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

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