This is part two of my EPL Preseason Preview. Read part one here.Quick addition to part one of the preview – since its publication, Newcastle has agreed on terms to sell left back Jose Enrique to Liverpool. At the same time, there are increasingly strong indications that Arsenal will lose Samir Nasri to Manchester City, and Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona. By the time you read this, these transfers might be official. If so, in my view this propels Liverpool into the top 4, above Arsenal.
Now, onto part 2 of the preview.
11. West Bromwich Albion
Last Year: 12-11-15, 47 pts, 56 goals for, 71 goals against, Finished 11th
Important Players In: Ben Foster (G), Billy Jones (D), Gareth McAuley (D), Shane Long (F), Marton Fulop (G), Zoltan Gera (M)
Important Players Out: Scott Carson (G), Boaz Myhill (G)
Bromwich had the second worst defense in the Premier League last year, with 71 goals allowed. Two things will help – Roy Hodgson is known for his disciplined defensive approach, and the additions of Ben Foster, Billy Jones and Gareth McAuley are supposed to shore up the defensive personnel. Bromwich already had a potent offense with Peter Odemwingie and now added Shane Long, who excelled as a goal scorer in the Championship last year. If defense improves, so will the West Bromwich.
Best Case Scenario: Defensive improvement of around 10-12 goals while not losing anything on the offense – allowing Bromwich to leap into the top 10.
Worst Case Scenario: Jones and McAuley show they don’t belong in the Premier League, and Hodgson’s defensive approach hurt offensive strength. West Bromwich falls into the bottom group of teams and is fighting relegation.
12. Stoke City
Last Year: 13-7-18, 46 pts, 46 goals for, 48 goals against, Finished 13th
Important Players In: Jonathan Woodgate (D), Matthew Upson (D)
Important Players Out: Abdoulaye Faye (D)
Stoke was a tough defensive team last year, and I don’t think that will change this year. The manager, Tony Pulis is excellent at playing tough defense and grinding out results, which lets them occasionally beat opponents they’re not supposed to beat. Upson and Woodgate, if healthy, may upgrade the defense even further, and there are rumours that Stoke is attempting to sign Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios from Tottenham, which would be an upgrade for them. But overall, this is not a radically different team from last year.
Best Case Scenario:Stoke needs new signings to make another step forward, and if they sign Crouch and Palacios, they have a chance to take that step and finish in the 7 to 10 range.Worst Case Scenario: This team is too proficient defensively to slide down much. But they could possibly slide a spot or two if injuries and bad luck hit. They will not be fighting relegation.
13. Bolton Wanderers
Last Year: 12-10-16, 46 pts, 52 goals for, 56 goals against, Finished 14th
Important Players In: Chris Eagles (M), Tyrone Mears (M), Nigel Reo-Coker, Darren Pratley (M)
Important Players Out: Matthew Taylor (M), Ali Al Habsi (G), Johan Elmander (F), Daniel Sturridge (F)
Bolton plays exciting, attractive football, but they may have a problem scoring this year. Do-everything forward Johan Elmander is in Turkey, and on-loan striker Sturridge, who was on fire in the second part of the year is back at Chelsea. Young winger Lee Chung-Yong suffered an injury that will keep him out for 9 months, and American Stuart Holden is only now coming back from an injury of his own. This means, that Kevin Davies will have to carry the offense, with the help of newcomers Pratley and Eagles. The good news is that so far, star centerback Gary Cahill is still at the club, but rumours about big clubs coming after him continue to circulate.
Best Case Scenario: Cahill stays at the club and deep midfield compensates for lack of depth at the forward. Bolton continue their excellent record at home and finish 11th.
Worst Case Scenario: The team struggles with scoring and drops down a spot or two.
14. Queens Park Rangers
Last Year: 24-16-6, 88 Pts, 71 goals for, 32 goals against, Finished 1st in the Championship League
Important Players In: DJ Campbell (F), Jay Bothroyd (F), Kieron Dyer (M), Daniel Gabbidon (D)
Important Players Out: None
I said at the beginning of Part 1 that I usually put freshly promoted teams in the bottom three in my preseason poll, unless I have a good reason not to do so. Well, QPR gives me a good reason. They already possess a number of high-quality EPL-ready players in Adel Taarabt, Alejandro Faurlin and Kaspars Gorkss, and their new signings are quality as well. Campbell scored 10 goals for Blackpool last year, Bothroyd had a great year in the Championship and Gabbidon anchored West Ham’s defense. Plus, QPR has filthy rich owners, so reinforcements may arrive in the winter. All this is contingent on the team keeping their star player, Taarabt, however. Big clubs have been sniffing, and he expressed interest in an upgrade.
Best Case Scenario: This is pretty much it. Taarabt stays and QPR comfortably avoids relegation.
Worst Case Scenario: Adel Taarabt leaves for greener pastures, the squad proves inadequate for the rigors of the Premiership and the owners refuse to spend on reinforcements. If this happens, QPR goes back down.
15. Newcastle United
Last Year: 11-13-14, 46 pts, 56 goals for, 57 goals against, Finished 12th.
Important Players In: Demba Ba (F), Yohan Cabaye (M), Sylvain Marveaux (M), Mehdi Abeid (M), Gabriel Obertan (M)
Important Players Out: Kevin Nolan (M), Wayne Routledge (M), Jose Enrique (D), Joey Barton (M)
Oh, where to start with Newcastle United? Like a Shakespearean tragedy, they manage to turn every positive development into a disaster. Their best players last year were Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique. Andy Carroll was sold midseason to Liverpool for a record fee of 35 million pounds, Jose Enrique is currently completing his transfer to Liverpool as well, Kevin Nolan was so desperate to get away, he went down to play for a Championship team, and Joey Barton was told he’s allowed to leave for free after he discovered twitter, which he promptly used to (justifiably) criticise Newcastle’s shitty management. Presiding over all this mess is team owner Mike Ashley, who guided his team much like a drunk college student driving a car he can’t wait to get rid of (Ashley has been trying to sell the team for years now). Ashley is so hated by Newcastle fans, it might possibly be the only thing about the team they all agree on. Newcastle made many signings to replace the departing players, and last year’s marquee signing Hatem Ben-Arfa will come back from a terrible injury that claimed most of his season, but I expect this will be another difficult season for the long-suffering Newcastle fans.
Best Case Scenario: Mike Ashley finally sells. Seriously. The best outcome for Newcastle has nothing to do with how they perform on the field.
Worst Case Scenario: Newcastle ride the drama all the way to relegation.
16. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Last Year: 11-7-20, 40 pts, 46 goals for, 66 goals against, Finished 17th
Important Players In: Roger Johnson (D), Jaime O’Hara (M), Dorus De Vries (G)
Important Players Out: Steven Moyuokolo (D)
The signings of Johnson and O’Hara will boost the defense and midfield, which were weak. Johnson is a high-quality centerback who is better than anyone the Wolves started last year. Combined with offensive play of Steven Fletcher, and possible emergence of Scottish teenage sensation Leigh Griffiths, Wolves will dodge relegation once more.
Best Case Scenario: This is pretty much their ceiling. They may climb a spot or two if the teams above them perform especially poorly, but they’re not getting out of the bottom 5.
Worst Case Scenario: Did I say Wolves will dodge relegation? Sorry, I meant Wolves will NOT dodge relegation!
17. Blackburn Rovers
Last Year: 11-10-17, 43 pts, 46 goals for, 59 goals against, Finished 15th
Important Players In: Radosav Petrovic (M), David Goodwillie (F)
Important Players Out: Phil Jones (D), Nikola Kalinic (F)
When Blackburn was purchased by Venky’s, a chicken outfit from India (I’m not making this up), visions of dollar signs and top 4 finishes danced in the eyes of Rovers fans. Venky’s themselves were careful to lower expectations, stating that they aim for a top 10 finish. Well, allow me to downgrade the expectations even further. After being unrealistically linked with a host of star players (mostly in the over-the-hill stages of their careers), Blackburn saw star defender Phil Jones depart to Manchester United and young striker Nikola Kalinic depart for the greener pastures of Ukrainian Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (wait, what?). Rumours are swirling surrounding best defensive player and team captain Chris Samba as well, though given Arsenal’s hesitance to sign the centerback they desperately need, I expect he will remain at the club. Petrovic and Goodwillie are two good young players (especially Goodwillie, who had a star season in Dundee United of the Scottish League last year), but this is not a club that currently is built to do anything more than strive to avoid relegation.
Best Case Scenario: Goodwillie is much better than I thought – he’d have to be, there’s no other forward on the team capable of scoring in the Premier League, and no, 33 year old Jason Roberts doesn’t count, and Blackburn achieve a top 16 finish.
Worst Case Scenario:Venky’s newest acquisition lays an egg and ends up in the Championship.18. Wigan Athletic
Last Year: 9-15-14, 42 pts, 40 goals for, 61 goals against, Finished 16th.
Important Players In: David Jones (M), Ali Al Habsi (G)
Important Players Out: Mauro Boselli (F), Charles N’Zogbia (M), Steven Caldwell (D)
Every year since their arrival in the Premier League in 2005, Wigan has been in competition to get relegated. This is the year they finally achieve their goal. Last year’s best player, Charles N’Zogbia has left for the relative middle-class comfort of Aston Villa and hasn’t adequately been replaced by anyone worth noting. Last year’s Manchester United loanee Tom Cleverly is not walking through this door, either. This team is best known for its tendency to get absolutely pasted by the big boys at least once a year as it is (two years ago, they finished the Premier League campaign with a 8-0 loss at Chelsea), and things will only get worse.
Best Case Scenario: Make no mistake, Wigan will be in the relegation zone the whole season, but perhaps one of the teams above them (my money’s on Blackburn) will conspire to take their place when the season ends.
Worst Case Scenario: Well, at least if they go down to the Championship, they might win a title next year.
19. Norwich City
20. Swansea City
Last Year: 2nd Place in Championship, 3rd Place in Championship respectively
With apologies to the fans of these teams, they simply don’t get separate capsules. Some teams arriving from Championship have the look and feel of a Premiership teams. Newcastle did last year. Likewise West Bromwich. Queens Park Rangers this year. Norwich City and Swansea City don’t. Both play in small towns of under 250,000 citizens, although Norwich does have a respectable Premier League history, having finished 3rd in 1993. This time, their stay will not be long.
* This should be one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory. There are now six teams who can legitimately compete for the top 4 spots (after years of the Big 4 – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea getting these positions almost by default). On the other end, enough teams either did enough stupid things or didn’t improve, which should make relegation battle a heated affair as well.
* The signing of the season for me is Sergio Aguero. The young forward is brilliant, and has the quality to be one of the top strikers in the Premier League. He’s also married to Diego Maradona’s daughter, and if there’s one thing Premier League needs more of in its life, it’s El Diego. I can’t wait to see how this turns out.
* Arsene Wenger of Arsenal is the manager with the most on the line this season. After not winning any trophies for 6 years, there are grumblings among Arsenal faithful. If, after selling two of his best players (if both Nasri and Fabregas are indeed sold), and not securing enough incoming players, Arsenal drops out of the top 4, even the most committed of Wenger’s fans will be questioning whether he’s the right man to continue leading the club he’s been in charge of since 1996.