Soccer fans rejoice as the English Premier League season begins this Friday. With a further influx of television money, teams have been breaking club transfer record fees for players and have created a league filled with parity, unpredictability and superstar players. Here is part one of Hitting the Field’s two-part season preview.
Remember, this is all speculation before the transfer window closes.
2016-17 finish: Champions
Projected finish: First
Antonio Conte’s Chelsea shocked the league last season, after a slow start going on a league-tying 13-game win streak and cementing a large lead over rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. This season Chelsea have only strengthened a strong side by signing Roma defender Antonio Rudiger and defensive midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko from Ligue 1 champions Monaco. With much maligned striker Diego Costa in limbo over his Chelsea future, the West London club signed Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata to lead the line. Morata has proved his talent with the Spain U-23 team as well as Real Madrid and Juventus. It may be a slow start for the champions, while waiting for Eden Hazard’s to return from ankle surgery, but if history is any indicator, expect Chelsea to be favorites.
2016-17 finish: Third
Projected finish: Second
After a season of transition and struggle for manager Pep Guardiola, Manchester City must rebound to be a title threat this season. City have never had issues scoring goals with the likes of Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne, but have hemorrhaged goals at the back. This season, City have bolstered their defensive lineup by signing full-backs Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy-who are now the two most expensive defenders in world soccer- in addition to snagging young goalkeeper Ederson to replace the struggling Claudio Bravo. The biggest challenge for this team will be keeping captain Vincent Kompany fit and limiting mistakes from center-back John Stones. Signing Bernardo Silva is also good cover for injury prone David Silva.
2016-17 finish: Sixth
Projected finish: Third
After a season of Zlatan Ibrahimovic carrying the team, Manchester United have splashed the cash to shore up the gaps in its side. While the 35-year-old Ibrahimovic recovers from a knee ligament injury, United spent more than $90 million on Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku from Everton. Despite having a strong goal-scoring record in the Premier League, with 25 last goals season, Lukaku is unproven for a top-tier team. Defensively, the team are stronger with center-back Victor Linedlof arriving from Benfica and midfielder Nemanja Matic from rivals Chelsea. Matic is especially important, as he will sit in front of the defense and allow Paul Pogba to roam freely around the park.
2016-17 finish: Second
Projected finish: Fourth
Once again, Tottenham’s young core came up just short of the title, but gained much experience. With Golden Boot winner Harry Kane and creative midfielders Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen remaining what’s new is very much the same. However, that similarity is concerning as Spurs have not signed one player this offseason despite facing another testing season with Premier League, Champions League and two cup campaigns. Spurs may have the best spine in the league and get winger Erik Lamela back from injury, but need depth outside of its youth academy to prosper or fear being left behind.
2016-17 finish: Fifth
Projected finish: Fifth
Arsenal once again boast a mainly unchanged side. Frenchman Alexandre Lacazette who scored 37 goals in all competitions for Lyon last year has become the attacks focal point. The Gunners also signed hard man Sead Kolasinac on a free transfer, who started life at Arsenal with a goal in the F.A. Community Shield. Arsenal’s biggest battle will be retaining Alexis Sanchez’s and Mesut Ozil’s interest if another below-average season occurs. If so, expect the Wenger Out allegiant to be back.
2016-17 finish: Fourth
Projected finish: Sixth
Liverpool are in much the same boat as Arsenal for the 2017-18 season. With Neymar leaving Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain for a world-record fee, much ambiguity is prevalent in the current squad. Barcelona have not been shy about hiding its interest in Brazilian starlet Phillippe Coutinho and when Barcelona knock, teams answer- ask Liverpool fans about Luis Suarez. However, Mohamed Salah returns to the league with something prove and have two British youngsters in Dominic Solanke and Andy Robertson, the latter plugging the hole at left-back. Liverpool have a tough European tie against Hoffenheim to worry about also, but Jurgen Klopp’s “heavy metal football” should be fun to watch.
2016-17 finish: Seventh
Projected finish: Seventh
With new ownership, Everton have made a significant investment in its squad, which will make the other Merseyside team much harder to play against. The major signing is bringing back cult hero Wayne Rooney who is Manchester United’s and England’s all-time scorer. How big of a role Rooney will have is yet to be seen as his body starts to deteriorate, but he will have a presence and leadership unmatched in the team’s locker room. Everton splashed the cash on England U-21 goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and Burnley Defender Michael Keane to shore up defensive frailties. In midfield, Davy Klaasen arrives from Ajax and are still favorites to capture Swansea’s Icelandic star, Gylfi Sigurdsson. This season will more than likely be a year of maturity before mounting an assault on the European spots in 2018-19.
2016-17 finish: Eighth
Projected finish: Eighth
After a trying 2016-17 season under manager Claude Puel, Southampton look to be back to their brilliant best with a high-pressing style under new manager Mauricio Pellegrino. The Saints have been quiet on the signing front until recently signing Mario Lemina for an undisclosed club-record fee from Juventus. Saints fans hope Dutch center-back Virgil van Dijk changes his mind about transferring, but rated at more than $60 million, if a big club makes an offer expect him to leave a large hole in the defense.
West Bromwich Albion
2016-17 finish: Ninth
Projected finish: Ninth
Putting aside my bias as a Wolverhampton Wanderers fan, these local rivals have built a solid foundation and are currently the only West Midlands club in the Premier League. Under the tutelage of Tony Pulis, The Baggies play a lock-down defensive style. The team remains largely unchanged, but spent $15 million plus on Southampton striker Jay Rodriguez, who is finally fit after compilations from an ACL rupture in 2014 and help Salomon Rondon and Hal Robson-Kanu in regard to goals.
West Ham United
2016-17 finish: Eleventh
Projected finish: Tenth
After striking out over the past several seasons, The Hammers have finally landed two attacking players with a goal scoring pedigree and Premier League experience. Mexican international Javier “Chicharito’” Hernandez returns to the league after spells at Real Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen. Hernandez is a poacher who feeds off scraps in the 18-yard box and with the number of second balls in English soccer, he should be a valuable asset for the club. West Ham have struggled for goals and assist since Dimitri Payet left the club and filling this role will be explosive Austrian Marko Arnautovic. Not only does he have venomous shot, he can also deliver the ball and cross defenders with ease. His fiery attitude may be an issue, but one The Hammers fans will embrace.