Welcome Back EPL: 2016-17 Preview

Jose and Ibra

Jose Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic set out to conquer England for Manchester United  (Associated Press).

You’re probably reading this article still flummoxed over the USWNT loss to Sweden in the Olympics. You’re probably really to watch another football match, after having seen the USMNT reach the Copa America semi-finals, and rooting for tiny Iceland in the Euros. Now you’re upset that there’s no more soccer this summer. Don’t be upset. Be happy. For this is remarkable timing! Tomorrow, just off the shore of the River Humber in Hull, England, the most competitive soccer league begins again. Last year’s defending champions, Leicester City will take on newly promoted Hull City to start the season.

So much has happened in international football over the summer. Portugal won the Euros behind an incredible display of managing by Cristiano Ronaldo; Lionel Messi missed a PK in the Copa America Final, declared his retirement from the Argentinian National Team, and then… dyed his hair bleach blonde? England completely England-ed the Euros, as they were always destined to do! Man, this was a great summer of soccer!

But things have been happening with domestic clubs too. The Special One, Jose Mourinho, rejoins the Premier League as Manchester United’s manager, and he’s bringing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba along for the ride. Everton ditched Roberto Martinez and hired Southampton’s Roger Koeman to help restore order to the defense of the Liverpudlian club. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez stayed with Leicester City, but hard-working and disciplined midfielder N’Golo Kante joined Chelsea, who is now under the command of Antonio Conte. Southampton sold off critical members of their team, as did Swansea. Manchester City brought in one of the most successful managers in the world, Pep Guardiola. Arsenal did… hmmm… well, rest assured, they’re still in the league.

Three new teams join the Premier League, although two are quite familiar. Burnley, who last appeared in 2014-15 is back, along with Sean Dyche, their fiery, ginger-haired manager. Burnley always put in a hard effort during their last top-flight campaign, but suffered from a lack of goal-scoring. Hull City, also having last played in the Premier League two years ago, returns, but veteran manager Steve Bruce does not. And finally, Middlesbrough replaces Newcastle United as the local rival to Sunderland in the northeast of England. They are in the Premier League for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

So who will win it all? Can Leicester City defend their title? Will Mourinho restore Manchester United to glory? Can Jurgen Klopp improve on a positive first season with Liverpool? Let’s take a look.

Relegation

Sunderland, Middlesbrough, and Hull City are the three weakest teams. Sunderland has performed miracle escapes in each of the past three season, but they’ve had some help from managers who were able to come in to extinguish the flames on dumpster fires of season. Sam Allardyce, probably the best manager Sunderland has had in that time, left during this past summer to manage England (good luck with that, Sam, surely there’s no pressure). Replacing him is David Moyes, last seen in England as running away from that angry mob that chased him out of Old Trafford in 2014. Jermaine Defoe is always a threat to score, but Sunderland is relatively unchanged from last season. This week, they picked up Adnan Januzaj on loan from Man United, and while the Belgian midfielder should help a team that was rather, shall we say, sloppy last season, it won’t be enough to help Sunderland avoid the drop this year.

Hull City’s best piece was Steve Bruce, who left the team over the summer. Hull had an injury-ravaged 2014-15 season and ultimately was relegated because of it, but Bruce kept them fighting to the last day. There’s still plenty of hardworking players, but caretaker manager Mike Phelan will have his work cut out for him.

Middlesbrough brought in seven new players during the transfer window, including American goalkeeper Brad Guzan. However, most of the squad is unfamiliar with the Premier League, and it will be critical for them to adapt quickly. The goals are going to have to come from former Manchester City member, Alvaro Negredo, who scored nine goals for City in 32 matches with them. The Premier League is brutal on teams that aren’t used to the English style of football and the relentlessness of the season. That is what will kill Middlesbrough come May.

Hold Your Breath

Burnley, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion, Bournemouth, Watford and Swansea are all in big trouble. Burnley, winners of the Football League Championship, still lack that offensive punch from two years ago. But they have experience in the league, which is why they will survive. Crystal Palace had an outside shot at European play at Christmastime last, but a terrible, injury-riddled end to their campaign snatched away all of those good feelings. If Palace gets off to a bad start, don’t be surprised if Alan Pardew is the first manager to receive the sack. West Brom is plain.

Bournemouth improved a little bit over last season, and it will help them greatly if Callum Wilson can stay healthy (he was brilliant for them before he tore his knee in September of 2015). They added Jordan Ibe, as well. Come to think of it, this team might not be half bad. Might.

Watford lost their manager Quique Sanchez Flores over the summer, and the Italian Walter Mazzarri replaces him. Watford looked quite ordinary in the second half of the season, right about the time that opposing clubs learned how to shutdown Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo. Goals must come from somewhere. Heurelho Gomes is a good keeper, but not great.

Swansea are the club most in danger of relegation. Not only did they lose Andre Ayew, their top striker from last season, transfer out, but the club recently sold captain, and defensive anchor Ashley Williams to Everton. Their midfield is their strongest piece, with Ki Sung-yueng and Gylfi Siguðsson returning. But the question is can they sustain a loss as big as Williams and can they be more clinical up near the goal than they were last season. Francesco Guidolin has his work cut out for him.

Southampton is another team in dire straits. Ronald Koeman, the manager who helped lead the revitalization of Southampton the past two seasons, is now managing at Everon. In addition to that loss, they lost two strikers; Sadio Mane transferred out to Liverpool, and Graziano Pelle took his talents to the burgeoning Chinese Super League. Midfielder Victor Wanyama also left and will play for Tottenham. Southampton still has most of its defense in tact, and we’ll see if having an entire pre-season with the club will help Charlie Austin return to the goal-scoring machine in the Premier League that he was with QPR two years ago. It’s going to be a rough year for the Saints, but they’ll get to 40 points and stay safe.

Europe or Bust

Everton, West Ham, Stoke, Leicester City, Arsenal and Chelsea will all be gunning for at least a spot in the Europa League. Chelsea has the best chance to get that; they have no European distractions, a brilliant new manager, and a team that remembered how to play football once Jose Mourinho was out the door. Everton made some sharp moves this off-season. Their defense, which was atrocious last season, should improve with help from Ronald Koeman’s instructions. Ashley Williams will also help, and they no longer have to deal with the distraction of John Stones’ future. Yannick Bolasie is reported to be set to transfer to Everton next week, and he was a strong force at Palace when healthy.

I’m still waiting for Arsenal to do something. I’ll keep waiting. But seriously, you can never count out Arsene Wenger. Despite the ultra conservative spending, his squad from last season remains largely the same from last season. You know, the same team that finished runners up? Granted, many teams have gotten better, and Arsenal has stayed the same. But again, never count out Arsene Wenger. He’ll get Arsenal battling for a Champions League spot.

Stoke City didn’t have the best end to last season, but Mark Hughes and his team have made adjustments for this season. Joe Allen comes in from Liverpool to help a midfield that was out of sorts last season. Whether or not Xherdan Shaqiri can improve on a ho-hum debut season in the Premier League will determine whether or not Stoke can challenge for a Europe spot. Marko Arnautovic can’t do everything.

I really want to pick West Ham for a top four finish. They’ve come so close the past two seasons. Now playing in the Olympic Stadium, the Hammers return Dimitri Payet, Michail Antonio, Mark Noble (probably still seething over not being included in the England team at the Euros), and Andy Carrolls giant bloody head. Slaven Bilic performed admirably in his first season as manager, and they can only improve from here. If you want a dark horse team to pick to win the league, this is it. If you want a team who plays a fun, sleek style of football, this is it.

And finally we have last year’s darlings, Leicester City. It would be impossible for them to repeat; surely lightning doesn’t strike in the same place at the same time. Relax, it won’t happen. For one, Leicester will have to deal with Champions League commitments, which if the ICC was any indication, will punish them. They’re a team that plays too often without the ball, meaning they have to spend more energy on defense. If they draw a pool of death in the Champions League, they’re going to be drained. Still, Mahrez, Vardy, Drinkwater, and many others from last year return. They’re still good, but the season will grind them down. Still, anything less than finishing top-half of the table will be a disappointment.

Top Four (in order)

4. Tottenham made a brilliant move picking up Victor Wanyama to play defensive midfield this summer. And they haven’t lost anyone from their young core of players. Harry Kane remains the most consistent striker in the EPL. Dele Alli returns as the creator. Most importantly this young team (and young manager, Mauricio Pochettino) now has the experience of a true title race. They lacked the nerve to take it all last season, now they know the level of concentration needed to win a league title. They have a really good shot of doing it.

3. Manchester City and Pep Guardiola are going to be a great fit. John Stones is a breath of fresh air and should be able do defend much better than Martin Demichelis did last season (come to think of it, that really isn’t saying much). The question with City is about health. Can Sergio Aguero, who would shatter scoring records in the league if he ever were healthy enough to play a full season, remain fit? Can Kevin De Bryune remain fit? The difference in how City plays with them and without them is like night and day. If those two can remain fit, City absolutely have a chance to win the league. If not, they could be scrambling to pick up a Champions League spot.

2. Liverpool is in an interesting situation because they have no European commitments. The Reds spent £34 million to buy Sadio Mane from Southampton. He should provide depth at the striker position in case Daniel Sturridge continues to have fitness issues. Jurgen Klopp, entering his first full season as manager, sold off many pieces of the team he inherited, including Joe Allen, Jordon Ibe, and Martin Skrtel. Liverpool gunned for the Europa League Title last season, hoping to salvage Champions League funds from what was a wreckage of a season in the Premier League. It nearly paid off, as Liverpool fell to Sevilla in the Final. Klopp knows what he wants from this team, and if they remain healthy (which they did not do last season), they should have at least a Champions League spot secured,.

That means…

Manchester United is winning the league. (Author’s note: I can’t believe I’m #%@!ing typing that).

How can you not? They got a legendary player (Zlatan) on a free transfer. They signed Pogba. They brought in Eric Bailly from Villareal to help improve pace in their backline. And, whether you love or hate him, the best manager in the sport. Time will tell if Jose Mourinho can break the “three year jinx” but right now, no one cares about three years from now. Add in all the new pieces to promising young players from last year’s squad, such as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, plus veterans in the dressing room and on the pitch like Wayne Rooney and David de Gea, and you have a team that is poised to win a championship.

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