1. SB Nation's 2014Premier League PreviewGet Started →

  2. Introduction

    The Premier League is a tricky thing to love. It's brash. It's noisy. It's tasteless. And it doesn't care if you think it's brash, or noisy, or tasteless, because it's far too busy signing ludicrous television deals with one hand while patting itself on the back with the other. This is the biggest and bestest league in the world, remember. Even if it does say so itself.

    While the world's best players are mostly to be found in Spain these days, glitteringly expensive weapons in the great Barcelona-Real Madrid arms race, the Premier League's claim to supremacy rests on two pillars. The first is the proud boast that anybody can beat anybody, a truism that does rather tend to gloss over the fact that, more often than not, the big boys do give the little ones a good kicking. And second, on the notion that there is a kind of peculiar and alluring chaos to the Premier League, and to English football; a pell-mell to-and-fro that isn't always pretty or tactically refined but is frequently, and much more importantly, great fun.

    This, at least, seems to be on the money. Silly things happen in the Premier League. Last season, for example, an unexpected side almost won the title playing ridiculous football, only to implode at the crucial moment in a manner that stands as either unbelievably cruel or startlingly hilarious, depending on your point of view. Though Liverpool have since sold their best player, the club and their fanbase appear to have been revitalized by their season of thrilling oh-so-close, and the sense that 'Liverpool are back' is palpable.

    Which means that for the first time in a long time, there are as many four or even five teams going into the season with the belief -- or, in some cases, the expectation -- that they could end the campaign with the trophy in their hands. Defending champions Manchester City have strengthened in a quiet, unassuming, slightly ominous manner; Chelsea have finally got their hands on a proper, honest-to-goodness striker; and Arsenal, still giddy from their FA Cup win, have finally addressed their crippling lack of short, scampering attackers.

    Also stronger will be Manchester United. For the second season in a row, English football's most successful club are something of an unknown quantity, though the presence of Louis van Gaal in the dugout means they should be significantly better than last season. While the priority for this term is to purge the lingering aftertaste of David Moyes, the lack of European football and the potency of their attack raises the faint possibility of an immediate return to the top of the table. Then, of course, there are Tottenham and Everton, both of whom will be confident that the forthcoming campaign will bring improvement. In essence, every one of last season's top seven will be expecting to get better this season. They can't all be right.

    Predicting trouble is always a little trickier, but as ever, there's the potential for one or two implosions from the Premier League's mid-table sides. Southampton will be hoping to shake off the pillaging of their squad, while West Ham are under orders to defy their manager's best instincts and embrace the serious business of being entertaining. The widely unloved Alan Pardew continues to simmer away at Newcastle, only ever a couple of bad performances from vilification, and both Swansea City and West Brom are pinning their hopes on inexperienced managers and idiosyncratic transfers. Oh, and Paul Lambert's still at Aston Villa, where nobody seems to be enjoying themselves.

    Of the newly promoted sides, meanwhile, both Burnley and Leicester City are adopting the now-traditional new side approach: keep much the same team together, add a little bit of Premier League quality, and hope for the best. Queens Park Rangers, though, have no time for such nonsense, and have acquired themselves a shiny new center back pairing for their return. On paper, Rio Ferdinand-and-Steven Caulker looks like an excellent idea that will surely keep Harry Redknapp and friends in the league. On paper.

    All of which is to say that while the Premier League will certainly deliver all the usual nonsense -- increasing hysteria over refereeing decisions; shrill allegations of mind games; back and forth accusations of this, that, but hopefully not the other; great goals; bad tackles; at least one small animal running onto the pitch -- it should also, hopefully, deliver interesting and exciting football at both ends of the table. All that, and the introduction of vanishing spray as well.

    It's not a pleasing institution: this was a league founded because the rich wanted to get richer at the expense of everybody else, and that’s worked wonderfully well. But it's almost always compelling, in that hopelessly distracting, helplessly addictive way that comes so easily to football. And if the stars align, if the big guns all get themselves pointing in the right direction, then this season could be one for the ages.

  3. Arsenal

    For nine years, rival fans enjoyed taunting Arsenal about their trophy drought. Those taunts will disappear this season -- or will at least need to be made slightly cleverer -- but not for the reasons Arsenal fans were hoping. The side dropped out of the title race spectacularly in the final months, finishing a distant fourth after challenging for the top spot throughout the year. Still, they capped off their campaign with a triumph in the FA Cup, their first trophy of any kind since winning the same tournament in 2005.

    That victory softened the blow from what was, frankly, a surprising and somewhat embarrassing collapse in the league, kicked off with a 6-0 defeat to Chelsea in March. If Arsenal had failed to lift the Cup, the lack of silverware would have defined last season, but instead they're feeling rather optimistic.

    The Gunners have already spent big in the transfer market and more spending is likely to come. At the moment, all their stars are healthy and none are angling to leave. With the right buys and a bit of luck, Arsenal could finally challenge for the Premier League title again, 10 years after the last time they lifted the trophy.

    • Nickname: The Gunners
    • Year Founded: 1886; as Dial Square
    • Manager: Arsene Wenger
    • Stadium: Emirates Stadium
    • Last Season's Finish: 4th
    • Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Wojciech Szczęsny; Kieran Gibbs, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Mathieu Debuchy; Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey; Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Theo Walcott; Alexis Sánchez

    How they play

    Very little has changed about Arsenal's style of play over the last decade and a half, when Arsène Wenger started guiding them to major honors. They've switched formations and made other tiny tweaks as both their personnel and football in general have changed, but they're mostly the same Arsenal that was shocking England with their pretty passing back in the late 1990's.

    Arsenal will always aim to win the possession battle and are the best team in the Premier League at intricate, short passes. They'll regularly knock the ball around their opponents' penalty area -- almost to a fault. Sometimes, their style leads to goals at the end of magnificent 40-pass moves. Sometimes, their failure to play direct or take a risk gives inferior teams an avenue to snag points by camping in their own penalty area.

    Key Player

    Before picking up an injury on Boxing Day, Aaron Ramsey was arguably the Premier League's best player on form. The midfielder remained sidelined until the beginning of April, but by the end of the season, he looked like the same player that had terrorized clubs early in the campaign, and there's no reason to believe he won't put together a big 2014-15 season.

    Ramsey has the technical abilities that Wenger values, but his real worth to the team is that he brings qualities different to those of Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta. He's a much more direct player than either of his technically sound midfield mates, playing through balls and making darting runs into the box more frequently. He's also extremely versatile -- he's operated as Arsenal's most defensive midfielder, as a box-to-box player, as a No. 10 and as a wide player.

    Key Transfers

    In: Alexis Sánchez, Mathieu Debuchy, Calum Chambers, David Ospina.

    Sánchez is obviously the big name here, and he should be first choice for Arsenal immediately. While it might take him a bit of time to adapt to his new teammates and a new league, he's more talented than any of the team's existing wingers or strikers. Debuchy and Chambers make up an all-new right back platoon, and given that Chambers cost £6 million more than his rotation partner, Wenger probably has very high hopes for his future, either at right back or in the center of defence. Ospina should start the year as a backup to Wojciech Szczęsny, but he's shown flashes of brilliance -- and insanity, to be fair -- as Nice and Colombia goalkeeper. He'll be the stiffest challenge to Szczęsny’s starting place the young Pole has faced so far.

    Out: Bacary Sagna, Łukasz Fabiański, Johan Djourou, Nicklas Bendtner, Thomas Vermaelen; Carl Jenkinson (loan).

    Say goodbye to some of your old favorite freeloading Arsenal backups -- and Sagna, who becomes the most recent Arsenal player to succumb to the allure of piles of cash from Manchester City. He’s the Gunners’ only significant departure, and it’s likely to remain that way.

    Why you should watch

    “Arsenal ended two long streaks last season -- one of trophyless seasons, by winning the FA Cup, and one of austerity, as increased commercial income allowed Arsène Wenger to buy Mesut Özil and smash our years-old transfer record. The latter is being ground into even smaller bits now as Wenger's already addressed many of the squad’s needs by buying four players, including former Barcelona man Alexis Sánchez. The question yet to be answered: are there more trophies to come? And will top players like Özil, Sánchez, and Aaron Ramsey be able to take Arsenal on a deeper Champions League run?” -- Thomas Wachtel, The Short Fuse

    Further Reading

    Read more at Arsenal blog The Short Fuse

  4. Aston Villa

    After three seasons spent battling the drop, Villa fans went into the 2013-2014 season hopeful that they’d finally find some peace. It was Paul Lambert’s second consecutive season in charge, and it looked as though his team of exciting young talents brought in on the cheap would manage to find their rhythm.

    And after the side started off the year with a win at Arsenal and closely-fought matches with Chelsea and Liverpool, it appeared Villa were justified in permitting themselves to breathe. A 3-2 comeback win against Manchester City seemed to confirm it.

    But, around the midseason point, the sleepless nights started to close in again. Everyone in the bottom half of the table looked like a relegation candidate. Christian Benteke ruptured his Achilles in April, putting him out for six months, and Villa fans spent the next month up late at night worrying about their club’s future. A win over Hull made sure they were safe, but the combined 7-0 loss to City and Tottenham was a more accurate summary of the season.

    Now, Villa go into yet another season fearing the worst. Randy Lerner put the club up for sale in May, but he’s yet to find a taker. That means Lambert's had very little to spend on players, prompting him to spend most of the summer sniffing around for free transfers. And even then, they need to be willing to play on the cheap. He’s found the coveted Premier League Experience that was largely lacking the last two seasons, but will it be enough?

    • Nickname: The Villa, The Villans, The Lions, Claret and Blues
    • Year Founded: 1874
    • Manager: Paul Lambert
    • Stadium: Villa Park
    • Last Season's Finish: 15th
    • Projected Lineup (3-5-2): Brad Guzan; Jores Okore, Ron Vlaar, Philippe Senderos; Kieran Richardson, Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood, Karim El Ahmadi, Leandro Bacuna; Andi Weimann, Darren Bent

    How they play

    Even a discussion amongst multiple Villa fans is unlikely to bring agreement as to how Villa play. One might see this as a positive, as a sign that Paul Lambert is tactically adroit and able to adapt depending on the opponent. In fact, it’s more a reflection of two things: the conservatism Lambert displayed at times last season, setting his team out with five defenders, and the fact that Villa have added at least seven “new” players to their ranks.

    Four of these players are in fact new to the club: Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson, Aly Cissokho and Philippe Senderos. Darren Bent and Alan Hutton return after previously being ostracized under Lambert. Charles N’Zogbia missed all of last season with injury, Jores Okore was out from September. Gary Gardner and Jack Grealish should see time in the first team. These names may not get hearts a-fluttering, but they give Lambert more options, particularly out wide.

    Yet that’s not to say he won’t use his tried-and-trusted 3-5-2 formation, particularly on the road -- which makes for some rather dull games at times. Lambert has also been experimenting with a 4-3-3 in preseason, and could also use a 4-4-2 with the likes of Bent or the recovered Christian Benteke alongside or in front of one of the speedier forwards, like Andi Weimann or Gabby Agbonlahor.

    Key Player

    On April 3, 2014, Christian Benteke ruptured his Achilles while in training with Aston Villa. In his 26 Premier League games, he’d scored 10 goals -- a tally not close to approaching his 2012-2013 season total of 19, but certainly helpful to struggling Villa.

    Seven games remained after Benteke’s injury. Villa picked up four points in those games, scoring a mere five goals. In four of the matches, they failed to score a goal.

    It’s never good when a team’s success hinges upon just one player. But with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the entire club, Villa are going to take their happiness wherever they can find it. Benteke is staying. He’ll be back on the pitch come October. A few poached goals here, a few perfectly timed headers there, and he could well be keeping Villa safe -- before bringing the club a tidy profit come next summer.

    Key Transfers

    In: Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson, Philippe Senderos, Aly Cissokho.

    The first three names all boast Premier League experience. All three will finish the season aged 30 or older. All three fail to send the heart racing or get the blood pumping. Cissokho is somewhat different, in that he also has Premier League experience, having appeared 15 times for Liverpool, but he's a bit younger -- and he actually cost a few pounds! Villa are hoping the left back can revive his career, which has stagnated in recent years. Finally, Charles N’Zogbia, Alan Hutton and Darren Bent all feel like new signings, so Villa fans can take comfort in that. Not much, mind.

    Out: Marc Albrighton, Jordan Bowery, Nathan Delfouneso; Nicklas Helenius, Yacouba Sylla (loan).

    Villa fans will be sad to see Albrighton go, but the local lad never seemed to build on his potential. Bowery, Helenius and Sylla were all brought in by Lambert, and all failed to make an impression. Unfortunately, they also failed to bring in any money to be spent, particularly since the last two are out on loan.

    Why you should watch

    “Paul Lambert has had to bolster an already weak team on a shoestring budget this summer. It’s time to finally see if the manager who brought Norwich two straight promotions can work his magic at Villa. His past two seasons have been dreadful bores and all signs point to that being the case this year. Philippe Senderos? Joe Cole? Kieran Richardson? That’s not how you inspire confidence, nor a great reason to care. But if Lambert can help the club survive, a new owner should appear before too long, and there’s nothing more interesting than new money in the league.” -- Robert Lintott, 7500 to Holte

    Further Reading

    Read more at Aston Villa blog 7500 to Holte

  5. Burnley

    Last season's big surprise side in the Championship are heavy favorites to go right back down, but before getting into negative territory, it's worth celebrating what they've done.

    With a squad full of mid-table Premier League youth castoffs and lower league lifers, Sean Dyche guided Burnley to promotion comfortably, finishing eight points clear of the playoffs. He's the hottest young British manager in the game today, and based on the job he did last season, it would be unfair to count Burnley out entirely. They're a bit reminiscent of Paul Lambert's Norwich side, who stayed up with a bunch of then-no-names, with Lambert taking much of the credit.

    But there's no denying that there's a lack of proven big-league quality in the Burnley side, and their board is frugal. Even with Premier League TV money -- and therefore, parachute payments -- increasing, they're not going to spend recklessly. Dyche has made value signings and will continue to look for more. Finding talent that can keep Burnley up will be hard, but if he manages it, Dyche could pull off some magic for a second season in a row.

    • Nickname: The Clarets
    • Year Founded: 1882; as Burnley Rovers
    • Manager: Sean Dyche
    • Stadium: Turf Moor
    • Last Season's Finish: 2nd (Championship)
    • Projected Lineup (4-4-2): Tom Heaton; Ben Mee, Jason Shackell, Michael Duff, Steven Reid; Scott Arfield, David Jones, Dean Marney, Michael Kightly; Sam Vokes, Danny Ings

    How they play

    Comparisons to Lambert's Norwich from the 2011-12 season aren't just down to the perceived weakness of Burnley's squad and their having a hot, younger British manager. They have the same style and strengths as well.

    Burnley primarily played with a 4-4-2 formation last season, and since their strike partnership was such a key to their success, it would be surprising to see Dyche forgo two up top to bring on another midfielder against stronger opposition. The combination play between Sam Vokes and Danny Ings was their bread and butter, and if Ings sticks around, it'll probably be even more crucial this season.

    While Burnley passed the ball better than most Championship teams during their promotion campaign, they'll probably be forced into playing more defensive, direct football against higher quality opposition. Still, their bag of tricks includes the ability to keep the ball, and they shouldn't get completely passed off the park by anyone, even if they’re likely to lose the possession battle most of the time.

    Key Player

    Simply because Danny Ings is going to be the subject of transfer speculation until whichever comes first, deadline day or him actually being sold, he may or may not be a key player for Burnley this season. Michael Kightly, however, will definitely be wearing a claret shirt throughout the fall, and could be just as important as his team's strikers.

    While Burnley are a bit more stylish than most teams that play in a 4-4-2 formation and focus on getting into a good defensive shape, their forwards are still more likely to get good supply from their wingers than the central midfielders. Kightly, who spent last season on loan with Burnley, is the best one they have. He signed permanently from Stoke City over the summer and brings years of high level experience.

    There's a question about whether or not Kightly can make a step up, though. He's been brilliant in the Championship, but average in the Premier League throughout his career. If he can finally make the leap and become a solid Premier League starter, Burnley are going to have a chance to stay up.

    Key Transfers

    In: Michael Kightly, Matt Gilks, Marvin Sordell, Matthew Taylor, Steven Reid, Lukas Jutkiewicz.

    All six of these names will be familiar to long-time followers of English football, though not in a particularly positive way. This is a group of serviceable, but unspectacular players who have proven that they can do a job, and not much more. The only potential star in this group is Sordell, who has struggled in recent years after looking like a serious prospect as a teenager.

    Out: David Edgar, Junior Stanislas, Chris Baird

    None of these players were first choice for Burnley last year, and the club obviously didn't prioritize retaining them. While all three might have made positive contributions this season, they're not massive losses.

  6. Chelsea

    Chelsea were perhaps the dominant force in English football in the mid-2000s, but since the rise of Manchester City, they've looked spent. The remnants of José Mourinho’s original team (he first left in 2007) exhausted themselves in an ultimately-successful quest to raise the European Cup, but domestically they've struggled, finishing second, sixth, third and third following the Double-winning season of 2009/10. But now the Special One has returned, and with him, he hopes, will come a fresh bloom of glory.

    Mourinho spent his second first year in charge engaged on a rebuilding mission. The team has been remolded around more modern lines, and after fading down the stretch last season Chelsea look like serious title contenders this time around. The Blues have the squad and the manager to look for trophies on all fronts, and that's what will be expected out of them this season.

    • Nickname: The Blues, The Pensioners
    • Year Founded: 1905
    • Manager: Jose Mourinho
    • Stadium: Stamford Bridge
    • Last Season's Finish: 3rd
    • Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Thibaut Courtois; Filipe Luis, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanović; Nemanja Matić, Cesc Fàbregas; Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian; Diego Costa.

    How they play

    Chelsea under Mourinho are notorious for playing defensively despite their firepower -- see, for example, the hilarious way they humbled Liverpool at Anfield or the frustrating/unwatchable first leg of the Champions League semifinal against Atlético Madrid. But that's not all they can do. José Mourinho favors playing on the counterattack, but the arrival of Cesc Fàbregas from Barcelona signifies, perhaps, a move to a more possession-based approach.

    Look for Chelsea to be the most pragmatic of the big sides, perfectly willing to drop deep into an ugly defensive shell and bide their time, but don't write off their attacking game. Eden Hazard and Oscar are already world-class creative talents, and the overhaul of their strike force should provide major dividends in the upcoming season. Will that be enough to win the Blues a fourth Premier League title? Manchester City and perhaps Liverpool will have something to say about that, but Chelsea are in better shape now than they have been in five years.

    Key Player

    Chelsea's chase of Nemanja Matić in January 2014 was marked by general sneering. After all, this was a player whom Chelsea had previously owned only to ship him off to Portugal as part of the deal for David Luiz. To bring him back was an admission of that old error, and an England obsessed with appearances was unsurprisingly keen to hold that £21 million admission over the club's head.

    The jibes didn't last long once he actually started playing, however. Matić turned out to be the complete midfielder, that rare defensive destroyer who can also stride forward and pick out a key pass or blast a shot goalwards. Tall and strong with phenomenal tactical awareness, Matić returned to Stamford Bridge as one of the top central players in the Premier League, and Chelsea will be reliant on him staying in form and healthy to have a chance both domestically and in Europe.

    Key Transfers

    In: Cesc Fàbregas, Diego Costa, Filipe Luis.

    Chelsea's most pressing need last season was for a center forward who was neither cripplingly bad at football nor an antique, and they found one in Atlético Madrid's Diego Costa. A £32 million signing, Costa was one of the most dangerous players in La Liga last season, his goals firing Atléti to an improbable title as well as a place in the Champions League final. Costa has a reputation as a ferocious and sometimes over-the-top competitor, an attitude that will only endear him to his new manager, who'll be hoping to see his forwards do far more with the chances presented by the creative talents arrayed behind them.

    Brought in to reinforce those creative talents is former Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fàbregas. After a somewhat unfortunate spell at Barcelona, Fàbregas' return to England represents a chance to re-establish himself as one of the premier central midfielders of his generation, a player capable of both conducting and controlling play as well as scoring big goals. His ability to set the tempo from deep and pick out the runs of more advanced teammates could prove devastating, and how well he links with Hazard and Costa could determine Chelsea's fate this season.

    Out: David Luiz, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Romelu Lukaku.

    Funding the big names was the sale of defender David Luiz, who earned Chelsea £50 million when they shipped him off to Paris Saint-Germain. Always controversial as a center back, the Brazilian was clearly not to José Mourinho's tastes at the heart of the Blues' back line, and although he played a vital role in the midfield as the season wore on, it was clear that other teams valued him more highly than Chelsea. That PSG were willing to pay so much for him is a testament to his obvious talent; that the deal was met with guffaws from everyone else a testament to the fact that he sometimes forgets what he's supposed to be doing.

    Why you should watch

    “Having spent the summer reloading the squad with big guns and proven winners, Chelsea are in it to win it this season.  No more talk of "little horses" and unhatched eggs, Mourinho will deliver a trophy or three this season. Or die trying. And that's just the tip of the potential drama that is day-to-day living at the Chelsea Evil Empire, Killing Football Since 2003 (TM).” -- Dávid Pásztor, We Ain’t Got No History.

    Further Reading

    Read more at Chelsea blog We Ain't Got No History

  7. Crystal Palace

    Late last October, Crystal Palace looked dead and buried in the Premier League’s relegation zone. Manager Ian Holloway had led the team back to the top flight via the playoffs months earlier, but he now looked out of his depth. A 4-1 defeat to fellow strugglers Fulham paved the way for Holloway's departure, and left the Eagles five points adrift of safety.

    With what seemed the worst squad in the division, keeping Palace up looked an impossible job. But Tony Pulis doesn’t believe in the word “impossible”. The former Stoke City boss took charge, instilling a defensive discipline at the unruly Eagles, and gradually turned their fortunes around. Five straight wins from March to April guaranteed Palace’s safety, earning Pulis the Premier League Manager of the Season award.

    This season, survival is again the aim for Palace. Despite their remarkable turnaround in the last campaign, they’re still one of the weakest teams in the league on paper, and have done little to strengthen themselves in the transfer window. They’ll need all of Pulis’ miracle-working powers to stay in the Premier League for another season.

    • Nickname: The Eagles, The Glaziers
    • Year Founded: 1905
    • Manager: Tony Pulis
    • Stadium: Selhurst Park
    • Last Season's Finish: 11th
    • Projected Lineup (4-4-1-1): Julián Speroni; Joel Ward, Brede Hangeland, Scott Dann, Adrian Mariappa; Yannick Bolasie, Joe Ledley, Mile Jedinak, Jason Puncheon; Marouane Chamakh; Fraizer Campbell.

    How they play

    Crystal Palace play in a classic Tony Pulis fashion. They sit deep in a 4-4-1-1, keeping a rigid shape designed to deny the opponents any space between the lines in the middle of the pitch. After winning the ball back, the Eagles look to transition into attack as quickly as possible, with direct passes to a target man or their wingers.

    It certainly isn’t the most fluid, free-flowing style in the Premier League, but so far it has proven to be highly successful. With a steely midfield of Mile Jedinak and Joe Ledley; the pace and trickery of wingers Yannick Bolasie and Jason Puncheon and the hold-up play of target man Marouane Chamakh, Pulis’ style is just about the perfect fit for the Eagles. If they survive relegation again, it will be testament to the strength of Pulis’ gritty, disciplined system rather than thanks to individual stars.

    Key Player

    Mile Jedinak certainly isn’t Crystal Palace’s flashiest player, but in a team in which defensive discipline is so crucial, he’s probably their most important. The Eagles’ captain started in all 38 of Palace’s Premier League games last season, and he was only substituted out once (and that was with an injury).

    The Australian international anchors Palace in the middle of the park, and can be found organizing his teammates when not breaking up attacks himself. He’s also not a bad passer, which comes in particularly handy when Palace look to spring forward into space on the counterattack.

    You may not always notice him, but Jedinak is at the heart of almost all of the Eagles’ play.

    Key Transfers

    In: Fraizer Campbell, Brede Hangeland.

    Though they've not been hyperactive in the transfer market, Palace have dipped into the squads of last season's relegated teams to make significant additions up front and at the back. In attack, striker Fraizer Campbell arrives on the back of fairly poor six-goal season with relegated Cardiff City. With that being the 26-year-old’s best Premier League campaign to date, it’s unlikely he’s going to be setting Selhurst Park alight this season. At the back, meanwhile, Nordic giant Brede Hangeland has arrived from Fulham, and will add experience to the defence and a handy option from set pieces.

    Out: José Campaña, Kagisho Dikgacoi, Danny Gabbidon, Dean Moxey, Jonathan Parr.

    Palace have sold Spanish youth international José Campaña after one unsuccessful year in London, though more surprising is the departure of holding midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi, who joined Cardiff on a free transfer despite featuring regularly last season. Danny Gabbidon has been released, while Dean Moxey and Jonathan Parr have joined clubs in the Championship.

  8. Everton

    At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, there were serious doubts about the future of Everton in the Premier League. Longtime boss David Moyes had left during the summer for Manchester United, and new manager Roberto Martínez was fresh off leading Wigan Athletic to relegation.

    A solid performance on transfer deadline day calmed many worries, as Martínez brought in both Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry on loan while securing the transfer of midfielder James McCarthy. The team’s six-match unbeaten run to open the league season didn’t hurt either, particularly the impressive 1-0 win over Chelsea at the end of September.

    By the new year, Everton were flying, having suffered just two losses in league play. A win over Moyes and United in November along with a spirited 1-1 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates helped propel the Toffees into the discussion for a Champions League spot.

    A rough stretch of play in late February could have derailed the season, but the Toffees recovered with yet another win over United and an impressive 3-0 win over Arsenal. While they ultimately missed out on a top four finish, it was still an incredibly successful season for Everton, and a wonderful first campaign for Roberto Martínez.

    • Nickname: The Toffees, The Blues
    • Year Founded: 1878; as St. Domingo’s FC
    • Manager: Roberto Martinez
    • Stadium: Goodison Park
    • Last Season's Finish: 5th
    • Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Tim Howard; Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, John Stones, Séamus Coleman; James McCarthy, Gareth Barry; Aiden McGeady, Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas; Romelu Lukaku.

    How they play

    Under Roberto Martínez, Everton underwent a football renaissance of sorts, moving away from the stiff and safe style of David Moyes to a more aggressive system, with an emphasis on possession. Martínez utilizes a fluid 4-2-3-1 formation that gives his three attacking midfielders a great deal of flexibility to get involved with the attack.

    That freedom is supported by the tandem of James McCarthy and Gareth Barry, who will keep opponents from exploiting the space created by the likes of Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas when they make their attacking forays. Martínez also allows his fullbacks to be highly aggressive, with both Séamus Coleman and Leighton Baines regularly bombing forward.

    Key Player

    It’s probably a little unfair to heap so much pressure on the shoulders of 20-year-old Ross Barkley, but based on his performances last season, it appears he can handle it. Barkley wasn’t always stellar during Everton’s challenge for fourth last season, but he was good enough on most occasions and downright amazing on several. It was a preview of sorts, a teaser of the multitude of skills the young midfielder possesses.

    With his first full top flight season under his belt and a shiny new four-year contract in hand, Barkley can continue to grow into his role as Everton’s man in the middle. His perfect combination of technical skills, pace, power and strength make him one of the country’s brightest prospects. If he can find consistency in his performance, and stay healthy this season, the sky's the limit for Barkley and Everton.

    Key Transfers

    In: Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Muhamed Bešić.

    Lukaku and Barry both return to Everton after spending last season there on loan. The capture of the 21-year-old Belgian striker from Chelsea is a major signing, both because it’s the clubs biggest-ever transfer fee (£28m) and because it’s the type of high-profile move David Moyes never could have pulled off. Barry joining on a free transfer brings back an important piece in the midfield, while Bešić provides added depth to back up the 33-year-old.

    Based on comments from both Martínez and chairman Bill Kenwright, there could be more signings to come. The Toffees are close to signing a couple teenagers for the future, but Martínez has made it clear he’s aware of the need for depth at the forward position.

    Out: Magaye Gueye, Mason Springthorpe (released); Apostolos Vellios (loan).

    Gueye and Springthorpe were both released, as neither player ever really lived up to their potential. The rest of Everton's departures are young players that have been loaned out to gain experience.

    Why you should watch

    “Want to know what Tim Howard saved next? Then follow Everton this season! As well as having the world’s greatest goalkeeper, Everton have some of the most exciting young players in the Premier League, playing attractive, attacking football under the stewardship of talented Spanish manager Roberto Martínez. After finishing fifth with a record Premier League points tally last season, Everton have strengthened their squad significantly this summer, with a club record £28million spent on Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku alone. They look more than ready to barge their way into the division’s elite in 2014-15. So why care about anyone else?” -- Thomas Mallows, Royal Blue Mersey.

    Further Reading

    Read more at Everton blog Royal Blue Mersey

  9. Hull City

    Five seasons ago, no one would've predicted that, prior to the 2014-2015 campaign, Hull would have already played their first games of the Europa League, and looked to be entering the season as a solid side, almost certain to avoid the drop.They were relegated as expected in the 2009-10 season, a season that will be forever remembered for then-manager Phil Brown making his players sit down on the pitch at halftime of a particularly dire game while he berated them in front of the fans. A mass clearout and multiple managerial changes later, Steve Bruce is now drawing praise for the job he's done in resurrecting the Tigers.

    Of course, having a rich chairman doesn't hurt. Assem Allam has backed Bruce financially, even if he's a bit annoyed that the FA didn't allow him change the club's official name to Hull Tigers. He's sanctioned some big purchases over the last three transfer windows, allowing Bruce to build a formidable side that challenged Arsenal in the FA Cup final last season.

    Last season, Hull were happy to stay up. This year, they’ll have slightly loftier ambitions. They're better than the relegation battlers, and finishing top half isn't an unrealistic goal.

    • Nickname: The Tigers
    • Year Founded: 1904
    • Manager: Steve Bruce
    • Stadium: KC Stadium
    • Last Season's Finish: 16th
    • Projected Lineup (3-5-2): Allan McGregor; James Chester, Alex Bruce, Curtis Davies; Liam Rosenior, David Meyler, Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore, Ahmed Elmohamady; Shane Long, Nikica Jelavić.

    How they play

    It's actually not clear how Hull are going to play this season. Last year, Bruce utilized a 3-5-2 formation that accommodated his best player -- Tom Huddlestone, a brilliant yet extremely slow playmaker. Bruce’s tactics covered up for the lack of top class wingers in his side, but he's not necessarily opposed to playing with attacking wide men.

    Based on Hull's summer purchases, Bruce might be looking to change up his tactics a bit for this upcoming season. They've signed Robert Snodgrass and Tom Ince, true wide men who are unlikely to play in any other position. At the very least, Bruce has options. Having the personnel to play 4-3-3 as well as they play 3-5-2 could make Hull dangerous against just about anyone.

    In Hull's first Europa League qualifier, they started in the same 3-5-2 that served them so well last season, then introduced Ince and Snodgrass in the 65th minute. Hull changed formations in the middle of games regularly last season, so it wouldn't be surprising to see them do it even more often in this campaign now that they have a wider variety of talent.

    Key Player

    No matter the formation Hull utilizes, their team is always set up to accentuate the strengths and mask the weaknesses of Tom Huddlestone. Tottenham opted to get rid of him after he missed nearly a year with injuries, but he was able to stay fit throughout the 2013-14 season, reestablishing himself as one of the Premier League's top passing midfielders in the process.

    Despite being 6'3" and one of the stockier players in the Premier League, Huddlestone isn't much of a destroyer. He's positionally sound, but his real value isn't in his defense, but rather his stunning skill with the ball at his feet. He plays some of the prettiest, most accurate long balls and diagonals in the world, often resembling Andrea Pirlo -- if Andrea Pirlo had the body of an American football player and was made to run in sand.

    Huddlestone's skill is only made useful at the Premier League level by the boundless energy of Jake Livermore and David Meyler, but they probably won't mind if Huddlestone's given the credit for setting up most of Hull's goals. Bruce has opted to build his team around the big man for a reason.

    Key Transfers

    In: Jake Livermore, Robert Snodgrass, Tom Ince, Harry Maguire, Andrew Robertson.

    Livermore was on loan last season, but has been picked up on a permanent deal. Snodgrass and Ince give Hull wing options that they didn't have last season. Maguire and Robertson are among the best defensive prospects from the British Isles, but they both might be a season away from threatening established first choice players. However, the left back role featured a rotating cast of average players last season, so Robertson's got a shot to play quite a bit.

    Out: Matty Fryatt, Robert Koren, Abdoulaye Faye.

    We're stretching the definition of 'key', here. All three players got some first team minutes last year, but won't be seriously missed.

  10. Leicester City

    Leicester's promotion to the Premier League wasn't a huge surprise, but the manner in which they achieved it was. They won the Championship easily, topping the table on 102 points, nine more than second-place Burnley and 17 more than Derby County, who finished third. They were balanced as well, with the second best scoring record and the third best defensive record in the league.

    The Foxes enter the Premier League with expectations of being competitive, but not necessarily of staying up. While they have plenty of talent and a record that suggests they're for real, there are some obvious question marks. Their two star strikers from last season are Jamie Vardy, a 27-year-old two years removed from non-League football, and David Nugent, a previous Premier League flop. They've broken their transfer record to sign another striker from the Championship, Leonardo Ulloa. All of their new signings have been Championship stars, Premier League bench-warmers or Manchester United youth castoffs.

    But while a healthy dose of skepticism is needed when evaluating Leicester, there's also a lot to get excited about. For every Championship lifer on this team, there's another young diamond in the rough, ready to become a Premier League star.

    • Nickname: The Foxes
    • Year Founded: 1884; as Leicester Fosse
    • Manager: Nigel Pearson
    • Stadium: King Power Stadium
    • Last Season's Finish: 1st (Championship)
    • Projected Lineup (4-4-2): Kasper Schmeichel; Paul Konchesky, Wes Morgan, Marcin Wasilewski, Ritchie De Laet; Anthony Knockaert, Danny Drinkwater, Matty James, Riyad Mahrez; Leonardo Ulloa, David Nugent.

    How they play

    Like fellow promoted side Burnley, Leicester played stylish football in a 4-4-2 formation last season, with a dominant strike pairing carrying most of the goal-scoring load. They scored 11 more goals than the Clarets, however, mostly because of their talent on the wings.

    Riyad Mahrez and Anthony Knockaert are technically gifted, tricky wingers, and the addition of Marc Albrighton gives them another great dribbler to play out wide. While most decent promoted teams have a goal-scorer or two that was dominant at Championship level and some solid two-way midfielders, it's rare that they come up with wingers this skilled.

    Midfielders Danny Drinkwater and Matty James are good enough to find their strikers in dangerous spots by themselves, but Leicester will likely rely on their wingers more heavily than most teams in the Premier League this season. Don't be shocked if flashy individual runs from those players becomes the team's signature.

    Leicester also played with an almost reckless speed last season. Let's hope they're not afraid of doing that in the Premier League too.

    Key Player

    The Championship is starting to lose its reputation as a league that's purely about brutality, but it's still pretty rare that a player like Anthony Knockaert comes from those ranks. He lit up the second and third divisions of French football before arriving at Leicester, and he's been one of the English second tier's most exciting players for the last two seasons. Now, he has an opportunity to shine on the big stage.

    Rarely do highlights tell anyone all they need to know about a player, but in Knockaert's case, they reveal pretty much everything. He will try a stepover, a fancy turn, a nutmeg or a 30-yard shot in any spot, whenever he pleases, and it often leads to goals for the Foxes. Unfortunately, he doesn't do much when he's not producing highlights, but he does it often enough that he stays in the Leicester lineup.

    Knockaert seems like a player transported from the 1950s, when the most technically gifted players were allowed to do whatever they wanted, because true technicians were so few and far between, and no one actually knew how to play defense. Thank Nigel Pearson and all of Knockaert's coaches in France for never bothering to tell him to keep it simple. He's a gift from the football gods.

    Key Transfers

    In: Marc Albrighton, Matthew Upson, Leonardo Ulloa, Jack Barmby, Ben Hamer.

    Ulloa is the most expensive signing in Leicester's history, and will probably partner Nugent up top for most of the season, despite Vardy's impressive campaign last season. Albrighton will challenge the incumbent wingers for playing time, and the same goes for Upson at central defense. Hamer is a backup, while 19-year-old Barmby is a signing for the future.

    Out: Lloyd Dyer, Sean St. Ledger, Zak Whitbread, George Taft, Neil Danns.

    Lloyd Dyer is the only member of this group who made a significant contribution last season, and he's been made expendable by the addition of Riyad Mahrez last January and Marc Albrighton over the summer.

  11. Liverpool

    It's fair to conclude that last season was probably Liverpool's best since they last won the Football League, way back in the mists of time. Or at least since they last finished second, in 2008-09. A fairly decent beginning to the season set up a completely ludicrous end; a run of 11 straight victories saw them get first one, then one-and-a-half hands on the trophy … and then it slipped (literally), much to the agony of Liverpool fans, the joy of Manchester City, and the wild and unrestrained amusement of pretty much everybody else.

    Finishing second has changed everything, and the challenge that faces Brendan Rodgers' men this season is different in almost every respect from the last. Restored belief naturally transmutes into expectation; anything short of another title challenge will feel like a regression. That challenge will have to be mustered without the free midweeks that allowed Brendan Rodgers time to coach his team into new shapes, and his players time to recover, as the Champions League is returning to Anfield. Oh, and noted humanitarian Luis Suárez, their best player and top scorer, has left for noted humanitarians Barcelona.

    In essence, last season's campaign was built around the principle of terrifying the hell out of everybody else. This season, Liverpool must find a way to retain that terror in the absence of their scariest player and without the element of surprise. Inevitably, much attention has focused on the incoming transfers, but if Liverpool are to start well, the onus will be on those players already at the club -- Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho -- to fill the space left by their departed talisman. Each had their best season as a professional last time round. Each needs to get a little bit better again.

    If they can start strongly, then the integration of the new signings and the Sorting Out Of That Hideous Defense will take place in a harmonious, victorious, confident environment, and the transition from surprise package back to established aristocrat will be a smooth one. If not -- and it's worth noting that at least four of the teams who finished below them last season will not countenance such again, and have been spending money accordingly -- then Anfield could be set for a serious hangover.

    • Nickname: The Reds
    • Year Founded: 1892
    • Manager: Brendan Rodgers
    • Stadium: Anfield
    • Last Season's Finish: 2nd
    • Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Simon Mignolet; Jon Flanagan, Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren, Glen Johnson; Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard; Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, Lazar Marković; Daniel Sturridge.

    How they play

    Like children, in both the best and worst ways. Last season, Brendan Rodgers realized he had a brilliant strike partnership in the making, abandoned his long-held belief in the primacy of possession, and produced a team that wanted less of the ball but did more with it. Extreme pace allied to skill, flair and imagination: goals, goals, and more goals, eventually topping out at 101 in the league. Luiz Suárez and Daniel Sturridge were lethal, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling were delightful behind them, and opposition defenders found themselves swatted aside with imperious and callous disdain. Particularly if they played for Tottenham.

    At the back, however ... not good. Not good at all. For every two they scored they conceded one, and while Steven Gerrard's slip against Chelsea provided the symbolic moment, it was the blown 3-0 lead at Crystal Palace that really summed up the vulnerabilities of Brendan Rodgers' side. The need to address this, coupled with the fact that surely no opposing team is going to be so stupid as to give away even an inch of space, mean that we may see a slightly more considered, less ridiculous Liverpool this season. A shame for the neutrals, perhaps, but a necessary development. And it's not as though Rodgers is going to completely abandon his attacking principles; under all the nonsense, there's a footballing romantic in there somewhere.

    Key Player

    Daniel Sturridge left Chelsea for Liverpool in January 2013 as something of a disappointment: obviously talented but with question marks hanging over his attitude, his consistency and his ability to fit into a team, rather than just occasionally adorn one. 35 goals later he's laid pretty much all of that to rest, and last season his partnership with Luiz Suárez earned the two of them first and second places on the scoring charts, along with the highest honor a pair of strikers can earn: a nickname from the English press.

    Now that the SAS have been decommissioned, Sturridge for the first time in his career finds himself the senior, line-leading striker. We know he's got the talent and we know he's figured out how to use it. The question now is whether he will thrive or wilt under the extra responsibility that comes with being the main man. If the former -- if he can repeat or even surpass last season's 28-goal return -- then Liverpool might just be able to dance their way through the post-Suárez blues.

    Key Transfers

    In: Adam Lallana, Lazar Marković, Emre Can, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren; Javier Manquillo (loan).

    The departure of Luis Suárez leaves a gaping cavity in the Liverpool lineup. Rather than bringing in a direct replacement, Liverpool have been shopping for a range of players to take up various roles in an expanded squad. Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren were all wooed away from the now depleted Southampton. Young right-back Javier Manquillo joins Lovren in defense, and should fellow Spaniard Alberto Moreno complete his move, the backline will be almost completely rebuilt. This is where we find out if their defensive vulnerabilities were a question of personnel, or something systematic.

    But the most eye-catching purchase is young Serbian winger Lazar Marković: highly-rated, tricky and devastatingly quick. He's not the kind of player to replace Suárez's goal tally, but that's a problem for others; his job is to make defenders look foolish.

    Out: Luis Suárez.

    One little bite wasn’t enough to dissuade Liverpool from buying Luis Suárez. Two wasn’t enough to keep him from playing the majority of last season. But three bites (plus eighty million pounds), well, that was too much for the Reds. His final punishment was to be shipped off to Barcelona, where he’s surely sitting in a corner, thinking about what he’s done.

    Why you should watch

    "Liverpool may have lost Luis Suárez, but they still have the league's second top goalscorer. And speed. Lots of speed. Daniel Sturridge? Fast. Raheem Sterling? Faster. Lazar Marković? Fasterest. And his name's Lazar. Throw in a few quick, creative midfielders and it's a recipe for explosions. Against opposition that sits back and doesn't give Liverpool the chance to beat them with speed, though, losing Suárez’s dazzling unpredictability could hurt. Add in a return to Europe that will put more pressure on the squad and a pile defensive question marks and you've got uncertainty. But it's an exciting sort of uncertainty, promising either a continuation of last season's burn down everything success or spectacular, immolative failure. Either way, something's getting set on fire." --Noel Chomyn, The Liverpool Offside

    Further Reading

    Read more at Liverpool blog The Liverpool Offside

  12. Manchester City

    After Roberto Mancini failed to defend Manchester City’s first Premier League title, he was shown the door. Manuel Pellegrini, brought in at the start of last season, was then tasked with turning all of the talent, and money spent to acquire it, into another championship.

    Pellegrini looked like he might be in over his head, however, suffering four losses before mid-November -- three coming to Cardiff, Aston Villa and Sunderland. However, when City did win (and there were certainly more victories than losses) they often did so in a thunderous fashion. A 4-1 win in the Manchester derby helped soothe many concerns, and a 7-0 win over Norwich City reminded the league of how much offensive firepower City had available.

    After a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Sunderland on Nov. 10, City tightened the screws and went on a 13-match unbeaten run, drawing just once, and making opponents such as Arsenal and Tottenham cry when putting six into the back of the net. Chelsea ended the streak in early February with a 1-0 win at the Etihad, but City bounced back with a seven-match unbeaten run.

    A loss against Liverpool on April 13 appeared to derail their title hopes, but City took advantage of several matches in hand to grind out their second title in three seasons, securing the trophy on the final day of the season with a 2-0 win over West Ham.

    Manchester City’s fans certainly expect a better title defense than they received two seasons ago, but on top of that, the owners also want success in the Champions League as well. And City seem to have the strength to fight on multiple fronts.

    • Nickname: City, The Citizens, The Sky Blues
    • Year Founded: 1880; as St. Mark's
    • Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
    • Stadium: Etihad Stadium
    • Last Season's Finish: 1st
    • Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Joe Hart; Gael Clichy, Vincent Kompany, Martín Demichelis, Pablo Zabaleta; Yaya Touré, Fernandinho; Samir Nasri, Eden Džeko, David Silva; Sergio Agüero.

    How they play

    Manuel Pellegrini’s preferred formation last season was a 4-2-3-1, built around Yaya Touré. The Ivorian is allowed to do what he needs to do, and to go where he needs to go. Considering the 31-year-old scored 20 goals while being damn near unstoppable last season, that’s no bad thing. Touré will have more help in the midfield with the addition of Fernando, who will compete with Fernandinho for playing time.

    With defensive duo Bacary Sagna and Eliaquim Mangala being the only other major outfield additions, Pellegrini isn’t expected to make drastic changes to his style. City will likely remain an aggressive, attack-minded team led by the dangerous Sergio Agüero -- if he can stay healthy -- and the likes of David Silva and Samir Nasri. It worked well over the course of last season, and as long as their best players can stay off the physio table, there’s no reason to think City won’t be even better this time around.

    Key Player

    On a team as talented as Manchester City, it’s sometimes difficult to pick out one player that’s key to the side. There’s no argument to be made in this case, however: last season it was clear that Yaya Touré drove the team. His size and power make him intimidating, but his attacking prowess makes him dangerous. He scored 20 goals last season for City in the league while racking up nine assists, but the statistics aren’t able to capture the way his side looked so much better when Touré was on the pitch.

    It’s hard to believe that when he left Barcelona in 2010, Touré was primarily a defensive midfielder. While he’d played a more forward role during his time at Monaco, Frank Rijkaard used his considerable size to help bolster the defense behind the Blaugrana’s lethal attack. Coming to City allowed Touré to play a more varied style, and the results have been obvious. Despite all the spending and all the star signings, there’s little doubt that without Touré, City could still be chasing that elusive first Premier League trophy, rather than feeling confident about winning a third.

    Key Transfers

    In: Willy Caballero, Fernando, Bacary Sagna, Eliaquim Mangala; Frank Lampard (loan).

    Willy Caballero arrives from Málaga to challenge Joe Hart for the starting goalkeeper spot. Hart should manage to retain his spot, but if he suffers from one of his apparently patented dips in form, Willy gives Pellegrini a proven backup that he won’t be afraid to make his top man. Fernando will provide some much-needed defensive midfield depth, while Eliaquim Mangala and Bacary Sagna strengthen the defense, in the former's case quite significantly. Frank Lampard was signed in the hope Chelsea fans would collectively lose it, but they seem to have taken his six-month loan in stride, so now City simply have another wizened midfielder in their ranks.

    Out: Gareth Barry, Costel Pantilimon, Joleon Lescott, Jack Rodwell.

    Barry spent last season on loan with Everton, so Manchester City have gotten used to his absence. Caballero is a major upgrade over Pantilimon, while Lescott wasn’t worth the salary the team was paying him. Jack Rodwell never looked like breaking into the first team, and has joined Sunderland.

    Why you should watch

    “The last time City attempted to defend their title the wheels came off somewhat. A botched summer transfer window and acrimony between Roberto Mancini and, well, just about everybody else led to a rather disappointing campaign. All has been quieter this time around (Yaya Touré’s shenanigans aside) and now that Porto center back Eliaquim Mangala has finally completed his move the squad has a far more rounded look to it, with additional quality depth in some key positions. City's nearest challengers have all strengthened so repeating won't be an easy task by any means, especially given that defending champions rarely manage to win again following a World Cup summer. Can City buck the trend?” -- Danny Pugsley, Bitter and Blue

    Further Reading

    Read more at Manchester City blog Bitter and Blue

  13. Manchester United

    Last summer Manchester United named David Moyes as the retiring Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, in the hope that their shared Glaswegian grit would offer continuity on the pitch as well as the sidelines. Alas, Ferguson’s boots -- big enough to contain 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, two Champions League trophies and a statue and stand at Old Trafford -- were left unfilled by the former Everton boss, who was sacked before the season’s end. Under the guidance of caretaker player-manager Ryan Giggs, United finished seventh.

    However, this season there’s a renewed optimism at Old Trafford. Buoyed by the arrival of new manager Louis van Gaal, fresh from a successful World Cup campaign with the Netherlands, United are expected to be competing somewhere near the top once again. He may be from Amsterdam rather than Glasgow, but van Gaal’s uncompromising philosophy and press conference barbs make him appear more Ferguson-esque than the comparatively meek Moyes ever did.

    Of course, van Gaal’s personality doesn’t guarantee success. But there’s one thing we can be sure of: there’s not going to be a dull moment at Old Trafford this season. Or not nearly as many, at least.

    • Nickname: The Red Devils
    • Year Founded: 1878; as Newton Heath
    • Manager: Louis van Gaal
    • Stadium: Old Trafford
    • Last Season's Finish: 7th
    • Projected Lineup (3-4-1-2): David de Gea; Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling; Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Darren Fletcher, Antonio Valencia; Juan Mata; Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck.

    How they play

    Despite the Netherlands being the home of free-flowing Total Football, Louis van Gaal is a pragmatist rather than an idealist. He opposes the absence of a rigid tactical system that characterizes the traditional Dutch method, instead placing huge importance on the precise positioning and movement of his players. In short, he’s a control freak. And a very successful one at that.

    At United, he looks set to continue with the 3-4-1-2 he used with the Netherlands at the World Cup, and if the Red Devils’ pre-season performances are anything to go by, it’s an excellent decision. In this system, most of United’s attacks are built through the center of the pitch, with quick interchanges from the mobile attacking trio designed to slice opposing defenses apart.

    With Manchester City and Liverpool having both briefly experimented with similar systems before, there are still question marks over how United’s back three will cope in a domestic league in which wing-play is still hugely important. However, this doesn’t seem to be of any concern to van Gaal, who will revert to his more traditional 4-3-3 if things don’t work out as planned.

    Key Player

    When performing at the top of his game, Wayne Rooney is an elite player. Manchester United’s problem is that he’s at the top of his game with such irregularity that they’re often left wondering whether he’s worth the trouble at all. By the end of his tenure Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t seem to think so, claiming that Rooney was unhappy with being played out of his favored position and had requested to leave the club.

    Under David Moyes, Rooney’s sub-par form continued, save for a few precious moments of individual brilliance; tantalizing glimpses of the player he could and should be. That didn't stop Moyes from handing the 28-year-old a five-and-a-half-year contract and making him the highest paid player in the Premier League -- in retrospect one of the worst decisions of Moyes’ failed spell in charge.

    However, there remains the faint hope that Louis van Gaal will finally help Rooney to cement his status as a top player. In the Dutchman’s 3-4-1-2, Rooney will be back in his favorite role up front; the creative burden eased by the playmaking presence of Juan Mata. It’s a long shot, but perhaps this will finally be the season Rooney proves his true worth.

    Key Transfers

    In: Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw.

    United have finally bought an actual central midfielder to strengthen their weakest position, with Spaniard Ander Herrera having arrived from Athletic Bilbao a year after his Old Trafford move was scuppered by imposters posing as club representatives on transfer deadline day (ultimately leaving United with an imposter of a midfielder, Marouane Fellaini, instead). Young left-back Luke Shaw has also joined in a big-money move from Southampton.

    Out: Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand.

    United have lost three of their old guard this summer, with club legends Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand all leaving. Nemanja Vidić and Patrice Evra have joined Inter Milan and Juventus in Serie A respectively, while Ferdinand is teaming up with his old West Ham boss Harry Redknapp at Queens Park Rangers. We can also expect a few other notable departures -- names mentioned include Nani, Anderson and Javier Hernandez -- as Louis van Gaal hacks away at the dead wood.

    Why you should watch

    “In a word, Louis van Gaal. Since ditching the highly-disappointing David Moyes, Manchester United could be born anew, and the portents have been good in pre-season so far as the team has played some very entertaining football. United might make some more signings, or they might not. But it seems van Gaal is determined to get Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie functioning as a partnership backed up by Juan Mata just behind. That alone is a mouthwatering combination which could be deadly in the league, particularly with no European distractions.” -- Callum Hamilton, The Busby Babe

    Further Reading

    Read more at Manchester United blog The Busby Babe

  14. Newcastle United

    Last season, it looked as though Newcastle were set for a spot in Europe. The Magpies were sitting sixth on Boxing Day following a nine-match run during which they’d dropped just five points. Then came January. Yohan Cabaye moved to Paris Saint-Germain, the owners failed to invest in new signings, and the fans quickly turned scathing. Newcastle were saved from the relegation battle by their early season results, but their second half of the season was the worst in England’s top four leagues: just 16 points from their last 19 games, and failing to score in 13 of those matches.

    The ire of the fans was well deserved, yet it looked as though the club were content to continue with their same lackadaisical approach, particularly after their transfer window began with the free acquisition of Jack Colback. Now, however, the board have pulled their finger out and several decent signings have emerged who could move Newcastle a lot closer to their recent 5th-place finish rather than last season’s dismal run-in.

    There’s still huge doubts over Alan Pardew and whether he can really cut it or if he fluked that previous impressive finish, but he’s got some shiny new toys to work with and some decent old ones as well. Newcastle are nothing if not unpredictable, and whether the season ends in triumph or disaster or headbutts is anyone’s guess.

    • Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
    • Year Founded: 1882; as Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End, which merged in 1892
    • Manager: Alan Pardew
    • Stadium: St. James' Park
    • Last Season's Finish: 10th
    • Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Tim Krul; Massadio Haidara, Mike Williamson, Fabricio Coloccini, Daryl Janmaat; Cheik Tioté, Moussa Sissoko; Siem de Jong, Rémy Cabella, Yoan Gouffran; Emmanuel Rivière

    How they play

    Even under the fairly pragmatic Alan Pardew, Newcastle’s tradition for attacking verve has shone through at times of late (although that might just be them being rancid at the back). Though they were generally weak up front last season, that was due to a lack of personnel rather than one of intent, and the rebuilding of the club’s attacking ranks this season should allow them to commit fully to the style of football that’s written into their bones.

    It’s anyone’s guess as to who’s likely to emerge as the first-choice striker, but Rémy Cabella should surely slot in behind him. The team, which looked out of ideas following Yohan Cabaye’s departure for Paris Saint-Germain in January, should return to their more proactive ways with Cabella’s addition; whether that’s true or not could well determine the course of their season. If Cabella does his job, the attacking, quick, perhaps even sexy Newcastle could be back, but if not, well … last season was essentially the opposite of ‘sexy football’.

    Key Player

    While not a truly like-for-like replacement for Yohan Cabaye, who departed in January, Rémy Cabella will nonetheless occupy his countryman’s old role as a creative attacking midfielder for Newcastle. He’s not quite as tidy in possession, but much trickier on the ball and a very good goal-scorer -- something the Magpies desperately need.

    After the departure of Cabaye, Newcastle were seriously lacking in creativity, and the goals consequently dried up. Enter Cabella, the man set to become their main creative outlet. The 24-year-old developed into one of Ligue 1’s best players over the last two seasons, helping Montpellier win the title two years ago and scoring 14 goals in their most recent campaign.

    Cabella looks to be a bit of a transfer coup for Newcastle, and if he meets expectations, they might be in a position to challenge for the European positions once again.

    Key Transfers

    In: Ayoze Pérez, Daryl Janmaat, Facundo Ferreyra, Jack Colback, Siem de Jong, Rémy Cabella, Emmanuel Rivière.

    Well, Newcastle fans wanted a striker last season. Now they have four (!) new ones in Ayoze, de Jong, Ferreyra and Rivière. De Jong probably has the best pedigree out of the lot, but many past scare-stories about Eredivisie strikers mean it could be anyone’s claim to seize the No. 9 spot. Rémy Cabella should be safe however, providing the creativity lacking after Cabaye’s departure.

    Out: Dan Gosling, Shola Ameobi, Mathieu Debuchy, Romain Amalfitano.

    Nothing significant here -- the only big transfer out of a first-team player was Debuchy, and he was handily replaced by the acquisition of Janmaat. Definitely a forward-looking window for the Magpies, but then, it had to be.

    Why you should watch

    “Perhaps more than any other Premier League team, Newcastle United have no idea where they'll finish in 2014-15. After 5th and 16th place finishes in the previous two campaigns, they were 6th on Boxing Day last year, then were the worst team in the entire Football League by several measures to finish the season. Where they belong this year is anybody's guess. Alan Pardew has brought in seven players to refresh the squad, and Siem de Jong and Rémy Cabella could be the bargains of the summer. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Rolando Aarons has been a force in every preseason match so far. There's reason for hope for Toon fans -- but of course it could all go very south, very quickly. Newcastle is a bullet train that could go off the rails at any moment. Who doesn't want to watch that?” -- Robert Bishop, Coming Home Newcastle

    Further Reading

    Read more at Newcastle United blog Coming Home Newcastle

  15. Queens Park Rangers

    The English media will be horribly conflicted about how to treat Queens Park Rangers this upcoming season. On one hand, their manager, Harry Redknapp, is every journalist's dream. He's chummier with reporters than anyone else and is always good for an excellent soundbite. On the other hand, QPR became the symbol for everything that's wrong with English football, spending recklessly during their relegation campaign and ultimately racking up a wage bill larger than Atlético Madrid's, as you've surely seen on social media a hundred times by now.

    QPR have slashed their wage bill considerably and will probably find a home for Loïc Rémy and his massive salary fairly soon, but they've also become the home of nearly-retired central defenders. Rio Ferdinand has signed up, joining fellow 35-year-old Clint Hill and 34-year-old Richard Dunne. Thankfully, young star Steven Caulker should prevent QPR from ever being forced to play two of them at once in the center.

    In addition to Caulker, Redknapp's made some other sensible signings recently, adding midfielder Jordon Mutch and utility man Mauricio Isla this summer after inking rising Championship stars -- and seemingly Premier League-quality players -- Matty Phillips and Charlie Austin before last season's promotion push.

    Redknapp's side look a decent bet to stay up and avoid becoming a laughingstock on this foray into the top flight, but disaster is always a couple of awful buys away at QPR. Is the toxic atmosphere that led to their relegation last time around gone for good?

    • Nickname: QPR, Rangers, The Hoops
    • Year Founded: 1882
    • Manager: Harry Redknapp
    • Stadium: Loftus Road
    • Last Season's Finish: 4th (Championship; playoff winners)
    • Projected Lineup (4-5-1): Robert Green; Clint Hill, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Caulker, Mauricio Isla; Junior Hoilett, Jordon Mutch, Joey Barton, Alejandro Faurlín, Matty Phillips; Charlie Austin

    How they play

    Fans of Harry Redknapp teams eventually start to get frustrated at his lack of in-game tactical adjustments, but for neutrals, every game a Redknapp-coached team plays is worth watching. He believes in keeping things simple and giving his players individual freedom to create, often giving minimal tactical instructions. More often than not, it works -- he's engineered some great escapes from relegation, won an FA Cup and made the Champions League quarterfinals with Tottenham.

    That's not to say Redknapp's teams have no discipline, but that discipline primarily stems from asking his players to work hard and employing a holding midfielder. He'll play any formation you can think of, so guessing QPR's team week to week is going to be impossible, but there are increasing signs that the team is planning on being able to play in a back three as well as the usual four.

    The defining characteristics of Queens Park Rangers will be directness and a willingness to try things. They'll play quickly and won't be afraid to hit shots from distance or play risky, low-percentage passes. Of the teams likely to be in the bottom five or so, they'll probably be the most watchable.

    Key Player

    QPR will change defense pairings, midfield pairings, wingers and the number of strikers they play all season, but Charlie Austin is likely to be a constant fixture when he's healthy. He's a big bruiser of a target man, but one with respectable pace and touch as well. He's been one of the Championship's best players for three seasons running, and he looks ready to make the step up.

    Whatever Plan A is for any team, "kick the ball at the big guy's head and hope he scores" is usually a pretty decent Plan B, provided you have a big guy who's likely to win some physical battles in the box. Austin is that guy, and he's going to win QPR points that they don't appear to deserve off hopeful lofted balls into his general vicinity.

    Additionally, Austin's hold-up play is very good, so he'll be useful when QPR are trying to keep the ball. He's also equally adept at playing up top alone or with a partner. He's everything any lower-table manager could ever reasonably hope for in a striker.

    Key Transfers

    In: Steven Caulker, Rio Ferdinand, Jordon Mutch; Mauricio Isla (loan).

    Caulker and Mutch were consistently solid performers for Cardiff last season, despite their relegation, while Ferdinand had the worst season of his career for Manchester United. Since his competition for a starting spot alongside Caulker is a couple of similarly old players, he actually has a chance to contribute this year. Mauricio Isla will probably start at right back, though his versatility gives Redknapp an option in multiple positions. He's played in midfield and on the left in his career as well.

    Out: Yossi Benayoun, Aaron Hughes, Andy Johnson, Gary O'Neil, Stéphane Mbia, Esteban Granero.

    Johnson, Benayoun, O'Neil and Hughes played minor parts in last year's promotion, while Mbia and Granero were out on loan to get their wages off the books. While they'd probably be useful players for QPR this season, they likely had no interest in returning. There are also a number of key loan players who have left -- Niko Kranjčar, Kevin Doyle, Ravel Morrison and Tom Carroll among them. Additionally, Adel Taarabt is expected to depart before the transfer window closes.

  16. Southampton

    In 2009-10, Southampton finished 7th in League One, English football's third tier. Fast forward five years and they've just finished eighth in the Premier League: a giddying rise achieved with a likeable side playing attractive football, with a core of young academy-produced players supplemented by clever transfer business. You could almost call it a fairytale.

    But this is modern football, this is the Premier League, and here the big bad wolves always win. Five players have been lured away to more glamorous pastures, the manager wooed away as well, and more may follow. Giant piles of cash have come in return, of course, but giant piles of cash don't score goals.

    That said, things don't look too gloomy. They still have a decent core of players and will again look to their academy to refresh their squad. In Ronald Koeman, they have appointed a manager whose last job, with Feyenoord in the Eredivisie, was most notable for the promotion and integration of a number of the young players who so impressed with the Netherlands over the summer. So while their campaign is unlikely to proceed with the smoothness of last year, they shouldn't be too troubled by relegation.

    • Nickname: The Saints
    • Year Founded: 1885; as St. Mary's
    • Manager: Ronald Koeman
    • Stadium: St. Mary's
    • Last Season's Finish: 8th
    • Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Fraser Forster; Ryan Bertrand, José Fonte, Jos Hooiveld, Nathaniel Clyne; Victor Wanyama, Jack Cork; Dušan Tadić, Gastón Ramírez, James Ward-Prowse; Graziano Pellè

    How they play

    Under Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton pressed hard without the ball, and passed neatly with it; Ronald Koeman, being a self-respecting Dutchman, isn't likely to meddle too much with those basic principles. If things go right, expect plenty of goals; after his side's first pre-season victory, Koeman revealed that he had instructed his team "to play offensively with a lot of rotations in the midfield and with wing players." But unlike some of his compatriots, Koeman isn't ideologically wedded to the 4-3-3, and at times with Feyenoord he used a back three in trickier away games. So we could be in for a certain amount of tactical flexibility.

    Key Player

    Another kid who has emerged from the Southampton academy's production line, and one of the few that nobody seems to be immediately interested in buying, James Ward-Prowse made his debut for the club in 2011 at the tender age of 16. Capable of playing either on the right or centrally, he is a clever, classy passer of the ball, takes a mean free-kick, and has generally impressed whenever given the chance over the last two seasons. The departure of Lallana leaves a creative void in midfield, and Ward-Prowse -- now a grizzled veteran of 19 -- may be the man to step up. Expect Liverpool to buy him next summer.

    Key Transfers

    Out: Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers.

    With four first-teamers and one hot prospect having gone, and rumors suggesting that Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez may follow, words like "chaos", "crisis" and "fire sale" have been thrown about, as has laughter, after Ronald Koeman tweeted a picture of an empty training ground, apparently without noticing the symbolism. Such hysteria, however, tends to overlook the fact that this is Southampton's business plan: it's not romantic, but it's realistic and resilient, and there's always a new wave of academy talent waiting in the wings.

    In: Graziano Pellè, Dušan Tadić, Fraser Forster; Ryan Bertrand (loan).

    The sales have brought in plenty of cash, but so far Southampton's purchases have been relatively circumspect. The biggest arrival has come up front: all managers like signing players they've worked with before, but in the case of Graziano Pellè, 55 goals in 66 games for Koeman's Feyenoord made him almost a must-buy. While transferring form from Netherlands to England is always a tricky business -- for every Ruud van Nistelrooy there's an Afonso Alves -- Pellè is tall, strong and quick, and looks to have everything necessary to thrive in Premier League. At 29 years old, he also brings an experienced head to a side that seems likely to contain a fair few youngsters. England goalkeeper Fraser Forster has also been lured down from Scotland, and looks set to take over from the veteran Artur Boruc in goal.

  17. Stoke City

    Stoke City aren’t the same brutish, direct, easily hateable team that they were for all those years under Tony Pulis. Well, at least not entirely.

    Mark Hughes brought a more cultured style of play to the Britannia last season. Now they have fullbacks, rather than center backs masquerading as fullbacks, and took the drastic step of buying another player from Barcelona this summer. No one’s calling Stoke beautiful, but at least they’re trying to pretty themselves up.

    Unsurprisingly, now that they can play a couple different ways, they’ve become a better team. They finished ninth in the league last season and set a club record by reaching the heady heights of 50 points. With some new acquisitions, The Potters have a chance to improve upon that this year. The league is a toss up in the middle of the table, but Stoke have a chance to be one of the better teams in that glut of mediocrity.

    • Nickname: The Potters
    • Year Founded: 1863; as Stoke Ramblers FC
    • Manager: Mark Hughes
    • Stadium: Britannia Stadium
    • Last Season's Finish: 9th
    • Projected Lineup (4-5-1): Asmir Begović; Erik Pieters, Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth, Phil Bardsley; Steven N’Zonzi, Glenn Whelan; Marko Arnautović, Stephen Ireland, Bojan Krkić; Mame Biram Diouf

    How they play

    Stoke are still a defensively-minded team. With a great goalkeeper in Asmir Begović and a pair of physical center backs in Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth, it’s no surprise that they rely on their strength at the back. They rarely push their central midfielders too far forward and their fullbacks would only ever be described as ‘adventurous’ in a conversation heavy with aggressive sarcasm. Stoke will defend with six at all times, occasionally sending a fullback or central midfielder forward, and placing all the goalscoring responsibility on the front four when set pieces aren’t readily available.

    The good news for The Potters is that front four should be significantly better than it was a year ago, and it will be a versatile group on top of that. They should be able to interchange and create a lot of problems for opponents, giving them some attacking verve despite a still-defensive style.

    Key Player

    The Potters may have gone out to get Mame Biram Diouf, and Peter Odemwingie did give them a big boost when he came over last season, but Stoke are still a team that leans on its defense, the key to which is Asmir Begović. The goalkeeper is one of the league’s best, and his talents were on full display last season, when he kept nine clean sheets.

    Stoke may be doing their best to bulk up their goalscoring, and they may have some of the most prudent defenders in the league, but none of that will change their reliance on Begović. Barring injury, the goalkeeper should continue to return the favor.

    Key Transfers

    In: Mame Biram Diouf, Bojan Krkić, Dionatan Texeira, Phil Bardsley, Steve Sidwell.

    Mark Hughes tried to change the way Stoke played last season, but he had to rely on physicality more than he would have liked, as Stoke simply didn’t have the talent available to radically overhaul the style of play. But even with the summer signings, they’re still likely to be one of the more direct teams in the league -- but at least they have the possibility of occasionally shifting their style.

    Mame Biram Diouf may have disappointed in the Premier League while at Manchester United and Blackburn, but he is a proven Bundesliga goalscorer, who Stoke believe can up their tally, particularly as no player reached double digits last season. Bojan Krkić, meanwhile, will provide some much needed creativity. The question is how Hughes will use them, as he also has Peter Odemwingie, Marko Arnautović and Stephen Ireland available, all of whom played well down the stretch last season. At the very least, Hughes has options now.

    Out: Matthew Etherington.

    Etherington’s departure was no surprise. His contract was up after last season and Mark Hughes had no more use for the 32-year-old, but after making over 170 appearances for the Potters, it will be odd not seeing him at the Britannia.

  18. Sunderland

    Sunderland were dead and buried last season. By week four, they were in last place, and they ended up spending 29 weeks in total in the relegation zone. They’d made it to the finals of the League Cup, but with the drop looking certain, a trip to Wembley did little to comfort fans. Yet here they are, ready to fight for safety once more.

    Exactly how Sunderland avoided the drop remains unclear. Paolo Di Canio got the boot just six games in, after picking up a mere point. Gus Poyet didn’t do that much better, but Sunderland managed to take advantage of a string of games in hand, winning four in a row after drawing against Manchester City at the Etihad. A combination of improved organization and a bit of luck kept them from the Championship, but it remains to be seen whether that’s sufficient to keep them up this season.

    But after last year, betting against the Black Cats seems rather foolish.

    • Nickname: The Black Cats
    • Year Founded: 1879; as Sunderland and District Teachers
    • Manager: Gus Poyet
    • Stadium: Stadium of Light
    • Last Season's Finish: 14th
    • Projected Lineup (4-3-3): Vito Mannone; Patrick van Aanholt, Wes Brown, John O'Shea, Billy Jones; Jack Rodwell, Lee Cattermole, Jordi Gómez; Emanuele Giaccherini, Connor Wickham, Adam Johnson.

    How they play

    Organized. Not good, not skillful, but organized. Sunderland at least had that down after the arrival of Gus Poyet. Mostly, anyway. They still took a few batterings in their quest to escape relegation, and so the Black Cats made strengthening the defense a priority this summer. The addition of Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt gives the club a pair of workable fullbacks, and although neither is at their best on the defensive side of things, that’s still more than they had last year.

    Sunderland’s biggest problem came when they tried to go forward, and that’s where Jones and van Aanholt will help most. It looks like Poyet is aiming for a side that’s better in possession this season, and with Jack Rodwell and Jordi Gómez in the team, they might be able to do it. If Rodwell manages to stay on the pitch -- a fair sized if, given his injury record -- their midfield has a chance to take some of the pressure off of the defense and get the ball circulating.  Still, they’re going to be counting on strikers that are inexperienced at best and bad at worst, so the wingers are going to carry a heavy goalscoring load again.

    Key Player

    Sunderland lack impact players. Even those who are solid, dependable and important to the side tend not to make a difference individually. Connor Wickham, however, has the potential to stand out. The 21-year-old caught eyes while playing for England’s various youth levels, and while he might not have been a regular for the Black Cats last season, he impressed with five league goals last season in just 12 matches. Particularly since he bagged two in the draw against Manchester City, a goal in the victory over Chelsea, and another brace in the win over Cardiff -- games vital to keeping Sunderland up.

    Sunderland are pinning a great many hopes on Wickham, hoping he can become the star they’ve envisioned him as. Wickham, meawhile, is refusing to sign a new deal, hoping to play his way into a move elsewhere; interest from West Ham has so far been summarily dismissed.. How he plays this season will have a major impact on the Black Cats' finishing position as well as the trajectory of his career.

    Key Transfers

    In: Jordi Gómez, Billy Jones, Costel Pantilimon, Patrick van Aanholt, Jack Rodwell.

    With both Ki Sung-Yueng and Fabio Borini’s loans ending, Sunderland have some holes to fill. They did manage to find a great solution to Borini’s leaving: buy him from Liverpool. But Sunderland’s attempts to sign him permanently have yet to pan out, and the striker is still at Anfield for now. While that deal hangs in the balance, the Black Cats did well to strengthen their midfield with Jordi Gómez and Jack Rodwell. At the back, they've reeled in Patrick van Aanholt and Billy Jones to shore up the fullback positions and, on paper at least, give them a slightly better defense.

    Out: Jack Colback, Phil Bardsley, Carlos Cuéllar, Craig Gardner; Ki Sung-Yueng, Fabio Borini (loan return).

    Sunderland still don’t have a replacement for Fabio Borini, and they appear to be pinning all their hopes on bringing him in on a permanent basis. The Black Cats also have a big problem in the midfield with both Ki Sun-Yueng -- another returning loanee -- and Jack Colback departing. They’ve brought in Jordi Gómez and Jack Rodwell to fill in the gaps, which should work out fine, provided Rodwell stays fit -- and who really wants to take that bet?

    Why you should watch

    “The reason anyone should care about Sunderland is because, quite simply, watching Sunderland is like setting off a rocket in a back alley. Will it hilariously ping-pong between the walls completely out of control? Will it blow itself up on a bin? Will it inadvertently kill Mrs. Miggins' cat down at number 17 as it innocently sleeps on the wall enjoying some sunshine? You have no idea at all what it's going to do, but you know it's only a matter of time before it does something completely and utterly self-destructively stupid.” -- Michael Graham, Roker Report

    Further Reading

    Read more at Sunderland blog Roker Report

  19. Swansea City

    Swansea City became the first Welsh side to ever win promotion to the Premier League back in 2011, and have looked well-suited to the top flight ever since. Two seasons ago, they even managed to cap their centenary season with their first major piece of silverware, with manager Michael Laudrup leading them to glory in the League Cup.

    The club have been quietly and admirably sure of themselves since returning to the top flight, but this season brings a newfound uncertainty. Laudrup was sacked with the club only two points above the relegation zone midway through the last campaign, and though captain-turned-manager Garry Monk eventually led them to a comfortable 12th place finish, he’s still seriously short on managerial experience.

    Add into the mix a handful of first-team departures and a few risky signings, and it becomes pretty difficult to predict how Swansea will fare this season. They should have enough quality to avoid relegation, though quite how much they’ll achieve beyond that is anyone’s guess.

    • Nickname: The Jacks, The Swans
    • Year Founded: 1912; as Swansea Town
    • Manager: Garry Monk
    • Stadium: Liberty Stadium
    • Last Season's Finish: 12th
    • Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Łukasz Fabiański; Neil Taylor, Ashley Williams, Jordi Amat, Ángel Rangel; Jonjo Shelvey, Leon Britton; Jefferson Montero, Gylfi Sigurðsson, Nathan Dyer; Wilfried Bony

    How they play

    Swansea were famously promoted to the Premier League playing a brand of possession-based football that earned them rather optimistic comparisons with Spanish giants Barcelona. Even so, it was undeniably successful in their first forays into the top flight, with manager Brendan Rodgers earning himself a move to Liverpool on the back of his side’s impressive performances.

    That didn’t stop Michael Laudrup enforcing a slightly more direct style on his Swans side, with his legacy continued by incumbent coach Garry Monk. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and if anything, a higher tempo could well be better suited to the Swansea squad. This season Monk will likely stick with his versatile 4-2-3-1 formation, which mixes slick passing with devastating attacking pace. Swansea’s midfield is a little weak defensively, though is packed with passers capable of transitioning from defense to attack in an instant.

    Instrumental to their attacking interchanges is the hold-up play of striker Wilfried Bony, which allows the Swans’ pacy wingers to cut inside with penetrating runs through the middle. However, the Ivorian’s aerial strength means the Swans can vary their play with deep crosses into the box, too. If opponents can keep Bony quiet, there’s a good chance they’ll keep Swansea quiet altogether.

    Key Player

    With so many Eredivisie strikers having tried and failed to adapt to life in the Premier League, there were fears Wilfried Bony wouldn't live up to the club-record £12 million fee when Swansea landed him from Vitesse Arnhem last summer. One season and 17 league goals later, the Swans are more worried about their most important player being poached by some of England’s giants.

    Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have all been linked with a summer move for the 25-year-old Ivorian, though Garry Monk insists his prized possession isn’t for sale. Given the importance of his link-up play and phenomenal goalscoring record, it’s no surprise. Selling him could seriously backfire.

    Key Transfers

    In: Łukasz Fabiański, Gylfi Sigurðsson, Jefferson Montero, Bafétimbi Gomis.

    Swansea's big summer arrival is Icelandic attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson, who joined from Tottenham as part of a bumper package that saw goalkeeper Michel Vorm and young left-back Ben Davies headed in the other direction. Fortunately Swansea had already signed Arsenal keeper Łukasz Fabiański on a free transfer in anticipation of losing Vorm, with the Pole likely to assume the No. 1 spot this season.

    Excitingly, Swansea have also indulged in a post-World Cup glamor purchase, with Ecuadorian winger Jefferson Montero arriving from Mexico's Monarcas Morelia after flashes of brilliance in Brazil. He's undoubtedly a fantastic talent, and should cement his position on the left of Swansea’s attacking midfield band.

    Last -- and probably least -- is the signing of former French international forward Bafétimbi Gomis, who has joined from Lyon on a free transfer.

    Out: Michel Vorm, Ben Davies, Chico Flores, Pablo Hernández; Michu (loan).

    Aside from the aforementioned Vorm and Davies, Swansea have a couple of other major departures. Attacking midfielder Michu has joined Napoli on loan after last season’s injury-plagued campaign, while winger Pablo Hernández has made a permanent transfer to Qatari club Al-Arabi.

  20. Tottenham Hotspur

    Last season, Spurs tried to experiment by allowing Tim Sherwood, their academy’s technical coordinator, to manage the side. It was a hilarious disaster, as he never looked remotely like a manager, sent out bizarre teams and veered from one gaffe to another as the team generally played like a bunch of strangers. A serious challenge for a Champions League berth never materialized, and the multiple signings brought in with the money earned from selling Gareth Bale mostly failed to gel or make much of an impact.

    Accordingly, Sherwood has now left the club and Mauricio Pochettino has been recruited instead. This is, in a way, the perfect appointment for Spurs -- it gives them the progressive foreign manager they’ve been trying to hire since the ‘90s, but also someone who has a record of success in the Premier League. They’ll be targeting fourth again.

    • Nickname: Spurs, The Lilywhites
    • Year Founded: 1882; as Hotspur FC
    • Manager: Mauricio Pochettino
    • Stadium: White Hart Lane
    • Last Season's Finish: 6th
    • Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Hugo Lloris; Ben Davies, Jan Vertonghen, Younes Kaboul, Kyle Walker; Sandro, Mousa Dembele; Aaron Lennon, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela; Roberto Soldado.

    How they play

    Nothing like last season, they’ll be hoping. Tim Sherwood’s retro 4-4-2 ways are likely to be replaced by Mauricio Pochettino’s high-pressing 4-2-3-1. After the manager got Southampton playing a much more attractive brand of football, he certainly should be able to replicate the feat at Spurs, where he has the right resources to suit the style.

    The defense still looks shoddy, and if the rumored signing of Morgan Schneiderlin doesn’t materialize and Sandro remains a crock, then midfield’s not likely to to inspire much fear, either. Oh, and their big-name striker can’t score from open play. If that sounds grim, it’s worth bearing in mind that they still have some excellent players in their side and that Pochettino will likely give most of them a new lease on life. As always, anything could happen, but it looks like it could be a season of progress for Spurs.

    Key Player

    Christian Eriksen is probably their best player, but with a flimsy-looking defense, Jan Vertonghen will have to hold it together as well as provide some much-needed leadership.

    A lack of depth at left back meant the Belgian had to spend an inordinate amount of time outside last season and the center of Spurs' defense struggled because of it. He will be back in the middle this season, likely next to a defender half as good as he, so Vertonghen will have the chance to show off just how outstanding he can be. The 28-year-old would easily slot in as the component of a great defense, but in order to be the main man in a backline which is challenging at the upper end of the table, he will need to take another step up.

    Key Transfers

    In: Ben Davies, Eric Dier, Michel Vorm.

    Spurs have been slow to move in the transfer market so far, but a summer without a classic Daniel Levy late swoop would be surprising. Central defense, in particular, is still a pretty big weakness, and another midfielder would be handy.

    Ben Davies will do much to solve the club’s left back problem if he can live up to his potential. Danny Rose struggled at times last year, and Spurs had to put Jan Vertonghen out on the left when Rose was unavailable, which left the Belgian very unhappy. Spurs now have both depth and a better starter at the position.

    Eric Dier is a big prospect, but might not see much playing time this season, while Michel Vorm isn’t expected to be more than a backup.

    Out: Gylfi Sigurðsson, Jake Livermore, Heurelho Gomes.

    No surprises thus far. One of Gylfi Sigurdsson or Lewis Holtby was always going to have to go, and Sigurdsson was apparently the one Pochettino felt he had less use for. Hull paid a hefty sum of £8m to make Livermore’s loan from last year permanent, while Gomes left on a free.

    It's almost certain more Spurs players will be on the move, although it's uncertain which are most likely to leave. Exits almost certainly depend on entrances, with players in the same position likely to be sold or loaned out when new players arrive.

    Why you should watch

    "Southampton were one of the most entertaining teams in the Premier League last season, and their former manager won’t be changing anything about his preferred style now that he’s managing Tottenham Hotspur. Mauricio Pochettino isn’t going to start with 10 men behind the ball against anyone, and Spurs are always going to look to play fast, aggressive, attacking football. This is what Spurs are just about every year, but fans will be hoping that this season’s attacking football comes along with a coherent tactical plan and plenty of victories. And if it doesn’t, neutrals will still have fun watching them lose games 3-2." --Kevin McCauley, Cartilage Free Captain

    Further Reading

    Read more at Tottenham Hotspur blog Cartilage Free Captain

  21. West Bromwich Albion

    Two years ago, West Brom managed their best season ever in the Premier League, finishing 8th with 49 points and 14 wins. Last season, The Albion struggled against the drop, unable to secure safety until the final round. They ultimately wound up 17th, with a mere 7 wins.

    Much of that drastic downswing can be attributed to one significant departure: the end of Romelu Lukaku’s season-long loan. The forward scored 17 goals in his year at The Hawthorns, but in his absence, West Brom’s six strikers were able to tally a mere 18. Combined.

    Manager Steve Clarke departed midseason, after overseeing just three wins in 16 games. change to Replacement Pepe Mel lasted until the end of the season, but won just three of 17. It’s difficult to see this season's new boss, Alan Irvine, faring much better. It’s the first Premier League job for Irvine, a former assistant of David Moyes who’s had trouble achieving consistent results in the lower leagues. Will he be able to handle the pressure of the top flight?

    • Nickname: West Brom, The Albion, Baggies, The Throstles
    • Year Founded: 1878; as West Bromwich Strollers
    • Manager: Alan Irvine
    • Stadium: The Hawthorns
    • Last Season's Finish: 17th
    • Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Ben Foster; Sébastien Pocognoli, Craig Dawson, Jonas Olsson, Andre Wisdom; Youssouff Mulumbu, Claudio Yacob; Saido Berahino, Stéphane Sessègnon, Chris Brunt; Victor Anichebe.

    How they play

    West Brom are on their third coach in two years, and this one’s never taken charge of a Premier League team. In other words, it’s tough to surmise how Alan Irvine might set his side out to play.

    Over the Baggies’ last few friendlies, he’s had them playing in a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. Obviously the summer warmups are to both raise fitness levels and experiment with different formations, but West Brom’s preseason has been made all the more tough by a spate of minor ... disasters. Players he’s likely to use as starters -- James Morrison, Joleon Lescott -- have picked up injuries. New signings Brown Ideye and Cristian Gamboa had difficulties obtaining visas. Stéphane Sessègnon has been away on international duty, playing in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. With so many players missing, Irvine has had to deploy his men out of position, patching together sides and formations that still leave us wondering what, exactly, we’ll see from the Baggies this season.

    Key Player

    With their six forwards managing an average three goals apiece last season, West Brom were in desperate need of a striker. They sized up the Ukranian Premier League and decided they liked the look of Brown Ideye, who’d been at Dynamo Kyiv for the past three seasons.

    In fact, the Baggies liked him so much that they made Ideye a record signing, rumored to be worth around £9m. But while the club talk him up, noting his 34 goals in three seasons with Dynamo, they fail to mention the 25-year-old spent much of his time on the bench last season. Ideye started seven times, made 19 appearances total and scored just five goals. That’s the same number Saido Berahino scored last season, by the way.

    If Alan Irvine is able to coax the best back out of Ideye and West Brom see a return to his 2012-2013 form, in which he scored 17 goals, he’s obviously a worthy investment. Otherwise, the Baggies will have yet another big-name flop on their hands.

    Considering Irvine admitted he has not seen Ideye play but insisted that "people we trust" had, it’s hard to believe this signing is going to be the savior West Brom have hoped for.

    Key Transfers

    In: Cristian Gamboa, Craig Gardner, Brown Ideye, Joleon Lescott, Sébastien Pocognoli, Jason Davidson; Andre Wisdom (loan).

    Only time will tell on most of these transfers. West Brom secured Brown Ideye without ever seeing him play. They brought in Cristian Gamboa and Jason Davidson on the strength of their World Cups. Alan Irvine is under the impression Sébastien Pocognoli would’ve been with Belgium in Brazil if not for injury. Oh, and Joleon Lescott is apparently already unhappy.

    Out: Zoltán Gera, Billy Jones, Liam Ridgewell; Matěj Vydra, Diego Lugano, Morgan Amalfitano (loan return).

    The loss of Liam Ridgewell and Billy Jones explains the Baggies’ need to bring in defenders, although six may be overkill -- particularly since Diego Lugano rarely did much more than stand around. West Brom don’t look to have lost all that much, but have they really gained much, either?

  22. West Ham United

    Last year was not a happy one for the East Londoners. While the final table suggests a relatively comfortable 13th place finish, the bare facts of the campaign fail to reflect two factors that, when combined, nearly cost Sam Allardyce his job. First, West Ham spent a fair few weeks in the thick of the relegation battle, dropping as low as 19th at the turn of the year. And secondly, they were pure poison to watch.

    Ultimately, both they and their manager survived, by seven points and the skin of his teeth respectively. However, the owners have made it clear that Allardyce is to change the habits of a lifetime in the service of pragmatism. They have decreed that West Ham must attack in a pleasing fashion, and have imposed a specialist attacking coach. Big Sam's got to get sexy.

    Whether this is a good idea remains to be seen. As a general rule, forcing managers to work in circumstances not of their choosing, and to targets not typically within their capabilities, is a pretty terrible way to run a football club. As another general rule, the first step to attaining attractive football is to sack Sam Allardyce. From the outside, this has been a summer of murmurings and grumblings that suggests major discontent behind the scenes, and don't be too shocked if things get messy quickly.

    • Nickname: The Hammers, The Irons, The Academy of Football
    • Year Founded: 1895; as Thames Ironworks
    • Manager: Sam Allardyce
    • Stadium: The Boleyn Ground (aka Upton Park)
    • Last Season's Finish: 13th
    • Projected Lineup (4-4-1-1): Adrián; Joey O'Brien, Winston Reid, James Collins, Carl Jenkinson; Stewart Downing, Mark Noble, Mohamed Diamé, Matt Jarvis; Kevin Nolan; Enner Valencia.

    How they play

    Normally, for a Sam Allardyce side, this would just be the word "functional" repeated over and over until everybody had fallen asleep. But not this year, oh no. The addition of a specialist attacking coach, the acquisition of Mauro Zárate and the promised resurrection of the "West Ham Way" (whatever that might be) all adds to one certainty: watching the Hammers this season guarantees entertainment.

    For the neutral, anyway, since it's not quite clear how Allardyce intends to transform a profoundly utilitarian squad into something pleasant to look at. There's not a manager in the world could make Kevin Nolan anything other than Kevin Nolan, even if they wanted to, and this entertainment may end up arriving at West Ham's expense. Asked during pre-season how he felt about this brave new world of fun and joy, Allardyce sounded less than convinced. "We’re just working on our new style as we’ve got to get a bit more open and expansive as it seems to be what’s demanded in the game now. We’re working on that side but have lost the defensive resilience that saw us get 14 clean sheets last season." There may be trouble ahead.

    Key Player

    Not the most complicated of defenders, what Winston Reid lacks in the fancy stuff, passing and suchlike, he makes up for with his tackling, physical presence and admirable on-field focus. Some center backs look positively pleasant to play against; Reid looks a bit of a nightmare. Voted Hammer of the Year in 2012-13, if West Ham are going to make any progress at the sharp end of the pitch, they'll need Reid keeping things tight behind them.

    Last season he was excellent -- of those 14 clean sheets that Allardyce so treasured, nine came with Winston Reid on the pitch -- but interrupted. A serious ankle injury kept him out from November through February, and in his absence West Ham flirted pretty seriously with relegation. Allardyce will be hoping that the New Zealander manages a full campaign this time around.

    Key Transfers

    In: Mauro Zárate, Enner Valencia, Cheikhou Kouyaté, Carl Jenkinson (loan).

    Remember Andy Carroll? Well, he's injured again, and reports are suggesting that he might not surface for anything up to four months as the surgeons open up and mess around with his ankle. But don't despair, Hammers fans! Sam Allardyce has been given not one but two shiny new forwards to play with. Exciting times!

    The more direct replacement for Carroll is Ecuadorean Enner Valencia, whose impressive World Cup earned him a £12m move from Mexican side Pachuca. Nicknamed Superman -- he disguises himself as a journalist in his spare time -- he's not a classical Big Man Up Top, and while he is more than capable in the air, he's also a strong, quick dribbler who started life as a winger. Post-World Cup purchases are always fraught with danger, but 18 goals in 23 Liga MX games suggests that there's more to his game than just a few decent showings in the Brazilian sunshine.

    And then there's Mauro Zárate, who is bonkers, brilliant and magnificently inconsistent. Now 27, his peripatetic career has taken him to West Ham via Lazio, Internazionale, Birmingham, and briefly Qatari side Al-Sadd. Capable of moments of extreme genius, he was briefly hailed as "better than Messi" by Lazio's owner and has a collection of goals that stands up against anybody’s, yet he has never really put together the run of performances that his talent warrants. Throughout his career has been regularly criticized by his managers for selfishness on the ball; one story claims that while playing in Argentina, he responded to being benched for on-field selfishness by coming on as a substitute, dribbling through the opposition defense and round the keeper, then refusing to score.

    He also has a knack for controversy, having been pictured making a fascist salute along with Lazio ultras -- he later claimed not to have any idea who Hitler or Mussolini were -- falsified a skin condition in order to go on holiday, and accused Lazio of violating his human rights by refusing to sell him. He could be the wild card that West Ham are crying out for, a cult hero in the making … or he could be an absolute disaster.

    Out: Nobody of note.

    Unless you count Joe Cole. Which we don't.