Gareth Wheeler brings you the news, notes, and commentary each week from the Barclay's Premier League.
Welcome to the 2014-15 Barclays Premier League season. The new campaign kicks off 7:45am et Saturday at Old Trafford, a month and three days after the FIFA World Cup Final was played in Rio de Janeiro. There is truly no rest for those engaged in world football.
Predictions and forecasts are demanded on the eve of a new term. The exercise has its merits, but altogether, a difficult task prognosticating the ups and downs of a marathon nine-plus month season. The transfer window remaining open until the end of the month means much wheeling and dealing left to be done with potential moves being true difference makers.
Shane McNeil and the TSN.ca team have provided outstanding coverage all week looking ahead and previewing the upcoming season. Please check out their fine work across the website. My opening Premier League Notebook of the season merely builds on the previews with my personal predictions, one through 20 and how I believe each team will fare.
1) Arsenal – Let's call 2013-14 a building block season for the Gunners. The club's nine-year trophy drought came to an end and no team led the Premier League for as many match-days last season than Arsenal. This season's edition arguable has the most intriguing talent as any team from North London in over a decade. Manager Arsene Wenger clearly senses opportunity knocking and has continued to open the pocketbook to improve his squad for both present and future. There has been no bigger off-season signing than Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean is an ideal fit in Wenger's side and his preference not to rely on a prototypical number nine. The 25-year-old scored 19 goals and added 10 assists for Barcelona in La Liga last year and threatens to improve with a skill-set of equal pace and purpose modeled to succeed in Britain. Wenger simply has a wealth of options in attack. Acquisitions of defenders Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers, along with goalkeeper David Ospina, all make for some tidy work in the summer transfer window. Arsenal is a central midfielder away from being what I believe is a dominant force. Wenger has already splashed the cash. Spending a pretty penny more on Real Madrid's Sami Khedira is a no-brainer, if the player is truly available. Khedira could be the move that puts Arsenal over the talktop. A top four finish is expected, but I'm predicting Arsenal's first league title since 2003-04.
2) Manchester United – All eyes are on new manager Louis van Gaal and United's attempt to rebound after a shock seventh-place finish a season ago. Individuals at the club during their North American preseason tour told me the squad was "a shambles" under David Moyes - "a nice man, but in over his head." There was little communication or role definition. The early reports under van Gaal are overwhelmingly positive. The players have already bought into to a proven winner and someone not afraid to change the mold/set-up within the team and/or United's training facilities at Carrington. It's a cultural shift at United and the hope is that it will manifest itself on the field. Expectations of a title seem a little far-fetched at this point, considering the team needs to add at least two defenders, at least one wing player and a central midfield dynamo to be considered a complete squad. Even without a squad to van Gaal's liking, it's not a team to be underestimated. Without the distraction of European football, United should be able to remain fresh with a tight squad rotation to maximize points in league play. An easy start to the season (Swansea, Sunderland, the three promoted clubs and West Ham) certainly helps the new manager and allows for any late signings before the transfer window closes to settle before the meat of the schedule comes about. Van Gaal's 3-5-2 formation looks to be dynamic, going undefeated in the pre-season. Wayne Rooney was one of the few bright spots last season and the reward is the captain's armband. With Rooney, van Persie, and Mata all playing in their natural positions, along with a proper set-up and approach from the manager, it all bodes well for a bounce-back season.
3) Chelsea – The best team on paper and the favourite in the eyes of many, Chelsea seems to be the team to beat. In fairness, I thought the same a season ago before Jose Mourinho and co. let the title slip away. It was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy on behlf of Mourinho, downplaying his squad's chances throughout. Chelsea was never the “little horse” in the race despite the suggestion as such by the manager. No excuses this time around. It came as no surprise Chelsea opened the pocketbook and brought in superior reinforcements. Striker Diego Costa joins from Atletico Madrid and gives Mourinho exactly what he desired - a true out-and-out goal scorer to lead the attack. I'm not a big fan of the player and he has much to prove making the jump to the Premier League after sleepwalking through the group stage of the World Cup. Cesc Fabregas is the biggest acquisition and an even bigger surprise he would decide to join another London club not named Arsenal. Thibault Courtois returns to Chelsea and will take over as the number-one goalkeeper. This Chelsea team really has no true weakness, as long as John Terry can maintain the surprising form he showed last year. Perhaps I'm being ultimately too negative in predicting another third place finish. I have no doubt this team will win silverware. I'm just not sure it will come in the league.
4) Manchester City – The reigning Premier League champions have been limited in the transfer market, but were still able to address their biggest need being at the back. Eliaquim Mangala and Bacary Sagna both join the backline, which looked vulnerable at times. The most significant summer moves involved the club locking up David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany to long-term contracts. This team isn't without its flaws. The suggestion Frank Lampard will be a key player over the opening months is laughable. Super Frank seems more of a fit based upon like ownership at City and his new MLS side, NYCFC. We will also soon find out if Joe Hart's tenure as number-one goalkeeper will come to an end with the arrival of Manuel Pellegrini favourite Willy Caballero. It's extremely difficult to defend as Champions. Perhaps, this is a team more suited to a sustained run in the Champions League this time around.
5) Everton – Roberto Martinez's squad is one on the rise and my most realistic outside team that could surprise and navigate itself into the top four. It's a reach, but there is a lot to like here. With a club record 72 points last season, Martinez was able to get the club to pay big money to lock up Romelu Lukaku on a permanent. The team was able to hold on to their top players and that kind of consistency can go a long way to starting the season well and building throughout. European football will test the club, but will be something Martinez will relish. He's one of the brightest managers in the game and I have no doubt a likewise successful season is in store. Continued growth of Ross Barkley and players like John Stones gives reason for excitement and the wingback duo of Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman are as sound as any at their position.
6) Liverpool – The write-up on Liverpool is simple: the team lost the best player in the league and replaced him with good, not great footballers. Luis Suarez, for all his negative character traits, is an outstanding player. Liverpool created a safe haven for the Uruguayan misfit, constructing conditions to succeed. Suarez put up remarkable numbers a season ago, scoring 31 goals on 181 shots while adding 12 assists in 33 Premier League matches. His move to Barcelona cannot be understated – he's virtually an irreplaceable player. Spurs struggled with the same issue a season ago trying to replace Gareth Bale. It becomes even more complex as Liverpool is back in the Champions League with Brendan Rodgers's side facing much greater demands. The goal-scoring pressure now falls on Daniel Sturridge and 19-year old Raheem Sterling. There is much to like about the English duo that have emerged as legitimate star players domestically. Consistency and team support will be key. Philippe Coutinho is coming off an outstanding preseason and looks to be an important player. Liverpool has spent to bring in depth and reinforcements. Yet serious questions can reasonably be asked about whether the Southampton trio (Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren) is good enough to make a profound difference and whether the team has merely bought quantity over quality. The good news is Rodgers has proven to get the most out of his team, flexible in formation with a group that played the most attractive and progressive football in the league a year ago. A step back is predictable. The question is how far.
7) Tottenham Hotspur – Mauricio Pochettino is the new man in charge and looks to be a decent hire at White Hart Lane after surprising success at Southampton. It may take time, however, to exert his influence while bringing in new players he wants to execute his system. Rumours swirl that upwards of 10 players are on the chopping block and influential players at that. It was a mish-mash approach to team building last summer after the sale of Gareth Bale and it simply didn't come off as planned. The talent is plain to see, but the mix doesn't seem right. Twenty-two-year-old Erik Lamela was frozen out after Andre Villas-Boas was sacked, but there is reason to believe the talent will come good. Lamela shined in the preseason, showing glimpses of why he was a big money purchase from Roma a summer prior. The biggest concerns lay in an erratic back four. Thankfully, Hugo Lloris remains one of the best goalkeepers in the world, assuring a professional approach from the back out. Look for this to be a transition year as Pochettino pulls the strings before putting a true stamp on his new side.
8) Stoke City – A solid team that added some interesting parts over the summer. Bojan Krkic joins from Barcelona and will have every opportunity to reach his promise. It's not the flashiest team to join, but his skill-set is desperately needed in a team short on natural talent. Manager Mark Hughes was entrusted to convert a limited team under Tony Pulis into one with more invention. Marko Arnautovic, newcomer Mame Biram Diouf and Krkic give him the speed and creativity the Potters haven't had in the past. It's hard to see any team breaking into the top seven, but Stoke City is the next best thing.
9) Newcastle United – It was a disastrous final four months of the season for Newcastle. Yohan Cabaye's move to PSG ripped the heart out of what was left in a beleaguered squad. Newcastle became an embarrassment as one of the worst teams from week to week. Multiple appealing summer signings hope to bring back respectable play to a proud club. Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere, Siem de Jong, Daryl Janmaat and Facundo Ferreyra all can play significant roles. Questions persist, though, especially defensively. Hatem Ben Arfa's future must be dealt with in the coming weeks and, most importantly, patience has been lost with manager Alan Pardew. A strong start to the season is a virtual must.
10) Southampton – Some are predicting the worst for the Saints after a fire sale summer. I'm not so negative. Southampton sold high on numerous assets. Letting impressive youngsters Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers leave hurts, but the offers were too good to refuse. Ronald Koeman was an astute hire and Southampton has quietly gone about filling the holes vacated. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster is an upgrade on the position a season ago. Koeman also dipped into the transfer market bringing two bright talents from the Eredivisie: Dusan Tadic who will fill the Adam Lallana role after scoring 16 goals while adding 14 assists a season ago with FC Twente and Graziano Pelle, an out and out striker who scored 23 goals in 28 appearances with Feyenoord. It may take time for Southampton's new crop to adjust, as well as for the impressive Jay Rodriguez to return to full fitness. Southampton will be fine in the end.
11) Hull City – The Tigers surprised many with a solid season in England's top flight en route to qualification into Europe. It's a double-edged sword for Hull City - smaller clubs venturing into European play oftentimes have trouble balancing the demands of the domestic schedule. Steve Bruce hasn't brought in enough reinforcements as of yet, but it's not without trying. Rumoured interested in Manchester United's Danny Welbeck intigues after selling off Shane Long to Southampton. Tom Ince and Andrew Robertson look to be astute purchases, but further improvements will go a long way to solidifying Hull as a solid midtable side.
12) West Ham United – The critics of Sam Allardyce are many. The casual will never embrace the direct approach of Big Sam. Instead, it's survival and relative security at Upton Park. A new big, physical aerial attack up front of newcomer Enner Valencia and Andy Carroll seemed suitable to unsettle, but that was before the human band-aid that is Carroll succumbed to injury again, making his presence more of a punchline than poignant. This team is as average as its gets. Will the club and supporters have patience with Allardyce?
13) Swansea City – Few teams have lost more in recent months than the Welsh side. Manager Michael Laudrup went after Swansea failed to manage the difficult balance between European and domestic play. The squad has lost the often-injured Michu, Chico Flores, Michel Vorm, Jonathan de Guzman, Ben Davies and Pablo Hernandez among others. Manager Garry Monk has work to do. The good thing is he has managed to keep striker Wilfried Bony and will pair him with Bafetimbi Gomis up front. If they can keep Ki Sung-yueng, there is reason to believe the Swans will be safe.
14) Queens Park Rangers – Harry Redknapp's team returns to the Premier League after a year in the Championship. The squad is full of Premier League experience and look the most prepared of the promoted teams to stay in the top flight. Redknapp set out securing players who can help defensively. Rio Ferdinand isn't the player he once was, but can be a stabilizing force. Steven Caulker is the much more inspiring signing, while Mauricio Isla will help immensely on the wing. How Charlie Austin fares against Premier League defensives will be vital. He, alongside Loic Remy in attack, makes for a nice pairing. This team has the ability to finish better than where I predict.
15) Sunderland – There is a lot to like about Gus Poyet and his great escape after Paolo Di Canio set Sunderland on a path to almost certain relegation. Improving on last season's 14th-place finish would be another act of sheer brilliance. The team is weak at the back, although Patrick van Aanholt, on loan from Chelsea, looks to be a solution on the left. Jack Rodwell looks to re-launch his once promising career after wasting away at Manchester City. Inevitably, success or failure will hinge on goals. Jozy Altidore was a disaster a season ago, while Steven Fletcher was injured. These two players are key.
16) West Brom Albion – I worry about Albion's chances this season. WBA has relegation fight written all over them. Two managers a season ago, West Brom settled on Alan Irvine as the new man at the helm, an underwhelming choice in many eyes. The club has some young talent coming through the pipeline, but relies on mediocre talent to carry the load. Key off-season signings of defender Joleon Lescott and striker Brown Ideye do not come with any guarantees.
17) Leicester City – Nigel Pearson's Foxes ran away with the Championship, not looking back after taking top spot on Boxing Day. One loss in 26 matches was testament to consistency. A whole new battle lays ahead, though. It's often the case a team with a solid spine and hard-to-break down physical presence can avoid relegation their first year back in the Premier League and this is the strength of Leicester. Pearson took a massive gamble using up the vast majority of the transfer budget on 28-year-old striker Leandro Ulloa. The Argentine is a proven goal scorer, but never at the level of the Prem. The first five games of the season against some of the top competition is as rude a welcome as one can have. I expect the team to settle after the less than ideal introduction and do just enough to get by.
18) Aston Villa –It's been four years on the hop that Villa has danced with relegation. Expect more of the same in year five with the worst-case scenario a realistic proposition. The team continues to waver, lacking true progress, and has actually showed signs of regression. There is only so much that manager Paul Lambert can do. Adding Roy Keane to his coaching staff seems a sign of desperation. With an absentee owner unwilling to spend, Lambert has reached for Premier League retreads and lesser likes. Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson are borderline laughable signings, failing to evoke any kind of confidence. It will be another long year at Villa Park.
19) Crystal Palace – Manager Tony Pulis walks away just two days before the season. Dysfunction before a ball is even kicked spells bad news for a club that impressed under the former manager. Pulis transformed a mediocre squad into a group of fierce competitors and one of the more difficult match-ups in the league. Where do the Eagles go from here? The transfer dealings have been a mess and the club doesn't seem to want to spend to any level of significance. Until further notice of direction, a trip back to the Championship is all I can do for a team short on talent, a lack of a reliable talisman and no manager.
20) Burnley – A surprise promotion bringing Premier League football back to Turf Moor is a win in its own right. Burnley enters the season with virtually the same squad that finished second place in the Championship. The books are tight at the club, with manager Sean Dyche spending just 3.5 million pounds on six players. That's not going to cut it. The team needs more in the midfield and lacks a true goal-scorer. There is no question this is the weakest side in the top-flight. Enjoy it while it lasts.