What a difference 10 kilometres makes – Manchester City may be at the peak of their powers, but just down the road arch-rivals Manchester United just endured their worst season in the history of the Premier League.
Replacing the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson after 26 years under the management of the brilliant Scotsman was always going to bring a period of transition to United, but the laughable appointment of former Everton manager David Moyes set the club back massively. The end of an era gave the club an opportunity to move forward – new players, new ideas and a forward-thinking manager to usher in a new age of Manchester United dominance.
The fact that the Red Devils bizarrely settled for Moyes leaves no sympathy for the implosion that was to follow. A 7th-place finish (22 points back of eventual winners Manchester City) and a season littered with mediocrity eventually saw Moyes get the sack, but it remains to be seen the kind of lasting damage that the horror appointment and the failure to qualify for Champion’s League football could leave.
Thankfully, the club have brought in a man fully capable of steadying the ship and getting the Premier League era’s most successful club back on the right track. In new manager Louis Van Gaal, United have a man capable and comfortable of making important decisions. Already, you can see Van Gaal exerting his authority on the club. Even with only weeks left in the window, the club have a plethora of targets on their radar, and anybody not fancied by LvG is set to be offloaded.
Van Gaal has a huge task on his hands, but without any European football to worry about he can have his side fully concentrated on regaining their top-four position in the Premier League. With a new formation and the expensive acquisitions of defender Luke Shaw and midfielder Ander Herrera, Manchester United look set to erase the painful memories of last season. The club will surely improve – it’d be an incredible feat not to.
Player to watch: One of the only players to come out of last season with any credit was versatile frontman Wayne Rooney, and Van Gaal looks to already be getting the best out of one of the Premier League’s elite strikers, handing him a prominent role and naming him as United’s new captain. The shackles of the Moyes era are removed, and an impressive pre-season leaves Rooney in pole position to lead United’s charge back to the top. Though the Dutch connection means Val Gaal clearly rates Van Persie, it is Rooney who you’d expect to have the bigger impact on United’s season. The partnership between the two (if Van Persie can stay fit) could be the selling point in the new manager’s 3-5-2 formation.
You can search the lands far and wide, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better rollercoaster ride than Newcastle United. Forget what it does to the fans, having Newcastle in the Premier League every season is guaranteed entertainment.
From their directionless forays into the transfer market to their mind-bogglingly fluctuating form, Newcastle are, at the very least, a fantastic talking point. And all this before considering the hilarious eight-year contract handed to manager Alan Pardew in 2012. Although if there’s one man who suits a club like this, it’s certainly one who is prone to head butt opposition players.
Newcastle are glorious for being nonsensical – or, at least they were. After consecutive transfer windows without paying any money to sign players, the Magpies have actually gone about their business this year in an incredibly astute manner. Rémy Cabella, Siem de Jong, Darly Janmaat and Emmanuel Riviere (among others) have all been added to the black-and-white-stripped revolution.
They bolster a side that, on paper, was already a solid Premier League unit – no where close to the the European places, but far better than most that the league has to offer. But with these signings, Newcastle look genuinely capable of challenging for a Europa League spot.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not all of their new signings can adapt to the Premier League, but The Toon look set for an interesting season. It’ll inevitably come with ups and downs, as well as a few bizarre Pardew moments, but they’re great fun to watch – aren’t they?
Player to watch: Of all the new additions to Pardew’s Newcastle side, it is attacking midfielder Rémy Cabella who is the most salivating prospect. The former Montpellier man is a very complete attacker – a good crosser and passer who is also useful from set pieces, he will surely bring a lot of strengths to his new club. Fourteen league goals and five assists in Ligue 1 last year suggest that Cabella could be very deadly indeed if he hits the ground running in the Premier League. Last year Newcastle lost Cabaye to PSG, and have since lacked a creative spark. Cabella could finally be the one to fill that void.
Queen’s Park Rangers
Queen’s Park Rangers are perhaps the most interesting side in the Premier League. Despite a huge influx of money, they found themselves relegated two seasons ago. Now, they’re back and ready to flex their financial muscles once again.
A fifth-place finish in the Sky Bet Championship put QPR in the promotion playoffs, and an eventual playoff final victory over Derby County, courtesy of a Bobby Zamora goal, gave the club the third and final promotion spot – after only one year without, they would welcome back Premier League football to Loftus Road.
With infamous “wheeler and dealer” Harry Redknapp – don’t tell him, though – at the helm, QPR have a man who has been around the Premier League his whole career. Managerial stints at Portsmouth and Tottenham mean that Redknapp is a familiar face (and personality) for fans all over the world. The level of his managerial ability is definitely in question, but he’s more than experienced enough to make his new club a tough opponent to beat.
QPR’s ownership gives them an advantage that most other lower sides envy; their financial pull means that they can afford to buy (or loan) many players that normally have no right being at a club who will linger in the Premier League’s bottom half. In their four-year spell under their current ownership they’ve already seen the likes of Esteban Granero, Julio Cesar, and now Mauricio Isla come to a club that otherwise could never dream of luring them.
But all the money in the world didn’t help them last time – the late appointment of Redknapp in the 2012/13 season wasn’t enough to save the club, and they were eventually relegated. They’ll be wary of the same this time (and the lasting negative effects that taking a bunch of high-earners into the Championship creates) and, hopefully for their fans, are better equipped for Premier League survival.
Player to watch: Despite failing his Liverpool medical, you’d bet on Loïc Remy still leaving the club before the window closes. If he does, front man Charlie Austin will once again be relied on to score goals. A 17-goal return in last year’s Championship added to an impressive record for Austin (who had scored 41 Championship goals with Burnley prior to joining QPR) and the 25-year-old still has time on his side to get even better. Many solid Championship goalscorers fail to translate their form to the top tier, but Austin looks like one who can buck the trend.
The words fire-sale have never been more pertinent than they are right now for Southampton. Two strong seasons in the Barclay’s Premier League, the most recent of which saw them finish incredibly in eighth place, put their players in the public eye – and they’ve been flying off the shelves in this summer’s transfer window.
A change of ownership and manager have seen the club offload their big names for premium prices, with everybody wanting a piece of the Southampton project. Club captain Adam Lallana heads a list of departures that includes others like Calum Chambers, Dejan Lovren and Luke Shaw. They’ve already brought in almost ₤100 million in transfer fees, and the money will certainly be burning a hole in new manager Ronald Koeman’s pocket.
He’s already begun his spending – bringing in Eredivisie stars Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pellè, among others, and it certainly makes for an interesting new-look Saints side. Their rapid acceleration from League 1 side to Premier League mainstay has been largely down to holding onto key players, but this summer has brought a different approach.
With so many new faces at the club, it will be a season of big transition at St. Mary’s. Huge upheavals can often go either way, and Southampton will be dying to prove that their success hasn’t just been a flash in the pan. But Koeman will be wary of trying to integrate too many new players too quickly – the club still have many quality players (even without the new signings) and allowing them to gradually make the step will be key.
One thing is certain – Southampton are not the same side that they have been these last two seasons. They’ve become known as a pressing, quick-passing side thanks to former manager Mauricio Pochettino, but they have a chance to carve out a new identity. How Koeman will line up his side is anyone’s guess, but either way it will be worth keeping an eye on Southampton this year. They may not be in as much trouble as everyone seems to think.
Player to watch: Striker Ricky Lambert had five successful seasons at the club, scoring 106 goals in the process, before his move to boyhood club Liverpool this summer. His departure leaves a massive question mark over who will score the goals for the Saints this season, and new man Graziano Pellè now has that burden on his shoulders. Pellè has an advantage that should help him settle quicker – he spent the last two seasons under Koeman at Feyenoord, scoring 50 goals and establishing himself as one of the league’s finest strikers. With a manager who already knows how to use him, it may not be long before he’s smashing them in in England.
They may not be the most glamorous club that the Premier League has to offer, but the truth is that nobody (and I mean nobody) relishes a trip to Stoke’s Brittania Stadium. Every year big and small clubs alike look at their fixture schedule and dread the day they visit Stoke – a place where giants are continuously slain.
They’ve certainly developed a reputation as a stubborn, hard-to-beat club – especially in their own back yard. The barometer (usually jokingly) for if a Premier League player can handle the physical aspect of the English game is usually gauged by: “But can he do it on a wet, windy Tuesday night in Stoke?”
Again, they haven’t been winning any awards for style points – former manager Tony Pulis will tell you, rightly, that the result comes first. But current manager Mark Hughes, entering his second season in charge, is trying to change the Stoke City ethos. Last year they were still typically resolute, but you can tell they’re trying to add a little bit of flair to their play.
Hughes guided the club to a comfortable 9th place finish last year, and there’s nothing more the club could really ask him to do. But astute business in the transfer market has put them in a good position to try and solidify their place in mid-table. Veterans Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell, two good additions, have both joined the club on free transfers, while the striker problem (namely relying on Peter Crouch) has also been addressed – the free transfer of Mame Biram Diouf from the Bundesliga and a potential bargain in the ₤4 million signing of Barcelona’s failed striker Bojan Krkic leaves the Potters with options up top.
The club look destined to linger in mid-table for all of eternity – and that’s not a bad thing at all. They have punched considerably above their weight ever since their return to top-flight football in the 2007/08 season, and they have their roots fully set in the Premier League. They’ll end up in pretty much the same place as they always do.
Player to watch: While Bojan has the potential to kick-start his career with a move to a new country, the offensive output for Stoke may have to come largely from Austrian forward Marko Arnautović. The powerful frontman (he can play wide or up top) had a slow start to his Stoke City career after his transfer last summer, but towards the end of the season he really stepped up a gear, creating and scoring at a much higher rate. This could mean he was finally adapting to English football, and there’s certainly another level in his locker. For a big man, he has exceptional feet and trickery, and he’s adept at scoring all kinds of goals. With Crouch well past his best, Stoke may come to rely on the big Austrian this season.