As the Premier League season gets underway on August 11 when Arsenal host former champions Leicester City, AS English runs the rule over the 20 teams and examines their transfer business while predicting the outcome of the opening round of fixtures. You can read part I here.
Southampton vs Swansea City (Draw)
Another new manager in charge, although not new to the Premier League, is Mauricio Pellegrino who starts with a winnable home game against some people's relegation candidates. One player who will not feature is the outstanding defender, Virgil van Dijk, who handed in a transfer request and has both Liverpool and Chelsea circling. Jan Bednarek (Lech Poznan) and Mario Lemina (Juventus) have been brought in with the latter setting a new club transfer record of £18 million for his midfield services. Jay Rodriguez to West Brom is the only notable absentee, Van Dijk accepted, from the squad that ended last season in eighth place but, it should be noted, were 15 points short of seventh and only two points from 13th. The Saints have done well in the past of identifying talent, whether purchased or nurtured, and turning them into something very special. The fans will be hoping there are new household names on the horizon.
The Swans’ new loan signing Tammy Abraham could well make his Premier League debut at St Mary's after only previously getting two substitute appearances with Chelsea. Paul Clement has used him and Jordan Ayew well in the most recent games against Birmingham and Sampdoria with the likes of Leroy Fer and Leon Britton contributing in their roles behind. Another new signing, Roque Mesa, brought in from Las Palmas for £11 million, is a welcome addition and highly rated by many LaLiga commentators. Generally things are going pretty well under Clement and the Welsh side ended the last campaign with four wins and a draw. One cloud that remains floating overhead, however, is Gylfi Sigurdsson. In a similar fashion to Saints' Van Dijk, he will be a key man missing from this fixture due to transfer talks and conflicting desires for his future. And it's another Liverpool-based club, Everton this time, trying to agree the fee to make it happen. The Icelandic star has not played for his club since early in pre-season when he made it clear he wanted to go. Despite this hole, positive preparations give the Swans a chance of a very useful away point to get their campaign off and running.
West Bromwich Albion vs Bournemouth (Draw)
These two teams ended last season with just one place and one point between them in the final two positions of the top ten. Bournemouth had much the better goals-for column and significantly worse goals against. And it was the end to the season that changed things around for these two clubs with West Brom adding just a single point to their tally in the final five games whereas the south coast side took 11, without loss.
Pre-season games, if won, can be described as the perfect platform to take into the new season or, if lost, described as “a good workout”. Tony Pulis has focused on the latter. Leaving the Baggies in the summer went the experience of Darren Fletcher (to Stoke) but they have brought in Jay Rodriguez from Southampton along with the lesser-known quantities of Yuning Zhang (Vitesse Arnhem) and Ahmed Hegazi (Al Ahly). Speaking with fans there is certainly not a sense of riding the new season wave of optimism although Pulis tends to find a way to deliver through his planning and structure. Although a few injuries to contend with in the squad, a spine including Foster, Evans, Livermore and Rondon means there is still a very functioning unit.
Bringing in Jermaine Defoe from relegated Sunderland could prove to be a very shrewd piece of business, and as the season starts they have not sold anyone of significance from their squad, although Jack Wilshire has returned to Arsenal after his loan spell. Eddie Howe’s current side is as strong as the club has known and adding Asmir Begovic and Nathan Ake (new club record signing) to help protect their goal they will hope to improve on the 67 goals conceded last term which was the fifth worse in the division. With Defoe carrying a slight knock he may not feature in the opener but the Cherries, with King and Afobe leading the line, should have enough in their locker to come away with at least a point.
Brighton & Hove Albion vs Manchester City (Away win)
Welcome to the Premier League, Brighton and Hove Albion. And your prize: a visit from one of the favourites for the title, big-spending Manchester City.
Brighton will hope to catch Pep Guardiola's team a little rusty but will need their side to gel quickly with double-digit new players already having being signed for the start of the season. Chris Hughton did wonders to bring the club to the top-table with some delightful football in the Championship but it remains to be seen whether a solid structure, making them hard to beat will be the primary drill for a side dreaming of staying in the world’s richest league. Taking advantage of the finances has seen the Seagulls splash their relative cash and fans will be looking forward to seeing record-signing, Davy Propper, show his worth at the Amex Stadium. PSV Eindhoven parted with the midfielder for £10 million and he could line up alongside another new boy, Pascal Gross, who arrived from the Bundesliga. It will be interesting to see who takes the front line job between Tomer Hemed and Glenn Murray with a tough ask ahead of them. Valencia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan will take his new place between the posts.
Pep got most of his transfer business done early this summer and will want to get off to a flying start at the home of one of the new boys. Shelling out plenty of dough for a new defence was pivotal to his plans - Walker, Mendy, Danilo and a new keeper in the form of Ederson - and there are high hopes for the young gem Gabriel Jesus at the other end, not forgetting that Sergio Agüero is still one of the most lethal marksmen in world football. After all the latter plaudits for Chelsea last season, many reporters seem to forget that they were prematurely handing the title to Pep’s City after they took maximum points from their first ten games. The season is long but City look better prepared for the journey this term.
Brighton's minimum objective this season is survival, City have eyes on the Premier League trophy and making a stand in the final stages of Europe's showpiece tournament. The big boys will start strong.
Newcastle United vs Tottenham Hotspur (Away win)
On paper a mouth-watering Premier League fixture but we should not forget that this is a match between a newly-promoted side and last year's title runners-up. However, the clubs come into this fixture with a mix of emotions.
Rafa Benitez stayed with the Magpies in spite of relegation as well as reported offers from around Europe. He did what was expected by returning them at the first time of asking to the Premier League and now will aim to consolidate and build. Most teams that are promoted tend to focus on survival the following year but the Geordies want more than this. Florian Lejeune comes in from last year’s surprise LaLiga package, Eibar, and will thrive in the slightly louder St. James’ Park atmosphere. Jonjo Shelvey has already proven himself in the top flight while Javier Manquillo (Atletico Madrid) and Mikel Merino (Borussia Dortmund) add more depth to the squad. Rafa will aim to be organised and difficult to beat and will relish the challenge of getting one over on any of the perceived ‘top six’, his old stomping ground.
Much has been made in the lead up to the first game about the lack of transfer activity from Spurs, as well as the unwanted headlines grabbed by full-back Danny Rose. Fans would do well, however, to remember the talent of manager Mauricio Pochettino to coach: yes this can also improve a team. Hindsight is a beautiful thing in football but it seems to have been forgotten that it wasn’t long ago players like Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Kieran Trippier were not expected to contribute in the way that they have. Kane and Alli are now regarded as world stars, courted by the very top teams, so who’s to say there are not others just waiting to step up. In Lloris the north London club has an excellent stopper and Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Lamela, Dier, Eriksen, Son… all with another year together, there is a lot to still be positive about. Expect them to be too hot for the returning black and whites, and also to strengthen their squad before the end of August.
Manchester United vs West Ham United (Draw)
Much is expected from Manchester United this year with many commentators saying that José Mourinho's honeymoon period is over. Views on how they'll fare though are mixed despite significant money has been spent on fixing perceived problem areas: Lukaku up top, Lindelof at the back and Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic in the middle. There is little doubt that Matic will make an excellent addition and could be the ideal partner to get the best out of Paul Pogba but the big question being asked of the ex-Everton frontman is whether he can score more goals against the other five teams likely to be at the top of the table. His overall tally last year was impressive but he tended to find the net against lower-placed sides. Mourinho said last summer that he needed four players to complete his team. They got them, finished sixth and won the league and Europa League cups. Fans and owners will now expect the further new additions and the extra time working with the players to be enough to challenge for the Premier League title and progression in the Champions League. And with the talent of Herrera, Mata, Rashford and Martial to support the physically biggest side in the league, many will be hopeful of some more entertaining football to boot.
The Hammers had a mixed campaign last season but there is plenty of optimism around the London Stadium with what has been an impressive early transfer window. Manchester City’s Joe Hart has swapped a loan spell in Turin for one in London, and teammate Pablo Zabaleta has added more experience at the back. The creative talent of Stoke’s Marko Arnautovic should provide more chances at the opposite end and to finish them off look no further than Javier Hernandez, who was brought in from Bayer Leverkusen for £16 million. ‘Chicharito’ is being tagged by several commentators as the potential signing of the summer. These signings seem astute business for Slaven Bilic to add to a squad that includes Fonte, Lanzini, Antonio and even cameo-performer Andy Carroll, and much is expected ahead of the new campaign.
A look across the two squads suggests a fairly comfortable home win but Mourinho’s big-men haven’t overly impressed in their pre-season performances and the visitors may sniff a chance of an early away point.
End of season predictions:
Champions: Manchester City
Champions League places: Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool
FA Cup: Manchester United
Relegated: Brighton, Huddersfield, Burnley