You’ve made it to the third and final installment of our Premier League preview, and what lies below is a rundown of what we at Deadspin consider the six (6) least bad teams in all of England’s top flight. This thirdish of the league is important because this is where teams are fighting for all-important qualification to either the Champions League or Europa League, and it is here that the shit, as they say, gets very real.

Even within this tier, though, there is a clear divide in talent and thus realistic ambitions. Two teams will most likely be happy to qualify for Europe, but might need extraterrestrial assistance to penetrate the top four. Beyond that, it’s a shitshow, and there are moves to be made and plots to be twisted yet, and no one, least of all we at Deadspin, have any idea what’s going to happen. But we’re pretending we do anyway. Here goes.


THE FIGHT FOR EUROPE

Yes, the Champions League is probably out of the question for Tottenham and Liverpool. But a trip to the Europa League this season would augur better days ahead, and both clubs are eminently capable.

Tottenham

All you need to know about Tottenham Hotspur’s chances can probably be summed up in an exchange I had with my esteemed colleague as we were divvying up teams to preview:

You don’t need more than that. If you want to know more on Spurs, though, read on.

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Two summers ago, Tottenham sold their far-and-away best player, winger Gareth Bale, to Real Madrid for around £86 million. It was hotly debated whether it was the right move at the time, but in the end, it didn’t matter; Bale was too ambitious to stay, too good not to be pursued, and ultimately too expensive not to sell. Tottenham, who were scheduled to break ground in 2014 on a new stadium to be ready in 2018, were (and are) low on funds. So with the Bale money, Spurs went out and bought a whole slew of cheapish guys to bolster the first team: Christian Eriksen, Roberto Soldado, Érik Lamela, Paulinho, Étienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches, and Nacer Chadli.

Of the seven first-teamers bought in 2013, three—Paulinho, Capoue, and Chiriches—were sold this offseason. (Benjamin Stambouli, who was bought in 2014, was also sold this summer.) Now, at the dawn of the 2015-16 season, there’s debate to whether the subsequent spending spree was failure.

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There are two ways to look at Spurs now. The first is that these players were all brought in to plug holes, and they failed at it so completely that half of them have been sold altogether after finishing sixth in the Premier League in 2014 and fifth last season. The second, more optimistic (realistic?) school of thought is that when buying a bunch of young and youngish talent, the expectation is that most won’t pan out, and the hope is that a couple turn into stars. That could still happen.

After recording seven goals and eight assists in just 25 league appearances in 2014, Eriksen tallied 10 and two while solidifying himself as the orchestrator of the Tottenham attack. He is a budding star, as is Lamela, a powerful, goalscoring winger who was brought into as a direct replacement for Bale.

Both can break out this season, and both need to, because this is not a good team. Even with Frenchman Hugo Lloris again proving himself one of the best keepers in the league and doing superhero shit every week, Tottenham still conceded 53 goals last year (for comparison, QPR and Burnley each conceded 51 goals last year; both were relegated). To shore up things, Manager Mauricio Pochettino brought in center back Toby Alderweireld, who last year anchored a stingy Southampton defense, to partner Jan Vertonghen. But they’re still going to concede a lot, so they’ll need to score. This brings us to striker Harry Kane.

Kane, a 22-year-old Englishman, burst onto the scene last season, scoring 21 goals in 34 league matches, and 31 across all competitions. He was Spurs’ savior, led all Premier League scorers save Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero, and his goals contributed directly to 24 points for his team.

Even with his success, though, there are still questions. Kane didn’t feature in a friendly on Wednesday after Manchester United reportedly offered £40 million to the cash-strapped club for their top player. Spurs open the season against United Sunday.

Kane was unstoppable for much of the season, but hit a wall in the spring, scoring only twice in his final eight appearances. There was no obvious reason for it, but Tottenham’s Premier League hopes live and die with Kane, who has the potential to be the best Spurs striker in a generation, and next year could prove to be.

They’re trash regardless, though.

Liverpool

After riding Luis Suárez all the way to second place two years back, Liverpool sold the Uruguayan to Barcelona for £75 million. Though they flipped that cash for eight players, last year was always going to be a year of transition. It was longtime captain Steven Gerrard’s sendoff season before he traveled to the great senior citizen’s home in the sky, and because the once-fierce midfielder’s legs didn’t work anymore, he was forced to play defensive midfielder, where he made the team inarguably worse. Emre Can aside, Liverpool’s new signings turned out largely to be duds or not quite ready for showtime. The Reds finished sixth, suffered from a leaky defense, and with star striker Daniel Sturridge out much of the season to injury, could only muster 52 goals all year. Sturridge and Suárez scored 52 themselves in 2014. Maybe most telling is that Gerrard led the team in scoring with nine goals, five of which came from penalties.

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This summer transfer window seemed like it would mirror the last one, because Rodgers sold their best prospect and talent off for parts. This time, it was 20-year-old playmaker Raheem Sterling moving to Manchester City for £49 million. This summer, though, it seems Rodgers is taking no chances on fliers. He flipped Sterling’s inflated fee for four players: striker Christian Benteke, versatile attacker Roberto Firmino, Southampton right back Nathaniel Clyne, and midfielder James Milner (on a free transfer). The quartet are expected to contribute immediately, joining Liverpool’s core of Sturridge, Gerrard successor Jordan Henderson, Brazilian starlet Philippe Coutinho, and center back Martin Skrtel.

It all certainly seems very exciting. Sturridge is returning from injury near the start of the season, and if everything goes well, his partnership with £32 million man Benteke has the potential to be the deadliest in England. Firmino is a fun player who can play up front or in behind the strikers. Milner and Henderson are both industrious, and there’s no real reason why they can’t hold down a narrow midfield together with Can as the anchor. Coutinho, 23, could explode this season as the no. 10 after being an absolute terror in spurts last year:

Clyne is a pretty good right back, and if nothing else, Skrtel will have more experience partnering with either Dejan Lovren or Mamadou Sakho.

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If everything goes perfectly, Liverpool might find a way to fluke their way into the top four. But there are lots of questions. Their defense isn’t greatly improved. Rodgers is often lauded for being creative and forward-thinking when Liverpool are winning, and blasted for being needlessly capricious when they aren’t. This year, he has just enough pieces in guys like wingers Jordon Ibe, Adam Lallana, and Lazar Markovic to tinker with Liverpool’s lineups in hopes of offering opponents different looks week after week. No one knows what this flexibility means for the Reds’ prospects.

Ultimately this is a team in limbo—probably not good enough to bang with the top four for an entire campaign, but a little better all over the pitch than Tottenham, Southampton, Everton, and others caught in Premier League purgatory.

Their best chance, then, is to win the Europa League. Lifting the trophy at season’s end would qualify them automatically for the 2016 Champions League. With a Champions League berth, Liverpool would be once again able to sign the world’s best players, and with them, rise again to the Premier League summit. But that’s a year or two down the road.

THE TITLE RACE

Let’s be realistic: there are four clubs that can win the Premier League. Let’s be more realistic: Chelsea are probably gonna do it. But there’s hope for Man City, United, and Arsenal, and the very strong probability of Champions League berths as consolation prizes.

Manchester City

After winning the Premier League two years ago, Manchester City put together what at first blush appeared to be a good-ass campaign last year. They finished second only to Chelsea, who beat the crap out of everyone for 38 games. They scored 10 more times than anyone else in the league, and Sergio Agüero proved further that he is the real and true shit, leading the league with 26 goals in 33 matches. City’s defense was the fifth-best in the league, but their goal differential of 45 surpassed even Chelsea’s 41. The elfin David Silva ran the midfield like a puppeteer. New signing Wilfried Bony had to fight for for time and touches, but he had an uncanny nose for goal. They seemed dope.

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Upon closer inspection, this team was fraying at the seams. At some point in the previous year, captain and center back Vincent Kompany fell off a cliff and died, and through blood magic his corpse was reanimated, and he was trotted out in uniform to direct traffic and play defense in the heart of the City back four anyway, and it was ugly and pitiful and at times painful to watch. Once the best center back on Earth, Kompany spent the entire season sucking and erring. What’s more, his partner Eliaquim Mangala, who was bought from FC Porto for nearly £30 million (!!!) sucked too, and seemed to almost purposely get lost in the treeless, perfectly and purposfully manicured lawn just as opposing teams were baring down on goal. He looked a waste of money.

During their championship campaign center midfielder Yaya Touré looked the very best at his position in the world, but he sleepwalked through last season, only rousing himself every fortnight or so to make his signature thundering runs through the midfield. Outside back Pablo Zabaleta was 30 years old but looked 10 years older, and played at times like he was 10 years older than that. Right winger Jesús Navas scored as many goals as you did. Old young man James Milner was being used as a second-half rubber stopper to plug any holes virtually anywhere in the formation that sprung a leak. Manchester City, who rode the wave of oil money to relevance and the top of the Premier League, were calcifying before our very eyes.

But all of these problems were fixable if one only threw money at them, and this summer, when City pried Raheem Sterling from Liverpool, it appeared that’s what was going to go down. Sterling, a homegrown English player, could contribute anywhere behind the striker. More to the point, he could play on the right flank, so Navas could sit his ass down.

Then, they...kinda stopped fixing things. Milner left on a free transfer. Forwards Stevan Jovetić, and Álvaro Negredo were whisked out the door. A third striker, Edin Dźeko, is moving to Italy, leaving City with only Agüero and Bony as the team’s only forward options. City are allegedly flirting with Wolfsburg forward Kevin De Bruyne, but still, one has to wonder what the fuck manager Manuel Pellegrini is doing here.

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City have regressed since winning the title two years ago. They still probably have too much talent to fall out of Champions League contention, but a number of their key players are coming off such bad seasons that multiple, simultaneous comebacks seem unlikely. Unless they make moves in the the last three weeks of this summer’s transfer window, they aren’t winning the Premier League, and are the most at risk of any club in last season’s top four.

Manchester United

Two summers ago, after winning the Premier League with weeks left to go in the season, Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps the greatest Premier League manager of all time, retired from Manchester United, perhaps the greatest Premier League club of all time. The next season, helmed by Ferguson’s handpicked successor, David Moyes, they bought midfielders Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini before finishing seventh and missing Europe completely.

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Moyes was sacked for Dutch manager Louis van Gaal, and then United proceeded to rebuild. They added six first-teamers, including Argentine winger Ángel di María for over £52 million and Colombian striker Radamel Falcao on a £6 million loan. They finished fourth last year, 17 points behind champions Chelsea, but good enough for an all-important Champions League spot.

This summer, they sold di María, who at times last year looked the best player in the league, and let the ineffectual Falcao move to Chelsea. They shipped off Robin van Persie and longtime winger Nani, and bought in midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dutch winger Memphis Depay, and Italian national right back Matteo Darmian. In the last calendar year, they’ve spent over £230 million on 11 players. This is dumb, but this is Manchester United, and so they need to keep pace with the murderer’s row of rivals that surround them.

They’ve assembled so many new pieces so fast that they’re nearly impossible to gauge. Superstar goalkeeper David de Gea may move to Real Madrid before the transfer window shuts and be replaced with new arrival Sergio Romero. Captain Wayne Rooney has played as a forward, on the wing, and in the midfield under van Gaal. After largely starting alongside or in behind van Persie last season, though, he’ll now probably be the target man in a 4-3-3.

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What we’re left with is squad with a lot of talent, and a lot of questions. They scored the fourth-most goals in the league last year while conceding the fourth-fewest but somehow had a negative goal differential on the road, and their lack of depth or talent in the heart of the defense has van Gaal seriously considering trotting out midfielder Daley Blind as a center back alongside Darmian, Smalling, and starlet left back Luke Shaw. No one knows how that’s going to work out, just as no one knows how Schneiderlin is going to fit alongside the possibly washed-up Schweinsteiger and/or United mainstay Michael Carrick. Ashley Young looks likely to start on the left side opposite Depay, with Mata playing behind Rooney as the no. 10, but there’s a lack of creative players in the squad. Outside of Rooney, who scored 12 goals and 5 assists last season, there aren’t any real matchwinners.

United are solid, which is more than can be said for a lot of English clubs, but they need more. They probably need to coax center back Sergio Ramos away from Real Madrid, and they probably shouldn’t send de Gea the other way if at all possible. They’re trying to find a way to bring in a striker like Tottenham’s Harry Kane or Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski, but they need someone, because Rooney has little cover if he succumbs to injury or sucks real bad this year. The Red Devils’ fate could go either way, and with weeks left in the transfer window, there’s no way to tell.

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If nothing else, United have Fuck You money and are willing to throw it around. Expect them to make a couple more moves, and qualify for Champions League soccer at season’s end.

Arsenal

Four years ago, still paying off stadium debt and lacking any semblance of direction or ambition, Arsenal blew up their squad, selling best player and captain Cesc Fábregas to Barcelona, and Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy to Manchester City. Coming the other way were center back Per Mertesacker, midfielder Mikel Arteta, and young prospect Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, among others. The reinforcements weren’t enough, and they finished third, 19 points behind champions Manchester City. Three years ago, Arsenal sold their best player and captain Robin van Persie to Manchester United, and Alex Song to Barcelona. Coming the other way were midfielder Santi Cazorla, forward Olivier Giroud, left back Nacho Monreal, among others. The reinforcements, again, weren’t enough, and Arsenal finished fourth, 16 points behind champions Manchester United, and the Gunners’ young core of Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Laurent Koscielny and others got ragdolled when pitted against England’s top teams.

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If you’re a slave to narrative and/or to Arsenal, you might argue that the cries by fans and pundits alike for manager Arsène Wenger to retire with his lovely wife to the south of France signified rock bottom, the dark night just before dawn. You would point out that this was a Process, and that Wenger wasn’t coaching a soccer team so much as he was promoting a soccer philosophy, and even as Arsenal were cut to ribbons, his ideals of rhythm, of quick passing and of beauty never wavered, and all Wenger needed was for the young core to mesh with the stopgap reinforcements, and for one, perhaps three superstars to believe in the Process.

So in the 2013 summer transfer window, when Arsenal signed their first superstar, German wizard Mesut Özil from Real Madrid, you may have known what was to come. They finished fourth the following May, but won the FA Cup at season’s end for their first trophy in a decade. You may have nodded last summer when along with forward Danny Welbeck and defenders Calum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy, they signed their second superstar, Chilean winger Alexis Sánchez from Barcelona, who proved to be everything. Alexis, with 16 goals and 8 assists in the league, won Arsenal’s player of the year, and the Gunners repeated as FA champions. Wenger committed to a more pragmatic 4-1-4-1 last season, with wingers that dropped back to help on defense when pressured and pushed forward into a 4-3-3 with the ball, and as a result boasted the third-best offense and defense in the Premier League.

You recognized that the signing of Chelsea keeper Petr Čech was a stroke of genius, as he’s looked imposing and unbeatable and statuesque in preseason. You may have nodded knowingly when the Gunners defeated defending Premier League champions Chelsea, 1-0, on Sunday in the Community Shield, for it signaled that the boys have grown into men, and the stopgaps are anything but, and there are three bonafide bodysnatchers on the pitch, and this might be a team that comes out and Does The Whole Shit. This is a good and righteous club with great and handsome players, but the road ahead of them is gnarled and perilous yet, and for Arsenal to capture the title, things must go perfectly.

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Alexis was the hero of the first half of the season, as Özil started the campaign struggling with form before sitting for three months due to injury. When Özil came back, he played better, but Alexis only scored six league goals after the new year. Arsenal will only go as far as the two take them, and for Arsenal to succeed this year, the two need to be on the same page. Both are dangerous because they’re free players who can drift out wide into channels, or knife through the center. If Arsenal are going to succeed, Alexis and Özil will have to be able to combine with players like Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla in what is now one of the best midfields in the world to keep possession and turn time on the ball into chances and goals.

The two players, on £140,000 a week, were the joint highest-earners in the club. This offseason, they were joined by a third, Theo Walcott, who signed a new contract. When healthy, Walcott is one of the most dangerous players in the league. But a knee injury caused him to miss the 2014 World Cup and the start of last season, and he only hit his stride in the spring. Now, as one of Arsenal’s most expensive players, he’ll be relied on to be on the pitch when fit. Because he’s short, slim, and runs faster than rabbits fuck, the right wing is clearly his best position, and so naturally he wants to play as a center forward. In every way, he’s the opposite of the Giroud, Arsenal’s lumbering, brilliant, frustrating target man. Though neither are world-class, points will be won this season on one subbing for the other midway through the second half, jarring opposing defenses.

Who starts up top ultimately shapes the rest of the lineup. Cazorla and Ramsey are both nigh undroppable in the middle, and defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin came out of nowhere last year to lead the Premier League in interceptions while shielding Arsenal’s back four of Héctor Bellerín, Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Monreal. With Walcott and later Welbeck injured, Wenger often played Ramsey on the right with Özil and Cazorla through the middle. But Ramsey’s best position is in the middle, and the future captain made it clear that this is where he wants to play. If Walcott plays out right with Giroud up top, Ramsey will get dropped since the durable Cazorla has been playing out of his mind for a year and a half. If Walcott plays up front, Ramsey will either play through the center with Özil out right, or be a good soldier on the wing. Somewhere, somehow, Oxlade-Chamberlain will get his minutes, too. Wenger’s biggest challenge may be finding a way to keep happy all these handsome 20-something millionaires getting paid scores of thousands of pounds a week to frolic in public. This is a good problem to have, but it is a problem.

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For years now, fans and pundits have said that if Arsenal only signed cover in defense, a defensive midfielder, and a superstar striker, they could win the league. Wenger brought over Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal in the January window, and Coquelin, with the aging Arteta on reserve may (may!) be enough to hold down anchor duties. But if Arsenal lack one thing, it’s a truly great striker. With the team they have, if Arsenal buy one before the transfer window closes at month’s end they will probably Do The Whole Shit. If Arsenal don’t buy one, they probably will not. Arsenal will probably not, and so they will finish second.

But they might win Champions League.

Chelsea

Let’s not overthink this. Chelsea won the Premier League easily last year. Chelsea have made no real changes to their squad. Chelsea should and will in all likelihood win the Premier League this year.

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Their manager, José Mourinho, is the best manager in the league. With The Special One calling the shots, Chelsea boast the best defense in the league, anchored by one of the best two goalkeepers and an impenetrable quartet of defenders that don’t miss games, don’t make many mistakes, and are led by John Terry, the center back who just won’t die.

Their midfield boasts Cesc Fàbregas and Nemanja Matic, who are two of the best midfielders in the league, and winger Eden Hazard, who is the best player in the league. Mourinho, who has managed both Cristiano Ronaldo and Hazard now, says that Hazard is better than Ronaldo. Mourinho’s opinion is wrong and hyperbolic, but not that wrong and hyperbolic.

Chelsea start Diego Costa as forward. Even without any hamstrings, Costa scored 20 goals last year in 26 appearances, and is at worst the second-best striker in the league. He’s backed up by Radamel Falcao and Loïc Rémy, two forwards who aren’t great, but don’t need to be, because their defense doesn’t concede.

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There are other players too, like the versatile Ramires, the silky Oscar, the thirsty Willian, the thirstier César Azpilicueta, and the grownest-ass man Branislav Ivanovic. I’m probably forgetting someone, but whatever; the point is, though Chelsea aren’t deep, they are the best team, and no one has improved enough to overtake them. For them to lose, a rather large amount of weird shit has to happen, more or less at the same time. Here is a cursory list of that shit, ranked by likelihood:

  1. John Terry figuratively or literally dies on the field.
  2. Diego Costa misses over half the season, either due to hip replacements or first starting and then brutally ending a fight against an opposing center back.
  3. Chelsea players get bored, start losing, remain bored.
  4. Arsenal sign someone very, very good who both scores and creates lots of goals at an unnatural clip, like Messi.
  5. It turns out Louis van Gaal actually knows what he is doing.
  6. It turns out Manuel Pellegrini actually knows what he is doing.
  7. There is a disaster, in Wales, perhaps, large enough to disrupt commerce throughout the United Kingdom, temporarily or permanently halting soccer before Chelsea are able to win it outright on points.

That’s basically it. The Premier League is Chelsea’s to lose.

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