And so it begins. The English transfer window is shut, and barring a few international sales, the clubs have their final squads assembled, and it is time for the English Premier League to once again return. Last year, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola took his buzzsaw of a squad to the rest of the league with no notion of mercy and set a Premier League record by earning 100 points, outscoring the next best club (Manchester United) by 19 points. We also bid goodbye to West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and Swansea City, the three victims of relegation last season. This season, the Premier League welcomes Wolverhampton Wanderers, Cardiff City and Fulham up from the Championship. At the top, Guardiola is back with his sky-blue killing machine intact, Liverpool intends to score as many goals as ever, Chelsea swapped out a fiery, thick-haired Italian for a more aesthetically-inclined, chain-smoking Italian, and after 22 years, Arsene Wenger has finally hung up his jacket (the one that never quite managed to zip up) as a new day dawns for Arsenal. This season could go many different ways, and without further delay, here is one way:
20. Cardiff City -- Relegation
Last Year: 2 (Championship)
Neil Warnock and Cardiff city managed to beat the odds last season win automatic promotion to the Premier League, a feat that is, in and of itself, quite impressive. However, as Huddersfield manager David Wagner (more on him in a minute) once said, reaching the top flight is one thing, staying there is completely different. One thing that contrasts the Bluebirds from their recently-promoted peers is that while Wolves and Fulham piled on their opponents, Cardiff did not score that many goals, being the only team in the top 4 in the Championship to score less than 70 goals. That, coupled with a defense which was not remarkably better than their peers (they conceded 39 goals, same as Wolves), and a relatively quiet transfer window, could leave Cardiff very liable to be overwhelmed at a time when a lot of lower-table sides are increasing their firepower and playing a more continental style of football. Warnock and his players should be proud of where they are, but for now, reaching safety appears to be asking for too much.
19. Southampton -- Relegation
Last Year: 17
After chopping manager Mauricio Pellegrino laste last season, veteran manager Mark Hughes came in and after a rough start, managed to refocus his squad and clinched safety on the last day of the season. Hughes had a good run at Stoke City for a while, but an underwhelming 2016-17 season and a first half of 2017-18 that saw Stoke in the relegation zone (from which they never recovered) led to his dismissal. Southampton had a little bit of activity in the transfer window, bringing in midfielder Stuart Armstrong from Celtic and forward Mohamed Elyounoussi from Basel and, perhaps most notably, taking forward Danny Ings from Liverpool on loan but losing their primary source of creativity last season, Dusan Tadic, to Ajax. Asking two players new to the Premier League to replace the veteran Tadic seems like a bridge too far to me, and with Ings’ injury history and Charlie Austin likely confined to a bench role, the Saints also cast the figure of a club on its way down
18. Watford -- Relegation
Last Season: 14
Watford’s place in the table last season is misleading. The Hornets got off to an incredibly strong start under manager Marco Silva, but faded as the second half came around, and Watford’s infamously trigger-happy owner, Gino Pozzo showed Silva the door. Javi Gracia wasn’t awful by any means as Silva’s replacement, and extending midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure is huge for the club, and goalkeeper Ben Foster is an improvement, but a lot of their goals last year came from players who didn’t start consistently, and with Troy Deeney no longer playing every week and Richarlison likely to be sorely missed, Watford is not well positioned to escape this time, and Gracia looks destined to be yet another former Watford manager. Then again, maybe the new manager who comes in January puts them squarely in the middle of the table.
17. Huddersfield Town
Last Season: 16
David Wagner has an interesting little project going on at Huddersfield. The Jurgen Klopp protege led the Terriers up to the top flight in a season in which some pundits had them going down to League One, then, nearly unanimously picked to finish at the bottom of the table last season, Wagner kept them up. Looking back at the numbers, this feat looks even more impressive, considering how horrible they were when attacking. The offseason has largely seen Huddersfield keep continuity by making loan deals made last season permanent, and perhaps this continuity will allow Wagner, an attack-minded manager who mostly played negative last season in order to stay up, to get more aggressive tactically and improve on their ghastly 28 league goals scored last season. The consensus, once again, is that they’re likely to go down, but a young team that survived last season has now matured by a year and is led by a manager who has thus far proved everybody wrong.
16. Brighton and Hove Albion
Last Season: 15
Also tipped for relegation last season, Brighton, led by Chris Hughton, clinched safety with two weeks to spare with a 1-0 win over Manchester United. The transfer season has largely been spent shoring up the defense, bringing in Bundesliga defenders Bernardo and Leon Balogun to shore up an already strong core with Mathew Ryan in goal and Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy in central defense. However, they haven’t done much to improve the attacking end. Theoretically, they should be strong going forward with a talented and dangerous midfield (Pascal Groß, Davy Pröpper and Anthony Knockaert) but somehow, with that midfield, they are immensely one-dimensional, mostly relying on the effective but quickly aging Glenn Murray (14 goals in 2017-18). Not unlike last year, the Seagulls shouldn’t concede a lot of goals, but don’t expect them to score a lot either.
Last Season: 12
Bournemouth flirted with disaster at both the start and end of last season before finally settling in at the middle of the table by season’s end. Eddie Howe, who is somehow still only 40 years old, has been tipped for seemingly every open job in England (including, but not limited to: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and England), and yet he remains on the touchline at the diminutive Vitality Stadium, punching above his club’s weight class in terms of money, prestige and overall quality. Realistically, Bournemouth could be relegated this season and Howe would still likely be untouchable, but to his detriment, an unusually strong set of promoted clubs could leave the Cherries in for a bit of a nervy season. Bournemouth’s potent strike force of Callum Wilson (10 goals) and Joshua King (8 goals) is back, and a strong spine consisting of goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and stalwart defenders Nathan Ake and Charlie Daniels should leave Howe, who has led Bournemouth to two promotions and no relegations in his career, relatively confident in safety. Unfortunately, with the league getting tougher, they may not be able to grasp much more than that this season.
Last Season: 7
The endearingly hoarse Sean Dyche and Burnley pulled off one of the more surprising feats of the season, as a club tipped by some for relegation shot up to seventh in the table and taking the last spot in the Europa League. This time around, it will be a lot more challenging. It isn’t rare to see bigger clubs have noticeable issues juggling the Premier League with Thursday night games in the Europa League, so it is very reasonable to expect Burnley to struggle to keep pace. They haven’t brought in a lot of new players, but the one they have brought in should be helpful, buying center back Ben Gibson from Middlesbrough to bolster an already strong defense, and buying Derby County striker Matej Vydra to support last season’s wrecking crew of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes (19 league goals combined), but expect their midfield to be punished, as they don’t have much depth and the Europa league should take its toll. Burnley ground out results with surprising consistency last season, and relegation probably shouldn’t be a concern this season, but don’t expect a repeat of last season.
13. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Last Season: 1 (Championship)
This is where it gets fun. Wolves ran roughshod over the Championship last season under manager Nuno Espirito Santo, and now here they come with an already good team, anchored by Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota buffed by an aggressive transfer window, where they brought in Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio, winger Adama Traore and midfielder Joao Moutinho, among others. On paper, they are more than capable of finishing in the top half of the table, but this is a side largely comprised of players, Atletico Madrid castoff Jota notwithstanding, who are not experienced with football at this level. Tearing through Championship defenses is one thing, but Wolves’ attack is likely to struggle against the more organized and physical defenders the English top flight is known for, and bigger clubs should blunt those defensive numbers a fair bit. This is still a team that can and should punch its weight in the league, but I’ll need to see more of these players before I pick them to go straight from promotion to a top half finish.
12. Leicester City
Last Season: 9
Yet another season removed from their Premier League title in 2015-16 which continues to be beyond belief to many, Leicester was rooted in the relegation zone before manager Craig Shakespeare was axed and Claude Puel returned the Foxes to the top half of the league, with a poor close to the season keeping them from more. After three years of speculation, Riyad Mahrez was finally sold, and Leicester pocketed the money and brought in center backs Caglar Soyuncu, Jonny Evans and Filip Benkovic to complement Harry Maguire, and brought in attacking midfielder James Maddison from Norwich City. This squad has all the makings of an effective counter-attacking side, with a solid cluster of center backs and defensive midfielders, and an impressive set of fast attacking players, with Maddison, Demarai Gray, Marc Albrighton, Kelechi Iheanacho, Shinji Okazaki, and, most especially, center forward Jamie Vardy (20 league goals in 2017-18). Losing Mahrez sets them back quite a bit on the pitch, but Puel’s side should still be able to hold their own.
11. Newcastle United
Last Season: 10
News of the Rafalution’s imminent demise is greatly exaggerated. Yes, Mike Ashley is a horrendous owner who is giving Rafa Benitez a raw deal with transfer money, yes the players aren’t great and yes, scoring goals is still going to be a bit of a challenge. However, if you peer beyond the figure of Rafa Benitez looking like a broken man when talking about transfers, you will see a side that improved dramatically as the season went on. Jamaal Lascelles is still leading the team and organizing the defense, Jonjo Shelvey is still the midfield anchor (when he’s not stepping on people of course), Kenedy is back after looking very good at the end of the season, St. James Park is still a fortress, and, in case anybody has forgotten, Rafa Benitez is still the manager. As far as goals are concerned, the Magpies still won’t be great in attack, but Salomon Rondon should be an upgrade over Dwight Gayle at center forward, and if he isn’t, Yoshinori Muto will be. Ki Sung-Yueng should provide midfield depth, same at center back with Fabian Schär, and if Shelvey can string together a full season as the pivot midfielder, Newcastle should be able to sustain the strides it made last season, even if substantial improvement may not be likely.
10. Crystal Palace
Last Season: 11
Crystal Palace may have had the most linear season in the league last season. It was two months before they even so much as earned a single solitary point, then became merely bad, then inconsistent, and were genuinely good by the end of the season. Roy Hodgson, given up for dead after England’s loss to Iceland in the 2016 Euros, has restored his reputation to a certain degree with his recent salvage job at Selhurst Park and now the veteran manager has a fully healthy squad and some nice new toys for this upcoming season. Palace got hit hard by injuries, losing defender Scott Dann and captain Jason Puncheon early on, with Mamadou Sakho and star winger Wilfried Zaha also missing time with injuries, and striker Christian Benteke might as well have been injured, scoring a mere 3 goals in 30 games. Now they’re all back and fit, and Hodgson has added a pair of midfield anchors in Max Meyer and Cheikhou Kouyate and brought in another stiker, Jordan Ayew on loan. With the depth the Eagles have, Palace should have a high floor. If everyone stays healthy, Ayew adjusts well and Benteke returns to his old self, they might not even notice the floor.
Last Season: 3 (Championship)
The other recently promoted side that is going all-out, Fulham has been every bit as aggressive in the transfer window as anybody. Unlike Wolves, the Cottagers have brought in quite a few players with top flight experience, such as Alfie Mawson, Calum Chambers, Sergio Rico, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, and Andre Schürrle. They also received a big boost when they were make to permanently acquire 2018 loanee and serial goalscorer Aleksandar Mitrovic. With an already strong spine involving teenager Ryan Sessegnon and captain Tom Cairney, Slavisa Jokanovic has a side that can do serious damage in the league, with a better mix of experience and upside than Wolves and more firepower than sides like Newcastle. And what’s more, I haven’t even mentioned the unexpected signing of Nice central midfielder (and alleged target of Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona) Jean-Michael Seri.
8. West Ham United
Last Season: 13
HE’S BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK! Manuel Pellegrini makes his return to the Premier League after winning the title with Manchester City in 2013-14 and evidently isn’t messing around, as West Ham, whose fans mutinied during a 3-0 home loss to Burnley last season, just bought a bunch of attacking firepower. The Hammers already had a nice set of attackers with playmaker Manuel Lanzini, striker Marko Arnautovic and goal poacher Javier Hernandez. Now they’ve added a pair of wingers in Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko and another striker in Lucas Perez. Furthermore, they bolstered the back with the additions of central defender Issa Diop and veteran goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, and raided the bargain bin brilliantly, signing Jack Wilshere to man the middle of the park with club captain Mark Noble. That is a lot of creativity suddenly added to a side that primarily relied on individual moments from Lanzini and Arnautovic last season. By the way, Arnautovic had about as bad a first six months as can be last season, and still finished one of the most productive strikers in the league (11 goals, 7 assists). David Moyes and his drudgery saved West Ham from relegation last season, now Pellegrini can make that a distant memory.
7. Everton -- Possible Europa League Qualification
Last Season: 8
Last summer, Everton made a statement of intent with an aggressive transfer window, bringing in England hero Wayne Rooney, midfielders Gylfi Sigurdsson and Davy Klaasen, keeper Jordan Pickford, among others with the expressed goal of breaking into the top 6. It went horribly, the Toffees bottomed out, Ronald Koeman got the bullet, they had to bring in Big Sam Allardyce to sort everything out, and now here they are, doing the exact same thing again. Everton didn’t sign massive amounts of players this time around, but they did get some awfully good ones, raiding Barcelona for defenders Yerry Mina and Lucas Digne, and central midfielder Andre Gomes. They also acquired a pair of Brazilian attackers in Bernard and Richarlison. Perhaps most importantly, they got Marco Silva, the manager who had Watford rolling before Everton stole his heart in October before finally getting him this summer. Rooney and Klaasen are gone, but Sigurdsson is still there, and can still throw darts from set pieces. The defense has the quality, led by captain Phil Jagielka, and augmented considerably by Mina and Digne, while Idrissa Gueye can partner with Gomes. That makes Domin Calvert-Lewin immensely important to this working. The striker didn’t score very much last season, but he’s young, fast, and now has a lot of horses around him. With Silva in charge, and strong players at most positions, this is a side that can put a scare into the top clubs. Then again, I said the same thing last year.
6. Manchester United -- Possible Europa League Qualification
Last Season: 2
Jose Mourinho giveth, Jose Mourinho taketh away. Yes, the fated third year has arrived, and United’s mercurial manager has seemingly embraced his curse at Old Trafford. The Red Devils have suffered through a horrendous offseason, with Mourinho openly whining about his players playing in the world cup, openly criticizing said players, and for a summer-long transfer window, only has Shaktar midfielder Fred to show. There’s quite a bit of negativity around the club that began to manifest itself toward the end of last season, with a string of 1-0 losses where Mourinho, equipped with Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku, and Marcus Rashford, refused to emerge from his bus and get points that should’ve been a mere formality. This is an immensely tough pick to make because the players listed above are immensely capable, Nemanja Matic was a fantastic signing last year, David De Gea remains one of the best keepers in the world, and Fred has a bright future ahead of him. That said, if Mourinho is truly losing the team, as he has done at every other major club he’s managed, there isn’t much more to say.
5. Chelsea -- Europa League Qualification
Last Season: 5
Not to be outdone by United, Chelsea had their own awkward summer, with it becoming apparent before the season ended that Antonio Conte was a dead man walking, yet waiting until the last possible second to chop him and bring in former banker and current footballing wizard Maurizio Sarri. When the season begins, Sarri will have been on the job less than a month, transitioning a team that primarily played on the counter under Conte to a possession-based, passing side. The short turnaround has also caused the Blues’ transfer dealings to lag behind others as well. Sarri should like what he has in the midfield, with his old Napoli midfield general Jorginho and Real Madrid loanee Mateo Kovacic able to slot in alongside N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard. They made a deadline day deal for goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga but it must be considered a wash at best with the loss of Thibaut Courtois. The questions come defensively, as Chelsea isn’t loaded with natural fullbacks, and Marcos Alonso has played wingback much of his career, same with Victor Moses, and up front, as Alvaro Morata hit a wall that he never got through about two months into last season, and Olivier Giroud is an expert finisher but lacks pace. Given the stark tactical contrast between Conte and Sarri, don’t be surprised if Chelsea struggles substantially to start, then improves greatly as the season goes on, particularly if either Morata or Giroud catch the hot hand (or foot, in this case).
4. Arsenal -- Champions League Qualification
Last Season: 6
The King is Dead, Long Live the King. Arsene Wenger has exited stage left and a new days dawns at the Emirates Stadium in the form of Unai Emery. The former PSG and Sevilla manager comes in and had a fairly proactive transfer window, striking early to bring in deputy right back Stephan Lichtsteiner, goalkeeper Bernd Leno, defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and midfield anchor Lucas Torreira. The Gunners intend to demonstrate a bit more aggression than the sides of the retired Frenchman, and Emery has the horses to rack up an absurd amount of goals. In a combined season and a half in North London, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang combined for 24 goals and 8 assists. Now, with a full season looming, and supported by last season’s top Arsenal player, Aaron Ramsey (7 goals, 8 assists), a rejuvenated Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and an unspeakably angry Mesut Özil, both strikers are receiving backing to contend for the golden boot. Arsenal should also have a powerful deeper midfield, with Lucas Torreira adding more guile, aggression and ball-winning ability to the hard-tackling but primarily creative Granit Xhaka. Big questions do remain regarding defending, which was horrendous for Arsenal last season. Sokratis should provide some leadership at the back, as should Lichtsteiner, and Torreira should help as a screen, but likely regulars Shkodran Mustafi and Hector Bellerin must improve. Arsene Wenger won the league in his first full season, Emery will not do that, but after two years out of the Champions League, maybe the mythical Fourth-Place Trophy isn’t a bad place to start.
3. Tottenham Hotspur -- Champions League Qualification
Last Season: 3
The clock is ticking on Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs. It’s ticking faintly, but it’s there. The new stadium is built, the team is young, talented, and is about as consistent as the club has ever been, and Tottenham celebrated by not signing a single player. As noted earlier, the squad is still strong and deep, so they should still expect to contend. Harry Kane is a brace waiting to happen, Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min provide pace and creativity, and Dele Alli is about as dangerous a central attacking midfielder as there is in the league. Farther back, Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama form a formidable central midfield and the back, led by Toby Alderweireld and captain goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, complete an extremely well rounded team that should be no easier to beat this year than they were at any point in the last three years. Pochettino has done a phenomenal job in North London, and he owes the club nothing, but this core does not have a single trophy to show for it. While a finish this high is nothing to scoff at, and the postponement of St. Totteringham’s Day for another year would provide some lovely bragging rights, there likely isn’t much longer the club can go without winning anything before restlessness will start to set in.
2. Liverpool -- Champions League Qualification
Last Season: 4
Liverpool’s run to the Champions League Final demonstrated what a fully functioning Liverpool team can do under Jurgen Klopp: press teams off the pitch, score goals in bunches, and work you like a speed bag until you collapse from exhaustion. And the scary part is, they got much stronger. The Thrilling Three (I didn’t come up with that) of Golden Boot Winner Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino is still intact and still absurd, and the defense improved dramatically last season with the January addition of Virgil Van Dijk in the heart of the back line and the emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold. The Reds received a tough break when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was declared lost for most of the coming season, but Klopp and friends went to work addressing the midfield in the transfer window, locking up Fabinho to bolster the spine of the team and Naby Keita, who will like play the role Oxlade-Chamberlain would’ve played, and winger Xherdan Shaqiri provides even more attacking options at Jurgen Klopp’s disposal. Liverpool improved more than any other top 6 club this summer, and while the mountain to the top may be too high this season, with the way things are going, it looks to be only a matter of time before we’re humming along to a heavy metal rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
1. Manchester City -- Champions League Qualification
Last Season: 1
There isn’t much to say here. The Cityzens broke every conceivable record there was to break last season, with a team that was largely quite young, and now the whole squad is back, with the addition of summer signing Riyad Mahrez. City is also deeper than any other side in the league, sporting two world class strikers (Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus), three world class wingers (Leroy Sane, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling), an assortment of attacking midfielders (Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Bernardo Silva), and a defense anchored by midfield pivot Fernandinho and led by John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi. Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are the kings until further notice.