Tuesday September 9th, 2014

Yes, the Premier League season started more than three weeks ago, but what's the point of making anything more than general suggestions of quality when rosters aren't stable until the transfer deadline? Now that we're past that and can settle into the campaign, here's a look at how I think the league will end up. Rankings are based on teams' current roster composition, remaining needs, and what we have seen thus far set against preseason impressions (Bayesian, FTW!). 

Note: Preseason opinion is culled from preview pieces detailing the best- and worst-case scenarios for each team (From Arsenal-Manchester United here and from Manchester City-West Ham here):

1. CHELSEA

Preseason opinion (PO): My pick to win the league over Manchester City. If Diego Costa adjusts well to the Premier League, he's the missing piece that will give the Blues consistent goals to go with their normally stout defense. 

Current opinion (CO): Nothing's changed. Costa, so far, looks like the goods. Cesc Fabregas has been stellar. Loic Remy is nice insurance of the kind Manchester City just eschewed up front. Chelsea has scored 11 goals in its first three matches, including six at Everton. Granted, the other two matches were against newly promoted sides, and the 11 goals have come from 21 shots on target, which is not sustainable, but this team looks every bit the part of a league-winner so far. Chelsea also has had the most dribbles (past a defender), by some ways, in the league so far.

2. MANCHESTER CITY

PO: One of two realistic challengers for the title, along with Chelsea. Perhaps a bit flakier than the Blues, and improved less overall in the summer window, so second place seems most likely.

CO: I still think that's how it will finish. City dumping a home match to Stoke isn't a great first indicator for its chances, as Chelsea looks unlikely to suffer the same type of shock results that cost the club last season. I'm a little spooked by homesick Alvaro Negredo's loan to Valencia. City is a little thin now at striker for a club with so many matches to play and guys like Sergio Aguero and Stevan Jovetic, who have had trouble staying healthy, being counted on to carry the load. You don't want another alternative besides Edin Dzeko?

3. ARSENAL

PO: Looked like the best bet for third place as Liverpool regrouped after losing Luis Suarez, and Arsenal retained a better roster than Everton or Manchester United.

CO: The Gunners still look like the third-best team in the league. They made harder work of a moderate opening slate than you'd like, but focus was heavily on getting past Beksitas in the Champions League playoff, which they did by, 1-0 on aggregate. It still feels like they needed to add a center back and/or a better defensive midfielder, but I like the Danny Welbeck gamble for $27 million or so. They needed a striker after Olivier Giroud went down (and even if he didn't).

4. LIVERPOOL

PO: The loss of Luis Suarez was a massive blow, and like Spurs showed last season, you don't always get it right when you have a huge amount of money to throw at multiple players to help replace the global star who left. They should be in the mix for the final two UCL spots, but more likely would be fighting for fourth.

CO: Better than expected, and a side that does look the caliber to claim the final automatic UCL spot rather than settle for Arsenal's seemingly annual playoff perch. Worries about the struggle in the opener look a bit misplaced as Southampton looks delightfully solid despite Liverpool having bought half its team. The Reds got suckerpunched at the Etihad, then turned that trick on a wasteful Spurs side at White Hart Lane to start with a very solid six points. Mario Balotelli, in more ways than one, is the wildcard. 

WILSON: Balotelli a worthwhile gamble for Liverpool

5. MANCHESTER UNITED

PO: They have a lot of players still to buy to make a legit run at the top four. The roster remains well behind the other contenders for Champions League.

CO: Louis van Gaal splashed a lot of cash to try to fix things. Not everything got mended (the club has a similar issue at center back as some others), but adding world-class players like Angel Di Maria and Falcao to (eventually) Van Persie up front should be lethal. Daley Blind may be a crucial addition to help reinforce the defensive midfield area. They've already dropped points that could be crucial down the road. UCL isn't out of the question, but they're not favored to pinch a top-four spot as things stand.

6. TOTTENHAM

PO: The upgrade at manager to Mauricio Pochettino should help bridge the gap to the top four. It just might take more time than they have this season, and the roster remains cluttered with too many similar players.

CO: Not sure this has changed very much. Erik Lamela looks like he's coming good in his second English season, which will really help, but Spurs haven't been impressive except against QPR. Too early to write them off, but right now, looking most likely for a Europa League spot again, as well as another St. Totteringham's Day as they finish behind Arsenal.

7. EVERTON

PO: They spent money to more or less maintain their level of quality, which is dangerous in a world where other contenders improved and Everton already hugely overachieved last season in terms of points vs. payroll. Good team, good manager, good chance not to be good enough for a top-four finish.

CO: I'm not as worried about the slow start since the Toffees did this last year. They miss Ross Barkley, and their central defense looks like an unexpected mess at the moment. Seventh place may end up being low, but not sure it will be by very much.

GLOCKNER: Where do big-spending powers leave clubs like Everton?

8. STOKE CITY

PO: Mark Hughes' work in the Prem, QPR fiasco aside, has probably been underrated. He's steady, and he's done nice work building Stoke into a top-10 side that actually plays some football. There's no real upside beyond this, but they're one of the few teams outside the top seven that looks totally safe from relegation.

CO: They made some low-risk, possibly solid-reward summer signings. They were unlucky to lose the opener to Aston Villa, got a credible draw at Hull and then stunned City in Manchester. Good side. Probably locked into 8th-10th place for their final result. I'd like to see Asmir Begovic look a little closer to his world-class self.

9. SWANSEA CITY

PO: I liked them more than many other people did. Thought last season was a fluke/managerial issue, and the talent was here for a bounceback. Gylfi Sigurdsson is one of my favorite "non-elite" Prem players. Swapping out Michel Vorm for Lukasz Fabianski seemed reasonable, especially on a free transfer. They should be much better at home than last season.

CO: So far, so very good. Gylfi's been huge as a facilitator, they held on to Wilfried Bony to go with import Bafetimbi Gomis up top, and look back to playing a stylish version of football under club legend Garry Monk. Three matches, three wins, including one at Old Trafford. This looks sustainable (albeit not at a UCL-spot level).

10. SOUTHAMPTON

PO: It's really hard to say. They are losing a ton of good talent. They will have a ton of money to spend to fix it. They still have some quality on the roster before the imports. Wait, they spent how much on Shane Long? Ugh. At least Dusan Tadic is a terrific buy and should replace Adam Lallana for half the price.

CO: The Saints look better than I figured they would be under new manager Ronald Koeman. They deserved at least a point at Liverpool in the opener, and then took four points from bottom-10ers in the next two matches. That's a formula for safety, safely. So far, they have been very stingy defensively in terms of shots conceded.

WILSON: Why all the overspending on defenders across Europe?

11. HULL CITY

PO: Overachieved last season, will be distracted by a potential Europa League run. Probably not relegation fodder, but not a club that is a lock to be safely in mid-table, either.

CO: Hull may have had the best "underhyped" transfer window in the league, and getting knocked out of Europa League prior to the group stage may end up being a blessing for a club that needs to continue to consolidate at this level. Steve Bruce retained some talent from last year, sold Long to Southampton for an absurd price, and brought in a terrific mix of young and established, consistent and promising to build depth and improve the starting XI. Nice job.

12. NEWCASTLE

PO: They won't get relegated, only because if it's getting that bad, they're finally going to have to eat Alan Pardew's contract before it gets to panic levels. This team was horrible after selling Yohan Cabaye in January, though.

CO: Still nothing to write home about, but additions like Siem de Jong, Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere should see them well safe of any real danger, as poorly as Pardew may continue to manage.

13. SUNDERLAND

PO: They won't be as good as they were down the stretch of last season, but they can't possible be as bad as they were for the first 3/4 of the season, either. That should allow them to hit their comfort zone of a mediocre middle-of-the-not-relegated pack.

CO: That still sounds about right. They shored up some weaknesses, didn't get hurt too badly by departures, and generally should be OK enough to be safe, at the very least.

14. LEICESTER CITY

PO: Better than many think, at least in terms of survival hopes. A decent-enough roster that ran over the Championship last season, which is a good omen for near-term success in the Prem.

CO: That assessment continues to look correct. They haven't looked overmatched at all, and the goals they have conceded have mostly been because of opponent quality, not because they're just casually giving away tallies. They should survive this season, and then build from there. It would be a good idea to stop allowing avalanches of shots, but a lighter schedule ahead should help moderate some of what we have seen early.

LYTTLETON: Hits, misses from the summer transfer window

15. ASTON VILLA

PO: Very concerned about a roster that needed upgrades and didn't get any, with an unstable ownership situation and a bunch of young guys who regressed last season. Could be a surprise relegation candidate.

CO: I'm not yet swayed by the Villans' two wins and a draw from their first three matches. They only have mustered five total shots on goal so far this season (last in the league) and are 18th in shots attempted (just nine per match), so this is clearly not sustainable. The schedule over the next month also is brutal. Villa most likely will need to add in January, but will American owner Randy Lerner be willing (or still in charge)? These seven points from August could look huge in May, though.

16. CRYSTAL PALACE

PO: There's no upside beyond what they accomplished last season, but with Tony Pulis in charge, they should have more than enough to stay up, at the very least.

CO: Oops! Losing Pulis on the eve of the season was a huge blow. Now it's up to former manager Neil Warnock to make good on his second Selhurst Park tour, and suddenly a lot is up in the air for this club. Its overall talent level doesn't leave a ton of wiggle room if it no longer has an ace manager in charge.

17. WEST HAM

PO: Bad-ish roster, some rising discontentment with Sam Allardyce in charge, probably will be in the relegation mix, although chances are they will edge their way to safety with some semblance of fortunate hoofball goals.

CO: That still feels about right. I don't like this roster, or too much of what I have seen early from the club. In typical Allardyce fashion, the team doesn't possess the ball much or pass it all that well, and it doesn't create a ton of chances, either.

18. QUEENS PARK RANGERS

PO: Would be one of three or four teams legitimately fighting it out for the two relegation spots besides Burnley. The R's have a really inexperience/old combo in central defense that is worrisome at the EPL level.

CO: Hmmm ... QPR has created the third most chances per 90 minutes in the league thus far... I wouldn't have guessed that. That said, "chances created" can be fairly loosely defined, they've led to a total of one goal through three matches (and not against a defensive murderers row, either) and they sold Loic Remy. 'Arry knows how to spend, and they brought in some OK guys to help reinforce the roster, but this still isn't a very good side. Relegation still feels very much a possibility, and I think the Rs have less going for them currently than the teams immediately above them.

19. WEST BROM

PO: Thought the Baggies would be relegated. Don't like the roster at all. Bringing in a new manager without any qualifying experience at this level doubles the concern.

CO: Haven't changed my mind on that. Relying on an unknown striker imported from Russia and a bunch of past-its and maybe-never-will-bes is a very risky proposition. Four of the next five league matches are against Everton, Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester United, so they could be in an immediate hole and don't look like they have the quality to get right.

20. BURNLEY

PO: Insta-relegation. A roster that lacks Prem quality up and down.

CO: Not quite as negative, but the result should be the same. At least the Clarets took a deserved point from Manchester United, right? Scrappy enough, but woefully undertalented for 38 matches at this level. It would be an incredible feat to see them finish 17th or higher.

GALLERY: Summer Transfer Window Stars

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