Every year seems to be the same story for Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal team. At some point in the season, they always look like genuine title contenders – but it never lasts. Is this the season to finally break the trend?
It very well could be.
Typically frugal spenders, Arsenal continued their campaign to smash that tag with the post-World Cup signing of Chilean star Alexis Sanchez. Alexis’ transfer from Barcelona is the second most expensive signing in Arsenal history (after last year’s marquee signing of Mesut Özil) and it looks like Wenger is finally willing to break the bank in an effort to compete for the ultimate prize.
Sanchez has been joined by defenders Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers in Wenger’s shopping spree, and his attempts to also bring a powerful midfielder (which the squad is sorely lacking) are well known, with William Carvalho and Sami Khedira both potential targets.
With new recruits to the Premier League’s fourth-best defensive unit (including goalkeeper David Ospina), as well as the presence of yet another world-class attacker in Sanchez, Arsenal’s squad is looking very deep. Wenger has given himself plenty of options in attack, and if one more midfielder (in the ilk of William Carvalho) could be added, it would complete a very, very strong team.
Still, it’s not clear whether the Gunners will have success or not. They definitely have the potential to compete for, and win, the title – but then again, they’ll probably just finish fourth.
Player to watch: While Alexis Sanchez may be the name on fans’ lips, it is creator Mesut Özil who will be the key man for Arsenal’s season. Last year, Wenger’s record signing endured a roller coaster of a campaign. His brilliance was always visible in patches, but he didn’t live up to the incredible standards that he set for himself at Real Madrid. Sanchez may help him solve that problem, though – Özil is clearly a player who feeds off of pacey forwards making intelligent runs, and Sanchez can give him the perfect player to slide passes through to. He’s had one year to adapt, now it’s time for chameleon eyes to deliver the goods.
When manager Paul Lambert came to Aston Villa from Norwich, it was heralded as a fantastic coup – this was a man with a clear football brain, a modern thinker. He would turn Aston Villa around.
But two years on, it poses a question – has he been successful?
It’s hard to say – Lambert clearly does have a football brain, and his grasp of tactics and the modern game is very good. But Villa have hardly progressed in his time in charge. True, his first season at the helm saw Aston Villa boast the youngest squad in the Premier League (a sign that boded well for the future), but Villa have been far from convincing on the pitch.
Two consecutive 15th-place finishes may be enough to sate owners who (rightly) don’t see the club as being able to challenge for the European places any time in the near future – but is this enough for the Villa faithful? Unfortunately, Villa don’t look to be making any major improvements either.
Villa’s summer spending has consisted so far of three free transfers, with the mighty Joe Cole at the forefront of them. The lack of reinforcements put a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Villa’s powerful striker Christian Benteke. The Belgian suffered from an injury-ravaged campaign last season, but will need to be back fit for the Villains to continue to secure their Premier League status.
Even with a fit-again Benteke, it will be a hard ask for Villa to have a season with any reasonable amount of success. They’ve flirted with relegation heavily for two seasons – this may be the one that it finally happens.
Player to watch: Benteke is clearly the dangerman for Lambert’s side, and any successful offensive play will likely include him. However, Villa’s defence is just as big an issue. Last year Aston Villa conceded the most goals of any Premier League team to not be relegated. If not for Dutch centreback Ron Vlaar, there would have been a lot more. Coming off the back of a successful World Cup (yes, an Aston Villa centreback played in the Netherlands’ World Cup squad), Vlaar will need to be the man to shore up the shambles that is Villa’s back line. If he can keep things relatively in check, there may be some hope for Villa to finish closer to the top half.
The Clarets are back in England’s top flight, and thankfully for the fans, it didn’t take quite so long as it did the last time. Burnley made their first Premier League appearance in 33 years in the 2009/10 season – they may have been relegated that same year, but they’re back for another shot at the big time 28 years sooner than they were the last time around.
An impressive season in last year’s Sky Bet Championship saw Burnley finish second place by a comfortable eight points – a feat that earned them automatic qualification to the Premier League.
With the fourth-best offence in the Championship, Burnley will be hoping that their attacking unit, including star striker Danny Ings, can handle the challenge of making the significant jump up. Last year Ings enjoyed by far the most productive spell of his career to date, netting 21 league goals and successfully filling the void left by the recently departed Charlie Austin.
But while Burnley did well in front of goal, their true strength was to be found in their back line. The Clarets conceded a league low of 37 goals in 46 games – a phenomenal record. This, even more so than their output up top, bodes extremely well for their chances at Premier League survival.
Many clubs make the step up to the top flight only to find that they can’t cope with the skillful attackers on display – Burnley, while admittedly used to defending against players of a lesser calibre, have a good foundation to avoid that.
Player to watch: Burnley’s defensive record speaks for itself – but a closer look reveals that fullback Kieran Trippier may be the most important player at both ends of the pitch. The Manchester City youth product was an integral part of Burnley’s stellar campaign, scoring two goals and assisting a staggering 14 from leftback. An extremely talented offensive fullback, Trippier is to Burnley what Leighton Baines has been to Everton. After links to Arsenal emerged, Burnley quickly tied down the two-time Football League Championship Team of the Year defender, and it is easy to see why. If he can maintain anything close to this level of output, he will certainly catch the eye this season.
Chelsea are, quite simply, the bullyboys of the Premier League – and manager Jose Mourinho wouldn’t have it any other way.
Under Mourinho, Chelsea are more than capable of putting teams to the sword – with brilliant creators like Hazard, Oscar, Willian and Schurrle, they’ve proven that they have the firepower to compete with anybody. But Mourinho is a man who will win at all costs, no questions asked. When needed, he is more than willing to set his Chelsea team up to soak up pressure and attempt to kill a game – and they are damn good at doing it.
They’ve once again flexed their financial muscles (although they’ve actually maintained close to a net spend of zero, with big fees received for outgoing players) and have brought in even more world-class talent. Fans’ hopes are pinned on combative striker Diego Costa to finally be the goal-scorer that Chelsea have so dearly lacked, and former Arsenal and Barcelona midfield maestro Cesc Fabregas returns to the Premier League to strut his stuff for the Blues.
On top of that, Chelsea have added to their already imposing back line, bringing in fullback Filipe Luis and welcoming back loanees Thibaut Courtois (who will challenge for Chelsea’s No. 1 spot) and muscular centreback Kurt Zouma. It’s hard to see a weakness in Mourinho’s squad; the Blues certainly have one of the deepest teams (rivaled only by Manchester City) that the league has to offer.
A solid, but trophy-less, season last year has given Chelsea a good foundation to build from, and they look to be making all the right moves to ensure that they are competing for the title. In a Premier League season as unpredictable and tight as the upcoming year promises to be, there are few certainties – but Chelsea being title challengers is one of them.
Player to watch: It’s easy to say that a big-money arrival will be the player to make the difference, but that really needs to be the case with Diego Costa. Coming off the back of a 27-goal season in Spain, the former Atletico hitman is one of Europe’s finest forwards on his day. Costa is seemingly the whole package – he can finish with either foot, is good in the air, and is willing to work his socks off for the team. Since the £50 million arrival of Fernando Torres in 2011, Chelsea have been unable to nail down a forward who consistently scores goals. They’ve thrown the big money out for Costa, and it finally looks like Chelsea have a striker capable of 20 league goals again – a feat not seen in blue since Drogba’s prime.
From relegation fodder to mid-table comfortability: this was the story of Crystal Palace’s 2013/14 Premier League season. An early tumble made relegation look a certainty, but a managerial shuffle proved to be the ace in Palace’s pack.
Nine games into the season, Palace had managed only a single victory. Ian Holloway was subsequently fired, and after a month of searching, Palace emerged unscathed on the other side, boasting a tracksuit-wearing saviour on the touchline that would guide them comfortably to safety – it is known as none other than the Tony Pulis effect.
Pulis has a reputation for making his sides incredibly hard to beat; he took Stoke City from minnows to a Premier League mainstay, and his approach brought instant success to Crystal Palace. His sides are a throwback to old-school English teams – set up in two defensive banks of four sending long balls up top for their strikers to compete for. It’s unfashionable, but he does it oh so well.
By the end of his first full (almost) season in charge, Pulis had the Eagles sitting in 11th place. Their defense, like all Pulis sides, proved incredibly frustrating for opposition sides to break down. A final tally of 48 goals conceded left them with better defenses than both Liverpool and Tottenham. Despite the poor defensive showings from the aforementioned two, that’s still quite a feat.
This season, Crystal Palace will be hoping for more of the same. With a relatively unchanged team, they’ll be much the same side as they were last year – although with a year more experience under their belts. A year more of learning to play the Pulis way. Expect many successful attempts to frustrate their opponents at Selhurst Park.
Player to watch: In a side built on a defense-first basis, Australia and Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak is integral to everything that happens. The hard-working, gritty midfielder will put his body on the line – and his opponents on the ground. The 30-year-old started every single one of Palace’s 38 league games last year, winning 133 tackles and 139 interceptions. Palace will, first and foremost, attempt to stop their opponents (particularly the big clubs) from playing their own styles of football. Jedinak is the epitome of this, and the destroyer will be the embodiment of his manager’s philosophy.