For the American sports fan, following soccer means a reorientation about what constitutes success. With the success of the top teams reinforced by Champions League appearances and an enhanced global profile, there is a virtuous cycle to being good that makes it even harder to break into the top. At the other end, there are newly-promoted teams made up of Championship quality players, and teams run by absolutely inept owners.
Trapped in between we have seven teams, not good enough to seriously contend for a Champions League spot and in no danger of being relegated. The funny thing is, in some ways the worse of these teams will be judged to have had a more successful season. For some, just staying out of the relegation dogfight and remaining in the Premier League for another season is a success. Others fancy themselves able to compete with the big boys and will be disappointed when they do not.
These teams won’t lose a night’s sleep over relegation worries, and when they beat one of the top-six you probably won’t be surprised. Everton is the class of the lot, but don’t be surprised if either Stoke or Swansea finish above them.
Remember when Everton were fun? Remember the 2013-14 season when they made a serious run at a Champions League spot and Yung Cock Lukaku did cool shit all the time and Leighton Baines was the best left back in the world and Tim Howard was Superman? That was cool, but that was forever ago. This is the only good thing Everton did all last season:
Partially, Everton suffered from the curse of playing in Europe. Last season’s 11th place finish remedied that problem, which is a good thing, I guess. They picked up Tom Cleverley and former loanee Gerard Deulofeu to solidify the midfield, and Yung Cock Lukaku is still leading the line with even Yunger Cock Ross Barkley slotted in behind him. In the midfield they have a bunch of those guys you don’t immediately think of, but after James McCarthy or Muhamed Bešić or Leon Osman step into the game you remember they’re pretty good players.
Assuming Yung Cock Lukaku can remain healthy—and he’s missed the last couple of friendlies and is in doubt for the season opener—Everton’s attack will be fine. Assuming they can fight off Chelsea’s advances for center back John Stones for the rest of the month, the defense should be alright too, though it is unclear that manager Roberto Martinez is a good defensive manager, and Tim Howard might not be good anymore.
Everton’s early schedule is absolutely brutal. After opening against Watford, they get Southampton, Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea, Swansea, West Brom, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal. It’s quite possible they’ll be sitting in 17th on something like a miserable nine points out of a possible 30, and will do something panicky like fire Roberto Martinez. But after that, everything should be fine!
It is time for you to start paying attention to Stoke again, at least insofar as you pay attention to the mediocre teams of the Premier League. Under Mark Hughes the past two seasons, Stoke have remade themselves into a squad that occasionally plays with some flair, and is worth watching. No longer will you curse when a Stoke game is on TV, knowing you’re in for 90 minutes of elbows and long throw-ins and parked busses on an almost illegally tiny pitch.
Last summer Stoke signed Barcelona reject Bojan, and after a slow start he showed off the quality that once made him the stud of La Masia. This summer Stoke signed Barcelona reject Ibrahim Afellay, and are you really going to bet against them pulling it off again? They captured once-upon-a-time Chelsea wunderkind Macro Van Ginkel on loan, and even put in a serious bid for Xherdan Shaqiri, which would’ve been an insane transfer rumor just two seasons ago and is still kinda crazy, but probably would’ve worked out.
Stoke had the sixth best defense in the Premier League last season, with Ryan Shawcross and a bunch of dudes you’ve never heard of like Marc Wilson, Phil Bardsley, and Erik Pieters putting in solid, reliable shifts. They sold keeper Asmir Begović for a cool £8 million, paving the way for future England keeper Jack Butland to prove whether or not he can become one of the best in the world. Liverpool castoff Glen Johnson is the only major change in the defense, which once again will be quite good.
In just two seasons Stoke totally transformed how they played, from a ruthlessly-effective but morally bankrupt side to something bordering on aesthetically pleasing, and they somehow got better during this transition. Stoke are proof positive that even the worst of us can change.
Swansea just keep on keeping on. They’ve been in the Premier League long enough that nobody gets to claim hipster credit for supporting them anymore. No longer can you pretend to be superior to your friends by leaning over and saying confidently, “Hey man, they’re this cool Welsh team that plays in a tiny stadium and has a funny name, but these guys play an attractive and slick-passing brand of football!”
After the year-and-a-half blip that was Michael Laudrup’s tenure, manager Garry Monk has joined previous Swansea managers Roberto Martínez and Brendan Rodgers as eventually destined for bigger and better things. His main challenge is figuring out where the goals are going to come from. After losing Wilfried Bony to Manchester City during the January transfer window, Swansea had nobody that struck fear into the opposition’s heart. Gomis could be that man, and they signed Portuguese forward Éder from Braga, but their lack of quality upfront really puts a ceiling on how good they can be.
Swansea lost nobody of consequence this summer, and without having to worry about European football, they’ll look to launch an assault on the FA Cup, and dream of overtaking a Tottenham or Liverpool. They probably won’t succeed, but just the fact that these dreams aren’t laughably out of reach says it all.
FUCKED BY THE EUROPA LEAGUE
The Europa League is supposed to be a prestigious international competition, a place for Europe’s near-elites to battle it out. And for teams in La Liga, who take the competition very seriously, that’s exactly what it is. But in England, the Europa League is really just a millstone hanging around the necks of those unfortunate enough to qualify.
The Europa League has never been seen as a prestigious competition, probably because the English revere the FA Cup, and thus the Europa League is at best the third priority for most teams. It means increased games, resulting in fatigue in injuries. It means flying across the tundra of Europe to take on some random team in Russia. It means playing a match on Thursday and having fewer than 48 hours before playing again in the Premier League.
There have been attempts to improve the prestige of the Europa League in recent years. The winners now receive an automatic entrance into the Champions League group stage, a nice backdoor for the teams who can’t make it through the front, and the prize money has increased. But for teams in England’s middle class, who don’t have the depth nor the quality to compete on multiple fronts, competing in the Europa League usually means a drop in the table.
I don’t even know who plays for Southampton anymore. A bunch of moderately priced guys who succeeded in the Netherlands or Croatia or Greece, I guess. Two summers ago they sold Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers, and Rickie Lambert, and this summer they sold Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathaniel Clyne. There is still some academy talent kicking around—until someone buys James Ward-Prowse for an inflated £26m next summer—but mostly Southampton are stocked with under-the-radar shrewd buys.
Their season has already begun, as last year’s surprise seventh place finish put them into the third round of Europa League qualifying. Last week they beat Chelsea farm club Vitesse 3-0, for their first win in Europe since 1981. They finished off the two-legged tie with a 2-0 victory today, and looked primed to at least advance to the group stage, ensuring at least eight more games.
Victories in the Europa League are usually pyrrhic ones for English clubs, but Southampton might be able to buck this trend. It sure seems like they are going to take the competition seriously from the very beginning, instead of playing the 18-year-olds and sort of hoping they lose. This will probably mean a step back from their seventh place finish last season, but Southampton are uniquely suited not to freak out about this. Sure, they sat in the top-four for long stretches last season, but this is a club that is still just a few years removed from almost going into administration, a club that still has to sell their best players when the bigger fish get hungry. A step backwards, if accompanied by a deep Europa League run, wouldn’t be a disaster.
West Ham’s season started a month ago. By virtue of finishing atop the Fair Play charts last season, they earned a berth into the first round of Europa League qualifying, and their first game was July 2. They defeated Andorran Lusitanos 4-0 over two legs, tied Maltese Birkirkara 1-1 but advanced on penalties, and just got bounced 4-3 on aggregate by the Romanian Astra Giurgiu.
After finishing 12th last season, West Ham fans all across the internet are startlingly optimistic. At first glance, it’s not hard to understand why. They replaced the dreadfully uncreative Sam Allardyce with Slaven Bilić, advanced through two rounds of the Europa League, and made a couple of good signings. But the structural disadvantages West Ham will have to endure are such that they’re likely to regress.
West Ham don’t really have the squad size to compete on multiple fronts, yet they are already doing so in Europe. They brought in a new manager with a new style, but had literally no preseason to work through new tactics with new players. Their early start will pay off at the beginning of the season, as West Ham will be sharper than their opponents, but the extra month of football is going to take its toll, and West Ham is a prime candidate to disappoint.
ARE WE SURE THEY WON’T BE RELEGATED?
Every season a couple of seemingly-solid teams get dragged down into the relegation bar fight. Here are two candidates from the middle of this year’s pack.
Newcastle owner Mike Ashley is the biggest wanker in the Premier League. He’s shown little desire to leverage one of the biggest clubs in the world and attempt to compete, he cares more about the Newcastle as a promotional vehicle for his sporting goods company than a football club, and regularly bans the media from covering mundane press conferences in a Streisand effect-esque attempt to wallpaper over how shoddily he runs the club and how much fans hate him.
Newcastle finished 15th last season, and they and their bullshit defense would have been relegated if there were any karma in the world. (There is not.) Instead, in an abrupt departure from precedent, this summer Newcastle flashed the cash, and their big-money signings weren’t from the French diaspora! They snatched up a young Serbian striker and a proven Dutch attacking midfielder, meaning they’ll likely score enough goals for a triumphant 13th place finish. Their defense will remain basura and Mike Ashley will continue pocketing the outlandish amount of TV money he gets every year. Sports are bad.
Crystal Palace seemed doomed last season, cycling through three managers before paying Newcastle £3.5 in compensation for the right to hire Alan Pardew. Pardew was a goddamn miracle worker and guided Palace to 10th, their highest-ever Premier League finish.
Up top Crystal Palace start industrious striker Glenn Murray, who started from even below the bottom—in America’s USL Pro League—and now he’s here. New signing Connor Wickham will eventually take his spot, but not for a few games at least. They have a solid if unremarkable defense, and so the real action is in the midfield. Club record signing Yohan Cabaye will slot somewhere in the middle, flanked by the rejuvenated Wilfried Zaha and the criminally underrated Yannick Bolasie on the wings.
Palace’s goal this season is to firmly establish themselves as a member of the Premier League’s middle-class. They need to steer clear of the newly promoted clubs and the likes of Sunderland and Aston Villa, avoiding the relegation battle and firmly set up shop in 14th or above.