So, we’re here again for another nine months or so of pure entertainment in the form of Premier League football, complete with all of its lovable managerial dramas, table-topping twists and relegation-zone turns, massive upsets and most of all great matches. It’s an effervescent cycle of sport which you cannot help but take intense interest in, and that’s why it is the top league for fans, sponsors and players all over the globe. Naturally, then, there’s bound to be a lot of discussion and argument over who will do what this season, whether a certain team, player or manager will succeed or fail. So this week I thought, just to join in the fun, I should reveal my thoughts on who will be the movers and shakers this season, who will finish where come the end of the 380 scheduled matches in late May 2017. It certainly seems a long time away now, and it will definitely feel longer in the deep, dreary nights in December, from Stoke to Middlesbrough, when the matches will drag into the sub-zero winter evenings and the injuries will force managers to deal their hands, digging deep to achieve consistency. It will be unfathomably tough for any side this season to eventually pull away enough from the others to even stand a chance to win the title, but for others it will also take a lot of guts and fight to save themselves from the dreaded drop. So without further ado, shall we get on with it and see who my picks for triumph or disappointment are this 2016/17 EPL season?
Right, I’m going to start with the bottom half (top half tomorrow as I like to ramble a bit, so I’m splitting this blog into two parts). Watford are my pick for 11th, which would be a strong improvement upon their 13th place finish last season, in which they upset the apple cart and impressed many across the country with their early season and FA Cup form. Even despite this, the rugged, below-the-radar tactician Quique Sanches Flores, or QSF as he became affectionately known as by the Watford fans, was shown the door to the surprise of no-one after the constant threats the unrealistically ambitious board gave him to improve or be culled. It may have been unfair on Flores, but the Pozzo family at the top have made another great appointment in new boss Walter Mazzarri, who has seen all that Italy has to offer on a footballing scale, and is ready to take the challenge that the Premier League poises. Having inherited an overachieving but slightly ageing squad, he has immediately invested, similarly to Flores last summer, in promising foreign talent, for example Isaac Success, Christian Kabasele, Juan Camilo Zuniga and Brice Dja Djedje (a great signing in Football Manager at least), who should all prove to be sound investments come the tough periods of the season. Jerome Sinclair is also another decent purchase, shoring up the forward line when Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo aren’t firing, which should make the Hornets much more consistent this season, pushing them up a place or two from where they ended up last May.
Having lost another ever-improving boss in Ronald Koeman to Everton (after his predecessor Mauricio Pochettino left for Spurs three years ago), and top players like Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle, Southampton will have to show that they can yet again recover from big losses to finish in and around the Europa League places. For me though, this time they won’t reach their lofty targets, as new boss Claude Puel doesn’t have the reputation nor the experience required to push an already over performing side up the table. He hasn’t done much to put his stamp on a squad which at times last season appeared a little stretched, selling three of their best players in Mane, Victor Wanyama and Pelle for big fees, and replacing them only with Alex McCarthy, Nathan Redmond, Jeremy Pied and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who are solid if unspectacular purchases that will add a little more flair but lose some physical strength. Personally, I would say they have taken three massive steps backward and only four small ones forward, which will ultimately prove to force them down, fairly dramatically for me, the table to the upper bottom half of the standings. Their style of play has yet to be put to the test too, and Puel will have to get off to a good start to get anything out of this season, as they can’t rely on trying to recover later in the season as they simply don’t have a manager with the experience to pull through in unique situations such as those.
13th: Crystal Palace
Life looks much sunnier as a Crystal Palace fan these days; out of the financial struggles they had when slumbering in the mid-sections of the Championship and now investing heavily in exciting new talent while replacing their stars who may want to move on to pastures new on bigger wages. An FA Cup final finish and 15th place was a very respectable turnout for them last term, but Alan Pardew will want to strengthen upon that after missing out on the England job and push his team further up the reaches of the Premier League, sharpening up their consistency over the longer stages of the season. Having added James Tomkins, Andros Townsend and Steve Mandanda, two proven EPL talents and a very solid Ligue 1 goalie, to their already competitive squad, I think the Eagles can push up the table and possibly put in another great cup run considering the strength in depth they do have, notably with Wilfried Zaha, Yannick Bolasie, Townsend and Bakary Sako all options on the wing. If one thing’s for sure, it’s that they’ll finish the season near the top of the dribbles completed charts.
Another side under new management for the start of this season (six others, with another on the way with Hull), the Black Cats have a definite mental resolve more powerful than most others, having survived relegation from impossible positions three consecutive times, but won’t be wanting to appoint another manager late into the season in order to survive. This time, though, with the experienced but recently unfortunate David Moyes at the helm, I do think they can survive with a few more games to spare, possibly reaching 45 to 50 points or so by the end, rather than their usual 40. Such a calm and reassured figure during his, what would now be considered Jurassic, reign at Everton, Moyes capitulated into a desperate and bemused figure during his short lived stays at Manchester United and Real Sociedad, and he just needed the right job to get back into his managerial stride. Then came the opportunity at Sunderland, which was perfect for his style; a side with a restricted budget, a few decent players but not such a great pedigree, one that he could shape into his own by taking his time to recruit the right players and get them fighting for vital points. He has his faults, and so do most of his players, but they can be put to the side as long as they work together to move up the table to more comfortable surroundings, and I think they can do that. Wahbi Khazri, Fabio Borini, Adnan Januzaj, Patrick van Aanholt and Jeremain Lens all provide talent great enough for arguably a top half side, and Jermain Defoe, Lee Cattermole and John O’Shea will add bags of experience and knowledge to a side lacking slightly in leaders elsewhere, so I think they have the basics for a good season. Moyes just has to gel everyone together with the right tactics to make his debut year a success.
With signings in the calibre of Alvaro Negredo, Victor Valdes and Victor Fischer over the course of the summer, ex-Real Madrid assistant manager Aitor Karanka is assembling a very well stocked squad in preparation for what is always a tough first season as a promoted side. Middlesbrough should’ve never really been out of the EPL in the first place really, considering how good they were when I first really got into football; collecting Match Attax cards, as they competed in the top half for years but hit a rocky patch with Gareth Southgate as boss and could never quite hit the heights to gain promotion back up from the Championship. But here they are again; back in the big time with some pretty decent players and a great young manager in charge, this season could be very prosperous for them. Some players will have to stand up and be counted for them though other than their big name signings; while Grant Leadbitter as captain is sure to fight the cause, mainstays like Ben Gibson, George Friend, Jordan Rhodes and Stewart Downing also will be vital throughout the season if firstly they want to stay up and secondly they want a mid-table or slightly lower finish, with over 42 points or so. Karanka I think can draw some gritty performances from them though, and they can emulate Bournemouth from last season as the most successful promoted side.
16th: Swansea City
With Francesco Guidolin still in charge despite some iffy rumours at the end of last season for him, Swansea have gone under the radar a bit this summer, with their most exciting moment coming with the reveal of their lovely new blue away kit. Seriously, so little has happened for them that when they sold Andre Ayew to West Ham last week they must’ve jumped off of their seats at the club for the news, even if it meant the loss of arguably their best player. Luckily enough for them, Fernando Llorente and Borja Baston have come through the door to fill the Ayew, Eder and Bafetimbi Gomis-shaped holes up front, and Mike van der Hoorn has been bought to shore up the defensive numbers. But one massive loss they have endured was the sale of Ashley Williams to Everton just last week, their captain sold to what could’ve been their mid-table rivals, but now a team that should pull far away from them. Guidolin should probably have a plan, but to sell your captain, your fans favourite and rock at the back is a total crime for any lower-half EPL side, and should spell a tough season for the Swans. Honestly, I just can’t see the Welsh club recovering from such a massive loss, and providing they sign a decent replacement, I can only see them scraping a last-minute survival battle to stay up, even if the goals of Llorente and Baston win them a few games, they’ll lose as many as a result of shoddy defending. The likes of Lukasz Fabianski and Gylfi Sigurdsson will have to emulate their form of last season to salvage much from this year, and for Guidolin to keep his job until the end of the season.
17th: AFC Bournemouth
Eddie Howe, with all of his youthful bravado and right-mindedness tempered with surprising amounts of calm and tact, masterminded a solid and unexpectedly good season for his beloved Cherries last time around, and he’ll be hoping for another this year. For me though, the strength of others may just push them down a few places down to the edge of the relegation zone, as results like the ones they got against Chelsea, Manchester United, Southampton, Everton and Leicester (two draws against the champions) last year might well prove tougher to see out. All of those sides are all spending crazy amounts to have a shot at success, and a small side on the south coast, with a capacity of 12,500 or so at Dean Court, can’t compete. The signatures Jordan Ibe and Lys Mousset could prove to be pretty astute from Howe, but they are unproven for such expensive purchases (on Bournemouth’s scale) and might be a bit inconsistent at their age, whereas Lewis Cook, Emerson Hyndman and Nathan Ake (on loan) are only really squad-bulkers and future prospects. Luckily enough for Howe, he has kept the spine to his side and fleshed out the bones, but I think they’ve haven’t quite strengthened on the levels of others and might see a tight squeeze to avoid relegation come late May.
18th (Relegated): West Bromwich Albion
Now this might be a bit of a controversial one, but I tip West Brom for relegation every year, and it never pays off, but I just have an instinct (it will be wrong again now I’ve said it, won’t it?) that this will finally be the year they face the drop. My big reason behind this is that they simply haven’t spent in big amounts for years now, and they won’t survive in this kind of business without coughing up these days. Their squad does look a bit bare these days; Salomon Rondon their only real star capable of winning matches on his own, with Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans and Craig Dawson arguably their only other top-half quality players. Most other individuals seem a liability for Tony Pulis; Ben Foster getting inconsistent with age, Claudio Yacob a walking red card, James McLean more up and down than a rollercoaster and Saido Berahino probably only a missed birthday cake away from finally leaving the club. Another reason is that Tony Pulis doesn’t excite the fans with his style of play, and when you are involved in a relegation dogfight you really need the fans to be on your side; just look at Aston Villa and Newcastle, whose fans deserted them after years of bad treatment, and where they both are now. Long throws and defending sides to death simply won’t work these days the same way it did for Pulis at Stoke, and I think this season could finally spell the end of his luck at some points in his career, battering his ego and finally ridding the Premier League of the bogey team (especially for Man United) that is West Brom. Nothing against them as a club, but I just think if I was to remove one realistic side by choice from the Prem, it would be pretty likely to be them.
19th (Relegated): Burnley
For a Lancashire town with a population of just 75,000 or so, Burnley have continually performed above themselves on the world stage that is the globally-televised Premier League, and it is no coincidence that they have bounced back to the top level after staying loyal to Sean Dyche as manager. The ‘Ginger Mourinho’ as some called him, is a very confident and adept manager, but it has been the case that his managerial style is often a little too easy to read for top level opponents and he has fallen short a little bit when really challenged. Maybe that’s also because he hasn’t had the vast war chests of those above him before, and hasn’t drawn enough out of his regular players, but he still has much more to show at this level before he departs again. And I think that departure will be, unfortunately for the Claret’s fans, at the end of this season, as their squad honestly doesn’t have enough about it to upset the top sides nor grind out consistent results against the sides around them. We can commend Dyche for staying true to home-grown talent (23 of their 29 players are British or Irish), but it might be that transfer approach that holds his side back from better things. Nevertheless, Tom Heaton, Ben Mee, Michael Keane, Andre Gray and Sam Vokes should all have good seasons, leading from the front, but besides them I can’t see many who have the consistency or the ability to chip in with match-winning performances, assists, goals or clean sheets which all prove decisive when you are battling relegation.
20th (Relegated): Hull City
Well, this one seems easy enough (edit: at least it did when I wrote this on Friday night, before their win against Leicester). For what should’ve been such a capable side, with Steve Bruce the safe hands in charge, everything has gone wrong this summer. Bruce has resigned after coming to loggerheads with the tight-pursed Allams who have final say on everything at the club, only one signing has come in (Will Mannion, realistically only a fourth choice goalkeeper), the club doesn’t have a permanent manager going into the first few weeks of the season, and the squad looks threadbare. This is all the fault of the Allams though, it had nothing to do with Bruce, as he had his hands tied because the Allams didn’t get their wish of franchising and rebranding the club the ‘Hull Tigers’, and wouldn’t let the fans or the manager have any part in the running of their club as a result. This is not the plot of a bad sports film where the fans overthrow the evils villains who have sucked the life out of their club, this is the painful reality for Hull fans and ultimately it will result in the immediate relegation of their side before their time in the spotlight has even begun. Without a proper manager or the funds to make any signings, the club can only go backwards, as they simply can’t keep up with resources only good enough for the league below, when clubs around them have world class stars signing up just to be a part of the Premier League. The biggest star Hull have? Tom Huddlestone or Abel Hernandez maybe, but neither of them have been in great form recently, and personally I’d say their best player is in fact Andrew Robertson, who for such a young man (at 22) will not be able to carry the team on his own. Seriously, Hull only have 18 current senior players, or 15 outfielders, to choose from this season (16 or 13 for the first few months as Moses Odubajo and Michael Dawson have long-term injuries), and that is not good enough by any stretch of the imagination. But what can you do when you aren’t given any money to spend, on transfer fees or wages? You are powerless, and all you can do is try to organise the few troops you already have, no matter how desperate the cause. And believe me, after a string of losses for this Tigers team, it will seem very desperate.
So there are my predictions for the bottom half this season, make of them what you will, and leave your thoughts in the comments on who you think might go down this year if you like. I’ll see you again tomorrow for my top half predictions, and the only spoiler I’ll give you for now is; brace yourselves!
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!