Mere weeks into last season, and Sunderland already looked certain to go down. The Black Cats, led by the animated, fiery Paulo Di Canio, were rock bottom in the Premier League. Despite having a relatively decent squad, nothing was going right for the Wearside club.
An opening run of four defeats and one draw saw Di Canio fired, and Uruguayan Gus Poyet was brought in with a seemingly impossible task – get this lifeless, uninspiring group of players to get their act together. He tried, and partially succeeded, but when Christmas rolled around Sunderland were still bottom of the Premier League. No club in their position had ever managed to turn around and escape relegation.
With six games remaining (including games against United, City and Chelsea), they were still seven points adrift of 17th place, and Poyet admitted they would need an absolute miracle to stay up. But a 2-2 draw against Manchester City started a run that Sunderland fans will never forget. It was followed by an incredible 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge (Mourinho’s first ever loss there) and three successive victories followed that, including a win at Old Trafford. With one game to spare, Sunderland had completed the great escape and secured Premier League football. Madness.
But this time around they’ll be looking to achieve their goals in a much less dramatic fashion. Solidifying will be key, and Poyet will be keen to cling on to the spirit around the club’s miraculous run as a foundation for a successful Premier League season. They’ve made a variety of different moves in the transfer market, bringing in Manchester City back-up keeper Costel Pantilimon and failed project Jack Rodwell. They’ve also added Chelsea’s promising leftback Patrick Van Aanholt to the squad, and, barring the departure of Jack Colback, have held onto all of their key assets.
They’re also publicly confident in sealing a permanent transfer for last year’s loan hero Fabio Borini, who became a fan favourite due to his desire and knack for scoring important goals. If Liverpool are willing to do business, it could complete a successful transfer window for Sunderland. With Poyet’s calming presence, they could easily have a comfortable Premier League season. They’ll need to, after what they went through last year.
Player to watch: The tail end of last season was a miraculous one for Gus Poyet’s men, and at the forefront of that was young striker Connor Wickham. The former Ipswich man came to Sunderland in 2011 with huge potential, but injury and a lack of form had kept him from living up to his name – until last year’s run in. With Sunderland looking all but certain of relegation, Wickham stepped into the spotlight; and revelled in it. A number of big goals, including those against Chelsea and Manchester City, kick-started the powerful striker’s career. He’ll need to keep the confidence from that fantastic run and use this season as the one to prove that he is truly ready for Premier League football.
Ever since their debut season in the Premier League three years ago (where they became the first ever Welsh club to do so) the Swans, with their surprisingly attractive brand of football, have captured the imagination of neutrals all over the world.
Led in their first year by now-Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, Swansea showed a boldness that was not usually seen from promoted clubs. Most newcomers to the league played a defensive, combative style of football (ala Stoke), but it was refreshing to see a team have success with a “purer” approach to the game. Rodgers’ predecessor Roberto Martinez, and his eventual replacement Michel Laudrup, were all part of an evident strategy by the Swansea board: play good football.
Laudrup, unfortunately, couldn’t do so while also getting results. The Barcelona legend parted ways with the club midway through last season, and centreback Gary Monk eventually took up the reins as a player-manager. Yes, the next link in a chain of incredibly intelligent, modern managers would be Gary Monk. Credit to the Englishman, he steadied the ship and guided the Swans to a comfortable 12th-place finish with absolutely no previous experience at management.
Monk’s success prompted the Swansea board to offer him a three-year contract at the end of the season, and the club comes into this season with the former defender still at the helm. He’s been very capable in the transfer market so far, adding Arsenal goalkeeper Łukasz Fabiański and Lyon striker Bafétimbi Gomis – both on free transfers. The return of Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson is also a great move by Monk, and if the attacking midfielder can continue where he left off two and a half seasons ago, he could be the perfect man to play behind Bony.
The club have lost a couple of big names though, with promising leftback Ben Davies and goalkeeper Michel Vorm both moving to Tottenham. But they seem well-equipped to deal with the departures, and with a little bit more experience under his belt, Monk could be set to manager the Swans to yet another solid Premier League season.
Player to watch: Although his future is still very much uncertain, Swansea’s Ivorian striker Wilfried Bony is certainly the man to watch at Liberty Stadium this year. Just from a glance it is easy to see that Bony is made for the Premier League – his physique and power have helped him settle quickly into the English game, and his finishing and heading have been key assets in the final third. His haul of 25 goals in all competitions was a fantastic return for a debut season (especially at a club with limited service like Swansea) and if the Swans can ward off interest from some of the league’s bigger clubs, they’ll have a man who is guaranteed to score goals – something that they would sorely lack if not for Bony.
Following a Premier League Player of the Year award two seasons ago, Tottenham’s Welsh winger Gareth Bale looked nailed on to join Real Madrid – a world-record £85.3 million deal that would eventually be completed before last summer’s transfer window reached a close.
Knowing they’d need to replace Bale, and with a pile of money to do so, the club went to work, spending around £100 million on seven different big-name players including Erik Lamela, Paulinho, Christian Eriksen and Roberto Soldado. On paper, they had done excellent business. But the season that followed proved the dangers of shuffling your hand too extensively, and manager André Villas-Boas eventually got the sack after a poor run of form culminated in a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool.
Caretaker manager Tim Sherwood came in and, although he steadied the ship a little bit, ultimate also failed at getting the best out of Spurs’ new signings. Roberto Soldado, formerly a prolific goalscorer, looked absolutely lost. Lamela couldn’t adapt to the league at all, and Chadli was useless at best. A 6th-place finish (still ahead of Manchester United) wasn’t enough to convince the board that Sherwood deserved a permanent deal, and he was let go at the season’s end. Southampton’s Mauricio Pochettino was approached to fill the vacancy, and the Argentine comes into this season as Tottenham’s new manager.
The absolute worst thing Tottenham could do would be to throw last season’s transfers out the window and start again, but thankfully, they’ve been fairly intelligent in the market this season. Under a new manager, many of last year’s attacking players have a chance at a fresh start to their Tottenham careers, and Lamela and Soldado in particular will be grateful for it.The club is content to give their offensive players another shot and has instead focused on defensive signings.
Ben Davies, Eric Dier and DeAndre Yedlin are three young additions to the Tottenham back line, and Michel Vorm will prove a solid backup to the ever-present Hugo Lloris. The added defensive depth, as well as a year to settle for last year’s failed attackers, could signal a promising season for Spurs. But Pochettino still has a huge task on his hands – even with all the positives, it will be extremely hard to finish ahead of two of United, Liverpool or Arsenal in the quest for fourth place.
Player to watch: Among a sea of new faces last summer, Erik Lamela was deemed as the one to replace the departing Gareth Bale. The tricky Argentine winger joined the club from AS Roma, but a number of injuries contributed to an overall disappointing year. But many players take longer than one season to adapt to English football, and with a new manager and a year of experience under his belt, this is his time to shine. Lamela is coming off the back of a very impressive pre-season, and last year’s woes look well and truly behind him. He can score and create with ease, and he looks fully capable of surprising those who have written him off after one poor year. He’ll be like a new signing for Tottenham, and he has the talent to become one of the league’s elite attackers.
Since promotion into the Premier League in the 2009/10 season, the Baggies have become something of a familiar face. Entering their fourth consecutive season in the English top flight, the blue and white stripes are becoming more and more recognized. But last year they came dangerously close to ending the adventure.
It took them five games to finally record a win last season (defeating a Sunderland side who were the only team worse off than West Brom were at that point) and it prompted the club to eventually relieve manager Steve Clarke of his post in early December. His replacement, Pepe Mel, took a completely different approach to the side, setting them up in a 4-4-2 diamond.
But regardless of the man at the helm, West Brom looked completely uninspiring. A tight 1-0 victory over Newcastle United on New Year’s Day separated two absolutely embarrassing runs of form – it followed a nine-game winless run and proceeded another poor spell, this one a run of eight games without a win. It was, to be blunt, a woeful year for the Baggies, who finished in 17th, dangerously close to the final relegation spot.
They’ve certainly tried to reshuffle after last year’s woes and have been one of the busiest clubs on the transfer market, moving on seven players and bringing in eight others. Nigerian forward Brown Ideye has been the most substantial addition, and the former Dynamo Kyiv man has little competition for a starting berth. With a lowly net spend of around £12 million, they could still be in the hunt for an addition or two to their squad in hopes of strengthening enough to avoid going down.
A close call last year looks ominous, though, and it’s hard to look past West Brom as one of the teams who will leave the Premier League this season. They’ve enjoyed four years in the top flight, but a fifth looks like it could be a bridge too far. If they’re to have any chance, Pepe Mel needs to add some consistency to his side – and fast.
Player to watch: In a team that looks depressingly void of creative players, all eyes will be on Stephen Sessegnon. The former Sunderland man is entering the second year of his West Brom career, and he certainly has room for improvement. He’s shown flashes of the brilliance that made him so coveted prior to his signing, but he’ll need to take his game up a level if the Baggies are to have any chance of Premier League survival. There will be few players with more weight on their shoulders this season – if Sessegnon can’t get back to his creative best, his side will have a very, very hard time creating goals for the likes of Berahino and Ideye to finish. His pace and dribbling are a joy to behold, and the Premier League would be better off to see Sessegnon back on form.
The Hammers – an apt name for a side who rely on launching balls up to a battering ram of a forward. West Ham are, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most direct sides that the Premier League has on display.
Such is the reputation that they’ve gained under the blunt personality of manager Sam Allardyce. The Englishman, currently managing his eighth different club, is well known for his style of football – and not because it looks pretty. Allardyce is a throwback to a style of play long dead; traditional, longball English football is his game, and he’s a master at playing it.
A successful reintroduction to Premier League football in 2012/13, in which Allardyce led the newly-promoted club to a very solid 10th-place finish, was enough proof that his direct style can be very, very effective. It prompted him to sign Liverpool flop Andy Carroll on a permanent deal, but injuries to Carroll meant that the Hammers spent much of last year without a recognized striker. Their top goalscorer, captain Kevin Nolan, ended up with only seven league goals. A 13th-place finish came at the end of a comfortable enough season, but it was one that lacked any sort of progression from the club.
Goals are certainly an area they have looked to address, though, and this off-season has seen them add forwards Diafra Sakho, Mauro Zarate and World Cup star Enner Valencia to bolster their front line. A loan move for Arsenal’s Carl Jenkinson may prove very clever, while the free signing of teenage Championship star Diego Poyet (son of Sunderland manager Gus Poyet) has the potential to be one of the signings of the summer.
It’s business that bodes well for West Ham, who have also offloaded players who they’ve deemed inadequate. They’ve strengthened across the board, and mid-table looks to be calling their name once again. Allardyce and his men are far too good to go down, but it remains to be seen whether the club and fans are willing to tread water – particularly in a way that is far from easy on the eye. Regardless, the Hammers have their identity and they look like they’ll be sticking around for a while yet.
Player to watch: While most other teams will be relying on a striker or midfielder (somebody who can influence goals) as their key man, the Hammers will be looking to goalkeeper Adrián. The young (in goalkeeper terms) Spaniard eventually displaced long-time West Ham goalie Jussi Jääskeläinen last season – a huge feat in itself. His performances were consistently outstanding, and the fact that the Hammers boasted one of the Premier League’s best defensive records was largely down to Adrián’s performances between the sticks. He looks extremely mature and composed, and the 27-year-old will be called upon again to face a barrage of shots. He’ll save quite a large number of those if last year is anything to go by.