It’s hard to believe that the 2017 Premier League season will be soon be upon us. While this summer didn’t have any major international tournaments, it sure featured its share of excitement, with an incredible Championship play-off to determine the third team promoted to the Prem and many big-name players coming and going. The teams that will feature here, though, won’t be battling it out for the best of the best, but rather for comfort in the top flight, or possibly even survival from demotion. Here is Part 1 of my projection for the upcoming season, starting at the bottom of the table:
- Brighton Hove & Albion
It’s abundantly clear that Seagulls manager Chris Hughton knows that his team needs a deeper, more talented squad to have a fighting chance in the Prem, as evidenced by his signing a group of 8 players headlined by underrated Australian goalkeeper Matthew Ryan. The issue is that their squad is set up in a way similar to how Middlesbrough was last year—more on the defensive side—yet their attack, spearheaded by the talismanic Anthony Knockaert, might not even be able to match the demoted side’s paltry efforts. As such, I only envision Brighton lasting one season in the top division before dropping back down.
- Huddersfield Town
The Terriers have made what I believe to be the best signing of any promoted squad so far, re-signing Aaron Mooy from Manchester City after a successful loan spell this past year. David Wagner also seems to be approaching the upcoming campaign by looking to take a more attack-minded approach and will hope that the small-town team might be able to catch enough established clubs by surprise to remain in the top flight another year. While they may do that early on, I don’t think it’ll take long for other clubs to catch on to the team’s style, and their fairy tale ascension will be put on hold after they are demoted back down to the Championship.
Burnley has not ceased to surprise over the course of the last three years—first in securing promotion, then putting up a great fight in a Premier League season in which they were drastically overmatched, then immediately regaining a top flight spot and hanging onto it last season. Manager Sean Dyche rightfully gets a lot of credit for keeping the Clarets up, but having a defense marshalled by Michael Keane was a significant help. Now that Keane is an Everton player, does the club have enough at the back to make up for the center back’s departure, or enough ammunition in attack to compensate for the defense’s probable drop-off? Unfortunately, I don’t think so—replacing Keane is virtually impossible for a club of Burnley’s size, and as good as Sam Vokes was last season, losing his striking partner, Andre Gray, will hurt his productivity. Dyche’s crew will put up a great fight, but they’ll drop back down to the Championship after this season.
- Swansea City
That Swansea managed to stay up while churned through three managers in a tumultuous season is a real testament to the resilience of the players of the Welsh club, and it is that work ethic that I believe allows the team. That being said, this transfer season has been sadly lacking for the Swans—they lost the heart of their engine room in Jack Cork, their attack is still a mess beyond Fernando Llorente, and they’ve only brought in one player, Roque Mesa, that figures to feature frequently in the starting XI. There is still time to improve the squad, but if they don’t, the team will almost surely find themselves in another dogfight for survival this year.
- West Bromwich Albion
During the middle of last season, there was many a pundit that thought there was a possibility that the Baggies could spend the whole year challenging for a spot in Europe. Of course, that wasn’t meant to be, as Tony Pulis’s team only managed two paltry points in their final 9 matches. On top of that, the team lost club captain Darren Fletcher on a free to Stoke, stripping the team of a crucial veteran presence in the center of the park. Solomon Rondon’s strong play up top should keep West Brom from dropping down a level, but their mess in the middle will prevent them from coming anywhere close to the heights they hit last year.
- Stoke City
After 3 straight seasons of finishing 9th, Mark Hughes’s squad suffered from a dearth of goals in dropping to 13th last season. Bringing in Darren Fletcher on a free and Kurt Zouma on loan are both exceptional move that will help shore up the center of the park for the Potters, but to this point no major attacking talent has been brought in, which is not a good thing considering that the aging Peter Crouch was their leading scorer last year. On top of that, star winger Morgan Arnautovic left for West Ham, citing that the Hammers are a “bigger club” despite finishing below Stoke last year. Last year that may not have been true, but the lack of new signings to bolster the front line will make that a reality, and I predict that Stoke will continue its fall to lower in the table.
Watford’s management has been in a state of constant upheaval recently, as they are now on their third manager in as many seasons, and all of them have very different styles. Fortunately, the man at the helm now, Marco Silva, may be the best of the trio, and he’s made some solid signings this transfer window that have targeted every area of the team. He’s brought in two central players, Will Hughes and Nathaniel Chalobah, with great potential, and signed Tom Cleverley to a permanent deal. He signed Andre Gray as a complement to club captain Troy Deeney while adding Richarlison as the team’s striker of the future. Silva also snagged right wing back Kiko Femenia on a free to shore up the back line. There’s still no true difference maker in attack, so the Hornets will still be lower than they might hope to be, but such a solid window for a team that struggled last year should set the club on a good path for the future.
- Crystal Palace
The Eagles had a season last year that very nearly resembled the one that Swansea had—they went through two managers with a squad whose drastic underperformance led the team into a relegation battle for a good chunk of the year. However, with a new year approaching, new manager Frank de Boer inherits a squad that has not only been hardened by the unexpected experiences of last season, but one that seems tailor-made for his style of play, with strength at the back and front, speed on the flanks, and creativity in the center. The players might still be plagued with some inconsistency, and it will almost certainly take a while for de Boer and his style to adjust to the Premier League, but I feel that Palace will see some slight improvements from their performance last season.
New manager Mauricio Pellegrino has retained almost all of the players that led the club to an 8th place finish last year, and the savvy signing of Gabon international Mario Lemina to bolster the midfield certainly can’t hurt. However, the only reason that the team even finished that high was because of its defensive record—they only scored 41 goals last season, tied for 14th in the league with 17th place Watford—and club captain Virgil van Dijk’s push for a move out of Saint Mary’s makes it a virtual certainty that they’ll see a drop-off on that end this year. That, combined with the lack of new transfers brought in to bolster the lackluster attack, I expect the Saints to slip a little bit this year.
- Leicester City
The chaos has been rampant at Leicester since lifting the Premier League trophy after the 2015-16 season—last year started with the sale of lynchpin N’Golo Kante and an extreme lack of fitness from captain Wes Morgan and ended with the firing of Claudio Ranieri after claims he had lost the locker room. Now, his former assistant Craig Shakespeare has to make due with a roster that seems heavy on strikers, light on midfielders that fit his system, and whose best player, winger Riyad Mahrez, wants out. There’s a lot of good individual players on the Foxes, and Shakespeare showed at the end of last year that he can find some balance, but I think the tumultuousness will be too much to keep them from getting into the top half of the table.
- Newcastle United
Newcastle has seemed to exist in a constant state of confusion over the past few years, but the steady hand of veteran manager Rafael Benitez guided the Magpies back into the Prem immediately after being demoted, and the Spainard and his squad will be looking to make a splash this season. They’ve got the pieces to do it, too—they have a strong backline headlined by captain Jamaal Lascalles, a creative midfield centered around the creative duo of Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie, while the forward trio of Dwight Gayle, Ayoze Perez, and Aleksandar Mitrovic have a great combination of speed and strength. Benitez doesn’t have any players on the level of 2012-era Papiss Cisse or Fabricio Coloccini, so the team shouldn’t push for a spot in the Europa League, but they should definitely have enough to survive this season comfortably.
Eddie Howe’s team surprised a lot of pundits last year by not only surviving, but thriving well enough to make it into the top half of the table. Their squad from last year remains mostly intact, with only Jack Wilshere’s return to his parent club counting as the only loss of a consistently fielded first-teamer. The few additions that Howe made were bright ones, too, grabbing veteran Jermain Defoe to improve his striking options and grabbing Nathan Ake (who is returning to the club after spending part of his season with the Cherries on loan) and Asmir Begovic from Chelsea to improve the defense. The clubs that I see finishing above them had more money to spend, so they were able to improve their squads enough to keep Bournemouth from finishing above their place from last season, but two straight 9th place finishes from the small south shore club is no easy feat and will prove that they’ll be making some real noise in the race for a European place.
You can check out Part 2 of this preview on my soccer website, gunnerupdates.com, starting tomorrow at 5.