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.

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