No team wants to be relegated at the end of the season; but this season, they really really don’t want to be relegated. That’s because next season, the Premier League’s lucrative £5.14 billion TV rights deal kicks in, which will make the top-flight teams a lot richer, and for the three teams that drop out, the knowledge that they were close but not close enough to the golden ticket.
For the fans, this idea of financial rewards for finishing 17th may be anathema but, like it or not, this is the reality of modern football. It also means that any teams in trouble when the January window opens could be prepared to gamble on their safety.
The good news is that the relegation battle is a hard one to call this time around. One chief executive from the Championship said that last season’s top three were so far ahead of their rivals that they were already better than four or five Premier League teams.
There are plenty of bottom-half teams that are not looking down at all, but instead looking to emulate Swansea or even Southampton and break into the European competition places. The likes of West Ham, Everton and Newcastle all underachieved last season–the latter two have finished top five in the last decade–but each is only a few sales or injuries away from a fight against the drop. Will we hear the old adage, ‘They are too good to go down’ again this season? Don’t bet against it.
Here's a look at the bottom of half of last season's EPL table, with new additions Watford, Norwich and Bournemouth taking the place of relegated QPR, Hull City and Burnley (We preview the top half of the table here):
12. West Ham
13. West Brom
14. Leicester City
17. Aston Villa
18. Hull City
20. Queens Park Rangers
Three major questions
Will the North-East clubs continue treading water?
Last year was dismal for Newcastle and Sunderland. The former lost its coach in January, appointed his assistant and only avoided the drop on the final day of the season. The latter made a change with ten games left, enjoyed a typical short-term upswing in results, and on a wave of emotion kept coach Dick Advocaat in charge. The Dutchman said in the summer (before he confirmed he would stay on) that Sunderland needs “to have a clear idea of what they’re doing, a philosophy.”
The signings of Younes Kaboul to join veterans John O’Shea and Wes Brown in defense (not forgetting the highly paid Jermain Defoe up front) makes you wonder, while £8 million for Dutch winger Jeremain Lens smacks of Advocaat, rather than sporting director Lee Congerton, dictating the recruitment.
Both sides need to have a positive season, but both could just as easily get sucked into another fight against the drop.
Will Aston Villa cope with a new spine of players?
No Christian Benteke. No Fabian Delph. No Ron Vlaar. This is a new-look Aston Villa side this season, and while the signings they have made–on paper–look smart, you never know how they are going to pan out. Idrissa Gueye, and Jordans Amavi, Veretout and Ayew have all impressed in Ligue 1, but how will they cope in a new environment? Will they form a French-speaking clique? Will they respond to coach Tim Sherwood’s management style?
Villa was sleep-walking to the drop before Sherwood turned things around, and reached the FA Cup final too. He’s likely to renew his partnership with striker Emmanuel Adebayor–which might leave new signing Rudy Gestede a little miffed–while much is expected of young playmaker Jack Grealish this season. For all that, Villa could end up with the same issues as last season. Much depends on how the new signings settle in.
Which Claudio Ranieri will we see at Leicester?
An unlikely run of seven wins from its last nine games kept Leicester in the top-flight and, it seemed, kept Nigel Pearson in a job. That changed after Pearson’s son was sacked following an incident on the club’s tour to Thailand. In the combustible Pearson’s place comes the likeable Italian Ranieri, who was superb in helping Monaco win promotion to Ligue 1 and then qualify for the Champions League, but less effective in a dismal five-game spell with Greece.
If the Monaco Ranieri turns up at Leicester, then the Foxes should be fine this season.
Five key faces in new places
Dmitri Payet (West Ham)
A cartoon in French newspaper L’Equipe showed a Ferrari-driving players covered in tattoos meeting up with Ligue 1 players from Lyon, Saint-Etienne and Payet’s former club Marseille. “Hi guys,” he said, waving some cash around. “I’ve moved to the Premier League to fight off relegation.”
That might not be Payet’s aim at West Ham, who faces the challenge of Europa League games as well this season (if it gets past Astra of Romania in its qualifying round, which is not guaranteed), but the general sense is that France’s talents have rejected bigger clubs abroad for lucrative deals at mid-table Premier League sides (like Andre Ayew and Yohan Cabaye).
Payet has already excited Hammers fans in pre-season with some inventive play and a killer free-kick and at 28, he is ready to make an impact in England.
“He’s got everything,” said West Ham coach Slaven Bilic.
Georginio Wijnaldum (Newcastle)
The captain of PSV Eindhoven’s title-winning side last season, the Dutch midfielder spent preseason playing just behind the striker, but he may slot further back and play alongside Jack Colback in a holding duo once the season begins. His £14.5 million price tag was a message of intent from Newcastle, and coach Steve McClaren has been impressed with Wijnaldum this summer.
This team lacked character during last season’s slump and it’s easy to imagine Wijnaldum as a future skipper at Newcastle.
Robert Huth (Leicester)
Speaking of leaders, Huth leaves a huge gap in the Stoke City defense (especially as there are injury concerns over Ryan Shawcross) as his loan deal to Leicester last January was turned into a permanent move this summer.
Huth has power, courage, leadership, a few goals in him and stacks of Premier League experience. His Leicester record currently reads: played 14, won seven, drawn three and lost four (to Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea). Likely to play in a back three alongside Marcin Wasilewski and England Under-21 defender Liam Moore, this season Huth is reunited with his ex-boss at Chelsea, Ranieri.
Rickie Lambert (West Brom)
Another experienced signing, Lambert wept tears of joy after moving to his hometown club Liverpool last summer, but they must have turned into tears of frustration as he was repeatedly omitted by Brendan Rodgers, losing his place in the England setup as well.
Tony Pulis believes his locker room could have a positive impact on Saido Berahino, while the pair could form a dangerous partnership up front. It may be too late for Lambert to get another England call, but his experience, professionalism and eye for goal should ensure WBA has another season looking up the table and not over its shoulder.
Micah Richards (Aston Villa)
Richards, despite being a new signing, has been tabbed as Villa's captain, which shows how short of leaders the team is after the departures of Delph, Vlaar and Benteke. Richards has a strong personality and does not hold back from the truth as he showed when taking the step to leave a comfortable life on the Manchester City bench.
A year at Fiorentina has broadened his horizons, and Richards, who will play at center back for Villa but can play right back, is still only 27 and has hopes of a return to the international scene. That may be too soon this year, but if he can help keep Villa in the top-flight, it will be a job well done.
Young player to watch
Callum Wilson (Bournemouth)
Wilson, 23, scored 20 goals in his first season at Bournemouth last year, after moving from Coventry City for £3 million. He was the only major singing (and that was funded by selling Lewis Grabban to Norwich). At least four Premier League clubs wanted to buy Wilson this summer, but Bournemouth moved quickly and the England Under-21 international has signed a four-year deal with the newly-promoted side.
If Bournemouth achieves survival, it will need Wilson to carry on his goalscoring form. With Christian Atsu, Matt Ritchie and Max Gradel in support, there should be plenty of opportunities.
Teams likely to climb into the top half
Everton coach Roberto Martinez is under pressure after the disappointment of last season, but at least this time around he doesn't have the Europa League to cope with. His squad is already short of depth: an injury to Romelu Lukaku would leave only Arouna Kone as a recognized center forward, while the club released Antolin Alcaraz and Sylvain Distin and faces a fight to keep the highly rated John Stones. If Martinez can keep Stones, avoid injuries, and restore Tom Cleverley and Tim Howard to top form, then the Blues should expect a top-half finish.
Hopes will also be high at West Brom, where fire-fighter extraordinaire Pulis has made some smart moves with James Chester, James McClean and Lambert. All should improve the starting XI as this team begins to reflect its coach. Top half is within range for Albion.
It’s also a target for McClaren, whose arrival at Newcastle has been met with cautious optimism. Newcastle has strengthened in every area–it needed to–but more importantly, McClaren has brought a new positive mindset to the club. How long that lasts may depend on the first month of the season. A season without drama may count as a success for some fans.
Rumored transfer window move that would change a team's fortunes
If Chelsea is successful in prying Stones away from Everton, then it could damage the Toffees severely–not to mention cause much hand-wringing at the prospect of England players leaving clubs where they are guaranteed playing time in return for lucrative time spent on the bench, in the name of "winning trophies."
Sunderland has been linked to Leroy Fer, an all-action midfielder with an eye for goal but a scary recent top-flight record: relegated with Norwich in 2013, and the same with QPR in 2014.
Managers already on the hot seat
Advocaat has brought much-needed calmness to Sunderland whose team, in the words of The Guardian, is “woefully short of invention, attacking incision, pace, power, height and, arguably most alarming of all, sustained industry.” While he only signed a one-year deal, a bottom-three spot around Christmas time could see it wind up being half that.
Any coach in trouble faces the prospect of losing his job–apart from Eddie Howe (Bournemouth) and Alex Neill (Norwich)–but that means Ranieri (Leicester), Quique Sanchez Flores (Watford) and even Sherwood (Villa) could have nervous winters if the fall period does not go well.
Outlook for each of the promoted sides
Each team is taking a different approach to the challenge of top-flight survival. Watford has a new coach and, practically, a new team, after recruiting players mainly in the 24-28 year-old bracket.
Norwich and Bournemouth are keeping faith with the players who got them up in the first place–though in the case of Neill at Norwich, also the players that took it down in 2013.
None of the sides will get caught adrift at the bottom as has happened in the past but for each of them, having someone to score enough goals could be the difference.
As it stands, Troy Deeney (Watford) and Wilson (Bournemouth) could be decisive, but who is Norwich’s 15-goal man?
Which teams will be relegated?
Sunderland, Norwich and Aston Villa