This is what we want to see in May
It seems hard to believe that the time has arrived already for the new season. At the same time May feels like it was ages ago. Considering that the FA Cup Final was actually played at the end of May this must be one of the shortest gaps between seasons in history. Throw in the international games and tournaments that have happened since then and you can see why Arsene Wenger is protesting about the lack of rest time afforded to the top players these days.
I have missed out this week on reflecting upon the win over Chelsea (thoroughly deserved), the nonsense of Mourinho, and then the injury to Jack Wilshere. Time has simply slipped away from me in that regard, even though there was plenty of material for blog posts this week. Such is the way with work and school holidays putting my time to indulge such frivolities in short supply.
This post will be the traditional season preview, with every Premier League club "assessed" by me as to their season ahead - as I'm about as qualified in the "expert" stakes as any of the journalists you read in the national papers it means nothing. The difference is that I'm not claiming to be an "expert" as most of those idiots do.
Tiny Tim Sherwood has made NINE signings so far this Summer. He has also got rid of ten players, surprisingly (to me) including Shay Given on a free transfer to Stoke. He has made good money from selling Benteke but I doubt Gestede and Jordan Ayew are good enough replacements for the Belgian, regardless of whether or not he was in the mood to play. A deal for Adebayor has fallen through (for the time being at least) but it's a mark of Sherwood's arrogance that he thinks he can succeed with Adebayor's attitude where far more experienced and capable bosses have failed.
The signing of Micah Richards on a free is huge if he stays fit enough to play on a regular basis and he has been made the new Captain in place of the abysmally disloyal Fabian Delph. I spoke to some Villa fans at the FA Cup Final who were seriously unimpressed by Sherwood and I think it will be a matter of time before he is again found out. There is enough rubbish in the league, surely, for Villa to stay up but I'm not sure where the goals are coming from really. Bottom half, maybe a (successful) battle against the drop.
Their first season ever in the top division and their boss, Eddie Howe, has been impressive in his short career to date. However, they seem to have fallen in to the trap of spending their hard-earned money on second-rate rubbish. The signing this week of Max Gradel would have me apoplectic if I was a Cherries supporter. They've looked for experience in Sylvain Distin but what they've actually got is a player who needs someone to do his running for him these days (see Rio Ferdinand at QPR last season for a perfect example). Tyrone Mings arrived from Ipswich, totally untested, for a ridiculous £8m fee (we paid £10m for Petr Cech!) They've secured Artur Boruc on a permanent deal from Southampton following his loan last season, while Adam Federici will be good competition for the experienced Pole. Meanwhile nine players have gone out from the squad that got them promotion and I just don't understand that. Why waste money, when relegation is more than a probability, when you could keep faith with what you know and use the money to build the future of the club? If Bournemouth stay up it will be one of THE great achievements in English football. I just can't see it happening. Relegated come May.
A surprisingly quiet close-season on the signings front, but there is still time for them to splash the usual cash. Asmir Begovic has replaced Cech on the bench and he was probably as good as they could have got for second-choice. A long lay-off for Courtois could see them have problems though. Mourinho's pursuit of John Stones tells us that he doesn't fancy another season of an ageing John Terry carrying Cahill and Zouma. Faclao is an interesting signing after his failure at Manchester United but he will surely only be cover for Costa's dodgy hamstrings. They will be reliant on Hazard buying enough fouls high up the pitch to take the pressure off their back four.
Clearly Chelsea are the team to beat again. But I can sense cracks in the Empire with the sale of Cech against Mourinho's wishes being, perhaps, the beginning of the end of his second reign there (as I write this post they've just announced a new contract with Mourinho!). If they were to get off to a dodgy start, and then lose at home to Arsenal in September, I could actually see Mourinho walking away yet again - he's done his couple of years that seem to be his standard stay anywhere. Having said all of that, if you finish above Chelsea in May you shouldn't be far off winning the whole thing. Top three at least.
The thing that would be worrying me if I was a Palace fan is where the money is coming from all of a sudden. Big cash has gone out on Cabaye and Wickham, as well as Alex McCarthy, adding up to something approaching £25m. Bamford's loan will also have come at a price. Not a penny has been brought in through transfers. I like Palace and I hope they're not on the verge of a Leeds United kind of financial implosion. It would seem odd given their past adherence to living within their means.
Palace had a fine season last year once Pardew had joined them, but he has a habit of flattering to deceive once his feet are under the table. Can he keep the Eagles well away from the battles at the bottom of the table? I'm not sure, to be honest, and they'll be reliant on their home form and that noisy Selhurst support. As with Villa I think they might be okay due to the dross that's in there as well, but it might be a tight one for Palace. Safe, but well inside the bottom half.
They signed Tom Cleverley. They got him for free, but they still signed him. Madness. If he plays alongside Gareth Barry on a regular basis then they will be "combative" in the midfield, but so lacking in pace that any top side should totally over run them. Gerard Deolofeu will look to provide some of the flair he showed on his loan spell of a couple of seasons back. They're yet to lose anyone, but Stones is being pursued in an overtly public way by Chelsea. I am, as ever, unconvinced by Roberto Martinez as a Manager as he seems totally incapable of organising a defence worthy of the name. Despite all this a trip to Goodison will largely remain a game that the top sides don't mind taking a point from and I expect the Toffee's to be top half, pushing for Europe, next May.
Absolutely bizarre goings on at the Foxes. Nigel Pearson always seemed a bit of an idiot, but you couldn't argue with what they achieved post-Christmas. To then see him sacked was unbelievable. To replace him with Claudio Ranieri was just plain weird. It was no surprise to see Ranieri immediately installed among the favourites as first to be sacked this season, and the press will do their best to get him the accolade if Leicester get off to a bad start. With the exception of Huth (not a Premier League defender) I don't know anything about the players they've signed. I was a little surprised to see Paul Konchesky get pushed out as he was impressive for them last season. I can't see Leicester staying up as the miracle of the January to May form will surely be impossible to replicate. Relegation beckons, I fear.
The massive spending has been mostly offset by the near on £50m they conned out of City for Raheem Sterling. I still think their biggest problem is the David Brent clone they have running the side. Nobody will be able to convince me that Rodgers didn't force out Steven Gerrard, knowing that the hero of the Kop was actually a threat to his position if the wheels came off yet again. Firmino might turn out to be an inspired signing, while Benteke will be fine as long as he feels like making a good impression - once the novelty has worn off, some time around Christmas, he'll be back to going through the motions. James Milner does not a replacement for Steven Gerrard make - consistent but far from dynamic.
If Liverpool make a slow start then Rodgers will be under serious pressure. Even the media grew tired of his "philosophy" nonsense last season and he needs his players to hit the ground running. A front two of Benteke and Sturridge could be dynamite, but Sturridge might never be fit. With the money they've spent on players over the last two years (forget what they've recouped) Liverpool should be challenging for the Premier League Title. They almost certainly won't be. That isn't good enough, and Rodgers isn't good enough. Top six again, but a change of boss fairly early doors could see them top four.
They've annoyed the press today by announcing a new contract for Pellegrini. That ought to kill off the speculation that was sure to mount regarding Guardiola. Of course a bad start will see it all whipped up again but, for the time-being, things are fairly settled at City. They paid ridiculous money for Sterling, but they can afford it - especially since Financial Fair Play has shown itself to be nothing more than a pipe-dream. Delph surely doesn't get a start on a regular basis in their midfield, which means Sterling is essentially the only addition to a side that fell a long way short last season. At the same time they have lost the solidity of James Milner to Liverpool, albeit they should have more pace available to them now. There's really not much else to say about City on this occasion. Of course they'll be top four, but that's not quite enough, is it?
If you listen to Sky Sports you'd think they were about to challenge Barelona again as the best side in World football. Huge money spent on star midfield players, but Di Maria has bottled it and left and Van Persie has been kicked out. Rooney can't carry the goal scoring duties, hence the apparent interest in Harry Kane (£40m?!) Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin are unknown at the truly top level, while Schweinsteiger (a player I have long admired and would have loved at Arsenal a couple of years back) might be declining - Guardiola seemed to think so. David De Gea is almost certainly going to leave before the month is out judging by Van Gaal's quotes this morning and they haven't got any new defenders to add to what was surely the weakest Man Utd back line in three decades. Were it not for De Gea last season they'd have been around eighth in the Premier League. Without that new defence I really don't see them improving on their fourth place, but I also don't see anyone genuinely challenging them too much - it all depends on that defence.
Mike Ashley has finally put his money where his mouth is by splashing out on a few new players at last. Steve McLaren is not a bad Manager, provided the media don't get on his case. I fancy the Geordies to be the surprise package this season and I can see them maybe pulling off a really good campaign. It would be madness for McLaren to overlook the possibilities available to a club like Newcastle in the League Cup and FA Cup - a trophy up there would set him up for life. In the Premier League I can see them really pushing for the top six and, who knows, they might be the ones that come at Man Utd. Having said that, if McLaren's reputation with the press precedes him they will have a very bad time!
I'm pleased to see the Canaries back in the Premier League. They haven't gone spending mad, despite only coming up via the play-offs, and have to be among the favourites to go down. Clearly they are likely to be in a season-long battle to stay up and I can see them taking it all the way. Bottom four, but maybe the ones who get lucky.
They've been written off in each season since returning to the Premier League. Their deserved involvement in the UEFA Cup could hinder their squad in the first half of the season, but Koeman seems an eminently capable boss at St Mary's. As usual very few here know much about the signings they've made but Saints' fans will surely have faith in what has been brought to the club. Losing Schneiderlin must be a big blow, but I'd back them to survive without him - Wanyama could come to the fore in a big way if he can stay fit and not suspended. I wouldn't be overly concerned at the loss of Nathaniel Clyne - good going forward but lacking defensively as far as I'm concerned. Safely in the top half for Saints, though maybe not so good as last season.
I hate to say it but they have done really well under Mark Hughes. They do a play a little bit better football than the old days of Pulis, though the presence of people like Charlie Adam in midfield shows (on a regular basis) that they have nastiness in the squad still. Shawcross being out for up to three months might hurt them early on but they mustn't panic if they make a bad start to the season. Shay Given will be a good signing as experienced competition for Jack Butland and I'll be interested to see how Ibrahim Afellay goes there. Bottom half, perhaps, but safely retaining their Premier League place.
Keeping Dick Advocaat must be a good thing, right? He's certainly been able to spend a few quid and his tactics just about kept them up last season. I'm really not sure about signing the likes of Kaboul, but they made a mint out of Crystal Palace for Conor Wickham. I suspect Sunderland will struggle yet again this season, but stay up yet again as well.
Garry Monk has been superb as Swansea boss. If they can repeat last season it really will be something of an achievement. Lukasz Fabianski has signed a contract extension which shows how important he was to them last season. If he was to lose his form they could actually be in trouble. I'm not sure they will be top half this season, but I certainly don't expect them to be battling too hard against the drop either. Mid-table safety.
I'm not even going to say it...
Given the upheaval in the Manager's office it was remarkable that they should get promoted last season. They then replaced the boss yet again. As with Bournemouth they've gone signings crazy and I fully expect them to pay the ultimate price for it. Quique Flores probably won't last long and I think the Hornets will take the wooden spoon.
I think they've done some decent business so far, as you'd expect from Pulis. James McLean is a controversial figure and I can see him being gone not long after he's arrived, but James Chester is a decent prospect and Rickie Lambert might get plenty of goals in a Pulis team - he was never used well by Rodgers at Liverpool. The signing of Serge Gnabry on loan today will get my attention on them this season and I reckon, if he stays fit, he could be one of the best young players in this Premier League. Top half for West Brom is a real possibility.
I'd be worried if I was a Hammers fan. They might win at Arsenal on Sunday, but their skipper today stated their aim as being simply to avoid relegation before they move home next year. That seems a crazy thing to hear from a Club who sacked their Manager amid an apparent lack of progress last season. They've got Jenkinson back from Arsenal for the year which will be a boost and they really need to get Alex Song tied down if they can. Payet is a tricky player who might be a bit of a star in the Premier League, but there's not too much else to be excited about. The failure in Europe last night should be a bit embarrassing but it underlined an apparently misguided idea of priorities - as with Newcastle they should be aiming for a good cup run rather than "protecting" their Premier League position. Bottom-half for Hammers, maybe a bit of a fight against the drop until late on.
So where do we come in? Clearly Arsenal are stronger in goal with the arrival of Petr Cech, but there has been nothing anywhere else. None of the players who have gone out (with the exception of Szczesny, who has been improved upon) were really involved last season. However, we start the season without Alexis Sanchez and we still have the fact that we are relying on Giroud to score the majority of the goals. I have said many times that I like Giroud, he is a good player, but he isn't a truly top player. Clearly those kind of centre-forwards cost money and there really aren't that many of them about these days. I would also like to see us bring in someone else to challenge the position of Coquelin. I would also have liked to see us keep Jenkinson and loan out Chambers. That said we are genuine contenders this season. I would take with a pinch of salt the fact that we have been great in pre-season but it must breed confidence. The legacy of two consecutive FA Cup wins should lend momentum to a side that wants to kick-on and win the bigger prizes. I think we have a real chance this year and, for that reason, I am tipping Arsenal to be Premier League Champions.
So there it is, the preview done for another year. We all know that the next nine months will be long and tough. There will be wins, draws and losses. We will be up one week, down the next. We will probably lose at least once against Tottenham. There might be an improvement in Europe, and we might even win another trophy. Whatever it throws up we will be there, every week and everywhere, over land and sea (and Leicester) to follow The Arsenal. Bring it on!