Summer romances are all well and good, but after a blistering month of sunshine and superb football, Russia has become little more than a speck in the distance (and a severe threat to global democracy) as the domestic season gears up to start all over again. The decision to move the closure of the transfer window forwards so that English clubs are unable to trade players after the season kicks off is almost certain to come back and bite the FA on its backside, as well as provide headaches for anyone attempting to cobble together a season preview while keeping track of the comings and goings.
So its with a full disclaimer that anything can happen on deadline day that we present the That’s Liquid Football Premier League 2018/19 season preview. Manchester United fans: look away now.
Come gather round Gunners, wherever you moan; and forget all those banners light aircraft have flown; after twenty two years the king’s been overthrown; now the times they are a-changing. With a raft of fresh-faced Arsenal supporting graduates stepping out into the real world, they’re going to have to get used to more than just the economy tanking – for anyone born after September 1996, this is the first time the Gunners have gone into a new season with a new manager at the helm, and the mood suggests quiet optimism. Unai Emery’s career has, so far, been unfairly judged by the success he hasn’t had. Back-to-back-to-back Europa League wins with Sevilla and a domestic treble with Paris Saint Germain are tempered by losing out to Monaco for the Ligue 1 title in his first season at the Parc Des Princes, and the horrorshow of Barcelona’s remarkable comeback in the same year. His record against Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho also makes for worrying reading – Played 14, Won 0.
But this is a fresh start, and with Arsenal’s away following having witnessed just one league win since the turn of the year, things can only get better. Sven Mislintat, the architecht behind Borussia Dortmund’s stellar work in the transfer market, has tackled his role as Head of Recruitment at the Emirates with gusto – five new faces have arrived in North London, each filling important gaps in the Arsenal squad. Lucas Torreira in particular looks like an exciting addition, the Uruguayan having impressed at the World Cup and boasting superior tackling statistics to Granit Xhaka for last season. With that added bite in midfield, as well as the experience and physicality of Sokratis and Stephan Liechtsteiner at the back, a forward line of Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have free reign to attack at will. Things can only get better.
The changing of the guard couldn’t have come at a better time for the Gunners. With three of their direct rivals for the Champions League places looking distinctly iffy heading into the new season, and a blossoming strike partnership beginning to bear fruit, Emery has every chance of restoring Arsenal back at football’s top table. Even if he doesn’t he’ll enjoy plenty of goodwill on account of not being Arsene Wenger.
From new faces to old. Some very old, in fact. With Wenger gone, Eddie Howe becomes the longest serving manager in the Premier League, with October marking the sixth year anniversary of his second spell with The Cherries. Howe might be loving life down on the south coast there must be a degree of concern that his side head into their fourth season in the top division with Steve Cook and Simon Francis still key fixtures at the heart of defence. Stalwarts of Howe’s first season back at Dean Court, the pair have risen from League One with the club and have staked their claim for starting berths in the Premier League, but if Bournemouth are ever planning on pushing on, then a higher calibre of player eventually needs to be recruited. The outlay on Nathan Ake, Asmir Begovic and Jermain Defoe last season failed to pay off as the Cherries limped to a 12th place finish having flirted with relegation all season. This summer £20m has been forked out on less familiar pair of names. Diego Rico arrives from Leganes to offer a more defensive option at left-back compared to the marauding Charlie Daniels, while £11.5m for the inexperienced David Brooks looks a gamble. The late addition of £25m Jefferson Lerma from Levante after an impressive World Cup will add a razor sharp edge to Bournemouth’s midfield, having completed 49 crunching interceptions in La Liga last year, but its elsewhere that squad depth is a concern.
With understudies Benik Afobe and Lewis Grabban gone, it falls to Defoe and Josh King to score the goals needed to keep Bournemouth afloat. If the pair suffer the same loss of form as last season, Howe’s reign as the top flight’s longest serving manager could be short-lived.
Without the addition of genuine quality, Bournemouth are relying heavily on a group of players that their manager is already getting the maximum from. The twenty-two players used last season was the lowest in the Premier League, and having failed to bolster their strength in depth, a couple of injuries could see the Cherries struggle. Thankfully for them, there are almost certainly three worse teams in the league.
Brighton and Hove Albion
It’s fair to say The Seagulls had a lovely old time in their first Premier League season. Their 15th placed finish was misleading given the comfort with which they stayed up, and barring the odd battering they were able to go toe-to-toe with all and sundry. This season, fittingly, they’ve thrown in all their chips. Owner Tony Bloom hasn’t been afraid to get his chequebook out (surely football club owners aren’t so antiquated these days?) since taking control in 2009, and a remarkable window has seen Brighton twice break their transfer record. Young pass-master Yves Bissouma, who posted a higher pass success rate than highly-rated team-mate Thiago Maia last season, arrives for £15m from Lille, and that record fee was eclipsed just days later by the £17m forked out for the exciting attacking talents of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the Iranian winger that tore up the *DISCLAIMER* Eredivisie last season, posting 21 goals and 12 assists for AZ Alkmaar. Jahanbakhsh became Chris Hughton’s tenth singing of a window that included the arrival of Brazilian full-back Bernardo from RB Leipzig, and the merciful rescue of Jason Steele from Sunderland. Sometimes it’s all about light and shade.
Last season Brighton relied on the last-gasp defensive contributions of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy, as the pair combined to complete the most goal line clearances of any Premier League defence. This time round, with a hefty squad jam-packed with flair, the usually cautious Hughton will be hoping attack can be the best form of defence. If everything clicks down at the AMEX, a spectacular season could await.
Despite the excellent job he’s done so far, there are still question marks over Hughton’s ability to mix it with the big boys, as Norwich City and Newcastle fans will attest to. If the former Ireland defender can overcome that psychological hurdle and allow his team to play with freedom, there’s no reason they can’t cause problems for every other team in the league. Brighton look a good bet to comfortably avoid relegation, and even kick on towards the top half.
Life comes at you fast. One minute you’re voting to get out of the European Union, the next your football team has qualified for continental competition for the first time in 51 years and you’re wondering how much you’re going to have to spend on visas to watch them play. Yes, Burnley are one of England’s three representatives in the Europa League, alongside Arsenal and Chelsea, having enjoyed a fantastic season that saw them finish as the best of the rest in 7th place. The bad news, should they make it past the qualifiers, is that Sean Dyche’s squad is more painfully thin than your average Briton in the year 2025. With Tom Heaton and Nick Pope injured, Joe Hart has arrived to become the third best English goalkeeper at the club having been directly at fault for just four goals for West Ham last season, though it seemed a lot more. Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson and Derby’s Matej Vydra remain the only other major signings of the summer – Dyche clearly has a thing for burly northern centre-backs, though there’ll be question marks over Vydra’s ability to recreate the blistering form that reaped 21 goals at the iPro last time out.
Combine that lack of bodies with the oldest squad in the division, and Burnley look like an accident waiting to happen. The extra six games that Europa League qualification guarantees could seriously hamper league form once the season kicks into gear, and the physical demand of playing twice a week for half a season could see the squad decimated by January. Still, they might get to see Milan.
Scaremongering aside, Dyche has proven himself an astute manager at this level, and in Mee and Tarkowski, Burnley possess one of the best centre-back pairings outside of the top six. The big challenge last season was addressing their poor away from and, remarkably, they picked up over half of their 54 points on the road. Replicating that kind of form is a big ask, but expect plenty of low-scoring, scrappy affairs with the Clarets battling for every point available. It won’t be pretty, but they’ll find a way to survive.
It’s the moment fans of rude anagrams have all been waiting for, as
Colin Wanker Neil Warnock returns to the Premier League and, in a boon to Anglo-Welsh relations, Cardiff City take the place of neighbours Swansea in the top flight. The Bluebirds owner, previously known as The Eccentric Vincent Tan, has hopefully learned from his mistakes, and the red kits of Cardiff’s only previous Premier League campaign have been consigned to the past, along with any racist, misogynistic, bigoted members of staff. The 2013/14 season saw Cardiff finish rock bottom, but under Warnock’s tutelage the south Walians have developed a harder shell, finishing last season with the joint best defence in the Championship, and holding off the challenge of an irresistible Fulham side to nick the second automatic promotion spot.
Lack of goals was a big concern for Warnock last season, as only Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough finished in the top six with a lower tally (obviously), and January signing Gary Madine managed a whopping zero goals from thirteen appearances. The £10m spent on Bobby Reid from Bristol City to correct the issue perhaps best outlines the constraints Cardiff are currently working under – all four of their summer signings have arrived from the Championship, and the £28.5m outlay is the lowest of all three promoted teams. As with their fellow strugglers, the key to Cardiff’s survival will be in defence – if Sol Bamba and Bruno Ecuele Manga can replicate last season’s form then Warnock’s side have a fighting chance.
Neil Warnock has a record eight promotions on his CV, but each time he’s made it to the Premier League the Yorkshireman has either gone straight back down or failed to see out the season. Whether he sees this particular job through to May could rely on Vincent Tan’s mood, though goodwill is surely in abundance having earned promotion with such a modest squad. Either way, it’s going to take a Herculean effort to keep this team afloat, given a lack of Premier League experience. But didn’t we all say that about Huddersfield last year?
Having overcome his fixation on Portuguese prodigies, Roman Abramovich appears to have a new kink: batshit Italians. After waving farewell to The Syruped One following two years of reasonable success, Stamford Bridge opened its cold, unloving arms to Maurizio Sarri, Serie A’s latest flavour of the month. Though considerably less bedecked in silverware than his predecessor, Sarri has built his reputation around getting the most from a group of very good players, something Conte was arguably guilty of failing at last season as the Blues posted their second lowest goals tally of the Abramovich era. More likely to chainsmoke twenty Bensons than sprint up and down the touchline, Sarri’s Napoli became the darlings of European football during his time at the Stadio San Paolo, with Pep Guardiola declaring them the most watchable team in the world. However the expectations of the browbeaten underdogs in southern Italy differ wildly from those in West London.
Sarri will be expected to hit the ground running, something he was unable to do in the glorified friendly/traditional curtain raiser against Manchester City, where the President of the Sarri Fan Club orchestrated the Italian’s first ‘competitive’ defeat. As if that weren’t enough of a setback early doors, their first choice goalkeeper decided to go walkies days before the end of the transfer window, forcing Chelsea to spring into action and make Athletic Bilbao’s product of nominative determinism Kepa the most expensive stopper in the world for £71.4m. Turns out the capture of Rob Green was just a ploy to sell more replica shirts in Surrey, if that’s even possible. The signings of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic seriously bolster an already formidable midfield, but with a misfiring pair of strikers and questions over Eden Hazard’s future and the team’s long term creativity, Chelsea might finally have to dip into that three hundred man squad they’ve been loaning out. Best make it forty Bensons, Maurizio.
Like Arsenal, Chelsea can thank their lucky stars that the teams around them are suffering similarly difficult summers. Sarri is undoubtedly a manager of quality, taking on a Napoli squad built by Rafa Benitez and establishing them in Serie A’s top three, all the while playing dazzling football. But a manager can only do so much, and without the appropriate tools the gameplan will suffer. Whether Abramovich is gambling on Alvaro Morata rediscovering the form of last September, or his stance on the purse strings remains obstinate, Chelsea are no longer guaranteed a top four finish.
Despite Simon Parish’s experiment with a Dutch oven blowing up in his face, Roy the Boy took Palace to the relative comforts of 12th come the end of the season thanks to a six-game unbeaten run-in. The Eagles’ upturn in form was almost entirely down to Wilfried Zaha, as the Ivorian winger enjoyed his best season to date in south London. Used primarily as a converted striker, Zaha’s pace was key to Palace being awarded a league-high ten penalties, with Serbian enforcer Luka Milivojevic the beneficiary as he ended the season a surprise top scorer at Selhurst Park. The use of Zaha and fellow winger Andros Townsend up front was necessitated by the injury and poor form of Christian Benteke, while January signing Alexander Sorloth was given little time to adapt to English football, though Palace’s shooting statistics betrayed their stand-in strikeforce’s ability in front of goal, as they finished the season with the lowest shot conversion rate in the league.
With money constantly tight in SE25, Hodgson has had to scour the transfer market for bargains this summer, and the free signings of Vicente Guaita and Max Meyer might prove two of the canniest bits of business in the whole window. Meyer arrives from Schalke with a big reputation as a long-term creative force for the German national team, while Guiata represents an upgrade on Wayne Hennessey, having kept 12 clean sheets for Getafe last season, including an impressive display at the Camp Nou to keep out Messi and co. What little money Hodgson has been given has gone on the imposing central midfield addition of Cheikou Kouyate from West Ham – the perfect box-to-box foil for Milivojevic. There are still concerns over Zaha’s future with Chelsea and Tottenham sniffing around but, having struggled to make an impression at Manchester United, Palace’s main man may think twice before jumping ship.
Slow and steady wins the race, and midtable consolidation would represent a marked improvement on last season’s relegation battle. If Zaha stays, then midtable comfort surely beckons, with the possibility of breaking into the top half cluster. If Wilfried walks, Hodgson will need all of his experience to avoid another stressful season at Selhurst.
Share prices in Fray Bentos tanked over the summer as The Count of Monte Bisto released his final beefy belch into the corridors of Goodison, leaving in his wake a disjointed hoofball team built for mere hundreds of millions. In fairness to Sam Allardyce, he was only handed £50m to spend in January in order to secure an 8th place finish, and he did exponentially reduce food wastage from every pie vendor within a mile radius of Stanley Park. In his stead arrives Marco Silva who, in an ideal world, would have taken the mantle of Toffees boss before Allardyce’s name had even been uttered in the Goodison boardroom. For Silva, the challenge this season is simple – just stay in a job for more than six months. After impressive starts at Hull and Watford, the dashing Portuguese’s magic has waned, and he’ll be hoping that a further step up the Premier League ladder will see him fulfil his potential.
Having spent an outrageous amount of money on flighty attacking players last summer, Farhad Moshiri could be forgiven for being a little gun-shy in the transfer market this time around, though somehow Silva convinced the Iranian businessman to part with £40m for his old mate Richarlison. How much of that fee was delivered to Watford with a ‘nudge nudge, wink wink, let’s say no more about us poaching your manager’ is unlikely to become clear, but even in this inflated market it’s difficult to value the promising Brazilian at two Theo Walcotts (or should that be valuing Theo Walcott at half a Richarlison?). Everton’s only other major bit of business has been the arrival of Lucas Digne to replace the Stoke-bound Ashley Williams, which is akin to upgrading a knackered old Vauxhall Nova to a lovely new Renault Megane. Silva remains keen to snaffle another centre-back before Jim White puts his yellow tie away for the winter, with Jamaal Lascelles and Yerry Mina both on his radar.
Only time will tell, but if Silva can maintain his now trademark new manager bounce across a whole season then Everton could be in business. On current evidence, that remains a big if, and an over reliance on goals from Cenk Tosun might scupper the Toffees as the season wears on. That being said, a spine of Jordan Pickford, Digne, Idrissa Gueye, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Tosun is extremely capable, and a gameplan that doesn’t involve hoofing it forward at every opportunity might bring the best out of the talent at Silva’s disposal.
Nice guys finish last, which is why The Family Club Fulham have spent the summer building a team of bastards to provide a little bit of edge on their return to the top flight. Manager Slavisa Jokanovic, who if he’s anything like his fellow notable Serbians is guaranteed to be a fucking nutbar, was denied his shot at the big time with Watford having overseen their promotion in 2015, finally gets a chance for revenge having resurrected the ailing West Londoners and turned them into one of the most eye-catching footballing sides in the country. His summer recruits are also out to prove a point, as £22m striker and countryman Aleksander Mitrovic arrives from Newcastle off the back of an excellent loan spell that helped secure promotion, aiming to show Rafa Benitez that he’s no longer a lumbering liability. Andre Schurrle, a two-year loan signing from Borussia Dortmund is looking to become the latest member of the ‘Chelsea Were Wrong’ club, while Craven Cottage regulars will be hoping sensational signing Jean Michaël Seri shows Barcelona what they’ve missed out on.
Undeniably, Fulham play beautiful attacking football under Jokanovic, and in the second half of last season they were like a steam train, embarking on a twenty-three game unbeaten run before falling at the final hurdle at Birmingham on the last day – a defeat that saw them miss out on automatic promotion. The worry is that, against more experienced, clinical sides, Fulham’s gung-ho approach will be punished, and they could find themselves on the end of some seriously demoralising defeats.
There is an abundance of quality in Fulham’s squad, with £75m worth of summer acquisitions added to the excellent Tom Cairney and teenage sensation Ryan Sessegnon. Whether Jokanovic is able to approach games in a pragmatic manner and wilfully play for a draw where necessary remains to be seen. The Premier League experience of Alfie Mawson and Calum Chambers in defence may mean Fulham just about have enough to stay up, and there won’t be many sides more fun to watch in the Premier League this season.
The feel-good story of last season, David Wagner’s Huddersfield Town eventually avoided relegation by four points, despite seemingly failing to win a game or even score a goal throughout the second half of the season (I’ve just checked and they actually won three. Remarkable). That run of ten games from March to May that saw them score just three times will have had Terriers fans praying for a reliable source of goals in the summer transfer window. What they’ve got is an inconsistent winger from relegated Stoke in Ramadan Sobhi, and a raw (but talented) young forward from Monaco in Adama Diakhaby. Elsewhere, Danish ‘keeper Jonas Lossl has made his move to Yorkshire permanent, while a club-record (and frankly jaw-dropping) £17.5m move for Terence Kongolo sees the young Dutch defender leave the yachts and super casinos of Monte Carlo for the dead moles and suicidal drivers of HD1.
In fact, D-Wagz has focussed heavily on defensive reinforcement this summer, with Kongolo joined by Erik Durm from Borussia Dortmund and Ben Hamer arriving on a free from Leicester to supply competition for Lossl, despite Huddersfield finishing the season with the same defensive record as Everton. With the highest amount of tackles in the league Wagner isn’t short of commitment at the back, but the joint lowest goal tally last season should spark alarm bells for a side that haven’t invested heavily in attacking talent. Having already compromised his free-flowing philosophy to keep Town up, it promises to be another nail-biting season for a manager who has outgrown his current role.
Just as with teams that win a league title then drop off the following season, there is always the danger of inertia setting in for a newly promoted side that avoids relegation – heading into 18/19, Brighton and Huddersfield couldn’t be further apart in ambition. While the talents of their manager are doubtless worth a few extra points across a season, the sight of teams around them strengthening is a cause for concern for the Terriers. Unless Steve Mounie and Laurent Depoitre can build on their joint fifteen goals from last season, it looks likely that Huddersfield will come up short this time out.
One of the quirks of heading into a new season is reading the various previews and squad lists for each club and discovering personnel you were convinced were long gone are still hanging around. For example Carl Jenkinson, against all odds, is still an Arsenal player. For anyone not keeping a keen eye on Leicester, you could be excused for a moment of surprise upon discovering that Claude Puel is still manager, given that towards the end of last season he was about as popular at the King Power as Amber Rudd at a Lee Scratch Perry gig. Having earned a top-half finish and a decent run in the cup, the ill-will towards Puel seemed harsh to outsiders, though a quick glance at the statistics shows the former Southampton boss has the lowest win percentage of any Leicester manager since Paulo Sousa in 2010, back when the club were in the midst of ‘Doing A Leeds’. Still, the hoarse Frenchman remains in the East Midlands, but Riyad Mahrez has finally departed, only six months after misplacing his bottom lip. The Algerian’s £60m move to Manchester City undoubtedly weakens the Foxes forward-line, but fortunately they’ve found another Algerian in Rachid Ghezzal, and signing African players for big money hasn’t yet failed to succeed. Just ask Islam Slimani.
If Ghezzal doesn’t step up to the plate, then there’s always James Maddison, the £24m playmaker from Norwich City who impressed in an ailing Championship side last season with fourteen goals and eight assists. Less risky acquisitions have been made at the back, where Jonny Evans – the subject of a £30m bid from Manchester City in January – arrives for £3.5m to partner Harry Maguire, and Porto’s Ricardo Pereira offers a significant step up from Danny Simpson – the attacking full-back completed four times as more dribbles last season than his limited predecessor.
As with the last few seasons, Leicester’s success depends on the service to Jamie Vardy. At 31 the energy-drink addict’s legs are surely running out of steam, though if Maddison and Ghezzal are able to supply the bullets then Vardy’s poacher instinct can do the rest. Either way, it’s going to take a spectacular season for Puel to still be in a job come next August, and unfortuantely that doesn’t look likely. The Frenchman is among the favourites to be the first manager out of a job this season. If the Foxes endure a poor start that looks like easy money.
Jurgen Klopp came to Liverpool to do two things: smoke fags and win trophies, and to be honest those pictures of impotent men and dead foetuses on the packet have put him right off cigarettes. Behind the bad advert for German dentistry and stereotypical arrogance in defeat, Klopp has been building something at Anfield over the course of the last few seasons and, if this summer were to be the final roll of the dice, he’s going out all guns blazing. Put simply, Liverpool have spent a shitload on some excellent players, addressing pretty much every weakness in their squad and, on paper at least, have built perhaps the only side capable of challenging Manchester City. Ah, there’s the rub. Manchester City. The team that Liverpool convincingly beat in three out of four meetings last season (though still ended with an aggregate score of 9-9), and yet ended twenty-five points behind. The new additions (and its worth including January’s acquisition of Virgil Van Dijk here) are surely worth a few points by themselves. Alisson proved himself one of the best goalkeepers in the world with Roma last season, while the silk of Naby Keita (1.8 key passes per game) and the steel of Fabinho (3.4 tackles per game) in midfield are upgrades on Jordan Henderson and Emre Can.
As with every title challenge, there are variables that Liverpool can only hope remain constant. The likelihood of Mohamed Salah following up the best season of his career with an even better one seems slim, though having finished top for ‘Big Chances Missed’ last season there’s certainly room for improvement. The Egyptian’s partners in crime, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, will need to lighten the goal burden too, while injuries in key areas could still scupper the Reds progress. The addition of Xherdan Shaqiri seems good business providing Klopp can sate his desire for first team football. Liverpool have been turned up to eleven. This, more than ever, feels like their time.
In any other season barring this one and the last, you’d back Jurgen Klopp and a Liverpool side that he can finally call his own to steamroll their way to the league title. Defensive solidity, an all-action midfield, and the most sensational forward line in the country, overseen by a manager that plays mouthwatering football. Every piece of the jigsaw is here. Sadly there’s a team up the road that look like they’re about to embark on the most dominant period in English football since the 90s.
The Centurions return to action with minimal adjustments to last season’s squad; the arrival of Riyad Mahrez provides competition in attacking areas, while Pep Guardiola has finally rid himself of Joe Hart, who’s now free to shout and gurn his way around Burnley town centre without raising eyebrows. With Angus Gunn also departing there’s the potential of City leaving themselves short in the goalkeeping department; an injury to Ederson could see rookie Daniel Grimshaw called into action, or worse Claudio Bravo. Rumours surrounding the future of Sergio Aguero appear to be little more than tittle-tattle, with the Argentinian netting his 199th and 200th goals for the Cityzens (shudder) in their Community Shield win over Chelsea. Guardiola now 1/3 of his way to a Mourinho Treble.
It’s easy to forget that City played the majority of last season without their first choice left-back, though World Cup winner Benjamin Mendy is now fit to resume the role, meanwhile Guardiola has a call to make on his first choice centre-back pairing – the powdered bones of Vincent Kompany will only hold up for so long, and doubts were cast over John Stones’ reliability last year – an impressive tournament in Russia will have done the Yorkshireman’s reputation no harm at all. Elsewhere, Phil Foden will be looking to breakthrough as a first-team regular this season as a rotation option, while Gabriel Jesus will need to forget a disappointing summer in order to displace the evergreen Aguero. And we’re yet to mention Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne – the top four assist makers in the Premier League last season, with 53 between them. Ludicrous.
Not since Manchester United in 2009 has a team managed to retain the Premier League title, but barring a wonder season from Liverpool or a meltdown of Mourinhoesque proportions there’s little standing in the way of City doing it this year. Whilst some of the manager’s squad concerns haven’t been addressed – namely a stronger central midfield to displace the ageing Fernandinho and delicate Ilkay Gundogan – any perceived weaknesses in City’s squad are only visible to the perfectionists eye. Guardiola will want more than just another league title of course (though dropping out of the Champions League group stages to complete that treble seems extreme), but the squad he’s built has the makings of a dynasty.
What’s eating Jose Mourinho? The Manchester United manager appears to have come down with another case of third season malaise, and is doing everything in his power to make his job insecure. Either that or he’s just heard there’s a new series of Orange is the New Black and wants some time off. If club sources are to be believed, Mourinho’s relationship with vice-chairman Ed Woodward is at an all-time low, most likely because the Portuguese has spent the majority of the summer bitching and whining about how terrible his squad are. Three new faces have arrived in the shape of imposing box-to-box midfielder Fred, ‘one for the future’ Diogo Dalot, and third choice ‘keeper Lee Grant, but it’s been clear since Mourinho’s comments surrounding United’s lack of threat up front that attacking reinforcements are at the top of his wishlist. That’s all without addressing a backline that includes the ageing Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, the millenial Chuckle Brothers and a pair of full-backs that the manager wouldn’t trust to wash his car. Since the World Cup, Woodward has been chasing Harry Maguire, while Mourinho insists that he wants Jerome Boateng. The best option available, Toby Alderweireld, might slip through their fingers.
In his time at Manchester United, Mourinho has pulled off one of the great metaphysical illusions where, regardless of the result, his team’s league position never changes. Two years ago United went four months unbeaten and sat in 6th the whole time. Last year, they were in 2nd from 23rd September til the end of the season. Whilst most teams might consider progress as moving up the league table, for Manchester United literally anything happening would represent a step forwards. They’re becoming the team that fun forgot.
We’ve been here before with Jose. Two years of success followed by the inevitable meltdown and car crash, and the longer his career goes on, the worse the wreckage gets. But with David De Gea, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku in your squad, how bad can things really get? Add to that Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford and Manchester United can boast a very good squad. Unfortunately for Mourinho, very good squads are no longer guaranteed a place in the top four, and if the inevitable is to follow, then it could be a difficult year at Old Trafford.
If it felt as though time has stood still on Tyneside for the past decade under the stewardship of Mike Ashley, then this summer represents an enormous step backwards. After achieving a top half finish with a squad barely improved from the side that won the Championship twelve months previous, manager Rafael Benitez will have seen this summer as the moment to kick on in his bid to restore the Magpies in the upper echelons of the Premier League. His boss, however, has other ideas and, despite promising to afford the Spaniard ‘every penny generated’ by the club, Benitez has been left to wheel and deal in the bargain basement, sniffing out release clauses, scouting free agents and negotiating loan deals to add bodies to the squad, all the while watching as the club makes bank from players deemed surplus to requirements. The departures of Aleksander Mitrovic, Chancel Mbemba and Mikel Merino alone have brought in almost £40m worth of transfer revenue – Benitez has seen just £18.5m of it.
If that weren’t enough, a dispute over player bonuses has erupted, as Ashley’s promise of £4m for a top half league finish has been diluted to £1m, meanwhile season ticket prices have been hiked, and Ashley’s main business concern Sports Direct are selling Newcastle United replica shirts at a higher price than those of other clubs. After ten years of balancing bundles of the stuff on their backs, it appears this is the last straw for the Toon Army. Fan movements have gathered pace, with #IfRafaGoesWeGo and The Magpie Group heading up projects aimed at ridding their club of the poisonous cockney once and for all. Whether planned protests will make any difference remains to be seen, but now is the time for action. Ashley has been a lucky gambler with this particular asset in the past, perhaps now is the time to quit while he’s ahead.
The last time the mood around St James’ Park was this dark, Ashley appointed Joe Kinnear and the Magpies were eventually relegated. Benitez will likely see his contract out to the end of the season and, without change, walk away. As long as he is at the helm Newcastle have a fighting chance, with the black and whites losing just five games to teams below them in the league last season, but a manager of his calibre should not be making do with Premier League survival. The soap opera on Tyneside continues.
Southampton’s board will have watched Love Island this summer and felt nothing but empathy for Old Laura. Two burgeoning romances with hot, young, exotic men were cut off in their prime thanks to the promise of more attractive propositions, and at the end of the series they’ve been left with a carpenter. We can only assume that Mark Hughes is good with his hands, given how keen he is to show them off to everyone. Unlike Laura, not even Fiat 500 Twitter can propel the Saints to second place, and an uncomfortably long flirtation with relegation last year before mugging off Swansea has led to a sharp change in expectations on the south coast. No longer perennial challengers for European football under a progressive manager, Southampton must now revert to the thing they did best in the 90s – hovering around the bottom half and waiting for a moment of genius to get them out of the brown stuff.
In this summer’s
recoupling transfer market, Basel’s Mohamed Elyounoussi has arrived to shake things up in the villa, while Scottish youngster Stuart Armstrong has emerged as 100% Hughes’ type on paper. Dusan Tadic was a surprise dumping from the club, after Ajax questioned his loyalty and he jumped ship at the first opportunity, while Fraser Forster’s ailing relationship with the #1 spot looks to be a thing of the past following Angus Gunn’s move from Manchester City. Saints have put most of their eggs in the basket of Borussia Monchengladbach’s £18m centre-back Jannik Vestergaard who arrives doubtlessly relieved that he won’t be suffering from cramp every time he’s asked to fill out his employers details on a form from now on.
Any misconceptions that Hughes is likely to encourage expansive attacking football at St Mary’s this season were snuffed out the moment the door hit Sofiane Boufal, Tadic and Guido Carillo on the arse, but then that’s the way the Welshman likes it. Stoke were comfortably midtable before the supporters started demanding things like ‘entertainment’ and ‘enjoyable football’, and you can expect Southampton to fill a very similar role. An improvement on last year’s points haul of 36 – their lowest since 1974 – would be a decent place to start.
Regardless of their performances in the cup this season, Tottenham are guaranteed another Wembley appearance as a delay in completing their new stadium has forced the club to go cap in hand to the FA for their opening home fixture against Fulham in the second week of the season. As if taking a leaf from Southern Rail, Spurs have made delays a theme of their summer. Heading into the final days of the transfer window, the North London side are yet to add bodies to a squad in desperate need of strength in depth, and with eight first team regulars returning late from the World Cup, those delays could well lead to a slow start. Harry Kane, who supplied 41% of Spurs’ goals last season (the highest proportion of team goals from any player in the Premier League), looked to be carrying an injury as early as England’s second round meeting with Colombia over the summer and, combined with his curious annual loss of form in August, might be put to better use on the bench in the opening weeks of the season. With Son Heung-Min heading to Indonesia for the Asian Games, that leaves the misfiring Fernando Llorente to lead the line.
Daniel Levy’s mothballed wallet, a longtime cause of consternation for Mauricio Pochettino, appears to be having more and more of an effect on the club as not only are they looking at heading into a new season with a lack of new faces, but discontent among current ranks continues to rise. Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose have aired their grievances the loudest, but surely other jewels in Tottenham’s crown must find their eyes wandering towards clubs with more tangible ambition. Injuries and poor form could scupper the steady progress Pochettino and co have been making over the past few seasons.
After two tentative tilts at the title and a year of consolidation as they waited to move into their new home, this was supposed to be the season that Spurs really had a go at winning the league. Levy, once bitten by the £30m purchase of Moussa Sissoko and now twice shy, clearly values fiscal responsibility when running his football club, but having made so much progress, now seems the worst time possible to shy away from competing. Many thought Spurs would get another chance after running Chelsea so close two seasons ago, but unless their owner has a miraculous change of heart, the club may find themselves falling behind the pack once again.
“And the final question, for One Million Pounds…who is Watford’s manager?” A typical scene there from the anxiety dreams of any non-Watford supporting football fan. It is, of course, Javi Gracia who, thanks to a rare survival of the summertime Pozzo axe, becomes the first Watford manager to end one season and begin the next since Giuseppe Sannino in 2014. Before Gracia gets too comfortable, it’s worth reminding him that Sannino lasted just five games into the following season before being sacked. A gentle opening run of fixtures might just keep the Spaniard in a job as the nights draw in but, based on the Hornets run of form towards the end of last term and the majority of their business in the transfer market, the revolving door policy at Vicarage Road may be about to come a cropper. Recouping £40m for Richarlison (and Silva) is a sterling bit of business from Watford’s top brass, but despite reinvesting that money it would be generous to suggest the squad is any better off. Ben Foster brings experience and ability between the sticks, something Gracia’s side have been crying out for, but beyond that the jury is out. Gerard Deulofeu has made his loan from Barcelona permanent on the basis that he put in a decent shift against Chelsea that time, while Adam Masina joins from Bologna to form the tallest central defensive partnership in the Premier League with Christian Kabasele.
The injury to Nathaniel Chalobah in the opening months of last season was a big blow, and if the former Chelsea man is able to form a decent central midfield partnership with Will Hughes then Watford could be onto something, but with Troy Deeney’s impact diminishing year-on-year, and Andre Gray’s move to Hertfordshire proving as underwhelming as everyone expected it to be, a lack of goals could prove Watford’s undoing.
Remarkably Javi Gracia is only the bookies fourth favourite in the sack race, with Billy Hill and friends clearly forgetting how ruthless Watford’s owners are. If that straightforward looking start to the season fails to translate into points, then the scramble for the next unknown coach from overseas will begin. In each of the past few seasons Watford supporters have defended the high turnaround at the club, but when a team lacks identity and things start to unravel, these matters usually come home to roost. As it stands, there may be trouble ahead.
West Ham United
The Fucking Old Cunt is back. Two years after downing tools at Manchester City, everyone’s favourite Sam the Eagle lookalike Manuel Pelligrini returns to the Premier League with a big wedge of renminbi in his back pocket. Having been completely shit up by a few supporters invading the pitch last season, The Dildo Brothers have finally delivered on some of their empty promises and brought a genuinely successful manager to East London, and plied him with lots and lots of money. Last season some of us were somehow suckered into the idea that the Hammers had enjoyed a fruitful transfer window, until we all realised that Pablo Zabaleta and Javier Hernandez were past it and Joe Hart is a fucking liability. This time though, seriously, they look to have done some astounding business. The free transfer of Jack Wilshere could either turn out to be the bargain of the summer or bring an end to the interminable talk of him being England’s saviour, while the £51m splashed out on Andriy Yarmolenko and Felipe Anderson looks exciting. The purchase of an actual goalkeeper in Lukasz Fabianski is another sensible move.
But this is West Ham, so something is bound to go wrong. Their disciplinary record last season left a lot to be desired, finishing joint bottom of the fair play table, though if you were working for David Moyes you’d want to kick lumps out of someone come the weekend, whilst their defence was also the joint worst – 68 conceded, including six games in which they shipped four goals. The addition of the best pound for pound goalkeeper in the league will go some way to stemming that flow, though £22m on French rookie Issa Diop looks a gamble.
With Gold and Sullivan finally beginning to act like the owners of a Premier League side, there are at last exciting times ahead for West Ham. As proven during their last season at Upton Park, the Hammers can mix it with the big boys and with perhaps the most high profile management appointment in their history, we might finally get to see a West Ham side fulfilling their potential. Or it will all blow up in their faces. It’ll be unmissable either way.
Take one Chinese investment company, add in a Portuguese super agent with links to some of Europe’s hottest talent, introduce an exciting young manager and fill his team with current and future stars of the European Champions. Inexplicably mix it all together in an unfashionable West Midlands city and you get one of the most intriguing stories of English football’s modern history. The who, what, why, when, where and how of Wolves’ stratospheric rise to the Premier League is a story for another day, but the fact that Fosun International were smart enough to take advantage of their relationship with Jorge Mendes, who in turn has been savvy enough to realise the opportunity available to himself and his clients at Wolverhampton Wanderers, gives you an idea of the grand plans Wolves’ owners have for the place. Last season they stormed the Championship, going top on the 31st October and staying their til the end of the season, playing sublime football and introducing new audiences to the mesmeric skill of some of Portugal’s brightest stars. Ruben Neves, taking a step down from Porto when making his £15m move to Molineux, was the best player in the second division last year. A raft of loan signings from Portugal all played their part in Wolves’ promotion, with Leo Bonatini, a rare gem from the Middle-East, ending the season as top scorer.
This season, those loan signings have been made permanent, as Nuno Espirito Santo stars in his own private version of Brewster’s Millions. As if the signings of Willy Boly, Diogo Jota, and Ruben Vinagre weren’t enough, Wolves (with the help of Mendes) pulled off the remarkable double coup of Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho for a combined £5m. Two European Championship winners for peanuts, and all it cost was the soul of the club. The club record £18m signing of take-on king Adama Traore might just be gilding the lily, but then again those black and gold shirts have never sparkled so brightly.
Pundits are convinced that Wolves will continue their Championship winning form into the new season, and to be fair so are we, but if international football has taught us anything over the last twenty-five years, it’s that a collection of talented and mercurial Portuguese players will often flatter to deceive when put in the same team together. If Espirito Santo can get his side to gel early, then Wolves might have designs on a European spot. Well, it’d be nice for the lads to visit their families next season wouldn’t it?