Looking Ahead – English Premier League Season Preview 2014-15
After a three-month hiatus, a brand new season of English Premier League is all set to kick off this weekend. While the World Cup in Brazil provided us enough excitement throughout the summer, the tournament also disrupted preparations for the new EPL season. It cut short the pre-season schedule of all the teams, especially the big guns. As a result, the start of the season is expected to be interesting. We can definitely look forward to some surprising results as the big clubs get their key players match fit and integrate the new signings into the team during the first couple of weeks of the campaign. The last season was a humdinger, with four clubs in the running for the prize till late in the campaign, even as Manchester United, the most successful club in the Premier League era, dropped out of contention as early as the beginning of 2014. As fans all around the world get ready for their weekly fix of football, we try to analyse each team’s prospects for the coming season.
As another Premier League season draws near, Goalden Times looks at the potential movers and shakers with Saumyajit Ray and Naman Mehra.
The Title Contenders
As last year, it looks like fierce competition at the top. We start off with Manchester United. Only one man is the talk of the town right now—Louis van Gaal—successful wherever he has managed and, arguably, occupying the biggest post in English club football currently. The experiment with David Moyes failed last season, as United finished seventh, without any major silverware in theirs kitty. Subsequently, the club have no European football to look forward to this year. This might, however, be a blessing in disguise with fresher players during the run-in and clearer targets. Van Gaal has suggested United may try 3-5-2 or its variations (mostly 3-4-1-2) this season, and it will be interesting to see how it fares against the traditional formations of 4-2-3-1 employed by many EPL sides. On the transfer front, the board has realized that they need reinforcements—especially in the absence of a certain Sir Alex Ferguson. So, quite contrary to their transfer market strategy last year, they have not been shy of spending huge sums, even if that means signing a teenage left-back like Luke Shaw for a whopping fee of £33 million. The team has also been bolstered by the long awaited arrival of Ander Herrera to cover the central midfield position—an area where they have been lacking for a few seasons. However, further defensive reinforcements still remain a priority, following the departures of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and Nemanja Vidic. After last season’s disappointment, the encouraging pre-season results are sure to bolster expectations this year. Realistically, though, a Champions League spot is probably the most they can achieve, unless the likes of Arturo Vidal are added to the mix or van Gaal has a blinder of a season as manager.
Arsenal finished last season on a high—ending their 9-year trophy drought by winning the FA Cup. That sense of euphoria has carried into the transfer window as well, with the inclusion of 25-year-old Chilean Alexis Sanchez in the team. Adept at playing with both feet and able to play on the left, right, through the middle or up top, Sanchez has the potential to bring out the best in Mesut Ozil. French right-back Mathieu Debuchy seems to have adequately replaced his national team substitute Bacary Sagna (on paper at least), and signings of Calum Chambers and David Ospina have strengthened the bench. Joel Campbell, too, should be able to provide the team with more options when the fixtures start piling up. Arsenal’s biggest star could well turn out to be Shad Forsyth, the highly rated fitness and conditioning expert brought in from the German national set up. Injuries have derailed many a season for Arsenal, and it will be interesting to see if his new methods have a positive effect. However, it cannot be denied that the defence looks rather weak, with the departure of Thomas Vermaelen, and the ageing Mikel Arteta showing signs of vulnerability in the big matches last season. Plugging these gaps in the squad might be the difference between finishing as champions and coming up a few places short.
Chelsea had a Spanish Revolution over the summer. The side, known for their defensive prowess, have signed on Atletico de Madrid star striker Diego Costa and former Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona. They have also brought back Thibaut Courtois from his Atletico loan spell and he seems set to usurp fan favourite Petr Cech in goal. These attacking additions particularly that of Cesc, might denote a change in tactics from Jose Mourinho, especially against weaker oppositions. Ashley Cole has been replaced by Brazilian Filipe Luis in another raid on Atletico, while the legendary Didier Drogba has also returned to his favourite club. However, at his advanced age, the latter may only be able to contribute marginally to the team’s fortune. The squad looks good enough to win the title, and expectations will be high. Mourinho is also under a lot of pressure after an uncharacteristic barren season last year. If he can get the best out of Costa there might well be blue ribbons around the trophy in May. If not, they may just come to rue their decision to let go of both Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku in the summer.
Liverpool is expected to be reeling from the loss of their star Luis Suarez, who almost single-handedly carried them within a hair’s breadth of the title last season. The club has invested the money from this huge deal to good use though. There have been six signings in the summer, including the Southampton captain Adam Lallana and compatriots Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert, highly rated Emre Can from Bayer Leverkusen, and Lazar Markovic from Benfica. There’s possibly more to come. If Daniel Sturridge steps up and finds his rhythm with the experienced Steven Gerrard, Liverpool might just be the dark horse in the race once again. A lot, though, will depend on how they can handle the rigours of the European campaign. At this moment, it does seem like an outside chance, and the club may do well to retain their Champions League status and make a push for the title again next year.
Defending champions Manchester City had a quiet summer because of the punishment related to their breaching the FFP guidelines. Still, they have added the experienced Sagna as a backup to Pablo Zabaleta, midfielder Fernando from Porto, and Willy Caballero from Malaga as competition to Joe Hart and Frank Lampard- the latter on loan from the MLS. However, their most important signing could be Eliaquim Mangala from Porto, who is expected to straightaway get into the first team with Vincent Kompany, leaving behind the ageing Martin Demichelis and the inexperienced Matija Nastasic. However, the 3-0 defeat at the hands of Arsenal in the Community Shield should serve as a wake up call to the team. Their bench strength maybe not as strong as strong as one expect from a EPL winning side. However, with a side that didn’t need much change, there is no reason why they can’t be champions two years in a row. This, though, may also depend on Sergio Aguero remaining fit and in form throughout the season.
Fighting for Europe
Having gotten rid of Tim Sherwood after a slightly disappointing campaign, Tottenham Hotspur will be expecting Mauricio Pochettino to do as well as he did with Southampton last season. Spurs underachieved last season, not able to properly utilise the money from Gareth Bale’s transfer even though they bought almost an entire first team with it. Summer has been quiet for the team, with Michel Vorm and Ben Davies from Swansea, and 20-year-old Eric Dier from Sporting CP the only signings so far. The team still looks incapable of mounting a serious title challenge. However, Erik Lamela has been impressive in his pre-season performance, and it’ll be interesting to see how he is utilized by Pochettino. With last season’s top four teams further strengthening their line-up, and a resurgent Manchester United on the horizon, a Europa League spot may well be the height of their realistic ambitions this time.
Last year, Everton amassed their highest ever tally in the Premier League. The club has done really well in the summer window. They have signed permanent deals with the highly rated Romelu Lukaku and the experienced Gareth Barry, after hugely successful loan spells last time with them. They have also added defensive midfielder Muhamed Besic from Ferencvaros to their ranks. With no major exits, the squad seems settled, and should bear the fruits of stability and familiarity. However, with European fixtures to contend with, Everton might think about adding a bit more depth to their ranks. Once that’s done, it should be ready to pounce on a top-four spot if a couple of major sides slip up. Even otherwise, the team is odds on favourites over other contenders for a spot in the top seven, and a potential requalification to Europe.
Changes. Huge changes. That’s the way to sum up what Southampton’s actions during the window. Ronald Koeman has taken over as the manager and six first-teamers have left the club. However, till now, major reinforcements haven’t been made. They have picked up Graziano Pellè and Dusan Tadic from the Dutch league to replace Lallana and Lambert. They have also picked up Fraser Forster, one of the best shot-stoppers in Europe, from Celtic in order to strengthen their goalkeeping area. Ryan Bertrand has been brought from Chelsea on loan to replace Shaw. However, let’s not forget that Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers have not yet been replaced, making the team look weak in their defence. As things stand, it will be difficult for Southampton to match their decent form from last season, where they ultimately finished 8th. However, if Morgan Schneiderlin is retained, the balance from the £105 million collected from transfers used wisely, and additional reinforcements are obtained in the remainder of the window, the club may yet stake a claim for a Europa spot. It will undoubtedly be tough to do that though, as new players brought in from now will take their time to integrate into the team.
French Revolution continues at St. James Park, and with the arrivals of Remy Cabella and Emmanuel Rivière, the number of French players in the Newcastle squad is now 9. The team’s attacking force has also been bolstered significantly, with the addition of Facundo Ferreyra, Siem de Jong, and Ayoze Perez. The only major loss has been that of Debuchy to Arsena. However, he has been replaced adequately by Daryl Janmaat. Hence Alan Pardew’s men should at least be expected to hold on to their top half status this season, but with a decent squad, the team does have the credentials to land a Europa spot. Anything less than that is bound to be a disappointment for the passionate fan base. It’s also worthy to note that keeping Ben Arfa fit and interested may play a huge role in how the season pans out.
Stoke City had a very impressive season last time, achieving their best ever Premier League finish of 9th, as well as their highest ever points total of 50. Under Mark Hughes, the team has added flair to its customary strong physical game. It now looks a better-rounded team. The style revolution continues this season as well, with impressive captures in the form of La Masia graduate Bojan Krkic and Mame Biram Diouf from Hannover 96. Steve Sidwell, brought in from relegated Fulham, is expected to provide the added depth to the midfield. Given Stoke City probably overachieved last season, any improvement should see them retaining their top half position. If a couple of more favourites slip up (especially Southampton or Newcastle), the Potters might get a chance to get back into the Europa League once again after their 2011-12 campaign. However, it may be a bridge too far for this season, realistically.
QPR have come straight back from the Championship after going down. However, the team should really have no problems in staying up this season. They have retained a core group of very high quality players in Julio Cesar, Loic Remy, Adel Taarabt, and Junior Hoilett, as well as seasoned English campaigners like Karl Henry, Richard Dunne, Joey Barton, and Bobby Zamora. The capture of Rio Ferdinand, Mauricio Isla, and Steven Caulker should ideally see the team return to a comfortable mid-table position. Securing a European spot, though, will most likely be beyond this squad.
Sunderland flirted dangerously with relegation last term. However, one always had a feeling that the squad didn’t do justice to its potential and was helped in no way by Paolo di Canio’s eccentric and disruptive ways. The club has made impressive captures in the form of Jack Rodwell, Costel Pantilimon, Jordi Gomez, and Patrick van Aanholt in the summer. The club also has Gus Poyet, one of the most talented and modern managers, at its helm. He should be able to steer the team well clear of relegation this time.
Crystal Palace was one of the stories of the season last time. After seemingly being down in the dumps following a horrid start, they recovered strongly under new manager Tony Pulis and ended the season comfortably outside the relegation places. But with the sudden departure of Pulis, it will be challenge for them to keep up the good work done by him, but the momentum gathered through last few seasons might just work in their favour. While Fraizer Campbell and Brede Hangeland are the only major additions this summer, the club has managed to retain the core of its last season’s squad. However, if the managerial appointment goes wrong, they might even end up grappling with the relegation.
West Ham have made impressive captures in Carl Jenkinson (loan), Enner Valencia, Mauro Zarate, and Cheikhou Kouyate. Much like Pulis, Sam Allardyce is another veteran who knows the English game like the back of his hand. The Hammers will be looking to break into the top half this season. Even if they don’t, it is hard to see the team doing any worse than their 13th position last season. Fans can expect West Ham to survive comfortably, but if you are a neutral, making other plans for the evening is advisable if they are playing.
Swansea City had a disappointing campaign last time. After making it to Europe and being lauded as the hipsters’ Premier League team playing an attractive continental brand of football, achieving the 12th spot, with an outside relegation threat for most of the season, was the last thing the fans expected. This time the club hasn’t added too much to its squad. Lukasz Fabianski should be an adequate replacement for the departing Vorm, and Gylfi Sigurdsson should be welcomed back from Tottenham. Jefferson Montero will also undoubtedly improve the team’s attack. The club still needs to replace Jonathan de Guzman in the centre of the park and Ben Davies at left-back. Chico Flores, Pablo Hernandez, and Michu have also all gone to new pastures. However, even with the departure of Michu, the team is not expected to lack in goals. With Bafetimbi Gomis and Marvin Emnes joining the impressive Wilfried Bony, Swansea City should have enough firepower to remain well clear of relegation. Beating back late interest from the likes of Tottenham for Bony may be crucial Swansea.
The Relegation Dogfight
Last season, the relegation battle was as interesting as the fight for the title, with no less than nine teams in danger of slipping down quite late into the season. This season too is set to be as exciting, with very little separating some of the teams at the bottom of the table from each other.
The newly promoted clubs Burnley and Leicester City should expect a tough welcome. With no real standout talent in their teams and no significant additions in the summer, they will most likely find it hard to survive. Their best hope of survival will eventually be Aston Villa, Hull, and West Brom doing as badly as last time. That situation, though, is not entirely out of question as none of these clubs have done anything significant during the window to suggest otherwise. The fans of these clubs should brace themselves for a nerve-wracking season although there’s still time for things to change in the last three weeks of the transfer window.
- Champion – Chelsea
- Champions League spots – Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United
- Europa League spots (Based on League position) – Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham
- Relegation – Leicester, Burnley, Hull
- FA Cup – Manchester United
- Capital One Cup – Arsenal
- Signing of the season – Alexis Sanchez
- Flop of the season – Fernando
- Pointless signing of the season – Frank Lampard
- Bargain of the season – Bafetimbi Gomis
- Player of the season – Aaron Ramsey
- Top scorer – Sergio Aguero
- Manager of the season – Jose Mourinho
- First to get the sack – Alan Irvine