Monday, 18 June 2018

No flies on England in dogged victory

Nibbled at by rampant midge-fly and harassed by a combative and cunning Tunisia, England produced an enterprising and gritty performance in Volgograd, but needed the full 90 minutes and more to find a winner against the African side.

The English started aggressively, with rapid interplay among the forwards exploiting an initially compact Tunisian set-up that left plenty of room behind its back line. They were particularly effective when Raheem Sterling dropped deep into midfield, with Dele All running beyond. Tunisia adjusted shape, dropping deeper in the centre, but this simply invited England to move the ball into wide areas, finding space behind the full-backs.

In the first early exchanges, England created chances from open play almost at will, a number of them falling to Jesse Lingard. The Manchester United man’s running from midfield was dangerous, but his finishing wasteful. When England's breakthrough came on eleven minutes, it arrived, somewhat surprisingly, from a set-piece. John Stones met a corner with a powerful header, which Tunisian keeper Mouez Hassan could only palm down into Harry Kane's path. 

It was a commanding performance from the World Cup’s least experienced side, but warning signs were present, especially at the back. England’s three centre-halves never looked entirely confident moving the ball out of defence; Harry Maguire’s passing was suspect under pressure while Kyle Walker looked edgy and uncomfortable from the start. England’s best transitions in the first half often involved long passes into the channels, bypassing the deep midfield, where Jordan Henderson was subdued in the early phases.

Profligate with their first half chances, England were to surrender their lead on 35 minutes. Walker’s brittleness was exposed as he tamely stuck out an arm at Fakhredinne Ben Youssef while defending a cross. The referee blew for a soft penalty, which Ferjani Sassi put just beyond Jordan Pickford’s reach. The wind seemed gone from England’s sails, doubly so when the energetic Alli sustained a dead leg, after which his contribution to the match was never the same.

Tunisia started the second period brightly, swapping the first half’s long passing for a running game that at times threatened the heart of England’s defence. They were resisted without great difficulty, however, and with an hour gone, the game settled into a steady rhythm. England were less obviously impressive than in the first half, lacking the energy with which they started the game, with Alli subdued and Sterling struggling to connect with the rest of the forward line. In many ways, however, England’s second half performance was mature and controlled. Resisting the temptation to charge forward or pump in long balls in search of a winner, England passed carefully out of defence, making improved use of Maguire’s attacking qualities and Henderson’s passing range.

It was an approach that almost seemed to have run out of time, even after Marcus Rashford and Reuben Loftus-Cheek were brought on for Sterling and Alli, repsectively, to reintroduce some verve. Tunisia - content, for the last half hour, to sit in a low block and defend resolutely for the draw - conceded one final corner on the right. Maguire - a menace from set pieces throughout - headed down to the far post where Kane twisted his body to head in. England had frustrated their fans for long period and at times looked to have wasted the opportunity to win this game, but patience and possession were rewarded at the last.

By Matt Worth

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Bundesliga: 10 Young Players to Watch

Germany has come to lead the world in the development of young footballers. Formerly known for producing dour and effective, moustachioed men who played efficient football and looked imposing in shellsuits, it's now a land of slide-rule midfield technicians, twinkle-toed trequartisti, jet-heeled wing backs and stealthy false nines. All of them looking young enough to appear in a milk advert. Men like Mario Goetze and Mesut Ozil are now in their prime, younger generations marching on to succeed them.

To celebrate the kickoff of the new Bundesliga season this weekend, we profile ten players born in 1995 or later who we expect to make an impact this year. Be in no doubt - there are twice as many that we had to leave out.


Donis Avdijaj / FC Schalke 04 / Age 20

Fiery striker who has finally established himself as a presence in the Schalke matchday squad. It proved a longer road than most expected back in 2014, when the Gelsenkirchen club put a EUR40m+ release clause in the then 17-year-old's contract.

After a successful 2015-16 loan spell with Sturm Graz in Austria, Avdijaj returned to the Veltins-Arena to eventually force his way into contention, making his long-awaited first team debut in December 2016. He finished last 2016-17 season with two league goals from 12 appearances.

German-born, he has elected to play internationally for Kosovo, his parents' country, with two caps to his name so far. Regular international football may help him advance his club game. Not yet quite at the same level as some on this list, he still has the potential to be the next youth success at a club with a proud development record.

Oliver Burke / RB Leipzig / Age 20

The most expensive Scottish footballer ever had a slightly disappointing 2016-17, after a EUR13m move from Nottingham Forest in England's second flight. Having taken the bold opportunity of a move from his boyhood club (born in Scotland, he grew up in Leicestershire), he struggled to hold down a place in the first team and did not earn stellar reviews, even as the club tore up the history books to finish second. Summer rumours have him linked with a return to England and the Premier League, so one reason to watch him will be to see if he, and Leipzig, continue with their experiment or choose to call the whole thing off. 

Even his fans would concede that Burke is not quite the finished article; his touch sometimes a little heavy, his passing sometimes misplaced. But he is quick and keen, direct and relentless, with an eye for the main chance be it a through-ball or an attempt on goal himself. And remember, he was never a regular starter even at Forest, so let's not expect too much too soon.

We hope Leipzig choose to persist with him. And with a Champions' League campaign placing new demands on their squad, perhaps they yet will.

Mahmoud Dahoud / Borussia Dortmund / Age 21

A major part of the recent Moenchengladbach revival. Syrian-born Dahoud is now a veteran of two Champions' League campaigns and two full 1.Bundesliga seasons, but without yet getting his hands on a full Germany cap. He has, however, secured the other thing that emerging talents at second-tier clubs covet most: a move to one of his country's mega-clubs. 2017-18 will be a test of his maturity and his authority as a player, as he looks to establish himself in a potent squad already well stocked with talent in midfield.

Energetic and with a quick-stepping style, Dahoud roams all areas of the midfield, but prefers to be playmaker rather than enforcer. He has the skills required, especially those quick feet and a good eye for a pass; we expect him to settle into an advance-playmaker role. Even so, he may need to add more discipline to his game and take fewer risks, if he is to convince Bundestrainer Loew that he has a serious role to play for Germany.


Benjamin Henrichs/ Bayer 04 Leverkusen / Age 20

Like Jonathan Tah (below), another young international associated with the recent form of Leverkusen and their system. A pacy and aggressive full-back who can play on either side of the field, he has earned rave reviews for his energy levels and attacking contributions. Henrichs at his best embodies everything that's required from a wide defender in the modern pressing game; if Leverkusen recover their form in 2017-18 then he is likely to be a key part of it. If not, he has probably done enough to win a move elsewhere.

Alexander Isak / Borussia Dortmund / Age 17

Very tall and very, very young, 2016's Swedish sensation has acceleration and touch that belie his lanky physique, and composure that belies his tender years. Isak can play up front or on the wing,  but 10 goals in 24 games reveal his true strength; his final ball from out wide can be wayward, but in front of goal this baby-faced giant has the nerveless sangfroid of the ghost-face killer.  It will be interesting to see how soon he breaks through into the Dortmund first team, given the club's fearsome array of attacking talent. But their model depends on maintaining a conveyor belt of young talent, and they have spent EUR9m to put Isak on that conveyor. So Isak will get his chance in the end.

Felix Passlack / Borussia Dortmund / Age 19

Dortmund fans have plenty of young talent to cheer on
We could have filled this entire list with Dortmund players, and we had to work quite hard not to, excluding Christian Pulisic because he's probably too much of the finished article, and Emre Mor because he seems to be bound for the exit.

Felix Passlack, on the other hand, has had a gentle introduction to life in the Bundesliga so far, with only eight starts under his belt. The former Germany U-17 captain is looking for a breakthrough year. Hugely energetic, quick and technically sound, he has scored goals whenever he's had the chance (including one in the Champions' League) but can play all over the park. This versatility will increase his first team opportunities, especially as a substitute, and improve his all round game; but he'll need to specialise over time since, even forty years after Total Football, mastery of one position is still the way to become a regular starter.

Ultimately Passlack is expected to find his way to a full-back role, where his many defensive qualities - including bite in the tackle and good reading of the game - will be to the fore. He had the confidence of former head coach Thomas Tuchel, and one key question will be where he fits in the plans of the new man in charge, former Ajax coach Peter Bosz.


Renato Sanches / Bayern Muenchen / Age 19

A year after his mega-money move from Benfica, a year after he became a Euro 2016 winner with Portugal, it's hard to believe this boy is still a teenager. He is in fact the youngest man ever to win the European Championship. Having moved onto an altogether bigger stage than the Estadio da Luz, he predictably didn't get a starring role in the 2016-17 Bayern side, so the coming season is about progress and maturity. To make his game complete, he needs to add discipline and consistent accuracy to his athleticism, skill and vision. As a modern central midfielder, it wouldn't hurt to see him put his considerable strength - although only 176cm tall, he's a solid unit - to work a bit more in the tackle. Bayern can afford to be patient, so the question for the coming season is how much opportunity he gets to step in among Vidal, James Rodriguez, Ribery et al - and how well he takes it.


Aaron Seydel / 1. FSV Mainz 05 / Age 21

A bit of a punt, this one, but Seydel has already announced himself to the Bundesliga, in some style, as a strong and predatory forward. He marked his league debut last term by scoring with a composed finish against Hertha BSC. Capped up to U-19 level by Germany but never a prolific collector of caps, with only 187 Bundesliga minutes under his belt Seydel has work to do to establish himself. That's especially so by comparison with some of those elsewhere in the list.

However, he may prosper by being in a squad with fewer options. Mainz are not abundantly equipped with potent forwards, and there is an opportunity there for this product of their youth team to take.


Jonathan Tah / Bayer 04 Leverkusen / Age 21

Powerful defender who is seen as a long term contender for leadership of the Nationalmannschaft, though he's only three caps to his name so far. Made a stellar impression in 2015-16 as Leverkusen qualified for the Champions' League, culminating in a trip to Euro 2016 as a non-playing squad member. Performed well in the group stages of European competition in 2016-17, but overall it was a season of limited progress as Leverkusen's league form suffered badly.

A physically dominant defender, Tah reads play well and is comfortable on the ball, though perhaps could do more to master the art of distribution. Some will be surprised to still see him at Leverkusen, and a good season this time around would probably seal a career-defining move.

Julian Weigl / Borussia Dortmund / Age 21

Holding down a first-team place for the best part of a season at one of Germany's perennial Champions' League participants arguably means you've gone beyond being a kid to watch. This, however, could be the season that Julian Weigl truly stamps his authority on the Bundesliga and establishes himself as the future of the Germany midfield. Possessing a rounded skill set for a modern central midfielder - composure, vision, a good passing range and great balance - he is one of those players who always looks like he has time. He could perhaps improve the physical side of his game, and may become less lightweight with age; he is, in any event, no slouch in the tackle. Weigl's greatest challenge may be the sheer quality and quantity of competition he faces at club and international level - from Borussia club-mates Marco Reus and Mario Goetze, and from Toni Kroos for example - as he tries to move to the next level.

Football Hipster's Premier League Preview: Part III

Here's the final part of our Premier League preview, an in-depth piece that should probably now be called something else, as we're so late getting it out the door. Liverpool to West Ham, minus Leicester who we covered a week ago: enjoy.




Will he? Or will he not?
On the plus side, Juergen Klopp finally has a front three that accords with his blueprint. With record signing Mo Salah slotting in to the right of Firmino and Sadio Mane, Liverpool now possess an attack that can chase and press as hard as Klopp could wish. The Egyptian new boy should also restore some of the ball-carrying capacity that was lost with the departure of Raheem Sterling. Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge are hardly shoddy back-ups, though there must be a limit to how long Sturridge will hang around now he's not assured of a first team place.

Things look less rosy in midfield. Transfer rumours involving Philippe Coutinho have been a distraction all summer, reaching critical levels in August. If he wants to leave, then most pundits think it would be best for Liverpool to do the deal as soon as possible, to allow at least some time to go out and recruit. Many will recall the club's desperate splurge of GBP35m on Andy Carroll in 2011, to replace Fernando Torres on deadline day. However, Liverpool seem inclined to resist selling Coutinho on principle.

The Brazilian has certainly been a critical source of goals and chances in recent seasons; Adam Lallana is competent in a similar position, but might struggle in the role of primary creator. Elsewhere, Jordan Henderson is a notch or two short of the real deal as a Champions' League midfield general, Georginho Wijnaldum has yet to really find a role, and Emre Can sometimes gives the impression of still having much to learn.

At the back, doubts are often voiced about the choices at centre-back. in fairness, however, Joel Matip has established himself well since arriving from Schalke, so the enduring questions focus mainly on Dejan Lovren. Potential replacements Mamadou Sakho and Ragnar Klavan are both somewhat out of favour. Andrew Robertson looks like an excellent addition at left-back, where James Milner deputised for most of last season, while Klopp will be hoping for a successful return for Nathaniel Clyne to add some attacking threat at right-back; Clyne excepted, Liverpool's defenders are no great shakes going forward.

In goal, there's a lack of challenge to Simon Mignolet. The Belgian is a spectacular shot-stopper but can struggle to command his area; his main rival will be Danny Ward, returned from a successful season-long loan at Huddersfield. 

Liverpool have one of the most potent attacks in the division, and on their day will be among its best sides to watch. But the midfield and defence are, in truth, some way from competitive with the Premier League's very best sides, and if Coutinho does leave, then to replicate last year's 4th place would represent over-achievement.

Strengths:  Energy and ruthlessness in attack. A clear tactical vision and, for the most part, a squad that suits it.

Weaknesses: No glaring weaknesses, but a slight lack of quality by comparison with the very best, especially in the critical areas of defence and deep midfield.

To sum up: Treading water as ever. Need to sort out the Coutinho situation.

Predicted finish: 6th.

Manchester City


Mendy: been making friends and influencing people on Twitter
Like David De Gea a few seasons ago, Ederson is a young keeper with frightening expectations to fulfill. So glaring a weakness was Claudio Bravo's goalkeeping, last term, that the recruitment of the young Brazilian to replace him has been billed as the key to reclaiming the title for City.

Even if Ederson performs, however, this may just serve to highlight problems in front of him. On recent form and fitness, it is difficult to see a title-winning defence being founded on any twosome from John Stones, Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Otamendi and the returning Eliaquim Mangala. The biggest hope will be Kompany continuing his return to his old self, and Stones overcoming the wobbles of last season to recapture his early promise.  City do not allow too many chances, but their defence is not truly ruthless by the standards to which they aspire.

Nor has it recently made as much contribution as it should going forward, and this Pep Guardiola has sought to address with some lavish recruitment at full-back. No fewer than four wide defenders left the club this summer, resulting in a complete turnover on both left and right. If Kyle Walker looks severely overpriced.- Spurs didn't seem too sorry to lose him - then Benjamin Mendy looks like a very good signing indeed. Fast, fierce and comfortable on the ball, Mendy has been hired to buckle the swash going forward. His form at Monaco and Marseille was hugely impressive, even if he can sometimes be less than sure-footed on the defensive.

City's midfielders and forwards need no introduction. One positive last season was how quickly some of the summer signings settled, especially Leroy Sane and Ilkay Gundogan. We tip the latter to be one of the stars of this season, most likely partnering Fernandinho in central midfield. Sergio Aguero will lead the line, with Kevin De Bruyne, Sane, David Silva, Raheem Sterling and last season's sensation Gabriel Jesus fulfilling different attacking roles as needs arise. Summer signing Bernardo Silva is almost an afterthought, never mind returning loan exile Samir Nasri. It is a terrifying line-up and the single reason so many pundits are tipping City to take the title.

We wouldn't go so far as that, not with doubts at the back and with cross-town rivals United so strong this year. City still struggle to be authoritative and Guardiola, accustomed to success, will need to bear considerable pressure. There are many players in the City side who'd deserve the Premier League medal, but we are not sure that this is their year.

Strengths: Stunning array of attacking talent. Enough money to throw at any problem.

Weaknesses: Only in relative terms, maybe, but the defence looks vulnerable. Defensive fortitude seems to have gone out of fashion among most top sides. The sceptic might also
ask questions of Guardiola, and whether coaching's golden boy has the stomach to grind it out.

To sum up: We do not quite see enough mental strength and defensive fortitude to foil the irresistible forces that Conte's Chelsea are and Mourinho's United are becoming.

Predicted finish: 3rd

Manchester United


Mikhitaryan (in his Shakhtar shirt - Hull fans, this is not some joyous dream sequence)
City may have the brightest filament of attacking stars, and Chelsea and Arsenal formidable starting XIs, but Manchester United  now have the best matchday squad in the Premier League. That's after a summer in which the loss of Wayne Rooney has been cushioned by the acquisition of a proper, uncompromising No.9 in Romelu Lukaku - filling probably the most obvious gap in last season's squad.

In goal, David De Gea has matured into a complete sweeper-keeper who probably just loses out to Hugo Lloris for the title of the division's best custodian. He's certainly ahead of the other main claimant, Thibaut Courtois, on recent form. The defence, meanwhile, is short of star names, but its collective performance speaks volumes, and United conceded only 29 goals last time out. Household names they may not be, but Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian are rock solid pros capable of excelling at the very top level. Their back-ups, men like Daley Blind, Antonio Valencia and even the sometimes-lamented Phil Jones, are all top-quality Premier League operators.

The depth of the quality really shows in midfield and attack where United have two first-clas players in almost every position. In the middle, see Pogba, Herrera, Matic and Carrick, even Fellaini. Further forward, we have Mata, Mikhitaryan, Jesse Lingard, Valencia if he plays in an attacking role and, um, Ashley Young. At centre-forward, Lukaku is the No.9 the team has needed, ably supported by Marcus Rashford. And let's not forget Anthony Martial - he has had a quieter couple of seasons but he remains a highly dangerous forward, the man to whom Kylian Mbappe is compared.

For all that, the squad will surely miss Zlatan's intelligent line-leadership and Rooney's lurking menace at some point this season. Another winger or two would be useful, to allow a change of formation when things get sticky. But perhaps the biggest questions are about Mourinho. The fiasco of his final season at Chelsea has cast doubt upon whether he still has his sureness of judgement and his ability to inspire the best. For many, he appeared to have got his dream job at United too late in his career. The United squad last season was almost as good as this, but Jose couldn't wring a top four spot out of it. Then again, maybe he played his cards well by aiming for the Europa League crown, and the Champions' League spot it carries.

Strengths: A cohesive squad with Champions' League quality in every position. Consider their squad man-for-man and it becomes apparent what an underachievement last year was, even as they won the Europa League.

Weaknesses: Dare we say it, but Mourinho, indomitable five years ago, now has something to prove. Will it bring the best out of him? Also, there aren't any top class true wingers in the squad - a sharp contrast to great United sides past.

To sum up: It all depends whether you bet on the Special One or against him. We're backing him, and if he gets the best out of this squad then even the best of the rest face an uphill struggle.

Predicted finish: 1st



Newcastle United


De Jong: good as new?
Squad depth is what won Newcastle promotion from the Championship last year. Following an efficient rebuilding process in summer 2016, the Magpies had two quality players for every position on the pitch.

Sadly, it was two Championship quality players for the most part.

This summer by contrast, recruitment has been made difficult by that large squad, and by the wage bill it implies. Second-tier players on hefty salaries have not proven easy to move on. So, against expectations, Newcastle enter 2017-18 with a side little changed from last term.

The squad's strongest point is at the back. There's a wealth of choice in goal; either Rob Elliot or Karl Darlow will cope in the Premier League, though many retain hope of a return to old form for Tim Krul. The Netherlands international spent last season on loan at AZ in his home country, and he'll be like a  new signing if he can only get a squad number. In front of Krul, Chancel Mbemba is a mobile and intelligent centre-back with much more to give than we have yet seen, and fellow Frenchman Florian Lejeune looks like a smart recruit to join him. Young centre-back Jamaal Lascelles was last year's captain but may need to step back from the role as he adjusts to the top flight. Ciaran Clark is perhaps a more rudimentary stopper, but is trusted by Benitez.

Right-back was not a strong point last year and Benitez has recruited two fellow Spaniards to help out in this role. Javier Manquillo looks no more than adequate at Premier League level, but Jesus Gamez offers a higher quality solution, at least in the short term (he's 32). At left-back, Benitez persists in employing Paul Dummett, who in most people's estimation is fundamentally a centre-half. There aren't many alternatives - Massadio Haidara has failed to shine at this level before, and Achraf Lazaar is already out of favour just one season into his contract.

Failed recruitment like that of Lazaar is common at Newcastle, who seem unusually prone to signing players who barely get a game. So in midfield we find Henri Saivet, whom Newcastle signed in the ill-styarred 2015-16 season, played out of position a couple of times, and then consigned to exile on loan.

Elsewhere there is reasonable quality in midfield, but it's not clear what selection will best blend attacking and defensive qualities. Last season there was a lack of a top quality screening player; Isaac Hayden is composed, even stylish, but his mobility is more that of an athletic centre-half than a modern all-action midfielder. The season before, Jack Colback and Vurnon Anita both struggled in the Premier League, lacking the physicality for the role. Mikel Merino, on loan from Dortmund, could therefore be one of Newcastle's smarter summer signings. Elsewhere in the middle, Jonjo Shelvey has the ambition and many of the skills to be a midfield general in the grand style, but does he have the temperament or the consistency? It's not clear that he does, even after many years a Premier League regular. Creativity in squad comes largely from the wings where Christian Atsu - his loanee made permanent this summer - and Matt Ritchie are two of the squad's best players. Siem De Jong could add to this roster in attacking midfield if he stays fit and if Benitez' tactics can accommodate him.

The forward line is the main weakness. Dwight Gayle has a poacher's instinct but hamstrings like angel hair spaghetti, and he didn't score too many at this level with Crystal Palace. Aleksandar Mitrovic has the aggression for the rumbustious target-man role and isn't lacking in touch, but doesn't get in dangerous positions enough, and collects cards like Pannini stickers. GBP5m acquisition Joselu adds depth to the attacking ranks but at 27 he's never been a regular goalscorer at top level, while fellow Spaniard Ayoze Perez is better suited to a support striker role than to leading the line. It really is quite difficult to see these men scoring significant numbers of goals this season, and much of Benitez' next two weeks will surely be spent trying to find a proven striker for a price his Chairman, Mike Ashley, will pay.

Strengths: A wily coach who played last season very well. Solid enough defensive personnel. Krul and De Jong will be like new signings, if Benitez chooses to use them.

Weaknesses: Lack of goal threat. Patchy squad with lack of Premier League class upfront, in deep midfield and at fullback.

To sum up: If we're predicting a decent finish for Newcastle, it's only because of the number of even weaker clubs below them. If the squad settles, it has enough quality to finish comfortable in mid-table, but that quality is unevenly distributed. If, as is equally likely, nerves fray or injuries bite, it could be a season of toil.

Predicted finish: 12th 




Tadic: key man
Southampton are seemingly the only club in the Premier League that love instability as much as Watford do. Another summer, another manager and, indeed, another set of foreign owners, too.

The latter's first act may be to dig into the coffers to pay for a replacement for Virgil van Dijk. The powerful Dutch centre-back has had two consistently excellent seasons since signing from Celtic for GBP13m, back when that was a lot of money for a mid-table side to spend on a defender. He seems to have escaped the poisoned chalice of becoming a big-money Liverpool centre-back, but even so he may well be on his way to Arsenal, City or any of the other big clubs looking for a stopper.

If he does go, then it's not clear who will partner Maya Yoshida at the back. The much-improved Japanese defender was one of few players to thrive under Claude Puel. Jack Stephens started the season opener against Swansea, but will need to develop a lot if he is to become a true Premier League first teamer. It's  possible that new signing Jan Bednarek might force his way into the first team squad but, with the Pole only 21 years old, a more experienced replacement for van Dijk could become a priority for new manager Mauricio Pellegrino.

Meanwhile, the situation is stable at fullback. Ryan Bertand is first choice on the left, with the highly promising Matt Targett as backup. Bertrand is one of England's most consistent and underrated defenders; perhaps he stayed at Chelsea too long to ever gain the recognition he deserves. At right-back, Cedric Soares is pretty much an automatic pick. Overall, it's a solid defensive unit which is more than capable of making a contribution going forward, and is ably supported by England international Fraser Forster in goal.

Southampton's midfield lacks a little sparkle and has the air of a work-in-progress; not surprising, perhaps, as this has been the area of the team raided hardest by bigger rivals in recent seasons Although few members of the current midfield line-up were signed by Puel, as a unit they share much of the defensive outlook for which he was criticised.  Jordy Clasie, a Ronald Koeman signing, has never taken flight at St. Mary's, but if he finds the form to match his underlying class then he may yet become a key man. Fellow anchorman Oriol Romeu has been much more impressive, and is the heart of the side; Mario Lemina is an interesting, but unproven, addition in the same area. For reliable first-team company for Romeu, Pellegrino like his forbears is likely to call upon the dependable but unspectacular all-rounder Steven Davis. A priority for this season will be to continue the development of more attacking options in the middle, including the still-improving James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hjobjerg, who has immense potential.

Dusan Tadic is the squad's best attacking player, and his retention and motivation are key to Southampton's prospects this season. His fellow advance-midfielder Nathan Redmond has pace and an occasional gift for the spectacular, but doubts persist as to whether he can be a consistent game-changer at this level. At centre-forward, Southampton are seriously underpowered. Manolo Gabbiadini, signed in January after an erratic career in Italy, did well enough in the second half of last season, but neither he nor Shane Long, the athletic but goal-shy Irishman, look likely 20-goal a season men at top level. Charlie Austin once did, and a return to fitness and form for the injury-wracked target man would be as good as a new signing - which is what Southampton otherwise need.

Strengths: Behind the front line, a balanced and high quality lineup, albeit somewhat lacking in creative sparkle.

Weaknesses: The disruptions of a new manager, new owner and van Dijk's on/off transfer saga. Lack of a reliable goalscorer; the inability to put so much as one goal past an insipid Swansea on the opening afternoon was not encouraging. Very limited backup to cover for injuries.

To sum up: Difficult to call, given all the regime change. We feel there's enough in the squad to more or less repeat last season if van Dijk is replaced, which we assume he will be. We may be proven wrong. One thing is for certain, which is that Southampton will have to develop a long term strategy founded on the retention of core talent and the building-out of the squad with phased investment, if they are not to start going backwards.

Predicted finish: 7th.

Stoke City


Crouch: still a threat
Last season was a step backward for Stoke. After three successive ninth-place finishes, hopes were high that attacking players like Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri could push the squad into European contention. Instead, Stoke slumped to thirteenth. Mark Hughes' intent to play with more verve was frustrated as the flair players failed to gel, and his team fell back on the harder-bitten values more readily associated with Stoke.

Progress over the summer has been limited. The squad obviously needs renewal, but the job is at best half done, with several old-stagers moving on this year (Jon Walters, Shay Given, Phil Bardsley, Glenn Whelan) but replenishment slow in coming. Hughes' recruitment policies look especially odd in midfield, where all of Charlie Adam, Ibrahim Affelay, and Stephen Ireland are the other side of 30 and no longer regular starters, yet the only summer reinforcement is 33 year-old Darren Fletcher. Of the dad's army in the middle of the park, Whelan was an odd choice to let go because he, of all these men, was still a regular first-choice pick. Shaqiri and Joe Allen are the only two first-string midfielders operating in their prime which, even with Fletcher's help, will make for a clever but hardly steely midfield. Workmanlike he may have been, but Stoke will miss Whelan's graft.

There will be much discussion of the departure or Marko Arnautovic, and with some reason because he performed fairly well last season, albeit too often in individualistic fashion. It's fair to ask what an ambitious footballer his age gains by joining West Ham, a club that appear to be going backward at least as fast as Stoke are. On the bright side, his absence may force Stoke finally to properly make use of Bojan, who returns from his loan at Mainz. With he and Shaqiri lining up in support of Berahino, the attack still has some of the pizzazz that got people excited last summer - even if, again, it's entirely on paper at this stage. Berahino has a lot to give, although it's not certain he has the mix of skills required to lead the line alone in a convincing manner; there's always Peter Crouch, the Premier League's all-time top scorer of headed goals, when a change of approach is needed.

There's no guarantee Stoke's attack will function any better as a unit this season than it did last, but if it does, then there should be more goals in the side than last year's paltry haul of 41. They are likely to play through the middle; quality out wide has never really been Stoke's forte, and it still isn't, with converted centre-forward Mame Diouf and former orthodox fullback Erik Pieters patrolling the flanks in the season opener at Everton. Perhaps things will change a little, with the signing of Eric Choupo-Moting on a free from Schalke. Sharp, mobile and technical, he is the perfect modern utility-forward, though sadly that includes not scoring many goals. Choupo-Moting gave Schalke several excellent years of service and is still in his prime; he could play out wide, but Hughes is unlikely to go for the tactical revival of the out-and-out winger at this stage.

In similar fashion, Hughes seems to have more or less given up on full-backs. Perhaps this is just as well, for he doesn't have many; one of the few, former England man Glen Johnson, may be eyeing the exit as he seems to be slipping from first team contention. But stability in defence has been preserved by the permanent signing of Bruno Martins Indi, who was solid on loan last term, while Kurt Zouma, impressive in Europe for parent club Chelsea, looks like a sensible reinforcement on loan. Completing the defensive line-up will be familiar first-teamers Ryan Shawcross and Geoff Cameron, in front of Jack Butland, one of the side's strongest individuals, in goal.

Strengths: A potent front three, if they work together and stay fit. Defence is solid. Zouma and Choupo-Moting will inject energy and pace.

Weaknesses: Other than Shaqiri, if he plays as he can, there's little on offer in midfield. Still quite a few tactical questions unanswered, too.

To sum uo: It's not going to be as bad as some fear for Stoke, but none of the problems of last term have really been solved, so we foresee stagnation.

Predicted finish: 14th

Swansea City


Sigurdsson: will be much missed
Genuinely, we were surprised by how bad Swansea were last season. And they really were bad. This season was shaping up as an interestingly controlled experiment, to see whether it all really was down to coaching; the promising Paul Clement has now had a summer to work with what was, until yesterday, more or less the same squad that competed (if that's the word) last year. However, the departure of Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton for GBP45m - and the signings that are bound to ensue - will likely change all that.

Sigurdsson's exit has deprived the team of by far its most influential member. There does  some real quality in the squad, in the form of Lukasz Fabianski in goal, Federico Fernandez in central defence, Tom Carroll in midfield and Fernando Llorente at centre-forward. But none of these men has the timeless quality of being able to take matters in hand and dictate the pace of a game, that is, to make the play. It's a quality the departed Icelander possessed in abundance.

Alongside Fernandez in defence, fullback Martin Olsson is a proven operator, but Alfie Mawson and Kyle Bartley - though both talented - have a lot of weight to bear for men still inexperienced at this level. Just as big a defensive issue last season, however, was the midfield's lack of bite. Leon Britton, Leroy Fer and Tom Carroll all make an all-round contribution, but all are relatively attack-minded players and, with the exception of Fer, they're somewhat lightweight. That defensive midfielder Jack Cork has left for Burnley does not help, though his presence was hardly decisive last year. All this said, Paul Clement did seem to have successfully addressed the side's porousness through tactical means in the second half of last season, when Swansea conceded far fewer goals that in the first half. Clement has sought to build on that with some sensible recruitment, signing the experienced Roque Mesa, a defensive midfielder and link man from Las Palmas.

In attack, Swansea's wide men look relatively weak at this level, especially in terms of defensive contribution. This can put a lot of pressure on Olsson and Kyle Naughton at full-back, themselves both quite gung-ho at times. Of the wingers, Wayne Routledge only rarely makes a game-changing contribution, Jordan Ayew looks a shade short of quality at Premier League level, and the classy Luciano Narsingh, while dangerous, is unreliable when it's time to defend. As a whole, the attack last season was very dependent on the quality of Sigurdsson's deliveries to create goalscoring chances. This is the weakest area of the side, and will require heavy reinvestment of the funds received.

The man putting most of Sigurdsson's assists away was Fernando Llorente, who will miss the opening few games through injury but has at least stayed another season. The only other contender at centre-forward is young Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham who, although gifted, is awfully raw to be carrying the expectations heaped upon him not only by Swansea, but by the other clubs who engaged in the extraordinary chase for his signature.

Strengths: An ambitious and tactically flexible coach. A surprisingly decent spine, a really good centre-forward in Llorente, and plenty of craft in midfield. Certainly not as bad a squad as last season's form suggested.

Weaknesses: Weak in wide areas, and lacking matchwinning creativity with Sigurdsson gone. Lightweight and can be very open tactically, although Clement seemed to be fixing this.

To sum up: Extremely difficult to call, given the impact of losing Sigurdsson so late in the window. We have them surviving, even if only just. A fair few of last season's problems were tactical, and Clement seems to have got a grip, adopting a less open style and restoring confidence. We assume the Sigurdsson money will be reinvested to reinforce the midfield and wide attack. A difficult season, but not as difficult as last year.

Predicted finish: 16th

Tottenham Hotspur


Big Daddy K
Most goals scored, fewest goals conceded; Spurs were the best team in the league on the numbers, except for the number that counts: their league placing, second. It must be frustrating, especially since they were almost as good the year before. Third place.

This is the club with perhaps the stablest team selection in the Premier League, and the hierarchy are clearly betting that incremental tactical development of a youthful and technically adept unit will be enough to push the team to the Premier League title that has now become the short- to mid-term goal. The highest-profile transfer business over the summer was the departure of Kyle Walker, likely to be replaced by his near-namesake Kyle Walker-Peters, latest example of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of attacking fullbacks at White Hart Lane. With Kieran Trippier also able to step in, few expect Walker to be greatly missed. The extremely expensive recruitment of Davinson Sanchez at centre-half looks a quixotic choice of investment, given the excellence of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Aldeweireld, but it's a step toward building a depth of squad commensurate with Spurs' superclub ambitions. Danny Rose at left-back and Hugo Lloris in goal pick themselves, the latter probably the division's best keeper, and one of the world's best.

Eric Dier is now the lynchpin of the midfield. With Dele Alli, for better or worse, now consistently deployed further forward, one of few tactical conundra facing Mauricio Pochettino is whether to play Victor Wanyama or Mousa Dembele alongside Dier. Alli now plays in an advance midfield/wide second striker role to which few would have predicted his natural abilities would suit him, but which he looks to be making his own. Harry Kane, undisputed first choice at No.9, has completely overcome early doubts of a different sort, in his case about his technical ability. Years spent on loan in the lower divisions forged a determined and forceful young striker whose strength is his ability always to get his shot in. If any lingering doubts are deterring foreign suitors, that only helps Spurs.

The other tactical quandary is whether and how too accommodate the wandering star that is Erik Lamela. To some, he is Spurs' most natural attacker, and offers a world more threat than the more rumbustious Moussa Sissoko. To others, he is an errant luxury player that Spurs can ill afford if they are going to to accommodate Christian Eriksen, which they most certainly are. Eriksen above all else is the reason there needs to be a fire under Spurs' ambitions to finally win something. For if they do not, the Dane's time at the Lane is probably limited.

Spurs, then, already have a first XI that could win the title if things go their way. They don't quite have the squad depth, yet, to cope nonchalantly with everything a sustained title campaign might throw at them. Pochettino is right to keep faith with his current team and indeed has little choice, but most of their rivals have grown stronger through recruitment this summer. For Spurs, growth will have to be endogenous - tactics, training, psychology. If that is not enough then they may rue 2016, already starting to look like a golden opportunity missed.

Strengths: Settled and frequently brilliant first XI. Some of the individuals.- Lloris and Eriksen in particular - are world class. A clear vision, and confidence in it.

Weaknesses: Squad depth not what it could be or may need to be. The huge potential distraction of playing home games at Wembley. Danger of creeping frustration.

To sum up: Spurs are good enough to win the title, if the Gods smile on them. So predicting their season is going to be an instinctive call. Without a ground to truly call home, and with their main rivals - other than Liverpool - stronger than last season, we think Spurs are going to fall back. Not permanently, necessarily, but this year. That's in the Premier League. We do think a fairly serious tilt at the Champions' League is feasible.

Predicted finish: 5th



Okaka: potentially influential this year
 It was under-publicised, but Watford had a rotten year last year. Walter Mazzarri's side struggled to either score or prevent goals; that they were still in mid-table in April just demonstrates how poor the Premier Leahue's lower and lower-mid reaches were last term, with many essentially poor sides bunched up. Mazzarri is now gone, the latest in. a long line of managers to last one season or less. The instability built into the Watford model seems to be slowly taking its toll.

There is quality in the squad but it is somewhat potted. Younes Kaboul remains a high quality Premier League centre-back, while Etienne Capoue is equally adept there or in deep midfield. Jose Holebas at left-back has also developed into a consistent high quality performer, and Daryl Janmaat on the right of defence is an established Dutch international. The class of these three, plus the still-decent Heurelho Gomes behind them, suggests that Watford's leakiness was caused by tactical factors rather than individual weaknesses.

Up front, Watford have relied primarily on Troy Deeney for goals. With 10 in the league last season, however, he has hardly been pulling up trees, even if his all-round target play is effective. Andre Gray has been signed from Burnley to provide an alternative focal point for the attack, although he'd have to be classed as somewhat unproven at Premier League level. Fans can probably expect to see more this season of Stefano Okaka, a pacy forward with great movement, but who has yet to become a regular goalscorer.

Selection uncertainty is an issue in midfield, the zone that was probably the side's greatest weakness last time out. Summer recruitment has focused on bolstering this area of the squad. Will Hughes, formerly of Derby, has had to wait a surprisingly long time for his Premier League move but he will now get real first-team opportunities. Watford will surely find a good outlet for his mix of fight and guile. However, Tom Cleverley, who has struggled more than most would have predicted to establish himself, looks like a makeweight acquisition, while Nathaniel Chalomah, on loan from Chelsea, is very young to carry off the anchorman role - it's one of the most tactically demanding positions in modern football.

Watford fans will be looking to see more creativity from Roberto Pereyra and new signing Richarlison. Pereyra hadn't really got going, last term, before a knee injury ended his season. He is a player of considerable energy and versatility, but there isn't much in his record to suggest he can transcend the role of utility forward to become the man who meets Watford's real need for a regular maker of goals. Richarlison, a goalscoring winger, makes the relatively rare move direct from Brazil to the Premier League. It looks like a big step, but the youngster has pace and strikes a ball well, so could be useful on the counter-attack.

Strengths: A number of versatile and high quality individuals especially in defence. Hughes looks like a good signing. Finally, the potential ace in the pack that we haven't mentioned yet - a really well regarded young manager in Marco Silva.

Weaknesses: A goal-shy attack, and it isn't clear that any of the forwards they've signed are the answer. An underwhelming midfield. Tactical uncertainty and regime change.

To sum up: On paper they're not a lost cause, but we fear there are too many problems here for Silva to turn around in a season. Watford roll the dice every year, it seems, and thise year we fear they've rolled a 1.

Predicted finish: 20th

West Bromwich Albion


Brunt: defender and creator
The very definition of mid table respectability, famous for pulling up stumps once they've hit the milestone 40point mark. That's West Brom, especially since Tony Pulis took over at the Hawthorns in 2015.

The side's now-routine ability to power into the top half of the table early in the season suggests there's sufficient class in the squad to think about a push towards the European places. A mindset shift and a few sensible reinforcements will be required. It will be interesting to see whether Pulis, whose reputation as a defensive and pragmatic manager is entirely justified, can achieve the former. As to the latter, what Baggies fans would like to see most, perhaps, is investment in the attacking areas of a squad that only mustered 43 league goals last season.

At the time of writing, there had been only one such reinforcement, the signing of Southampton centre-forward Jay Rodriguez for GBP12m. Capped once by England in 2013, the striker looks like a good acquisition for a mid table side. Not young any more at 28, he still has things to prove after a career stalled by injury. With Rodriguez and Salomon Rondon, the only man other than Duncan Ferguson to score a Premier League hat-trick of headers, the West Brom attack has a forceful, physical character.  However the wide attacking options - Hal Robson-Kanu, Callum McManaman, James McClean - are every so slightly second-string, leaving Matt Phillips and Nacer Chadli as the squad's primary creators. Both had good seasons last year, especially Phillips, even though the team's overall goal return was poor. So unless Pulis can help them find a hidden extra gear, the most obvious way of fixing the attack is to get more goals out of Rondon and Rodriguez.

West Brom's midfield does not lack skill, but it is set up to hold the fort rather than to take the game to opponents. Deep-lying Claudio Yacob has ben an unsung hero over several seasons at the Hawthorns, a natural ball-winner and competitor who keeps things simple. Long-time collaborator James Morrison is a hard-working midfield all-rounder with more attacking skills in his locker, while newer arrival Jake Livermore has always looked a little workmanlike at this level. It's not clear that this unit will really miss the departing Darren Fletcher, but whether it has the verve to push on to the next level is unclear. So, too, is the purpose of signing Gareth Barry from Everton, though he may (in Fletcher's stead) offer some eminence grise in tough games.

There's nothing terribly wrong with the defence, though Pulis has opportunistically reinforced it with the loan signing of Egyptian international Ahmed Hegazy, from Al-Ahly in his homeland. West Brom benefit from excellent full-backs, with the under-rated Allan Nyom on the right and Chris Brunt on the left.  Brunt's left-footed delivery is, of course, a sure source of goals and assists for the team, as sure as was Rory Delap's long throw in an earlier era for Pulis. In the centre, Craig Dawson is one of the best centre-backs outside the top six; in a world where GBP80m is bid for Virgil van Dijk and Kyle Walker goes for GBP50m, it's astonishing that Dawson and Nyom do not have more suitors among the big clubs. If Hegazy can successfully change up a gear or two from the Egyptian league then he may fill the second CB berth, though this would be harsh on Jonny Evans; the former Manchester United man has been almost as outstanding as Dawson. It wouldn't hurt to have some backup options beyond Gareth McAuley, an outstanding servant but now 37, and recruitment might be useful  in goal where Ben Foster's form has been solid rather than stellar these past few seasons. But it is hard to fault this defensive unit, and Pulis will not want to shake it up.

The model of stability, West Brom have had a quiet summer and have managed to keep quality players like Phillips, Nyom and Dawson out of the transfer gossip columns. At this stage the question is whether the recruitment of Rodriguez will be enough to see this team unpicking Premier League defences more regularly.

Strengths: A solid team unit that could teach Theresa May what strong and stable means. Excellent defence, useful if workmanlike midfield, talented but mercurial wingers (aren't wingers always)?

Weaknesses: Still don't have the assured 15-goal-a-season striker they really need. Questions exist over how much further they can go without a serious injection of funds and, in all fairness, over whether Pulis would be the coach to take them there.

To sum up: There's nothing to suggest this squad will cease to be good at what it's already very good at, but no reason to expect a quantum leap in attacking potency either. A mindset adjustment might see them fade less badly toward the end of the season and could buy them a place or, at a pinch, two. But we foresee another season of West Brom doing what they do.

Predicted finish: 10th

West Ham United

Bilic: he's got 99 problems
All sorts of problems beset West Ham last season, from new home blues at the London Stadium, through the return of crowd trouble, to a defence that just wouldn't stand up. A final finish in 11th place was tolerable, but the goal difference was abysmal. By the end of the season, Slaven Bilic was cramming as many defenders onto the field as he could, in a 5-3-2 formation - and it still didn't really work.

The recruitment of Pablo Zabaleta is a sound solution for a problem position, and the issue of his age has been overplayed. At 32, he still has two or three seasons in him and brings years of Premier League experience. There haven't been any other signings at the back, so Bilic presumably feels the cause of the leakiness is tactical. Time will tell - the coach, a crack defender in his own playing days, can presumably judge a good centre-half and has Winston Reid, Angelo Ogbonna, James Collins and Jose Fonte to choose from. Even if the latter two are older than Zabaleta, it's a respectable line-up. Behind them, Joe Hart is a sensible recruit, still in his prime and with something left to prove.

West Ham's squad is quite a small one. Fans might have preferred to see some strengthening in the centre of midfield, but this has not been Bilic's policy. The excellent Manuel Lanzini is assured of his place as the side's creative focus, but elsewhere in the centre the selection is uncertain. Captain Mark Noble is an influential figure though somewhat lightweight, and Bilic will need to evaluate what he offers against the steelier virtues of men like Cheikhou Kouyate or Pedro Obiang.

The two big signings have been up front. Javier Hernandez, who seems finally to have succeeded in getting the British press to call him Chicharito, is a sensible signing for a club that badly needed a proven striker last term. Marko Arnautovic, on the other hand, looks ike a solution searching for a problem. But if Bilic wants to play with a support striker or a narrow front three, he's the man. On the wings, Andre Ayew (often played out of position at striker) needs to be a more regular contributor, while Robert Snodgrass has key man potential but appears to be peripheral to his coach's plans. His signing from Hull in the January window was one of the major reasons for the latter club's eventual relegation. We expect first-team opportunities for the talented but fitful Michail Antonio to be squeezed this season. In the wings lurks the hulking figure of Andy Carroll, should he return to fitness and form.

There's been no radical surgery at West Ham, and they remain the very definition of "not a bad side", with few distinctive strengths. Unless Hernandez hits 20 or more, it's difficult to see them making progress this term.

Strengths:  Lanzini and, hopefully, Hernandez. Without the attacking talents of these two, times would be grim for West Ham.

Weaknesses: Few compelling options in midfield; ageing defence; small squad.

To sum up: Another season of bumbling along in need of a strategy. Bilic under pressure if they start to go backwards.

Predicted finish:  11th again

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Football Hipster's Premier League Preview: Part II

It's time for Part II of our in-depth and mostly alphabetically ordered 2017-18 Premier League preview. Mostly, because we already covered Leicester yesterday to account for their rude early kick-off, and because we'll cover the teams who open on Sunday - Manchester United, West Ham, Tottenham and Newcastle - tomorrow.

Part II takes you from Bournemouth to Huddersfield; Part III, later today, will run from Liverpool to West Ham.



Team spirit will be key for Bournemouth
The problem for a small club trying to play good football in the Premier League is that the moment you stop being good, there's often nothing else to fall back upon. The gritty resistance of a Leicester or a Stoke is a more enduring quality than is finesse in possession. When money's right, it's easier to replace battlers with new battlers than it is to keep unearthing creative players on the cheap.

This must trouble Bournemouth's Eddie Howe as his squad - now entering its third top flight campaign - starts to need rejuvenation. For similar reasons, it's ominous that Bournemouth have never shown a sure touch in the transfer market.  Many of their bigger signings have achieved little, and much of their Premier League success has been the work of unsung heroes and diamonds hewn from the rough. There have to be question marks over the club's ability to keep replenishing the talent it needs to prosper in this division.

The standout recruit in this window is not record signing Nathan Ake, who appears an excellent footballer but may suffer the "second season syndrome" common to young defenders. Rather, it is Jermain Defoe, very much the homecoming hero as he returns to the club where he scored 18 in 29  games as an 18-year-old. His appeal to the club is obvious, especially after a strong campaign with Sunderland which defied his 34 years. The worry with ageing forwards is always loss of mobility, and Defoe did fade in the second half of last season. But with a more creative team around him, and if well stewarded by Howe, he could be good for 25 league games. That may well mean 10 goals.

Around Defoe will rotate a cast of fitfully effective, sometimes exciting attackers who would mostly find readier homes in the Championship than at other Premier League clubs. Benik Afobe looks the most naturally dangerous striker in the ranks after Defoe, but he has not shone since joining from Wolves. He may rejoin the Midlands club; if he stays, he needs to put pedal to metal this term. Elsewhere in the attack, any combination of Jordon Ibe - one of the better big-money signings - Junior Stanislas, Callum Wilson and last season's sensation Joshua King could be effective. But probably only in fits and starts - and Bournemouth have been prone to very streaky form since entering the top tier.

The lack of a convincing midfield is a concern. Dan Gosling, Andrew Surman and especially Harry Arter are all good players, but none, except Arter on occasion, is really the type to take a game by the scruff of the neck. There is a lack of bite. Howe does not have, and does not seem to want, a Kante or even a Glenn Whelan in his team. Further back, Ake will join an enduring cast of character actors in defence: Steve Cook, Charlie Daniels and Simon Francis are all veterans of the Championship promotion campaign of 2015. Howe's selections at the back has been remarkably consistent. Tyrone Mings may yet force his way into contention and provide some pace at the back. But defence is not a strength, with 67 goals conceded last term.

If early results go against them, Bournemouth could be in for a difficult year.

Strengths: Unpredictability and choice in attack. Defoe is a good signing and there may be more to come from Ibe, Afobe (if he stays) and King.

Weaknesses: Unbalanced squad and questions about ultimate quality in key areas.

To sum up: It's going to be touch and go out there.

Predicted finish: 17th

Brighton & Hove Albion


The first ever Premier League club named after two towns at once. This most demographically blessed of clubs - with its wealthy and growing catchment area, and nary another football team in sight - has taken its time coming to the Premier League. But it seems to have come well prepared. Brighton were every bit as good as Newcastle last season, and look to have the quality of staff required to survive and even thrive at the top level.

There is not a huge amount of Premier League experience in the squad, but such experience is fairly rare in promoted clubs nowadays. At the back, manager Chris Hughton has recruited Australia's No.1, Matthew Ryan, to replace former No.1 David Stockdale. Lewis Dunk, Shane Duffy and Uwe Huenemeier all have the potential to be Premier League centre-backs, with Dunk especially promising. At right-back, Czech U-21 international Ales Mateju has presumably been signed as the long term successor to Liam Rosenior, one of the side's few top flight veterans. Austrian international Markus Suttner joins at left-back where he will contest the position with Cameroon's Gaetan Bong.

Midfield was a strong suit last term, but Hughton has nonetheless gone to market to recruit two midfield schemers from the continent, in Pascal Gross and Davy Propper. Propper in particular has an impressive CV, having proven himself at PSV and broken into the Dutch national team. The new boys will provide fresh challenge to Dale Stephens and the Israeli Biram Kayal, who anchored the midfield in the last campaign,. In attack, Brighton have mostly kept faith with the men who set up the goals that won promotion. Creative midfielders Solly March, Jamie Murphy and Jiri Skalak, and forwards Anthony Knockaert, Glenn Murray and Tomer Hemed, can all be expect to be selected.

There's a good age balance in the squad, with many of the better players and new recruits in, or approaching, their prime, and plenty of older heads like Rosenior and Murray (each 33) to offer guidance. Brighton place little reliance on youngsters and, with the exception of Mateju, their key recruits are all mature players. In terms of weaknesses, the addition of a proven top-flight goalscorer would be welcome, and there are perhaps some doubts as to how the midfield will cope with the pace and physicality of the Premier League (though Murray and the similarly rumbustious Hemed, up front, will have no such qualms).

Strengths: Balance of quality across the team, sound summer recuitment; unlike many promoted sides, likely to create plenty of chances.

Weaknesses: Lack of Premier League experience. May struggle to defend on the flanks, with very attack-minded wide midfielders and unproven options at full-back.

To sum up: Best of the promoted sides.

Predicted finish: 13th but don't be surprised if they climb a bit higher.



Often a manager's dealings in the summer window give away his thoughts about the season ahead. This year, Sean Dyche's main recruits have been grizzled lower-half battlers: Phil Bardsley, formerly of Sunderland and Stoke, Jack Cork from Swansea, and another Stoke man, Jon Walters. Alright, Walters is a winger, but he's an industro-winger, and likes to defend from the front. It looks like Dyche sees trouble aherad.

He may be right. Burnley have lost two of their key players from last term, with Andre Gray leaving for Watford and Michael Keane for Everton. At the time of writing, neither has been replaced. Burnley might just be able to live without Gray - his sale looks good value for the selling club, with nine league goals apparently now worth GBP18.5m. But the loss of Keane, one of the division's most promising centre-backs, will surely hurt. The youthful talent heading out the door contrasts sharply with the grey-muzzled dogs of war coming the other way.

If some good comes of the Keane transfer, it will be the chance for James Tarkowski to cement his place in defence alongside Ben Mee. Burnley have no other central defenders with meaningful Premier League experience. Bardsley and Leeds United's young Charlie Taylor have been drafted to create more depth and challenge at full-back, although it is unlikely the former will edge out the accomplished Matt Lowton. Taylor, promising at 23 years old, may have more luck displacing Stephen Ward.

In midfield, solid contributions can be expected from Jeff Hendrick, Steven Defour and Scott Arfield.  Cork adds more of the same; he is a doughty performer at this level but not a regular game-changer. For the unexpected, Burnley must expect to rely on Robbie Brady, among whose virtues reliability is not always foremost. Brady's career thus far has flickered rather than blazed; the same is largely true of Sam Vokes, Gray's erstwhile partner up front. Vokes, with the assistance of Walters and Ashley Barnes, will surely force a few goals, but will it be enough to better last year's haul of 39, the worst of any side that avoided relegation?

Burnley's relative success last year depended on an unexpectedly resistant defence. The loss of Keane diminishes their prospects of reproducing that. Any fragility that emerges at the back may cast an unwelcome spotlight on the under-powered attack.

Strengths: With keeper Tom Heaton behind Mee, Tarkowski, Lowton and Taylor, Burnley still have a good first choice defence. Starting midfield is likewise diligent and competitive. Dyche's canny stewardship is probably worth 5 points a season.

Weaknesses: Attack, although at least Walters and Vokes can be expected to enjoy the inevitable scrap. Squad thin in all areas. Very limited creativity.

To sum up: Dyche is a fighter but he knows relegation is a real possibility this time out.

Prediction: 18th and out.



Hazard, Costa, Pedro, Willian... the quantity of cutting-edge weaponry that Chelsea can unleash on opponents makes the Trump/Kim nuclear showdown look like a pub scuffle. The Blues, of course, enter the competition as the men in possession, and most debates are framed merely in terms of who will pose them the sternest challenge.

Summer business has consisted of sensible reinforcements in key areas. Tiemoue Balayoko has been hired as a straight replacement for Nemanja Matic, and will bring even more pace and energy to the engine room. Under Antonio Conte, Chelsea have relied on a powerhouse central midfield to screen their distinctive three-man defence and to free the front men to play. Expect Cesc Fabregas, now showing the first signs of having passed his prime, to be Plan B this season, albeit an important one.

Up front, reliance will naturally be placed once again on Eden Hazard, and Pedro or Willian in rotation, to make and take chances.  Who they will be making them for is open to question, as Diego Costa seems to have put his foot down to stay. Embarrassing as this is for Conte, he may come to be glad of it, as £30m man Alvaro Morata has the look of a player who will settle in the Premier League only slowly, if at all. His fee is perhaps the riskiest money advanced by any top English side this summer. There is now a depth of quality at the back, with the recruitment of Antonio Rudiger and the return from loan of the immensely promising Andreas Christensen adding support to Cahill, Azpilicueta and David Luiz.

Chelsea continue to look like the most compelling unit in the division, but if a crack side does emerge from the chasing pack to properly harry them, they are far from invincible. Their star forwards fired on all cylinders last season, but this has not always been the case, especially with Hazard and Pedro. While John Terry had become an essentially symbolic presence by the time of his departure, Chelsea have had to become a different side to cope, and none of his replacements has his consistency or composure. The squad could also be vulnerable to injuries - though Chelsea have a reputation for throwing money at anyone who's ever kicked a ball, the core of their matchday squad is a tight unit, and they are light on convincing back-ups in central midfield, where an injury to Fabregas would deny them their only true playmaker.

Good enough to be favourites, but within reach of the best of the rest, Chelsea have no room to be complacent.

Strengths: World class players in all departments, tactical focus and unity, explosive attacking from the flanks.

Weaknesses: Vulnerable to injuries in key positions. Uncertainty about selection at centre-forward.

To sum up: Not invincible. Will fall just short.

Predicted finish: 2nd.

Crystal Palace


The key question at Palace this year is how the squad will handle yet another regime change. There's reason to be cautiously optimistic. Frank de Boer has some pedigree as a manager - four successive titles with Ajax - and will enjoy plenty of goodwill. And the playing staff has shown flexibility in recent months, adapting to the considerable changes of method between the Pardew and Allardyce administrations. However, Allardyce  was an intense manager, his structures rigid and his methods immersive, all-or-nothing. De Boer will undoubtedly want to impart his own style, and two such angular changes of direction in quick succession may take some toll.

Light on resources for a club at this level, Palace's only permanent acquisition this year has been Jairo Riedewald, a former protege of De Boer at Ajax and an immensely promising centre-half. He joins the ranks of what, on paper at least, is a reasonable defence. Palace conceded a fair number of goals last season, but no more than was consistent with their overall finishing position. Scott Dann, James Tomkins, Jeff Schlupp and Joel Ward are other components of what should be a consistent enough unit, though the influential Damien Delaney will surely start to show his age.

The real factor behind Palace's brush with relegation worries last season was a brittleness, an inability to dig out or hold on to draws. They tied only 5 games, the joint lowest total in the division along with the equally erratic Swansea. Weakness in goal may have been one issue, and the club has done nothing to create any challenge to Wayne Hennessey in this department.

But the more proximate cause may be a distinct lack of steel in midfield. There's plenty of craft in a midsection boasting the talents of Yohan Cabaye, Jason Puncheon, James Macarthur and now the gifted Chelsea loanee, Ruben Loftus-Cheek. But there aren't too many battling qualities, nor natural ball-winners. The recruitment of Luka Milivojevic in January 2017 aimed to address this, and is so far seen as a success, but the midfield is still lightweight, and there aren't many seasoned back-ups to cover for injuries. Limited player he may have been, but the side still misses Mile Jedinak, now toiling a division lower with Aston Villa.

With defensive talent having become inordinately expensive, Palace will try to rely on a well honed system, rather than individual ability, when on the back foot. This makes it even more critical that De Boer hits the ground running with his tactics. The team can be more individualistic in attack. Patrick van Aanholt has found favour as a winger, and may well thrive on the left if De Boer does pursue a Conte-like 3-4-3 formation. Andros Townsend, if he stays, is an odd piece in the puzzle but a potent force on his day. Wilfried Zaha is becoming a consistent game-changer, and progress is the watchword for Christian Benteke too.

At 26, the outsize Belgian has already changed hands multiple times for big money, but to us he's always looked something short of complete. Last season's 15 goals, in a side that really needed them, marked a milestone of maturity for the striker, who may now be entering the power phase of his career. If that proves to be the case then Palace probably have only one  more season to enjoy his services, so they should make the most of it. The squad offers little else at centre-forward,

Strengths: Solid personnel in defence, and plenty of ability to create and score.

Weaknesses: Lack of physicality and grit, slight in defence, more marked in goal and sometimes critical in midfield. Palace often struggle to win the ball.

To sum up: Need a good start, but should be able to stay clear of relegation.

Predicted finish: 15th


Average at both scoring and conceding goals, Everton had a steady campaign last time out, but good enough to qualify for Europe. The last decade-and-a-half has often been a case of one step forward, one step back for the Goodison club, and te challenge this time will be to sustain league form while servicing Europa League commitments. They could even do what Everton have not done for thirty years, and mount a serious challenge for the European trophy.

First things first: Wayne Rooney is a great signing. At 31, the England veteran has a game more reliant on strength and skill than on pace, and has years more to give if he wants. But having achieved everything in the club game, Everton is perhaps the only club he could really get out of bed for. For a side shorn of the attacking energies of Romelu Lukaku, the free transfer could be a priceless recruit.

Ronald Koeman has continued the strengthening down the spine of the team, as Everton play the role of big spenders to which they are so unaccustomed. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford joins from Sunderland, central defender Michael Keane from Burnley, and midfielder Davy Klaassen from Ajax. It doesn't look like a bad investment of the Lukaku money, especially not in the case of Klaassen, who borders on world class and wasn't even especially expensive by 2017 standards. Young goalkeepers and defenders, however, often struggle for consistency, and it would be as unwise for Everton to place too much expectation on Keane as it was for Manchester City and England with his Goodison forbear, John Stones.

As their seventh -placed finish last term indicated, Everton were a good side even before the new blood. This is especially so in midfield where the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin, Idrissa Gueye and Tom Davies have created an efficient and disciplined unit for Klaassen to join. There will be real pressure on the Dutchman, however, to bring the creativity if Ross Barkley does leave. If he doesn't then Koeman will have a nice tactical problem to suffer. Defence, meanwhile, was a strength last year but with the titan figures of Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka both well past their thirtieth birthdays, Everton need the renewal at the back that Keane will bring.- and more. (They also need Seamus Coleman back from his horrific leg break, but will have to wait until autumn).

The major question mark is in attack. Koeman's preference for a back three frees up room for Yannick Bolasie or the rehabilitated Kevin Mirallas to provide creative options without compromising midfield strength. But only Rooney and Sandro look like Premier League standard first-choice strikers. Koeman will want them to form a partnership, because Rooney isn't a natural lone striker; it's something of a gamble given that Sandro really has only one season behind him of successfully leading the line in a top league. He, of all of the summer signings, looks a little overpriced, and a lot is riding on his form.

On paper, Everton are a significantly better side than last term. But as Spurs proved after selling Gareth Bale, it's not always easy to use a transfer bonanza to kick on to the next level. Not if the gap to be bridged is too wide. Having finished seventh last time out, and with no realistic prospect of challenging the big six for resources on a sustained basis, it's not easy to see how Everton truly move forward in the Premier League. Perhaps, therefore, Europe should be the focus for their new, brighter galaxy of stars.

Strengths: Now a confident, compact and highly skilled unit across the field, meaningfully reinforced over the summer.

Weaknesses: A few pressure points in terms of reliance on newbies in key positions: goal, centre-back, centre-forward. Packed fixture schedule and limited squad depth. Could use more signings before the window closes.

To sum up: All dressed up, but is there anywhere to go? May need to seek outlet in Europe.

Predicted finish: 8th.

Huddersfield Town


No club but one has won more than a single penalty shoot-out in the Football League playoff system. The one club is Huddersfield, and they've done it six times.

That gives you a measure of how Huddersfield got here. Lacking the squads assembled expensively by Newcastle and Brighton, their promotion was borne of grit, nerve, and the tactical wisdom of manager David Wagner.

Like most clubs promoted in similar circumstances, Huddersfield will be looking to maintain their style of play and squad unity as much as possible while adapting to the higher level. The vast majority of the promotion team have, sensibly, been retained. New joiners are several, but not so numerous as to swamp the squad.

Huddersfield were not especially resilient at the back last season, winning promotion despite a negative goal difference. Their young goalkeeper for the campaign, Danny Ward, nonetheless impressed, and the failure to secure a permanent move from parent club Liverpool represents the biggest disappointment of Wagner's summer in the market. The manager's compatriots Christopher Schindler and Michael Hefele can be expected to retain their places, but both have reached the primes of their careers without substantial experience in the higher leagues. Over time, Danish stopper Zanka, who takes his nickname from a character in the film "Cool Runnings" but otherwise appears a serious customer, may. step into one of their boots. Scott Malone, signed from Fulham, can be expected to start at left-back where he probably offers more than the established Chris Loewe, who doesn't take his name from the Pet Shop Boys (as far as we're aware). Captain Tom Smith, a former Manchester City junior and now experienced campaigner, will hold down the right.

It is no disservice to a newly promoted defence assembled on a budget to say they'll probably benefit from a bit of screening. Most important of Wagner's new recruit may thus be Danny Williams, a holding midfielder and American international, taken from playoff opponents Reading. He's likely to form the heart of the midfield along with fellow anchorman Jonathan Hogg, and Australian international Aaron Mooy. Mooy was one of Huddersfield's own heroes of the final, and last season's player of the year. His loan from Manchester City has been made permanent at some expense. Undoubtedly a cultured player, Mooy is however somewhat inexperienced and is a sometimes languid playmaker, a kind of player that can find the Premier League a difficult place to make a home (see also Charlie Adam). Intriguingly, Dean Whitehead, at 35, figured little in last season's campaign but with well over 200 Premier League games, don't bet against a comeback to bring his eminence grise to bear.

Wagner is likely to persevere with. high-pressing 4-2-3-1 and so will be pleased to have retained the services of Elias Kachunga - another loan converted to permanence - and to have recruited Tom Ince. The former Derby man has been ready to make his mark on the Premier League for some time, and may have expected to have received offers from more established top flight clubs. He will, however, be eminently suited to cutting inside from the wing for the Terriers, and looks to be one of the best recruits of the summer.

Ince, Kachunga and Rajiv van la Parra will be trying to lay on goals primarily for new arrivals Steve Mounie and Laurent Depoitre. It's going to be virtually a cold start in attack for these two, and this is one of the key contingencies of Huddersfield's season. Last year they lacked a serious goalscoring centre-forward; Nakhi Wells, still at the club but likely to find opportunities limited, led the line all season and bagged 9 league goals. Wagner makes no secret that Mounie, who is undoubtedly a big unit, has been signed in part to be a physical target-man, but he is raw, and how his style will work with the high press remains to be seen. Depoitre, an experienced Belgian with a solitary international cap to his name, has scored fairly consistently in Belgium. He did nothing of note at Porto last term, but looks the likelier of the two recruits to make an impact.

With limited goalscoring threat and the usual challenges of taking a squad of, fundamentally, Championship level players into the Premier League, it looks like being a difficult campaign for Wagner. A man who appears to relish a challenge, and a former disciple of the irrepressible Juergen Klopp, he would expect nothing less.

Strengths: Continuity, belief. Good individuals in midfield.

Weaknesses: Lack of big league quality or experience. Difficult to believe in the defence (but then, we'd have said that about Burnley...)

To sum up: Likely to be spirited, but unlikely to retain their place.

Predicted finish: 19th

Friday, 11 August 2017

Football Hipster's Premier League Preview: Part 1

Welcome back to the Football Hipster blog. Launched in the World Cup season of 2013-14, we're pleased to see you again at the start of another World Cup year. We'll  bringing you more of our almost-famous previews as competitions get underway across Europe.

You might ask: what could be less football hipster than a Premier League preview? The answer: being predictable. So here it is - Part I, at least, of our run-down of the coming season.

Because we're in a rush, we'll be writing this preview in stages. In the first part, we'll focus on the two teams who caught us out when planning this article, by inexplicably playing on the Friday night before the proper start of the season.

Here they are: Arsenal and Leicester. More to follow, including our predicted league table.



Sanchez: Gone by September?
Under fire he may be, but give Arsene Wenger credit where due: he can hold a squad together. The big news this summer is that Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil have both turned up back at the Emirates for the big kick-off, despite the lack of Champions League football this term.

For Arsenal fans, the retention of those two (if Sanchez doesn't wander off before the window ends) will feel almost as good as two new signings. Which is just as well, because actual activity in the transfer market has been no more than incremental. Yes, Alexandre Lacazette is an ambitious signing. Quick, goal-hungry and comfortable on the ball, he may well restore to the attack some of the fizz of the Thierry Henry era. However, he's just one overdue addition to a part of the squad that has obviously needed reinforcement for some time. There's been no new recruitment in the sparsely-stocked central defensive department, while the only other major signing, Bosnian left-back Sead Kolasinac, is a good player but a quixotic signing in  a side already equipped with two Premier League class full-backs on each side.

Nonetheless, the cliche remains true: on its day, Arsenal's first XI is as good as any in the Premier League. Sadly, its day doesn't come often enough. The inconsistency is sometimes blamed on individuals, but its root cause is a lack of depth in the squad; with few backup players of anything like the quality of the starters, Arsenal lack their rivals' capacity to bring in a pinch-hitter to relieve pressure on a flagging star, or give breathing space to an emerging talent like the talented, but sometimes nervy Shkrodan Mustafi.

For a famously mercurial side, Arsenal's league form has ultimately become predictable. You have to go back a full decade, to 2007-08, to find the last Arsenal title challenge sustained into the last few weeks of the season. It's hard to see 2017-18 as a breakout year, especially with Wenger entering the season unsure of his first choice combination in any of central defence, midfield or attack. Nonetheless, with Liverpool likely to fade, 4th place should be achievable unless injuries bite.

The centre of the park should really sort itself out. Granit Xhaka and the returning Jack Wilshere are both amply good enough to operate in the Premier League as, respectively, enforcer and deep-lying playmaker. It's time for them to step up. There's obviously an abundance of talent in AM, even if Sanchez is utterly wasted as a left winger.  It's uncertain, however, which of Danny Welbeck or Olivier Giroud can best partner Lacazette. The former, would be our guess, although Theo Walcott would make for a truly terrifying day out for slower opposition defenders. Sadly, no combination drawn from the five established centre-backs will strike similar fear into quality forwards.

With the Europa League now a fully-fledged mini-league monster, it's not even as if the lack of Champions League distraction will help Arsenal greatly. On the other hand, it's well within their capabilities to actually go and win Europe's second club competition, something which would give Wenger his first European crown. We're predicting them to edge a Champions League place on league form, but the Europa League may represent an easier route back to the promised land.

Strengths: Flair, pace, creativity in attack, as ever. Potentially the best midfield in the division, as ever.

Weaknesses: Inconsistency, lack of squad depth. As ever.

To sum up: Pretty, but playing for the consolation prizes.

Predicted finish: 4th



Leicester City


Ndidi: one-man engine room
Steady as she goes. The volatility of Leicester's league performances in the past three years has been despite the consistency of their squad management, team selection, and recruitment policies. If Craig Shakespeare's still unproven managerial skills prove up to the job, this should be the year the Foxes establish themselves as a solid mid-table presence in the Stoke or Southampton mould.

Leicester should not lack for a sense of identity. The backbone of the squad is still that which won the division in 2016, made up of decent, seasoned players who collectively are more than their sum as parts.

The team's strength - even without N'Golo Kante, the only truly damaging loss since the title was won - is an industrious and disciplined midfield, which acts  as both a screen for a somewhat one-paced defence, and a launchpad for the running of the side's few quality attackers. Sitting deep, Wilfred Ndidi at times last season threatened  to make the Leicester faithful forget Kante's name, while Danny Drinkwater and Marc Albrighton combine footballing intelligence with continuous shuttle-running to provide a stage on which Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy can shine.

This time out, the midfield has been reinforced by one of the most impressive signings made by any Premier League side this summer. At 29, Vicente Iborra has won the Europa League three times, and was a stalwart of the Sevilla team that did the same. While he may lack the mobility of Drinkwater or Ndidi, he is a similarly effective defensive presence, and also a contributor to many an attack. He should introduce into the centre of the Leicester park a guile that has been lacking since Esteban Cambiasso moved on.

Reinforcements elsewhere have been sound. While, at EUR27m, Kelechi Iheanacho may illustrate how insane football's money game has become, he showed a native eye for goal at Manchester City and will relieve the pressure on Jamie Vardy, a decade his senior. A more influential signing however may be Harry Maguire, a ball-playing defender whose form last time out for Hull outshone their miserable season. He may look a typical English centre-half, but Maguire is comfortable on the ball and fond of an attacking foray. His run two-thirds of the field at Old Trafford last year bore genuine comparison to Beckenbauer. He will add welcome verve to an otherwise rather artless defence which could be a key weakness.

Strengths: A settled style of play and a squad that suits it. Excellent midfield. Canny reinforcements mean more class down the spine of the team.

Weaknesses: Maguire aside, Leicester's defence is ageing and slowing, and few of their first-team backs would get in any other side with European aspirations.

To sum up: The ship steadied, should be good for upper-mid-table.

Predicted finish: 9th.