TTU Go Predicting: a Club-by-Club Premier League Preview 2014-5

Nudge

Our divisional previews of a year ago were so well received that we decided to go one better and offer a full set for 2014-5 even if bloggers enjoy the luxury of not being obliged to cover irrelevances such as the Community Shield. TTU staffer Ben Woolhead has a little extra time on his hands now after the masterful Newcastle United blog Black & White & Read All Over finally closed its doors after a decade. Here, Ben gives a club-by-club lowdown on the top echelon of English football.

Arsenal

It’s taken a while, but at long last Arsène Wenger seems to have developed a taste for this spending money malarkey. After shelling out more than £40 million for Mesut Ozil last summer, he’s not only struck the biggest single deal of this summer too, lavishing £35 million on Barcelona winger-cum-striker Alexis Sánchez, but blown a frankly mind-boggling £16 million on Southampton’s Calum Chambers, a full back with just 25 Premier League appearances to his name. More astute is the Professor’s replacement of France’s second-choice right back (Bacary Sagna) with their first (Mathieu Debuchy), and his decision to finally sign a competent goalkeeper, Colombia’s David Ospina – and for a bargain £3 million. The job of trying to accommodate his array of pacy attackers will no doubt made easier by Theo Walcott and/or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain being obligingly injured at regular and lengthy intervals. A tougher challenge, I suspect, will be to stop commenting on rival clubs’ business (most recently, whingeing about Man City’s loan deal for Frank Lampard and instead concentrate on finding a way to avoid being humiliated by them in crunch matches.

Verdict: Top four

Aston Villa

Poor Paul Lambert. As if he didn’t have enough to contend with, his Average Joe captain goes off to Brazil and comes back the lynchpin of the third-placed side’s defence and a wanted man the world over. Losing Ron Vlaar would be the last thing he needs – not least because it would run counter to Villa’s apparent volte-face as regards age and experience. The fact that Yacouba Sylla, Nicklas Helenius and Antonio Luna – all young supposed first-teamers signed within the last year and a half – have been shipped out on loan suggests a tacit acknowledgement that the focus on youth has failed, especially when you consider that their replacements include Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Philippe Senderos. With Fulham now down in the Championship, Villa Park is evidently fast becoming the new retirement home for past-it Premier League players. Ashley Westwood may be maturing into a decent midfielder, but when your fate rests largely on the shoulders of one player – Christian Benteke, who at least, unlike Vlaar, won’t be in danger of suffering a World Cup hangover – then you know you’re in trouble.

Verdict: Relegated

Burnley

When you consider that until this summer Sean Dyche had paid out only one transfer fee while in charge of Burnley, what he’s achieved at Turf Moor in the last 18 months is little short of staggering. For those who thought he was harshly treated at Watford, unceremoniously swept out of Vicarage Road by Gino Pozzo’s new broom, it was a real pleasure to see the avuncular gravel-throated manager pilot the Clarets to automatic promotion while the Hornets and their countless continental imports toiled in the mid-table quagmire. If Dyche and his plucky have-a-go heroes want this to be more than just another 12-month sojourn in the Premier League for their club, then the strike partnership of Danny Ings and Sam Vokes will again be critical – and you wonder whether the arrivals of Lukas Jutkiewicz and Marvin Sordell might upset the balance. Dyche claims to have made more than 500 phone calls about potential signings in the close season, but while Burnley’s apparently principled and steadfast determination to live within their means is commendable in the context of ludicrous levels of spending elsewhere, the quality of their recruits thus far suggests that they won’t have enough to stay in the division.

Verdict: Relegated

Chelsea

£62 million for two players who managed a combined total of 160 minutes of game time (and very unimpressive minutes at that) as their much lauded side made an embarrassingly early exit? Suffice to say that the World Cup did not reflect well on Chelsea’s hefty investment in Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas. They’re both much better players than that tournament would suggest, though – as are Eden Hazard and Gary Cahill – and Jose Mourinho will no doubt have allowed himself a chuckle at the fact that he’d already trousered PSG’s £40 million before David Luiz had his semi-final meltdown. Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard have both left Stamford Bridge, but there was still some room for sentimentality in the return of Didier Drogba – a mystifying decision from both parties in view of the fairytale ending his Chelsea career already had. Backed by a rock-solid defence, Drogba and Costa’s brief is simple: fire the Blues to the title. With some assistance from the likes of André Schürrle – one Chelsea player who did enhance his reputation in Germany – that objective is a distinct possibility.

Verdict: Runners-up

Crystal Palace

As a side who were widely written off before last season kicked off but who ultimately survived with relative ease, Crystal Palace will be a shining beacon to Burnley. Like Sean Dyche, Tony Pulis proved himself to be a miracle-working alchemist, picking up the pieces after an out-of-his-depth Ian Holloway hastily bailed out. Unlike Dyche, though, he was aided by his board’s gift of substantial funds in January, the consequent flurry of signings helping to keep the Eagles comfortably afloat. Palace play a less prosaic brand of football than became Pulis’ trademark at Stoke, and – with new addition Fraizer Campbell (poacher), Dwight Gayle (pace), Glenn Murray (classic target man) and Marouane Chamakh (flair) – he now has a variety of strikers to suit different game plans. On the flanks, Jason Puncheon enjoyed an excellent campaign last year and Yannick Bolasie has done a fine job of stepping into Wilfried Zaha’s size nines. However, the fact that Kagisho Dikagcoi has travelled in the opposite direction to Campbell along the M4 and Spanish flop José Campaña has left for Sampdoria means they look a little light in central midfield – injury to Mile Jedinak would be disastrous – while a defence strengthened by the arrival of man mountain Brede Hangeland from Fulham is still short of an orthodox left back.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Everton

Jose Mourinho didn’t get where he is today by making poor judgement calls, but you have to question the wisdom of re-signing the now-pensionable Didier Drogba and letting a younger, fitter model leave. The Portuguese has justified the decision by criticising Romelu Lukaku’s attitude and saying he wanted to be “clearly the first choice striker” – but, given Chelsea’s problems in forward areas and the Belgian’s tremendous form on loan at Goodison Park, that status would arguably have been merited. Either way, it’s now water under the bridge, and Lukaku has joined Everton for £28 million after being somewhat upstaged in Brazil by the Toffees’ cross-city rivals’ new acquisition Divock Origi. Gareth Barry has also made his loan deal permanent – a sensible move on the part of the club, as he provides the platform for his more attack-minded midfield colleagues to perform – but otherwise it’s been a relatively quiet summer. Everton have underrated players all over the pitch and a class act in the dugout, but you suspect they would still need substantial investment to propel them into the promised land of the top four. Perhaps the most Toffees fans can hope for is seeing Arouna Koné in a blue shirt again.

Verdict: Chasing Europe

Hull City

According to the slogan, it’s never dull in Hull. Tom Ince appears to agree, having passed up the chance to move to Milan and wound up his world tour touting himself to all and sundry by finally settling on Humberside. The former Seasider has been joined at the KC Stadium by Robert Snodgrass, an excellent performer even in a floundering Norwich side, and Jake Livermore, whose services have cost a hefty £8 million. Owner Assem Allam has infamously proposed renaming the club Hull Tigers, but, given Steve Bruce’s Best of British transfer policy, perhaps Hull Bulldogs would be more appropriate. The furore over the name change has made Allam a controversial figure among fans, but there’s no doubt he has given his manager his full backing, most evidently in funding the purchase of an all-new £14 million strikeforce of Nikica Jelavić and Shane Long in January. Bruce has delivered on his side of the deal too, securing another season of Premier League football and, via the FA Cup final, the club’s first ever foray into continental competition. However, the Europa League, should they make it through, has been the undoing of clubs with larger, better squads – most recently Swansea – so they need to be wary.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Leicester City

When the Foxes were crowned winners of the Championship in May, billionaire owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha delivered an ominous warning that they would be prepared to spend up to £180 million to take the Premier League by storm. Three months later and the sum total of their recruitment drive – Brighton striker Leonardo Ulloa for an exorbitant £8 million, plus Charlton goalkeeper Ben Hamer, top-flight also-rans Matthew Upson and Marc Albrighton and a couple of Man Utd fledglings – has the rest of the division tittering with amusement rather than shaking with fear. The chequebook may well come out in January, depending on their circumstances at the time, but for the moment Nigel Pearson largely has to make do with what he’s got. Mercurial wide men Anthony Knockaert and Riyad Mahrez could cause problems for opposing full backs, while Jamie Vardy will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Grant Holt and Rickie Lambert as a former non-league forward who’s risen through the ranks to make his name in the top tier. All the same, while Manish Bhasin spent most of last year trying not to look smug, I imagine Gary Lineker will spend most of this trying not to look concerned.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Liverpool

The club’s talismanic player sold to Spain for an astronomical fee, and the cash put to use sourcing quality reinforcements from around the world – for Spurs last summer, read Liverpool this. The Reds had by far the thinnest squad of any side in the top four last season, but mercifully for Brendan Rodgers the lack of depth beneath the first team was never exposed by an injury crisis. He’s set about insuring against that possibility by attracting an impressive stream of recruits including Serbian forward Lazar Marković, German midfielder Emre Can and Southampton trio Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana. While they’ve paid over the odds for the latter pair (the £25 million fee for Lallana in particular is ludicrous in light of the fact that Bayern Munich playmaker and German World Cup winner Toni Kroos reportedly cost Real Madrid £1 million less), both will improve the side – especially Lovren, whose arrival will mean Martin Škrtel and Kolo Touré, both now liabilities in defence, can be dispensed with. Nevertheless, in the absence of Luis Suárez, there will be enormous pressure on Daniel Sturridge to score the goals (Lambert is clearly only a Plan B) and, having naively blown their title chances last year, Liverpool may labour under the weight of expectation this time around.

Verdict: Top four

Manchester City

What do you get for Manuel Pellegrini, the man who has everything? Stiffer competition for Joe Hart, in the form of Malaga’s Willy Caballero. Bacary Sagna, to sit on the bench each week admiring the league’s best full back Pablo Zabaleta while pocketing a cool £100,000 for the privilege. Fernando, to play alongside fellow Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho, just to mess with commentators and pundits. Frank Lampard, just to mess with Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger. Martin Demichelis may have won around the critics but isn’t getting any younger, so a second arrival from Porto, Eliaquim Mangala, is a useful signing. There’s a feeling too that Man City’s strikers need to rediscover their form – Álvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero went off the boil towards the end of the last campaign, and Stevan has yet to convince he’s worthy of even half of the £22 million fee he commanded. Complacency is perhaps Man City’s biggest enemy – they should be reminded of the fact that they effectively won the league by default as first Arsenal and then Liverpool self-destructed, while Chelsea couldn’t score. Otherwise, the only thing that might derail their title defence would be forgetting Yaya Touré’s birthday.

Verdict: Champions

Manchester United

As was clear from his decision to switch goalkeepers before the Netherlands v Costa Rica penalty shoot-out in Brazil, Louis van Gaal has considerable cojones. As the second man to take on arguably the toughest job in world football – being Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor – he’s going to need them. He’s got off to the sort of start of which Fergie would approve, winning the prestigious pre-season International Champions Cup while moaning about the “commercial activities” that led to the club’s involvement – and conveniently ignoring the fact that those activities are precisely what enables his board to spunk in excess of £60 million on two players. The pair in question – Luke Shaw (now the fourth most expensive defender in football history) and creative midfielder Ander Herrera (presumably no impostors were on hand to stymie the deal this time around) – won’t be enough to return the Red Devils to the top four, and neither will van Gaal’s compatriot Robin van Persie having an injury-free season (a remote possibility, admittedly). Michael Carrick is a shadow of his former self, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling aren’t fit to lace the boots of the now-departed Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand and, other than Bebé (a distant relation of George Weah, perhaps?), none of the dead wood (most notably Nani, Anderson and Tom Cleverley) has been cleared out.

Verdict: Chasing Europe

Newcastle United

After a schizophrenic season that was initially encouraging but ultimately torturous, my club has had an excellent summer. All it took to sign some players, it seems, was to sack the man specifically tasked with doing so. Now we’re acquiring them at such a rate that, in the case of Forest duo Jamaal Lascelles and Karl Darlow, we’re able to send them straight back from whence they came. Mathieu Debuchy has been replaced with a younger, cheaper and arguably better right back in the shape of World Cup semi-finalist Daryl Janmaat; Ajax captain Siem de Jong and French international Rémy Cabella have been procured to fill the gaping hole left by Yohan Cabaye’s January departure; our paltry options up front have been supplemented by Emmanuel Rivière, Facundo Ferreyra and Ayoze Pérez; and, to top it all off, we’ve royally pissed off the Mackems by bringing Geordie midfielder Jack Colback back home. Nevertheless, over the past couple of seasons we’ve become a soft touch on home turf; our defence still looks suspect; Mike Ashley is still in charge and liable to do something daft at the first signs that everything is running smoothly; and Alan Pardew is still in the dugout, somehow, despite losing all credibility and dignity last season. A visit from the defending champions on the opening weekend will pour cold water on naïve optimism and, even if we can overcome the various self-imposed obstacles in our way, our rivals for the European spots look too strong to be overhauled.

Verdict: Middle of the road

Queens Park Rangers

QPR started last season with an embarrassment of riches and so very nearly ended it with the embarrassment of not only failing to walk the Championship but of failing to escape the division at all. It took Bobby Zamora’s last-minute goal – the Hoops’ first shot on target – to defeat a superior Derby side in the play-off final and avert the impending Portsmouth-esque financial meltdown that some of us felt would have been just desserts for the outrageous hubris the club has shown over the past few years. Back in the big time, ’Appy ’Arry Redknapp has clearly identified the defence as his priority, partnering Rio Ferdinand with Steven Caulker and also pulling off the coup of persuading Chile star Mauricio Isla to swap Turin for west London. Further forward, Jordon Mutch has, like Caulker, been cherry-picked from relegated Cardiff, having shown more than enough promise during the Bluebirds’ doomed campaign to suggest it’s £6 million well spent. ’Arry would be well advised to now turn his attention to the fact that he’s seriously short-staffed in attack, with one of his three strikers Loïc Rémy still angling for a move. Meanwhile, anyone disappointed that the Premier League has lost a lunatic in David Luiz should naturally be consoled by the return of Joey Barton and Redknapp has continued to display a penchant for hiring former England managers by bringing in Glenn Hoddle.

Verdict: Middle of the road

Southampton

In his recent article about Southampton’s extraordinary summer, the BBC’s Ben Smith made the very valid point that individually all of the player sales could be justified, and indeed that the Saints board have made as much money as they conceivably could out of each deal; however, the cumulative effect of them means that the beating heart has been ripped out of the side. That has inevitably had a knock-on effect on morale and motivation, unsettling other stalwarts of the team like Morgan Schneiderlin into eyeing an exit route themselves (and publicly expressing disgruntlement when that route is blocked by the club). In taking to Twitter himself to post a picture of an empty training ground, new manager Ronald Koeman has shown a sense of humour about the club’s predicament, but you do wonder if he knew quite what an extensive and demanding rebuilding job he was signing up to. Perhaps he’s just grateful to be at St Mary’s rather than Bloomfield Road. Thus far, he’s used his knowledge of Dutch football to bring in forwards Graziano Pelle and Dušan Tadić from the Eredivisie, while thorn-in-the-club’s-side record signing Dani Osvaldo has been swapped for Inter Milan midfielder Saphir Taïder – but much work still remains to be done if the Saints are to avoid a season of struggle.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Stoke City

Phil Bardsley is about as archetypal a Stoke signing as they come, born to serve in a defence staffed with such (how to put this diplomatically?) robust, uncompromising figures as Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross and Andy Wilkinson. Likewise Steve Sidwell, a combative ball-winning central midfielder with a good engine. Deals like those make the Potters’ acquisition of Bojan Krkic all the more remarkable. At one time the Spaniard was the most hotly tipped talent in the world, and even at the tender age of 23 his CV already lists some of the biggest clubs in Europe: Barcelona, Roma, Milan, Ajax. If Mark Hughes is able to remodel the side around Krkić, much as Barcelona have with Lionel Messi, to allow him to play to his strengths and rediscover and deliver on that early promise, then the transfer may prove to be a masterstroke. Radical alteration to such a deeply ingrained playing style as Stoke’s may seem unlikely, but Peter Crouch is no longer an automatic first choice and wingers Matthew Etherington and Michael Kightly have both been released. If accommodating Krkić is a new problem, Hughes also faces a very familiar one, both for him and his predecessor Tony Pulis: how to get the team to perform as well on foreign soil as they do on their own.

Verdict: Middle of the road

Sunderland

Given our sparkling pre-Christmas form and the fact that they kicked off with that clown Paolo Di Canio at the helm, it’s saying something that the Mackem supporters arguably experienced a more enjoyable season than us: an exhilarating escape from relegation against all the odds, a League Cup final, a brace of derby victories (including a second 3-0 romp at St James’ Park in consecutive campaigns). So the miserable summer they’ve endured has naturally been met with much amusement on Tyneside. Sunderland have lost a Geordie (Colback), signed a Jordi (Gómez), traded out-of-contract Championship-level players with West Brom (Craig Gardner for Billy Jones), splashed £10 million on permacrock Jack Rodwell (who, like new teammate Adam Johnson, found Man City to be a graveyard for young English talent) and engaged in a comically desperate Benny Hill-style pursuit of Fabio Borini, a former loanee for whom they’re prepared to pay £14 million. They’re shaky in defence, lacklustre in midfield and blunt up front. Hopefully neither Gus Poyet and Conor Wickham nor the customary six points gleaned from encounters with us will be able to save them this time around.

Verdict: Relegated

Swansea City

After the highs of 2012-3, last year felt like an anti-climax for Swansea, their hard-earned and much prized first appearance in European competition providing the season highlight (a 3-0 win at the Mestalla) but also proving a blight on their league form. Clinging onto key men was as critical for rookie manager Garry Monk as bringing in new faces, and the club’s efforts have met with mixed results; Wilfried Bony and Ashley Williams remain on the books, but neither Ben Davies nor Michu could be persuaded to stay in south Wales and have joined Spurs and Napoli (on loan) respectively. If most of their incoming signings make sense – Bafetimbi Gomis to relieve some of the pressure on Bony; old boy Gylfi Sigurðsson to replace Michu; Jefferson Montero to give Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge some stiff competition on the wings – the permanent deal handed to Marvin Emnes, a player who was struggling to get into Aitor Karanka’s Boro side, was baffling. Another transitional season awaits, albeit without any Thursday night distractions.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Tottenham Hotspur

Having had the courage to go against the grain and promote from within, Spurs undid that good work by forcing Tim Sherwood out a third of the way into his 18-month contract, despite the former midfielder being, in statistical terms, the club’s most successful manager in the Premier League. Nevertheless, the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino, the softly spoken mastermind behind Southampton’s eighth-placed finish, looks a shrewd move. The only wonder is that he hasn’t brought any Saints players with him – though if rumours of interest in Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez are to be believed, it’s not for want of trying. Spurs’ only signing of any real note is Ben Davies, recruited to occupy the problematic left back slot – a reflection of the fact that Pochettino’s primary task is to get the best out of last summer’s expensive acquisitions, of whom only Christian Eriksen and perhaps Paulinho did themselves any justice. Might Spurs do better with lower expectations? Possibly, though last year’s top four all still look stronger and so they’re once again likely to be battling with Man Utd and Everton for the scraps that fall from the European table than for a seat at the table itself.

Verdict: Chasing Europe

West Bromwich Albion

A quick glance at a run-down of West Brom’s summer signings – Belgian Sebastian Pocognoli, Australian Jason Davidson, Costa Rican Cristian Gamboa, Joleon Lescott, Andre Wisdom, Chris Baird – is enough to indicate a preoccupation with defenders that’s bordering on the dangerously obsessive. It certainly suggests that Alan Irvine’s default tactic is going to be to park the bus. Not that he’s completely neglected to consider the other end of the pitch – even if he confessed to having never seen the club’s new record signing, Nigerian marksman Brown Ideye, play in the flesh. Somehow, I doubt that this is really the sort of thing to inspire confidence in the new manager for Baggies fans who received news of his appointment (a leftfield choice, to be sure) with about as much enthusiasm as if they’d learned their gran had just been mugged by Steve Bull. If Irvine fails, then the board’s trigger-happy hastiness in dispensing with Steve Clarke will look all the more foolish – and their prospects for Premier League survival will look ever more precarious.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

West Ham United

Alan Irvine might face an uphill battle to win over his club’s supporters, but at least he doesn’t have to win over the owner too. West Ham co-chairman David Gold’s explanation of how he came to accidentally favourite a tweet calling for Sam Allardyce’s head has the distinct ring of “The dog ate my homework” about it. Not that Fat Sam has had the opportunity to pay much attention to speculation about his future, thanks to a pre-season injury crisis/curse that has left both pony-tailed powerhouse Andy Carroll and new £12 million purchase Enner Valencia sidelined. Thank goodness, then, for former Birmingham forward Mauro Zarate – the only person standing between Carlton Cole and a first-team place. After all, Cole regularly struggles to hit a cow with a banjo, let alone its arse. As for Fat Sam, he continues to redefine the meaning of “playing football the West Ham way” for the time being (much to the chagrin of the supporters) but, you sense, may well be skating on thin ice if the Hammers get off to a sticky start.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

is the co-founder and co-author of Newcastle United blog Black & White & Read All Over. Since its inception in 2004, he's never been short of things to write about, be they messiahs returning, messiahs walking out, expletive-riddled press conferences or team-mates indulging in fisticuffs. He is the slightly shameful owner of a cardboard coathanger with Robert Lee's head on it, and is currently in search of a new lucky pub for watching televised games. Perhaps a new lucky team would be an easier option.

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5 Comments on "TTU Go Predicting: a Club-by-Club Premier League Preview 2014-5"

  1. Damian says:

    Great read as ever, Ben. It’s tough to predict the clubs at the bottom: my own prediction efforts have revolved around deciding which teams are ‘less bad’ than the other bad teams around them.

    Intrigued by your choice of Liverpool above Utd. The counter argument is that with no Europe and a proper manager, Utd will be better in the long haul than champions league novice Rodgers. I’m looking forward to finding out though.

    (Also agree regarding my own club, Arsenal, even though I was encouraged by Chambers and Alexis, along with the team’s performance on Sunday.)

  2. Alex Quayle says:

    I thank you for your endearing, but misplaced, faith in City this season. Sadly, I expect Chelsea to ‘Mourinho’ their way to the title based on clean sheets.

  3. Paul Nicholson says:

    A good read, which I did with the hope of pulling some tips to assist the composition of my fantasy league team – a difficult job with so many new players in the league.
    The divide between rich and poor widens, 10 years ago the talent seemed to spread more fairly across the division but now those teams outside the top 10 are truly left with paying over the odds for scraps and hopefuls.
    I see a two horse race between Man City and Chelsea at the top (that order), and a pretty interesting dogfight at the bottom with so many teams looking like they’re underpowered. Leicester, Burnley, West Brom, Sunderland, QPR, Hull, West Ham, Swansea, and probably Southampton and Palace – too many all hopeful only of survival.
    Roll on Saturday, game on!

  4. Lanterne Rouge says:

    I think managerial changes will have a huge bearing. As things stand, you would have to fancy West Ham for the drop but if Allardyce is jettisoned, they may bring in a replacement who can galvanise the squad – in the same way that Palace did last season in hiring Tony Pulis.

  5. Ben says:

    How quickly things change. The prospects for Palace and Hull both look much grimmer now that Pulis and Long have left respectively…

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