News of Neymar’s big money transfer from Barcelona to Paris-St. Germain has grabbed the headlines the last two weeks, almost overshadowing the really big news: The Premier League is back! This year it kicks off with a weeknight clash on Friday….and the only way it could be more NFL-like would be for Arsenal to open up against the LA Rams instead of versus Leicester City. (Don’t laugh too hard, Stan Kroenke’s probably already working on it.)
Last year saw a return to order of sorts, with Chelsea claiming the title as the previous champion, Leicester City fell back to earth. And as it has been for the last several seasons, the Premier League is poised to be the most competitive and exciting one in the entire world. So let’s break the league into four groups, and rank the teams from worst to first, countdown-style:
Quartile 4: Just Happy to be Here
#20: Brighton & Hove Albion: Brighton are freshly up from the English Championship (the second flight), and let’s be blunt: They will struggle. They boast a squad that performed well last season, but there are valid questions about whether they’ve added enough to their squad over the summer to be competitive with the Man Uniteds and Chelseas of the world. The guess here is, unfortunately, no. Verdict: Right back down to the Championship.
#19: Huddersfield Town: At 1500-1 to win the league, this may be the biggest group of underdogs in Premier League history. After finishing no higher than 16th in the Championship the previous four seasons, Huddersfield shocked English football by being promoted to the Premier League. More improbably, they did it through a playoff, and despite allowing more goals than they scored. Given all that, how will they fare against the big fish of world football? Verdict: This a team that all neutral fans will cheer for, but it’s going to be an uphill battle from day one.
#18: Burnley: This marks the club’s first ever back-to-back seasons in the Premier League. Good news: Last year it was their stellar record at home (Turf Moor) that kept them up. Bad news: They only won once on the road and tired in the second half of the season (just 11 points from their last 15 games). That doesn’t lead one to have great hopes for 2017-18. Verdict: The party’s over for Burnley, though no club will be comfortable playing at Turf Moor.
#17: Swansea: After former US Men’s National Team manager Bob Bradley’s disastrous tenure at Swansea, it may be decades before another American gets a shot to manage in the Premier League. But Swansea rebounded late in the year and stayed up. What now? It looks extremely likely that they’ll lose their best player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, which will be hard to overcome. Verdict: Safety, but just barely.
#16: Stoke City: This is a consistent (read: boring) side with a manager who delivers consistent (read: boring) results. They should be fine defensively, but where will the goals come from? They’ll need to hope for Peter Crouch to score a ton of headers or for Saido Berahino to reclaim the form that made him a potential Tottenham target just two years ago. Verdict: Zzzzzzzzzz…
Quartile 3: The Soft Underbelly
These are the teams that end up cruising to safety, never truly threatened with relegation, but not scaring any of the top teams that much, either. Something you can count on: One of these squads will give Arsenal a shock defeat in November, casting doubt on the Gunners’ season (again).
#15: Newcastle United: Past performance indicates that, on average, one of the newly-promoted clubs will survive in the Premier League. So this is not a wild pick, but one that’s based on statistics as much as anything else. If for nothing else, Newcastle are worth watching for their soap opera-like qualities, chiefly the Premier League’s most hated owner (Mike Ashley) and a big-name manager (Rafa Benitez), who stuck with the team despite being relegated last year. Verdict: They’ll do enough to stay up, though it may be uncomfortable at times. And Benitez will probably not last the season.
#14: West Bromwich Albion: West Brom stayed in the Premier League comfortably last year, but not all is well. They stumbled down the stretch, and haven’t done much over the summer. And when your captain (Darrin Fletcher) leaves for another Premier League struggler, well…that doesn’t help fans approach this season with much optimism. Verdict: The pragmatic (I’m being nice here) Tony Pulis will figure out a way to keep them competitive. But if you’re a lover of “the beautiful game”, don’t get up early to watch West Brom games.
#13: Bournemouth: Compared to many teams on this list—especially the smaller clubs—Bournemouth is extremely stable. They continue to be led by Eddie Howe, despite him being frequently mentioned for much bigger jobs. And they added to the squad with ageless Jermaine Defoe and a couple of Chelsea cast-offs. Verdict: Bournemouth’s defensive questions will keep them in the bottom half of the league.
#12: Watford: Just one spot away from relegation last season, Watford looks to have a more comfortable year. They’ll be relying on new manager Marco Silva, who comes from Hull City with some promise. There is some ammo for Silva to work with, including Troy Deeny, Tom Cleverley and a couple of England U-21 midfielders. Verdict: Watford has a brutal schedule to begin the season—if they can settle in, this team will be just fine.
#11: Crystal Palace: Palace have established themselves as a solid Premier League team, but this season there are many questions, primarily involving the managerial situation. “Big Sam” Allardyce stepped down after last season, and has been replaced by a relatively big name, Frank de Boer. But which de Boer will Crystal Palace see this year? The one who lead Holland’s Ajax to 4 straight titles? Or the one who was run out of the Inter Milan job in less than 90 days? Verdict: It will be an interesting transition from Big Sam’s style to de Boer, but this team has talent.
Quartile 2: The Outside Threats
A few years ago, the Premier League was the “big four or five”, and no one else was close. But the dramatic rise in TV money to all clubs and the shocking Leicester City changed all that. Now, this group is populated by some big spending teams that can challenge the top teams in the league on any given day—as well as likely finish third or fourth in any other league in Europe.
#10: Southampton: The Saints seem to have the formula down: Sell great young players to the big clubs and endure almost yearly coaching turnover, yet prosper in the league. This year’s no different, with Mauricio Pellegrino of Argentina taking over. Pellegrino has a decent side at his disposal, and a good track record from Portugal. Verdict: Southampton ekes out their 5th straight top ten finish.
#9: Leicester City: The magic of 2015-16 faded (predictably) last year, resulting in heroic manager Claudio Ranieri being sacked mid-season. But the Foxes rebounded near the end of the year, and have made some smart-looking acquisitions during the summer. Much of their fate this season rests on whether they can keep midfielder Riyad Mahrez: with him, they have an outside shot at the Europa League. Verdict: Mahrez stays for one more year and Leicester floats around mid-point in the league table.
#8: Everton: Everton have been one of the surprises of the summer, spending big for a mid-tier club (though to be fair, they were largely spending the proceeds of the sale of Romelu Lukaku). Replacing Lukaku are Wayne Rooney and a number of others, including potentially Gylfi Sigurdsson from Swansea. (You want to talk about NBA-style salary inflation? Everton may have to spend more than 50 million to obtain the MF from Iceland.) On paper they should be improved, but how much? Verdict: This is a dangerous team, but let’s remember they were 15 points behind fourth-place Liverpool. Tough to play, but no trophies.
#7: West Ham: Like Everton, West Ham surprised many with their additions this summer: Marko Arnautovic, Joe Hart and most recently Chicharito…prompting a possible run on claret and blue jerseys in Mexico City. All joking aside, West Ham is a serious team with the ability to beat anyone else on any given day. Verdict: Chicharito, Arnautovic and Andy Carroll give West Ham many strategic options going forward. This could be a fun team to watch.
#6: Liverpool: Jurgen Klopp did a tremendous job last year guiding the Reds back to the Champions League, but it gets tougher this season. Liverpool has talent, but not the depth to succeed if Sadio Mane can’t stay fit this year. And no one knows if heartbeat/playmaker Phillipe Coutinho will stick around or depart for the sunnier climate of Barcelona. You couldn’t completely fault Liverpool if they sell Coutinho now…but like selling your house in a hot market for big money, what then? Verdict: The exertion necessary to compete in the Champions League will tire out this team and its energetic manager. Back to the Europa League…
Quartile 1: The Contenders
Though the previous group is nipping at their heels, these are still the big dogs most likely to win the title.
#5: Tottenham Hotspur: This is still one of the Premier League’s younger, more exciting teams, with skill, technical ability and toughness. But while most of their competitors strengthened their squads over the summer, Spurs did not: They didn’t add even one player, and even chose to sell Kyle Walker to Man City. Verdict: The pressure of Champions League football coupled with the strangeness of a season played in cavernous Wembley (while their stadium is rebuilt in a joint venture with the NFL) equals fifth place.
#4: Arsenal: The Gunners had their worst league finish two decades, but rebounded to win the FA Cup over Chelsea. So what does that mean for this season? As usual, no one knows. The Gunners modestly improved the team in the summer, bringing in striker Alexandre Lacazette and winger Sead Kolasinac…but again, as usual, they could have done more. The biggest risk taken was not to sell Alexis and Ozil before they entered the final year of their contracts, banking that the two would be especially motivated to play well this season. Verdict: Arsenal sneak past Tottenham in the final days for the last Champions League spot.
#3: Chelsea: There are a few significant changes to the squad that lifted the trophy last year, with Diego Costa being shown the door (although that’s not a done deal) in favor of Alvaro Morata. Morata looks the part, but can he fill a role that has been played by a physical striker for years? Other questions: When will Eden Hazard be back? Will the three-man back line continue to be as successful now that everyone’s seen it and many have incorporated it themselves? Can GK Courtois remain healthy? (If not, we’ll get to see the wildly-entertaining Willy Caballero in goal.) Verdict: Last year’s champions take a while to adjust to a new focal point up front, and they slip to third.
#2: Manchester United: Jose Mourinho had a decent first year as manager, but “The Special One” hates to lose any competitions. They’ve spent money again this offseason, but is it in the right places? There’s an interesting mix of experience (Ibrahimovic, De Gea, Carrick) and youth (Pogba, Rashford, Martial) but this is not exactly a settled side. New signing Romelu Lukaku has to prove that he can score in the big games that matter, not just against smaller teams. Verdict: United finishes just a bit short in the title race. Oh, and The Special One provides his own brand of off-field drama, as always.
#1: Manchester City: Yes, that leaves Man City as the champion. This isn’t a reach. But just look at what they’ve done since last year’s semi-disappointment: City had a devastating attack last year, and an iffy defense…so they went out and spent £130 million on fullbacks alone. Pep Guardiola also remedied his Claudio Bravo mistake (we all saw that coming) and brought in young Brasilian keeper Ederson. They might still upgrade in central defense, bolstering what’s already the league’s best squad from top to bottom: This is a team whose second string could finish in the top 8 in the league. Verdict: Guardiola’s team won’t resolve all of its defensive issues, but it will score enough that it won’t matter. The Premier League trophy returns to the blue half of Manchester.
Written By Scott Morris