(Fair warning: This is a transAtlantic flight)
Making any educated prediction on the 2014-15 Premier League campaign even a day before the opening round of fixtures is akin to thinking you can kick the ass of that wimpy science nerd Bruce Banner. Or, if you’re Ronald Koeman, it would be like assuming the Incredible Hulk has your back, only to discover that he’s been enrolled in unbelievably effective anger management classes and has decided to take up gardening. In Liverpool.
The problem, of course, is that the season kicks off in the middle of August while the UEFA summer transfer window does not close until the first day of September. Given that it’s human nature to procrastinate, in this context also known as holding out for the best offer, many transactions tend to be done at the last possible moment. That tendency is further exacerbated following a World Cup. Players who made the trip to Brazil are given three weeks of vacation afterwards, and don’t begin to train with their sides until late in the pre-season. Understandably, this leaves managers somewhat in the dark as to what they have in the way of a squad, or in Koeman’s case, whether they have one at all. When a manager takes his national side all the way to the third place match on the World Cup’s penultimate day before foregoing a holiday of his own to get down to business with his new club, that uncertainty reaches a whole new level.
So, that’s where we stand at Stretty News. It’s the day before the season, virtually every team is in a state of flux, and United’s new boss hasn’t even dipped into the market as yet. Our readers are expecting us to tell them how their beloved club is going to stun the world (hopefully in a completely non-Moyes-ish manner), and what the rest of the Prem is going to do about it. And us? Well, we haven’t a notion of an inkling of a clue as to where to begin.
We can try to extrapolate a few generalizations based upon last season, and the transfers that have occurred in the window thus far this summer. However, Arsene Wenger, who hadn’t made a player purchase more exciting than replenishing one’s sock and underwear drawer for the better part of a decade, went out and spent £42.5 million on Mesut Özil just as Richard Scudamore, as smarmy a barkeep as there ever was, rang time on last year’s deadline. The Gunners parlayed that pint of business into an FA Cup victory, and the notion of Arsenal as a perennial bridesmaid was dissolved in the same vat of acid that just the other day consumed Legia Warsaw’s appeal to Celtic FC’s reputation as an ethical and honorable club.
Much like a newly whitewashed tenement wall turned into an urban canvas overnight, the look of the Premier League between now and 1 September will likely be wholly different. The best we can do, then, is follow the methods of that celebrated tactician, Harry Redknapp, and fly by the seat of our pants. So, strap in your seatbelt and place your tray in the upright position. We’re ready to take off into the wide unknown of the upcoming Premier League season. In the event that Radamel Falcao leaves Monaco for Liverpool or Edinson Cavani is signed by Southampton, an oxygen mask will drop down from the overhead. Place it over your nose and mouth, then breathe deeply…
The High Flyers
(United, City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham)
If last season is any indication, the skies at the top of the Premier League table are becoming rather crowded, with seven clubs again showing the potential to contend for a Champions League place. Although it is the same seven that are likely to rise above the rest, some will gain a little altitude, while others may experience enough minor turbulence to take them out of the European picture.
Obviously, Manchester City is the side which everyone has in their sights. Shooting them down will be difficult, however. After having gone hungry for thirty-five years, the Citizens have found an appetite for winning. Playing fast and loose with both FFP and Homegrown regulations hasn’t been a problem for the club as it looks to repeat as champions.
Last year, it’s biggest issues were at the back, where a surprisingly vintage Martin Demechelis arrived in January to shore up a defensive corps wracked by injury and poor form. This season, Manuel Pellegrini has sought out a younger and quicker option, working hard to both acquire and learn to correctly spell Eliaquim Mangala from Porto. Bacary Sagna’s move from Arsenal has added depth at full back, and Fernando has come in to provide relief for the aging and petulant Yaya Toure in front of the back four.
Out the door are Jack Rodwell, Gareth Barry, and Joleon Lescott, with Rodwell, relieved to be in the starting XI at the Stadium of Light, warning other young English players to spend some of their windfall on a seat cushion if they intend to sign for City. Rumors are circulating that James Milner is also trying to find a new club in order to return to being a football player in more than merely title.
Another City Englishman who may also find himself desiring a new club is Joe Hart. His excellent recovery in the second half of the last campaign after a crisis of confidence has apparently not convinced Pellegrini, who recruited his former number one at Malaga, Willy Caballero, ostensibly to provide competition. The Argentine conceded three goals behind a makeshift squad in the Community Shield match on the weekend, but it should come as no surprise to see him be given an extended opportunity to unseat Hart.
City’s greatest challenge this season, in fact, is likely to come from within. A prolonged goalkeeping battle in tandem with a certain unsettled Ivorian in the deep-lying midfield may clip City’s wings by causing unrest within the squad. If there is room at the deadline, despite the £49 million ceiling UEFA has placed upon spending at the Etihad, Pellegrini may want to look into the possibility of acquiring the services of Jordi Roca to put a smile upon Yaya’s face. The Spaniard, whose name you may not recognize, is not a replacement for the oft-injured Sergio Kun Aguero or the inconsistent David Silva; Stevan Jovetic and Samir Nasri can fill those roles. Roca’s specialty is filling rolls, pastries and other treats, being recognized by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants (dot-com), among others, as the planet’s pre-eminent patissier. If he can quickly determine whether Toure is partial to chocolate or vanilla icing, City’s title defense may turn out to be (cough) a cakewalk.
Liverpool may regret not having looked into Roca’s availability themselves. His mouthwatering creations might have prevented Luis Suarez from turning to alternative forms of snacking while with the Uruguayan national team in Brazil. With Suarez still in the side, the Reds would have been favorites to succeed City as league champions. Instead, they have been left to cobble together a makeshift strike squad in the aftermath of his departure for Barcelona.
Preseason injuries to Daniel Sturridge and the newly acquired Adam Lallana have left the early season weight of the Kop on the journeyman shoulders of Rickie Lambert. Like Lallana, the poacher is one of the Saints not pictured in new boss Koeman’s now famous group shot from his first training session. Unlike Lallana, he is neither young nor possessed of a quick turn of pace. In the short term, he may be able to lead the Anfield line, but if the absence of Sturridge and Lallana becomes protracted, or worse, the less than physically imposing Raheem Sterling also takes a knock, the situation may turn ugly. With Liverpool back in the Champions League, there are a host of matches to be played, but any way you do the maths, Rickie Lambert ≠ thirty goals.
Another veteran that may not be up to the task is captain Steven Gerrard. The midfielder called time on his England career after this summer’s World Cup to better focus on his club football, but with three weeks of rest in the wake of the tournament, he was still culpable in Liverpool’s defeat at the hands of United in Miami. That is, unless you choose to blame his manager Brendan Rodgers. Whereas Louis van Gaal chose to rest his thirty-something deep lying playmaker, Darren Fletcher, after forty-five minutes in the Guinness ICC final, Rodgers stayed with his captain until the hour mark. Happily, for United supporters, the change only came after the gaffer saw the club legend, around whom he must work his generational transition, allow Juan Mata an acre of space at the top of the eighteen and all the time in the world to put United in the lead. Gerrard obviously expects to play, and this being the Kop rather than the Bridge, the club is not likely to give Rodgers license to give his captain the Lampard treatment. Lucas Leiva will likely have to wait another season to come into his own.
Behind Gerrard, Dejan Lovren was brought in to firm up a brittle cadre of central defenders. The true problem in front of the Liverpool goal, however, was exposed in their recent tour of the US as being down to the matador-like tendencies of fullbacks Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique. In this new era of 3-5-3 variations that emphasize speedy, attacking wingers, this is not a good omen for the Reds’ hopes of finally notching their nineteenth championship.
Inferring that Jose Mourinho has freer license in charge of Chelsea, however, is not entirely accurate. The Special One, unlike his protegé Rodgers, is not in a position to bring his own players into the club, mostly because they are all too old to be of any use, but also because he didn’t make many new friends during his stay in Madrid. Instead, he has been forced to raid the well-stocked cupboard of a young manager whose philosophy closely resembles his own. Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone, therefore, has been considering attending Ronald Koeman’s support group for managers whose talented squads are sold out from under them. To add insult to injury, the inevitable recall of world-class loanee goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois back to Chelsea from the Rojiblancos was quickly followed by the recruitment of defensive back Felipe Luis and striker Diego Costa.
Luis replaces David Luiz, with a Zed as in zzzzz. The Brazilian’s somnambulic approach to defense has been shipped off to Paris, where Selecao partner Thiago Silva might be better able to predict his sleeping patterns. The £32 million Costa, meanwhile, is expected to give a better ROI than £50 million/110 match/20 goal/ bust Fernando Torres. Didier Drogba was one old friend Mourinho had recruited to provide insurance in that department, but a pre-season injury to the Ivorian has suggested that Chelsea’s luck with strikers is not about to change.
Which brings us to the players that Jose doesn’t want. Romelu Lukaku, positing that hauls of seventeen and fifteen goals with West Brom and Everton respectively ought to prove his merits in leading the line, is off permanently to Everton, and David Luiz, as already mentioned, has taken his sideshow bob to PSG. Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, on the other hand, are both at the Bridge seemingly to stay.
The Portuguese has done his best to convince the press that he actually wanted the former Gunner captain and surplus-to-requirements assist leader at Barca despite the well-publicized dust-up between the two a year or so ago. Call us crazy, but if two people can’t get along living in separate countries with their paths rarely crossing, we can’t see how they’re going to manage while occupying the same clubhouse day in and day out. Hazard, meanwhile, made it plain that he didn’t agree with Mourinho’s defensive philosophy before going off to fail to impress at the World Cup.
The 2014-15 version of Chelsea FC, then, is English football’s definition of dichotomy. On the one hand, you have a stubborn, egotistical, defensive-minded coach. On the other, you have a handful of dissident, if precocious, attack-minded players. Your captain commands the respect of his coach, teammates, and supporters, and still can play despite requiring carbon dating to determine his age, yet is utterly despised by the rest of the known world. Your other healthy, once-trusted veterans are either a) thinking about finding another club because you’ve brought in a new number one, b) have exchanged their seat on the Stamford Bridge bench for a temporary one at the Etihad before they head off to an extended retirement soiree in New York City, or c) have taken their hair-triggered air rifle on a Roma holiday, and the players taking their place are unknown quantities, don’t really like you, or both. Your owner at least respects you, because you’re a proven winner, but he doesn’t like you, either, because you don’t do it his way.
So many landmines, so little time. Let’s just say that even more than defensively suspect Liverpool, the Blues are the most vulnerable of the clubs currently holding down a top four spot in the table.
Vulnerable is no longer a word that can be attributed to Arsenal, however. The Gunners have cleared their debt, forced Arsene Wenger to remove the personally signed photo of Ebenezer Scrooge from his desk, and emerged from an eight-year hiatus in the desert of mediocrity to win the FA Cup. And you thought Steve Bruce was only willing to capitulate to legendary managers named Sir Alex Ferguson.
Last season’s swoop for Mesut Özil was proven not to be a fluke by this summer’s bag and tag of Alexis Sanchez. Say what you want about Arsene Wenger, but not only is he a solid beach volleyballer, he has suddenly become the anti-Christ to Barcelona and Real Madrid in the transfer market. While the Uniteds, Spurs, and Bayerns of the world are desperately failing to protect their rosters from the avarice of the Spanish giants, the Frenchman is raiding them for prime talent. If that isn’t enough to impress, he also found the time to drop by the Saint Mary’s flea market and nick defender Calum Chambers on the cheap (poor Ronald Koeman) in advance of Thomas Vermaelen’s Barcelona move. That’s right, Arsene. Let those pesky little Catalans think they got a bit of their own back.
Wenger has always been willing to raid French clubs for talent, as well, and this summer has been no different. With Bacary Sagna off to Man City, Wenger snatched Mathieu Debuchy away from Newcastle, more than compensating for the loss. David Ospina was also brought in from Nice to replace Lukas Fabianski as back-up to Wojciech Szczesny. With a kind gesture to long-suffering supporters, the manager also released legend-in-his-own-mind Nicklas Bendtner, and sold Johan Djourou to Hamburg, the latter to eliminate erroneous assumptions that Olivier Giroud hadn’t been scoring that often because he had been converted into a defender.
Of the incumbent top four, with Man City largely standing pat, and Liverpool and Chelsea set for a slight fall, Arsenal is the one that has improved. This season, they are genuine title contenders.
Three teams will be knocking on the door, then hoping to cheekily slip in the window when one of the fab four answer.
Everton came the closest to breaking in last term, their late season slip against Arsenal finally giving lie to new boss Roberto Martinez’s promise of immediate Champions League football. Still handicapped financially, the Toffees continue to beat the bushes for value in young talent. In that vein, the club added highly rated twenty-two-year-old Bosnian midfielder Muhamed Besic, and taken a loan out on Chelsea’s Christian Atsu. However, they also signed grey-beard Gareth Barry to solidify the defensive midfield. If Barcelona encouraged Lionel Messi’s expressive side to add some spontaneity to the metronomic methodology of tiki-taka, Barry’s addition will add a bit of simplicity to the intricate workings of a Roberto Martinez side. Everton will put a scare into their more privileged rivals for European football, but their lack of resources will see them fall just short once again.
Tottenham are relative princes to the Toffee’s pauperdom, but the indecisive policies of club chairman Daniel Levy have placed a similar glass ceiling above their heads. Direct football has been exchanged for a more flowing style, and then back again, through a procession of managers from Martin Jol through Juande Ramos, Harry Redknapp, Andre-Villas Boas, Tim Sherwood, down to this week’s featured flavour, Mauricio Pochettino.
Pochettino, who was the first person out the door at St Mary’s, is also of similar ilk to Roberto Martinez, and, despite doing little in the market to date, has stated his intent to bring Champions League Football to White Hart Lane. The Argentine’s signings of note thus far have been limited to defender Ben Davies and goalkeeper Michel Vorm, both late of Swansea, and American sensation Deandre Yedlin, a full back who will stay with current club Seattle Sounders through the remainder of the MLS season and playoffs before crossing a continent and ocean to join the North Londoners.
While Icelander Gylfi Sigurdsson went in the opposite direction to Davies and Vorm, Spurs’ most significant loss, even a full season later, remains the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. He was the one difference maker in the Tottenham squad, the player who made you believe they could break into the top four. Without a similar player in the current team, Pochettino will have to provide the spark if his side is to take the next step, and given that Daniel Levy remains chairman, he likely only has the one season to do so.
And that leaves last season’s unlucky number seven, Manchester United. You’ve probably been wondering when we would get to the team that in every other posting on this website is given top billing. Well, that’s the point isn’t it? We talk about them endlessly, and this is a league preview. Shouldn’t we, just this once, give the other clubs a little time in the sun? To be honest, however, that isn’t our only reason for waiting this long to get to the Red Devils. In the time it took us to write three thousand words, we were hoping that Ed Woodward might sign a player or two.
Doesn’t seem to have happened, though. Can’t imagine why not. Maybe we should give him a few more minutes?
Nope, Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, the now-injured Luke Shaw, mind, remain the only two new names on placards above lockers in the clubhouse. Marcus Rojo did more than his bit to change that, but it seems to have gotten him in a spot of bother with his current club Sporting Lisbon. Pity.
Louis van Gaal did mention, not too long ago, that he felt his current squad, supplemented by returning World Cuppers, was perfectly capable of doing the job. Somehow Stretty News managed to both disregard the remark, and have a bit of fun with it. In the interim, however, one or two injuries have occurred, and Jonny Evans, Luke Shaw, and Antonio Valencia are all unlikely to make the opening match line-up. Tyler Blackett, who played very well on the US tour, and Michael Keane, who not so much, having been tasked with minding Gareth Bale, are likely to see some action.
Van Gaal typically works wonders in his debut seasons with the various clubs he has managed. He has certainly sparked a love affair between Wazza and Juan Mata that should cause some concern for Colleen Rooney. Ashley Young is suddenly looking interested again, and Darren Fletcher seems to have developed some intestinal fortitude. Or was that going a step too far? The Scot did make the point, it has to be said, that the club is not interested in finishing a mere fourth, and has its sights set on unseating City.
The current roster does have the makings of a very good squad, and such a goal can be achieved, albeit less doubtfully with some additional leadership at the back. There are seventeen days remaining until the market closes, and players like Ron Vlaar and Sami Khedira are available. Southampton is said to be courting Vlaar, and we obviously have some sympathy for Ronald Koeman. Still, the longer Van Gaal and Woodward wait, the more costly it will be, both for the club’s bottom line and its title prospects.
Gentleman, you’re on the clock…
The Taxi Squads
(Newcastle, Stoke, Crystal Palace, Swansea, West Brom, West Ham, Aston Villa, Sunderland)
These sides are going to cruise through the campaign at a moderate altitude, neither reaching for the sun nor crashing to the earth in a burning heap of smoldering ruin.
Newcastle went a small distance towards shedding their image as a Ligue 1 satellite club by signing a pair of Dutch players, in Siem de Jong and Daryl Janmaat. The latter’s performance at the World Cup suggests that letting Mathieu Debuchy go to Arsenal. The question for the club is whether the ongoing feud between manager Alan Pardew and winger Hatem Ben Arfa is hurting the club’s chances to finish in the top half of the table. Ben Arfa has a history as a malcontent, having forced his transfer from Marseille to the Magpies in ugly fashion. You do have to admire his pluck in staging his own meet-and-greet at a memorabilia shop near St James Park simultaneously to the official club version from which he was banned.
Stoke City are playing a decidedly different style under mark Hughes than that which kept them in the middle of the table for so long when Tony Pulis was in charge. The club have made four signings over the summer, Phil Bardsley from Sunderland, Steve Sidwell from Fulham, and Mame Biram Diouf from Hannover being the three overshadowed by the acquisition of Bojan Krkic from Barcelona. For our money, however, the less celebrated trio are more likely to improve the club. Bojan has yet to impress for more than a brief period, and the excitement around Sparky’s “coup” is all too reminiscent of City landing Robinho back in 2008.
Crystal Palace was not in the hunt to capture Bojan. They did, however, make the type of sensible signings that offer little downside and promise incremental improvement, the hallmark of a Tony Pulis side. Brede Hangeland and Scott Dann should provide a consistent center back pairing for the Welshman, while Fraizer Campbell gets a fresh start after failing to match his 2012-13 mark of seven goals when given a full-time role last season at Cardiff.
Swansea City legend Garry Monk begins his first full season in charge, after taking over in February for the inexplicably sacked Michael Laudrup. Less flamboyant than his predecessor, Monk will nonetheless have some ambition with the addition of Bafetimbi Gomis, who arrives on a free after registering eight consecutive Ligue 1 seasons with double-digit marks in goals for St Etienne and Olympique Lyon. Gylfi Sigurdsson also makes a return to Wales after a starry-eyed move to Tottenham proved ill-advised. As well, Lukas Fabianski steps into a full-time number one role, replacing the departed Michel Vorm.
West Bromwich Albion’s new manager Alan Irvine apparently believes the axiom that the key to improving a club is to strengthen up the middle. The £10 million signing of Nigerian sensation Brown Ideye from Dynamo Kiev, and handing him a starting role, is certainly ambitious, more so when you consider he isn’t quite fit after recovering from injury. Less audacious, but far more sound, are the signings of Joleon Lescott, to tutor Liverpool loanee Andre Wisdom, and defensive midfielder Craig Gardner.
With Carlo Ancelotti firmly entrenched at Real Madrid, and Luis Enrique being welcomed back into the fold at Barcelona, there is no place Big Sam Allardyce would rather be than in the West Ham dugout. Not that it isn’t perceived as a big club or anything. Because it is. It’s a massive club. We all know that Sam doesn’t like perception, anyway, there’s far too much of it in the game. Besides, working for porn merchants has to have its perks.
Still, his ambitions for scoring fifty goals and finishing in the top half of the table have taken a hit with the four-month loss of Andy Carroll to torn ankle ligaments. Enner Valencia may be able to pick up a good deal of the slack, however, and it will be interesting to discover whether the pair can form an effective partnership once Carroll is healthy again.
The other side that dons the claret and blue, Aston Villa, have a much less committed chairman in the person of American Randy Lerner. Having announced his intention to sell the club, he has provided only limited funds for player investment. As a result, club signings have been largely unimaginative, with pedestrian names like Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson, and Philippe Senderos joining the club. The one hopeful exception has been left back Ally Cissokho, coming over from Valencia. Manager Paul Lambert will also be desperate to hold onto captain Ron Vlaar in the face of interest from Southampton (though not yet United), and to see dynamic forward Christian Benteke return from injury. If those two critical factors do not go their way, Villa may find themselves mired in a season-long relegation battle.
Sunderland has enough quality in its side to stay well within the safety of the mid-table, and a manager, in Gus Poyet, capable of producing results. The main issues the Uruguayan must resolve are the losses of Phil Bardsley and Craig Gardner, and the lack of goals from American forward Jozy Altidore. Doubling his midfield quota of young Englishman neglected by Man City, with the signing of Jack Rodwell to complement Adam Johnson, may contribute to the elimination of the latter problem.
The Ground Crews
(Burnley, Hull, Leicester City, QPR, Southampton)
It will be a challenge, we think, for these five to get their seasons off the ground.
Burnley’s most ambitious signings since being promoted have been to make winger Michael Kightly’s loan from Stoke permanent, and to swoop for Championship rival Bolton’s Marvin Sordell. That doesn’t bode well for an extended stay in the top flight for the Turf Moor faithful. Fellow promotees Leicester City were hardly more ambitious, with the only notable signing being Marc Albrighton from Aston Villa. The two sides appear destined for a quick return to the Championship. The question is, who will be the unlucky third club to suffer the drop?
Right off the top, Southampton has to be considered. The club has lost far too many players, with the trio of Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren relocating to Anfield, Luke Shaw to United, Calum Chambers to Arsenal, and Dani Osvaldo to Inter. It would be extremely difficult for an academy, even as prolific as the Saints has been, to replace that many bodies. But Ronald Koeman has not thrown in the towel. Fraser Forster has been signed from Celtic, Ryan Bertrand from Chelsea, Dusan Tadic from FC Twente, and Shane Long from fellow relegation contender Hull. The club has also apparently made serious inroads towards prying Ron Vlaar loose from Aston Villa. So, the bleeding has been stanched. Koeman is also a capable tactician and motivator, having won three Eredivisie crowns and a Copa del Rey with Valencia. There may just be a miracle at St Mary’s.
Steve Bruce has reason to worry at the KFC, however. With Shane Long off to Southampton, he must rely on his newly recruited, highly touted young bloods, Tom Ince, Jake Livermore, and Harry Maguire, to contribute immediately. Otherwise, Hull City’s brilliant first half in the FA Cup v Arsenal last May will be the swan song of their second Premiership tenure.
The most spectacular failure, though, could be Harry Redknapp’s at Queens Park Rangers. Rio Ferdinand and Steven Caulker are the type of names you like to see a newly promoted club add to their roster. It’s a definite sign of ambition. Unfortunately, relying on Rio to stay healthy, and to be able to cope with the pace of the league on creaky knees with far less support than that to which he is accustomed, is something of a pipe dream. With Ji-sung Park and Yossi Benayoun both having returned home, and Esteban Granero having returned to the more sedate confines of La Liga, the lack of leadership should Ferdinand and/or Caulker go down, is troubling. The collapsed sale of Loic Remy to Liverpool also limits the club’s capacity to do further business, and raises questions about the striker’s health. Ravel Morrison is not even a hopeful alternative. Don’t be too shocked if QPR becomes the new West Brom, bouncing back and forth between the Prem and the Championship like a lucky lottery ball, year after year.