Dziepak: 2016-’17 English Premier League Preview

By Kevin Dziepak–

(CBS) Fresh off the heels of what was seemingly the shortest offseason ever, the perpetually entertaining and unpredictable English Premier League will come roaring back into our lives Saturday. A ball hasn’t even been kicked, and it seems like the league’s perpetual themes remain the same. Arsenal is already experiencing an injury crisis, Jose Mourinho is being a jerk and Leicester City is being disrespected.

For those unfamiliar with finer points of the Premier League, here are a few brief notes:

— There are 38 games in the league season; everyone plays each team twice. Teams earn three points for a win, one point for a draw and zero for a loss. The team with the most points after 38 games is the league champion, as there are no playoffs.

— The top four spots in the league earn qualification to the Champions League, a knockout tournament featuring the best teams in Europe.  Fifth and sixth place gain entry into the Europa League, a significantly less prestigious tournament in which top teams often deem to be more of a chore than a priority.

— The bottom three teams in the Premier League are relegated to The Championship, the second tier of soccer in England.

— Teams can freely buy and sell players during the transfer window, which is open from July 1 to Sept. 1, as well as during the month of January.

Not too difficult to follow, right?  With the semantics out of the way, let’s get you up to speed on this year’s upcoming Premier League season.

Contenders

Arsenal (2nd place last year)

The pride of North London, Arsenal is a perennial contender but hasn’t been able to win a league title in over a decade. Its manager, Arsene Wenger, is the longest-tenured in the league, and he’s achieved loads of success in his 20 years with the club. Still, the Frenchman remains a polarizing figure due to his ostensible reluctance to frivolously spend like the other “big clubs.” In recent seasons, Wenger has spent big on world-class players like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, but he usually limits himself to one massive purchase per window.

This offseason has been no different, as the only notable addition to Arsenal has been midfielder Granit Xhaka, who’s is a good player. Arsenal’s midfield might be the best in the league, but questions remain. Central defenders Per Mertesacker and Gabriel are already due to miss time with injuries sustained in preseason, and striker Olivier Giroud is a constant lightning rod of criticism due to his streaky nature.  However, if Arsenal makes one or two key signings before the end of the transfer window (it certainly has the cash to do so), there’s no reason it shouldn’t be one of the favorites to win the title this season.

Leicester City (1st place last year)

Leicester pulled off one of the greatest sporting achievements in history last season, winning the Premier League by 10 points after being 5,000-to-1 underdogs at the start of the season. Despite this, many are once again underestimating the Foxes, predicting them to finish mid-table or worse. Their attack should still be one of the best in the league, featuring returning stars like Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, plus new arrival Ahmed Musa. It will be difficult for Leicester to repeat as champions, but if its central defensive pairing of Robert Huth and captain Wes Morgan stay fit and effective, they’ll score enough goals to hang around the top four all year long.

Manchester City (4th place last year)

Manchester City already featured world-class striker Sergio Aguero, along with midfield stars Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. Then the rich got richer over the summer, adding the likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Gabriel Jesus, John Stones and Leroy Sane just to name a few. Manchester City also changed managers, hiring Pep Guardiola, who earned his reputation winning nearly two dozen trophies at super clubs Barcelona and Bayern Munich. On paper, City looks to be the strongest team in the Premier League. Barring significant injuries, the title looks ripe for its picking.

Manchester United (5th place last year)

In the first season after legendary manager Alex Ferguson’s departure, the team endured a humiliating seventh-place finish in the league. The previous two seasons haven’t been that embarrassing, but Manchester United still hasn’t provided a real title challenge. That will change this year.

The club spent massive amounts of cash in the summer, adding mercurial but ultra-talented striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and dynamic French midfielder Paul Pogba. Perhaps most importantly, it hired Jose Mourinho, “The Special One,” to manage. While Mourinho agitates many with his prickly demeanor, arrogant attitude and ruthless management style, his success is undeniable. He’s won everything there is to win, everywhere he’s been. Look for United to regain its past glory this season; I predict a genuine title challenge and quite possibly the league title.

Tottenham (3rd place last year)

Tottenham is an interesting club. Despite its reputation as chokers, the ascent under manager Mauricio Pochettino has been indisputable. In developing young players like striker Harry Kane, midfielder Eric Dier, and young phenom Dele Alli, Spurs provided their first genuine title challenge in years last season before faltering late.

Last year’s success was no fluke. Expect Tottenham to stay in the title race all season. The Spurs added bruising midfielder Victor Wanyama to an already strong midfield, and they may have the best central defensive pairing in the league in Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. If Kane can stay healthy and the team can avoid the typical April swoon, Tottenham may finally finish ahead of rival Arsenal and provide another run at the league title.

Challengers

Chelsea (10th place last year)

It seems weird omitting Chelsea from my top tier, especially since they won the league just two seasons ago, but, last year was an unmitigated disaster.  Star players like Eden Hazard and Diego Costa underperformed, and their manager (the aforementioned Mourinho) melted down and was dismissed in December.  They’ve strengthened over the summer, though, snatching away powerful midfielder N’Golo Kante from Leicester City and hiring in-demand manager Antonio Conte.  While it may be too soon to expect the Blues to make a challenge for the title, I certainly expect them to hang around toward the top of the table all season.

Everton (11th place last year)

Everton was a trendy pick to make the top four before last season.  Powered by young stars like Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley, along with solid veterans like Leighton Baines and American goalkeeper Tim Howard, the Toffees seemed primed to finally put it all together.  Unfortunately, Baines spent most of the season injured, Howard deteriorated rapidly and Barkley regressed.  A good start for their turnaround is the appointment of Ronald Koeman, who has overachieved as manager of Southampton over the past two years.  In addition, Lukaku is still one of the best strikers in the Premier League, and if they wisely reinvest the nearly £50m they received for John Stones, I envision a bounce back.

Liverpool (8th place last year)

One of the most storied and successful clubs in the world, Liverpool have not won a league title since the 1989/90 season.  A drought like this for an alleged big club is shocking, but there are signs that Liverpool is close to regaining their past glory.  Manager Jurgen Klopp is one of the most respected minds in Europe, and they’re not short on attacking options.  Players like Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firminho and newcomer Sadio Mane should provide the offensive needed to compete for a top four spot.  They’re still a year or two away from being legit contenders, but Klopp has them on the right path.

Southampton (6th place last year)

Southampton are perennial overachievers.  After earning their way back into the top flight four years ago, doubters have pegged them for relegation.  Not only do the Saints continually prove skeptics wrong, but they have a knack for developing players from seemingly nowhere and making them into productive Premier League stalwarts.  The challenge this year is to maintain their success, despite the departures of their manager (Koeman), and stars like Wanyama and Mane.  That being said, I’m done doubting them, and I expect a solid season.

Stoke City (9th place last year)

If I could describe Stoke with one phrase/terrible old reality show, it would be ‘extreme makeover.’  They’re just a few seasons removed from playing some of the most boring soccer in England, and employing some of the most brutish players around.  But due to astronomical money being pumped into the league, primarily from television rights contracts, it’s no longer just the big clubs that can offer players high wages.  Manager Mark Hughes has splashed cash on players such as Marko Arnautovic and Xerdan Shaqiri, and Stoke find themselves on the upswing in the Premier League.

West Ham (7th place last year)

The Hammers surprised many last season for a number of reasons, but none bigger than attacker Dimitri Payet.  The Frenchman led the team in goals, and was their best player all season, leading the Hammers to their highest point total in Premier League history.  It will be tougher this year with Chelsea and Liverpool expected to move back up the table, but if striker Andy Carroll can stay healthy, then he, Payet, and new signing Andre Ayew should give West Ham a formidable strike force.

Mid-table

Middlesborough (2nd in Championship last year, promoted to Premier League)

This will be Boro’s first season back in the top flight in seven years, and it looks to be the best equipped of this year’s three promoted sides to stay there. Boro had the best defense in The Championship last year and has spent big in the transfer market, bringing in established talents like Jordan Rhodes and Negredo. I could realistically see Middlesborough competing for a top half finish this season, and I expect the club to avoid the dangers of the relegation zone.

Swansea City (12th place last year)

The Swans have been another team in flux over the past couple of years. They’ve had a revolving door of strikers, fired a couple of managers and now lost their captain Ashley Williams to Everton. Swansea should have enough talent to stave off relegation, but if it go south and new striker Fernando Llorente flops, it could get ugly in Wales.

Watford (12th place last year)

Watford surprised a lot of people last year. Names like Odion Ighalo went from obscurity to prominence, and the club managed to avoid any serious relegation threat during its first season back in the Premier League. Despite curiously parting ways with last year’s manager, Quique Flores, Watford managed to keep most of its best players. The club should enjoy another steady, if unspectacular, season.

West Brom (14th place last year)

The Baggies are an oddly nicknamed and often forgettable team that plays in the West Midlands. Similarly to Stoke City, they have a reputation for being somewhat dull. While this year’s team features more talent than they may get credit for, (Salomon Rondon and James Morrison are particularly underrated), West Brom will continue to be derided for being one of the more boring sides in the Premier League. It will also remain safe from relegation.

Relegation fodder

Bournemount (16th place last year)

After a solid start to last year’s campaign, the Cherries faltered late in the season, flirting with disaster and finding themselves in a relegation battle.  Bournemouth won’t have as many injuries this year, and Jordon Ibe is a nice addition, but the roster is thin. It will be a struggle to remain safe from a relegation battle.

Burnley (1st in Championship last year, promoted to Premier League)

Burnley is in trouble. Its only major addition after promotion was Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who’s an exciting prospect but unproven at the top level. Unless there’s some late, unexpected transfer activity, expect Burney’s stay in the Premier League to be a short one.

Crystal Palace (15th last year)

Crystal Palace is a wildly inconsistent team with no legitimate striker and an erratic manager. It’s also heavily rumored to be selling midfielder Yannick Bolasie, probably the club’s top player. Palace should have an average defense but will struggle mightily to score goals consistently. Don’t be shocked to see Palace in danger come May.

Hull City (4th in Championship last year, promoted to Premier League)

This might be the worst roster in the entire league, as Hull City’s transfer business has been almost nonexistent. In fact, its only move of note was selling Mohamed Diame. Hull City doesn’t even have a manager. It will be a minor miracle if Hull avoids the drop this season.

Sunderland (17th place last year)

While it’s better than Hull, this is finally the season Sunderland gets relegated. New manager David Moyes is still trying to reinvent his career and recover from that whole Man United disaster I talked about earlier, but his lack of signings and lack of experience in a relegation battle will doom the Black Cats.

Kevin Dziepak is a producer for The Mully & Hanley Show and The Spiegel & Goff Show, as well as an update anchor at The Score. Follow him on Twitter @Kevbo_.

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