Saturday, 16 August 2014

Previewing The Premier League 2014/15

By Shane Thomas

For swathes of last season, Sky Sports proffered the line that it was probably the best season in Premier League history. Beyond shameless self-promotion, Sky made the common mistake of confusing drama with greatness.
There's no doubt that last season was pretty dramatic[1], with at one stage four sides in with a chance of claiming the league title. That the season ended with only seven points between the top four clubs shows how evenly matched things were at the top of the table. But it wasn't memorable in terms of sheer excellence. One would have to look at the 1998/99 or 2007/08 season for that.

As we approach the start of the 2014/15, I'd expect similar platitudes over the next ten months[2], as looking at the potential contenders for the top, we could see another season in which the gap between first and fourth - or even first and sixth - many be a relatively small amount.

So, with that in mind, let's evaluate the leading teams, and see just how wrong my predictions will be come the end of the season:


For the first time in about four years, Arsenal fans go into a new season with genuine feelings of optimism. The last time was because they had an attack that boasted Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri - who should have been good enough to fire the Gunners to the title.

However, all three of them are now at rival Premier League clubs. But, what Arsenal have now is a trophy. In this specific context, that is huge. There has been an ever-growing feeling of restlessness at the club since relocating to The Emirates Stadium. Ending the trophy drought has allowed for calm, which should aid the mental preparations of the playing and coaching staff.

Also, it seems manager, Arsene Wenger has remembered that he has a substantial transfer fund at his disposal. We'll be unlikely to hear frustrated chants of, "Spend some f****** money" from Gooners, as Wenger has done just that. Over £60 million has been spent to bring in Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina.

While all decent signings, I do have a few worries when analysing the Gunners chances this season[3]. Chambers, Ospina and Sanchez all have what it takes to succeed at The Emirates, but Chambers is still only 19, and may need time to develop.

Ospina may spend quite a bit of time playing second fiddle to Wojciech Szczensy, and while big things are expected from Sanchez, adapting to the Premier League can be an onerous task. Martin Samuel may be right when he says that while Sanchez is a fine player, he's a "level just below the very top".

A more explosive player than technical, the challenge isn't just getting the Chilean up to speed with English football, but also to determine whether he will function more effectively as a central striker, or as a wide forward. For now, his best role may be as an impact substitute.

For Arsenal to succeed this season, they will depend heavily the same core of players from last campaign; the central defensive partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, while the chief goal threat will likely come from Aaron Ramsey - who's become as key to the Gunners as Frank Lampard was to Chelsea n his pomp.

The potential upside comes from Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott. Walcott was blossoming into a consistent goal threat until he picked up a serious knee injury in January. And while Ozil's debut season showed moments of promise, he failed to have the impact commensurate with the transfer fee spent to bring him to The Emirates. If Ozil can train on in his second season, and Walcott's injury hasn't robbed him of his pace, then Arsenal are capable of a title challenge. Otherwise, it could be another anxiety-ridden battle to remain in the top 4.



While cliches are often a way of expressing a viewpoint without using one's brain cells, the received wisdom about Jose Mourinho teams being stronger in their second season does bear weight. Looking at what he did in his sophomore campaigns at Chelsea (the first time around), Inter Milan, and Real Madrid shows that the Portugese's "little horse" is all grown up.

Despite possessing an expensively assembled squad last season, it was one that was ultimately unbalanced. So while Chelsea were capable of impressive victories against their title rivals, they lacked consistency, as well as the necessary craft to able to unlock the defensive bulwarks put up by lower ranked teams such as Crystal Palace and West Ham.

More so than any other side, Chelsea have reinforced in the specific areas that needed strengthening. Diego Costa promises to give them the firepower in attack that they sorely missed last season. Felipe Luis is an excellent replacement for Ashley Cole at left-back[4]. With Cesar Azpilicueta likely to return to his more natural position at right-back (in conjunction with the redoubtable Branislav Ivanovic), could we even see a Mourinho side where the full-backs have the latitude to attack?

However, I feel the key acquisition (and one that's been overlooked) is the signing of Cesc Fabregas. While his return to Barcelona may be perceived as a failure, his statistics during that time show that he was still an effective asset. Barcelona (and Arsenal's) loss is Chelsea's gain[5].

While Fabregas will be expected to provide the guile Chelsea lacked last season, where he could be most decisive is with his goal threat. Chelsea's three recent title winning successes came off the back of the consistent goalscoring of Frank Lampard. As age finally caught up with him, it's little surprise that Chelsea have been a less consistent force in the league.

But with Fabregas, as he showed in his later years at Arsenal, they have a man with the intelligence to find space in the penalty area, and the composure to score with regularity. If he can hit 20+ goals, Chelsea may not need Costa to hit the ground running in his debut season in England.

In Mourinho's rather ludicrous press conference last season, when he referred to Chelsea as a "little horse", he also inferred that it would be the 2014/15 season when his team would be ready to take on England's best, stating, "...then, we can race".

There will be huge pressure on the Portugese to win something this season, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him sacrifice the Champions League as a result, but as far as the Premier League goes? Chelsea are ready to race.



I don't know when it happened, but is it fair to say that Everton are most people's "second team" these days[6]? Outside of Liverpool fans, it's tough to find anyone that actively dislikes Everton.

Roberto Martinez's team impressed many last season, but I wonder if the Spaniard is cursing their failure to finish in the top four. After dismantling Arsenal at Goodison Park, fourth place was theirs to lose. But they lost it. And with many of their competitors strengthening during the summer, one has to surmise that the Toffees may have missed their window to break into the Premier League elite.

That said, Martinez is one of the Premier League's most sagacious and inventive managers. The return of teams playing with a back three could be a feature of the next ten months. Well, Martinez was doing that with Wigan three seasons ago.

And the outlay to bring Romelu Lukaku to the club makes a firm statement that Everton aren't about to show any deference to the league's more heralded sides.

The main concern with Everton is that while their first XI is a match for anyone, the lack of quality backup is a problem. It's what ultimately did for them as Arsenal beat them to fourth last season. And then there's the Europa League. It's a competition unfairly derided in this country, but I've yet to see an English club combine a good run in the tournament with a strong showing in the league.

Personally, I feel Everton look a side suited to cup football. If Martinez takes the Europa League seriously, they could be a good outside bet the win the competition - especially as the winners now get a place in the Champions League.



If Everton let an opportunity slip[7] last season, then that goes double for Liverpool. The title was in their hands, but failed to get over the line. However, given that not a soul - bar the most Panglossian of Liverpool fans - had foreseen them making a title challenge at all, Liverpool are a club to be taken seriously again.

While irksome to some, Brendan Rodgers appears to be one of the sharpest managerial minds in the country, and while the loss of Luis Suarez will weaken the club[8], I have been very impressed with the business they've done to offset the departure of the Uruguayan.

However, I don't feel Liverpool will be in the title picture as we move from March into April. Simply because there are still a few question marks around the squad.

Dejan Lovren is a much needed defensive signing, but he looks short of a reliable partner. Rickie Lambert and Philippe Coutinho are two of my favourite Premier League players to watch, but they will need to contribute 30+ goals, otherwise a huge burden will be placed on Daniel Sturridge

Liverpool's summer signings - especially the exciting Lazar Markovic - should form the core of a team regularly challenging for trophies over the next few seasons, but they may have initial teething problems. After the breathless adventure of last season, Liverpool may be in for a slight reality check, but as long as those at Anfield remain patient, success is likely to follow.



For the past three seasons, there is a lot about City that feels redolent of Arsenal circa 2001-2005. While the most impressive outfit in England during that time, Arsenal never managed to retain the league title. That's not something City will want to replicate.

First, while I've mentioned that Liverpool stumbled in last season's title race, that's not to throw shade at City. No team flukes the league, and they were worthy winners in 2013/14.

One of the concerns regarding City is their heavy reliance on a small core of first-team players. When you look beyond Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Sergio Aguero, and the indomitable Yaya Toure, City are still a strong side, but a beatable one.

It will be key that trusted lieutenants such as Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko, and Fernandinho repeat their impressive performances of last season. And if new signings Fernando, Eliaquim Mangala and Bacary Sagna all settle quickly, then City should be favourites to retain the title.

However, that list of caveats makes City's grip on the league a somewhat flimsy one. The owners are eyeing the Champions League, and that focus could be a hindrance in City's title defence. This will be the season when we see whether Manchester City are just a good team, or a champion one.



After a season of change for United last time around, we approach... well, another season of change. David Moyes has departed to be replaced by Louis Van Gaal.

Of all the sides expected to finish near the top, United may be the most difficult to appraise. Van Gaal will likely blow away the stale feeling that hampered them last season. And he's definitely one of the most inventive thinkers in the game. Certain players are unlikely to perform as woefully as they did in 2013/14, and a potential attacking trident of Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie and Juan Mata is a frightening prospect for opposition defences.

But while Ander Herrera should bolster United's threadbare midfield, there's still a current lack of quality in United's engine room. And while a back three has its advantages - for one, it could get the most out of Luke Shaw and Rafael in wing-back roles - it requires a solid unit in the centre of defence to work effectively, and they appear to lack a defensive leader in the mould of a Daniele De Rossi.

United's attacking threat will make them problematic opposition at times, and could lead to them having success in one of the domestic cup competitions. Expect excitement but inconsistency at Old Trafford this season.



After yet another false start at White Hart Lane, with Andre Villas-Boas being sacked, (and Tim Sherwood inexplicably being put in charge for the rest of the season) chairman, Daniel Levy has hit the reset button yet again, with Mauricio Pochettino now in charge. The task for the Argentine is to try and get Spurs back into the Champions League for the first time since 2011[9].

Pochettino's excellent work at Southampton should make him a good fit, and I'd expect players who struggled to adapt to the Premier League last season to be a lot more effective this campaign. This could be a big season for Christian Eriksen, and while I'll be mocked for this, I can even see Roberto Soldado becoming a useful asset for Spurs.

The main problem I see at Tottenham is in defence. Rumours abound on the futures of Michael Dawson and Vlad Chiriches, and Jan Vertonghen may be looked upon the lead the back line. There's a potential soft centre at the club that could derail their bid to finish in the top four. However, expect Tottenham to be difficult opponents, and they take some big scalps at White Hart Lane this season.


Yes, this list is biased towards who I think will end in the top seven. But don't worry. Just to show how wrong I often am, here's how I think the rest of the Premier League will end up in May:

8) Stoke
9) Newcastle
10) West Ham
11) Swansea
12) QPR
13) Southampton
14) Sunderland
15) Hull
16) Aston Villa
17) Leicester
18) Crystal Palace
19) West Brom
20) Burnley

[1] - Apart from anything else, Sky already had its "holy grail" Premier League moment. It'll never be repeated. Their lead commentator even said so.

[2] - Yep. Ten whole months. It's a long ride, and seldom a comfortable one.

[3] - Well, I am a pessimistic Arsenal fan.

[4] - One of the many mysteries of the World Cup was how Luis failed to make the Brazil squad.

[5] - Fabregas is my pre-season tip to be the 2014/15 Football of the Year.

[6] - Which given their racist past - and present - raises eyebrows.

[7] - Depending on your persuasion, slip is either the most apposite, or most cruel choice of words.

[8] - Although, my relief that Suarez is no longer around to poison the Premier League is beyond palpable.

[9] - For clarity's sake, Levy isn't trying to make Spurs one of England's premier clubs. He's under orders from his boss (and tax-dodger) Joe Lewis is to sell the club at a hefty profit. To them, Spurs aren't one of English football's greatest clubs. They're an investment.

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