It will be hard to live up to last season’s exciting campaign, but this year’s Premier League may do so, at least at the top. With Manchester United rejuvenated and many of the expected contenders having reinforced, the race for Champions League spots may be crazy.
That said, there appears to be a growing gulf in class between that expected septet and the rest of the league. Last season, only one team finished closer than 13 points away from seventh place, and that was Southampton, which has been completely looted this summer. As currently constituted, there don’t seem to be too many teams that look set to finish mid-table, so the race to avoid relegation could be as tight and muddled as it was for most of last season, as well.
MORE: All 20 Premier League team schedules
A lot can change before the transfer window closes at the end of the month, but as things stand heading into opening weekend, here’s a look at best- and worst-case scenarios for all 20 teams (alphabetical from Arsenal to Manchester City in this Part I, Manchester United to West Ham in Part II):
The skinny: After finally breaking out of stadium-inflicted transfer austerity with a club-record purchase of Mesut Ozil at last summer’s deadline, the Gunners performed strongly until they didn’t buy any January reinforcements and were lapped by big-monied, deeper rivals. By the end of the campaign, they were holding on tenuously to the final Champions League spot and Arsene Wenger’s tenure looked like it may be coming to a close. Instead, the Gunners staved off Everton’s challenge, then rallied from 2-0 down to Hull City in the FA Cup final to lift the club’s first silverware in nine years, and Wenger signed a three-year extension worth north of $13.5 million a year.
Properly reinforced, Wenger has now landed dynamic Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona for a reported $55 million (going on to flip defender Thomas Vermaelen to the Catalan club to effectively offset half the fee), lifted teenage defender Calum Chambers from Southampton for big money, and nabbed right back Mathieu Debuchy to slot in. Arsenal also just ripped a version of Manchester City this past weekend to claim the Community Shield. There’s still work to be done to make this roster legitimately title-challenge-worthy, but things are looking up at the Emirates.
Best case: It may be asking a lot to catch both Manchester City and Chelsea at once, but imagine Sanchez hits the ground running and doesn’t wear down like Ozil did in the second part of last season. Maybe more important, Aaron Ramsey stays healthy. Liverpool and Everton regress, leaving the top four much more defined. The Gunners continue to dominate the bottom half of the table (they claimed a league-best 53 points from those 20 matches last season, losing just once), but are much more competitive against their Champions League rivals.
The 20th annual St. Totteringham’s Day comes much earlier this season, and they don’t even need to consider sending dodgy lasagna. Wenger cracks open a $10,000 bottle of wine to celebrate. Every weekend.
Worst case: Sanchez’s acclimation takes more time than expected, The depth of quality in the top six or seven teams in the league creates a violent musical chairs game, and Arsenal ends up missing out on the Champions League for the first time in 18 years. Austerity returns along with the undesired ability to join Tottenham on “Spursday” for Europa League matches. Wenger trashes his cases of expensive wine in a huff and nurses a glass of ripple. Every weekend.
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The skinny: As owner Randy Lerner was looking to sell the club, Villa staggered through another disappointing campaign, hindered by a lack of spending and Christian Benteke’s late-season Achilles tear that robbed the Villans of scoring and left them way too close to the relegation door. The problem? Lerner still hasn’t found a buyer for the club, they still haven’t spent any money to improve the roster, and their CEO left the club this summer. Seriously, their offseason acquisitions to this point are left back Aly Sissokho, Fulham castoffs Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson, and 71-year-old (approximately) Joe Cole. Hope Benteke gets healthy ASAP.
Best case: The young core that they’ve been riding for two seasons takes a collective step forward this year after last year’s regression. Benteke comes back sooner rather than later and is quickly closer to his previous best form. The biggest deal, though, will be Lerner offloading the club to someone who wants to plow more money into it. It’s a good club with some promise, but it’s being underfunded at the moment. Ultimately, Villa should be aiming higher than “survival,” but ensuring Prem membership for 2015-16 is the only base requirement of this campaign.
Worst case: Last year’s hiccup wasn’t temporary, and Villa is exposed as one of the shakiest teams in the division. A brutal early-season schedule puts the side immediately under pressure. Even if Benteke makes it back onto the field, he’s not the same guy as two years ago. The Lerner situation drags on and he doesn’t want to spend money in what could be a crucial January window if things are going poorly. The lack of spending catches up to them like Fulham last season and the Villans are relegated, cutting Lerner’s sale value in half and changing the whole equation going forward.
The skinny: The Turf Moorians (Turf Moorans?) were a surprise second-place finisher in the Championship last season, which earned them auto promotion back to the bigtime. Sean Dyche, the manager, may be the team’s headliner. He has crafted a very modestly budgeted squad into a fairly solid group and will be asked to do the same against much better competition this season. The roster, even with some marginal Prem-level additions, looks really outclassed. Not that transfermarkt.com is the gospel, but the roster there doesn’t list a player worth even $5 million. That’s almost impossible for a Prem side. That said, you could have said similarly bad things about Hull City and Crystal Palace before last season. Managers matter.
Best case: Survival. Any way possible.
Worst case: Nothing, really. They get re-relegated and pocket a huge chunk of money in parachute payments to go with a year of Prem TV cash and exposure. Then they keep building.
The skinny: After a season of sandbagging semi-legit title hopes, Jose Mourinho isn’t messing around this year. He splashed north of $120 million in transfer fees in Spain to nab striker Diego Costa and defender Felipe Luis from Atletico Madrid and snag ex-Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona. Of course, selling David Luiz for an utterly absurd price and also cashing in big on Romelu Lukaku’s sale to Everton offset a lot of that outlay, but money’s not a thing in the blue part of West London. Oh, and they somehow may have upgraded in goal if prodigy Thibaut Courtois, finally back from years on loan at Atletico Madrid, takes over from decade-long standout Peter Cech.
They want trophies after falling short both domestically (third place) and in the Champions League (semis) last season. And maybe they’ll even be watchable more often when they contest big matches … nah, this is still The Special One. His world, our retinas.
Best case: Pretty simple: They get everything right and win up to four trophies (league, Capital One Cup, FA Cup and Champions League). The talent is potentially there up front now to complement the very dangerous midfield options and match the overall discipline and tactical nous. They’re loaded, especially if Costa comes good.
Worst case: You wouldn’t think Chelsea could drop out of the top four with this kind of upgrade, one of the world’s best managers, and whatever money they need to fix anything that’s wrong. But if Manchester United recovers and Liverpool has vibrant life after Luis Suarez and Spurs’ signings come good in year two and … nah, it’s not happening. Book the Blues for a UCL group-stage place as a baseline, and a trophy-less season would constitute disappointment. Of course, the last time they finished outside the top four, they won the Champions League … hmm ...
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The skinny: Noted thugball practitioner Tony Pulis took over a team that was rooted to the bottom of the table and looked odds on to get relegated, and proceeded to ring up one of the league’s most impressive records the rest of the way. The bigger shock may have been that Palace was pretty easy on the eyes, too, with a sneakily potent and appealing counterattacking style to supplement their vastly improved defensive posture. After a fairly stunning 11th-place finish on 45 points, can the Eagles do any better than that in Year 2 back in the Prem? It’s more or less the same team, with former Cardiff City striker Fraizer Campbell providing an additional option up top.
Best case: Selhurst Park remains one of the most rocking atmospheres in the league and a difficult place for visitors. A repeat of last season’s 27-point haul there would be a great start toward survival. Palace started nicking games away from home down the stretch, too, and carrying that form over would be a bonus. There doesn’t look to be a ton of upside here, and a repeat of last season -- without the early hole to climb out of -- would be a nice second act.
Worst case: After most of a season of seeing it, people start to figure out Pulis’ methods in South London, and the relative lack of talent on this roster starts to get exposed. Their margin for error in any match isn’t great, so a little bad luck here and a key injury there could see a backslide of eight to 10 points that leaves them right on the cutline as far as falling through the relegation trap door. Based on what we saw last year, there will be teams favored more strongly for the drop, but Palace certainly will be part of any initial relegation conversation.
The skinny: A great run in manager Roberto Martinez’s first season on the blue side of Liverpool had the Toffees positioned to thieve the final UCL spot, but the late schedule proved too much and Arsenal ended up holding them off in (relative) comfort. The biggest thing to accomplish this summer was permanently landing main striker Romelu Lukaku, and they did for a club-record $47 million or so to Chelsea. Beyond that, everything’s been pretty (Muhamed) Besic. Martinez is advancing the excellent long-term work of David Moyes, and the Toffees are fun to watch, but they’ll probably end up as a Europa League team again, mostly because of teams strengthening around them.
Best case: Liverpool regresses without Suarez, and Manchester United is a season away from full recovery, which opens up fourth place for the potential taking. The Toffees continue to vastly overachieve their budget (they’re the white dot on this chart highest above the 100 percent of median grid mark, meaning they gained the most points in the last 20 seasons of any team that spent around the league median) and then spend just enough in January to refortify for a run and snag a UCL berth. Moyes grumbles from a couch made out of his United buyout money. Liverpool fades into the Europa League again.
Worst case: Not only are the six other contenders better than they are, but someone else (Stoke? A surprise Cup winner?) sneaks up and bounces them out of Europe altogether. Liverpool somehow improves despite losing Suarez and wins the league. David Moyes chuckles softly from his couch made out of Manchester United buyout money, then sticks another pin in his Louis van Gaal voodoo doll.
The skinny: Before getting to anything else, reports surfaced Tuesday night that Hull is getting $20 million for striker Shane Long from Southampton. If that’s anywhere near accurate, that’s … Incredible? Amazing? Stupefying? Anyway, Hull balanced relatively comfortable survival last season with an FA Cup final appearance. Despite blowing a 2-0 lead to Arsenal, the Tigers inherited England’s final Europa League berth, and they’re one two-legged victory away from the group stage. Pretty cool stuff for one of the league’s less fancied outposts. Hull’s done some fine non-Long transfer work this summer, too, nabbing Robert Snodgrass and Jake Livermore for reasonable (by Long standards) money, and heralded League One center back prospect Harry Maguire, too.
Best case: Well, there’s Fulham’s 2010 journey to the Europa League final to shoot for, but the Cottagers finished seventh the season before and had a better roster than this. How about advancing to the knockout rounds of Europa League and finishing top 12 in the Prem? Oh, and Long is useless for Southampton.
Worst case: They get sucked into the Europa League fun and the squad wears itself out by calendar year’s end, and then the pressure increases into January’s window and the rest of the season. A couple of the promoted clubs punch above their assumed weight and Hull finds itself in a relegation fight. Long goes on to score 20 goals for resurgent Southampton.
The skinny: The champions of the Championship take another spin on the big boy wheel, and there are some reasons for cautious optimism, at least in terms of finding at least three teams to finish above by season’s end. The roster has a combo of “guys you’ve heard of in the Prem” and rising talents like young center back Liam Moore and outside midfielder Anthony Knockaert, who was the protagonist in one of the most dramatic endings in soccer history the season before last.
Best case: Survive and advance. Their Championship-level strikeforce that piled up goals last season is good enough at this level, with the addition of former Brighton hit man Leonardo Ulloa. Their midfield, aided by the import of Mark Albrighton to go with Knockaert and others, will create enough danger off the dribble to threaten. Championship champs have not had the best of luck recently staying in the Prem very long, but the Foxes racked up 102 points last season in 46 matches. They were definitively the best team in that league.
Worst case: Right back down to the second division before any American learns how to pronounce Leicester (It’s “Lester”).
The skinny: The Reds had every chance to win the league last season, but a couple crucial slips down the stretch (literal and otherwise) condemned them to a still-surprise second place. Then they sold Luis Suarez to Barcelona for approximately $800 bazillion, and now everything is different and unsure. The club used a lot of those bazillions to buy up everything not nailed down at Southampton, in addition to Serbian winger Lazar Markovic, but Suarez was soooo important to how Liverpool played last season, and will be impossible to directly replace. How old guys step into new roles and how quickly the new guys acclimate will be paramount in any repeat title challenge.
Best case: The impact of losing Suarez is somehow overrated/mitigated by all the new additions, the stepping up of the guys remaining from last season, and Brendan Rodgers’ creativity. Dejan Lovren, one of the Southampton imports, will attempt to spearhead a more consistent effort in the back four. It seems unlikely that Liverpool will be able to ship 50-plus goals this season and contest for UCL, let alone for the league title. If everything goes right, though? The club has more than enough talent to make a run at it after possibly arriving a year too early last season. Meanwhile, the Reds sweep Everton, who finishes out of Europe entirely.
Worst case: Suarez is as good and as crucial as many believe, and guys like Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling aren’t ready for that level of responsibility. Plus, unlike last season when they weren’t in Europe at all, Liverpool needs to contest the UCL group stage, at least. With Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea all looking imposing and Manchester United on the “No Europe Plan,” falling out of the top four is both realistic and probably the worst they can do. Well, the worst is if Everton is the team that bumps them.
EPL storylines: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City
SI's Grant Wahl presents the top storylines coming out of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City heading into the 2014 English Premier League season.
The skinny: Coming off a second league crown in three years, City spent a second straight summer acting super-responsibly. This comes after several stages of more mercenary buildup allowed them to broach megaclub stature (although much of the current back four and goalkeeper were homegrown or value adds). Yes, it’s nice to be able to drop more than $50 million on center back Eliaquim Mangala, but City’s one gigantic hole last season was a partner for Vincent Kompany. Now, that’s been answered in spades. Throw in Fernando to pair with countryman Fernandinho in an awesomely named and potentially lethal part of the midfield, and you have a team that knows what it wants to be and is quietly executing a plan. Oh, and the club's striker depth is crazy.
Anyway, roster consistency and more steel centrally should help City start to move forward in UCL play, as well. It got dinged slightly on their roster depth for UCL because of Financial Fair Play foibles, but that shouldn’t be a huge deal, and City should be profitable (without tricks) going forward.
Best case: The “quadruple” talk last year seemed quite fanciful, and didn’t come close to happening, but City still won the league and the Capital One Cup, and advanced to the UCL knockout round for the first time. At this point, anything and everything is on the table. Any season without a trophy now will be considered massively disappointing. A season with all the trophies? (Well, not the Community Shield, but whatever...) That would be pretty epic.
Worst case: It doesn’t seem reasonable for City to finish lower than third, and even that feels like a stretch at this point. Combine that with no silverware, especially if The Special One (or, somehow, Van Gaal??) is bagging the goods, and that pretty much sums up the bottom for a club like this now. If they somehow don’t have what they need, they’ll surely get it in January.
Part II: Best-, worst-case scenarios for Man U, Stoke City, more