With the 2016-17 English Premier League season getting ready to kick off Saturday, 20 teams will soon be competing for glory within the league, and for silverware outside of league play. In some cases, teams will be fighting to avoid relegation to the lower Championship division along with the loss of tens of millions of dollars that follows relegation.
The offseason has brought forth key changes in rosters, team management and even ownership. For some teams, the changes will make a positive impact, while some teams will have little to show for their efforts. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what to expect for the upcoming EPL season.
Resurrection: Manchester United
After years of success under the leadership of Sir Alex Ferguson, this fabled franchise stumbled a bit and last season found themselves barely able to qualify for Europa League play. Their offseason reboot began with the hiring of Jose Mourinho as manager. As Red Devil ownership opened up the spending spigot, their major signings started with Swedish international striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Paris Saint- Germain. They closed their transfer purchasing with the signing of former Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, whose transfer fee of $116 million broke the record previously held by the Real Madrid signing of Welshman Gareth Bale.
With a few other players added for support, anything less than a rapid rise in the EPL table and multiple pieces of silverware will be considered a failure. But after winning the Community Shield against last years’ EPL champions Leicester City last Sunday, it’s clear that Manchester United is a different team right now, and seem poised to achieve glory and exceed expectations in the upcoming season, finishing first or second in the EPL table.
Fall from grace: Leicester City
After bookmakers had The Foxes at 5000-1 odds to win the EPL title last season, that’s exactly what this small-market team did. While manager Claudio Ranieri was unable to hold onto every player on his roster, mainstays like Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Wes Morgan turned down other offers to remain with The Foxes this season.
Under the best of circumstances, repeating as the EPL champion is extremely difficult, and it will be no different for Leicester this season. However, while other top-tier clubs have added depth to their roster, The Foxes still lack a reliable bench. With a long season ahead of them and the advent of Champions’ League play, the fatigue and injuries that are likely to occur within their squad will prove more detrimental to Leicester City than other teams due to this lack of depth. While Leicester City finished top of the table in 2016, expect this feisty but under-manned squad to finish closer to mid-table in 2017.
Taking one major step back: Arsenal
Entering his 20th season as manager of the Gunners, Arsene Wenger’s name has been in the British press more than his team has been.
First he was rumored to be replacing the ousted Roy Hodgson as manager of the England national team, but he made it clear that he would see this year out as the remaining year of his contract in North London. Wenger then went out of his way to verbally attack other managers such as Jose Mourinho, who he believes is overvaluing the price of players within the transfer window. Whether or not the market can bear the costs associated with EPL footballers remains to be seen, but what is certain is that Wenger and management have signed only one impact player during the summer transfer window (Granit Xhaka). Financial prudency is a necessary course of action for any team, and $286 million in cash reserves isn’t going to cut it. Expect Arsenal to drop out of their usual top-four spot in the EPL at the end of the campaign with Wenger bidding adieu to the team he’s led for the past two decades.
Keep the bags packed: Hull City
Generally, a recently-promoted team arriving into the EPL has a difficult job at hand. Upgrading the quality of the manager and players to compete against top-flight squads in a short amount of time is quite difficult. Enter Hull City, who seem to be besieged by problems right before their season opener. Their manager, Steve Bruce, resigned a couple weeks before the start of the season, with his assistant being promoted to interim manager.
The Tigers’ top player, Abel Hernandez, has been making overtures to Championship side Aston Villa to sign him away from Hull, essentially offering to play for a team in a lower division rather than his own EPL squad. That speaks volumes.
Furthermore,the current owner of the team, Assem Allam, tried to change the name of the team over the objections of the supporter groups (he was unsuccessful). That certainly riled up the fans, and they displayed posters with vulgar messages in response. While the season has yet to start, bookmakers such as oddsdigger have the Tigers listed at 4-to-6 odds to be relegated in 2017. And that’s probably being kind.
Enigma: Chelsea FC
No matter how you look at it, 2014-15 proved to be a successful campaign for Chelsea under then-manager Jose Mourinho. They garnered the top spot in the EPL and their Belgian midfielder, Eden Hazard, won the FWA Player of the Year award. The following season, however, everything seemed to unravel. Almost every player had a subpar season. Mourinho fired a member of his medical staff following a match where he believed a player was pulled from the pitch too quickly for medical reasons. Mourinho was subsequently dismissed shortly after, after his team picked up just 11 points in his first 12 matches.
Interim manager Gus Hiddink finished the season with the Blues languishing in 10th place in the EPL. Owner Roman Abramovich immediately signed Italian national team manager Antonio Conte at the end of the season. Conte has begun to sign impact players such as strikers N’Golo Kante and Michy Batshuayi in order to address the team’s anemic offensive prowess. With a new manager using a different game formation and so many new players to execute this, it is hard to predict how quickly The Blues will be able to adapt to so many changes. And with a finite number of matches in the season, if the individuals fail to perform as a cohesive unit quickly, one would expect Chelsea not to qualify for either Champions or Europa League. But with a plethora of talent available, this is a team that should be on the upswing. The big question is how quickly this transformation can happen, assuming the team can play as a cohesive unit throughout the season.