Premier League Preview
In PART TWO of our season preview, the conversation moves on from Pep and Jose to the rest of the Premier League. Might this just be Wenger’s year? Predictions, concerns, conspiracies, and an obsession with Gerard Deulofeu. We cover a lot of ground. Top fives abound! In case you missed it, here’s PART ONE.
Jesse: SkySports has Man City as the favorites, followed by Man U, Chelsea, and then Arsenal. I would flip Man U and City, might even rank City behind Chelsea, but that feels about right. Thoughts?
Matt: You seem high on Chelsea and low on Arsenal–why? And what about Tottenham? They might have the best striker and best defense in the league. And the best goalie, and the best young Englishman, and until this summer, probably the best manager. They haven’t made notable changes to their squad, but in their case I think it’s a good thing. And what of Leicester? Did last years campaign, and the success of Trump and Brexit, teach us nothing? Or is 2016 just a historical aberration in every way?
Jesse: I’m not particularly high on Arsenal and that makes me sad. The team just isn’t built well for the style of play that Wenger insists on playing. Its two best players, Sanchez and Ozil, are not great possession players. They both instinctively play direct, Sanchez with his running at defenders and Ozil with his high risk high reward passing. Cazorla was the only midfielder last year suited to possession football and the team effectively lost the league when he got injured. Xhaka was a huge pick-up and should help in that department, particularly if paired with Cazorla, but it just doesn’t seem like quite enough. Giroud is good, but he needs help and competition. And Ramsey will likely find himself shuttled out on the wing again this season, too good to leave on the bench, not good enough to supplant Ozil, and too careless with the ball to effectively replace Cazorla. The pieces just don’t quite seem to fit together. Arsenal have the best individual squad they’ve had for the past 10 years, but it’s not a well thought out team. Stylistically, Arsenal were more fun to watch five or six years ago than they are now.
For Arsenal to win, Ozil needs to play at the same level he did last year, Sanchez needs to stay healthy, and they’re going to need fantastic seasons from three of Cazorla, Ramsey, Xhaka, and Wilshere or from an unexpected source, like Oxlade-Chamberlin. That’s not much margin for error. I think they need at least one, and probably two more players. Again… sad face.
Matt: Good points, I just want to believe. And I want Arsene to go out on top. If Wilshire is healthy, anything is possible! I believe in Jack. As always, his return from injury is the best transfer business of the summer.
Jesse: As for Chelsea, I think last year was just a blip. They still have the same core that won two years ago, and it’s a young core. Plus Kante. They’ll be just as good as they were two years ago, maybe better. And Conte has proven himself to be one of the best managers in the world. Tottenham rank just behind the top four but are definitely in the mix. They were a little too reliant on Eriksen for creativity last year, but if Alli and Lamela continue to develop that may not be the case this year.
Really, the gap on paper between the top five teams this year is small, with sixth (Liverpool) some way off. Leicester were a good team, but I think they’ll struggle quite a bit without Kante. Most of the plaudits went to Vardy and Mahrez, who were both outstanding, but Leicester would have been a mid-table team without Kante. As Ranieri put it, he played a three man midfield, Kante on the left, Drinkwater in the center, and Kante on the right. It was a joke, but kinda true. Kante was like having an extra man on the field. I think Leicester will struggle to crack the top 6 without him. They’re not spending like they expect to compete for a top four spot.
Matt: I’m not as confident in Chelsea as you are. They weren’t good in the second half of their title season either. They were hanging on. At the time we credited that to pragmatism; in hindsight, it was probably something else. And Kante got more mention than you seem to remember–by the end of the year he was being universally praised as the most important member of the team, and had a starting job on the most packed midfield in the Euros to prove the opinion has already become scripture.
I don’t expect Willian to replicate his excellent season, although Hazard couldn’t be worse. A lot has depended on Cesc these past two seasons, who may be on his way out, but who also may have a perfect midfield partner in Kante, who may allow him to play the Pirlo role Conte resuscitated at Juventus. I don’t know, they are more an intriguing team to me, and it will be fascinating to see what Conte does. I’d probably have them fifth, with the caveat that they have the second best manager out of the bunch.
So my top five would probably be United, Arsenal, City, Tottenham, Chelsea. Manager rankings would be Pep, Conte, Pochettino, Mourinho/Wenger tied for bottom of the bunch. It will definitely be interesting. I think more than I can remember, the managers will make the league this year. And transfers–particularly to City–could definitely have an impact on what the ranking should look like before the window closes.
By the way, if you think I’m trying to set Pep up for success and Mourinho up for failure, I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it.
Jesse: I sensed a pro Pep anti-Mourinho agenda.
Let’s turn to the rest of the league. Liverpool has probably had the busiest summer, as Klopp continues to revamp his side. Joe Allen has departed for the darker, colder, and rainier pastures of Stoke, but Liverpool added Mane from Southampton and Wijnaldum from Newcastle. Both could prove to be excellent signings. Liverpool are certainly one of the better sides in the league, but for me, talent-wise, they come up a bit short when compared with the top five. Coutinho might be the only player that you would confidently slot into the starting 11 of any of the five teams above them.
Outside of our projected top five clubs, who would rate as the top five players in the league? For me, they are Payet (West Ham), Mahrez (Leicester), Coutinho (Liverpool), Vardy (Leicester), and Sturridge (Liverpool). I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see a huge regression to the mean for Vardy, but his goal haul from last year is impossible to ignore.
And which team do you think is most likely to crack the top five and knock off one of our projected favorites? While it’s hard to call them dark horses, I think the three teams most likely to upset our top five are West Ham, Liverpool, and Leicester.
Matt: Payet and Coutinho are no-brainers, and probably Mahrez. I’m not sure about those other two, I think the first striker I’d take outside the top five is Lukaku. Barkley could be in that list with a shout. Fraser Forster and Jack Butland are developing fine reputations. And Scott Dann is very cute. I’m also keeping my fingers crossed for a huge breakout season from Gerard Deulofeu.
Jesse: I think you’ve had your fingers crossed for Deulofeu for a few years now. At this point i think surgical intervention may be required to uncross them.
Matt: If they hold on to their core, there’s a chance Everton could be really good. Baines would have made the above list two years ago, and while he’s long in the tooth he might still be a weapon going forward and from set pieces. It’s hard to say how much outgoing manager Roberto Martinez’s philosophy and focus on offense hurt them, but I’d guess it’s a lot. They might be the most talented team outside the top five. New manager Ronald Koeman did well at Southampton. And while the departure of John Stones might hurt, I don’t think he’s really a fit for the kind of defense they should be playing; he fits in better stylistically (if not functionally) with a ball dominant side like City should be.
West Ham were a top four side with Payet healthy last year. And Jurgen Klopp is one of the best in the business, and I agree his retooled Liverpool should knock on the door. So those are probably the three teams with a shout to crack the top five, Everton, West Ham, and Liverpool.
Jesse: I would take Lukaku over Vardy any day if I were picking a team. I just couldn’t ignore Vardy’s goal haul last year. Everton seems like a bold choice given their recent struggles, particularly with the departure of Stones and possible departures of Lukaku. And no love for Leicester?
Matt: I think there is a good chance Kante and Leicester were doping. I know it’s cynical, and I’m not sure if this is Occam’s razor or a Deus Ex Machina. But given the power structure of sports in 2016 and the increasingly limited space for finding competitive advantages on the margins in spheres of health, scouting, and tactics, I’m highly skeptical of their accomplishments. Frankly, it seems more likely to me than a ragtag group of misfits and discards banding together and winning a Premier League title against titans of the sport.
Jesse: I guess we’ll see if the Leicester truther movement takes off. I’m not quite on board, but I do see the appeal. If you can point me to a Russian connection, I may have to reconsider.
Click here for PART THREE.