Saturday, 19 August 2017

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

No comments:

Post a Comment