It may not be the best. It's probably the loudest. It's certainly the richest. But whatever the Premier League is in general, there's no doubt what it was last season. The one thing it can't afford to be; the one thing the hype insists it never is. Kind of dull.
Not, we should stress, through any fault of eventual champions Chelsea. Jose Mourinho's latest side may not go down in history as one of English football's most entertaining teams, but they scored some beautiful goals and did everything that was asked of them. The problem was with everybody else. None of them really asked much at all.
Liverpool, 2013/14's great entertainers, carried on slipping in the wake of Luis Suarez's departure. Manchester City's title defense did not survive the winter. Manchester United huffed, puffed, and eventually achieved competence, just about. Arsenal were Arsenal, obviously. And while there was plenty to admire and enjoy lower down the table -- Bojan; Southampton; Harry Kane; Alan Pardew's arrival at Crystal Palace; Newcastle's desperate attempt to snatch relegation from the jaws of mediocrity -- a season without a title race is a hollow thing.
Even before we start this new campaign, however, there is one significant difference between last season and this, and like everything these days, it's all about the money. Last February, the Premier League unveiled yet another record-breaking, wallet-busting television rights deal, and though that money doesn't start flowing until 2016, clubs have been spending. And the immediate impact has been to make the top flight of English football even more alluring to players from around Europe.
Sure enough, the signings have followed: Andre Ayew has left Marseille for Swansea, and his brother Jordan will be heading to Villa Park. Ibrahim Afellay rejected Dutch champions PSV to move to Stoke, and Yohan Cabaye has departed Paris Saint-Germain to rejoin Alan Pardew in South London. Whether this is healthy for the rest of world football remains to be seen, but it's certainly made the Premier League look a great deal more intriguing, and a fair few of the sides in the middle look just a little more dangerous. Some of those cheap three points might be a little pricier.
Down at the bottom, meanwhile, all three of the newly-promoted sides comes with their own intrigues. Watford represent the incursion into the Premier League of the Giampaolo Pozzi project, which has worked wonderfully for Udinese. And Bournemouth's Eddie Howe and Norwich's Alex Neil are, by virtue of their promotions, two of British football's brightest young things. All will likely struggle, for such is the way of the world. But none look fundamentally doomed, and one wonders if these upstarts might make the venerable managers of Leicester City and Sunderland, Claudio Ranieri and Dick Advocaat, look their age.
But back to the top. Are we going to get a title race this season? Well ... possibly. Chelsea will still be favorites, of course; they have the best manager and the best first XI. But those behind them look to have improved over the summer. City have added Raheem Sterling to their attack, and assuming his price tag doesn't weigh too heavily he should thrive. United have had 12 months to get the hang of Louis van Gaal's philosophical idiosyncrasies, and look to have discovered an unsuspected competence in the transfer market. And Arsenal ... well, they'll probably still be Arsenal. But they might be Arsenal with a good goalkeeper, and that's excitingly new.
Or maybe somebody else will have a say. Liverpool have splashed the cash, again, and go into the season with a massive squad containing plenty of promise if no obvious plan. Tottenham, meanwhile, have been more circumspect in their spending, have shed some of their squad's dead wood, and will be hoping that Harry Kane manages to avoid a difficult second season. Neither looks likely to win the league, but both could prove seriously inconvenient to those that do. And then there's Everton: is it time to find out, once and for all, whether Roberto Martinez is the brilliant manager he's always threatened to be?
Here's what SB Nation's bloggers and soccer staff make of the 20 teams that will be winning and losing, complaining and rejoicing, from now until next May. It all looks very promising. But then, it usually does. No football season ever survives the first dodgy penalty, the first fluffed tap-in, the first embarrassingly inept 2-0 defeat in the driving rain. The Premier League is always something of a lie, because however loudly it might parps its own trumpet, it's always football. And football's a funny thing: in general it's great, but day to day it's mostly disappointing.
Still, let's at least hope for a little while longer. Let's turn our attention to the footballing gods. Please, if you're up there, let this be a good season. Let there be own goals. Let there be hubris followed by extravagant faceplanting. Let there be 21-man brawls and managerial scuffles. And please, please, above all else, let somebody make Jose Mourinho at least earn his smugness.
The past two seasons have been something of a step up for Arsenal. Nearly a decade passed without a major trophy, but as FA Cup winners two years running, the drought is officially dead and we've all moved on to bigger and better things.
In addition to the actual trophies, the past couple of years have presented some symbolic ones -- not just the infamous "fourth place trophy," but star signings like Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez. Now Petr Čech is in the fold to shore up the goalkeeping position -- an issue of varying severity since the departure of Jens Lehmann in 2008 -- and the Arsenal squad is looking stronger than it has in quite some time.
With the season starting weeks before the close of the transfer window, it's tough to get a read on exactly where the team stands, considering additions could still be made. A top-level striker like Karim Benzema would totally change the complexion of the team, but isn't necessarily required. A holding midfielder is a much more pressing need, since Mikel Arteta's fitness is a question mark and Francis Coquelin, while successful last season, is a limited and somewhat unpredictable option. But aside from those two spots, Arsenal are in good shape.
Barring a disaster, this team shouldn't have too much trouble finishing in the top four and qualifying yet again for the Champions League. Without a major signing, Arsenal are probably just short of being a title favorite. But if Arsène Wenger can pull another world-class rabbit out of his hat like he did the last two summers, things could get interesting at the top of the Premier League.. And even without a signing, expect to see Arsenal challenging for the title late into the season.
No major complaints here. The squad is deep in most areas (deep enough that choosing a first XI is near impossible), we have world class talent at a few positions, we're financially strong and we have a manager we can trust. A new holding midfielder or a top-level striker would be welcome, but aside from that, Arsenal fans should be more or less in a good mood going into the season.
The baseline goal for Arsenal every year is to qualify for the Champions League, and it's a goal that has been met each year since 1998. In fact, Arsenal are so good at meeting this goal that fans are somehow bored by it. The real goal is, as ever, to win the league. It's the same way in the cups -- the goal is to win, but in the Champions League, getting past the round of 16 would be nice. After winning two consecutive FA Cups, a third would be great, but it's not the club's top priority.
Based on the past two decades, Arsenal fans should be confident in Champions League qualification. If a player or two comes in, winning the league is a definite possibility. Otherwise it would take some luck. Winning the Champions League is a bigger task, but anything can happen in a knockout tournament. Barring a bad draw, the semifinals of the FA Cup should be well within Arsenal's reach.
The easy answer here would be Sánchez. It wouldn't be the wrong answer -- he's flashy, he's fast and he can strike at the drop of a hat. The best answer, though, is Özil. That's partly because there aren't a lot of players like him in football, but more than that, it's because he's a player who improves with attention. If you watch a game, you won't notice everything he brings to it, from his passing and dribbling to his off-the-ball movement to create space for himself and others to flourish. But if you watch Özil, you'll be a changed person after 90 minutes.
Dean Ambrose. He has basically all the necessary tools to be the champion, but hasn't been able to realize his full potential. But with one push, that could all change -- and once that breakthrough happens, it might not be a short reign.
For the last few seasons, Aston Villa have been a relentlessly boring team. Before he was sacked last February, manager Paul Lambert had led Villa to a 6-4-15 record that saw the club score only 12 goals in 25 matches. Then new manager Tim Sherwood arrived to save the day. He came with a reputation as a man with a giant ego and swagger for days, and he backed it up at Villa Park.
The results were immediately apparent once he took control. Sherwood achieved safety despite the fact that when he arrived Villa looked moribund and destined for the Championship and he only had 13 matches in which to save the club. Flirting with relegation is never the right kind of exciting, but once Sherwood arrived the football was fun again. The club went from scoring .48 goals per match under Lambert to 1.26 under Sherwood.
For this season, you can expect more of the same. But perhaps in a totally different manner. Villa will be without Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, but emerging talents like the Jordans (Amavi, Ayew, Veretout), Jack Grealish, Idrissa Gueye, and maybe even Libor Kozak will step in to fill the holes left by the departures. There is a chance that five or six players in the starting XI on opening day won't have played for last year's team.
Sherwood has made it clear, in half seasons with Spurs and Villa, that he favors an attacking style of football that takes plenty of defensive risks, but makes up for it with goals. Don't come looking for a lot of draws, and there's always the chance you'll see Villa get embarrassed. But finally, after three years of Paul Lambert, this is a team who should not be boring. You may not always see good football, but if you want excitement, start watching Aston Villa.
Things are much better than they were in February. There's faith in Tim Sherwood, there's a new Sporting Director, there's a CEO who knows what he's doing, and there are young, exciting, not-cut-rate players. I wouldn't say fans are expecting the world, but we're happier than we've been in ages despite the disappointment of losing Delph and Benteke. If there's one thing people would like to see change, it's Randy Lerner finally selling the club. But he looks ready to spend again, so everyone will at least tolerate him.
After the past few years, avoiding relegation could be nice. And given the fact that we've lost both Benteke and Delph, that might be the realistic answer. But let's ratchet up the "avoid relegation" thing just a touch: enter April without fears of relegation.
That's not a great goal to have, and basic math says it's easily accomplished for most teams. But after half a decade of relegation terror, entering the last few weeks safe would be a relief. And Sherwood's 13 matches in charge showed that this was a team who underachieved last season, so I think it's definitely doable. Heck, they might be safe from relegation by March. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
For the past three years it's been Benteke. But now that he's gone it's got to be one of Jordan Amavi or Jack Grealish. Both are young budding superstars. The former is a 21-year-old French left back who had the most interceptions of anyone in Europe last year while playing for Nice. He looks to be the left back of the future for Les Bleus, too. The latter is a 19-year-old attacking midfielder who has the confidence of a world-class player. His on-the-ball work is astonishing and he has no fear whatsoever. If he can find a scoring touch he could be Villa's best player this year, and might even be a candidate for the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
And if you're a fan of the USMNT, be sure to keep your eyes on once-again first-choice ‘keeper Brad Guzan.
The new attitude around the club of not giving a damn makes me think:
‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And West Brom is gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
But Tim Sherwood's gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
Shake it off.
And now that's stuck in your head. You're welcome.
Largely thanks the stewardship of incumbent manager Eddie Howe, Bournemouth have enjoyed a remarkable rise over the last decade. In two separate spells, the young tactician has led the Cherries from the bottom to the top of English football, with the South Coast club living out a Football Manager fantasy that will presumably end with the Champions League trophy being paraded around the Eddie Howe Arena before too long.
Their most recent accomplishment is gaining a historic promotion to the Premier League as Championship winners, and deservedly so. Bournemouth played some of the most attractive football in the league, with Howe having implemented a high-tempo pressing game that suffocated sides much stronger on paper. The Cherries may not have had the greatest personnel in the division, but they were undoubtedly the best team. The only question now is whether they will be able to adapt to the rigours of the top flight.
In the past, we've seen newly-promoted sides arrive in the Premier League playing swashbuckling attacking football, only to be undone by their defensive problems. There's no finer example than Ian Holloway's Blackpool, who scored only five fewer goals than Manchester City in 2010-11, but were relegated with the second-worst goal difference of anyone. Others, like Southampton and Swansea City, have been rewarded for their bravery; they're both now established teams renowned for their attractive style. Which category Bournemouth will fall into is still anyone's guess.
Bournemouth have long been associated with lower-league relegation battles and financial struggles (having never before played in the English top flight), but they're currently in excellent health. Not only have they guaranteed themselves a piece of the Premier League's gigantic TV revenue pie, but they're also now owned by mysterious Russian petrochemicals entrepreneur Maxim Demin, who is reported to have a not insignificant wealth. That, combined with one of the most valuable managerial assets in the country in Howe, means things look bright for the future -- even if the Cherries don't manage to survive relegation this season.
Like all other newly-promoted sides, Bournemouth head into the season just hoping to avoid immediate relegation. This is the first time they've made it to the top of the pyramid and, as great of a story as that may be, no one will really care if they are back in the lower divisions a year from now. No one wants to wait another 125 years for this to happen.
It's very hard to predict which way Bournemouth will go. They have a squad of questionable quality and lacking in Premier League experience, but both their rapid rise and ambitious playing style bear resemblance to Swansea, who have adapted to the top tier superbly since they were promoted in 2011. Suffice it to say, the Cherries have a chance of survival, but quite how good a chance remains to be seen.
25-year-old attacker Matt Ritchie was one of the best performers in the Championship last season, and earned himself a handful of Scotland international caps as a result. He's more more than a traditional winger, and has a knack of scoring goals as well as assisting his teammates. Ritchie looks more than capable of providing the creative quality required to bridge the gap between the second tier and the top flight, and how well he performs could go some way to determining the Cherries' fate this season.
Frasier Crane of "Cheers" and "Frasier" fame. Wealthy, intelligent and charming but with the potential to fall flat on their faces, Bournemouth have plenty in common with Seattle's favorite radio psychologist.
The boring, boring Champions had a mostly boring, boring summer and now get ready for a boring, boring defense of the English title.
In typical Jose Mourinho fashion, Chelsea went about last year's domination of the Premier League in a rather straightforward and pragmatic manner. While at the start of the season, the team played a bit more open and enterprising football, pleasing the neutrals and leading to such scorelines as the 6-3 against Everton, the second half of the season was typified by the classic Mourinho 1-0 or 2-0, the team doing just enough to secure the points then conserving energy for the next game.
All that translated to an eight-point lead at the final whistle, having been top of the league essentially from Day 1. Chelsea didn't lose their first match until mid-December and would add just three more defeats in all competitions after that, while collecting another League Cup title along the way. Perhaps the only blight on the season was the early exit from the Champions League, losing on away goals after home and away draws against Paris Saint-Germain in the Round of 16.
A league and domestic cup double, countless individual awards, including a clean sweep of all five Player of the Season awards for Eden Hazard (PFA, FWA, Barclays, Chelsea players, Chelsea fans), and plenty of sideshows (Mourinho v. The FA; Diego Costa, pantomime villain; etc) ... just another season at the Evil Roman Empire.
The best manager in the world, leading some of the best players in the world, building a team for the next decade just like he did 11 years ago? The state of the club is as good as it's ever been, on and off the pitch. Even without a marquee summer signing.
Domestically, the standard goals for Chelsea under Roman Abramovich remain to challenge for the title and achieve Champions League qualification, while possibly collecting one of the two cups. In Europe, a strong Champions League campaign is expected, especially after last year's first knockout round elimination.
With all the big clubs in England splashing the cash to catch up, while Chelsea were just treading water, their chances of winning the league again don't look anywhere near as good as they did last summer. But it's impossible to not feel optimistic of trophies and success when Jose Mourinho is your manager.
Depends on what's your pleasure. If you like skills and tricks and jaw-dropping moments of excellence, we've got Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, and even goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. If you like hard work, pressing, graft, and all the team-first qualities of modern football, we've got Oscar, Willian, and Nemanja Matic. If you like strength in defense, we've got captain John Terry, vice-captain Branislav Ivanovic, and the man they call Dave, Cesar Azpilicueta. And if you just like a bit of drama with your goals, we've got the one and only Diego Costa.
House Lannister: Generally disliked but usually in power, Mourinho always pays his debts.
Crystal Palace are a bit odd, but in a mostly good way. At home, they generate one of the Premier League's most distinctive atmospheres, with self-styled ultras in the stands, cheerleaders on the pitch and Pete the Eagle strutting around the sidelines in sunglasses. Add to this mix the always-compelling ego of Alan Pardew bubbling away in the dugout, and you can see why Palace are worth keeping an eye on.
The football's not bad either. Quick, tricky wingers remain the most exciting sight the game has to offer, and in Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie -- assuming neither gets sold -- Palace are able to offer two of the Premier League's most exciting, though certainly not most reliable. Much of the preseason excitement has centered around the arrival of French international Yohan Cabaye, who should add another dimension of class and creativity to an already hard-working midfield.
There are, however, question marks about the rest of the team's spine. Palace lack a proven forward: last season's top scorer, Dwight Gayle, only managed 10 across all competitions, and nobody scored more than seven in the league. They'll be hoping new signing Connor Wickham adds some punch up top. While Scott Dann, last season's player of the year, has extended his contract, he could do with a reliable partner at center back. Further back still, there is a three-way competition for the goalkeeper's spot, and the venerable Julian Speroni could find himself displaced by either Wales international Wayne Hennessey or new arrival Alex McCarthy.
Still, whatever happens, Palace tend to be fun, and over the last two seasons they've developed an engaging habit of avoiding relegation in surprising comfort while inconveniencing Liverpool in the process. More of that, and everybody will be happy. Except Liverpool.
Pardew may be a bit of a buffoon, but he's a buffoon who played for Palace for four years, genuinely seems to like the club, and generally seems to be liked by the club's fans. The club paid £3.5 million to break him from his contract with Newcastle, the players responded well to his arrival last January, and last season's finish was their highest in the top flight since the Premier League broke away back in 1992. So fundamentally, everything's shiny down at Selhurst Park.
More than half of the Premier League falls into the aspirational category "avoid relegation as impressively as possible," and Crystal Palace are no exception. But despite making appalling starts to both of the last two seasons -- starts that necessitated a mid-campaign managerial change -- they ended up finishing first 11th, then 10th. This suggests that if they can manage to avoid chaos and have a calm, sensible season, they might be able to target the heady heights of ninth. Maybe even eighth.
At the lower end, Palace should have enough about them to avoid relegation. At the more ambitious end of the scale, however, much depends on the goalscoring question. At the time of writing, the only forward to have arrived at Selhurst Park is Chelsea prospect Patrick Bamford on a season-long loan, and while he impressed with Middlesbrough in last season's Championship race, he's still just 21, and his Premier League chops are untested. If he fires, or if another forward arrives, then Palace might be able to improve on last year's showing. But the lower end of mid-table seems the most sensible prediction.
It's hard to look past Cabaye, who was the creative heart of Pardew's occasionally quite decent Newcastle team and has just returned to the Premier League after a year-and-a-half on the fringes of Paris Saint-Germain's squad. Before he left, plenty felt he was capable of doing a job at the heart of a few of the Premier League's bigger sides; now that he's back, and still only 29, plenty are wondering what he's doing at little ol' Palace. Some people just really like Alan Pardew, apparently. More normal people like well-taken set pieces, imaginative passing and the occasional gorgeous strike, and that's what Cabaye brings. He's lovely.
What does Alan Pardew drink? He drinks Cristal Palace, of course! And he drinks it straight from the bottle. No messing.
A quick glance at the history books will show Everton as one of the grand old teams of the English game, with as many league titles to their name as Chelsea and Manchester City combined. However, a trophy drought now about to stretch into a 21st year has seen their reputation diminish -- to outsiders at least -- to that of Premier League also-rans, albeit one with a proud tradition, an atmospheric stadium and a loyal fanbase.
Without the revenue to match the current top six, Everton rely on bringing through young, homegrown players. That also means they face an annual battle to keep their best stars out of the clutches of wealthier rivals, a constant source of despair for supporters who recall the days when Everton were among the best in the land.
Despite those challenges, Spanish manager Roberto Martinez has built on the work of his predecessor David Moyes and has a young and dynamic squad at his disposal who seek to play attractive football. A thrilling fifth place finish in his first season has been offset by a disappointing 11th place finish last time out, but the hope is that last season was a mere blip and Martinez can steer the side on an upward curve again in 2015-16 -- if he can keep his squad intact.
Martinez has just about maintained the faith of the fans despite last year's below-par season, mainly because of his excellent first campaign in charge. However, with no World Cup or Europa League to blame this time around, the Spaniard will have few excuses if the team continues to under-perform. We all love the style of play he is trying to employ at Goodison Park, but if it fails to produce results then he may find himself under severe pressure.
The situation is different off the pitch. Evertonians lost patience with the board a long time ago. They appreciate that chairman Bill Kenwright -- a lifelong Everton fan -- has his heart in the right place and that there are plenty of disreputable owners scattered across the English leagues. But a failure to significantly improve off-field financial performance and a succession of aborted ground moves over the past decade means the fans are desperate for change at the top.
Everton have hovered just outside the Champions League places for a while now and although cracking the top four is definitely a target, the spending of the biggest clubs makes it look increasingly like a pipe dream. Therefore, many Evertonians are switching their attention to winning some silverware. We are in the midst of the longest trophy drought in the club's 137-year history, so even a League Cup will be celebrated wildly. Beating Liverpool at least once would be nice too -- Everton haven't won a Merseyside derby home or away since 2010.
The reality is the top four looks sewn up, with even the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool unlikely to breach the Champions League places. But there is no reason why Everton can't reach a Wembley final. The squad, on its day, is good enough to beat anyone in the division. However, any cup-winning side from outside the elite needs a healthy dose of good fortune along the way, something that doesn't happen very often.
As for beating Liverpool, let's not hold our breath ...
Evertonians love to see local talent come through the youth ranks -- they have taken great pleasure at seeing Liverpool-born Ross Barkley emerge not just as a first-team regular, but a full England international. The Toffees also have "Secretary of Defense" Tim Howard between the sticks. The 36-year-old insists he still has what it takes to compete at the highest level despite a below-par season last time out in the wake of his 2014 World Cup heroics.
The Pina Colada -- big in the 80s, but now desperately out of fashion. It will still give you a headache in the morning, though.
Last season marked Leicester City's long-awaited return to the top flight, with the Foxes having earned promotion back to the Premier League for the first time in a decade. Midway through the season it looked like they were heading straight back down to the Championship, though manager Nigel Pearson oversaw a remarkable late rally of surprisingly entertaining football to ensure another year competing with the very best in the country. When on form they looked a genuinely exciting team, with their intricate attacking play sometimes fooling the very best defenses.
Alas, it's often said that second seasons are the hardest, and it's veteran Claudio Ranieri who has been given the tough task of trying to lead Leicester to survival again this campaign. That's because Pearson was sacked in July on the back of a string of misdemeanors, including a verbal attack on a journalist and a physical one on Crystal Palace midfielder James McArthur. It is a bold move from the club's hierarchy, who are replacing Pearson's proven results with a man who has a rather patchy managerial record.
But, if they want a change of ambience, Ranieri is certainly the right man. The affable Italian could hardly be less like his authoritarian predecessor, and the Foxes' press conferences will certainly make for less cringeworthy viewing this year. However, Leicester fans will be praying that they haven't thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and that the players will respond to Ranieri's compassionate touch. If not, they could be in for a long and difficult season.
Leicester only passed into the hands of Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in 2010, but things have been pretty stable since. He was rewarded for his patience with Pearson last season, and the only major question with regard to the state of the club is over Ranieri. He arrives at the Foxes fresh from a disastrous spell in charge of the Greek national team, and though their problems can't all be attributed to him (indeed most can't), losing to the Faroe Islands is a big blot on his record. He also failed to win the title in four seasons at Chelsea (2000-04), which is regarded by many as a significant failure. He's certainly got a lot to prove, and Leicester are taking a big gamble by hiring him.
Leicester have one very simple, and yet very difficult goal: surviving relegation. Anything better than that would be seriously impressive; anything worse would be greeted with a collective shrug of the shoulders.
It's going to be difficult for Leicester, who are on paper one of the weakest teams in the entire division. They've also lost talismanic midfielder Esteban Cambiasso, who chose to not renew his contract with the Foxes after an outstanding season in the Premier League. They're certainly in with a chance of survival, but head into the season as one of the favorites for relegation.
Jamie Vardy. Last season Leicester were heavily reliant on Vardy, who earned an England cap thanks to his string of impressive performances in his debut season in the Premier League. He finished the campaign with only five league goals, but his hand in assisting plenty more earned him a nomination for the Player of the Season award (which he eventually lost to Cambiasso). Vardy will no doubt head into this campaign as one of the Foxes' first-choice forwards, and they'll be praying he turns in some similarly good performances once the action resumes.
Ninetales. There's the obvious fox connection, but a little more than that, too. Like the Pokemon, Leicester are often underestimated by many, and have a habit of producing jaw-dropping moments when they're least expected -- often with a surprising degree of elegance. Manchester United will still be having nightmares about the stunning 5-3 defeat they suffered on their visit to the Midlands early last season.
Last season was a disaster for Liverpool, and following a sixth-place finish, any Reds supporter who claims with any kind of certainty they know what to expect heading into 2015-16 is lying to you -- and quite possibly to themselves. There are definite hopes and maybe even some achievable targets, but nobody really has any idea how it's all going to play out once the games start to matter.
Nobody can know for certain if the 2013-14 side that set everything on fire on the way to a 101-goal league campaign was a freakish confluence of luck and chance and Luis Suarez. Nobody knows if the 2014-15 trainwreck that followed revealed the real Brendan Rodgers, a manager some remain firmly convinced should have been sacked at the end of the campaign.
Nobody, then, can say for certain what's coming next. Will it be the tactically adventurous Rodgers who embraced three at the back and almost saved the season? Or will it be the stubborn Rodgers who mismanaged the talent at hand, ostracizing out-of-form players and insisting midfielders could play at right back long after it became painfully clear they could not, and let everything slip away again?
Either way, it will probably be entertaining. Whether it's for Liverpool fans because Rodgers has learned from last season and found a viable way forward or for those who aren't because he hasn't and it's about to all go horribly wrong again is another question.
Despite uncertainty surrounding the team, the club itself is as healthy as it's been in the Premier League era. The current owners have saved it from the brink of financial ruin, put a lot of work into strengthening the commercial side to help the club compete with their richer rivals, invested in expanding the stadium, and generally done what most Liverpool fans claim they want: shut up and sign the cheques. It could all end up a mess on the pitch, but in the larger picture Liverpool are in as good a place as could be reasonably hoped for.
Liverpool need to make the top four and win a piece of silverware for the season to be a success. And with Rodgers entering his fourth year at the helm, if it isn't a success, he's going to be gone. Ending up sixth last season and dropping out of every cup competition — the Champions League and the Europa League and the League Cup and FA Cup — all at stages when Liverpool could fairly have expected to advance simply wasn't good enough.
Whether they can achieve that is hard to say given the uncertainty over whether Rodgers is an exceptional talent who's still learning or a snake-oil salesman who has flattered to deceive. What is clear is he has been backed by the club's owners, who have not only been patient, but downright generous. He's been given money to spend and total control over how it's spent, and if it all doesn't work out now there will be only him to blame for the failure. Hopefully, for his sake and that of Liverpool fans everywhere, he succeeds.
Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool's magical unicorn of a playmaker, stolen away from his miserable purgatory with Inter Milan and having since grown into one of the best players in the league. The magical feet, sublime vision, and surprising combativeness for such a silky, diminutive player make him a joy to watch.
It also doesn't hurt that while Raheem Sterling and his agent were pushing for a move away in the ugliest manner possible, Coutinho was busy selling Brazil teammate Roberto Firmino on making the move to Anfield. Plus he lives the pug life.
A pug. Obviously.
Restricted in spending by UEFA Financial Fair Play last season, Manchester City's management made an effort to retain the side's core which has been together since 2011 rather than spend lavishly on new signings. The results have been mixed -- especially in the eyes of vocal supporters -- as there's a sense the Blues have stagnated while their top-of-the-table competitors have continued to restock.
Despite a second place finish, last season was still seen as a bit of a disappointment. Going into New Year's Day, the Blues were tied atop the table, but managed to finish eight points out and they were knocked out of the FA Cup by a lower-division side. After a rocky three-month culminated with a 4-2 thrashing at the hands of local rival Manchester United, which dropped the club to 4th place in the table, manager Manuel Pellegrini inserted James Milner and Frank Lampard into the side and the Blues won their last six league games. But both Lampard and Milner are now gone, and despite having Premier League Golden Boot winner Sergio Aguero, the bulk of goals for the club come from midfielders.
Needing to freshen up things, the Blues paid a club record £44 million for Liverpool's Raheem Sterling. The pacey, direct 20-year-old isn't a finished article yet, but has produced a created a remarkable amount of offensive chances in his young Premier League career.
The hope is that this proves a turning point. Past transfer failings over the past three years have left the Blues a bit stagnate. Seven years after being taken over by billionaires from Abu Dhabi, the Blues are nowhere near the brand Chelsea was at the same point in their rebirth. But Sterling promises to be a different kind of player, one that can help usher in a new era of City spending that will also transform the club into a fresher, more dynamic attacking side.
Txiki Begiristain has been far from convincing in the transfer market since taking over as Director of Football from Brian Marwood three years ago. Manuel Pellegrini is a stubborn, though competent manager. Manchester City have wobbled for significant periods during his tenure, though his overall record have is difficult to argue with. This season with Sterling in the side, Pellegrini can be more tactically flexible and direct if he's willing to be.
The supporters of the club have been pleased with ownership due to the large investment, but are voicing concerns about Begiristain and Pellegrini. The Sterling buy has relieved some of this pressure, but if he doesn't work out, the heat might be unbearable. Still, City's brass has faith in Begiristain and his working relationship with Chief Executive Ferran Soriano remains excellent.
Winning the league and advancing beyond the Round of 16 in UEFA Champions League. The management has put a premium on Europe and if City can somehow win their group they won't be in the position to face Barcelona again. Unfortunately, because of the seeding processes, City might very well end up in a difficult group yet again.
Unlikely unless Aguero and Sterling stay fit while Toure returns to his previous top form. City's group in Europe will be tough and the league has seen the teams around them upgrade. Still Sterling is the key -- if he demonstrates consistency, MCFC can probably break down just about any defense. Toure's return to form is critical as well, and we're seeing signs in the preseason that he seems to have put last season behind him and could become good again.
Sterling is the most exciting signing the club has made since Aguero in 2011. Pacey, direct and able to play out wide or up top, he will be a breath of fresh air on a side that was too predictable last season.
Auburn football. Historic underachievers that are in the shadow of their biggest local/regional rival -- the fans appreciate what they have, but still have a sense of victimization.
With faded memories of success that have become the tool for a group of plundering Floridians, Manchester United had one disastrous year post-Alex Ferguson under David Moyes, and one boring year under Louis van Gaal. This season is the one to have some fun or give up hope of United actually meaning something -- or anything -- under the Glazer family.
United flailed under Moyes, then only managed to achieve the bare minimum of Champions League qualification under van Gaal. Last year, van Gaal started a process of bloodletting, only for the quality of last summer's transfusion to have been a mixed success. Full-blown reconstructive surgery has taken place this transfer window, with the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian and Memphis Depay. More will follow, probably in the form of Pedro from Barcelona, perhaps Nicolas Otamendi and maybe even Cristiano Ronaldo if United get lucky.
All of that means van Gaal has to assemble yet another team, after rejigging due to indecision, poor form and injuries for much of last season. The hope for United is that he can pull off his nebulous philosophy -- nobody, including him, seems to be able to explain it at all -- and make a team that works together to entertain, rather than bore with risk-averse misery as was seen in 2014-15.
Van Gaal is benefiting from being the guy after the guy after the guy, and his off-pitch belligerence and fourth place finish has bought him some time. But with three of his own transfer windows to put things right, people will be rightfully impatient if more feces on a stick is served up on the field.
The most important thing is to no longer to be a walking embarrassment capable of putting you to sleep. Perhaps in the back of supporters' mind there are some yet-to-be expunged hopes of winning the league, maybe even impressing in Europe. But, as ever, there's only one real goal of the season: finish above Liverpool, smash the piss out of Liverpool when United play them and see Liverpool relegated, put out of business and then cast off into the sea with the rest of the city.
There's a bigger chance of seeing Liverpool booted off the island than there is United doing especially well in Europe. As such, a decent attempt at the title, even if probably not successful, is the most people can expect.
Depay. He might not play much due to his youth, but it has not been since Ronaldo that United could claim to have one of the most exciting young players in the world in their side. He was introduced to United as a left winger with a determination to score as well as create, but van Gaal has used him through the middle in preseason, and his talent and ego may be what drives United this season. Relying on such a young player, however confident and talented, is clearly a risk. Still, it's better than relying on Angel Di Maria, who was shipped off to Paris Saint-Germain.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They've been screwed by the Glazers too.
On the last day of the 2014-15 season, Mike Ashley spoke to the Newcastle United faithful and said things would change. A summer has now passed and some things have indeed changed, but changes need to continue if Ashley's summer investment is going to lead to instant (relative) success on the pitch. Steve McClaren has come in and promised that they are changing the "culture and environment" surrounding the team along with a good dose of change-of-tactics. On the heels of several years of hoofball and matches in which the players looked as comfortable on the ball as a well-known criminal at a police convention, the changes are welcome.
What McClaren is bringing to the pitch is a more fluid, passing style with an emphasis on keeping the ball on the ground. In training, it was not uncommon to hear the coaching staff quizzing players about what the correct pass should have been after a drill finished. McClaren says of his tactics: "That's the way we want to play the game. When you play it and play it well, it's very good. When you play it and you don't play it very well, it can be very bad." Newcastle United will be a much different side to watch in the 2015-16 season.
The club were so far behind from years of square-peg/round-hole tactics that there is significant ground to make up, but there is evidence the process is happening. When it gets fully installed, Newcastle will be a fast, exciting, attacking squad that will have all the tools to trouble Premier League defenses. It may just take a few matches to get there.
We haven't seen this kind of change in several years, obviously. McClaren is new in and will get his time, surely, just as Pardew did. He is changing the tactics, which we should have seen from Pardew after the club hamstrung his ability to play long-ball by selling Andy Carroll. Progress is evident on those levels, so McClaren is golden for now. Ashley and Lee Charnley have earned some degree of good grace with two brilliant player acquisitions and the investment required to get them in, but if we stop at two, the pitchforks and torches will likely come back out.
Progress, plain and simple. Avoiding a relegation scrap yet again would be a nice start. There is a significant belief that Pardew misused a lot of the players at his disposal and as a result we don't know where the squad is skill-wise. We know where they could be -- which is exciting -- but history shows us that it is easy to be nowhere near "could." Ultimately, success is going to be determined on a sliding scale that is directly proportional to league table success and on-pitch aesthetics. Ultimate starting goal: comfortable midtable finish with a product on the pitch that doesn't resemble a dog turd.
The club have finally began to invest reasonably in transfers. We're told that there are more transfers are on the horizon and frankly, our overall chances may be tied to whether they arrive or not. We are still struggling through with the same set of center backs which brought us back from the Championship and have been amongst the worst in the Premier League for years. There is a genuine belief thought that the change in playing style that is coming in with McClaren will bring the best out of players who may have been considered "flops" (Vurnon Anita, for instance) and our chances are directly tied to success in realizing player potential as well as McClaren's tactics.
This year, tune in for Moussa Sissoko. Indifferent form last year hamstrung a desired move away from the club. He now must perform and consistently if he wishes to stay in the reckoning for France's Euro 2016 squad. Properly motivated, he has the potential to be one of the best midfielders in the Premier League.
An episode of Chopped. The basket ingredients are intriguing. Toon fans will hope McClaren can succeed with them where others failed miserably.
It may not be a cliche, and it may not make much sense, but Norwich City had a season of three halves in 2014-15. Despite having overseen their relegation from the Premier League the previous season, Neil Adams was given the managerial job permanently and made an excellent start -- by the end of September, the Canaries were on top of the Championship table. Then it all went wrong. Norwich managed just one league victory in October and November, slid out of the playoff places and Adams resigned on Jan. 5.
Enter Alex Neil. Though Neil's appointment raised a few eyebrows -- the 33-year-old was younger than some of his players, and his only previous managerial post had been with Hamilton Academical in Scotland -- he rejuvenated Norwich, who won 17 of their remaining 25 games. In the playoffs, they managed a victory over their nearest rival (Ipswich Town) and then won in the final over a much-fancied Middlesbrough team. That brought them back to the Premier League at the first attempt after relegation.
Neil's Norwich players talk about the thoroughness of his approach, from the structure of his training sessions, through the clarity of his pregame analysis and on into the post-match postmortem. On the pitch, this manifests as bright attacking football and plenty of goals. Only the two automatically promoted teams (Bournemouth and Watford) outscored Norwich in the Championship last season. Whether this works on the more rugged defenses of the Premier League remains to be seen.
All is rosy at Carrow Road. The manager is young, popular and highly rated; promotion was achieved at the end of a giddy run of results; the people who run the club are well-liked and mostly seem to be genuine fans. Of course, even the happiest of clubs might find the mood souring if they're stuck at the bottom of the table come Christmas time, and even the most promising of managers might find their seat getting uncomfortably warm. Such is football.
Stay up. What? Oh, you want more? Er ... stay up and not concede bucket loads to Liverpool?
The absence of Luis Suarez will help with the latter; the former will be a little more tricky. At the time of writing, Norwich's transfer business has been minimal: they've brought Youssuf Mulumbu in from West Brom, signed Graham Dorrans to a permanent deal after last season's loan and Robbie Brady has joined from Hull City. Even with those additions, it's hard not to be a little pessimistic. Norwich looks like a pretty good squad ... for the Championship.
But at the same time, there's a core of players who play well together, and play well for the manager; there's John Ruddy in goal, who's pretty good; there's a fair spread of Premier League experience throughout the squad (if not always successful experience). A couple more reinforcements -- perhaps a striker, definitely a couple of defenders -- and some further magic from Neil, and Norwich might just scrape their way to survival.
When England U-21 winger Nathan Redmond moved to Norwich from Birmingham City ahead of the 2013-14 campaign, he was three things: young, undoubtedly talented and exceptionally raw. A year-and-a-half later, when Neil arrived at Carrow Road, he was much the same. But as Norwich improved, so too did Redmond, and come the sharp end of the season he was both creating and scoring. He also developed a liking for the big occasion, scoring in the semifinal against Ipswich and then spearheading the early charge in the final that saw Norwich catch Middlesbrough cold, picking up another goal in the process. If he can roll his form into the Premier League, this season might not prove too tricky after all.
Pikachu. He's yellow, and he's kind of cute.
Southampton were last season's surprise package in the Premier League after the summer transfer window saw a number of the "star" players leave for pastures new. But, with Ronald Koeman in charge for his first season at The Saints, those players were replaced with some fantastic signings and brought through some more of exciting youngsters through their conveyor belt of youth talent.
Journalists and odds-makers had Southampton as second favorites to be relegated last season following on from that tumultuous summer. However, under Koeman's stewardship, the South Coast club managed to break a number of records including finishing seventh in the Premier League -- their highest league position since the Premier League's formation -- tallying 60 points and earning spot in the Europa League in the process.
Southampton are the glamorous underdogs of English football. The Saints were in League One as recently as 2011 but there's been nothing but continuous improvement since then. Southampton have always played the same type of attractive, attacking, pass-oriented football and have a continuous focus of embedding the club's academy players into the first team fold.
The Southampton academy has produced players such as Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin, Gareth Bale, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Calum Chambers over the last few years and there is no let up in talented players coming through the club's youth system.
Southampton fans have probably never been happier. The whole city is behind Koeman and his Dutch contingent of coaching and playing staff, while Saints fans have a lot of faith in club chairwoman Katherina Liebherr and supremo Les Reed. Who can have a problem with the way the club has been run with all of the surprising success that was enjoyed last year?
As is always the case with Southampton, you don't really know how the season will pan out with a summer of change. But, the realistic goals are to maintain the momentum and to improve or match last season's league position. This will be tough with Europa League football now thrown into the mix -- and while a lot of fans of the so-called ‘bigger' clubs look at the Europa League with disdain, Saints fans are excited to see how our boys fare in European football.
There are plenty of great examples of involvement in the Europa League having a negative impact on a team's league performance. Everton narrowly missed out on Champions League football in 2013/14 but their foray into Europe saw them struggle for much of last season.
However, Koeman has plenty of Europa League experience and has the know-how to rotate the squad effectively to try to avoid fatigue creeping into Premier League performances. There has also been a focus on trying to create some squad depth to help with both campaigns there's reason to be optimistic about the chances of continuing momentum and performing well this season.
Watching Sadio Mané play on the Southampton wing is an absolute joy. He is quick, dangerous and totally unpredictable. Mané drew the ire of many Saints fans when he first joined the club, but that has since dissipated. He is a constant threat to the opposing defense and has chipped in with plenty of goals from out wide - including the fastest ever Premier League hat-trick in two minutes, 56 seconds in Saints' 6-1 demolition of Aston Villa.
Matthew McConaughey. Like McConaughey, Southampton have made a remarkable comeback to earn plaudits across the globe and is full of southern charm.
This used to be the easiest preview in the Premier League. Stoke were ... well, they were Stoke. Eleven hulking giants fed only on raw meat and hatred, kept chained in underground cages for six days of the week before, come 3 o'clock Saturday, charging out into the driving rain to wreak bloody havoc with the delicate sensibilities and ankles of their opponents. Nobody liked playing them, nobody liked watching them, but it worked.
Now, though, things are more nuanced. Tony Pulis' replacement Mark Hughes is about to embark on his third season in the dugout, and is slowly but surely introducing a bit of style, swagger and even charm into Stoke's football. He also appears to be running something of a rehabilitation center for baby-faced Barcelona disappointments: for the coming season, Marc Muniesa and Bojan Krkic will be joined by Ibrahim Afellay, who reportedly turned down Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven to move to the Potteries. In summary, Stoke are still an awkward opponent for anybody, but now for some of the right reasons.
One consequence of such a change is that other, richer teams start to notice the players responsible. Having spent several years making huge losses on players that nobody wanted to buy, this summer Stoke lost a chunk of the spine of their team: Asmir Begovic has gone to Chelsea's substitute bench, and Steven N'Zonzi has left for Sevilla. How Hughes and his players adjust in their absence will go a long way toward defining Stoke's season.
Pretty comfortable. Hughes was brought in to replace Pulis in the hope that he could improve both results and aesthetics, and he's managed both. As a result, he was offered and accepted a new contract last January; while managerial contracts are fragile things, he's theoretically committed until 2019. It would take something cataclysmic for that to change.
Like a lot of the teams in the upper reaches of midtable, Stoke would presumably like to keep improving, year after year, until they eventually nudge their way up the table and start mixing it with the big boys. Sadly, this is the Premier League, which comes with more glass ceilings than a greenhouse convention. As such, Stoke's goals will be to keep their position in the top half, try and nick the last Europa League spot if somebody has a dodgy season, and maybe put together a cup run.
One advantage of having ambitions limited by circumstance is that the chances of achieving them are pretty good. Hughes has finished ninth in both his seasons in charge, and barring a complete disaster, that should be easily repeatable. As long as Jack Butland and Marco van Ginkel can adequately replace the departing Begovic and N'Zonzi, they'll be fine.
Last season, the cherubic face of New Stoke was Bojan, once the next "big thing" of Barcelona, who took to the Britannia Stadium with far greater ease than he had at the Camp Nou, the San Siro, the Stadio Olimpico and the Amsterdam ArenA. It's a silly game sometimes. However, his effervescent season was cut short in January when his knee exploded. He should, all being well, return to his position just behind a central striker and will, hopefully, bring many more smiles with him. It's just so nice to see him happy.
Well, since Old Stoke were basically a large angry lump of rock, they were obviously Geodude. Which means, in turn, that this lot are Graveler. Because they've evolved. Man, we're so clever.
What is Sunderland's style and personality? Dear me, there are some devoted Sunderland fans who would struggle to identify it, never mind any from the wider footballing world.
Sunderland are currently in their fifth successive summer under a coach who did not take charge of the previous one. "Style" has become a fluid thing on Wearside, perhaps more so than is strictly healthy. Definitely more so, in fact.
This season the mantle will fall to Dick Advocaat, a Dutchman with some serious coaching background, so there is a little more optimism than in previous years. He assumed control of the last nine games in 2015, steered the club safe from relegation and appeared to reconnect the fans and the players in a way we haven't really seen in a while.
That brings us to the "personality" part of the question. Sunderland is a stoically proud working-class club and that has always been replicated on the pitch during the good times. Built upon industry -- most prominently coal mines and ship building -- solid graft and honest hard work are prerequisites for anyone who pulls on the red and white shirt.
Most clubs will say something similar, but some genuinely poor footballers have been hailed as almost timeless heroes at Sunderland while playing alongside more talented (and productive) players who have become a footnote in the club's history.
If the players offer that -- if they satisfy the standards of the crowd in terms of workrate and honesty, even in defeat -- the Stadium of Light is a truly stunning place to be. It's a cauldron of pride-fueled passion that can make the club an incredible one to watch.
Of course, the opposite is also true. Should the players be judged to not invest enough of themselves in the club's cause, the atmosphere can become poisonous. Sadly, we've seen more of that in recent years than the good stuff, but Advocaat seemed to demonstrate that he understood the ethos of the club last season, so perhaps those poisonous days can become fewer and fewer this season.
It's tough to say, really. Sunderland have an owner in Ellis Short who genuinely cares for the club and wants the best, but on the pitch results have been bleak. Advocaat is a sound appointment though, and his pedigree suggests he is deserving of more faith than perhaps any coach the club has had in the modern era. However, this is Sunderland, so we will have to wait and see.
Honestly, it would be nice if someone else were run through the relegation ringer. You'll find no sense of entitlement at Sunderland. In fact, some fans argue that the supporter base as a whole should be demanding more, but there is a sense that we have suffered enough for a while and deserve a bit of a break from weekly ‘must-win games' and all the stresses that come with them.
Continuing recent derby domination over Newcastle would be a lovely bonus, but the goal just has to be to return the fun to supporting Sunderland. Create some buzz about the place, and for the team to basically stop being a pack of colossal idiots on pretty much a weekly basis.
Toss a coin, basically. Sunderland are the kind of club who make a total incoherent mess of a child's word search puzzle one minute then blitz a Rubik's Cube with faultless aplomb the next. There's really no sense in making any predictions about this football club.
Lee Cattermole. Remember that bit about the club's heritage and personality? Well, he epitomizes them to their limit. He is a full-blooded, fiercely committed, thrill-a-minute Adonis of a footballer. Well, he is to us, and if you don't like him (as seems to be the case with most) then you just don't deserve any football in your life as far as I'm concerned. You're just wrong and your children and children's children must forever bear the shame of your lack of vision.
So, you know, think about it, yeah?
A temperamental jack-in-a-box with a vicious and seriously evil clown head on the end of it. At some point, you know it's going to scare the hell out of you, and you don't really know why you keep it in your life at all a lot of the time, but in the end it tends to be okay and you see the funny side.
Strong contenders in the category of "most sensibly run football club in England or Wales," Swansea City go into their fifth consecutive Premier League season in decent health. They were widely expected to struggle last season after deciding to ignore more experienced candidates and hand the managerial job to former player Garry Monk. Instead, he took Swansea to their highest top-flight finish since 1982 (eighth, four points from a Europa League spot).
Last season's eventual finish was even more impressive given that in January, Manchester City rudely made off with Swansea's best player, striker Wilfried Bony. But Bony's absence revealed Swansea's biggest weakness: even though he only played half the season, he finished as the club's second-highest scorer, only one behind Bafetimbi Gomis' eventual haul of 10. More goals are needed: to this end, Swansea have picked up Portuguese international Eder from Braga and Ghanaian Andre Ayew from Marseille.
You know what you're going to get with Swansea. Players and managers come and go, but the team plays in a style that accords with the vision of the board and the owners, which includes representation from the fans. They prioritize possession and smooth passing, and at their best they are easy on the eye for the observer, yet plenty dangerous for the opponent.
Everything is peachy down on the banks of the River Tawe. The club is one-fifth fan-owned; their chairman, Huw Edwards, is a relentlessly sensible man; the manager is a former player of considerable distinction who has taken to management with almost insulting ease. Also, he has the Premier League's foremost death stare. What more could any club want?
Like their counterparts in the Premier League's upper-midtable, Swansea are stuck in the position of any further progress depending on one or two of their richer counterparts having a disastrous season. Until then, it's a question of replicating last season's security, making a splash in one of the cups and possibly nicking the last Europa League spot.
Not bad at all. The core of Monk's side is staying at the Liberty Stadium, and while it's always impossible to predict how any signing will go, their business looks solid. That eighth place finish came despite Bony's midseason departure; if Ayew or Eder can add a few more goals, then the giddy heights of seventh could be well within their grasp. Best league in the world!
The most exciting question hanging over Swansea's season is this: will Ayew take to the Premier League? Son of the legendary Abedi Pele, Ayew is vastly experienced yet still only 25. He regularly scores double figures despite playing all over the front line and could perhaps have left Marseille for a team competing in the Champions League. If he fires, then he'll be brilliant and make everybody else at Swansea better. If not ... well, Jonjo Shelvey is always fun.
Swanna. Look, it's literally a swan. What more do you want?
Tottenham Hotspur are a club that perennially exist in that murky grey area between greatness and irrelevance. Defined by their club motto, Audere est Facere (To Dare is to Do), in recent years Spurs have tended more toward daring than doing. Long on ambition but short on cash compared to its rivals, Spurs are forever running into the wind, trying desperately to get a seat at the table with the elite clubs of Europe. They're the try-harders, the do-mores, the lovable losers. It hasn't worked yet, but never mind that.
Last season, first year Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino took a squad of Andre Villas-Boas' misfits that had been chucked into a tactical blender by Tim Sherwood and somehow managed to will them to a fifth place finish in the Premier League, six points behind Manchester United. Nobody's quite certain how he did it. Spurs' defense and midfield were at times terrible, though they had their moments: they gloriously defeated eventual league champions Chelsea 5-3 on New Year's Day, and made it to the League Cup final two months later (where they lost to the same Chelsea team, only angrier). No silverware, but not a bad season nevertheless.
Spurs are now pinning their hopes upon a golden generation emerging from their academy. Danny Rose, Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb, and of course, 30-goal striker Harry Kane are all key players on this Spurs side, and there's a lot more young talent waiting in the wings. Between this youth movement, the promise of a new stadium by 2018, and usual fresh influx of absurd hope, Spurs are all potential at the moment. If you're a Tottenham supporter, you're feeling irrational excitement right now, which is usually what you feel just before the trap door gives way.
Most sensible Spurs fans like Pochettino, and are willing to give him the time he needs to establish his team and high-pressure tactics. However, more big losses to rivals Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea will shorten his rope considerably. Chairman Daniel Levy provokes a much more polarized reaction, with supporters either idolizing him for his smart business acumen and transfer dealings, or lambasting him for ripping out the heart and soul of the club for the sake of profit. Some people do both of these things at the same time.
Champions League qualification is the goal of every season at Tottenham Hotspur. Finding a way to slip into that competition, either by finishing in the top four or through the back door by winning the Europa League, sets a precedent and will enable the club to start attracting the kind of footballing talent that will kick them to the next level, or so the thinking goes. Beyond that, or in place of it, most supporters will be content to see more young homegrown talent in the first team and an improvement in Spurs' at times anemic play.
There's a reason why Spurs have only qualified for the Champions League once and not since 2010: it's really, really hard to do. Even though they'll likely improve as a team from last year, every other club is improving too and it still might not be enough to get them there. That said, Spurs are playing the long game and building for the future. Another fifth place finish shouldn't crush spirits but could cause them to lose Hugo Lloris and other top players.
Homegrown striker Harry Kane is the new hero of the club and all eyes will be on him this season to see if he can repeat (or improve upon!) his 30-goal performance from last year. Elsewhere, world-class keeper Lloris is perhaps the best player at the club, and midfielder Christian Eriksen has the quality to produce magic out of the ether.
If Chelsea, Arsenal, and the Manchesters are already in Olympus, Tottenham is Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill. Just one more push, say Tottenham fans, we're really gonna make it this time, only to watch their club inevitably crumble under the intense pressure of a typical EPL season, or suffer under the tactical naïveté of their manager, or sell their best player to Real Madrid, or eat a batch of dodgy lasagna. At least now there's the long-term goal of a new stadium to look forward to, and the promise of increased monetary equity. Gradus ad Parnassum, you know?
Watford are one of this season's newly promoted sides in the Premier League, making their first journey into the top flight since 2007. Now after three years of being owned by the Pozzo family, and with EPL ambitions at a roaring height, they've finally reached the promised land again.
Now it's time to find a way to stay in the Premier League, and that's the herculean challenge faced by new manager Quique Flores. He's a well-travelled manager who once won the Europa League with Atlético Madrid, and Watford will be hoping for more of that same grade of success. He's traditionally set his teams up to play a brand of football that, while not always exciting to watch, is quite effective at grinding out results.
While there's been some chafing against the Pozzo family model for club ownership -- putting Watford under an umbrella of clubs that also includes Udinese in Italy and Granada in Spain, frequently moving players between the three clubs -- but the feelings are all warm and bubbly after earning promotion. How long things stay that way depend on how well Watford do out of the gate -- if they look like they're going to go straight back down, the backlash could be tremendous as the fanbase turns on the Pozzos' decision making. For now, though, everyone's eager to see what happens in the Premier League, willing to give the current experiment a chance, with a new manager and a re-shaped squad.
Simply put, Watford just want to stay up in the Premier League. If they can do that, the job's done, and anything more is a bonus. They need that stability to keep growing and developing as a team.
Well, that's the question, isn't it? Watford have added a number of veterans to their squad this summer, but the actual quality of their acquisitions is a matter of some debate. Etienne Capoue was poor at Tottenham for two years, and his prospective midfield partner Valon Behrami has been similarly unimpressive for the same time period. Add more marginal veterans like Miguel Britos and Jose Holebas, and you have to wonder whether or not this side will have the talent needed to trade punches with the bigger clubs in the league.
Matej Vydra spent two of the last three seasons on loan at Watford, and they were the two best seasons of his young career. He's exciting for his speed and on-ball skill, but he also tends to run a little hot-and-cold in his form, which echoes what Watford's form has been like the last few years. They'll go on blistering runs, but also struggle for long spells. Hopefully Vydra is much more consistent this season, and that he pulls Watford along for the ride.
Beedrill. It's an old-school Pokemon that nobody's really sure how strong or useful it is, but hey, it's an option, right? It can always surprise you and sting you when you least expect it, and that's pretty appropriate for a team nicknamed "the Hornets."
When you're going down. And it don't look good. Who you gonna call? TONY PULIS!
Just after Christmas 2014, following three consecutive defeats, West Bromwich Albion head coach Alan Irvine was relieved of his duties with the club in 16th position, teetering on the edge of a relegation battle. But help was on hand in the shape of Pulis, who had pulled Crystal Palace out of the mire in the previous season. In he came, and up stayed the Baggies.
So now what? West Brom's power brokers will be hoping that Pulis can do with them what he managed to do with Stoke City, and establish them firmly in the midtable. They might also be hoping that he manages to do it without quite the same level of applied violence. But that's what this season will be about: consolidation. It's not an exciting word, and it won't be a particularly exciting process, but such is life. Sometimes, in the season after a relegation fight, excitement is the last thing a football club needs.
Life with Pulis is always tense; though nobody doubts his ability to organize a defense, he can rub club officials the wrong way, and his arrival at West Brom was contingent on the club modifying the Director of Football structure they'd been pursuing. That said, nobody is expecting a repeat of last summer, when Pulis walked out on Crystal Palace two days before the start of the season.
Avoid relegation with significantly less drama than last time.
Not bad. The spine of the side -- Ben Foster in goal, Joleon Lescott in central defense, Darren Fletcher in midfield and Saido Berahino up front -- is three-quarters extensive Premier League experience, one-quarter hot goalscoring prospect. And while Berahino never seems to be particularly happy, it looks as though West Brom may hang on to him for another season. If they do, and they avoid an injury crisis, they should stay up. If somebody else chips in with a few goals, they might even stay up comfortably.
In what is a fairly prosaic, possibly even boring squad, there are only Berahino, Callum McManaman and Stephane Sessegnon that threaten to stir the blood. But that's fine. This is an obdurate group of professionals with an obdurate manager, and as such the heart of this team is Lescott. He's a much better defender than the manner of his exit from Manchester City would suggest, and now that he's getting a full season under Pulis, he should prove it.
Water. It won't excite you. But it'll get the job done.
West Ham United are one of England's older clubs with quite a bit of success in their history, winning the FA Cup three times and even winning the old UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1965. Right now, they're in an awkward stage of their development as a club, though -- they've been back in the Premier League for a couple of years after periodically bouncing up and down from the Championship, but seem to have stagnated.
That led them to part ways with Sam Allardyce, who led the Hammers for four years before being dismissed. Now it's the Slaven Bilic era, with the Croatian manager bringing an aggressive attacking style of football to London that promises more potential than the conservative, long-ball game that Allardyce preferred.
Bilic has had a lot of success as a manager. Besiktas were one of the powers of Turkey while he managed them, and they upset a strong Liverpool side in the Europa League this past spring. If he can bring that same kind of success to West Ham, and the same kind of attitude, he can become a legend to a fanbase that matches him for passion in a huge hurry.
The mood is good at West Ham right now. Ownership seems committed to building a contending team, and Bilic seems like a good bet to make it happen. With a move to the Olympic Stadium beckoning next year, this could be the start of some pretty great things for West Ham.
West Ham first and foremost want to finish in the top half of the table. Qualifying for the Europa League through their league finish would be a nice bonus, but just cracking the top half would be a big step up from where they've been. They'll also be looking to make deep runs in the FA and League Cups, two fronts where West Ham have disappointed in recent years.
Honestly, West Ham's chances look pretty good. They've made solid additions to a team that already had a good core. With a little luck on the injury front -- something they have not had the last couple of years -- they could easily achieve their goals. It's a talented, young squad that seems to fit Bilic's vision -- now it's time for them to prove their worth.
Whenever Diafra Sakho is on the pitch, he demands attention. He's quick, athletic and exciting on the ball, and when he's on form he's damned tough to stop. The striker missed a fair bit of time last season with injuries and a trip to the African Cup of Nations with Senegal, but every time he stepped onto the pitch he made his presence felt. Sakho is West Ham's most talented player and biggest threat, and is someone you need to keep your eyes on when you watch the Hammers.
Maroon 5. Sometimes they're fun, sometimes they're bad and sometimes they're just boring -- but they're always there. They never go away.