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When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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Week 4 Observations from the EPL

Now in the grind of junior year until May, it’ll be hard for me to find time to write for the blog on a regular basis. But I hope whenever possible to crank something out in whatever form that may take (it may be short like this one). This weekend, I was able to catch a good deal of the action across the EPL. So that’s what this will be about. I hope to have something else up by Friday about Arkansas football ahead of the new season. But in the meantime, here are three observations from week 4 of the Premier League.

Red Cards Galore

One common theme across the league this weekend was unfortunately a glaring number of debatable red cards handed out. In general, I’m one who is hesitant to give out a red, so for me, this weekend wasn’t a great one for the referees. However, I will never dispute a high tackle or a two-footed challenge. Aleksandar Mitrovic’s red for Newcastle against Arsenal fell right on the edge for me. Was it a weak red? Yes. But it was also an incredibly dangerous tackle that could have snapped Francis Coquelin’s shin. I do think the level of intent wasn’t there, so maybe it was harsh. For Philippe Coutinho, the matter was more straightforward. His tackle had to be a second yellow. Mark Noble’s on the other hand was a disgrace. That was by no means a red. Both of them for Stoke were silly and foolish, but hard to argue. On the whole though, it’s not a good weekend when there are so many red cards, especially early in matches.

Arsenal slog

That might have been the most boring Arsenal win I’ve seen in recent years. I won’t complain because three points was all that was necessary, but it’s worrying how little Arsenal is creating right now. Something is off either in the tactics or in the minds of the forward players. Without Mesut Özil, there really was very little happening up front. The excuse that Newcastle had everyone behind the ball is an old one. So many teams defend like that against Arsenal at the moment that by this point, they should be figuring out how to combat that. I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring on the transfer market, but I’m not expecting much. However, the more I watch, the more I’m convinced there’s a place for Jack Wilshere in the side. He is somebody who can open up space in a crowded area by attacking. Instead of passing the ball around, he would drive at defenders and open things up. When he’s back, I might try him in place of Aaron Ramsey and see what that is like for a game. I think the international break is coming at a good time, because Arsenal haven’t really built any momentum at this point. And this a fantastic time to play Stoke, with Bojan not yet back and two key players suspended.

Neutrals Delight

Who doesn’t love watching the big boys get beaten up? Rarely do we ever get weekends where Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United all lose, and I must say it was terrific. The results were shocking, but they say a lot about the frailties of the big clubs at the moment. Everyone can be beaten. These are all teams in transition, and it shows defensively. United looked decent, but were hit on the counter by a smart Swansea team. And Chelsea and Liverpool were just flat out bad. Remember how everyone thought I was crazy for having Swansea and Crystal Palace 5th and 6th in my predictions? That doesn’t look so terrible now does it? I continue to be impressed with the teams in the middle of the table this year. There is just so much talent coming in from abroad that is turning these teams into formidable opponents. With Manchester City looking the clear number one in the league, numbers two through twenty haven’t ever so close.

Week 5 Predictions

Everton 2 Chelsea 1
Watford 0 Swansea 1
Norwich 1 Bournemouth 1
Crystal Palace 1 Manchester City 3
Arsenal 2 Stoke City 0
West Brom 1 Southampton 0
Manchester United 2 Liverpool 0
Sunderland 1 Tottenham 1
Leicester City 2 Aston Villa 2
West Ham 1 Newcastle 0


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5 Observations From Week 2 of the EPL Season

Back in the USA for the second week of the Premier League season, I’ve come to appreciate how good NBC’s coverage is across the board. Aside from the Mesut Özil bashers in the studio, they do a tremendous job both pre and post match and in game coverage. Especially with games now being shown on USA Network, we can have no complaints stateside. This past week we were treated to four days’ worth of games. Here are five things we learned. For my analysis of Arsenal’s win over Crystal Palace, click here.

One team is standing above the rest

To this point, four sides have all six points. However, of the four, one is standing well above the rest thus far. A week after handling West Brom, Manchester City dismantled the title-winners Chelsea, handing them an embarrassing 3-0 loss. I’ll get to what it means for Chelsea, but for City, this was a dramatic statement that they can win the league. Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany both look to have reverted to their form from two years ago, and Sergio Agüero showed in minutes why he is the league’s best player. However, what is impressing me the most is their ruthlessness. Right from the opening seconds yesterday, they laid siege on Asmir Begovic’s goal. Agüero never stopped attacking. There was added excitement from the addition of the new stand in the stadium, and massive hype for the match, but nonetheless, they were miles better than Chelsea. City is not messing around.

Chelsea have serious problems to address

Where City looked full of options, Chelsea seems to be stuck in a one-track style of play, unable to succeed without Eden Hazard playing his best. As I’ve pointed out before, their lack of depth, especially without Oscar, gives them no plan B to turn to. And that was clearly an issue as Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic couldn’t contain City’s midfield. However, Chelsea’s main issue seems to be off the field. All of the stuff about Eva Carneiro being replaced as team trainer is disguising some sort of issue with Mourinho. He’s clearly upset. This week his victim was his captain John Terry, taken off at halftime. Without the squad depth he had at Real Madrid, I don’t think he can afford to take out his anger on his players, even if they aren’t in form. If this is the squad Chelsea will have this year, Mourinho will need to do a better job of supporting his players and staff should he hope to turn things around.

Stoke expose Tottenham’s issues

Another team with a lone point from two games is Tottenham. Despite being two goals up at home against Stoke – who I might add will only get tougher when Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri are in the lineup – they coughed away their lead. The penalty was silly, but the defending on the second was equally pitiful. When Stephen Ireland can come on and rip the defense apart that doesn’t speak well to the quality on the field. Bringing off Harry Kane for Erik Lamela seemed odd, but the degree to which Spurs fell off after the switch will be startling. If Kane goes down with an injury, they will be terrible. For me, the only player of real quality other than Kane on the pitch is Christian Eriksen, who can hit a mean free kick. As an Arsenal fan, I can only hope their meltdown is a sign of things to come.

Leicester stay hot

Over the summer, one of my tutors was a man from Leicester, who told stories of many years in the car listening to pained sports talk radio shows bemoaning Leicester City’s frequent demise. Staying up in the Premier League a year ago was for them a true achievement. Two weeks into the season, Leicester City are sitting in second place, with all six points. Going to West Ham this week looked a tough task, but the upstart group continued their stunning goalscoring form under new manager Claudio Ranieri, going up 2-0 early. However, what was most impressive was their ability to keep the scoreline at 2-1 after Dimitri Payet had taken one back for West Ham. Leicester’s defense was dialed in from that point on. They won’t stay this far up the table for long, but wins like this on the road are vital to a team hoping to avoid a relegation fight. Should Riyad Mahrez continue to dominate, the nice people of Leicester might have many more pleasant car rids home.

Despite another win, United lack something

The other two teams on six points are a more familiar name than Leicester City. But unlike the other two teams, Manchester United and Liverpool are not firing on all cylinders. For Liverpool, it’s down to quality and quite a bit of luck from the referees. But for United, it’s a little more complicated. After an own goal saved their blushes in a 1-0 win against Spurs, this week they won with a lone goal from Adnan Januzaj at Villa Park. Yet again, there was very little built through their midfield filled with high-profile signings. In the back Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian have looked terrific, but ahead of them, Memphis Depay and Wayne Rooney are just two of those struggling to make a positive impact. Back in his striker’s role, Rooney has been almost invisible. Maybe they need time to get their new attacking players in sync with one another, but in the meantime, United need to lean heavily on their defense. Don’t be fooled by their perfect record to this point.

Predictions for Week 3
Manchester United 2 – Newcastle 1
West Ham 1 – Bournemouth 1
Sunderland 0 – Swansea 2
Norwich City 2 – Stoke City 2
Leicester City 1 – Tottenham 1
Crystal Palace 3 – Aston Villa 0
West Brom 1 – Chelsea 3
Watford 0 – Southampton 1
Everton 1 – Manchester City 4
Arsenal 3 – Liverpool 1

I’ll be experimenting with different types of Premier League related content in the coming months to determine how I want to write this school year. If you have any ideas, please let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust).

 


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Luck, Grit and Guile – Arsenal Player Ratings & Analysis

Selhurst Park is going to be one of the toughest grounds to visit this year. Crystal Palace’s combination of experience and pace will make them a threat at all times. So to walk away a 2-1 victor is all the matters for Arsenal today. Though it took a lot of grit, much luck, and a little guile, Arsenal got it done.

Crystal Palace made the mistake of sitting back in the opening minutes, hoping to catch Arsenal out on the counter. That then allowed Arsenal to get in a rhythm, and it was no surprise when man of the match Mesut Özil’s fizzed-in cross was brilliantly turned in by Olivier Giroud. Giroud will never please many in the Arsenal fan base. But it must be said that he gets goals in the end.

If Arsenal’s goal was expected, Crystal Palce’s equalizer was not. Joel Ward, who otherwise had a nightmare of a match defensively, was given space to strike from distance and curved his screamer around Petr Cech and into the corner. Arsenal not only left him uncovered, but didn’t attempt to close him down or even put a leg out to block his effort.

On the stroke of half, Arsenal were incredibly fortunate not to have Francis Coquelin sent off. Already on a yellow card, he halted a Palace counter by pulling someone to the ground. In everyone’s book but Lee Mason’s apparently, that would have been a second yellow, but thankfully for Arsenal, Coquelin stayed on. Had he gone off at that point, the match would have turned on its head. He also might have been sent off early in the second half. The fire in his eyes is normally beloved, but today could have proved disastrous had Arsene Wenger not taken him off immediately after.

After Arsenal got its second goal somewhat fortunately through Alexis Sanchez and an unlucky Damien Delaney, Palace began to attack in earnest, sending many men forward. Petr Cech did little to ease the nerves with many shaky punches. Connor Wickham hit the post at one point, and Delaney headed straight at Cech from close. The end of this match felt exactly like many in year’s past, with Arsenal clinging to a one goal lead with their life. They might have added a third, but poor finishing couldn’t ease the pressure.

In the end, Arsenal got their three points and now have their season back on track. At their best, Arsenal look a sure title-contender. Stretches like the beginning of the match show their potential, but to sustain a challenge, they’ll need the combination of grit and luck they had today.

Player Ratings (1-10)

Olivier Giroud – 7.5/10 – Giroud was given another start ahead of Theo Walcott and made an immediate impact with the goal of the week. Not many strikers would have been able to maneuver their body behind that cross. Apart from the goal, he did well holding up play, but wasn’t as involved as the game wore on. As screams for another striker louden, his goal should keep the critics off for another week.

Alexis Sanchez – 7.5/10 – On his full return to the team, Sanchez was heavily involved from the opening minutes. His pressing saw him take over possession in Palace’s half on a couple occasions, and other counter-attacks had him in on goal multiple times. Tidier finishing could have given him a hat-trick by halftime, but he ended up goalless at halftime. While those were chances we expect him to take, he made up for them by heading in Arsenal’s second via Damein Delaney, attacking the ball in the air with real vigor. On the other end, he didn’t track Joel Ward’s run on Palace’s equalizer, giving him acres of space to line up his screamer. However, it’s good to have him back.

Mesut Özil – 8.5/10 – After every loss, Özil takes lots of heat from fans and the media. It’s quite frustrating to read, as they overlook so much of what makes him great. Look at the stats from today and you’ll see an assist. But this performance was so much more than that, as he was at the heart of everything Arsenal created. Whether he was attacking the left flank on the counter or dropping deep to receive the ball up and pick out a runner, Özil was on his game. I know the haters will always have a voice, but Özil is invaluable to Arsenal.

Aaron Ramsey – 7/10 – Pushed out to the right once again, Ramsey might not have done his chances of playing in the midfield a favor by having such a strong performance. Freely interchanging with Sanchez and Özil, Ramsey was consistently making dangerous runs and opening space up behind him. Once Palace had to stick Yohan Cabaye on him, he was less effective, but still dangerous. He’ll want a goal soon, as his finishing has been poor. On the whole, he had a good game.

Santi Cazorla – 7/10 – Playing his now preferred deep-lying midfielder role, Cazorla showed why he and Coquelin were the regular pairing last year with a steadying performance. In the middle of the park, Cazorla kept the ball moving and helped eliminate all of the errant passes from a week ago. Gone were stray passes going out for throw-ins. And defensively, he was key in stopping players like Puncheon and Zaha by getting out to the flanks to help out Monreal. Cazorla might have had a goal in the final minutes but for a great save from McCarthy.

Francis Coquelin – 6/10 – After his worst performance since his revival, this week was a mixed bag. What killed his otherwise tidy performance was an early yellow card and the subsequent tight-rope walk avoiding the red, which should have been given at the end of the first half. Wenger wisely withdrew him at the hour mark when he looked seconds away from erupting. The anger in his eyes was scary. To that point, he had won many balls all over the park and kept his passing simpler next to Cazorla, eliminating many of the errors in distribution from a week ago.

Nacho Monreal – 7.5/10 – Monreal did a spectacular job dealing with pacy wingers on the left, but what was perhaps more impressive was how he was still able to get forward and supplement attacks without leaving himself susceptible to counter attacks. On the rare instances he was beat, help from Cazorla allowed him to get back in position quickly. At the moment, Monreal is Arsenal’s best defender in my eyes.

Laurent Koscielny – 6.5/10 – Koscielny won his aerial duels like usual, and dealt with Palace’s counter-attacks well despite being on his back foot. And despite all the chaos in the final minutes, his defense held firm. However, he could have done more to close out Joel Ward on his goal, and will be faulted for not even attempting to stick a foot out to block it.

Per Mertesacker – 7.5/10 – Mertesacker had a good game by all standards, proving vital to Arsenal’s defensive grind in the final half-hour. His ability to knock away anything lofted up made Palace seek other options. A particularly noteworthy play was his late sliding block of Puncheon’s shot. Aside from his defensive duties, Mertesacker’s best performance might have been keeping Coquelin from boiling over.

Hector Bellerin – 7/10 – Very clearly the first choice at right-back now, Bellerin had a composed performance. Defensively, this would have been one of his toughest tasks of the year, having to deal with Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie. And while he got beat a time or two, he largely was up to the task; it was notable that Palce weren’t able to routinely attack his side. On the other end, he wasn’t as adventurous as usual given Palace’s threat, but he still managed to send in the decisive cross for the second goal.

Petr Cech – 6.5/10 – I think at this point, we need to temper our expectations for Cech. He could not have done much on the goal, but he didn’t inspire confidence today. He needs to find a better understanding with his defense on how to handle crosses, as these half-punches aren’t really working. However, he did come through in the end with a vital save – though on a header directed right towards him.

Substitutes

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (64th) – 6/10 –  I know everyone loves the Ox, but I’d really like to see him give more of an effort defensively, especially when Arsenal’s protecting a lead. Too many times, he loses the ball upfield and throws his arms up rather than getting back. That being said, his introduction did add another element to Arsenal’s counters. He’ll be disappointed not to have scored.

Mikel Arteta (75th) – 7.5/10 – The captain did terrifically in his short time on the field, halting attacks with strong tackles and even winning a header. His tackle on Lee in the box late on was vital. To be this composed having not played much in the last year is a testament to his talent. This performance should make Wenger more comfortable with throwing Arteta on for Coquelin late in games when he’s on a yellow card, which could be often.

Kieran Gibbs (83rd) – N/A – Gibbs is a great person to throw on late in games and he once again helped shore things up. However, he’ll have a hard time winning his job back from Monreal.


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5 Observations From Week 1 of the EPL Season

On Saturday morning, I made my way to London Euston station with hoards of soccer fans. Manchester United fans came in droves for the 8 o’clock train to Manchester while I joined many fans clad in blue and headed to Liverpool. Four hours later, I was in an Everton pub for the start of the Premier League season. Over the next two days, I would attend two matches and watch another two on tv in full. So rather than dwell on the Arsenal loss and write only about that, I’ve decided to break up this piece into five sections.

Manchester clubs are looking strong

With all the talk about Chelsea and Arsenal’s title race, the Manchester clubs made statements of intent on the first weekend. City especially played at a level which they didn’t often reach a year ago in a 3-0 dismantling of West Brom yesterday. If Yaya Toure and David Silva play they that the rest of the year, City suddenly become title favorites. If City deal with Chelsea this Sunday, the season could be turned on its head after only two weeks. The pressure is squarely on Chelsea in that match. At Old Trafford, United were unconvincing but ultimately successful. With Sergio Romero looking determined to make headlines of any sort with unnecessarily dramatic parries and strange clearances, his fellow newboys stole the show. Matteo Darmian earned the plaudits, but I was also impressed by how seamlessly Memphis and Morgan Schneiderlin fit in. However, what stood out to me above all else was the play of Juan Mata, who was at the center of the action at all times. When United click, they will be a side to be reckoned with.

Arsenal shouldn’t panic, but must address issues

The Emirates was a sad place to be Sunday afternoon. Everyone arrived filled with so much optimism, and left cursing out everything in sight. It was not pretty, and the bad performances across the board were particularly deflating. The loss is on everyone. Not just Petr Cech, Mesut Özil or Olivier Giroud. Francis Coquelin had his worst game in nine months and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain endured a nightmare defensively while Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla looked lost and out of position. Somehow Arsene Wenger didn’t try to expose the fact that West Ham were playing a center back at right back. It is easy right now to say changes need to be made. However, I think patience is needed. Karim Benzema wouldn’t have stopped those two goals from being scored. Aside from restoring Cazorla to the middle to help take some of the burden of distribution away from Coquelin, I wouldn’t make any changes right away. That being said, this needs to be a stark wakeup call. Nobody should be safe from being dropped. A tough trip to Crystal Palace looms, but maybe that’s a good thing. In order to win that match, they’ll need to defend as a team and scrap for goals. It’s time to man up, Arsenal. Or face another long year.

Everton haven’t changed one bit

Like with Arsenal, Everton had aspirations of doing better this year with largely the same group of players as last season. It didn’t take the crowd at Goodison Park very long to realize how foolish that hope was. First off, I want to say how much I liked watching a game there. It felt a lot like Fenway Park, and aside from the grumbling when the Toffees went behind on two occasions, everybody was friendly and into the game. Everton has too many good players not to be better, but their approach looks largely naive at the moment. Despite being able to hit absolute rockets (I had a great sightline for his equalizer this weekend and oh my, did it move), Ross Barkley’s passing is not good enough for him to be a viable number 10. And Tom Cleverley is not the answer on the left, especially given the uncertainty of Leighton Baines’s return. Romelu Lukaku can hold the ball up like no other, but there needs to be more support behind him to get onto balls he knocks down and more width beyond Seamus Coleman, who was dealt with well by Miguel Layun. Only when Aruna Kone came on next to Lukaku did Everton look remotely dangerous. Gerard Deulofeu would seem a good option to fill these roles, but they can’t put too much on his plate right away. Also, despite looking good on paper, this defense is in shambles. For all the talent, Everton looks a long way away from making a sustained run.

Watford and West Ham are quality sides

What stood out to me in the two games I attended was the talent at Watford and West Ham. Unlike most promoted clubs, Watford has assembled a squad full of experienced internationals to complement hard-working types like Troy Deeney, who I thought was spectacular against Everton. Jose Holebas, Sebastian Prödl, and Etienne Capoue are not Championship-level players. And even off the bench, they have players who can make positive impacts. I came away convinced Watford will stay up, as they have the talent and experience necessary to beat a lot of teams. West Ham too impressed me. Dimitri Payet is good enough to play for anybody in the Premier League. But beyond him, West Ham got a standout performances from 16-year-old Reece Oxford, who was a stud in midfield shutting down Özil and Ramsey. And the pairing of Winston Reid and Angelo Ogbonna looked like they’d been playing together for years. These two teams aren’t going to win the league. But they are good enough to play spoiler week in and week out. They aren’t to be overlooked, and as seen this weekend, they can play with the big boys.

Exciting foreign players are flocking to mid-tier clubs and equalizing the field

What became apparent over the summer is that players around the world want to play in the Premier League. When Stoke City can recruit Xherdan Shaqiri (this deal would be a steal if they can lock it down this week) and Ibrahim Afellay, things have changed. Across the board, middle and bottom clubs have filled up with new players this year, more than I can remember. Aston Villa is unrecognizable from a year ago. Where these clubs used to be filled with marginal British talent, it is notable that many of the new arrivals are foreign, from countries like Benin that aren’t usually represented. If the allure of playing in England can attract big names like Georginio Wjinaldum and Dimitri Payet to the likes of Newcastle and West Ham, maybe this can bring about a shift in the Premier League, one that begins to equalize the playing field a little bit. Even if Crystal Palace and Swansea can’t spend like Chelsea and Manchester United, shrewd signings of foreigners like Yohan Cabaye and Andre Ayew combined with young talent already at the clubs can elevate them to new levels. Even if this shift is a one-off, the arrival of foreign talent across the board will make this an exciting year.

Predictions for Week 2 

Aston Villa 0 – Manchester United 3
Southampton 2 – Everton 1
Watford 1 – West Brom 1
Sunderland 1 – Norwich City 1
Tottenham 2 – Stoke City 1
West Ham 2 – Leicester City 2
Swansea 2 – Newcastle 0
Crystal Palace 1 – Arsenal 1
Manchester City 2 – Chelsea 0
Liverpool 3 – Bournemouth 0

I’ll be experimenting with different types of Premier League related content in the coming months to determine how I want to write this school year. If you have any ideas, please let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust).


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2015-2016 Premier League Predictions From 1 to 20

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.

Predictions

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.