Folks, we’re back.
The English Premier League returns this weekend. Following one of the tightest title races in the history of English football last season, Manchester City outlasted Liverpool on the final day to win a second consecutive title. As a new day dawns in England, we appear to be in for an outstanding season. Liverpool and Manchester City are back for another riveting title race, Tottenham finally moved into their new stadium, Arsenal is back for another run at returning to the Champions League, Chelsea and Manchester United are both taking former legendary players for a spin as managers, and this season may have the best middle class in the Premier League era. Further down the table, Huddersfield, Fulham and Cardiff were relegated last season, and Norwich City, Sheffield United and Aston Villa have come up in their place. With the depth that the league has this season, point totals at the top likely won’t be as high, and the teams are close enough that the season could go many different ways. Here is one way…
20. Newcastle United -- Relegation
Last Season: 13
Viva la Rafalución! Newcastle’s administrative incompetence finally seems to have come back to hurt them. Manager Rafa Benitez, finally out of patience with owner Mike Ashley’s unwillingness to invest in the club, has walked out the door, and most of Newcastle’s goals have left with him. Center forward Salomón Rondón followed Benitez to China and shadow striker Ayoze Pérez was sold to Leicester City. The Magpies already had one of the weakest squads in the league last season, but were kept afloat by timely goalscoring and Benitez’ tactical mastery, and now both of those are gone. Newcastle has turned to Steve Bruce to succeed Benitez, and has signed striker Joelinton and winger Allan Saint-Maximin to try and replace Perez and Rondon. Joelinton and Saint-Maximin both have talent, but they’re both young players who are untested in a uniquely challenging Premier League. There is some quality in this squad, center backs Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schär, along with left winger Matt Ritchie and new left back Jetro Willems are strong, stubborn players, and pivot midfielder Jonjo Shelvey’s talent has never been in doubt, but this squad is woefully undermanned, and the anger with Mike Ashley has boiled over to a point where St. James’ Park, one of the best home atmospheres in England, may not be the most comfortable ground to play in for the home side. This really is a sad story, Newcastle are a club rich in tradition with some of the best fans in England, and Steve Bruce is a fine manager, but this isn’t a situation they’ll be able to get out of. On the bright side, Mike Ashley, one of the worst owners out there, openly wants to sell, so maybe a sale makes relegation a bit more palatable.
19. Brighton & Hove Albion -- Relegation
Last Season: 17
Brighton’s second consecutive season in the top flight was a little bit too close to relegation for comfort, but they survived nonetheless. However, the club, displeased with how close it came (they cleared the drop by two points) and the Seagulls’ pathetic goal output (35 goals in 38 games), fired manager Chris Hughton and replaced him with Graham Potter. Potter isn’t a stranger to tough situations, he had a great run at FK Östersunds in northern Sweden, but he’s coming off a mid-table finish in the Championship with Swansea City. One thing he will have in his favor, and the biggest reason for Brighton fans to have hope for survival, is that Brighton still has one of the best center back pairings in the English top flight. Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk both received interest from other clubs but ultimately they are still Brighton players, and their central defense, along with the pair’s goal contributions off of set pieces, will make them a tough out for anybody, and they should be able to scratch out a few unexpected draws. Unfortunately, a common theme with relegation-threatened clubs is goalscoring, or lack thereof. Glenn Murray is a warrior (13 league goals in 2018-19), but he turns 36 next month, and the next highest goalscorer was Duffy (5 goals). Potter made a pair of shrewd signings in Belgian left winger Leandro Trossard and French striker Neil Maupay. Trossard provides pace out wide, and Maupay should work excellently in a partnership with Murray, with service coming from Pascal Groß once again. I like Potter, he’s a good manager with room to grow, and he’s met a good match in Brighton, a well-run club that isn’t prone to panicking, but this season is going to be tough, and Brighton won’t be able to outrun the speeding train this time.
18. Norwich City -- Relegation
Last Season: 1 (Championship)
This is a tough one. Norwich ran roughshod over the championship last season to the tune of 94 points and 93 goals, winning the second tier with room to spare. Manager Daniel Farke managed Borussia Dortmund II before coming to England, and the influence of Jürgen Klopp is apparent. The Canaries won the championship the fun way: by throwing everything they had at the opponent’s net. While this had the result of scoring 93 goals, it also had the drawback of an extremely suspect defense, with 57 goals conceded, a shocking number for a promoted team. Norwich has bought very little in this transfer window, which suggests that whatever may come, this team is going to ride it out with Farke, these players, and the wild, athletic setup that got them this far, an admirable decision, but one that could cost them. Norwich controlled the ball last season, and the attack was multi-faceted, but 29 of the 93 goals they scored came from Finnish target man Teemu Pukki, who won the Championship Golden Boot. Mario Vrančić was the only other Norwich player to score double digit goals last season, and while they are more than competent, high goal totals don’t always translate to the top flight, especially when Norwich isn’t going to monopolize possession the way they did on their way up. If Norwich is truly committed to holding the course, they’re going to be fun to watch, but they’re also going to be on the losing end of a lot of three or four-goal losses. This, combined with the natural fall in goals that comes with moving up a tier, means Norwich’s idealism will be heading back down, but with the firepower and fearlessness they have, they won’t go quietly.
17. Aston Villa
Last Season: 5 (Championship)
Fool me twice, shame on me. After losing in the promotion playoff final in 2017-18, Aston Villa got over the top last season, defeating Derby County in the playoff final to secure promotion after three seasons underwater. One of England’s proudest clubs, manager Dean Smith has had a very busy summer, with the Villains loading up on attackers, bringing in wingers Jota and Trézéguet, and striker Wesley. Making Anwar El Ghazi’s loan move permanent will also help with continuity. Unfortunately, Villa is playing a bit of a dangerous game. Their hot streak that led to their promotion was largely powered by striker Tammy Abraham, who they took on loan from Chelsea. To Aston Villa’s chagrin, the 25-goal scorer has returned to Stamford Bridge, and they suddenly have a lot of goals to make up. Fortunately, the forwards will have a lot of opportunities, being supported by a midfield trio of John McGinn, Conor Hourihane, and in particular, attacking midfielder Jack Graelish. Graelish may be the most talented player on any of the promoted sides, and Villa’s attack will benefit accordingly, however their defense requires some faith. They conceded 62(!) goals last season, but they’ve done well in the summer, making Tyrone Mings’ and Kortney Hause’s loans permanent and bringing in proven defenders Ezri Konsa and Björn Engels, along with taking swings on Southampton castoff Matt Targett at left back and Manchester City academy product Douglas Luiz to anchor the midfield, and most crucially, bringing in veteran Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton. All of these signings point to a stress-free season for Villa, but the spectre of Fulham looms large. The Cottagers were the last promoted team in 2018-19, and spent £100 Million on transfers. They were a complete disaster, getting relegated in record time. Now here comes Aston Villa, spending £100 Million on transfers in an attempt to guarantee survival. I’ll say they stay up, but only just.
16. Sheffield United
Last Season: 2 (Championship)
Sheffield United surprised everybody last season by securing their second promotion in three years, a meteoric rise for Chris Wilder’s men akin to Bournemouth’s several years ago under Eddie Howe. Howe is still around, and Bournemouth is beginning their fifth consecutive season in the Premier League this weekend, and now it will be interesting to see if the Blades can do the same. Wilder’s team has a lot more balance than Norwich, with a little bit less attacking firepower (78 goals in 2018-19), but much more defensive solidity (led the championship in clean sheets). Also in contrast to Norwich, Sheffield United hasn’t been shy about new recruitment. They signed Everton legend Phil Jagielka, who should at least provide leadership behind the scenes (nobody’s quite sure if he can actually still play), and former Swansea striker Oliver McBurnie should augment an already strong strike partnership of Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick. In particular, the 23 year-old McBurnie should allow Wilder to rest his other two strikers (both over 30) periodically, which is huge in a league where survival, particularly for a newly promoted team, can be so dependent on savvy strikers scoring timely goals (see: Murray, Glenn). It’s been a sound transfer window for the Blades, letting an experienced defense be (retaining Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson in goal is also a huge help) while getting some competent attacking help for an already fairly strong team going forward, along with a few dice rolls on Bournemouth washout Lys Mousset and talented headcase Ravel Morrison. This season is not going to be easy by any measure, championship goals don’t always translate well to Premier League success, but Sheffield United have enough goalscorers that they should feel confident in their ability to find the net. Additionally, the blood runs hot in Sheffield, and Newcastle United demonstrated two years ago the potential for a newly promoted club with a few well-timed goals and a tough home ground.
Last Season: 15
As many expected, Sean Dyche’s squad didn’t take to life in European competition all that comfortably. The squad was worryingly thin, and having to balance both the Europa League and the Premier League took its toll, as the Clarets were eliminated from the Europa League early and their Premier League performances left much to be desired until January. Once January came along, Burnley went back to being Burnley, and a string of tough performances saw them clear the relegation zone by six points. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier for them now. Sean Dyche did what he always does in the transfer window, staying quiet while adding a piece or two to complement and tight-knit core that has largely remained unchanged. Unfortunately for Dyche, the star of Burnley’s second half, goalkeeper Tom Heaton, has been sold to Aston Villa, so it will most likely be Nick Pope in goal. Burnley did add to their stable of strikers in buying Jay Rodriguez, who scored 22 goals in the championship last season, and he will no doubt add support to Burnley’s reliable strike team of Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood. More hope for Burnley comes in the form of another standout from last year in teenager Dwight McNeill. The academy product will line up opposite Jóhann Guðmunsson on the wing, and those two will look to attack the flanks and support the strikers. Elsewhere, Burnley bolstered their midfield with the loan signing of Chelsea flop Danny Drinkwater, and still has a strong, cohesive back line, led by center backs James Tarkowski and Ben Mee, which will make Burnley as tough to beat as they always are. Burnley, as always, will be thin, and Dyche’s seeming contentment with grinding out draws and close wins, while serving him well, may hold them back from really making noise in the league, but for small clubs like Burnley, survival is paramount, and Dyche’s unapologetically rough style of play will ensure them that. As usual, there will be no such thing as an easy win against Burnley.
Last Season: 16
I picked Southampton to go down last season, and about a third of the way in, it looked like I was right. The Saints were floundering under manager Mark Hughes and the St. Mary’s Stadium seemed resigned to their doom. However, after Hughes was fired, Southampton rebounded under former RB Leipzig manager Ralph Hasenhüttl, and maintained their top flight status for another season. Now, optimism has returned to Southampton, as the “Alpine Klopp” is expected to restore Southampton’s more ambitious days under managers such as Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koemann. Hasenhüttl’s transfer activity has been modest, but practical, making Danny Ings’ loan move from Liverpool permanent, along with bringing in new striker Che Adams and winger Moussa Djenepo to bolster an attack that desperately needs help. Djenepo and 2018-19 standout Nathan Redmond will move the ball into dangerous areas, but Southampton hasn’t had a consistent goalscorer in years. Maybe Ings improves on the seven goals he scored last season, or maybe Adams makes the difference. Southampton’s midfield looks to be strong once again, as James Ward-Prowse scored seven goals last season, and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is a force in the middle of the park. The defense is a bit worrying however. There are some talented pieces, and the center back pairing of Maya Yoshida and Jannik Vestergaard, when healthy, can be effective, but overall, the defending has the potential to submarine Hasenhüttl’s designs on returning Southampton to the top half of the table. Hasenhüttl did a great job in a tough situation last season, and it’s nice to see Southampton back on the rise for the first time since Ronald Koemann and Sadio Mané were there, and they will make progress this season, but the Saints are still a few steps away from knocking on Europe’s door.
13. Crystal Palace
Last Season: 12
Palace fans can breathe a massive sigh of relief. Yet another summer transfer window has passed, and yet again, Wilfried Zaha is still a Crystal Palace player. The Ivorian winger is a uniquely skilled player, and is one of the best in the league with the ball at his feet, and he will be as important to the Eagles’ season as ever. Palace has been relatively quiet in the summer, but the signings they have made should help. They made Jordan Ayew’s loan move permanent, brought in two veteran central midfielders in James McCarthy and Víctor Camarasa, and bolstered their defense with the signing of former Chelsea captain Gary Cahill. McCarthy and Camarasa will reinforce an experienced and competent central midfield, led by James McArthur and Luka Milivojević. The flanks also boast talent, with Max Meyer having a strong preseason and Andros Townsend coming off a strong season. Up front, Zaha will move around the opposition’s defenders as he always does, but Palace’s striker, Christian Benteke, has a lot to prove. Benteke has scored a grand total of four league goals in the last two seasons, which, as you can probably guess, is not very good. Benteke is now in a contract year, so now it’s on him to prove he can still play. Also in the final year of his contract is Benteke’s manager, Roy Hodgson. Hodgson’s (presumably) final act in English soccer has been impressive, with the disgraced former England manager having rebuilt his reputation by taking a Palace side that was presumably doomed in 2017-18 to the top half of the table, and following that up with another mid-table finish last season. Hodgson will have a challenge on his hands regarding his back line, because while Zaha is still in south London, right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka is not, with the young star off to Manchester. Fortunately, Gary Cahill should help stabilize the defense, and Joel Ward should be able to step in for Wan-Bissaka, even if the attack may fall off from the right back position. Hodgson has vehemently denied speculation that he intends to retire once his current contract expires, and why wouldn’t he? The veteran manager is enjoying quite a second wind in south London, and he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. With Zaha still around and a good staple of talent beyond him, Hodgson can keep his impressive run going at Selhurst Park, further solidifying the Eagles’ status as a worthy Premier League side.
Last Season: 11
I picked Watford for relegation last season. The loss of Richarlison, and the perpetual instability at the club, was destined to catch up to them, or so I believed. Instead, Javi Gracia turned out the be the manager the Hornets were looking for all along, with the spanish boss following up his second half of last season with a strong first full season as Watford’s manager, finishing comfortably in the middle of the table and taking Watford on a surprise run to the FA Cup final (they lost to Manchester City). This season, Watford isn’t losing anybody significant, and they’ve upgraded in a few areas. Gracia brought in veteran defender Craig Dawson to reinforce a defense that hurt more than helped last season. Gracia also made a pair of exciting transfers in attack as well, raiding the bargain bin for former Arsenal striker Danny Welbeck and setting the club’s transfer record for winger Ismaïla Sarr. Welbeck provides support up front for the aging Troy Deeney, and Sarr provides a dangerous presence out wide opposite last season’s standout, Gerard Deulofeu. On the other side, Watford’s defense could be problematic, even with Dawson’s help. The Hornets conceded 59 goals last season, and while Dawson and Craig Cathgart make an experienced pair, left back José Holebas is limited athletically, and right back Kiko Fermenía had some nervy moments. The defense does have a big help in Will Hughes, who is one of the more industrious midfielders in England, and Watford’s midfield will be impressive, with Abdoulaye Doucoure and Roberto Pereyra supporting the forwards. The defense will certainly still be concerning, but Watford is strong going forward, and that alone should make for an exciting season at Vicarage Road, and who knows? Maybe Watford can go two full seasons without firing a manager.
Last Season: 14
Speaking of exciting attacks and morbid defending, meet Eddie Howe. Eddie Howe has been the brightest young English manager for years, and he showed it again last season, leading the smallest club in the top flight to a season that was stronger than their final position would suggest, and the Bournemouth lifer’s dream run on the south coast continues. Unique to much of the rest of the league, the Cherries have not made any significant moves, instead choosing to maintain continuity, which can be both good and bad. On one hand, Bournemouth’s attack last season was outstanding. Bournemouth boasts one of the best strike pairings in England in Callum Wilson and Joshua King (27 combined league goals), along with three dangerous wingers in Ryan Fraser (who was second in the league in assists last season), Junior Stanislas and Jordan Ibe, and a pair of strong central midfielders in David Brooks and Jefferson Lerma. Unfortunately, there is a reason Bournemouth finished at 14th despite all of that attacking talent. Bournemouth’s defense could best be described as ghastly, conceding 70 goals (!) across the season. Center back pairing Nathan Aké and Steve Cook have talent, but deciding not to bring in any defensive help at all is bold to say the least. Howe is gambling on his defensive line improving with another year together, and is counting on the same with his attack. Keeping the attack together was Bournemouth’s biggest victory of the offseason, and if the defense merely progresses to the mean (or even is only bad, not dreadful), it could be a fun season at the Vitality Stadium.
10. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Last Season: 7
Wolves hit the ground running last season, qualifying for the Europa League and cementing their status as the best newly promoted team of the Premier League era. Manager Nuno Espírito Santo consolidated the club’s gains in the transfer window, making Raúl Jiménez’ loan move permanent, as well as signing defensive midfielder Leander Dendoncker and taking in center back Jesús Vallejo on loan. The team will be a joy to watch once again, with the attack littered with athletes such as winger Diogo Jota, Adama Traoré, Ivan Cavaleiro, João Moutinho and Jiménez himself, all supported by a world-class pivot midfielder in Rúben Neves. The defense had a few glitches, but Wolves still boast a veteran group that can support the attack, and they also have an international goalkeeper in Rui Patrício. With all of this quality, it’s fair to ask why they won’t run off to another season in Europe. The answer is simple: The Europa League. Historically, teams tend to struggle quite a bit when trying to balance the Europa League and the Premier League, including large steps back taken by each of the last two teams to finish in seventh (Everton and Burnley). Wolves are teeming with talent, but depth may be a concern. However, do not expect Wolves to step back to the degree that Everton and Burnley did (both flirted with relegation), so while the Europa League will definitely take its toll, expect another strong and exciting season at Molineaux.
9. West Ham United
Last Season: 10
After a rough start to life in west London, Premier League-winning manager Manuel Pellegrini steadied the ship and turned in a strong season at West Ham, finishing in the top half despite contending with a few unfortunate injuries. Pellegrini owes much of his club’s success last season to a pair of breakout performers in defensive midfielder Declan Rice and winger Felipe Anderson. These two breakout players, along with strong seasons from midfielders Mark Noble and Michail Antonio and center back Issa Diop, obscured how much injuries inhibited the Hammers. Winger Andriy Yarmolenko only played in ten games, and midfielder Jack Wilshere only played in seven. With all of those players back and fit, Pellegrini took to the transfer window for a few key signings. Attacking midfielder Pablo Fornals was brought in from Villareal to create chances in the final third, and West Ham splashed the cash to bring in French striker Sébastien Haller to replace West Ham’s only significant offseason loss: striker Marko Arnautović. Once again, this should be another exciting season at the London Stadium, with Issa Diop anchoring an athletic backline, protecting veteran goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, an industrious midfield pairing of Rice and Noble, behind a high-flying attack consisting of some combination of Anderson, Fornals, Antonio, Yarmolenko and Haller. The Premier League is incredibly deep this season, boasting the strongest middle class of teams in years, and with a veteran manager and exciting young talent, West Ham should be right in the thick of it.
8. Leicester City
Last Season: 9
Leicester could look quite different from what we’re used to next season. The Foxes’ 2015-16 League Title, as well as each season since, has primarily been staked upon being one of the most dangerous counterattacking sides in the league. Claudio Ranieri won the league with that strategy, and Claude Puel maintained it for his season in charge. Now, Leicester are riding high after a strong close to last season, spurred by the appointment of former Liverpool and Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers will move Leicester to a more possession-based style of play, and he has the personnel to do. Securing midfield anchor Youri Tielemans permanently is huge, and Belgian midfielder Dennis Praet figures to strengthen Leicester’s midfield and help move the ball into the final third. Praet will most likely support Leicester’s great weapon, playmaker James Maddison. Maddison was a revelation last season, and now he’s the perfect triggerman for creating chances for stalwart striker Jamie Vardy (18 goals last season), along with a few goals of his own (Maddison scored seven, second on the team behind Vardy). Unfortunately, Leicester only lost one player of significance in the transfer window, but it’s a big one in center back Harry Maguire. Maguire was important, but Leicester still has enough bodies in defense that his loss should at least be partially mitigated. Fullbacks Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira should operate well in Rodgers’ system, and some combination of Wes Morgan, Jonny Evans and Çağlar Söyüncü should be able to man the center of the defense in front of veteran goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Rodgers may have been a bit of a disappointment at Liverpool, but now he has quite an opportunity for a second act in England at the King Power Stadium, and if everything falls together nicely, he might have another shot at Europe as well.
7. Chelsea -- Possible Europa League Qualification
Last Season: 3
I’m going to regret this pick. Chelsea had...an interesting 2018-19 season. Maurizio Sarri was brought on as manager at the last possible second, and the Blues labored through a campaign rife with bad results, upset fans and...a third place finish and a Europa League title? Yes, it was an odd turn of events, one that ended with a great final touch: Sarri leaving to become the manager of Juventus. In the next episode of the perpetual soap opera that is Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich has turned to an old hand as the next manager. Frank Lampard had a fine first season in management, guiding Derby County to the promotion playoffs before losing the final to Aston Villa, and his initial success, along with his status as a Chelsea legend, got him the top job at Stamford Bridge. It helps that Lampard took in a few young Chelsea players on loan at Derby and did well with them, because he doesn’t have much of a choice but to use them. Chelsea had a bit of a troubling offseason, being assessed a transfer ban barring them from making any new signings in the summer aside from making Mateo Kovačić’s loan move permanent, and the most notable thing to happen to them was losing Eden Hazard, arguably the most talented player in club history. Christian Pulisic, arriving following a loan at Dortmund, is a great player, but he’ll need to adjust to playing in England, and he can only replace so much of Hazard’s production from the left wing. Aside from Pulisic, Chelsea’s attack is going to be reliant on aging veterans such as Olivier Giroud, Willian and Pedro, and young players getting their first real taste of the Premier League, such as Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount. It also doesn’t help that both Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are currently nursing injuries. On the positive side, the midfield should still be strong, with the Blues boasting a strong engine room of N’Golo Kanté, Ross Barkley, and Jorginho, and Chelsea’s fullback pairing of Cesar Azpilicueta and Emerson Palmieri is as reliable as they come. However, the center of the defense could be another problem. David Luiz and Gary Cahill are gone, and the depth is thin. While this can be partially offset by an excellent goalkeeper in Kepa Arrizabalaga, the penalty box could be a danger area. Unfortunately, Lampard is managing with one arm tied behind his back in his first season at Chelsea, and while his status as a club legend should mean a lot, this is a tough job for and inexperienced manager, and Chelsea, with an impatient owner and a spoiled fanbase, is not a club known for putting up with teardown seasons like what this is shaping up to be.
6. Everton -- Europa League Qualification
Last Season: 8
I avoided falling for it the last two seasons, but this year, I’m taking the bait. Everton had an outstanding finish to last season, capped by a resounding 4-0 victory against Manchester United, and spirits are high on Merseyside yet again. Marco Silva, who Everton courted for months prior to his appointment, had his struggles, but ultimately has the club rolling back toward the top of England’s middle class. Now, just take a look at the forwards. Richarlison was a revelation for the Toffees last season, scoring 14 goals, and midfield sniper Gylfi Sigurðsson scored another 14. Meanwhile Richarlison’s opposite winger, Bernard, also impressed in his debut season in Everton colors. And now they’ve gotten bolder. Striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin has been a weak link in Everton’s attack for a while now, but now Silva has brought in Italian teenager Moise Kean to lead the line. If Kean is as good as his talent allows, with Richarlison, Bernard and Sigurðsson in support, and former Arsenal attackers Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi coming off the bench, this team will be deadly. One trouble spot to watch is central defense. Losing defensive midfielder Idrissa Gueye hurts, and Everton’s late-season resurgence was catalyzed by Chelsea loanee Kurt Zouma, who has returned to London. Silva has brought in Jean-Philippe Gbamin to replace Gueye, and he appears to be content with the next man up to replace Zouma. Yerry Mina was a disappointment last season, but if he improves with more time in England, he’s an exceptional talent to slot next to Michael Keane. The fullbacks, however, should be strong, with Mason Holgate and Lucas Digne proving to be useful, and Everton’s midfield is stocked with a good mix of talent and experience. Making Andre Gomes’ loan permanent was perhaps the best move Everton made in the summer, and former Manchester City player Fabian Delph should help behind the scenes. Everton has had about a dozen false dawns in the last 20 years, so this level of optimism is dangerous, but Marco Silva looks to be the right man, and he has the players to push Everton even further up the league.
5. Manchester United -- Europa League Qualification
Last Season: 6
At this point, Manchester United is a bigger soap opera than Chelsea. After doing everything short of openly begging to be fired last season, Jose Mourinho finally got the sack in December, and former United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær came in to clean up the mess. The first few months were excellent, with a rejuvenated side playing loose, exciting football and winning games at a rate that saw the baby-faced assassin named the full-time manager going forward. Unfortunately, a collapse soon followed, and now Manchester United has no idea what it wants. Manchester United had to labor through another awkward transfer window, with Paul Pogba openly wanting out, Jesse Lingard getting himself in trouble, and Romelu Lukaku being sold to Inter Milan. However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Solskjær. The Norwegian managed to bag a pair of big defensive signings in right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka and center back Harry Maguire, as well as a talented young winger in Daniel James. Unfortunately, defense is where the Red Devils need the most help, and Wan-Bissaka is great going forward, but he’s still raw defensively, and there are questions over how good Harry Maguire actually is. On paper, a back four of Diogo Dalot, Maguire, Victor Lindelöf and Wan-Bissaka should be fine, but now that Nemanja Matić is well beyond his best years, they have little protection. The midfield is also a bit of a mess, with Matić fading and Fred still yet to impress anybody. The attack also has question marks, because while Romelu Lukaku never adjusted to life at Old Trafford, he was their only true center forward, and now he’s gone. Marcus Rashford has talent, but he’s underperformed as a goalscorer recently, same with Anthony Martial, and nobody really knows what to do with Jesse Lingard anymore. All of this leads to Manchester United’s season hinging on one man: Paul Pogba. The French midfielder is still one of the best players in the world...when he feels like it, and while he appears to have a good relationship with Solskjær, and he hasn’t yet gone on strike, nobody’s quite sure if he can be relied on consistently. If Pogba is back in top form, a lot of the attack problems can be masked, and if the defense progresses to the mean, United could rebound a bit, but expect a tough season at Old Trafford, and one which will test the patience of a notoriously impatient fanbase and board.
4. Arsenal -- Champions League Qualification
Last Season: 5
In early March, Arsenal beat Manchester United 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium. At that moment, new manager Unai Emery was a resounding success. Arsenal were comfortably in the top four, with no big opponents remaining, and a return to the Champions League (and St. Totteringham’s Day) was in the Gunners’ grasp. What followed next? Complete and utter collapse. Arsenal took a handful of painful losses, capped off by a 1-1 draw against Brighton that effectively ended their top four hopes, and the first season following Arsene Wenger’s retirement ended with a 4-1 beating at the hands of Chelsea in the Europa League Final. It was a painful end to a season in which Arsenal did make progress. Let us not forget that even with a dreadful final two months, Arsenal was a mere two points away from finishing third. Cognizant of how close they were, Arsenal had the most active transfer window in club history, bringing in a string of players as they gear up for another run at qualifying for the Champions League. Bringing in central midfielder Dani Ceballos on loan was a shrewd move by Arsenal, particularly as they lost Aaron Ramsey at the end of the season, and deadline day moves for left back Kieran Tierney and center back David Luiz should bolster a defense that let them down way too many times last season. However, the crown jewel of the transfer window was Lille winger Nicolas Pepe. Pepe scored 22 goals in France last season, and placing him alongside Alexandre Lacazette and golden boot-winner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should make for a wild ride that would make Wenger at his most idealistic blush. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno and defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira were hits last season in their debuts in London, and Torreira anchoring a midfield that is suddenly quite deep holds a lot of promise. Just as well, Arsenal suddenly has wide players they haven’t had previously, with Reiss Nelson returning after an impressive loan at Hoffenheim, and Pepe coming in. Unfortunately for Emery, the defense will probably still be frustrating. Hector Bellering and Rob Holding are still recovering from ACL injuries, and Kieran Tierney likely won’t be ready to go at the start of the season. Additionally, the center back position is where help is most needed, and while David Luiz is the kind of ball-playing center back that Unai Emery has relied upon everywhere he has managed, it’s not certain that he can help with keeping the ball out of the net. However, once everything is accounted for, Arsenal’s defense, when healthy, is young, talented, and loaded with potential, just like most of the first team, and if Ceballos’ creativity from deeper midfield can revive Mesut Özil in a way that nobody has done since Santi Cazorla was roaming the middle of the park for Arsenal, this season is going to be an attacking masterpiece. The defense will hold them back again this season, but even a slight improvement will help, and with all the goals they’re expected to score, it’s about time Arsenal were reacquainted with fourth place.
3. Tottenham Hotspur -- Champions League Qualification
Last Season: 4
North London is going to be awesome. Tottenham Hotspur had another strong season under manager Mauricio Pochettino, finishing fourth in the Premier League, while making a surprise run to the Champions League Final (they ultimately lost to Liverpool). Now, they move to the brand new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is finally complete, Spurs finally made some moves in the transfer market. Chairman Daniel Levy brought in central midfielder Tanguy Ndombele early in the window, and he should be an upgrade in the middle of the park, and closed with a par of deadline day signings: bringing in attacking midfielder Giovani Lo Celso and left back Ryan Sessegnon. As with many other clubs in the top half, Spurs have more attackers than they know what to do with, as the core four of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Son Heung-Min and Christian Eriksen are all still around, along with Champions League Semifinal hero Lucas Moura, and now Lo Celso joins the mix, making for a delightful problem for Pochettino to have. The defense had their struggles last year, but they were able to retain Toby Alderweireld, which should help them stay at least at last season’s standard. The midfield was already decent defensively with Eric Dier, Harry Winks and Moussa Cissoko, and now Ndombele should provide a deeper attacking threat. This is a strong team with some depth, enough that Pochettino’s men should be able to separate themselves from the big clubs below them, but it remains to be seen whether they can break into the top tier. There are some troubling storylines to watch for Spurs fans: Eriksen has one year left on his contract and wanted to leave in the summer, Alli has underperformed for two years, Pochettino, for all his success, still hasn’t won a trophy, and it’s unclear whether the debt incurred from building the new stadium will result in future austerity. But for now, this is a team rich in attacking talent with one of the best managers in the world, playing in a brand new stadium, there aren’t many reasons why they shouldn’t be able to at least put a little pressure on the league’s heaviest hitters.
2. Manchester City
Last Season: 1
This pick is not grounded in logic. Manchester City came out on top of a title race that came down to the final day, winning their second consecutive title. Now, most of the squad is back, and they made two additions: midfielder Rodri and right back João Cancelo. Just as they were last year, City is loaded, with Sergio Aguero (21 goals last season) back for another campaign, supported by backup striker Gabriel Jesus and flanked by wingers Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez. Further back, Rodri should replace the aging stalwart Fernandinho in defensive midfield, and the attacking midfield will still be strong with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. The defense will once again be teeming with talent, and center back pairing John Stones and Aymeric Laporte will be tough to beat once again. There is no reason the Cityzens can’t repeat as title winners, but one thing is paramount: Pep Guardiola. The Catalan genius is in his fourth year in Manchester, and he has never lasted longer than four years at any one club, and he later admitted that he never should have stayed for his fourth year in Barcelona. Additionally, the spectre of the Champions League looms large, and a pair of quarter final exits will have Guardiola laser-focused on bringing the European trophy to the Etihad Stadium, and with Leroy Sane’s recent ACL injury and captain Vincent Kompany’s departure, depth might be strained. For these reasons, City could take a step back in the league, enough to relinquish the top spot, although they will still doubtlessly win something, maybe even the Champions league. However, maybe Guardiola finds that he loves life in Manchester and wants to stay, and City puts the league to the sword once again. That would not be a bad bet.
Last Season: 2
This is a sucker bet, and I’m taking it. Liverpool came as close as you can get to winning the league without actually winning it, losing out to Manchester City on the final day by one point. However, they rebounded and avenged the previous season’s loss in the Champions League Final, this time returning to Anfield as European champions. Jürgen Klopp’s resurrection of Liverpool has been a sight to behold, and while they didn’t make any significant new signings, they do receive some welcome help. The Reds’ attacking output looks all the more impressive when you consider that they were starved of goals from midfield, as they rode with a hard-working but offensively limited midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum. Now, after missing the end of the season with injuries, Naby Keita is back, and after missing all of last season with injuries, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is back, and those two should provide more firepower from the midfield than they had last season. That said, the midfielder they did use played a big part in a fantastic defensive record, as did center back Virgil Van Dijk, who once again will lead a stingy back line, flanked by the best fullback pairing in the world in Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. The attack will be dangerous once again, with wingers Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane yet to find their match, striker Roberto Firmino looking to bounce back from a season where he often looked like he wasn’t at full fitness, winger Xherdan Shakiri providing pace off the bench, and young gun Divock Origi looking ready to make a major contribution to the season. This is the thirtieth season since Liverpool last won the league, before the Premier League was even established, and now, they have as good a chance as they’ve ever had to bring it home, and Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool revival will be complete.