These predictions have mostly been done as a reference point for later in the season. I’m excited for the new season, but there’s a knowing that it won’t be the ‘dreamy clusterfuck’ of last season. At the same time, Leicester should still be fun to watch and fairly good, with Champions League football on the side. There’s the well-documented influx of managerial talent and several big clubs in interesting positions going into 16/17. Spurs and Arsenal coming off failed title challenges? Manchester United and Chelsea looking to work their way back into the top 4? It’s all a bit inverted.
Quick note: some of these predictions will look stupid in a couple of months, but I’d rather move away from the current retreads of opinions. Trying to forecast the new developments is way more entertaining than going with what standard logic would dictate! Also any shot/xG stuff comes from Michael Caley’s 15/16 table which can be found here. And generally any mention of ‘advanced numbers’ refers to stuff I’ve gleaned from other much smarter people.
1st – Manchester City
It’s now been 3 years since we saw a motivated, firing-on-all-cylinders Manchester City squad. That particular phenomenon is easy to forget after two wishy-washy seasons where title challenges failed to sustain and the spring months were spent meandering safely into the top 4, rather than the battling the heat of a title race. They can’t afford to go wandering mentally as they have often done of the last two campaigns. City need to hit the ground running and prove they have that top gear still.
Pep Guardiola’s arrival gives them the edge for me as title winners. It’s not been talked about a lot but City should score bucket-loads of goals and their juggernaut status at the Etihad will be restored. At the height of their powers, a trip to the blue half of Manchester was the hardest of the lot and gave City margin for error on their travels. Guardiola’s going to do crazy Guardiola stuff with this team and the Aguero-De Bruyne axis wasn’t exactly sterile last season. The tools are there for Guardiola to create a possession-holding, shot-creating monster of a team which will destroy lesser outfits and severely test their peers.
Doubts are easy to find as well though, which is what makes this still somewhat of an uncertain pick. This isn’t the polished array of talent Pep had at Bayern. City targeted younger but also riskier prospects in the transfer market with John Stones and Leroy Sane the most notable additions. Their defence will survive often on account of some ridiculous 70% possession rate but Pep won’t get away with stuff like Kolarov at centre back. That shit won’t fly. Aguero probably needs to play 32+ games as well which is no guarantee and City have other injury risks (Gundogan, Kompany) that they’ll need to survive the absence of at times. But the potential that their attacking output has just makes it hard for me to not have them winning the league. I think they’ll be the top scorers in the league and come out on top. But it’ll be close.
2nd – Arsenal
Rory Smith once said something along the lines of “It’s so hard to write about Arsenal. Everything’s already been said.” That was at least 2 years ago and everything is much the same. New striker, central defence, soft mentality etc etc…none of these need extensive detailing. The problem for Arsenal is that their season is essentially going to become relevant in February. We know they’ll be good. Everyone is just waiting to see them redeem past mistakes. You want to be in the title conversation? Don’t get bullied by Marcus Rashford and his friends and don’t lose to Swansea’s reserves.
Those endlessly rehashed issues are often outed as myths and rightly so. The advanced numbers really like Arsenal’s defence and Olivier Giroud. A similar campaign to 15/16 would put them in range of the title without the greatest sporting story (Yes.) getting in the way. Granit Xhaka looks like a good signing who fits well into Arsenal’s scheme and also brings a bit of fire to the team. (I know we often relegate the idea of mentality and such to ‘proper football men’, but Arsenal are soft at times and could do with Xhaka’s prickish-ness. It’s just true.) Ozil is settled as possibly the league’s best creative force and Sanchez, who’s underlying numbers were still great last year and never translated into goals, should rebound even after playing another international tournament. At some point, Arsenal will have a season free of injuries to key contributors.
Unfortunately any progression Arsenal make can only face judgement once 2017 is well underway – unless they implausibly pull away from the rest of the league early on. I see the xG darlings being really good again and good enough to rub shoulders in an actual title race for the first time in ages. It’s just instinctual for me to side with Manchester City over Arsenal when it gets down to the nitty gritty in May.
3rd – Manchester United
This was the one. I really, really, really wanted to go balls out and pick United to miss the top 4. My body was willing me to make it so. But, man, Mourinho. Jose fucking Mourinho. I can’t bet against him that much. If anyone else was at the helm I’d go for it but Mourinho is a man who wins lots of football matches. His presence plus Zlatan and Pogba’s brings a bit of the trepidation back for teams visiting Old Trafford. United have global stars again. Fuck. I’d enjoyed their hiatus.
There are so many reasons I wanted to doubt them. The strains of the Europa League, Zlatan being old (I saw him mask a terrible performance with a goal in the Community Shield firsthand), Rooney being shit. Many factors. I do wonder if Mourinho might just tank Europa League this year, I don’t think the United hierarchy places much importance on it and a swift exit opens the door for a serious knock at the title. Rooney is also definitely getting dropped before Christmas and the press will make a big deal of it even though it should have happened a while ago.
Ultimately, I think Mourinho fashions his typical winning team out of a Schneiderlin-?-Pogba midfield and plenty of athleticism around Zlatan. The battles with Guardiola’s City will be particularly fascinating. The title will be in play for sure. But Mourinho has to fashion an elite attack and after United were 14th in shots last year and 10th in xG, there’s a lot of ground to make up. They should be in the mix, but the meshing that’s required and it being Mourinho’s first season, I see them falling short this time around.
4th – Liverpool
The first big shout! Choosing Liverpool over Chelsea and Spurs – two teams that I see as being really good still – is brave, if I say so myself. While the managerial narrative is one I wanted to avoid, Klopp is easily the biggest factor in my confidence about them. I think Liverpool will be that side that gets absolutely rolling and it’ll seem so obvious that we’ll wonder how we missed them before the season. This is me trying to get ahead of the curve.
Sturridge’s health remains a huge question, but the array of attacking midfielders makes me optimistic for their prospects with or without him. After a full preseason of his tuition, this team is going to be fucking relentless. Mane and Firmino can press, Coutinho’s 13/14 peak came with him tackling and battling in midfield, Lallana is intense and Wijnaldum can get about. Even up front, Origi can do some stuff and Ings can soak up a few minutes. This crew is backed up by Jordan Henderson and an ever-improving Emre Can. Teams will get flustered when Liverpool get in their faces and the attacking talent they possess should see the excellent shot numbers (2nd in total shots and shots on target after Klopp’s arrival) continue.
That number is slightly inflated by Coutinho deciding to pull the trigger from anywhere inside 30 yards but the point remains: Liverpool are going to keep coming at you and at you until you break. The defence is gradually getting there too. While the pressing further up does a lot of the hard work, Lovren gradually improved and Clyne is as solid as solid comes. They’ll need some luck and to ride out Mignolet until they can give Karius his chance, but they also have a clear schedule with no Europa League. I’m all aboard the ‘Liverpool top 4’ train.
5th – Chelsea
I’ll admit, this positioning is mostly a product of me being committed to fitting Liverpool into the top 4. It’s more an indictment of the quality of competition than Chelsea’s own failings. At least 1 good team is missing out on the top 4 this season and probably more than that.
Conte and Kante. If Chelsea can stick to the tried-and-trusted defence+Hazard recipe that has served them well before, there will be no chance of the 15/16 shambles. It’s sounding like Conte’s first priority is to plug the gaps and it helps that they’ve signed the best defensive midfielder in the league. (Yep.) N’Golo Kante is really fucking good. I know that’s not groundbreaking analysis but I hope you can see it means more coming from me. I’m going to miss Kante. Long live his only ever Leicester goal, a scuffed attempt that crept through Heurelho Gomes’ legs.
Diego Costa and Michy Batshuayi seems like a perfectly fine striker rotation, even if Costa goes completely haywire with the new rules regarding on-pitch behaviour. The rest of Chelsea creative force worries me a little and is what led me to take United and Liverpool over them. I’ve never been a Willian guy and Oscar has done nothing over the last 18 months. That’s a lot of responsibility being shifted to a diminutive Belgian who has shown good form and fitness for only the last 3 months. They’ll be a difficult team to face, but I don’t see it all coming together in Conte’s first season.
6th – Spurs
Oh, Spurs. I don’t even mind Spurs. I detested them when they were bearing down on Leicester during March and April, but once Hazard curled that gorgeous equaliser in and pint after pint rained down where I was, the red mist lifted. They were Spurs again.
Nothing in their advanced numbers suggest this is a team that would regress so badly back into that familiar Europa League deadzone we call 6th place. This was the team that had shots flying from all over and were the best pressing team in the league. They’re young which suggests improvement and at the very least, no deterioration of performance. But a few factors and sheer default with 5 other top quality teams has them in 6th.
Firstly, I think they’ll start slowly. Mousa Dembele is irreplaceable. Go find yourself an uber-athletic, ball carrying midfielder that presses and defends the shit out of opposing attacks. You can’t. A Dier-Wanyama tandem to hold the fort will be solid but slightly plodding and Spurs already move the ball quite slowly at times. The other big issue is Kane. Sorry, set-piece maestro Harry Kane. Maybe I’m just a severely scarred England fan, but I don’t see Kane hitting quite the same heights this year. That’s not to say what he did in the last two seasons was flukey, Kane’s really good. I just feel like he’s really looking burnt out and will cool off a bit with Janssen taking some minutes from him as well.
7th – Everton
This pick is provided with the condition that Romelu Lukaku stays with them throughout the season. More and more, I’m starting to think Koeman fits really well with Everton. His ultra-conservative approach was frustrating to witness from a distance when Tadic and Mane were sitting next to each other on the bench, but the results were indisputable.
Swapping out Stones for Williams is probably a net gain for Everton in the 16/17 season as well. Him and Jagielka gives them a solid base with James McCarthy being nasty just in front of them, although Gareth Barry needs to be shelved and exclusively brought out for League Cup outings. Everton were already average in xGA and any improvement there would turn the Toffees into a postively good defensive team.
Weirdly, Koeman may have his work cut out on the other end. Barkley makes for a frustrating watch at times but he posted good shot numbers and Koeman will hopefully stop the nonsense of putting Barkley in midfield which Martinez couldn’t get away from last season. Lukaku is Lukaku, a top 5 PL striker. Koeman needs to create some sort of attacking structure, even if it’s cross+cross+cross. I like the concept of Everton with a real identity and think they’ll surprise many this year.
8th – Southampton
Despite the continued hemorrhaging of players to the North-West and…China, Southampton are still in a good spot. Claude Puel looks likely to jazz things up a bit which will be a nice change of pace aesthetically. Saints also appear to be gambling on some lower-usage attacking players growing into new roles. Shane Long had as good a 15/16 season as he could have had really, but relying on him to be your main striker? I don’t know.
The low-usage gambles continue with Dusan Tadic sticking around to presumably become the focal point of the attack. You saw what Payet did last year when West Ham funneled everything into him, it’s not hard to envinsion something similar with Tadic. And finally, Nathan Redmond gets to play with a real team that isn’t using Cameron Jerome as its starting striker! I’m excited to see how he gets on and if he can really pick up consistent minutes as an out-and-out forward.
The backline looks solid again and Fraser Forster will again have two games this season where he stops 8 ridiculous shots and keeps a clean sheet. In the middle of the park it gets a bit shady and a bit reliant on younger talent. Jordy Clasie might be good, but no one really knows until he plays over 2000 Premier League minutes in a season. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is an economical pickup that will probably work out because it’s bloody Southampton and everything they touch turns into a good player. While an 8th place finish isn’t really eye-catching, the means with which they get there could be.
9th – Leicester
Hm. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. They could set a record low for points and I could live with it.
Leicester will face certain speed bumps this year. Teams will show them a lot more respect (although many seem to overlook that Leicester dealt with this for more than half of last season and won the title but, hey) especially at the King Power. Mahrez will depart in the New Year for AFCON. Kante is gone and a Drinkwater-King midfield will get shredded by any half-decent team. This puts a lot of onus on Mendy or possibly Amartey, which it’s unlikely they live up to. The defence came to be the foundation of their title-race triumphs but it’s on that end that I think we’ll get exposed more this season.
Vardy’s still here, Mahrez is just about still here and Ahmed Musa is exciting as fuck. Demarai Gray is fine as a part-time impact player. I love Jeff Schlupp. Leicester’s attack should be good once again, with that frightening quintet running at defences in turn. This season and probably the next few are free hits for Ranieri. I love him, Leicester loves him. No matter what any other team does, it just won’t quite be Leicester winning the title. Sorry about that.
10th – Bournemouth
Here’s where it gets fun. Bournemouth were a cute team that I was fond of but thought of as relegation probables until it came to the end of March and they were practically safe. Eddie Howe’s team pop the ball around really nicely and Wilson started out extremely hot before picking up an injury. Benik Afobe was a January addition who looked lively and Bournemouth even turned Josh King into a goalscorer, an understated feat. They can create chances.
Looking at the advanced stuff and there’s reason to be optimistic about their defence too. Bournemouth conceded 59 non-penalty goals last season, a whopping 13 more than their xGA. While there’s a good chance this improves, it might help if they play someone not named Artur Boruc as their starting goalkeeper.
£15M on Jordon Ibe is a gamble and they’ll also have Max Gradel returning to boost their already ample fleet of speedy attackers. Howe seems like a genuinely good manager. For the past half dozen or so seasons there has always been one second-year team that flourishes. Newcastle, Swansea, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Leicester…Bournemouth?
11th – Stoke
This is getting into the 4th year of Mark Hughes’ Stoke reign. What do we have? A super streaky team that is powered by some tempermental wingers and whatever Jon Walters is able to muster up on that particularly day. The defence is pretty unremarkable (15th in xGA) and last season saw some particularly torrid outings where they completely rolled over. Somehow I ended up watching a lot of Gianelli Imbula down the stretch of last season and wasn’t impressed in the slightest, but he’s young and should improve some. Joe Allen, is a low-risk, medium-reward signing that provides some much-needed consistency.
The good thing about Stoke is that once or twice a season they’ll smash a top side because Arnautovic will hit two in from outside the box. It’s that sort of crazy variance in their shots that makes them a bit of an unknown at times, yet it all came out even last season as their xG and xGA pretty much matched what they actually produced. Weird, weird team. Mid-table looks likely again.
12th – West Ham
Bit controversial. West Ham looked scary with Payet and a gang of athletic runners sprinting around him, but their underlying numbers were mediocre. I’m also sceptical about the chances of Payet replicating his set-piece proficiency. Remember Yaya in 13/14? Yeah, like we ever saw that again.
I’m not a fan of Andy Carroll and he’ll get hurt at some point anyway. Their team is super wide open at times as well in the middle of the park, but don’t mention that to the Mark Noble militia. This prediction is nothing against West Ham. Like everyone else, I love Slaven Bilic. But the amount of smart people saying that they outperformed their numbers last year sways me to believe they’ll sink in the bottom half. Making it into the Europa League groups should pose an interesting question regarding their squad depth too.
13th – Crystal Palace
Palace are a little bit like Stoke-ish with their reliance on hot n’ cold wingers. The inclusion of Yohan Cabaye in their team has become something of a headache, with the Frenchman’s defensive contribution approaching that of a nonplussed Fabregas at times. At this point in his career, Cabaye needs two actual midfielders behind him or alongside him, which leads Pardew to drop one of Puncheon, Zaha or Bolasie. It’s certainly a conundrum that wasn’t solved for long stretches of last season and will need a prompt resolution.
Palace also need a striker. Proposed deals for Berahino and Benteke are yet to fully materialise, if either of those were to rock up at Selhurst Park then I’d probably bump their prediction up a spot or two, especially for Berahino. All I know is that the flair of Zaha and Bolasie should not be leading to Connor Wickham getting a measly 1.5 shots a game off. Get Palace a striker or I can’t see past another mediocre season.
14th – Sunderland
It’s good to see Moyes back. Seriously.
Sunderland continue to be the dumpster fire that never dies out, but this time the apocalyptic starts to their past few seasons seems less likely to be repeated. Moyes is steady and knows the league well, unlike predecessors Advocaat, Poyet and Di Canio. Jermaine Defoe does very little but create goals for himself, which is just enough for a lower Premier League side. The potential of Sunderland’s attack starts and finishes with Defoe’s individual output though, which is a bit disheartening.
More rejected centre-halves have been shot through the pipeline from Manchester United right into the Stadium of Light and Moyes is good enough to craft a passable defence from all the big bodies Sunderland have. Maybe it’ll be good enough to not sweat out a relegation battle this time.
15th – Middlesborough
It’s nice to see Middlesborough back in the Premier League, a staple of my childhood. Also Sunderland would be extremely bored with no hint of a rivalry if Boro hadn’t got promoted, so that’s nice too. I like Middlesborough, but I’m a little bit worried too.
They’ve spent some money on names. Victor Valdes, Brad Guzan, Negredo. It all feels a bit…QPR. That’s never a good thing. Negredo is an interesting case. He had one season with Sevilla where he averaged 4.2 shots a game and notched 25 goals, but since then? Mixed. There was a brief but lethal mid-season partnership with Sergio Aguero in 13/14 but shoulder issues plagued him and he doesn’t seem to have re-captured that form since.
Middlesborough should be fine. They have a solid midfield by the looks of things and possessed the best defence in the Championship last season, although this has not always translated well. I want them to be fine. Please don’t be QPR North.
16th – Watford
The other candidate for the breakthrough team of the year is Watford, but I just don’t see it. Quique Sanchez Flores formed a sturdy core with good defensive midfielders in Etienne Capoue and Ben Watson that stonewalled the league for a lot of the season, giving up 40.4 xGA which was the 8th best mark in the league. Goals were somewhat of an afterthought in an attack that ran on Troy Deeney, Odion Ighalo and…fumes. But it was a structure, an identity and it worked.
Walter Mazzari has been brought in as the new manager, a self-confessed disciplinarian presiding over a squad which was rumoured to lack discipline. Hm, sounds like a risky mix to me? What really concerns me with Watford is that the amount of teams that have gone from defensive, long-ball philosophies then adapted to something different is very short. If Mazzari wants to implement anything more intricate at Watford, I could see it ending very badly.
17th – West Brom
The demise of Tony Pulis! The rumblings around West Brom with how Pulis operates make me think his departure might be in the works. Even if he sticks around, West Brom only need a couple of injuries and a fruitless run in front of goal for things to get tight. They’re not impassable as a defensive unit and they faced the 3rd most shots in the league last year. As a deep-lying team this is not unusual, but that’s still a high number and runs the risk of a few opponents converting on those chances.
The exiling of Berahino did no good for their attack. West Brom scored the fewest goals in the league last year outside of Aston Villa. If Pulis does depart, some manager is getting rushed in to try and either: keep up Pulis’ defensive structure (unlikely) or turn West Brom into something resembling an average attacking side (also unlikely).
I think they’ll be safe, but they’ll have to work for it.
18th – Burnley
Burnley have rolled it over again with the same economical plan but essentially with Andre Gray swapped in for Danny Ings. I like Gray as the possible breakout striker from the lower half of the table and Burnley’s goals will have to come from somewhere. As much as I dislike Dyche’s endless ‘market leaders’ rhetoric, he’s a pretty good coach and Burnley will make a good fight of it.
I just don’t think their talent is up for the task again. If they had one more creator, I could maybe get on board…but it’s not there. You know what you’re getting with Burnley. They work hard, they’ll never self-destruct and beat themselves. They just probably won’t beat many other teams either.
19th – Swansea
This one really does make me sad. Swansea were the rare team that came up from the Chamionship and succeeded by dominating the ball. They were full of Spaniards and Michu was there and it was just fun. Now? I don’t feel so good. Ashley Williams’ sale was slightly surprising too and leaves more than a hole in their defensive line.
Gylfi Sigurdsson might have to go nuts and grab like 20 goals for Swansea to sniff midtable – which isn’t happening.
Andre Ayew is gone and although Nathan Dyer scored one crucial goal for Leicester, he didn’t do a whole lot else and there’s little chance he can even remotely replace Ayew’s production. Who else is there? I mean, Jefferson Montero is a nice piece but he doesn’t score. Routledge? Llorente is washed up, according to multiple people who’ve watched more Llorente than me. Borja Baston is unproven but will need to hit the ground running or this could get ugly for Swansea.
20th – Hull
Why do I still think Hull pull off some bullshit result over Leicester before slipping to the bottom of the table? I don’t know. It was this fear psychology that allowed me to survive the title race last April. Leicester should smash them, but probably won’t. Hull are a complete mess as many now know with injuries, a poisonous owner situation and no manager. Very Sacramento Kings.
There’s reason to believe that Hull won’t be completely marooned at the bottom. Abel Hernandez is a nice option for a lower Premier League side and Curtis Davies is a solid centreback. If everyone comes back healthy and stays that way, Hull could make a go of it. But envisioning that requires lots of squinting. Toxic clubs hardly ever perform well. Toxic clubs with injury issues and a caretaker manager are…fucked.