Thursday, August 31, 2017

2017-18 Premier League Predictions post Transfer Deadline

   Three weeks ago, I wrote a Premier League predictions piece with plenty of transfer window to come. Because the transfer window ends after each team has played a few games, it meant that teams weren't as complete as they would be. Now, the transfer window has slammed shut, Big Ben isn't chiming anymore (but that was already the case), and Jim White has been cryogenically until this time next year. It's time to take a look at the Premier League as all of the transfer dust has settled.


20. Brighton and Hove Albion
19. Burnley
18. Huddersfield Town

No changes to this group despite Huddersfield and Burnley getting off to surprising starts. Brighton have made a bunch of moves, but their squad still lacks Premier League quality in many places. Burnley were incredibly lucky in their first two road fixtures, and that luck isn't likely to continue into the future, though they seem to have adequately replaced Andre Gray. And though Huddersfield is off to a flying start, it stands to reason that the better teams in the league will expose their frailties. None of their late transfer business really changes their place in the table.

Relegation fodder:

17. Crystal Palace (were 16th initially)
16. Newcastle United (were 11th initially)
15. Swansea City (were 17th initially)
14. Watford (were 14th initially)

Crystal Palace's transfer window was pretty shocking, and their start to the campaign was equally so. Frank De Boer is under pressure and though the Eagles will adapt to his system eventually you'd think, will he be around to see that happen? Newcastle had more transfer window drama and their squad is still very thin in places (see left back), but Rafa has enough there to keep them just out of the relegation places. Swansea's place is more secure after adding in Renato Sanches on loan, but also bringing back Wilfried Bony will help them replace the goals they lost when Fernando Llorente moved to Spurs. And Watford continued their trend of bringing in a hoard of players they'll probably never use, but their start to the season ensures that they're probably safe again. Marco Silva has the managerial talent and young Richarlison is quite the find.

Safe, but not secure:

13. Bournemouth (were 11th initially)
12. West Ham United (were 9th initially)
11. Stoke City (were 13th initially)

Bournemouth's start to the season is concerning, but they still have the attacking ability and the manager to get them out of their little funk, though it is concerning to see that they haven't really strengthened the squad outside of bringing in Jermain Defoe as a reserve. They should be OK though. The same is likely the case with West Ham, though Slaven Bilic is under immense pressure with his team looking quite poor. They haven't played a home game yet though, and they started slow last year though eventually got it right. Stoke City is so weird, because they seem to have stagnated but with shrewd additions like Jese and Eric Maxim Choupo-Mouting, they should be good enough to steer clear of the relegation mire, though again, that stagnation is a concerning prospect.

Best of the Rest:

10. West Bromwich Albion (were 14th initially)
9. Leicester City
8. Southampton
7. Everton 

How does Tony Pulis pull off what he manages to pull off? Signing Grzegorz Krychowiak on loan from PSG is a masterstroke, as is getting the highly touted Oliver Burke. Once they get 40 points, they will head to the beach until next season, but they could easily hit that Pulis magic number way sooner than in past years. No changes for Leicester, Saints or Everton despite their flurry of activity. Leicester somehow managed to hold onto Riyad Mahrez against the odds, and have given Arsenal and United good tests at their grounds already. Combine that with their ability to easily dispatch teams below them, they're a mid-table team easy. Southampton also somehow kept Virgil Van Dijk and strengthened their defense too with Wesley Hoedt. Mauricio Pellegrino is a good manager too, so Saints are going to continue to chug along as they always do, despite players and managers being rotated through almost interchangeably. And for Everton, in spite of their bonanza of a window, they haven't done enough to broach the top six and with Ross Barkley still at Goodison Park, there's unfinished drama ahead.

The Sky Six:

6. Arsenal (were 4th initially)

What a mess of a window. Here is their transfer window summarized in one tweet:
That's no good. Even though they brought in Alexandre Lacazette, that's fixing a problem that didn't exist, and they didn't strengthen elsewhere. Many of the same problems they've had for years still remain, and though they kept Alexis Sanchez, he's likely to leave on a free next summer. There wasn't much foresight or a plan this summer for Arsenal, and though they shifted out plenty of deadweight, they have more holes than they did a year ago. Problems are afoot at the Emirates.

5. Tottenham Hotspur

They did make transfer moves eventually, in fact they made five of them. They remade their depth options along the backline in signing Davinson Sanchez and Juan Foyth, replaced Kyle Walker with Serge Aurier and added Fernando Llorente in an odd move to get goals from the striker position behind Harry Kane. But they are still not exactly deep behind their best XI, and they will be tested in big ways on all fronts this year, and there's still the matter of that Wembley mental block. They need great form from players like Moussa Sissoko, Georges Kevin N'Koudou and a healthy Erik Lamela to replicate what they did last year, and as of this point that seems unlikely.

4. Liverpool (were 6th initially)

There is no team outside of Manchester United that has been more impressive starting their campaign than Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp always knows how to get Liverpool humming against the best teams, and their demolition of Arsenal was incredibly impressive. Adding Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the mix is also good business for sure. However, the squad is still imbalanced towards attack, they have a purportedly unhappy Phillipe Coutinho in the squad and they never perform as they should against the league's worst teams. They have a chance to really grow this season, but that growth could still be stunted by problems of their own making.

3. Chelsea (were 2nd initially)

Chelsea's shocking opening day loss to Burnley at home has been mitigated by their wins against Spurs and Everton, but there's still something not right about this squad. It's thin in many places, especially striker, and their late additions in the forms of Davide Zappacosta and Danny Drinkwater aren't exactly inspiring. They're not in danger of falling out of the Champions League picture, but they are in danger of being lapped by the two Manchester clubs for the title because their squad is just not deep enough. However, Eden Hazard's return is something to keep an eye on.

2. Manchester United (were 3rd initially)

No one has been more impressive to start the season than the Red Devils. Nemanja Matic has freed up Paul Pogba to be Paul Pogba, and Romelu Lukaku is finishing the chances that United didn't finish last year. How they perform against the best teams in the league is another story entirely, but they could easily build up a huge head of steam going forward in advance of big games to come. The squad could use some improvement at the back, but everywhere else they look incredibly deep and incredibly imposing. Jose's second year magic might make its way to Old Trafford this campaign.

1. Manchester City

In spite of all of the moves made below them, and the distinct lack of Alexis Sanchez in sky blue, City remain favorites for the title. Their attack is devastating going forward as already evidenced, and with the fixes at the fullback positions, the squad is certainly more balanced. However, they may not have as much depth as they'd like, especially at centerback, which is a concern. But when Pep's team is playing a full flow, no one is beating them. And what may be terrifying is that City haven't come anywhere close to showing their best yet.

With the transfer window shut, the season can truly begin. There is plenty to be excited about for almost every team come the return of the Premier League, so now that the moves have been made and everyone's phones are down, let's get to the football.

Friday, August 11, 2017

2017-18 Premier League Predictions (thus far)

      The 2017-18 Premier League season is upon us, which means it is invariably time for predictions. Making Premier League predictions at this time of the year is actually quite difficult, because clubs have not finished their transfer activities as of yet, and dramatic shifts in squad composition can often change the narrative and predictions. Because of this, the predictions here will be updated in a further post when the transfer window shuts at the end of the month, but until then these are the official Matt's Sports Musings Premier League predictions, at least for the next 21 days.

20. Brighton & Hove Albion

It is great to see the Seagulls in the top flight for the first time in 35 years, and with Chris Hughton, they have an experienced manager who will help them through the grind that is a top flight season. But they don't have the quality in their squad to compete realistically with their relegation rivals, even though they are now investing more money. It will be a short, but sweet return for Brighton in the top flight.

19. Burnley

Burnley found a way to stay up last year by being remarkably effective at Turf Moor and almost discounting their road form entirely. But this season, after selling Michael Keane and Andre Gray, they will be in some serious trouble because that home form isn't necessarily replicable, and their squad is weaker than it was a season ago. Sean Dyche is a great manager, but he'll have to perform some miracles to keep the Clarets up this year.

18. Huddersfield Town

David Wagner is a great younger manager that will become easy to like and admire, thanks to his Jurgen Klopp similarities. His Terries will play a brand of football much like a Terrier; aggressive, exciting if a bit out of control at times. Their budget is small, but they've made smart additions in order to give themselves a fighting chance to stay up. The likelihood is that they won't, but at least they'll be easy on the eyes in their first top flight campaign since 1972.

17. Swansea City

After much managerial turmoil last season, Paul Clement helped to stabilize a Swansea team that needed direction or else they'd be heading down. They got it in the nick of time. They have strengthened that much, and to this point they still have Gylfi Sigurdsson in one of the summer's most protracted transfer sagas. They have questions just about everywhere on the pitch, but fewer questions seemingly than the three clubs below them.

16. Crystal Palace

After another Big Sam rescue job, Palace are still kicking in the Premier League despite coming ever-so-close to going down. Frank De Boer comes in to replace Big Sam and he has some career rehabilitation to do after a disastrous spell at Inter. He's only brought in three players, two of them on loan, and the squad still has some sore spots that need to be addressed. But if he can get the best out of Christian Benteke, Palace should be able to survive another turbulent season at the bottom of the table.

15. Watford

A club no stranger to turmoil in the dugout and the dressing room, Watford again went with more changes when they hired Marco Silva and invested heavily in English talent this summer. With the additions of Nathaniel Chalobah, Will Hughes and Andre Gray, the club is trying to give Marco Silva more to work with than they did the previous manager, Walter Mazzarri. Silva has shown good tactical acumen before, and with a much deeper squad than he had at Hull, he should be able to do enough to keep Watford safe.

14. West Bromwich Albion

Once they hit 40 points, the magic number for Premier League safety, they usually switch off, and that's what happened to Tony Pulis' squad last year. This year, the same should hold true. They won't be in any real relegation danger, but they're not a top half squad either. They'll be defensively stout, scalp a few surprising wins against the big boys and do what they're supposed to do to maintain survival, but no more.

13. Stoke City

Stokealona is dead, folks. The Potters haven't invested much in new signings, and got rid of Marko Arnautovic to West Ham, leaving the squad a little bereft of quality and feeling quite stale. Mark Hughes is one of the managers who easily could be the first to be sacked because the club has quite clearly plateaued. They won't be relegated, but they need freshening up. A slow start might do enough to spark a change.

12. Newcastle United

Mike Ashley and company took a risk investing the way they did in the Championship last year, and it paid off as they won back immediate promotion. There is still an incredible amount of tension in the boardroom, but with Rafa Benitez's calming influence on a fairly decent squad, the Magpies should be able to stay up with relative ease. But, it's Newcastle, and nothing comes certain at St. James' Park.

11. Bournemouth

What Eddie Howe has done with this club is well and truly remarkable, especially considering their top flight debut was only three years ago. They've invested wisely, for the most part, and they've kept a hold of a good chunk of their squad and their growing manager too. While they haven't made too many changes this summer, the core of their squad should be plenty good enough to avoid the relegation dogfight and maybe even finish in the top half, again.

10. West Ham United

Slaven Bilic has not done much to inspire confidence recently. His team was relegation fodder at the start of last season, and the improvements this year don't really fix their defensive and tactical woes, in spite of bringing in Joe Hart. Chicharito and Marko Arnautovic should add more vigor in their attack, but it's unlikely they change the paradigm which West Ham is stuck in.

9. Leicester City

After last season's crash back to earth, Leicester should be under reasonable expectations this season. They've added smartly in some areas, but they still lack depth in others and their squad is bloated. Leicester unperformed their underlying numbers under Claudio Ranieri and then overperformed them under Craig Shakespeare. Somewhere in the middle is where this team lies, and that's probably in the 9-12 range.

8. Southampton

Saints always manage to recruit interesting managers, and Mauricio Pellegrino is another one. They've somehow kept Virgil Van Dijk despite his insistence in wanting to leave, and otherwise the squad is pretty much the same as it was a year ago. With a fresh manager and a host of players who could use an uptick in performance, Saints will win the title of "best of the rest", once again.

7. Everton

Selling Romelu Lukaku was a big deal. Bringing back in Wayne Rooney was also a big deal. There have been charges that Everton haven't invested their money wisely this summer, but this writer thinks they have. Michael Keane, Jordan Pickford and Sandro Ramirez were all smart buys, but they don't change the underlying issues that Everton faces. In the "Sky 7", they're firmly in seventh, waiting for the opportunity to pounce on someone else's mistakes.

6. Liverpool

A healthy Sadio Mane, and Mohamed Salah should make a very dynamic attack even more dynamic this season. Their issues up front have been fixed with Roberto Firmino playing as the furthest forward forward, alleviating the need for an out-and-out striker. But, their defensive issues remain, and there is still a nagging concern that Jurgen Klopp's team won't be able to perform the way that they should against lesser teams. There's also the Champions League, which adds extra stress to their squad which always has injury issues. They haven't done quite enough to improve based on what their rivals above them have done.

5. Spurs

They have a very, very good squad already, and only sold Kyle Walker this summer. However, they still haven't added anyone, and despite Mauricio Pochettino's insistence that new recruits are on the way, they haven't come in time for the start of the season. With their injury problems and many players who are unknowns, that could dig Spurs a hole that will be difficult to dig out of. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs have also been notoriously slow starters, which is a problem, especially considering Chelsea comes to Wembley the second week of the season. Until they make the requisite additions to a squad crying out for them, they can only be placed here.

4. Arsenal

Here is Arsenal, back in their natural position of fourth. Alexandre Lacazette is a good player, but there are questions to whether he is a good replacement for Olivier Giroud up front and addresses a need. Sead Kolasinac is a useful player, but the squad still has the same issues that it has had for many years, and it remains to be seen whether the new 3-5-2 formation will be enough to prevent the staleness that has usually defined Arsenal in recent years. If Liverpool or Spurs make improvements in the market, then Arsenal is facing another year without Champions League football.

3. Manchester United

They've spent a huge amount of money to sign three big names, who should help the balance of their squad tremendously. Romelu Lukaku is certainly worth the money, Nemanja Matic fills a hole in midfield, and Victor Lindelof should help stabilize the back four. But the squad also has plenty of deadwood in it and needs freshening up in itself, and in comparison to what their Manchester rivals have done, it seems that they need to do more. They can easily win the title, but they still have to do more, it seems to be true favorites.

2. Chelsea

They have added smartly to their squad in the spine of the team. However, it still seems, according to Antonio Conte, that the squad needs depth in key places and he's right. It's amazing to think how their prodigious academy cannot seemingly produce players good enough for the first team, and that should alleviate their need to buy, but it hasn't. And without that depth, they are not title favorites. Adding in European football to the mix is going to stress the thin squad even more, and it will take some shrewd work by Conte and the technical staff to make the additions necessary to see if Chelsea can become the first team to repeat as Premier League champions in a decade.

1. Manchester City

City has spent an exorbitant amount of money to fix the ills in the squad, and they seemingly have worked wonders. Benjamin Mendy, Danilo and Kyle Walker are all incredibly important additions to fix the fullback spots, and Bernardo Silva makes a dynamic attack even more dynamic. A full season of Gabriel Jesus and his prodigious talent is also a mouth-watering prospect. The squad still has holes and deadwood that needs to be shifted out, but if the preseason is any guide, City should be favorites for the title as things stand.

So here are the predictions and projections for the 2017-18 season, which could easily be blown up depending on the changes teams make in the transfer window. But Premier League soccer is back, and it's time to stop playing Football Manager and instead play actual football.