PREMIER LEAGUE BACK.
Yes, now that José Mourinho’s jaws are nice and spry and primed for that shit talk he loves so much, Manchester United are still bringing in and shipping out more money than many small to medium sized countries generate in annual GDP, Liverpool have yet again lost their best player, and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere has gone ahead and done what he does best—injure himself—we feel like the English Premier League is back like it never left.
We here at Screamer aim to provide you with the best in too late and too long soccer coverage anywhere, and so here we are, kicking off our EPL previews. We’ve separated the league into three tiers: the cellar dwellers, the midtablers, and the contenders. As the natural order of things, we’ll start from the bottom.
The bottom third of this league is generally a crapshoot of ineptitude. Even the most dedicated of soccer fans will probably only watch any one of the teams at the lower end of the bottom half a handful of times any given year. And on those rare occasions where EPL fans will subject themselves to the most English of English teams, it will normally be when those clubs have the misfortune of getting punted into the mouth of a volcano by one of the contenders. The average team floating somewhere between the 20th and 14th places in the table will be bad and dull, with maybe one or two players you’d actually want to have even a cursory opinion on.
Yet, competent soccer leagues being what they are, there does remain a special time every year when the Premier League’s flotsam get their time to shine: the relegation battle. Heading into the final couple months of every season, there are generally something like five or six teams either in or within touching distance of the relegation zone. At that point, aided by the fact that these teams are so ill-suited to Premier League play that a single win or two could very easily account for something like 10-20% of their entire season point totals, those clubs will fight like hell in every match, hoping that every point they collect will be the one to save them from being sucked down into the bottom three’s maelstrom.
It’s more fun to watch the run-in of the relegation scrap when you’ve adopted some sort of rooting interest. Maybe you like the hopeless, suicidal attacking style of one of the teams, like QPR last season. Maybe you’re pulling for a relatively big though unambitious team to get sent down for shits and giggles, like Newcastle last season. Maybe you’re tired of hearing the platitudinous blather of an idiot manager so you want him out of the league, like Aston Villa last season. Maybe you like making fun of the platitudinous blather of an idiot manager so you’d like him to stick around for another season, also like Aston Villa last season.
The point is, there are potentially a bunch of reasons why you would root for or against any of the clubs who dream of nothing more than finding themselves sitting in one of the 17 Premier League chairs once the music stops. So rather than bore you with a thorough accounting of Bournemouth’s transfer strategy and Sunderland’s probable starting XI, it’s probably best to just consider some of the reasons why, come those last few weeks of the season, you might have reason to hope Norwich nab that 17th spot at the expense of Leicester. We’ll split this group of seven teams into three groups.
THE NEW BOYS
Our new blood this season—swapping places into the EPL and out of the Championship with QPR, Burnley, and Hull—are Bournemouth, Watford, and Norwich.
If you have a soft spot for the little engine that probably can’t, Bournemouth should hold a special place in your heart. This will be the Cherries’ first-ever participation in England’s top flight. Not so long ago, Bournemouth toiled away near the bottom of the country’s professional divisions, being docked 10 and the next year 17 points while in the fourth tier as punishment for going bankrupt.
Then, in December 2008, entered 31-year-old Eddie Howe, a former player who came up through the club’s youth system and went on to make over 250 appearances for the Cherries. In his first year he managed to avoid relegation to the fifth tier despite the 17 point deduction. In his second, he got them promoted into the third division. After spending a year and a half as manager of Burnley, Howe returned to Bournemouth in 2012 and lead them to another promotion. And in the club’s second season in the Championship, the attack-minded manager went ahead and won the league, getting his boyhood club into the Premier League for the first time ever.
As you might imagine with a young, English manager bringing glory to the club he’s spent basically his entire life with, Howe is the star man at the club—and for good reason. He’s a lock to be managing a bigger team in England sooner than later, and he’s a dark horse candidate to succeed Roy Hodgson as coach of the national team. Howe typically plays an attacking 4-4-2 with speedy forwards and wingers able to get in behind the opponent’s back line. Under his guidance Bournemouth had the best goal difference in the Championship last season, scoring more goals than anyone else while also conceding the second fewest. This is a team that deserved to make it into the Prem, which is why they have the best odds of all the newcomers to stay up.
Player-wise, there isn’t too much of interest on paper, though that could change once play begins. The 20 goals of 23-year-old striker Callum Wilson lead the team last season, his first with the Cherries, and he’ll expect to keep his place as starting striker. Wilson’s probably little more than a quintessential Championship goalscorer, though, so don’t expect too much from him.
Bournemouth’s most exciting attacking player, and probably their best overall, is Matt Ritchie. The right winger managed to get on the scoresheet 15 times last year and also laid on 17 assists for his teammates. Cutting inside from the right, his jackhammer of a left foot is always a threat to bend one into the far corner or slap a pass through the defense for Wilson or another striker to run onto and finish himself.
Aside from what they’ll bring up with them their squad of last season, they have made a couple intriguing moves in the transfer window. Most promising is Ivory Coast international winger Max Gradel, whom they brought in from France where he scored 17 goals for St. Etienne. They’ve also signed Chelsea’s Christian Atsu on loan, who is super young and raw but could blossom under Howe.
In all, Bournemouth are a very likable crew. The club is really small, their manager is destined for big things, they will actually go out and try to get some damn goals, and they have a few players that will be fun to watch. What’s not to like?
There’s really no telling what Watford are going to look like this year, except that they will probably be bad. This is mainly because the club is owned by the Pozzo family, who are crazy. Not necessarily crazy in a bad way; they’re supportive of the club and more than willing to invest. But crazy nonetheless.
When Watford take the pitch on Saturday against Everton, they will presumably be lead by manager Quique Flores. No one is quite sure what style Flores will implement because it will be his first game in charge of Watford. It’s impossible, really, to predict if they’ll play anything like last season because there was never any one way they played last season. In the last 12 months, Watford have had five different managers. And that’s because the Pozzos are kind of crazy.
Flores, like a few managers we’ll see here at the bottom of the EPL table, was once a highly-regarded coach at the highest levels of European soccer. The long-time Valencia defender has already been in charge of his former club, Atlético Madrid, and Portuguese giants Benfica. However, he never quite lived up to expectations at those big jobs and has since found himself hopping from place to place every year or so. After spending half of last season back in Spain with Getafe, he resigned at the end of the year and came to Watford.
While the Pozzos aren’t the most patient when it comes to managers, they have shown a willingness to spend money on players. This is another reason why it’s hard to say much about how Watford will play; their roster this season is almost completely different than the one they finished second in the Championship with. The Pozzos also own Serie A’s Udinese and La Liga club Getafe, and they very often mine those markets when looking for new talent. Hence why they’ve brought in biggish-name players like José Holebas (formerly of Roma), Valon Behrami, and Miguel Britos (both ex-Napoli players), and Udinese players Matěj Vydra (on loan last year, now made permanent) and Allan Nyom to hopefully extend their time in the top division for more than one year. Those players have proven their quality at one time or another—as has their best addition, Tottenham’s Étienne Capoue, who is probably still really good in spite of his really bad experience with Spurs—but whether they come together in time to get around 40 points is anyone’s guess.
So yeah, nobody really knows what this team will look like. They are far and away the favorites to drop right back down. Still, it’s not impossible that everything comes together and the Pozzos’ magic works as well here as it has in Italy and Spain. There’s a shot that, come the final whistle of the final match day, huge Watford fan, former club owner, and lifetime club president Elton John is leading fans in a rousing rendition of “Rocket Man” rather than “Candle In The Wind.”
Remember these guys? How could you forget Norwich, with their ... unique choice of color scheme?
Norwich managed to rebound from their relegation from the Premier League in 2013-14 by winning the promotion playoff last season. They will take basically the same team from back then into the league this year, which will probably be as boring as their last EPL stint and thus not worthy of anyone’s time.
Their manager, Alex Neil, is a youthful 33 years old and lead the Canaries to a rousing second half of the season that saw them win promotion. Unlike Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe, though, no one’s sure if he’s actually good or not. The team itself is exceedingly uninteresting, save good old Wes Hoolahan, whom I like just because of his name, and Nathan Redmond. Redmond, as any wise Football Manager player will tell you, has long been considered a potential stud of a winger. The 21-year-old finally broke out last season with six goals and 13 assists in all competitions, while also being one of the league leaders in chances created and successful take-ons.
The only real fun in watching Norwich this season will be seeing if Nathan Redmond can continue his growth at the highest level.
The media, quite justifiably, has made a whole lot of noise about the new money pouring into the Premier League thanks to its new TV deal. England has had the richest league for years now, and this new broadcasting deal will do nothing but increase the financial might of EPL clubs, even the relatively small ones.
Already we’ve seen the effects of this. Clubs like Stoke City, Crystal Palace, and West Ham have gone after and often signed players from around Europe’s leagues of surprisingly high pedigrees, thanks to the transfer fees and contract terms they can now afford. In today’s market, midtable English clubs can compete with almost any other club outside Europe’s handful of true superpowers for players.
This is even reflected near the bottom of the table. Despite likely fighting for survival, both Aston Villa and Leicester City have taken advantage of their newfound economic strength by pushing the limits of what kind of players bad EPL teams can acquire.
Leicester were very nearly the heart-warming story of the season coming into this year. They spent almost the entirety of last year rock bottom in the table with a nutty, confrontational manager who came very close to being fired multiple times. Yet in the final weeks of the season, Leicester managed to win seven of their last nine matches, spring-boarding out of the bottom and into safety in one of the best runs you’ll ever see.
But then that controversial manager’s son and some other players went to Thailand, the native home of the club’s owners, banged some hookers in degrading fashion, filmed it, and saw the footage leaked to the world. Those players were swiftly cut from the team, and in what everyone suspects was in some way related to his son’s incident, manager Nigel Pearson left the club in the summer. Leicester are no longer quite the feel-good story they could’ve been.
None of that should sully the performance of the team that remains, though. In place of Pearson is Claudio Ranieri, former manager of Chelsea, Juventus, Inter, and half the rest of Serie A. Ranieri has a bit of a bad rap in English circles—what with their belief that nothing that happens outside the Premier League really counts and his allegedly disappointing stretch with Chelsea in the early aughts—but that should make you pull for him more. He has proven pretty much everywhere he’s been to be a smart coach who knows how to build a team, with an admitted tendency to futz with things when he least needed it—think the Italian Andy Reid if Reid had the reputation of Norv Turner.
Ranieri has said he’ll rely largely on the team and style that got the club out of the relegation zone last season, which is competent but not much to write home about. Jamie Vardy was the biggest surprise of last year, parlaying his goals and work-rate into an England cap.
The team lost old man Esteban Cambiasso, who despite his old man status was still the fulcrum of the team’s play from his deep midfield position. However, they are trying to fill the Argentine’s shoes with players like Charles Aránguiz, a flat out stud of an attacking mid, and Gökhan Inler, a really good defensive midfielder for Napoli. These are the examples of that new EPL money; should they nab two players of that quality from two of the biggest teams in Turkey and Italy, they’ll prove their determination to make something of themselves in the Premier League while also showing how new of a world this really is.
Tim Sherwood. The gift that keeps on giving.
Sherwood is a funny guy, about as lovable as he is detestable, and for the same reasons. When Tottenham got rid of André Villas-Boas a couple years ago midseason, they brought in Sherwood, who at that time was managing the youth side. Sherwood proceeded to win over many of the fans jaded by AVB’s defensiveness and many players’ apparent disinterest. “Tactics Tim” did manage to score more goals, mainly by putting out lineups of almost entirely attacking players. He also inspired better performances from some of the players, in part with the goals that came from sending every single player into the box and also from bitching them out in the media.
At Tottenham, Sherwood cut the figure of a blustery leader who wanted men—not boys, men—who would follow him into the most one-sided of battles with nary a quiver of fear and give everything they had for the shirt, or else he’d kick them out of the ranks entirely. This persona didn’t quite take with everyone, seeing as he came off more buffoonish than awe-inspiring, but it was enough to get him the Aston Villa job once they fired their manager last year.
In his new position, Sherwood did legitimately show improvements. He is a proponent of bringing along youth, and as he did with Nabil Bentaleb and Harry Kane with Spurs, his faith in the promising teenager Jack Grealish proved wise. Like he did with the struggling striker Emmanuel Adebayor at Tottenham, he managed to turn Christian Benteke back into the goal-scoring monster he looked on his way towards becoming before a bout with injuries hampered his growth. Sherwood did indeed get Aston Villa goals, made a few of their players look pretty good, and got them to Premier League safety with an FA Cup final appearance to boot. But he’s still kind of an arrogant asshole who doesn’t really look like he knows what he’s doing. Again, for all those reasons, we love to hate him.
Squad-wise, Villa are in a period of flux. Benteke and midfielder Fabian Delph, two of their most important players last season, are gone to Liverpool and Manchester City, respectively. Losing players of that quality from a team that already just barely managed to avoid the drop will do a number on their chances, but the players they’ve brought in as replacements could turn out to be great additions. Jordan Ayew will try to replace Benteke’s goals, and from a strictly talent point of view, he could do just that. While not the aerial threat Benteke is, Ayew is incredibly gifted in basically all other aspects of the game. Ayew is a regular for the Ghana national team, isn’t all that consistent, but if Sherwood can do with him what he has for Kane, Adebayor, and Benteke, the Ghanaian could develop into a better-than-average EPL forward.
Filling in for Delph and the departed Tom Cleverley in midfield will most likely be Carles Gil and Jordan Veretout. Gil was brought in last January from Valencia but didn’t feature much as he acclimated himself to the league. Veretout comes to England from Nantes in France, and has the potential to one day be the best player on the whole team. Both players are smart, creative guys with loads of promise and could come good sooner than later.
Villa’s most enticing prospect, though, remains Grealish. When he’s not getting to’ up at the club (it was the offseason, let him live), he’s tearing up back lines with his speed and dribbling.
He’s still really young and didn’t really start showing his stuff until late last season, but Sherwood will give him every opportunity to impress in the league this season.
All of that makes Aston Villa one of the more entertaining and interesting teams at the bottom of the league. Throw in the love/hate relationship with Sherwood and you have a win-win scenario: if they perform well, it will be because the young guys and new additions are realizing their potential; if they stink up the joint, you can laugh at Sherwood and all the dumb shit he’s sure to say about his failure.
Now here we get to two teams you flat out just shouldn’t watch, Sunderland and West Brom. These teams have been in the Prem for a while by now, haven’t done anything of interest in the transfer market, don’t play a particularly attractive style, and between the two have maybe one player whose progression you’d want to check up on as the season goes along. But while you shouldn’t necessarily love either of these teams, you don’t have to hate them, either.
Sunderland are the less defensible of the two in this category. Along with Newcastle, they are one of just two Premier League teams in the northern third or so of England. While the north isn’t as populous as the south, one of if not both of Sunderland and Newcastle should be able to galvanize that region of the country and in turn become one of England’s bigger clubs. Nobody’s saying Sunderland should be Tottenham, but they should at least be something closer to Everton.
The squad Sunderland are running out this year is not good; even worse, it’s boring. There are only two players on the whole team I’m even halfway interested in hearing from: Jeremain Lens, only because I bought him once in FIFA a few years back, when he was believed to be the next big thing, and Emanuele Giaccherini, only out of morbid curiosity to see if he is really and truly dead. Oh, and I guess to see how many minutes they give accused sex criminal Adam Johnson.
They are now managed by Dick Advocaat, the third coach we’ve talked about who used to be somebody. He still seems like a cool guy, though, and he cried when Sunderland secured their place in the Prem last season even though he’d only been with the club for a couple months, so it’s hard to root against him. The club did sort of try to make it happen a couple years ago when they splurged on players like Johnson and Giaccherini and Jozy Altidore, but it didn’t work out. It makes sense that it would take a few years to regroup after that. Still, that doesn’t mean anybody has to like it.
Tony Pulis is a genius. He’s basically the mid- and lower-table’s answer to José Mourinho. He knows exactly how to get his team to play the exact style he needs that will exactly ensure EPL safety and, in the best circumstances, something higher than that. Last season Pulis was in charge of Crystal Palace until he realized he wasn’t in the middle of tiff with the club’s board. In protest he resigned. He then joined West Brom midseason and proceeded to do what he always does by keeping them safe. Pulis’s teams are far from fun, but you have to respect his hustle. I won’t go out of my way to watch the Baggies, even though striker Saido Berahino might could grow into a pretty good striker, but I’ll take solace at the end of the season when I inevitably see their name safely ensconced among the upper teens in the table.
All photos via Getty