with Hull were heralded over the course of last season and his capture by the Hornet’s is seen as somewhat of a coup. Silva has one job and that’s to maximize the efforts of what is given to him; he has no control over transfers, infrastructure or the academy. The summer strategy at Watford has been clear. The Hornets have pursued young, unproven English talent with the likes of Nathaniel Chalobah, Will Hughes and Andre Gray arriving through the doors. Gray is a shrewd signing who will be looking to build upon a stuttering first season in the league. The former Burnley striker offers tactical flexibility and a broad skillset for Watford fans to enjoy. There are question marks over many of the existing squad, the likes of Okaka, Amrabat and Pereyra still need to prove their worth, while there is an opportunity for their journeyman back-line to be a part of something special. All things considered, a cloud of uncertainty still looms over Vicarage Road, however in contrast to previous seasons, it is filled with quiet optimism, not concern. Silva’s greatest challenges entail instilling a degree of chemistry in a cultured squad all the while getting them to play for the shirt. The Portuguese manager almost did the impossible by filling a doomed Hull side with self-belief and if he can correct the failings of the previous regime, Watford could surprise one or two. The biggest stumbling block could be trying to incorporate too much change at once, but I expect Watford to be a good value loser for a top 10 finish.

Key Player – Andre Gray / Surprise Star – Roberto Pereyra / Weak Link – Younes Kaboul

Verdict – 12th

West Brom

Tony Pulis has never been relegated from the Premier League and that won’t change this season. The Baggies came firing out of the blocks last term before stumbling to an impressive, yet somewhat underwhelming 10th place finish. Unrest grew in the stands as it became apparent that Pulis’ style will guarantee safety, but has limitations beyond that. That is reflected in their transfer market dealings, what would be the point in spending lavishly only to satisfy a style that has reached it’s ceiling? Pulis and West Brom parting ways this time next year wouldn’t be the biggest shock, with the Baggies seemingly intent on one more year of consolidating themselves as a top tier club before doing what Stoke did years ago. Almost half of West Brom’s goals came from set pieces last season which is cause for staggering concern, given little has been done to rectify that. Salomon Rondon may chip in now and then but isn’t a born goalscorer, while Jay Rodriguez has an obvious talent but has had to reinvent his game following various injury nightmares. Darren Fletcher’s departure is a shock, and a setback, one which Pulis could have done without. The Baggies need to add goals to their lineup to have any chance of repeating last season’s top half finish, but even then a lackluster season culminating in a disappointing finish seems inevitable.

Key Player – Matt Philips / Surprise Star – Jay Rodriguez / Weak Link – Salomon Rondon

Verdict – 16th

West Ham

The Hammers realized in no uncertain terms last season that progress involves more than moving to a different London postcode. The club have a clear vision in place but a conflicting, confusing and incoherent plan on how to achieve it. Between January and the Summer window, they have completely overhauled their transfer strategy, buying players for today, not tomorrow as David Gold put it. New signings Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez come with Premier League experience and obvious benefits, but both have individualistic tendencies and incorporating them into West Ham’s already dysfunctional team is Slaven Bilic’s biggest challenge. The quality is there on paper but Bilic lacks the coaching ability and acumen to draw the best from each individual, without compromising the team. Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart also come with experience but both have had their day and are likely to hold the Hammers back over the course of the season. The Croatian should focus on building a team around the perennially talented Manuel Lanzini, even if it does entail dropping a bigger name. Without a top coach it’s unlikely West Ham achieve their ambition of regular European football. Expect another disappointing mid-table finish.

Key Player – Marko Arnautovic / Surprise Star – Manuel Lanzini / Weak Link – Joe Hart

Verdict -11th

Outright Bets

Man City/Man United straight forecast (15/2)

Burnley, Huddersfield and Brighton to be relegated (11/1)

Kevin De Bruyne POTY (12/1), Paul Pogba POTY (10/1), David Silva POTY (35/1)

Romelu Lukaku Top Goalscorer (9/2)

Leicester top midlands club (Finish higher than West Brom and Stoke) (5/6)

Gabriel Jesus YPOTY (5/1)

Mark Hughes to win sack race (4/1)

Watford top 10 finish (8/1)

EPL Season Preview Part I

EPL Season Preview Part II

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