As everyone knows, the best thing about the Premier League is its absurd depth. In England you have an entire country where practically every single town worships their local club with an intensity that makes Nebraska’s passion for Cornhusker football look like Nebraska’s passion for Cornhusker soccer. Because there are so many limey bastards who live and die with the sport they created, and because the ancestors of those limey, soccer-mad bastards conquered much of the known world and exported the sport they created, and because of the insatiable interest both domestic and global in these limey bastards’ home league, the Premier League is the biggest, most famous, most valuable soccer league in the world. All of which explains the unfathomable amount of money that pours into the EPL, which in turn makes each of the league’s clubs incredibly rich, which in turn allows the clubs to spare no expense in building up the best squads money can buy. The Premier League is good because it is rich, and it is rich because it is good.
However, not every Premier League club is created equal. Nor does money necessarily have a one-to-one correlation to any given team’s quality or entertainment value. There are a handful of clubs up and down the league table that do a good job maximizing their relative spending power on savvy player and coaching decisions, which allows them to meet or exceed expectations, whether those be to win the title (like Chelsea last season) or simply to avoid relegation (like last year’s Bournemouth). The flip-side of those smart clubs are the ones that fuck things up and do worse than they could, slipping further down the table than their assembled talent or budget would imply. (Sunderland last season were a good example of this.) Then you have teams somewhere in the middle, where either through mismanagement or bad luck or the realistic limitations of their relative size compared to their competitors, they come up with good though slightly flawed teams that might be pretty fun to watch but usually aren’t quite running at optimum efficiency.
This post is for those last kinds of teams. The following clubs vary pretty drastically in terms of history, economic might, and expectations for where they’ll finish in the table. What they share is a similar level of entertainment value that puts them above the dregs of the league, but also certain weaknesses or flaws that prevent them from attaining must-watch status. Being that this is still the Premier League and thus full of compelling teams from top to almost-bottom, all of these teams are worth paying attention to this season. Just maybe not as much as a few others.
THE DO BETTER BUNCH
I know that Chelsea are the reigning champions, and also that they are third-favorites to win the Premier League this season. I know that they have one of the game’s best managers, one of the EPL’s very best players, and a (recent) history of sustained success. I would not be all that surprised if they won the league again this year, and I’m not saying that they are bad or boring or anything like that. However, Chelsea have had a very strange offseason, and if they don’t make any big changes in the near future, I don’t think they’ll be a particularly fun team to follow.
It’s hard to ignore the echoes in this Chelsea team of another Chelsea team of recent vintage. Just two years ago, the Blues were coming off a comfortable title victory, were led by a great manager, and were curiously passive in the summer transfer market, most likely believing that stability and continuity would pull them through and see them to another successful season. What happened instead was one of the most shocking collapses in recent memory as the team got off to a horrendous start to the year and endured almost unceasing torrents of public criticism from a wounded and vindictive José Mourinho, which led to the players eventually more or less mutinying against their manager, getting him fired and themselves an embarrassing tenth-place finish in the table. The odds that this year ends as disastrously as that one are pretty small, but the risk of disappointment is real.
From a personnel standpoint, Chelsea really haven’t improved their roster this summer, and arguably have even gotten a little worse. They’ve strengthened their defensive line with good young center backs Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen, but they’ve failed to beef up the squad anywhere else.
In midfield they lost Nemanja Matić and replaced him with Tiémoué Bakayoko. Bakayoko will probably be really good in the same way that N’Golo Kanté is really good, but his addition is sort of redundant when they already have Kanté. Matić was a good combination of hard-working, strong, smart, and skilled at passing. Bakayoko is better at the defensive and physical aspects of the game than Matić but his lack of passing ability might limit the attacking prowess of a team that was already fairly uncreative in the middle of the field already. Either Bakayoko starts next to Kanté and Chelsea suffer attacking-wise, or Cesc Fàbregas comes in alongside those two or in place of one and the team suffers due to Fàbregas’s defensive shortcomings. Either way, it’s not ideal.
It’s the same story on the forward line. Chelsea did invest heavily up top by bringing in Álvaro Morata from Real Madrid, but he’s coming in to replace Diego Costa, who has been excellent for Chelsea. Costa is big and strong and fast and tricky with his feet and a tiger in the box and a bull with his back to goal while holding up the ball—all traits that made him perfect for the highly demanding role Chelsea manager Antonio Conte instructs his strikers to perform. Meanwhile Morata is certainly good, but since he’s never been a regular starter anywhere no one really knows if he can do all the big and little things Conte will request of him. And from a sheer entertainment factor perspective, there’s no way Morata will be as diabolically endearing as Costa. On both functional and aesthetic grounds, Chelsea’s attack has almost certainly downgraded.
The transfer window is still open, of course, and Chelsea’s shock loss to Burnley in their season opener might wind up being a blessing in disguise if it allows Conte to convince the moneymen at the club to cough up the dough to bring in the necessary reinforcements. They probably need another central midfielder, at least one more wing back, and could use another forward, too. Chelsea got away with riding their thin squad last year because they didn’t have European play to sap the legs of their regular starters. They’ll need more depth this season to cope with all the additional games that will come from Champions League participation, and if they don’t make the right moves fast, this season could be something of a replay of 2015-16.
Newcastle, comparatively one of the bigger teams in England and by proxy the world, got relegated from the Premier League two seasons ago in humiliating fashion, and it was very funny. Then they paid out the ass to keep hold of most of their proven EPL-quality players and coasted to promotion. Now they’re back in the league where they belong with basically the same team that brought them there, hoping to reestablish themselves as safe midtable denizens. It could probably go either way.
If there is a star at Newcastle it is probably their manager, Rafa Benítez. He has proven his ability time and again as a pretty damn good tactical manager who nonetheless often runs the risk of pissing off either his players or his club’s higher-up types with his famously prickly personality. And for a good while now, Benítez has not even tried hiding his frustrations with Newcastle’s leadership.
The problem, in the manager’s mind, is that the club hasn’t done enough to improve in the summer. Benítez has reportedly been after ambitious signings like the Arsenal duo Lucas Pérez and Kieran Gibbs, and instead has only been able to bring in the likes of Javier Manquillo and Jacob Murphy, two younger players who haven’t ever demonstrated the ability to perform in a top league. You’d think—as Benítez himself certainly does—that the whole reason a club like Newcastle would hire a manager like Benítez would be because they had the ambition to spend money and build a team that could actually make something happen in the Premier League, but apparently club owner Mike Ashley has not had any change of heart of late and is still content to oversee a middling-at-best Newcastle.
Regardless of their relative lack of investment so far this summer, Newcastle still do have enough guys to put on a pretty good show. Jonjo Shelvey lived up to one half of the Jonjo Shelvey rep—meaning that he’ll do one or two cool things and follow them up by one or two horribly stupid things—already in the first game of the season by getting a dumb red card. He’ll probably come back from his suspension and score a 35-yard screamer. Either way, the soaring heights and cavernous lows of his performances should make for good fun. There is also of course USMNTer DeAndre Yedlin, who is fast as hell and had a good year for them last season and hopefully will fight his way into the starting lineup and do more cool shit. Then Newcastle have players like Ayoze Pérez, Aleksandar Mitrović, Christian Atsu, Matt Ritchie, and Rolando Aarons, a group of mostly young attackers any one of whom could make good on their copious potential.
Benítez has enough talent on the roster and is good enough of a manager that he shouldn’t have too much trouble keeping Newcastle up and from time to time playing some good soccer while doing so. It’s just that if they really tried, Newcastle could probably be so much more.
THE REALLY SOLID ONES
Crystal Palace have done quite the admirable job maintaining their Premier League status after winning promotion in 2013. They’ve never been all that close to the midtable-y clubs’ ceiling, i.e. up near the Europa League spots, but for the most part they’ve kept themselves a healthy distance from the relegation zone and done so in a manner that is pretty easy on the eye. Palace, like Newcastle, probably won’t be under serious relegation threat this year, and also like Newcastle, they’ll probably secure their 10th-15th place in the table by scoring some cute goals and upsetting a couple big boys.
Christian Benteke is the biggest name at Palace, and we are fans (even if he’s fun to poke fun at sometimes). He is huge, strong, and really good at scoring even in sides with little to no creative acumen. Last year the Belgian striker got 15 goals in 36 matches, which attests to his abilities to hit the net no matter how poor the attack around him is—Palace were pretty dire for the first half of the season under Alan Pardew before Big Sam Allardyce swooped in and saved the day—and his durability. He’s not a flashy, human Youtube compilation-type player, but Benteke is a reliable source of scoring, and scoring is always good.
If it’s flash you’re looking for in this team, it’s Wilfried Zaha who provides it. Zaha has been heralded as one of the next big things in English soccer for a few years now so it was great to see him finally break out as a full-blown stud last season. This guy is flat-out ridiculous with the ball at his feet:
Complementing Zaha out there will be Andros Townsend, who is a phenomenal dribbler but practically worthless at everything else; Jason Puncheon, the winger-turned-surprisingly-adept midfielder; Yohan Cabaye, who can still smash a 50 yard pass onto the big toe of an onrushing teammate but who hasn’t quite lived up to his reputation since coming back to England; and two three-named big-club loanees in Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, both of whom have lots of promise and may very well break out in Palace’s colors the way Zaha has.
Dutch legend and longtime Ajax manager Frank de Boer is the new coach, though don’t expect his illustrious, total football-heavy past as a player to inform much of his actual managing style. de Boer is fairly defensive minded. With players like Zaha and Benteke and Puncheon out there running around, though, Palace should be one of the better clubs of their ilk to pay attention to this season.
The Saints are and have long been a Football Manager player’s dream. The best way to play that game is to take charge of an underdog club, meticulously pluck up undervalued assets and high-potential youngsters from transfer window to transfer window, and slowly but surely climb up the soccer hierarchy to eventually challenge the league’s elite clubs as equals. Southampton have that first part down and have amassed a squad of underrated vets and precocious young guys, and because of that they are great to watch and pull for. But because they haven’t quite gotten things hitting on all cylinders lately, there is still a tiny bit of disappointment lurking in there, too.
It really is uncanny how video game-like Southampton’s roster is. They have the requisite “young players at big clubs who couldn’t break through there but are probably very good” guys like Oriol Romeu (Barcelona/Chelsea), Manolo Gabbiadini (Napoli), Mario Lemina (Juventus), Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Bayern Munich), and Ryan Bertrand (Chelsea). They have guys who killed it in smaller leagues but didn’t catch the eye of the world’s best clubs like Virgil van Dijk, Dušan Tadić, Jordy Clasie, and Sofiane Boufal. They have young, promising domestic-born guys they either picked up pretty early or developed at home like Nathan Redmond, James Ward-Prowse, and Fraser Forster. It almost wouldn’t even be fun starting a career with Southampton in Football Manager because there’s not much need for any tinkering to put together the kind of squad most players want.
With all these talents, though, you might expect Southampton to be a little bit better. Not much better, mind, as Southampton have done extremely well to finish eighth, sixth, seventh, and eighth in the table going back the past four seasons. And with the seven biggest teams in England being way richer than the Saints, there isn’t much realistic hope of them finishing higher than that.
It is not, however, too much to expect Southampton to get more out of the players they do have. Clasie and Højbjerg haven’t played as much as expected, Boufal never really got going last year; Redmond seems on the cusp of being really really good but needs to improve on his finishing and final pass; Ward-Prowse probably should start showing that he’s becoming less of a future prospect and more of a realized entity; Gabbiadini started well when he came in January but now has to show he can do it for a whole season; and so on.
No one is necessarily at fault for the team not clicking as well as it seems like it could, and the new manager, Mauricio Pellegrino, comes very well regarded after making La Liga outfit Alavés one of the more exciting clubs in Spain. So it’s perfectly plausible that Southampton will continue growing at a steady pace and improve on last year’s somewhat disappointing showing. It might not result in a much different final spot in the table, but it would make Southampton an even better spectacle for fans than they currently are, and that should be enough. And with today’s news that rich Chinese investors have purchased a controlling share of the club, there’s a chance the Saints’ future is even brighter than their present.
TEAMS DOING THE BEST THEY CAN
Leicester City, Leicester City, hmmm, where have I heard that name before ... oh yeah, Leicester won the Premier League two years ago and in doing so pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sports history! Good thing to remember!
It feels like a long time ago when little Leicester were battering their way to the EPL title, and that is a shame. The Foxes feat should never go forgotten or underappreciated. It was a stunning success of such historic proportions that the club basically gets a pass from any strong criticism for at least another three or four years so long as they don’t get relegated. Sure, Leicester weren’t as good last year as they were the year before, nor did they even punch at their weight outside of some pretty solid Champions League performances, but who really cares after that title win?
Plus, there is plenty to like about this Leicester team in its own right. The bulk of that title season’s squad remains in tact, for better and for worse. In fact eight members of Leicester’s starting lineup this weekend were regular starters during that magical run two seasons ago, and a ninth, Danny Drinkwater, will still be there and relied upon if none of the bigger clubs rumored to be interested in him buy him away.
N’Golo Kanté was the only key piece the club lost last summer, though this year could be the one where the band officially breaks up. Riyad Mahrez wants out and has been the subject of a couple bids by Italian club Roma, and Drinkwater is reportedly close to Chelsea. That would leave just Jamie Vardy as the final member of the group of Foxes that became household names almost overnight when they shocked the world.
But still, Mahrez and Drinkwater might stay, and they are still very good players. In addition, Leicester bought the young super-talented striker Kelechi Iheanacho from Manchester City, and have Demarai Gray, who looks like he could develop into a right-footed Mahrez, so there are reasons to watch the team even if their two best players leave. Appreciating Leicester this year won’t be all about reminiscing about the past.
Swansea have sort of fallen off in recent years after being the hipster darlings of England by dint of not actually being English (the club is Welsh) and because of the stylish, possession-centric playing style they were committed to. The Swansea love was at its peak during Brendan Rodgers’s days as manager, but since then the club has drifted further and further away from the playing style that won them so many fans while also sliding further down the table.
Yet if there is one man who can return the Swans to their Swansealona roots, it is one Roque Mesa, the Mustachioed Xavi:
Mesa’s story sounds a lot like Swansea’s. He spent the majority of his career toiling away in the depths of the Spanish league pyramid, latching on with Las Palmas (a club that, like Swansea, isn’t a part of the mainland nation in which they play, as Las Palmas are in the Canary Islands) in 2011 and riding with them up to La Liga for the 2016-17 season. Mesa is the prototypical possession-minded, controlling central midfielder who wants to do nothing else all match than to float around demanding the ball so that he can pass it around 100 times or so. Las Palmas were great last season in an attacking, possession-based system, and a lot of that was due to Mesa’s playmaking prowess. This ability of his, coupled with that bitchin’ mustache of his, practically by themselves make Swansea more intriguing than they’ve been for a couple years.
Watford have done very well for themselves over the past couple years. Not only have they developed into a consistent EPL team since getting promoted ahead of the 2015-16 season, they’ve also managed to do so in spite of their supremely ugly color scheme. Convincing players and fans to play for and support a lower-midtable club in a Greater London Area that has about five clubs that are more compelling is hard enough even before you throw in that gross yellow, red, and black kit they’ll have to do it in.
Nevertheless, it’s not kits that lure players to clubs, it’s money—and the Pozzo family that owns Watford is not afraid to spend it. A lot of that money has gone toward building up what is now an impressive collection of central midfield talent. Étienne Capoue, Roberto Pereyra, Tom Cleverley, Nathaniel Chalobah, Will Hughes—these are all players who at one point or another were considered elite prospects, and should just a couple of them come good (Capoue excepted, as he’s already proven his ability) the Hornets will have some midfield.
In the goalscoring positions, Watford still have beloved captain Troy Deeney, and added Burnley’s Andre Gray to the mix as well. Isaac Success and Richarlison are also attackers who could grow into useful players in the near future. New manager Marco Silva got more out of less during his heroic Hull City rescue job last year, so it’s a good bet that Watford will be perfectly acceptable viewing for most of this new season.