With the World Cup over and the Football League season already underway, attention turns to the Premier League, which begins in earnest once again this weekend. Here, the Nouse Sport Team make their predictions for the upcoming campaign.
Tom Fennelly – Sports Editor
Champions – Manchester City
Last year’s winners haven’t spent as lavishly as they usually would this summer, showing that Pellegrini seems satisfied (and rightfully so!) with the depth of his attacking options.
Instead his biggest signings have added to their defensive depth through Fernando and Mangala. And it’s their depth that continues to give them the edge and, much like I predicted last time round, this will give them consistency to score lots of goals, even against top teams. And, yes, I did see that they failed to score against Arsenal in the FA Community Shield (supported by McDonald’s), but this was a game where they missed certain key players and, more importantly, the depth that they’re used to. I mean, who brings on Scott Sinclair? Regardless of who they play, as long as they don’t get outnumbered in midfield, they’ll always be able to score more than their opposition and retain the title.
Top Four – Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool
Arsenal’s signings of Alexis Sanchez, Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers, the confidence of finally winning a trophy, and Sanogo suddenly realising that he’s a footballer will mean a strong season for them, but they lack City’s depth. Mourinho’s Chelsea will be their usual conservative and counter-attacking selves; they’ll continue to edge out enough games by small margins but they’ll inevitably lose 1-0 to Burnley and miss out on vital points. Liverpool should carry on Brendan Rodgers’ vision for another season, but the loss of Suarez might be too big of a hole for the likes of Sturridge, Lambert and Coutinho to fill. So why haven’t I backed those other big names: Manchester United, Tottenham or Everton? Obviously they’ve all got a shout, but Tottenham and Everton lack the quality against the teams above, which is what makes the difference at the top. And United will inevitably fall apart mid-season when the players fall out with van Gaal’s authoritarian management style. Sometimes, there simply isn’t room at the top for everyone.
Relegation – Burnley, Crystal Palace, Leicester City
These three teams, in my mind, haven’t made the signings to survive this campaign. Newly promoted Burnley and Leicester may have the underdog status that will bring out the occasional shock result for them, but most of their squad lack the experience and the quality to really bring about survival – sometimes, the underdog tactic isn’t enough. As for Palace, Tony Pulis is a well-renowned manager but, again, he hasn’t developed his squad enough this summer and opponents would have worked out his Palace set-up by now. Whereas Queens Park Rangers and Sunderland have the managers and the depth of experiences, higher-calibre players to avoid the drop this time round anyway. If I was to replace any of the teams I’ve selected here, I’d swap Palace with West Brom, who survived by the skin of their teeth last time round; this season will be game of wits and determination for both Pulis and Alan Irvine.
Top Scorer – Sergio Aguero
With Suarez gone, it’s very hard to easily spot who will be that talismanic source of goals this season. Sturridge may fill the hole left by Suarez. Equally Sergio Aguero is more than capable of running away the Golden Boot in a free scoring Man City team, however goals for the reigning champions could come from anyway in a squad of such talent. Strikers from the lesser teams shouldn’t be overlooked, on the other hand. Stoke’s signing of Bojan is certainly an interesting one and he could be their only likely source of goals; the same can be said for Lukaku at Everton. Adebayor, if he starts the season like he finished the last one, will certainly get goals. Van Persie might re-find his form under new management at United and the same can be said for Giroud at Arsenal, especially with Alexis Sanchez being able to provide for him. New Chelsea signing Diego Costa is an aggressive player who certainly knows where the goal is. Despite this, if I’m going to back Man City to win the title, I’ve got to back Aguero as he leads them to another year of success.
Dark Horse – Newcastle United
It’s very rare that terms like “most busiest in the transfer window” and “Newcastle United” are uttered in the same sentence. But Pardew’s Magpies have certainly been busy this summer. Signings like Remy Cabella, Siem de Jong, Emmanuel Riviere, Jack Colback, Daryl Janmaat and Jamaal Lascelles may not be the biggest names in international football, but they are all very solid signings. In the mean time, they’ve managed to hold on to a squad that Pardew has been building for some time. Although most Newcastle fans that I speak to seem considerably irritated by the continued existence of their manager, a tenth placed finish suddenly seemed impressive in a season where they, by and large, kept up with the likes of Southampton. After a positive pre-season, things can only go up for the Toon; don’t expect miracles, but expect a strong season from a side who should be good to watch.
Jamie Summers – Sports Editor
Champions – Arsenal
In many ways, I expect the title race to be similar to last season, albeit with slightly different teams involved.
I believe it will be Arsenal at the top of the tree this time around; lifting the FA Cup and Community Shield has given them renewed optimism, providing a psychological edge over their rivals. Meanwhile, their new signings are impressive; Alexis Sanchez is a first-rate addition who will create a plethora of chances, while David Ospina provides competition for Wojciech Szczesny. Mathieu Debuchy is essentially an upgrade on Bacary Sagna, and Calum Chambers puts in steady performances that belie his early years. Perhaps their greatest addition, though, is fitness coach Shad Forsythe. There has been an endemic problem on the sports science side of things for Arsenal in recent years, but with a new approach, they should be able to avoid so many major injuries. If Ramsey and Wilshere can stay fit, Arsenal are a force to be reckoned with. The Gunners need to find more consistency to their game, but on their day they move the ball better than anyone else. Arsene Wenger will have renewed faith in his own project, and should lead Arsenal to success this season.
Top Four – Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United
There will be an intense battle this season, as a number of sides to try claim a Champions League spot. Arsenal seem resurgent, and Manchester City have such strength in depth and attacking prowess that they’ll be challenging right at the top. Chelsea will come unstuck against ‘lesser’ teams because they are so reactive and counter-attacking in nature, meaning they’ll beat big opposition before losing to Sunderland or Burnley. Yet Jose Mourinho knows how to win big games, which will see them okay. I think the final spot will be taken by Manchester United. Louis van Gaal is instilling the discipline, organisation and tactical nous that they woefully lacked under David Moyes, and although they don’t have the quality to win the league, they’ll be back in the top four. Brendan Rodgers is undertaking one of the most exciting projects in football at Anfield, and in a few years they could be unplayable. For now though, it’s one step at a time and I think they’ll miss out this time. Everton look strong once more, but not quite strong enough, while I sense that Tottenham could improve under Mauricio Pochettino, but actually finish in a lower position because the league is so competitive. It’ll likely be Europa League qualification for both of those sides.
Relegation – Leicester City, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa
I think Leicester City will be the only promoted side to be relegated this season. Nigel Pearson has steadily assembled a squad with an attacking philosophy, and they will take a few teams by surprise. However, because of their tactical approach to the game, they will also concede lots of goals, which may be their undoing. West Brom were terrible last season, crawling over the line at the end. Alan Irvine is a respected coach within the game, but I doubt they have the quality throughout their side to stay up. My third choice for the drop is Aston Villa. They’ve failed to make progress under Paul Lambert recently after two 15th-place finishes, and although Roy Keane has joined the coaching staff, his influence isn’t necessarily what Villa need to make progress. Randy Lerner’s decision to sell Villa has hampered Lambert’s transfer activity, and that will send them down. Otherwise, Burnley could struggle for goals, but they are defensively excellent and I think they are underrated by many; Sean Dyche should see them safe. Likewise, QPR look shaky, but Glenn Hoddle is a great tactical addition to the staff for them, and they should be just about okay this season.
Top Scorer – Olivier Giroud
Having backed Arsenal to claim the title for the first time in more than a decade, I think Olivier Giroud will be a key part of their success and claim the Golden Boot. The signing of Alexis Sanchez is an outstanding addition to his squad for Arsene Wenger, and he will pose a real threat in the final third. However, I think he won’t be on the scoresheet as much as he will be providing assists. With Mesut Özil back from the World Cup, perhaps with a point to prove, he will also create plenty of chances, and Giroud will be the target of these. If Arsenal can keep players fit with a new regime, then Giroud could have opportunities handed to him by the likes of Sanchez, Walcott, Wilshere, and Özil, meaning he should score plenty. Of the other players in the frame, I suspect that Robin van Persie will be plagued by injury and his best days are probably now gone. Sergio Aguero could score plenty but may find his chances limited if he plays on the left, while Daniel Sturridge may not quite receive the service to score enough goals. I’m also unconvinced about how Diego Costa will adapt to the Premier League at this stage.
Dark Horse – Stoke City
Stoke City made their name in the Premier League as a bunch of brutes that took the direct approach under Tony Pulis, having players that would drop-kick their own granny to win a 50/50 ball. When Mark Hughes went into the Britannia last season, there was a directive to rid Stoke of the reputation for playing this kind of ‘football’ (in the loosest possible terms). I think the extent to which he achieved that was a bit overstated, but he got them passing the ball more than they did, and built solid foundations to kick on this season. There’s the sense that it’s a slow evolution into a new team, and this season is the next stage in the project. The signing of Bojan Krkic is undoubtedly a massive coup for Stoke, and if he’s utilised in the right way then he could be scoring plenty of goals for them. Hughes has also made other useful additions, including Dionatan Teixeira and Phil Bardsley. If things gel properly, then Stoke could better last season’s 9th-place finish and be comfortable in the top half. That said, I picked Fulham as my team to watch last season, and they were sodding relegated.
Lewis Hill – Deputy Sports Editor
Champions – Chelsea
Without a doubt, Chelsea have done the best business during this summer transfer window, notably bringing in Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis to fill key positions. Chelsea managed to collect 82 points last year, just four behind Manchester City’s total, despite scoring just 71 goals in the process. This year, I expect them to surpass last year’s goal tally now that they finally have a top class striker in the form of Costa. Statistically, they had the best defence in the Premier League last year, conceding just 27 goals and even that has been strengthened with the arrival of Luis. Coupled with some quality in the centre of midfield, the Fabregas and Nemanja Matic pairing is looking promising already, then Chelsea have enough quality in their first team to distribute the ball quickly to their attacking players from defensive positions. With an exceptionally quick and skilful attacking three behind their lone striker, whether they be Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian, André Schurrle or Mohamed Salah, Chelsea are a force to be reckoned with going forward and are strong and resilient at the back. I expect them to challenge strongly for the title, even if they fail to lift the coveted trophy.
Top Four – Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United
I firmly believe that Manchester City and Arsenal will secure top four finishes. Both teams enjoyed successful seasons last year and both teams have bought well. City have secured the services of Porto duo Fernando and Eliaquim Mangala whilst Wenger has opened his wallet to sign Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean, who dazzled the world with his performances at the World Cup, will no doubt improve an already strong attacking Arsenal side with his pace and finishing. The fourth spot will be hotly contested this year, I expect Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham to all challenge for it, but I believe Manchester United will steal the fourth spot. With Louis van Gaal in charge and a new formation United seem to have already gained some of their old confidence back. New signings Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera, if a little expensive, will plug some of the gaps that the first team had last year. Liverpool will challenge United the most for a top four finish, but with the added demands of European football, something United don’t have and the loss of their talisman Luis Suarez, I don’t see them having as successful a season as last year’s and as a result I feel that they could be beaten to a top four spot.
Relegation – Burnley, West Bromwich Albion, Leicester City
I’ve tipped two of the clubs promoted from last season’s Championship to go down. I don’t feel that either Burnley or Leicester have enough talent in their squads to remain in the league. The other promoted side, QPR, are a team that I expect to stay up. They have bought some good players, especially the addition of Steven Caulker at centre back and if they hold onto Loic Remy then they will have a striker capable of firing them to safety. Leicester have signed some good players and were incredibly impressive last year but I feel that they would need their key players, such as Anthony Knockaert, to perform at a higher level if they wish to keep the club in the league, new signing Leonardo Ulloa’s goals could be crucial in keeping them safe. West Bromwich Albion really struggled last year without Romelu Lukaku’s goals and I fail to see how any of their summer transfers have improved their squad enough to stay up, perhaps Brown Ideye being the exception.
Top Scorer – Robin van Persie
Luis Suarez was the obvious candidate for this category but he has since been transferred to Barcelona. The remaining two most obvious choices, Sergio Aguero and Robin van Persie, rarely remain injury free but on this occasion, I’ve gone with van Persie.
Van Persie will be all too familiar with van Gaal’s new system at United, having played under him for the Dutch national side for the last two years. The new system will allow him to feed off fellow striker Wayne Rooney and playmaker Juan Mata as well as receive some good service from the two wing backs. However, van Persie will once again feel appreciated this year. David Moyes made it clear that Rooney was his main man last year but this year van Persie has father figure van Gaal to help him through the season and keep his ego satisfied. If van Persie remains happy and injury free in the United squad under van Gaal then I’m sure the goals will flow.
Dark Horse – Manchester United
Last season was a shambles for United, much to the delight of every football fan in the country who doesn’t support the Red Devils. I’m sure this year will be a different story. I don’t expect United to challenge that seriously for the title as I don’t feel that their squad is as good as Arsenal’s, Chelsea’s or Manchester City’s. However, with a new manager, a new system and new signings the whole footballing world will be interested to see how van Gaal’s reign at United starts. Every day the club is linked with a new player whether that be Mats Hummels, Daley Blind, Angel di Maria, Arturo Vidal or Juan Cuadrado. With a couple more signings in key positions, ideally at centre back, wing back and central midfield then United could really press on and have a season to remember. One thing is guaranteed, with van Gaal at the helm, there will be fireworks at Old Trafford whether from within the dressing room or out on the pitch.
Isaac Lister – Sports Reporter
Champions – Arsenal
‘Arsenal will start strongly, storm into the lead, rupture every hamstring and finish 3rd or 4th’ they say, year upon year. This time, though, the chickens will come on home to roost. While many will fawn over the exciting capture of Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal’s real success this transfer window was in bringing in Shad Forsythe, a performance and fitness expert who has been an integral part of the German international setup for a long time now (including this year’s World Cup winning squad). Forsythe’s appointment as fitness coach underlines Wenger’s desire to ascertain if there is really a problem at Arsenal on the sports science side. If there is, Forsythe will fix it, and with the full quota available, Arsenal will have potentially the most frightening attack in the Premier League. With Ozil, Sanchez, Giroud, Cazorla, Ramsey, Walcott…(I could go on) all available in any top-heavy configuration of a 4-3-3 old wily Arsene cares to muster, this truly is a winnable title for Arsenal (provided the balance of the holding midfield is right and Arteta is given support via Wilshere + A.N Other). If Forsythe solves the injury hoodoo, Le Prof will reign again.
Top Four – Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea
Sorry Liverpool fans. I’m a big Brendan Rodgers fan and I believe eventually the rabbit will be pulled out of the hat with aplomb, revealing exactly why he appears to be worse in the transfer market than an 11 year old cheating to spend billions on Football Manager.
Captures like Lazar Markovic are exciting, but Liverpool simply have not replaced Suarez, and have many more fixtures to deal with in Europe, which will have a negative impact on league sharpness and performance. This will allow the aforementioned quality at Arsenal, a Manchester City side with an embarrassment of riches who hardly broke a sweat in tying up the title last year, a resurgent United under Van Gaal (come on, the man’s a class act), and Mourinho’s Chelsea, who will beat the former three twice but lose to Sunderland again to just miss out on the title. United may take a while to come out of the blocks, which will cost them, but once the new 3-5-2 system clicks seamlessly, they can and will tear teams apart. Though Diego Costa and Fabregas are good signings (particularly the former, Cesc is too slow now) I still don’t see any evidence of a solution to the Mourinho conundrum – how do we counter-attack against a team that doesn’t attack?
Relegation – West Bromwich Albion, Leicester City, Sunderland
Because, simply, Paul Lambert has made a career out of staring down adversity for fun, Aston Villa will be fine no matter how meek they may look on paper. Burnley have a compact, but robust and unified squad, and provided they engineer a couple of early exits in the Cup they should be defensively sound enough to battle their way to safety, claiming a handful of big scalps as they go. Direct, rigid, territorial Pulis football will see Palace ruck their way into 2014/15. Harry Redknapp now has an excellent tactician in Glenn Hoddle at his disposal and a couple of great signings in Steven Caulker and Mauricio Isla, so this QPR should be in a lot better shape than the last QPR we saw in the Premier League, who were basically winging it on a whim and nine hundred billion quid. As Big Sam’s West Ham will formulaically and astutely batter their way to 16th with or without Andy Carroll (though they’ll need a Connor Wickham shaped target man replacement), I can’t look beyond Leicester, who will be fantastic to watch but too open, Sunderland, who will be mediocre all over as Poyet is operating mostly with his hands tied and will need more than Rodwell to paper over last year’s cracks, and West Brom, who have gone too far the other way with too many signings spoiling the team – I for one don’t trust Alan Irvine to make a team out of them.
Top scorer – Edin Dzeko
Sergio Aguero this, Sergio Aguero that. The little Argentine is undoubtedly one of the best strikers in the world. It is difficult to dispute that. Trouble is, the man is a crock, and when he inevitably gets injured, the patient, probing play that generates so many high quality chances for the Citizens will allow Dzeko to profit. The big Bosnian can convert with his head, and his feet, on the run, and on the turn – and in times of need he always produces. With Samir Nasri and David Silva creating over 25 clear cut chances last season (that’s a chance created by a key pass that leads to a one on one situation with the keeper or direct shot opportunity), and a wealth of other chances, any advanced forward playing in that system (particularly one such as Dzeko) will score goals. Alvaro Negredo would be a spanner in the works, but his broken metatarsal ensures Dzeko can stake his claim. If he hits the ground running, defences beware.
Dark Horse – Hull City
Hull narrowly escaped relegation last season after a great start followed by a gradual decline. It had begun to look as though Steve Bruce’s coveted 5-3-2/3-5-2 had been figured out by the Premier League’s raft of talented tacticians and backroom staff, as has happened with many other initially successful systems. Plus, they have a Europa League campaign to contend with, which means they’re going down…right? Not necessarily.
Cleverly, Steve Bruce has bought in Robert Snodgrass, who is a defensive winger by trade but can also play centrally. This means that if the 3-5-2 isn’t working, then Snodgrass can switch out wide, a wing back can slot in at full back, and Elmohamady can push on/be swapped for Tom Ince, creating a more conventional holding 4-4-2 which can easily transition into a 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1, moving Snodgrass/the central midfield pairing about as necessary. I’m not saying this is mastery from Bruce and Hull are in for a great season, but there is a lot of scope and depth in their squad to take a lot of people by surprise. For better or worse, it’s going to be worth a watch.