It almost doesn't seem like the right time to write out this large prediction set for the new Premier League season. The transfer window doesn't close until the end of the month, and therefore teams still feel incomplete until then. But, since everyone else is doing it, and I am one to bow to peer pressure on occasion, it's time to predict what will happen in the wild and wacky Premier League. There will be an updated piece when the transfer window closes, but this is what I believe will happen as things stand at 12:38 EDT, August 6 2015.
In order to do this, I'm going to steal a thought from Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe, breaking the Premier League into three separate mini-leagues: The Top 6, mid-table malaise, and relegation fodder. It's the best way of parsing the situation out without writing 20 individual previews and driving myself insane.
The Top 6:
The "Sky 6" as they're known often times have gate-crashers banging on the door, but they can never seem to break it down consistently. Before it was Newcastle, then Everton, now Southampton. Despite these "intruders" making a ruckus, the "Sky 6" often keep the party to themselves. Now while the team composition won't change, the order certainly might. Chelsea won the title last season using a barely rotated squad of world-class players that outpaced the competition almost by default. They have competition to fend off this season. Arsenal with Petr Cech in tow feel that they may have their best squad since the Invincibles of 2003-04, and there's smoke to that fire. Now if they ever signed a holding midfielder... The Manchester duo splashed the cash this summer, the blue half on a jilted Liverpool starlet, the red half on a former Bayern Munich general among others, but only one looks to have dramatically improved. The question for Louis Van Gaal has to be, what is the aim for this season? They'll more than likely soak up the Champions League cash, but they're not quite title contenders... yet. Manchester City meanwhile feel like a lameduck team waiting for next summer to make a splash, meaning this season may be more of the same of last year's second and arrow pointing down performance.
Liverpool feel as if they could win the title or finish 13th, and the margin for either is slim. They've once again broken the bank trying to re-jigger a squad that never feels settled using re-collected funds from the sale of a star whose shadow has grown too big for Anfield, and last year's spending spree didn't bring about much to cheer. Will this year bring new tidings? Christian Benteke is Premier League proven, and Roberto Firmino's rise for Hoffenheim has been notable, and exciting. Most of it will come down to a central defense that has not been improved, and a midfield that better hope Lucas and James Milner provides enough of a shield for the dynamic front 4 to work their magic. In the Blue half of North London, it seems Spurs are once again taking the long view, which as a supporter of theirs is still a shock to the system, but a pleasant one. Harry Kane is no fluke, but this means their season will probably end up largely like the last one: complete with mind-blowing and mind-numbing moments in equal measure.
The champion of this table (the winner receives a trophy made of reclaimed wood from their Eastern European Europa Excursions), is going to be Swansea City. With minimal investment made, they still look like a squad that will give everyone in the league headaches. Garry Monk has them playing beautiful and fluid football, and they have the quality to back it up. While it's not good enough to crack the Top 6, it will be good enough to safely avoid relegation and maybe give them a good cup run. Last year's gate-crashers, Southampton, will have the poison chalice of the Europa League to contend with, but for them that might not be such a bad thing. Ronald Koeman is an experienced manager who has dealt with the European headache/challenge before, and will be the one to get the best out of his retooled squad. Has some of the shine worn off their impressive seasons in 2013-14 and last year? As the English quotient drops, maybe, but there is sure to be a new star that blossoms from that academy that isn't a household name yet.
In terms of the other two clubs to round out the Top 10, how about two clubs that have radically changed their image over the past couple of seasons: Stoke and Palace? Stoke City were the team everyone hated under Tony Pulis, and for good reasons. They play anti-football, were generally pretty dirty (Charlie Adam), but always found a way to avoid relegation, much to everyone's annoyance and amusement. Now under Mark Hughes, a man that has ruined many a club previous to his arrival in the Potteries, Stoke are not only playing attractive football, but are attracting players that one would have never seen at Stoke just two years ago. They're becoming a home for rejected Barca wannabee's. They may have enough to give Europe a go this season. And about Palace, Championship playoff winners two years ago thanks to Kevin Phillips, they're now embedded in the party thanks to Alan Pardew, a sightly larger transfer kitty, and a counter-culture image. They seem safe from the slugfest below them.
If your team wasn't mentioned above, then they are here. But even then, there are three mini-tables that develop even here: the true relegation scrappers, those just above it but not by much and those who could fall there, but probably have just enough to steer clear all season. We'll begin with the "best" of those three.
West Ham United have already found their European Vacation to be going just as well as the movie of the same name did. Europa League is a major distraction, especially for a club like West Ham, so them dumping out of it ASAP may well suit them just fine as they attempt to stay in the Premier League for their Olympic Stadium move in a year. However, that won't suit West Ham supporters and the club, who have ambitions well beyond their means, even though Dmitri Payet is a statement of intent. They haven't looked good at all against mediocre opposition, which has to be concerning for Slaven Bilic, who doesn't look like he's done tinkering with his squad yet. Everton were just fifth weren't they? That feels like a long time ago. They have played attractive football, but their form fell as Europa League sapped their limited resources away. Without it, maybe they won't be as bad as they were a season ago, but then again just re-adding Gerard Deulofeu and picking up Tom Cleverly on a free doesn't inspire much confidence.
Newcastle United have some newly found optimism thanks to Steve McClaren and Mike Ashley opening up his wallet for once. The players they have attracted have surefire quality and show a statement of ambition, but this could still all go wrong, fast. It did for McClaren at Derby last season, and it's still Newcastle. It seems unlikely that they'll be dragged into the same ferocious relegation scrap as they were last season, but even then that seems unlikely at this stage.
Then, as the quality lessens, three teams standout as ones whose relegation fears are greater, but still may not be quite as dire. Aston Villa have some renewed optimism with a new sporting director, Tim Sherwood (!!!!!!!), and some quality signings, but it's still Tim Sherwood. They will play some wide open games this season, but with just enough Premier League nous they should be able to skirt the relegation car wreck. West Bromwich Albion don't have much quality anywhere, but they do have Tony Pulis, who has always kept the yo-yo up, not down. He figures to do much the same this season, which he did constantly at Stoke. Sunderland kept the manager they wanted to badly put off retirement, which is a positive, but many of them end there. Who is going to score goals for them? Do they have quality at the back? Is the malaise that has set in at the Stadium of Light of many draws, few wins outside of derby's, and constant relegation fears too ingrained now? This is something Dick Advocaat has to fight.
And for the true relegation contenders: Leicester City's great escape last season was truly great, but it still cost the fiery Nigel Pearson his job. The Tinkerman, Claudio Ranieri, is now in the dugout after a disastrous spell as manager of Greece, with even more pressure now squarely at his feet. The Foxes have plenty of quality to go around, but they still needed a great escape to escape last season, and that feels like it may be too much for them this season. Of the promoted sides, Watford feel like the one that will stay up to this man. Even though they've made a plethora of signings (with more to come, probably), the Pozzo family M.O seems to be have a club just good enough to avoid relegation constantly. Granada and Udinese seem OK with that, so it makes sense that Watford will too. Norwich City's squad isn't too different from the one that was relegated a season+ ago, which is both a blessing and a curse. They have a great squad for the Championship, but not quite one good enough to compete every week in the Premier League. Depending on how things evolve around them, the relative tranquility may be perfect in their relegation scrap, but the squad says otherwise.
And then we have Bournemouth, this season's Blackpool. This team is making its Top Flight debut after being around for over 130 years. They play in a stadium dwarfed in size possibly by your high school football team's house, are owned by a lesser Russian oilgarch and seem almost destined for a Blackpool style fate, but even then it doesn't seem to match the magic and mystique this club will have all season. Eddie Howe is a rising managerial star with his approach to the game and football in general, and it will not be a surprise that someday soon, he will be managing a bigger club. That day may come even during this season, but then again, seeing as he saved the club from the brink of extinction, maybe not. Relegation won't even feel like a step backwards this season because of the remarkable journey they've been on from the start. That Blackpool comparison might be an endearing one, but it's not a favorable one.
So after you've digested those nearly 2,000 words on the Premier League season, here are my predictions in order as of 1:40 PM EDT on August 6 (subject to change after the transfer window shuts and Jim White goes back into hibernation):
3. Manchester United
4. Manchester City
7. Swansea City
9. Stoke City
10. Crystal Palace
12. Newcastle United
13. West Ham United
14. West Bromwich Albion
15. Aston Villa
18. Leicester City
19. Norwich City
If you disagree with this, and you probably do, tell me why I'm wrong. I have enough tweets to argue around.