Premier League 2016/17 Preview – Team by Team

This new season promises to be the most unpredictable yet; so I’m going to try and predict it. I can guarantee I’ll get it wrong; hence the plethora of caveats and excuses before I even begin. Nothing surprises me in football, although I am constantly astonished. Here’s what’s definitely going to happen:

arsenal

Arsenal: Now constant underachievers in the Premier League, they have fixed only one of three issues, that being defensive midfield, with Granit Xhaka. A top striker is another, with support needed for Giroud, but it remains to be seen if they can land Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon and whether he would fit the bill. An injury crisis in defence means that even the addition of a top centre back may not be enough. Expect a slow start but to eventually scrape into the Champions League once again thanks to the qualities of Sanchez, Ramsey and Ozil. Top Scorer – Alexis Sanchez. One to Watch – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, if he stays fit. Prediction – 4th.

Bournemouth: Bit of a buzz-phrase here but I’m predicting second-season syndrome. This is mainly due to the lack of perceived progress over the summer. It was a surprise to see Matt Ritchie leave, especially to drop down a division, and I’m not convinced Jordon Ibe has yet proved himself and could be an expensive flop. A lot rests on the shoulders of striker Callum Wilson, who missed the majority of their first season. They will fight bravely but Eddie Howe’s men won’t quite have enough. Top Scorer – Callum Wilson. One to Watch – Lewis Cook, the young midfielder has potential. Prediction – 18th.

Burnley: Sean Dyche is a sensible manager. Burnley are a sensible club, when it comes to finances. It’s about time they were rewarded for this, but they are doing things the hard way. Perhaps they have learned something else from their previous flirtations with the top flight. If they are to survive they need two things; Tom Heaton and Michael Keane (if they can keep him) to keep a few clean sheets; and for Andre Gray to continue his goal scoring form from the Championship. Top Scorer – Andre Gray. One to Watch – Sam Vokes, after his goal-scoring heroics for Wales. Prediction – 17th.

Chelsea

Chelsea: Expect a much improved Chelsea this time around as Antonio Conte sinks his teeth into the Premier League. A typical Italian, the defence should be shored up tactically, although a continued reliance on John Terry will catch up with them at some point unless further reinforcements are sought. Eden Hazard has every chance of returning to his best, but the supporting cast in midfield is hardly spectacular. An improvement, but not quite Champions League this time around. Top Scorer – Diego Costa. One to Watch – Eden Hazard, form is temporary, class is permanent. Prediction = 5th

Crystal Palace: Poor form in second half of last season saw any talks of European football quickly muted. Alan Pardew has otherwise been a revelation at Selhurst Park, but has the rot set in? A decent amount of money has been spent on James Tomkins and Andros Townsend, but these won’t be enough to lift Palace into the top half, especially in the absence of a proven goalscorer. Occasional upsets may be achieved but all-in-all this will not be a stellar season. Top Scorer – Yohan Cabaye, from the penalty spot. One to Watch – Wilfred Zaha, can he compete with Townsend and Bolasie? Prediction – 14th.

Everton: The Toffees should be better under Ronald Koeman; a really top manager; but I don’t think Roberto Martinez was doing a terrible job. What I mean to say is, Everton aren’t as good as their fans think they are, particularly when looking at the competition they face when fighting for a place in Europe. On their day, their best players can beat the best, but they have been over reliant on the spine of Stones, Barkley and Lukaku, one of which has already been poached by a bigger club with the other two also attracting suitors. Ashley Williams comes in and will keep things tidy at the back, but not with the same passion and influence as he had at Swansea. A higher finish than last year, but not by much without further strengthening this squad. Top Scorer – Romelu Lukaku, if he stays. One to Watch – Ross Barkley, if he does well expect bids next summer. Prediction – 9th.

Hull: A club in a mess. No signings, no leadership, no hope. The sooner owner Assem Allam leaves the club alone to just be itself the better. It’s no surprise that no one has filled the managerial position yet, and, as good a coach as Mike Phelan is, I can’t see them doing anything else than finishing rock bottom. That means they’ll probably win it if last year is anything to go by. Mohamed Diame is also a huge loss. Top Scorer – Abel Hernandez. One to Watch – Jake Livermore, a lot rests on his shoulders. Prediction – 20th.

Leicester: The defending champions have a new challenge with two major hurdles to overcome. For one, their underdog status has now left, and the country and their fans now expect them to do well, a feeling they will not be used to, especially when their chips are down. For two, they now have Europe to contend with which is why they are trying to build a squad so that the manager can once again become the Tinker Man. Claudio Ranieri will be well aware of these challenges, but can his team rise to them? I’m not so sure. I’m doubtful they will be anywhere near as good as last year, which I guess makes them underdogs again… Top Scorer – Jamie Vardy, of course. One to Watch – Ahmed Musa, pace and skill. Prediction – 7th.

Anfield

Liverpool: Ever improving under Jurgen Klopp, who is a top class manager and personality. However, few of Liverpool’s signings in recent years have been particularly exciting or successful. The departure of Joe Allen is surprising after an impressive summer with Wales, and Mamadou Sakho’s recent rollercoaster may prove to be disruptive. Speaking of disruptive, Mario Balotelli needs to stay far away from his teammates for their own good. On the plus side, they will have no European distractions which may give them an advantage over their rivals, ironically to get them back into Europe. Much hinges on the fitness of Daniel Sturridge, but the supporting cast of Firmino, Coutinho and Mane could become a formidable strike force. Top Scorer – Daniel Sturridge, if fit. One to Watch – Sadio Mane, needs to show that he made the right move. Prediction – 6th.

Man City: Guardiola has something; I don’t know what it is; but it works. Now he also has Aguero, Silva and De Bruyne. They are the favourites this time around, mainly due to the meticulous planning and coaching of Pep. Question marks still hang around their defence whenever captain Kompany is absent, and the likes of Yaya Toure are starting to show their age, but new blood in Sane and Gundogan may be able to disguise these cracks, for now. The defence has now been strengthened by John Stones, and that could be the final piece in the puzzle. Expect goals galore. Top Scorer – Sergio Aguero, who needs to stay fit. One to Watch – Raheem Sterling – can he step up to the challenge of new team mates? Prediction – 1st.

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Man Utd: Expect the team to be revitalised under Mourinho, but it will take time to transition from LVG’s ethos to Jose’s. The summer’s additions of Bailly and Mkhitaryan can lift the team from last year’s 5th up into the Champion’s League places. Add Ibrahimovic and they can reach 3rd. Now add Pogba and they can reach 2nd. The continued development of Martial, Rashford, Shaw and Lingard adds meat to an otherwise simplified prediction, but there are still weak areas in defence and time will be needed to gel. Success, but perhaps not instantly. Top Scorer – Zlatan Ibrahimovic. One to Watch – Luke Shaw, he was looking very exciting before last year’s injury. Prediction – 2nd.

Middlesbrough: On paper, the best of the promoted teams. With a manager with top league experience, albeit as a coach, and a strike force of Negredo and Rhodes , there is potential for more than just a fight against relegation. The key to success will be getting supply to this frontline in order to cancel out the likely concessions at the other end. Top Scorer – Alvaro Negredo. One to Watch – Viktor Fischer, the signing of this hot prospect with Ajax is something of a coup. Prediction – 12th.

Southampton: Yet another summer sees their best players depart, and even worse, their manager. Departures have happened in each of the last three seasons, and each time the Saints bounced back stronger with new signings, youth academy promotions and strong management. Unfortunately, that can’t go on forever and I think this is the season where the selling of players will start to catch up with them.  Carlos Puel is new to England, and may lack the stature and command of Ronald Koeman. This year I think progress may be halted. Top Scorer – Charlie Austin. One to Watch – Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, promising midfielder signed from Bayern Munich. Prediction – 11th.

Stoke: Mark Hughes is doing a great job at Stoke, there’s no doubting it. However, there still isn’t quite enough quality to reach the European qualification places, and this is mainly due to comparison with the teams around them. If there is to be an upset whereby a team achieves more than the sum of its parts, the Potters will be the ones to spring it.  The capture of Joe Allen adds steel to a midfield in front of an already solid defence and goalkeeper. An exciting attacking midfield can provide great supply, albeit to a relatively blunt strike force. Top Scorer – Marko Arnautovic. One to Watch – Xherdan Shaqiri, undoubted talent but lacks consistency. Prediction – 10th and lots of nil-nils.

Sunderland: A team still struggling but this year with renewed hope. Disappointment at the departure of their saviour, Sam Allardyce, will be quickly forgotten if David Moyes can build on the foundations already set in place. If Moyes disrupts this in an attempt to do his own thing, there could be yet another relegation scrap, however Mackems will be comforted by his Premier League record and experience. Stability is the key for a club after their recent rollercoaster. If Moyes stays we can expect Sunderland to do better than the last couple of years. Just. Top Scorer – still relying on Jermain Defoe. One to watch – Duncan Whitmore, time to break through or become the next Nick Chadwick. Prediction – 15th.

Swansea: Struggling to see this season going well for the Swans. Manager Guidolin still lacks experience in the Premier League and doesn’t invoke excitement on the pitch. With their best player Andre Ayew departing, and the apparent panic buying of replacements from the Spanish league, trouble is ahead (unless they turn out to be the next Michu). With captain Ashley Williams jumping ship to Everton, it is unlikely that a captain and leader of similar stature will be found, meaning that a lot of rebuilding will be required to prevent the last five years’ good work from being undone. Top Scorer – Gylfi Sigurdsson, the key offensive talent remaining. One to Watch – Nathan Dyer, now a Premier League champion, can he inspire the Swans? Prediction – 19th.

Tottenham: Finally the potential of a Tottenham squad is starting to yield results. I keep thinking they finished 2nd last year and have to remind myself of that terrible showing on the last day; they were probably the 2nd best team over the course of the season. Pochettino’s stock is building, and Spurs fans will be relieved he didn’t leave to manage his country.  His team is impressive and progressive, with an exciting English core and a solid defence for a change. The only worry is that the same old Spurs bottle might creep in and cause them to underachieve. Building on last year; if only in that they will finally finish above Arsenal. Top Scorer – Harry Kane. One to Watch – Dele Alli, like Kane did last year, needs to show he is not a one-season wonder. Prediction – 3rd.

Watford: They did so well last year to finish mid table, and then sacked the man who got them there. The new man at the helm, Walter Mazzarri, has never managed in England, and inherits a team of multiple nationalities that I fear may struggle to gel. Odion Ighalo had a poor second half to last season which raises questions as to his long term quality. No great signings over the summer so I expect them to take a step backwards, although there are worse teams in the league than the Hornets. Top Scorer – Odion Ighalo, if he isn’t spent. One to Watch – Isaac Success, he’ll either live up to his name or provide an ironic headline. Prediction – 16th.

West Brom: Uninspiring yet solid, Tony Pulis’ baggies are likely to have the sort of season they usually have. Pulis has never been relegated and I don’t see that changing this year, again mainly because they are slightly better than a number of teams in the bottom half. It’s about time the future of want-away striker Saido Berahino is resolved, but this won’t happen until a replacement has been found, however they seemed to manage ok last year without many goals from the young Englishman. An unspectacular season awaits. Top Scorer – Salomon Rondon. One to Watch – Saido Berahino, or his replacement. Prediction – 13th.

London Olympic stasium

West Ham: An exciting season awaits the Hammers as they finally move in to their new Olympic stadium, with plenty of new signings to show off. The likes of Ayew, Feghouli and Tore join forces with the huge talent of Dmitri Payet. Add to this an inspirational man-manager in Slaven Bilic, and an injury-free pre-season (or have I jinxed it?) for Andy Carroll; and West Ham will be a force to be reckoned with. On the down side, their defence has been weakened and the injury to Aaron Cresswell will hit them hard, despite landing their 5th choice replacement. European matches may distract, and ultimately, they may not actually improve upon last year despite the good times rolling. Top Scorer – Andre Ayew. One to Watch – Dmitri Payet, because he is so good to watch. Prediction – 8th.

In summary, the top half contains too many good teams to pick winners from, and the bottom half contains too many poor teams to pick losers from. The table will definitely finish like this. Definitely.

1st

Man City

2nd

Man Utd

3rd

Tottenham

4th

Arsenal

5th

Chelsea

6th

Liverpool

7th

Leicester

8th

West Ham

9th

Everton

10th

Stoke

11th

Southampton

12th

Middlesbrough

13th

West Brom

14th

Crystal Palace

15th

Sunderland

16th

Watford

17th

Burnley

18th

Bournemouth

19th

Swansea

20th

Hull

Big Sam – The Right Man

The Three Lions has a new man at the helm, and we have every reason to be optimistic about his chances. Sam Allardyce is one of us. He has that down-to-Earth persona that every England fan should be able to relate to, typified by his very first media appearance in the job. With a huge grin on his face, he composed himself enough to say “Excuse me, but I can’t stop smiling because I’ve got this job“. This is the type of manager you or I might look up to in the workplace – he is clear about what he wants, he is passionate about getting it, and he commands respect from his staff in a way that makes them want to follow him. We are looking at the man-manager we have needed for some time.

“Excuse me, but I can’t stop smiling because I’ve got this job”

It has taken a long time for me to see this. Prior to his tenure at West Ham, I very much saw him as a boring manager. Long ball tactics and park-the-bus defending, causing the occasional upset. This was mainly due to his spells at Newcastle and Blackburn failing to inspire, although with hindsight I don’t think this was his fault; but it did make me quickly forget what he did for Bolton. Not only securing them an unlikely promotion to the big time, they became a permanent Premier League fixture, and even one to fear. How many times did Radhi Jaidi score late on to deny the big teams all 3 points?

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Jay-Jay Okocha, possibly the most exciting player ever to grace Bolton Wanderers*

That’s before mentioning the likes of Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo, and one of the most exciting footballers I have seen, Jay Jay Okocha. Looking back I’m not sure how I neglected to credit Big Sam for this. When he arrived at Upton Park I wasn’t excited, but I did feel confident that they would return to the Premier League; where I believe they belong. Once re-established, the boring football surfaced again, but this time he wasn’t sacked; he was given a chance. The board asked for more attacking football, and he delivered.

When a club needs promotion, or is at risk of relegation, Big Sam is the man to turn to. Players respond to him. He inspires them to get the job done whilst keeping it simple. Sunderland know how valuable he is, and their desire to keep him from the national job pays testament to his quality. Perhaps England fall in to the category of a relegation threatened team? Certainly by public opinion, if not FIFA rankings. Definitely a team that requires promoting; psychologically at least; from the rut they appear to have sunk into.

The obscure moment of realisation for me was during a charity match – Soccer Aid 2016. Allardyce was named manager of the England team, the foreshadowing of which didn’t seem to be any great talking point. The team spirit throughout both camps was clear, but it was the image of Big Sam picking up Niall from One Direction and turning him upside down, like a doting father plays with his son, that gave me a glimpse of what a manager like this could bring.

He probably won’t be picking up any of the England players, but I daresay there may be some father-son dynamics occurring. Boys don’t like to let down their fathers, and fathers don’t like to leave their sons exposed to the elements. The elements on the international scene being the media, and probably the German strikers.

Hence my optimism at this appointment. England are a team with great potential, who can’t seem to get their act together; just like every other team Big Sam has taken charge of. Here’s calling the nation to get behind him, and roar our support for this new era of the Three Lions. And maybe even get this Coldplay chant going…and dream of Allar…Allar…Allardyce…

 

*Picture credit Michaelgodstimeake

Cover photo credit Egghead06

 

England Expects…

50 years ago today, England won the World Cup, and ever since then, England Expects. I’ve always had a problem with that. Just as the anticipation builds for a big match in a major tournament, when the England team and manager need the whole country behind them, the headline is published for the match previews and announces – England Expects. And before you can say “self-sabotage”, pressure gathers, worries appear, doubts set in and cracks emerge. By the time the national anthem is belted out the bottle has already gone.

The reaction is swift and fierce. Typical England, they say. Bunch of overpaid prima donnas, I hear. Not fit to wear the shirt, again. Or the one that really got to me, “I can’t remember the last time England played well in a major tournament”. As if to sum up the fact that they could only remember as far back as the morning’s headline “England Expects“. To which I answer, in my opinion, 2012. Unless when you say “played well” you mean “Reached the semi-finals” or even “Won the Tournament“. England Expects, you see.

Roy_in_Fulham
Roy Hodgson struggled to root cause Englands’ Euro 2016 exit*

This blog begins in the aftermath of Euro 2016. Another disappointing exit for England, agreed; but not quite the debacle most are fuming about. The tournament, for England, could have turned on any moment. Had just one chance squirmed it’s way in against Slovakia, or had Russia waited one more minute before deciding to doing something well, and Group B would have been won. Win the group, and face Northern Ireland in the last 16 with confidence, and even swagger.

The confidence boost taken from the last-gasp win over our rivals, Wales, was destroyed the moment it was murmured that we should beat Slovakia easily. Confidence that should have been left to flow naturally, instead of trying to force it to turn into victory. Victory that didn’t come, albeit by fine margins, and all that positivity taken from Wales is turned into doubt – that short memory attacking once again. Follow this up by billing a certain victory over Iceland, and the pressure seeps through.

An upset such as Iceland beating England doesn’t happen very often, but it happened to us. Sure we were not just unlucky, we were terrible that night. The reaction, however, was that the whole tournament was terrible, and that the players should be lynched. Here are some direct quotes from people in the immediate aftermath: “Ashamed, Disgusted. Pick a word. I’m done with England” Ashamed, perhaps. Disgusted? This word is too often misused. “Look at them sitting around trying to look devastated. No heart, no soul, no passion” I really cannot believe the players had no passion, just because they played poorly. “Every tournament there’s excuses. It’s not acceptable for these people to get paid” They are not paid for international appearances, and if they were then those who offer the contract must put faith in their investment and help it to succeed – pay related blame goes further than just the players.

“This current set-up plays like they just don’t care”

Sorry, but I’m just not buying it. Those guys were heartbroken. For this response I was given “If they don’t care, then it’s because they just aren’t good enough”. Closer, but not quite. On top form I think most of the squad are quarter-final ability. The point is that they did not find this form; far from it that night. Why then? In my opinion it was down to confidence, pressure and guidance. The attitude of England fans wanting them all to walk the plank if they lose is not conducive to a winning mentality. It’s too simple minded; we win and we are the best, we lose and they are not worthy of wearing the shirt they love.

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Harry Kane received the lion’s share of the criticism**

Sterling and Kane in particular were destroyed after one poor performance. And instead of encouraging them to achieve the best of their potential, we put pressure on them to just go and do it. The lack of composure of the fans reflects the lack of composure of the players and coaches. “Half the squad shouldn’t have been picked“. Just because it didn’t work doesn’t mean it wasn’t fresh to begin with. And as soon as Butland makes a mistake in Hart’s stead we’ll throw him to the sharks too. This is the epitome of the rot in our country. It’s the same reason we change government every few years, or sack managers every few months. We need to pick the best, and then give them all the support they need. That’s why dropping Rooney wouldn’t solve it.

So here’s calling for a little optimism. Let’s take the best players. Let’s give them all the help and nurture they need. Let’s cheer them on when the going gets tough. Let’s stick with them when they lose, so that the prospect of defeat does not cripple them. Imagine if Sir Alex had been treated this way – not one trophy would have come to Old Trafford. Composure is the key for everyone.

England expects? England Hopes, if you please.

 

 

*By Mikhail Slain – foto.mail.ru, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10413344

**By Ben Sutherland from Crystal Palace, London, UK – England striker Harry Kane, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45176392