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.
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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 Manchester United to West Ham in this Part II. Catch up on Arsenal to Manchester City in Part I):
The skinny: Well, the disastrous David Moyes era ended before even one full season as Sir Alex’s replacement, and now a new era begins with Louis van Gaal, recently seen leading the Netherlands to the World Cup semifinals. Van Gaal will bring his 5-3-2 cum 3-4-3 formation to Old Trafford, and early preseason returns are pretty promising. They probably overpaid for both fullback Luke Shaw and midfielder Ander Herrera, but both are nice personnel additions. And what’s Glazer debt but a second-hand emotion? The lack of any European football this season should leave the roster nice and fresh for the league and some cup runs. They’re still not as talented as the best teams they’re chasing, but they should close the gap on a few of them, at bare minimum.
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Best case: Probably third place in the league. It’s hard to see them recover to the level of challenging Chelsea or Manchester City over 38 matches, but everyone else seems at least reasonably fair game. They’ll need healthy and productivity from the aging-but-still-excellent combo of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. The formation should limit the need for traditional outside/wing-type midfielders, which was a trouble spot for United last season, but they’re going to need to continue to figure out how guys fit best into this scheme.
Worst case: SAF was really that good and a second manager after him will need some time to reload a depleted roster. There are six other very good teams in the league, so it’s entirely plausible that United won’t move up the standings at all. That could lead to a second straight Europe-less season, and even though the club prints money, you wonder what the impact of missing UCL again would do to them, at least in terms of player prestige. If you want to come to Manchester to play, there’s quite a good option in light blue a few miles over.
English Premier League: 2014 newcomers
SI's Grant Wahl takes a look at some new faces in the English Premier League.
The skinny: Despite significant grumbling from Toon faithful, Alan Pardew remains as manager, thanks mostly to a contract that makes Kirk Ferentz look fireable. Newcastle was flat terrible after they sold Yohan Cabaye in January and staggered limply to a 10th place finish and a minus-19 goal difference. Significant attacking reinforcements in Remy Cabella, Siem de Jong and Emmanuel Riviere were brought in, and they got a good price for Mathieu Debuchy from Arsenal.
Best case: An underachieving club starts putting it together, but probably doesn’t have enough to break into the top seven. Does a “Prem B” championship count as an achievement? Maybe a decent Cup run if they catch the right draw? Sunderland getting relegated would be a plus, too.
Worst case: It’s pretty hard to believe that Newcastle would end up in relegation danger, principally because if they’re headed in that direction, they’d have to dismiss Pardew before it was too late. They also look an improved roster, but who knows how outsiders will adjust to the Prem. A shock relegation has happened to them once before … so, we’ll see.
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
The skinny: The R’s bounced back to the Prem on the first asking after 2012-13’s disastrous campaign, but it wasn’t without some controversy. QPR is going to eat a massive Financial Fair Play fine after they were unable to offload a number of big salaries from their final Prem season. It could have been a lot worse, though. Had Bobby Zamora not smash-and-grabbed a 90th-minute winner totally against the run of play in the promotion playoff final vs. Derby, QPR would have remained in the Championship and likely been placed on a transfer embargo.
The risk/gamble/strategy paid off, though. They’re back in the big-time, for now, although they once again seem to be cobbling together an old, overpaid roster. Nabbing Steven Caulker and Jordan Mutch from relegated Cardiff will help (along with right mid Mauricio Isla), but this may yet not end well for Harry Redknapp and Co. We’ll see what they can get if they move Loic Remy.
Best case: They cash in Remy for some decent parts to go with Charlie Austin in attack, and the roster turns out to be savvy and experienced, not old and leaky. They spend wisely in January to shore up some weaknesses and finish comfortably ahead of the drop zone.
Worst case: The ancient/overmatched central defense buckles and Robert Green is left out to dry in goal. They lack the firepower to overcome the defensive frailties and go right back down to the Championship.
The skinny: They were a couple of transfer swings-and-misses last year away from making a very legitimate top-four bid. Instead, they faded and then yard-saled virtually everyone this summer. Manager Mauricio Pochettino left for Spurs, and top players Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Calum Chambers and Rickie Lambert all have been sold. That doesn’t even mention the ongoing mess with Morgan Schneiderlin.
Then they, reportedly, have agreed to spend $20 million on Shane Long, which seems as ridiculous as it did when mentioned in the Hull City section. That’s after spending a crazy $17 million on goalkeeper Fraser Forster. That said, I really like the addition of Dusan Tadic on the wing. If fellow Eredivisie alum Graziano Pelle can be one of those Dutch league strikers who translates into English soccer, they have the start of a rebuild in progress.
Best case: The remaining roster is good enough under Ronald Koeman to finish comfortably mid-table, and they use the rest of the money from the yard sale wisely going forward to reload. So’ton has the experience of dropping all the way down to League One to get the finances straight and build properly. This time, that shouldn’t be necessary.
Worst case: The gutted roster has too many holes, and a team that looked very much on the rise ends up in a relegation dogfight a year later. That would be a damn shame, but the Prem is a brutal mistress.
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The skinny: Mark Hughes not only is getting results, but had the Potters last season playing actual football, not the hoof-and-bump rugby style of yesteryear where Rory Delap’s long throw-ins were a primary offensive weapon. An impressive 50 points on a legit minus-7 goal difference sets the table for this campaign. How much higher can they push, though, with everyone but Southampton ahead of them strengthening and/or having finished well ahead on points? It’s more or less the same team plus free transfer striker Mame Diouf, who did OK at Hannover in Germany, and former Barcelona starlet Bojan Krkic, who hasn’t lived up to billing in a number of years.
Best case: Eighth place? The Potters finished 14 points behind Manchester United last season, and it’s hard to believe that gap can be fully closed (or even narrowed, honestly). Would someone else in the projected top seven backslide that badly?
Worst case: Hughes has done some decent work at times in the Prem. His only real misstep was at QPR. There’s no reason to think he can’t keep this run going awhile longer. With so many unsettled/worse teams in the league on paper, anything below “weak mid-table” seems farfetched.
Americans in the English Premier League
SI's Grant Wahl goes through the American players in the English Premier League this season.
The skinny: After looking near certainties for the drop for most of last season, the Black Cats found a rich vein of late-season form and ended up staying up by a pretty good margin. Getting four points (should have been all six) from away matches at Chelsea and Manchester City late on was as good as it gets in terms of survival sustenance. Now they’ve added Jack Rodwell and personal favorite Jordi Gomez to the midfield. Very reasonable moves for a club in need of more stable talent.
Best case: The club finally breaks out of its addiction to relegation battles and moves up the table. They made the Capital One Cup final in the midst of the badness last season, so who’s to say there isn’t a Cup run in here somewhere for Gus Poyet’s crew? Translating last season’s late form into better consistency this season is the primary goal. A top-10 finish should be attainable.
Worst case: Last season’s escape just masked the problems with the roster and guys like Connor Wickham regress, leaving the team starved for goals again. There certainly look to be better candidates for relegation this season, but Sunderland’s certainly not outside that discussion.
The skinny: Last season was a mess, and resulted in a late managerial change to Garry Monk, who spent a decade with the club as a player. This club looks poised for a bounceback. They’ve had a solid summer, bringing in Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jefferson Montero and Bafetimbi Gomis to help maintain the offense, and importing Lukasz Fabianski on a free to replace Michel Vorm in goal should be more than sufficient. They should surpass the paltry six home wins of last season, which should be an immediate boost back toward the top 10.
Best case: Like mostly everyone else that doesn’t smell like a relegation candidate, eighth place seems to be the ceiling. Swansea would settle for a top-10 finish and somewhere in the 50s in points.
Worst case: It’s hard to see relegation happening, but Monk still lacks managerial experience, and you never know how new players will fit in and adjust. Realistically? Something worse than 14th or so would be a major surprise.
The skinny: They sold one of the world’s best players in Gareth Bale for a world record fee, reinvested all of the money into about a dozen new players (see the chart in section three here), then watched it work out fairly poorly as two managers couldn’t figure out a way to piece everything together. Spurs looked on as Liverpool took the opportunity that was presented by Manchester United’s follies and Arsenal’s limitations, while they finished a disappointing sixth. That spot may be more valuable than it seems, though.
On the off chance Spurs win this year’s Europa League, that’s another ticket into UCL. Ben Davies and Eric Dier are additions to try to help improve last season’s dicey back four, but the most improvement will come from Year 2 jumps in health and performance from the guys they bought with Bale Money, especially Erik Lamela and Roberto Soldado.
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Best case: The import of Mauricio Pochettino from Southampton should be a significant upgrade at manager, at least from Tim Sherwood. If he can truly unlock Spurs’ midfield passing game and find a consistent goal scorer up front, we’ll see. If everything breaks right, they can win the expected tussle for fourth place. If everything breaks really right, they’ll also finish ahead of Arsenal for the first time in two decades.
Worst case: They don’t even get to play on Spursdays in 2014-15, as Cup winners/runners up steal the Europa League standings spot(s). Arsenal sweeps the North London Derbies. St. Totteringham turns 20 a little early this year.
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: This was a very disappointing team last season that burned through two managers and now is onto Alan Irvine, who looks suspiciously under-qualified for this level. WBA survived the drop despite just seven wins in 38 matches; thank 15 draws for allowing the club to stay ahead of Norwich, Fulham and Cardiff.
Speaking of under-qualified, that’s a decent description for WBA’s primary attackers last season. After not managing to retain Romelu Lukaku on loan, the Baggies had no consistent goal scoring threat, and may not again this year. They are gambling heavily on Brown Ideye, late of Dynamo Kyiv, to be that guy. It’s very uncertain as to whether he can be. And if he’s not, this could be trouble, even though they have imported some youth and a touch of experience) to help out the back line.
Best case: Honestly, it’s probably survival. It’s hard to imagine this team is built for that much more than that this season. The roster has some decent parts on it, but it’s not great.
Worst case: Down, down, down they go.
The skinny: Big Sam’s Route 1 Clinic returns for another engagement, for now. I like the additions of Ecuadorian striker Enner Valencia and former Ipswich left back Aaron Cresswell. The former may add some spice to what was a generally unwatchable team last season. And that’s coming from a guy who watched all 38 Fulham matches last season. I know unwatchable. If things start shakily like they concluded last season, though, how much patience will the board have? My general axiom is you either have to win or be entertaining. Right now, Big Sam isn’t doing much of either in East London.
Best case: Good enough to make a run at the top 10, probably settling for just below that unless Valencia (or someone else) catches fire. The lineup -- which looks better on paper than it does executing Sam’s Neanderthal style of play -- lives up to name billing and shows a bit of quality.
Worst case: This is another team that could once again find itself in the relegation zone, and perhaps this is the time they (once again) don’t escape it. Is the Olympic Stadium suitable for a second-division side?