There’s always something magical about the start of a new season. Be it Opening Day at Fenway, a TNT double-header headlined by LeBron or Week 1 in the NFL, there is nothing quite like it in sports. For this one day, everyone is even. However the offseason went, I can never help but smile at the start of another odyssey with my teams. This weekend, I get the joy of experiencing opening weekend in the Premier League in person. Saturday afternoon, I’ll be at Goodison Park for Everton’s opener against Watford, before returning to welcome back Arsenal against West Ham. I simply cannot wait.
Despite a relatively soccer free summer globally with only the Copa America and Women’s World Cup, it feels like only yesterday that Chelsea was lifting the Premier League trophy. Yet here we are, mere days away from yet another campaign. Maybe it’s living in England for the summer, but I’ve never been quite so excited for kickoffs across the board.
With Chelsea standing pat in the transfer market compared to the other big clubs, this year’s title race is especially tough to predict. I have been going back and forth on my choices all summer. Even the middle of the table seems to be up an entire notch. When has a team like Crystal Palace been able to buy someone like Yohan Cabaye? For me, teams I have ranked 5-12 are quite similar in talent levels. Injuries and infighting could be the decider. And on the back end, I see seven teams in danger of relegation. By all standards, this year looks to be extremely compelling from top to bottom.
Without further ado, here are my predictions for how the teams will look in the standings after all 38 matches.
1. Chelsea – Repeating in the Premier League has proved incredibly difficult in the recent era. However, Jose Mourinho might just get it done this year. This isn’t such a bold prediction, but I think Eden Hazard will win player of the season by a wide margin. When Diego Costa is fit, Chelsea will hit record numbers. I want to overreact to the dreadful performance in the FA Community Shield and slot Arsenal above the Blues, but I can’t bring myself to do the good deed. Arsenal will keep the title race close through April, but Chelsea’s defense will prove superior as John Terry is showing no signs of slowing down. What could derail the Blues is injuries in the midfield and in attack. Should Nemanja Matic or Cesc Fabregas have any prolonged absences, other teams could expose Chelsea’s unfathomable lack of depth. I’m expecting January reinforcements to make a difference.
2. Arsenal – This is the year Arsenal will finally return to being truly competitive. Incredible depth should not only help Arsenal stay fresh across multiple competitions, but it will allow Alexis Sanchez to be eased back into things. Keeping him healthy will be key to Arsenal’s second half. With Petr Cech in goal, the Gunners will leak far fewer goals. My guess is that Arsenal is in front on Boxing Day, and the season will come down to who can take the most points on the road at the bigger clubs. An away date at Manchester City in early May looks to me like a game that will decide Arsenal’s fate. I think Laurent Koscielny’s health will also go a long way in determining how far the Gunners go.
3. Manchester United – In large part, I’ve liked what Manchester United has done this summer. They’ve brought in a combination of experience and potential that not only bodes well for this year but puts them in a good position to succeed down the line. However, I don’t like Louis van Gaal, and I think his players could sour on him in year two. I expect Wayne Rooney to have a huge year now that he will be playing a more traditional forward’s role. In the midfield, the amount of talent is scary. But the defense is entirely unconvincing and could give up a lot of back-breaking goals. Scorelines of 3-2 and 4-3 might become familiar this year. In the end, I think they’ll challenge for the title until late March’s trip to Manchester City.
4. Manchester City – I’m no longer scared of City. A weak defense underlines a squad that increasingly relies on players past their primes. Raheem Sterling should be given plenty of chances, but I’m not sure he’s the answer next to Sergio Agüero, who seems unlikely to stay fit for an entire year. Another failure in Europe will surely see Manuel Pellegrini relieved of his job, and that distraction could hinder City’s season in the Premier League. Rather than challenging for the title, I see them barely holding on for fourth.
5. Swansea – Having become a fixture near to top of the mid-table sides, I see Swansea further improving in their second year in Gary Monk’s system. Bringing everyone back from a year ago, they will have no issue settling in as a team and boast great experience. Eder and Andre Ayew should provide healthy competition for Bafetimbi Gomis, a player who came into his own a little bit last season. Getting enough goals will probably be the biggest issue, but one I think they’ll solve. Expect a fight for a Champions League spot from the Swans.
6. Tottenham – Maybe I’m a little biased, but count me as one underwhelmed by Tottenham right now. Harry Kane’s glow will eventually wear off, and beyond him and Christian Eriksen, there isn’t a whole lot to the side. One area I think they will really struggle is in the midfield against top teams like Chelsea and Arsenal. Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason are not the quality of players necessary. The one signing I did like was Toby Alderweireld, who I think did quite well at Southampton a year ago. On top of a Europa League campaign, I’m hopeful for a particularly disappointing season for Spurs.
7. Crystal Palace – I see Crystal Palace making the leap this year, going from a middle of the table side to one contending for European places. This season might be akin to manager Alan Pardew’s success with Newcastle back in 2011-2012, when he had his team challenging for the top 4. Beyond stealing Cabaye for well below market value, getting Patrick Bamford and Connor Wickham offers two solid options up front that will improve their goal tally significantly. Without losing any of the their important players, Palace strengthened in key areas. If their defense can hold up, they will be a squad others won’t want to face. Early home games against Arsenal and Man City could tell us a lot about how ready Palace is for the big time.
8. Everton – Everton is an intriguing side right now, partly because their results last year did not match the level of talent in the team. Players of quality simply did not perform, which then begs questions of Roberto Martinez. This year, I think they’ll be better, though not a contender for a top-four spot. Ross Barkley will make the next step and Gerard Deulofeu is a keen and exciting signing. I want to put them higher up the table, but the amount of draws last year scares me. Something’s got to change mentally if they’re going to be a serious player in any sort of meaningful race.
9. Southampton – After two years in the sun, Southampton is putting together an impressive squad. The weakness this year is certainly in defense, where I’m not sure Maya Yoshida is good enough a player to start on a team hoping to go anywhere. However, Jordy Clasie should more than replace Morgan Schneiderlin, and ahead of him in the midfield is plenty of talent in Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic. If Jay Rodriguez can regain some of the talent he showed two years ago before his injury, this team will score a lot of goals. They are one good central defender away from challenging for a Champions League spot.
10. Liverpool – I think Liverpool is in for a dreadful year full of infighting, well behind the level of the top sides. With so many new faces, integrating everyone will prove impossible, and goals will prove hard to come by. And many of the new signings do seem to fit any obvious system, so they’ll be experimenting with new formations weekly, which is never good. Brendan Rodgers will be the first manager fired, and after his departure, things will only get worse. Maybe some of this is a reflection of how John Henry has run the Red Sox recently, but I don’t think there’s enough leadership in a young squad now that Steven Gerrard is gone. Christian Benteke will struggle to stay fit, with only James Milner pulling his weight of the new boys. Unfortunately for Liverpool, this will be a long year.
11. Stoke City – Stoke keeps getting further away from their former image with each successive signing. Ibrahim Afellay represents the latest foray into the ex-Barcelona players. Glen Johnson also might prove a shrewd signing on a free. There is a lot to like about this team. Bojan Krkic might be my favorite player in the EPL right now. And although they lost Asmir Begovic in goal, Jack Butland should be up for the task of replacing him. They might put a few scares into some teams if new signing Joselu can score goals, but I think they’ll largely just be a fun team to watch week in and week out, which is something I’d never thought I’d write about Stoke.
12. Newcastle – There’s no way this year can be anywhere near as bad as last year for Newcastle, so that by itself should offer consolation to the fans. A competent manager in Steve McClaren and the signing of Georginio Wijnaldum should help clean up the mess of a year ago. The center of defense still looks rather weak, which is concerning, but elsewhere on the pitch, there is real quality. Moussa Sissoko is in for a big year, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t finish the year at Newcastle. All in all, this is a team that can beat somebody on their day but isn’t deep enough or strong enough at the back to make any real sustained run in the league.
13. West Ham – This is a crucial year for West Ham with the team moving to the Olympic Stadium in a year’s time. Getting relegated is simply not an option. However in firing Sam Allardyce and replacing him with Stefan Bilic, they are taking a big risk. Especially if they advance in the Europa League, this could be a taxed squad. Dimitri Payet is a good signing, but they do not have the kind of individual talent the other mid-table sides have. For me, finding a way to get Alex Song back on loan is a must. And then they have to figure out how to score goals over the next few months without the injured Enner Valencia and Andy Carroll. They seem more in danger of relegation than anything else, though I think in they end, they will comfortably survive.
14. West Brom – I’m always convinced this is going to be the year West Brom is relegated, but time after time they escape. And with Tony Pulis at the helm, I see no reason for that to change. Saido Berahino seems to have one more season at the club before he moves to a bigger side, so his goals should go a long way towards keeping them up. Behind him, there isn’t much to like. The defense looks to be alright, though the midfield won’t offer much cover. Among all returning Premier League sides, they have the weakest midfield by a wide margin. And that won’t help them win many games. If anything happens to Berahino, things could go south quickly. But for now, they should have just enough to survive.
15. Norwich City – Of the promoted sides, Norwich should be the most Premier League ready having last been in the top tier only two years ago. Manager Alex Neil however, is the least Premier League ready manager at age 34. The players they have brought in are all capable of helping the cause, with Robbie Brady and Youssouf Mulumbu looking to be the best. Where they might be the strongest is up front, with Cameron Jerome, Gary Hooper, Bradley Johnson and Nathan Redmond all capable of reaching double digit goals. Few know what to expect, but I’m intrigued.
16. Watford – New manager Quique Flores might be Watford’s biggest asset, having previously won the Europa League with Atletico Madrid. His experience, although not in the Premier League, should keep them from being starstruck as many of the players face top opposition for the first time. Troy Deeney could prove to be the next striker to make the jump from the Championship successfully. And it will largely be up to him to keep Watford up. Etienne Capoue should help solidify the midfield area in front of what will be an untested defense. Heurelho Gomes offers little confidence in goal.
17. Aston Villa – A team in entire disarray, Aston Villa will be desperate to avoid relegation yet again after a great escape this past year. Recent signings like Jordan Ayew will not be able to replace Benteke, who was at times the only player on this roster capable of finding the net. They need Jack Grealish to make the leap if they hope to win many games, as the same old names haven’t proved to be good enough. Without Ron Vlaar, the defense could also suffer, as new signing Micah Richards hasn’t seen regular game time in many years. There will be many nervy afternoons at Villa Park.
18. Leicester City – Replacing Nigel Pearson with Claudio Ranieri at manager immediately puts Leicester City in threat of relegation. And with the loss of Esteban Cambiasso in midfield, they will have to find ways to replace not only his play on the pitch but also his tremendous veteran influence. I’ve never been convinced by new signing Shinji Okazaki in internationals, so I don’t think he’s equipped for the physical Premier League. Very little about this team suggests they won’t be in a fight for relegation until the season’s end, a fight I ultimately believe they’ll lose.
19. Sunderland – Sunderland has fought the good fight in recent years, somehow staying up every year. However, when you’re relying on 32-year-old Jermaine Defoe to get goals, that’s not a good sign. Jeremain Lens is intriguing on the wing, but there isn’t much else to the team. The defense in particular is uninspiring ahead of Costel Pantilimon. Home form will be crucial should they hope to stay up, as this isn’t a team built to win on the road. But I fear their year will prove unsuccesful.
20. Bournemouth – Last year’s Championship winners are considered the spunkiest of the new boys. With a young manager and a great underdog story, they’ll be this year’s Blackpool, somebody we all root for. However, I think they’ll struggle with a defense well below Premier League level. Christian Atsu could be key in the midfield, but even he is untested. If they want to stay up, they’ll need to get off to a great start while they still believe in themselves and their story. A slew of big defeats could crush their dreams before they even get going.
What do you think about my predictions? What’s your order of finish? Please comment below.