A Special One: TSG’s 2013 Premiership Preview

Sir Specialist is back.

Sir Specialist is back.

Welcome to The Shin Guardian 2013/14 Premier League Preview.

I’m Zack Goldman, and I’m here to introduce you to this year’s teams.

Piggybacking on NBC Sports’ excellent Coach Lasso segment, we’re here to offer our friends who haven’t gotten around to following the Premier League a bit of insight on each team—first with a nifty pop culture reference to describe the club’s current (and maybe historical) state of affairs and then a more detailed analysis of their current upcoming season.

Arsenal

Pop Culture Comparison: The TV series Suits. No Emmy to show for the past few years, but a great programme that will rarely disappoint if you decide to flick on an episode. You know where you stand with Suits much like you know where you stand with Arsenal: Bad summer transfer window, out of the title race by Christmas, rabid winter window, poor form away in the cup sends them out before the competitions hit Wembley, a disastrous first-leg in an early Champions League knockout round gives way to a tremendous near-escape in the second, and a heart-pumping finish for 4th on St. Totteringham’s Day to end the season. A lot of drama and disappointment for the Gunners–– but they’ll play some damn good stuff in between, giving you more entertainment in their pressers than some clubs give you the entire season on the pitch. Arsenal make Europe, Suits make Thursdays 10/9 central.

Chin up. It hasn't started yet.

Chin up. It hasn’t started yet.

Season Outlook: With no marquee summer signing, the agitation and anxiety from Gooners across the land is palpable as ever this August. In reality, though, there is no reason—despite what the English dailies contend every year—that Arsenal won’t finish fourth again. Unfortunately for the Gunners, their fanbase won’t stand for that league status much longer—and there’s little indication that they will realistically challenge for the Prem this campaign. Domestic cup success is about as likely as silverware will be this season, but it will be important to start the league campaign well early to get some momentum and stay in the hunt as long as possible. With the way this team plays when the spring thaw rolls around, you never know what will happen if they remain competitive past New Years.

One to Watch: Theo Walcott.

Prediction: 4th. They got nothing this summer (other than Yaya Sanogo), but didn’t lose that much of consequence either. They should be better than last year if they can keep a relatively clean bill of health, but not enough to trouble this year’s Big 3.

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Aston Villa

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Pop Culture Comparison: Slip N Slide. Villa is a wild ride that can get ugly and even dangerous— particularly if the road gets a little bumpy—but they are always good value for entertainment. Manager Paul Lambert has unapologetically pushed a high-octane brand of football with his high wingbacks and inexperienced backlines—but it is one that can often get hopelessly out of control.

Season Outlook: Villa were a defensive shambles for most of the campaign, torn apart time and time again, even by the likes of Bradford City in the League Cup semifinals. They came alive in the spring, rounding into form and avoiding the drop with a few matches to spare after finding their scoring touch and playing with a much-needed sense of defensive steel. Owner Randy Lerner has, perhaps rather surprisingly, kept his faith in Lambert for another season (the first time Villa haven’t replaced their manager over the summer since 2009) and has rewarded his two best players of the last campaign—goal-scoring dynamo and Belgian international Christian Benteke and American ‘keeper/jungle cat Brad Guzan—with new, well-deserved four-year contracts. The squad’s core is intact and the key to success this year will be a focus on being defensively sound from the get-go, which should be helped by the arrival of Ivorian-born Danish international Jores Okore, a steely centre-back who supposedly drew the attention of Chelsea scouts last season, and dynamic left-back Antonio Luna, who joins from Sevilla. Also keep an eye out for promotion from within, as Villa are the reigning UEFA NextGen Championship—yes, the little academy from Brum that took out the likes of Ajax, Sporting Lisbon, and Chelsea.

The Guz!

The Guz!

One to Watch: Brad Guzan. Sure, any Aston Villa success is going to require the sensational form of Christian Benteke to continue on the other end of the pitch—and it will be fascinating to see if the Belgian Midas can pick up where he left off last season—but it cannot be understated just how crucial Guzan was to Villa’s success last year and how much of a breakout season it was (it says a lot when your team gets hammered 8-0 by Chelsea and the press writes relatively complimentary things about your form). Plus, this is TSG, so you knew we were going to talk about the Yank.

Prediction: 14th. The club kept a struggling core together in hopes that much of last year’s late season verve would carry on to this campaign, while also sealing the largest cracks in the squad.

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Cardiff City

Pop Culture Comparison: Amanda Bynes. I don’t even know who you are anymore, and it scares the crap out of me. You’re making headlines for all the wrong reasons, but at the end of the day, you’re right where you wanted to be—a household name.

Season Outlook: Last year saw the club trade the Bluebird—its treasured symbol for over a century—for the Red Dragon, at the wishes of its Malaysian owner Vincent Tan, who was only willing to clear the club’s large debts if they changed the badge and kit color to a hue that he felt had greater popularity in the Asian market, resonance with the Welsh national character, and a connection to the “fire and passion” that makes up their new motto. When the fans rebelled, he basically called them ingrates, and a civil war broke out on the terraces between “red-shirts” and “blue-shirts,” so to speak. Despite the divisive nature of the club’s support, though, the squad was anything but—storming through the Championship and arriving in the English top flight for the first time in a half-century with relatively little suspense. The main question for the club will be if they can replicate anything close to their excellent defensive record from the league below against more accomplished and composed attacking threats. Tan has added excellent top-flight veterans in Steven Caulker (though only 21) and Gary Medel, who arrives from Sevilla, in hopes of bolstering the rearguard—and has shown he has deep enough pockets to dip into in January if problems should surface.

One to Watch: Craig Bellamy. Bellamy grew up going to Ninian Park, Cardiff’s old home, with his father every Saturday—and, after getting his boyhood club promoted, said that his father told him he could now die happy. The prodigal son has finally returned home after a journeyman career, and, even at 34, has a lot more to offer. The combustable striker will be one of their most important players on the pitch this season and certainly the most talked-about off of it.

Prediction: 17th. Great young talent and deep pockets go a long way in this league—but only if they accompany defensive commitment and a clinical edge in front of goal. Last year’s Bluebirds had both—and we are tipping Cardiff City to show such strengths enough to survive the drop.

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Chelsea

"Van Ginkeling" ... someone needs to invent this...

“Van Ginkeling” … someone needs to invent this…

Pop Culture Comparison: Apple Inc. They’re sleek, they’ve got tons of money, and they seem to have a lot more fans since 2003. It’s the team that unites the Bougie fashion houses and hipster coffee houses alike—and whether you were around in the Drogba era or the Zola era (or, in the case of some of those hipsters, the Pat Nevin era, they assure you), it’s a good time to be keeping the “Blue Flag Flying High”.

Season Outlook: It was an exciting offseason for Chelsea supporters. For the first time since Mourinho’s first stint, the club has a manager who feels like he belongs and has actual staying power in West London. Jose is back, but he’s a wiser, (slightly) less ridiculous Jose after stints at Inter and Real Madrid. The squad last year was plagued by backroom drama, injuries, and a lack of quality up top and cohesion in defense. This year, one feels that the pieces to the puzzle are coming together with Oscar maturing, Hazard familiar with English football, and Lampard free from the weight of talks of new contracts and breaking records. This is a Chelsea with something to prove, a wonderful mix of veterans and young guns, and a man who has been there before (and is dying to tell you about it). Oh, and they added this guy named André Schürrle who is going to take the Prem by storm and would likely be causing way, way more of a stir if he was English.

One to Watch: Marco van Ginkel. You are forgiven if you haven’t heard of him—you have to go into the creepy cellar door of the internet to find a reliable stream for a Vitesse match—but this kid already has it all at 20 years old. Seen as an eventual replacement for Frank Lampard by the media, van Ginkel is a box-to-box midfielder, but one who, at the moment, seems more suited for deployment further up the pitch until he grows into his body. He’s got an eye for the final ball and has shown his immense composure in tight spaces already during the pre-season. If that’s any indication of the role he’ll be playing this season, look for him to break into the 18 off the bat—and perhaps the XI after not too long.

Prediction: 1st. The right balance in the squad, with leaders both on and off the pitch.

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Crystal Palace

Pop Culture Comparison: Maroon 5. You only know the frontman (in this mediocre analogical world I have created, Adam Levine is Wilfried Zaha) and he carries the show. The only reason they hit the Top 20 charts (…football analogy continuing here…) is because of the way that dude moves like Jaegger (okay, I’m sorry, I promise I’m done now), but without him they’d be playing in much smaller stadiums.

Season Outlook: Crystal Palace went from being one of the league’s most dynamic sides up until October to one of its most stale and predictable when manager Dougie Freeman left for Bolton after winning the Manager of the Month award. He was replaced by Ian Holloway, of Blackpool lore, who played a very simple game for the most part: Get the ball to Wilfried Zaha. It was miles away from his kinetic, multifarious attack at Blackpool, but it’s hard to blame him, really, for funneling the ball to the most technically gifted English player in years. Nevertheless, it was a wholly unimaginative gameplan that only seemed to pan out on those occasions when his team was capable of bullying other clubs down the flanks. For the most part, they were not tremendously exciting or impressive—and won promotion via a unimaginative playoff final against an uncharacteristically innocuous Watford side. Palace will have to display an attacking corps that has grown in menace and ideas by some measure in order to trouble clubs at the next level.

One to Watch: Wilfried Zah…. oh. Uhh… Dwight Gayle. Palace’s big summer signing was playing in Conference South, England’s sixth tier, just over a year ago. Don’t be fooled, though—he’s the real deal. An electrifying striker whose ability to dart into seams and move diagonally (both inside-to-corner and wing-to-goal) gives defenders fits, the 23-year-old Gayle may look a decade younger than that but he plays a decade older than his birth certificate suggests. He’s wise beyond his years and, though possessing a much different physique, expresses himself on the pitch a lot like a former Palace player whose name starts with a “W” and ends with an “ilfried Zaha”. Oh, by the way, they’ve given him the number 16 shirt, Zaha’s old digits, just so that didn’t slip by you.

Prediction: 19th. Holloway will be gone by Christmas because he will refuse to adapt to the defensive realities of the Premiership. This team was scored on 62 times last year in the Championship… Holloway has brought in six players during the window… four are strikers, none are defenders.

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Everton

Pop Culture Comparison: The Charlie Rose Show. You respect it and what they’re going for—it’s always got a decent point to make and discusses it well—but it’s never going to be the biggest show on TV.

And TSG swoons....

And TSG swoons….

Season Outlook: A team that so consistently punched above their weight with David Moyes has been relieved of their long-time gaffer, but their replacement, Roberto Martinez, is a man who built a very similar reputation at Wigan Athletic. He seems like a natural fit for the job and has already brought in many players who seem likewise cast in the Goodison mould. On the face of things, Everton’s moniker “The People’s Club” makes a lot of sense, at least insofar as it seems to mirror its family-oriented, working-class fan-base. It is the longest-tenured club in the top-flight by some margin, and its old soul shows in the attitudes of players like Leighton Baines, Marouane Fellaini, and Phil Jagielka, who have consistently refused to clamor for big transfers within reach for fear of rocking the boat. This is a squad that has always seemed like its had a bit of Merseyside underneath its fingernails, some industrial smoke in its lungs—it’s a group works tirelessly, has a commitment to spirited, entertaining football, but knuckles down when it needs to, to grind out results. This summer, Martinez has ordered some shiny parts down from his old Mancunian garage to add to the dependable Everton engine as it pushes 30,000 miles: Arouna Koné and Antolín Alcaraz.

One to Watch: Gerard Deulofeu. US Soccer fans may be familiar with the other big arrival of the summer, who ran rampant against a porous defense on his way to notching a brace in a 4-1 win over the U20s in Turkey. Crafty, versatile, clinical, and daring, Deulofeu is everything Everton can use up top with a talented strikeforce, but one that oftentimes struggles to create many chances from the front. In tern, players like Kevin Mirallas, Nikica Jelavić and Koné are all adept at stretching backlines, which should give Deulofeu the extra yard he needs to work his magic in a league that is inclined to give him significantly less time on the ball than he’s been used to when playing in Spain Segunda División and in youth internationals.

Prediction: 7th. Are we crazy? Everton surely must fall further after Moyes’ departure, right? Wrong. The squad has only gotten better and the Toffees are inheriting a very capable manager who has experienced many of the same fiscal and competitve pressures in a smaller pond.

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Fulham

Unfortunately ... yes.

Unfortunately … yes.

Pop Culture Comparison: Married With Children. How on Earth did this show go on for ten years on a major network? How on Earth did Fulham survive the drop so many seasons in a row when their form for the first seven months of the campaign was comically bad? The world may never know the answer—but whether it’s Ed O’Neill on the couch or Junichi Inamoto in center mid, the show could be quite entertaining and eminently watchable, even if we hate ourselves for admitting it. They might not have the biggest or most die-hard support, but a shocking number of us are guilty of having a soft spot for them.

Season Outlook: Don’t let the recent big money signings, European forays, relative league safety, or Michael Jackson statues fool you—Fulham hasn’t changed that much. They are still vulnerable to a slide in form every season, though it’s recently been later on and less protracted than in the days of Fulhamerica. The arrival of Shahid Khan bodes well for the future of the club, but it is hard to imagine Martin Jol getting away with too many more of the performances with which he ended last season. The Cottagers were not busy enough in the summer window given what they lost in Chris Baird, Simon Davies, and Mladen Petric. This team desperately needs depth more than anything—and I could very easily see this team sliding dangerously close to the drop zone as the season goes along. That being said, they have very few glaring weaknesses in the team, have kept their core intact, and have shored up their backline with the addition of Fernando Amorebieta from Athletic Bilbao.

One to Watch: Adel Taarabt. After one of the most sensational individual seasons the Championship has ever seen during QPR’s promotion campaign of 2010/11, Taarabt’s first year in the Premier League can only be described as an utter disappointment. Selfish, ineffectual, and pouty, he stole headlines for all the wrong reasons. Last season, his teammates mimicked his sophomoric attitude in their sophomore Prem campaign, where they would eventually go down. Taarabt’s temperament, however, seemed to improve, as did his form. Excellent performances versus West London clubs—both his new team and their somewhat more successful neighbors Chelsea—were particular highlights and his glittering form of old, though still evasive, was captured during big games. This season, he’ll need to be a lot more consistent to be a mainstay in Jol’s plans, though the gaffer’s fluid attacking style should help. It may seem crazy after these past two seasons, but, at his best, Taarabt can be one of the most electrifying players in the Premiership, especially given the ability to bounce passes off the likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz.

Prediction: 16th. Fulham may be a lot better than this with such a familiar core playing together, but I suspect they may struggle during the congested winter, much like last year. They also found the end of the last campaign particularly difficult, when they lost five matches in a row and often looked completely out of ideas in attack.

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Hull City Tigers

Pop Culture Comparison: New Orleans Hornets changing their name to the New Orleans Pelicans. Congrats on the name change! More people might have noticed if you were any good. If only the Premier League had a draft lottery!

Downward to go upward.... for Livermore.

Downward to go upward…. for Livermore.

Season Outlook: Hull City Tigers Grr Rawr Scary AFC won automatic promotion last year from the Championship (then simply called the banal “Hull City” by most), but 3/4s of their wins came by a single goal. It’s a great quality to be able to grind out results, but the Championship is one thing—the Premiership is an entirely different beast. Add that to the fact that they scored the fewest goals in the top half of the division and the double-edged nature of that narrative continues to emerge. The bottom line: Hull City will probably remain hard to beat for many clubs in the top flight, but they’ll also find it difficult to showcase any kind of attacking muscularity or moxie that can put them over the edge to safety. They are a classic Steve Bruce team, a manager who has never been much for tactical adjustment, but who by default prefers to soak up pressure and make his teams frustrating to play against. Some call him “negative,” others “motivational,” but most agree on “old school”. He might not be a statistics man given his reputation, so one would forgive him for his big attacking summer signing, Danny Graham, who hasn’t tallied in the Premier League since New Years Day.

One to Watch: Jake Livermore. Although only 23 years old, Livermore is already more of a Premier League veteran than most of Hull City’s squad. On loan from Tottenham, where he has made 57 appearances in all competitions over the past two seasons, Livermore is a talented, mostly defensively-inclined central midfielder who should fit well into Bruce’s style of play, which will be focused in large part on breaking up opposing attacks and spurring creative play from deep-lying positions. He’s joined by Tom Huddlestone, bought earlier this week from Spurs, who can similarly play both center midfield and in a holding role. Livermore has one cap to his name and is widely tipped to be one of England’s brightest prospects for the future—and may well have found himself a new home away from White Hart Lane if things go well.

Prediction: 20th. Hull City have, in many ways, re-tooled well for the Premiership, seeking to do what they do best: grind out results. They are likely to be, in many ways, the anti-Blackpool—but a lack of stylistic moderation is usually a bad thing for teams in their first season up. I see them struggling mightily to find the back of the net, especially with Bruce at the helm.

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Liverpool

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Pop Culture Comparison: Members Only Jackets. Huge in the ’80s, but never quite the same since. Anyone wearing it wants to let you know immediately what they’re all about—can’t you tell from my epaulettes?—that they belong to a proud club that is forever the best regardless of what the table says. All others are imitators, pretenders, or just plain uncool…but is that really true? Now the jacket is just as much an indication that you’re not a VIP anymore.

Yup!

Yup!

Season Outlook: Leaving Luis Suarez out of the equation, as looks moderately likely for the moment, Liverpool still look promising in attack. Despite the early mishaps in the transfer market, Brendan Rodgers’s signing of Phillipe Coutinho was inspired and exactly what the gaffer was rumored to bring to the table—a shrewd eye for how to quickly diagnose a hole in the squad, which is then aptly filled to suit his preferred style of play. What resulted in the second half of the season was a Liverpool that looked like it was on the brink of something special—a squad that attacked with élan and in earnest. There still seems to be a hole in the heart of defense for the moment—one far too large for new signing Kolo Touré to provide much help in plugging for the whole season—and LFC could pay for leaving them open. They will undoubtedly lose some of their sparkle without Suarez pulling opposing defenses apart, but a healthy Daniel Sturridge should help. If Iago Aspas becomes what some think he can be, that would also lessen the blow. Gerrard and Lucas provide an incredible backbone for this squad and I can see a lot of Rodgers’s vision coming to fruition this season through their partnership.

One to Watch: Phillipe Coutinho. Coutinho may well be the most underrated player in the Premiership. That’s big chat for a guy who only started playing in the league in February and has only a single cap to his name, but the young Brazilian has been a revelation at Anfield. Agile, pacy, creative, hard-working, and a wonderful eye for finding strikers in stride, Coutinho was the missing link for Liverpool during the first half of last season. They’ve got their man now—sit back and watch him do his thing.

Prediction: 6th. Next year is the year where this team likely takes a bigger leap, but I still expect this campaign to go much smoother than last for Liverpool. They have problems in the back that will definitely hurt them against top sides, but they should have a wonderful confidence in their ability to take the game to those outside of the European places. They’ll have to spend that future Suarez money responsibly, unlike the shrapnel they got for El Niño.

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Manchester City

Pop Culture Comparison: New England Patriots (2001-present). The first time they won something, it seemed, perhaps against all logic, somewhat endearing. Now, it’s just annoying. This football club has done everything to offend the senses of football purists short of Belichicking another team’s training session. They’ve actually done some wonderful things on the ground in Manchester (and around the globe), and they’re a rightfully well-loved club from the local area, but their supporters could not be more annoying from a distance. The supposed “long-suffering fans” narrative gets tired pretty quick in both Eastlands and Foxboro—I guess I’m just having a hard time believing that many of them were there for the cold rainy Tuesday night scoreless draws in Luton or pre-Adam Vinatieri.

Season Outlook: Manchester City have had a busy offseason after the sacking of Roberto Mancini. Manuel Pellegrini’s attacking philosophy has been thrilling to watch unfold even in pre-season fixtures (for instance, the 5-3 first half of City v AC Milan in Munich), and it will be interesting to see if he keeps it up when the team travels to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. The core of the team is intact and another year more familiar with each other. Carlos Tevez is gone, but in steps the remarkable quartet of Fernandinho (for a cool £30m), Jesus Navas (for a shade under £22.9m), Alvaro Negredo (£20.6m in Emirati pocket change), and Stevan Jovetic (for a single £22m note adorned with the Queen’s corgis)…so, not a bad trade-off. Who needs Financial Fair Play when you own the airline who “sponsors” you?!

This team will need to stay mentally in games from minute 0 to 90, particularly in Europe where they conceded some awfully silly goals. Too often last year their marking was criminally bad, especially from set pieces. Pellegrini has a habit of letting his teams go without a leash—and he may need to curb that inclination in games against better, more organized sides.

One to Watch: Fernandinho. There is no signing in the Premiership I am more excited to see on a weekly basis than this guy. He has been a delight to watch in the Champions League on the few occasions when Shakhtar are involved in a marquee match—and he didn’t disappoint last year when he gave Chelsea fits with his scalding runs. He seems to be a wonderful player for Pellegrini to utilize, but I wonder how he will fit in with the playing styles of his teammates, particularly if he starts from the get-go.

Prediction: 3rd. This team is talented enough to win the league, but will they play intelligently enough to do so? I see a lot of exciting, useful additions to this team, but forcing them into the squad may be its downfall. Strangely enough, I fancy them for European success this year, as they seem deep and versatile enough to match any team on its day—Bayern included.

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Manchester United

Guys, guys... just give this Moyes kid one more week...

Guys, guys… just give this Moyes kid one more week…

Pop Culture Comparison: The Daily Show with John Oliver hosting. The program had impeccable, Sir Alex-like form under Stewart—and it will probably be pretty good under Oliver (/Moyes), but nobody’s really sure. Some out will always cry out at the first signs of trouble, but chances are it’s going to be just fine.

Season Outlook: Nobody knows what David Moyes’s Manchester United will look like. If they say they do, then they’re a dirty liar (seriously, tell them Zack said so). This team is, ostensibly, the exact same squad that Sir Alex left behind—and that should offer United fans some measure of comfort. Changing managers is a big deal—but, is it everything? Probably not.

I don’t suspect, especially given Moyes’s tight-lipped punditry this week during England v Scotland, that Rooney will play for Manchester United much beyond the next few months, if at all… I think this all has gone on too many times and for much too long for there to be legitimate forgiveness. Regardless of any talk of “replacements” (it really is a fantastically deep squad though), Cesc Fabregas or Marouane Fellaini would work a treat in this team.

As for what is on offer at the moment, the center-halves in Ferdinand and Vidic are red flags due to age and injury proneness, but Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, and Phil Jones are not bad names to have in reserve. Rafael and Evra are tremendous outside backs and should contour nicely to Moyes’s swashbuckling style that made Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman so dangerous at Goodison. Tom Cleverly and Michael Carrick will likely begin the season together in central midfield—and it will be crucial for both to maintain their recent form. Up top, United fans have naturally pinned their hopes on Robin van Persie for another huge season—and there looks to be no reason to think he’ll slow down. All in all, United will be right where they always are—in the mix at the very top.

Wait, why is he pointing ... backwards?

Wait, why is he pointing … backwards?

One to Watch: Shinji Kagawa. This might seem strange given all the other world class players who are on the Red Devils’ books, but it’s hard not to wonder if Kagawa’s second season is the one where he becomes a focal point of the United attack. His former manager at Dortmund Jürgen Klopp has long extolled the virtues of the attacking midfielder and has claimed he is heartbroken at the Japanese international’s inability to break into the team consistently. With Rooney potentially on the way out, a void has been created in the hole behind van Persie—one that Kagawa may be able to fill to perfection.

Prediction: 2nd. I see Chelsea just being a tad more consistent this year as United still have too many question-marks across the pitch and their mind still half on the transfer window as the first weekend approaches. This can’t be an easy situation for a new manager and I would expect moderate growing pains in a relatively successful campaign.

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Newcastle

Wonderballs!

Wonderballs!

Pop Culture Comparison: Nestlé Wonder Ball. For the uninitiated, a “Wonder Ball” was a chocolate sphere with the inside hollowed out and containing a toy. You never knew what you were going to get in a Wonder Ball—some were awesome, some were absolute ripoffs, and the vast majority of them were choking hazards. Such is Newcastle this season, who have a talented, stylish side—but one that often lacks bite. Many Toon fans seemed pleased with Alan Pardew as a talent scout, but not so much as a manager—and the bookies have Newcastle anywhere from 9th to 19th (for those following the metaphor, that’s anywhere from cool chocolate toy to crappy chocolate toy).

Season Outlook: NUFC weren’t all too busy over the summer, but managed to snap up Loic Remy on loan from QPR, where he was phenomenal for the last half of the 2012/13 season when he scored 6 goals in 14 games. He can play on either flank or as a center forward—versatility that is very much welcome at St James’ Park—and should partner well with Papiss Cisse, who was badly in need of a strike partner who could steal defensive focus away from him last term. Questions along the backline—of quality, more than depth—abound, as they always seem to this time of year on Tyneside, but the midfield retains its French prizes in Hatem Ben-Arfa and Yohan Cabaye, which make the Toon a formidable team in the center of the park.

One to Watch: Yohan Cabaye. Perhaps the most underrated central midfielder in the league, Cabaye is a wonderful all-around talent who really makes this team tick. With a player like Loic Remy to find in space, Cabaye could have a breakout year by becoming a more incisive passer into the attacking third. A tireless runner, excellent on set-pieces, and a clinical finisher from distance, Cabaye could be the key for the men in black and white stripes.

Prediction: 13th. I am not sold on Newcastle’s ability to defend against the better sides in this league, nor by Papiss Cisse as a consistent goal threat up top. I think they will struggle in equal measure on either side of the pitch, though having a clean bill of health—particularly Ben-Arfa and their center-backs will go a long way to ensuring success.

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Norwich

Pop Culture Comparison: The New-Look Los Angeles Clippers. Wait, what? You’re kind of good now? And exciting? And you have a crazy owner?! Sign me up! (P.S. Kei Kamara’s goal against Everton last year looked a little bit like a Blake Griffin alley-oop)

Season Outlook: Manager Chris Hughton didn’t think we’d notice last year, but I caught on pretty quickly that he was just stealing Leeds United’s midfield from a few years ago (I’m actually not really kidding at all). They finished 11th and were a very streaky side throughout the campaign—but well worth the praise they earned for being a team that played positive, exciting soccer. They had a remarkably even distribution of goals, which bodes well for a team that is getting an injection of attacking talent this year with Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper after Grant Holt departed following a somewhat disappointing campaign. The backline really came together after a shocking opening to the season (a 5-0 loss to Fulham on opening day), with particular bright spots from Javier Garrido and Player of the Season/Fantasy League Superstar/Dude Who Actually Can’t Stop Smiling During Games Sébastien Bassong. The team needs to be more consistent to finish any higher this year, but it’s certainly possible given the net improvement this offseason at virtually every bank of their formation.

Fer Fever! (Will fans be called Fer-ries?)

Fer Fever! (Will fans be called Fer-ries?)

One to Watch: Leroy Fer. Norwich needed steel in the midfield, so they found a kid from the Netherlands nicknamed “The Bouncer”. More than anything, Fer is a fascinating personality—his father was a baseball player and he grew up in a very religious family. Despite calls from the Netherlands to represent the Oranje at the senior level, he often contemplated—aloud, mind you—the prospect of playing instead for the Netherlands Antilles (now Curaçao) to have the opportunity to represent his ancestral homeland. He comes with a wonderful CV and recommendations from his former clubs Feyenoord and FC Twente and will no provide two-way ability in a more attacking central midfield set-up.

Prediction: 10th. Canaries fans are right to think they can kick on from last year and finish even higher. Their team is deep, balanced, and goals tend to come from all angles. Sounds like a recipe for potentially even having a shot at sneaking into Europe… crazier things have certainly happened.

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Southampton

Chugga chug chug in your eye!

Chugga chug chug in your eye!

Pop Culture Comparison: The Little Engine That Could. After massive financial problems put the club in administration and eventually into League One, Southampton has been a success story about the value of perseverance and belief in one’s self. The Saints have found success by being a club that shares particularly strong links between the terraces and the boardroom, shows dedication to its youth system, and has kept a core of players that it brought up from lower-league football.

Season Outlook: One of the surprise packages of last year, Southampton played some extraordinarily good football at times, including in their first match back in the top flight away to Manchester City. That match was a bit of a microcosm of their season, in which they went up 2-1 in the second half only to lose 3-2 at the death. They would drop their next four matches and had only a single win and draw from their first ten games. It wasn’t an easy season, but they navigated the choppy waters of the Prem well, particularly given a mid-season managerial change when they brought in Mauricio Pochettino. Pochettino added a wonderful sense of flair to Southampton’s natural attacking functionality, but also shored up their main weakness—defensive frailty —with the purchases of Vincent Wanyama and Dejan Lovren this summer. The squad looks balanced and confident on both sides of the ball—something that should allay the anxieties of Saints fans fearing the classic sophomore slump.

One to Watch: Rickie Lambert. The man who scored the winning goal for England against Scotland with his first touch is back as vice-captain. He may not be the most exciting player on this team, but he is their most important in many ways. More of a Nigel Adkins type player than his replacement, Pochettino, Lambert’s form dipped towards the end of the season as he tried to find his feet in a more fluid, less direct attacking style. They may not need 15 goals from him this year, but they’ll certainly need him to contribute meaningfully week in and week out in order to improve on last year’s 14th place finish. (Editor’s Note: LAMBERT! What about Lallana or Schneiderlin!)

Prediction: 11th. With marquee victories over Chelsea and Manchester City at home last year, Pochettino showed English football how to fight fire with fire and not cower away from the big boys. There is a sense of belief in this squad that they can go as far as they believe as long as they play their brand of headstrong, attacking soccer.

—-

Stoke City

Pop Culture Comparison: A KFC bucket. The most American thing in England, a bit disgusting most of the time, but at the end of the day gets the job done in its iconic red and white stripes.

They're hog wild over the Yanks at Stoke America!

They’re hog wild over the Yanks at Stoke America!

Season Outlook: I’m not sure how Potters fans feel about it, but the neutrals are certainly happy to see Tony Pulis and his baseball cap outside of the technical area at the Britannia. Mark Hughes is not necessarily a much more exciting prospect—famous for his “negative” tactics in previous jobs, though many forget how attractively his sides played for spells at both Blackburn and Manchester City. Stoke have lost a number of key figures this summer (Rory Delap, Dean Whitehead, and Matthew Upson, to name a few) who have all gone down the football pyramid, but that’s not to say they weren’t instrumental for the club. They have bought Erik Pieters, Marc Muniesa, and TSG favorite Juan Agudelo—all players who well and truly depart from the Stoke stereotype. On the whole, the club seems to be still quite short “tall” at centerback and in the center of the park, but they do have a ton of players who can comfortably slot in at a secondary position. Despite a potential change in style, the Britannia must remain a difficult place for other teams to play—or else Stoke might find themselves in a relegation dogfight for the first time in a while. I wouldn’t bet against it. In fact, I’m betting on it.

One to Watch: Geoff Cameron. If you speak to two journalists about where Cameron is going to play this year, you’ll end up with three different opinions. Nobody knows, but it seems unlikely he will be able to break apart the Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth center back partnership. A start out right is more likely, but signs also point to a role as a holding midfielder given tactical precedent. Hughes’s teams usually have hard tacklers in the midfield, so though I expect Cameron to be on the backline somewhere, it wouldn’t surprise me to see that change if Hughes finds his first options haven’t cut it in that regard. Overall, Cameron offers a nice mix of steel and finesse that is very un-Pulis, but actually quite Hughesian.

Prediction: 18th. I don’t see many tipping Stoke for relegation, but with a new manager, limited depth, and some questions up top with the carousel of Cameron Jerome, Peter Crouch, Kenwyne Jones, and Jonathan Walters potentially revolving constantly based on form.

Thunderland!

Thunderland!

Sunderland

Pop Culture Comparison: 2-for-1 Jägerbomb Night. This could be awesome or horrible, but either way, it was an insane idea to begin with.

Season Outlook: Sunderland are a team run by a complete lunatic, but one who might be better at his job than anyone gives him credit for. Paolo Di Canio—lover, fighter, fascist—treats his managerial duties like a 12 year old playing Football Manager, hopped up on Cocoa Puffs and a SlipKnot CD. But, for this summer at least, he’s diagnosed the needs of his team and bought accordingly. Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini are useful additions and contour to Di Canio’s supposed desire to play free-flowing, powerful football. Simon Mignolet leaves for Liverpool for £9 and is replaced by Arsenal third-stringer (but a handy one at that) Vito Mannone for a sixth of the price.

This season will be won and lost for this team on two things: their ability to pursue their free-flowing goals without leaving themselves exposed in the back and their ability to manage the inevitable lows of their Premier League campaign with cool heads. That second one probably isn’t happening, so this one comes down to tactics for me.

One to Watch: Jozy Altidore. Jozy is likely going to be used as a hold-up player for Sunderland who can lay off touches square or behind him to bring others into the attack. He’ll be expected to score goals and be as clinical as he has recently for club and country the past six months—but he’ll need to do much more than that to warrant his place in Di Canio’s starting lineup. There is a lot of competition up top for him to contend with (Ji Dong-Won, Connor Wickham, Steven Fletcher)—all the more-so if Sunderland play with a single striker—but Jozy remains the most natural choice to suit Di Canio’s style, and I expect him to start against Newcastle.

Prediction: 15th… but even money on Di Canio being there by the season’s end.

—-

Swansea

Pop Culture Comparison: Drake/Fiat. Started from the bottom, now they’re here. This isn’t the Swansea of your childhood—when they languished in the lower leagues with eight-time Dribbling World Champion and nine-time Pint Challenge King Lee Trundle—but a newer, sleeker, efficient product. It’s been a pretty shockingly seamless transition—much like Drake who was once on Canada’s favorite teen drama Degrassi and is now one of the biggest rappers in the game today, or Fiat who once made really ugly, shitty cars and now make pretty nice ones.

Don't make us cry, Bony....

Don’t make us cry, Bony….

Season Outlook: The reigning Capital One Cup holders impressed last season in cup and league competition—and will have another piece of silverware on their minds with this year’s Europa League. It is a massive honor for Michael Laudrup’s men, but their league form could suffer from the fixture congestion that results from playing on Thursdays. That said, this team has not lost any big players from last year’s 9th place squad and have made what some are tabbing to be the signing of the summer in Wilfried Bony. If his partnership with Michu against Malmö in Europa League qualifying is anything to go by, they will be quite the complementary and clinical pair, which should scare the daylights out of some of the Premiership’s lesser-equipped backlines. As far as Swansea’s rearguard is concerned, Ashley Williams and Chico Flores should remain one of the league’s most solid pairings—and they will get help from the new signings Jonjo Shelvey and José Cañas just ahead in central midfield.

One to Watch: Wilfried Bony. 31 goals last term in 30 Eredivisie matches is hard to argue with, but Bony is not just a lethal finisher. The Ivorian has been labeled by some as the “next Drogba” and part of that is owed to his incredible brawn, which will no doubt be a tremendous asset in arguably the world’s most physical league. While Michu’s opportunities largely stem from his movement and finesse on the ball, Bony’s are usually the product of fighting through tight spaces and using his body—a duality that hints at the potential for a mutualistic relationship between the two strikers, rather than one where they compete for the same space on the pitch.

Prediction: 9th. Despite a deeper squad and a more dynamic attack, Swansea finish in the same position as last year as the Europa League impacts their squad rotation and fixture list.

—-

Tottenham Hotspur

Pop Culture Comparison: This one is for you in the comments section. I know this seems like a cop-out… maybe it is… I had a few decent proposals, but nothing felt right. This is “engagement”… right?

Season Outlook: Let me start out by saying that I love what Andre Villas-Boas has done with Spurs. I find them attractive to watch, they play to their strengths (namely, their “strength”… that Welsh one), and their players are a largely very likable bunch. That being said, there is a curse on White Hart Lane and I refuse to believe that this club will ever achieve any kind of consistency in the latter half of the season. Spurs fans: Just be thankful that the most beautiful thing you’re watching nowadays isn’t David Ginola’s hair… it’s actually on the pitch. That’s something, right?

Seriously, though, this should be a wonderful dogfight for 4th yet again with Arsenal. Paulinho is a fantastic signing and should shore up the midfield with Sandro. I think they may be a bit too deep-lying to play the style that AVB craves—and I truthfully think they will miss the way Clint Dempsey is able to take space away from Bale, moving and distributing so well laterally, and causing a ruckus in the box. Roberto Soldado is a fantastic signing, but far more of an out-and-out striker than Deuce.

One to Watch: Gareth Bale. Mainly because we don’t know if he’ll be there or not. I hope he is just so NBC Sports don’t have to put up new billboards.

Prediction: 5th. (Who are they?! Log your vote below… Coach Lasso needs to know.)

West Brom

Pop Culture Comparison: Sarsaparilla. A long way from its heydey, but instrumental in creating the better beverages of today. Still acceptable to drink, but people might look at you funny if you do.

Season Outlook: Ever since the Roberto Di Mateo era, West Brom has been one of the most exciting teams in the Premiership. Enlivened by the loan signing of Romelu Lukaku, West Brom had a new attitude last year—and they were more than just exciting… they were good. Finishing 8th, they showed their brilliant competitive mettle with a 2-1 home victory over Chelsea and a memorable 5-5 draw against Manchester United also at The Hawthornes. It will be hard to improve on last year—particularly without Lukaku in the side—but the addition of Nicolas Anelka could be just what the side needs (though I’m going to guess most likely a bust). The squad more than anything needs to improve defensively. Diego Lugano comes into the side and should provide good cover for Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob who were guilty of letting far too much behind them last year at times.

One to Watch: Diego Lugano. Best free transfer of the summer? Certainly one of them. Not only a top class defender, but also capable of becoming a leader off the bat (lest we forget he was Uruguay’s captain at the 2010 FIFA World Cup). (Editor’s note: How dare you not make this Chris Brunt!!!!!)

Prediction: 12th. Solid on both sides of the ball. Though not as good as last year, it is a solid league position for a club who never dreamed of these heights a few years ago.

—-

West Ham

You know it!

You know it!

Pop Culture Comparison: Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. A working-class, tight-knit family that never fails to put a smile on your face, though you’re never quite sure why you’re watching. Is this the season where their luck runs out?

Season Outlook: The Hammers are back in action after a very solid 10th place finish last season and haven’t lost any of their major players. Carried by their captain Kevin Nolan from wire-to-wire, West Ham solidified their place back in the top flight with a very functional brand of football that relied on the ‘route one’ approach straight to Andy Carroll’s ponytail of doom. They lacked cohesive wing play, as for much of the season were saddled with Matt Jarvis and Ricardo Vaz Te on either side of Carroll—certainly not bad options, but arguably a rather considerable step down from the service afforded by both Joe Cole and Stewart Downing, even as both are well out of their primes. The key for West Ham this season will be to remain solid in the back, which they should with Winston Reid and James Collins, two very athletic defenders, getting more comfortable with each other. Expect Ravel Morrison, despite his attitude problems at Manchester United, to have a breakout season this year and perhaps a regular role in the side from the very first matchday.

One to Watch: Winston Reid. Perhaps not the sexy choice for a player to watch, but Reid is quickly becoming one of the league’s elite defenders. It may be difficult to fathom for some to believe that a relatively lesser-known Kiwi could hold such a title, but last year’s “Hammer of the Year” has all the tools necessary to be successful—and West Ham will need every inch of his athleticism and fearlessness to push on this year.

Prediction: 8th. I never thought West Ham would get higher than their 10th place finish last year, but the more I see of them, the more I like. Some fantastic pre-season performances, great signings, and a brand of soccer that might not be the prettiest, but suits them well, will set them up for success this season. Expect increased flank play from Cole and Downing, and for Morrison to make a big impact.

1. Chelsea

2. Manchester United

3. Manchester City

4. Arsenal

5. Tottenham

6. Liverpool

7. Everton

8. West Ham

9. Swansea

10. Norwich City

11. Southampton

12. West Brom

13. Newcastle

14. Aston Villa

15. Sunderland

16. Fulham

17. Cardiff City

18. Stoke City

19. Crystal Palace

20. Hull City

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/08/16 at 3:15 AM

    I think you will find that Palace beat Udinese in the Championship Play-off.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Ufficio on 2013/08/16 at 6:35 AM

    Any chance Lletget gets first-team minutes this year? There was a bit of buzz about his preseason play a month or so ago.

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2013/08/16 at 10:08 AM

      I haven’t watched much of him, but I don’t think he’s probably ready for the full-time with his physique. But that’s a guess from last time I saw him.

      Reply

      • Posted by Freegle on 2013/08/16 at 1:36 PM

        I would honestly prefer he go out on loan to the Championship. He’s ready to take the keys, just not to a Premier League team. Maybe have him take a quick swim across the river the Charlton so you can keep a close eye on him? I’d rather him get several first team minutes in a lower league than hang around on the bench and take Nolan/Diame/Noble scraps

        Reply

    • Posted by WilkersonMcLaser on 2013/08/17 at 9:38 AM

      Greg Seltzer seems to think he’s first in line for minutes if one of the first teamers has a drop in form or injury. If this is true, unlikely that he goes out on loan.

      Reply

  3. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/08/16 at 10:38 AM

    Keep an eye out for another academy product, Jonathan “Joniesta” Williams. Only 19 but wouldn’t be surprised if a big club comes for his in the next couple of years. Sad he has chosen to play for Wales – born & raised in Kent, polished in SE25.

    Reply

  4. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/08/16 at 11:30 AM

    BTW I had to laugh regarding your Chelsea comment, as it struck a chord with me. I have spent many weekends at the pub listening to nouveau Chelsea fans trying convince me that they were Chelsea fans pre-Ambramovich. Not sure why it matters so much to them, but I guess I should stop rolling my eyes, saying ‘sure’, while sipping my pint! I suppose I will have to put up with City fans doing the same over the next
    decade… anyway, thanks for making me smile!

    Reply

  5. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/08/16 at 11:54 AM

    As soon as the fixture list was announced, and Tottenham saw they were away to Palace, two major things have occurred.
    1. Dempsey thought ‘fuck that’, and went as far away as he reasonably could.
    2. Bale is absolutely shitting himself – to the extent that he’s faking injuries.
    There’s no other logical explanation. Even Leonard Nimoy agrees.

    #WelcomeToTheDeepSouth

    Reply

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