With the new Premier League season upon us, Iain Macintosh puts himself on the line by predicting where all 20 clubs will finish the campaign.
1. Manchester City
They say that you learn more from failure than you do from success. If that’s true, then City should win the title. There were times last season when you suspected that Pep Guardiola could have written entire books based on individual games. Everton away, for example. But he has a new goalkeeper now. And three new full-backs. And yet another devastating attacking midfielder. City are going to be terrifying. In a good way this time.
2. Manchester United
Yes, they certainly underperformed in the league last season, but only Tottenham conceded fewer goals than Jose Mourinho’s side. Unfortunately, United also scored fewer than Bournemouth. But much has changed over the summer. They will be quicker and more potent up front with Romelu Lukaku, and the arrival of Nemanja Matic should free up Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba in the middle. After four years of ignominy, a title challenge awaits.
Tottenham haven’t strengthened this summer, but that’s understandable. They already have one of the most balanced squads in the league. With Harry Winks fit again and Kyle Walker-Peters ready to step up to replace his almost-namesake, they should feel the benefits of stability. The worry is Wembley Stadium. It shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not a haunted house. But if they don’t lay down a victory quickly, you wonder how much it will affect them.
What are Arsenal? Are they the faint-hearted cavaliers who will gallop through the winter and then ride their horse into a tree in the first week of February? Or are they the ferocious scrappers who fought for everything to overturn the odds at Wembley in the FA Cup Final? Their Community Shield performance — a shootout win against holders Chelsea — suggests that latter more than the former, but how much can you read into that? Ah, you know what? Fourth is usually a safe bet.
Let’s ignore the Community Shield result for now. Things may change before the transfer window shuts, but at the time of writing, Chelsea are woefully short of depth. Allowing the likes of Tammy Abraham, Izzy Brown, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Kurt Zouma to leave on loan is an odd move, so you presume reinforcements are on their way. After all, the Blues will be stretched by European football already. If they actually suffer some injuries this season, they could be in a lot of trouble.
On their day, there are few sides as dazzling in possession as Liverpool. It’s when they’re out of possession that the problems start. Had they landed Virgil van Dijk, you might feel differently about their prospects. Had they captured the dynamic Naby Keita, you might make allowances. Forwards Mohamed Salah and Dominic Solanke should prove good signings, but that’s not where the problems are. This could be a frustrating year at Anfield. Still, they’ve got used to them over the years.
Is this the year that Everton break back into the top four? They’ve signed well, they have a manager with three impressive Premier League seasons under his belt and there’s a feel-good factor around the club. But you can’t just drop half a dozen players into a team and expect them to gel. And you do wonder if Ronald Koeman is going to spend six months shuffling his pack to accommodate Wayne Rooney before he concludes, as Mourinho did before him, that Rooney is just not good enough anymore.
Assuming that the players don’t quickly lose faith in their manager and down tools again, this could be a decent season for Leicester. Not decent enough for another crack at the title, but certainly enough to keep them in the European conversation for a while. Harry Maguire will have a chance to displace the injured Robert Huth, Vicente Iborra is a class act and Kelechi Iheanacho is a fine signing. And, thanks to new Premier League regulations, no one is going to get a migraine looking at their pitch.
Newcastle United are back. And this time, they’re competent. After a second year in the rehab of the Championship, the Magpies are rejuvenated and refocused. Rafa Benitez’s meticulous management, not to mention his genuine empathy with the fans, has been warmly appreciated by the locals at St James’ Park. Their spending has been modest, and while there’s tension behind the scenes, Jacob Murphy should be fun to watch and they’ll have more good days than bad.
A quiet season of transition beckons for Southampton and their third new manager in four years, Mauricio Pellegrino. Defender Jan Bednarek is the only arrival this summer, but given vice chairman Les Reed’s record with talent-spotting, you suspect that it’s only a matter of time before Liverpool make a £40 million bid for the young Pole’s services.
Bournemouth’s late run of form brought them an incredible ninth-place finish last season, and they won’t be far off that again. Asmir Begovic is a clear upgrade in goal, Nathan Ake has signed permanently after his impressive loan spell and, while it’s a bit of a shame that Josh King’s place and primacy may be under threat just as he figures out where the goal is, you can’t argue with the signing of Jermain Defoe.
You fear for Mark Hughes now. After three 50-plus-point, ninth-place finishes, last season brought only 44 points and the mediocrity of lower mid-table. The fans are beginning to make their displeasure known, and a slow start could be the catalyst for change. Josh Tymon and Zouma are good young acquisitions, and Darren Fletcher brings experience and composure to the midfield, but will it be enough? Or will this be the first of the medium-sized jobs to lure Sam Allardyce back into football?
Paul Clement’s rescue job on Swansea, a team that looked doomed at the turn of the year, was a fine achievement. Now he has a chance to cast a new side in his own image. Chelsea loanee Abraham will continue his development at the Liberty Stadium and if Roque Mesa proves as impressive as his Errol Flynn moustache, we’re all in for a treat. They should be just fine this year.
14. West Ham
Slaven Bilic needs a good season to reassert his authority at West Ham, having been undermined by last year’s woefully inconsistent campaign. He’s certainly bought well. Javier Hernandez should be a guarantee of goals, and if he can unlock the magic of Marko Arnautovic, £24m will look cheap. Joe Hart may yet rediscover his form and Pablo Zabaleta is a venerable God in human form. But there are a lot of variables here, and there’s something that doesn’t add up with the Hammers. If they don’t click quickly, Bilic could be axed.
15. Crystal Palace
Frank de Boer and Crystal Palace should be a match made in heaven. And it may yet prove to be so. But a difficult first season of adjustment beckons. Switching gears between the prosaic, calculated counter-attacking of Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce and the more thoughtful, expressive methods of De Boer will bring unavoidable clunking. But expect signs of clear improvement by the spring.
16. West Brom
Tony Pulis’ 10th-place finish last season was actually quite disappointing, given where the Baggies had been just a couple of months earlier. Freed from the fear of relegation, they won just two points from a possible 27 in the season’s close. They won’t go down — no one ever does under Pulis — and they’ve got a welcoming enough start to the season, but it’s hard to see them kicking on after such a low key summer.
Burnley were never really in trouble last season, and that’s testament to the management of Sean Dyche. But has he taken them as far as he can? If he thinks he has, perhaps this will be the year that he moves on. He’s signed well. Jack Cork is an underrated midfielder, and Charlie Taylor has been highly thought of for some time. But if the West Ham, Stoke or West Bromwich Albion jobs come up …
The Hornets have done well this summer, recruiting Marco Silva as manager and snapping up Will Hughes and Nathaniel Chalobah from Derby and Chelsea, respectively. But you sense that they’ve been riding their luck for a while now, shuffling their pack on an annual basis to such an extent that the very notion of continuity is an abstract concept. So far, it has (just) worked. But it won’t work forever. And perhaps this is the year they’ll be caught out.
It is a continuing oddity that the least fashionable club promoted to the Premier League will always rack up points early on in the season as it takes advantage of the witless and the complacent. Expect Huddersfield to fulfill that role this season with Crystal Palace and West Ham their most likely early victims. But, as with Hull City last season, their early promise will fade. It was a miracle that a team on such a tight budget was even promoted. It will take an even bigger one to keep them up.
Everyone is going to love a trip to Brighton this season. The bracing sea air, the trendy bars, the discovery that 70 percent of the town’s inhabitants used to live in London but came south to follow their dream of producing their own ironic T-shirt range. Oh, and three points. Much will rest on the shoulders of talismanic Anthony Knockaert. Too much, in all probability.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.