Jurgen Klopp: Liverpool Savior

klopp

By Greg Hudson

It would be unfair to say that when Steven Gerrard slipped in front of the Kop in April of 2014, Brendan Rodgers’ days as manager of Liverpool Football Club were numbered.

But the then-34-year-old captain’s untimely error which allowed Chelsea to open the scoring in a 2-0 victory over the Reds at Anfield was the beginning of a downward trend which saw the Reds miss out on their first title in over two decades in 2014, crash out of the Champions’ League in the group stage, fail to reach the final of either domestic cup after reaching the semifinal in both competitions, and finish a lowly sixth in the Premier League last season.

So the slip wasn’t the critical moment. But it was certainly a trigger for an avalanche which eventually cost Rodgers his job. After failing to impress in their first few matches of the season – a 1-1 draw against Everton on October 4 – was the final nail in the coffin, Rodgers’ contract was terminated, and the search for a new manager began.

It didn’t last long.

One name, linked with the Merseyside giants since the end of last season’s depressing campaign, immediately came to the forefront: the name of a 48-year-old German who used a combination of stalwart defense and lethal counter attacking football to lead an industrious Borussia Dortmund side to back-to-back Bundesliga titles to topple German giants Bayern Munich: Jurgen Klopp.

There are few names in European football more synonymous with excitement. Watching a Jurgen Klopp side at their best is like watching an artist paint a masterpiece. Klopp brings several core values to his side: hard work, communication, intensity and common sense.

And those are qualities this Liverpool side need desperately.

The side that took the field against Everton last week was a shadow of the team that thrashed the Toffees 4-0 at Anfield just 18 months prior. The departure of star players Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling didn’t help, but there was more at play than just a lack of starpower. The team lacked intensity, it lacked bite. The side that had cut opposing squads to ribbons looked anything but incisive, and it had a lot to do with their manager’s playing style: or lack thereof.

Brendan Rodgers blew us away during that 2013-14 league campaign by adapting his style to suit the needs of the team, whether to account for player injury or suspension, to incorporate young players into the starting lineup, or to adjust the tactics to best exploit the weakness of the opponent. No matter the game, Liverpool always seemed to look the better side: they always seized and maintained the initiative.

But a regrouping period after the departure of Suarez left Liverpool needing to break in several new players, not all of whom adapted to the existing playing style. Rodgers fell into a habit of almost constant tactical changes in a desperate attempt to improve results, and this lack of consistency resulted in a general lack of identity, not only for supporters who were left scratching their heads at the decision to leave Steven Gerrard out of the side that faced Real Madrid in the Champions’ League in Spain and the depleted side the team fielded at Wembley in the FA Cup semifinal defeat to Aston Villa.

That general lack of identity carried over into the 2015/16 campaign, as the club lost its face when Gerrard left the club to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS, and Rodgers tried in vain to throw together a squad that could consistently earn positive results. Injuries to captain Jordan Henderson and striker Daniel Sturridge didn’t help the cause, but in the end, the manager takes the fall, and after another disappointing result at Goodison Park sealed his fate.

Just days later, Klopp was announced manager, and the similarities between the two managers cannot be stressed enough: both prefer to employ a high-speed, counter attacking brand of football; both are relatively young; and both transformed underperforming teams into contenders.

The main difference between Rodgers and Klopp is mentality, the German being the more aggressive tactical leader. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, although it will almost certainly take some time to bring to full fruition.

Klopp is the champion of gegenpressing – counter pressing, in English – and it may be the key to Liverpool’s resurgence.

Gegenpressing is more than a simple counter attack, it is a full-on assault of the opponent after losing possession. It can take multiple forms: pressing high to mark all forward passing options and force the man on the ball to play the ball backwards; attacking the passing lanes to force the man on the ball to either make a run himself or play the ball backwards; or most rewarding – and most dangerous – an all-out assault on the man with the ball.

Liverpool achieved great success with a high press in the 2013/14 campaign, and Southampton used it to great effect last season. But gegenpressing goes beyond a simple high press. It is a high-intensity, physically demanding way to play football – and it doesn’t stop. Unlike the high press which is effective in short bursts especially at the beginning of a game or in its final stages, gegenpressing is a full-match tactic, require players to give 100 per cent from opening kickoff to final whistle.

And that might be a problem. Liverpool have some true grinders, players who never seem to tire out no matter how hard they run. Jordan Henderson earned the captaincy for his tireless play, and Emre Can also seems to always have something in the tank.

But for many of Liverpool’s top players, fitness is an issue. Sturridge and Benteke have had struggles with injury and high-intensity play always increases the risk of injury: ask Klopp’s former Dortmund stars Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan. Meanwhile Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho have consistently proven they lack the stamina to play at full capacity for 90 minutes at a time.

But that’s where the time comes in. Liverpool aren’t where they want to be, but they aren’t exactly in trouble either. They sit 10th in the Premier League, with 12 points from eight matches. But they’re just six points removed from Arsenal at the top of the league with over 75 percent of the season remaining.

That means that Klopp, who led his first training session at Melwood on Monday with a depleted side while most of the starting contingent were away on international duty, has a period of time in which to instill in his players that hard-working, counter-attacking brand of football: an identity.

It’s not likely we’ll see gegenpressing on Saturday against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. It’s not likely we’ll see it against Southampton at home a week later. It isn’t even necessarily likely that we’ll see it against Chelsea at Anfield on Halloween.

But there’s a chance we will.

That match against Chelsea will be a massive occasion for the Reds. A chance to avenge a defeat that cost them a championship 18 months ago comes at a time when Chelsea are reeling: the defending champions have endured a terrible start under Jose Mourinho, who’s now facing the same criticism levelled at Rodgers during his final season at Liverpool. A victory for Klopp’s boys – especially if it results from tactically outplaying Chelsea with gegenpressing – could well be the turning point in Liverpool’s season. And after a less that stellar start, that’s exactly what Liverpool need.

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Merseyside Misery

Who Wants It More ??

By Aaron Hampton

As we enter the stretch run of the Premier League season, Manchester United and Liverpool stand within two points of each other in the race for England’s last Champion’s League spot.  With such little to separate these clubs in the standings, Sunday’s match-up at Anfield is the most crucial test for either club yet, and will ultimately prove pivotal in determining the fate of England’s most fierce rivals.

Much has been made about Manchester United and their struggles this season, and yet for every complaint about Louis Van Gaal’s questionable tactics or for every snide about expensive signings not living up to their wage bill, if the season ended today Manchester United would be playing Champion’s League football.  One could also argue that despite losing to Newcastle in the league and Arsenal in the FA Cup in back-to-back weeks, they come into Sunday’s match against Liverpool riding their best from after drubbing Tottenham 3-0 at Old Trafford.

And yet, it would certainly be foolish to read too much into one result given what we’ve seen from Manchester United thus far this season.  The Jekyll and Hyde nature of their form this season gives way to this type of skepticism, even after seeing guys like Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, and Juan Mata put in there best performances of the season against Tottenham.  Let’s not forget, December also saw United post a 3-0 result against an opponent, only to follow that up with an unremarkable 1-1 away draw to Aston Villa the following week.  That December night saw Manchester United beat Liverpool, who themselves have went on to become the hottest team in England after that loss.

Just how hot have Liverpool since that loss to United?  Not only have they gone unbeaten since losing to United at Old Trafford in December, but a once leaky Liverpool defense has not conceded a goal in the Premier League since Van Persie scored United’s third in their previous meeting.  Liverpool have also looked reinvigorated in attack, not quite matching the SAS level’s of yesteryear, but still look extremely dangerous in attack when their pressing game is working, and they are able to win the ball back high up the pitch and get the ball out quickly to their attackers.  With United’s defense anything but settled, and Johnny Evans missing Sunday’s clash, Liverpool will surely look to push the pace against the visitors in front of a raucous Anfield crowd and put a couple goals through early to push the contest out of reach.

Despite getting the 1-0 result at Swansea, Liverpool showed that wing-back in particular is an area for concern in their coveted 3-4-2-1 system that has given so many fits during their run.  With that, Liverpool will have to be careful in leaving too much space behind in attack, specifically on the wings where guys like Ashley Young or Angel Di Maria can exploit that space quickly.  Even with  Louis Van Gaal’s disdain, United remain extremely partial to the long ball, and can make Liverpool pay on the counter if they are overly ambitious in front of the home faithful.

The sheer intensity and magnitude of any Liverpool-Manchester United clash means the stakes are high whenever these two lock horns.  Both are accustomed to battling it out with the other for titles, and while those circumstances changed, both yearn to return to Europe’s elite and compete in the Champion’s League.  One moves a step closer to those aspirations after Sunday’s result is read, the other left to scramble one of the closest races for Champion’s League qualification in recent memory.

Premier League Pick ‘Em

Arsenal-Gallery4

We’re two-thirds of the way through the 2014/15 Barclay’s Premier League season and things are heating up at the top of the table – and the bottom – as the fight for Premier League glory – and survival – hits the home stretch.

At the top, Chelsea (60 points) hold a five-point lead over defending champions Manchester City (55). The real fight lies between positions three through seven, where Arsenal (48 points), Manchester United (47), Southampton (46), Liverpool (45), and Tottenham Hotspur (44) are separated by a total of four points.

Meanwhile, at the bottom, Leicester City are four points from safety with 18, while Burnley, Aston Villa, and Queen’s Park Rangers are knotted at 22 points apiece.

Starting Point’s Greg Hudson takes a look at who he thinks will earn a place among the elite, who will fall short of glory, and who will find a way to survive the most challenging league in world football.

Top-Four Contenders

Arsenal

The Gunners have been a consistent side this season, scoring goals with their mobile, free-flowing offense. They haven’t always been in the top four, but they haven’t always been fit either, as injuries to Aaron Ramsey and star forward Alexis Sanchez have hurt their form at times, but Arsenal have looked strong throughout the campaign. Defensively they’ve been strong and have played well against teams that like to play a physical game, and while their zonal-marking scheme at set pieces is an achilles heel, they aren’t easy to beat, and I’ll pick them to finish in the top four.

Liverpool

The Reds came oh-so-close to winning their first league title in a quarter century last season, and the departure of Luis Suarez and the addition of several new players meant they were never likely to challenge for the title this season. A slow start and injuries to Daniel Sturridge and departing captain Steven Gerrard have left them without a star player at times, but the team as a whole is progressing well. They’ve lost just one of their last 18 games in all competitions, and that was an extra-time defeat to Chelsea in the League Cup, and new boys Adam Lallana, Alberto Moreno and Lazar Markovic have been weighing in with needed goals as the Reds offense has found its feet. Meanwhile, the shaky defense that cost them the title last year has come into its own with a new formation, and the Reds defense has kept a clean sheet in five of their last six games in the league. I think they’ll overcome the slow start and book themselves a place among Europe’s elite with a top-four finish.

Top-Four Failures

Southampton

Make no mistake, Southampton are the surprise of the season. They’re a team that many picked to be relegated this year after so many of their key players left for higher places, but the “replacements” brought in by Ronald Koeman have not only filled their shoes – they’ve improved the side. Saints always looked like a team that could beat anybody on the day, but this season their fearless style of play and high-pressure defense has seen them sit as high as third. They’re on the outside looking in at the moment, in fifth, but wins over Arsenal and Manchester United should give them confidence as they head into the final push for the top four. That being said, they players at Koeman’s disposal aren’t used to the kind of pressure they’ll face in the fight to the finish this season. They simply haven’t been in this position before. A 2-0 loss at home to Liverpool offers evidence that perhaps they just aren’t quite there yet. I think they’ll fight hard, but I think they’ll come up just short.

 

Manchester United

United have responded well to new manager Louis van Gaal, but they’re a very unbalanced team. They’ve put on some great performances this season, including a 3-0 home win over top rivals Liverpool, but they’ve also suffered a 5-3 defeat to Leicester City, who currently sit bottom of the league, and have been beaten for a double by Swansea, losing both games by a 2-1 margin. The simple fact about the Red Devils is that they’re a team of very talented attackers – Rooney, Di Maria, Mata, van Persie and Falcao are household names across Europe and South America – but a team who’s standout defender is Chris Smalling is doomed to failure. I’m not knocking the man, but a team that has aspirations of greatness in domestic and international competitions needs world-class defenders as well as attackers. They don’t have that at this point, and a failure to bring in any new men at the back during the January transfer window indicates that van Gaal or the United board simply don’t understand the severity of the situation. I don’t think they’ll finish in the top four, since good sides like Liverpool and Arsenal will take a lesson from Swansea and exploit the huge achilles heel United seem to ignore, and the Red Devils will have a lot to answer for when that happens.

Premier League Survivors

Hull City

The Tigers struggled immensely over the Christmas period and fell as low as 19th in early February. But new signing Dame N’Doye has given the Tigers a spark, and it’s taken a lot of pressure off their other big man, Nikica Jelavic. N’Doye has weighed in with goals in both his starts, and Jelavic has found the target as well, helping the Tigers to back-to-back wins for the first time this season, and seeing them go four points safe. The form isn’t permanent but their fighting spirit and an improved performance at home suggests that Hull City will not fall victim to the sophomore drop the way they did in their first Premier League visit. I’ll pick them to beat the drop, not necessarily in easy style, but I think they’ll stay up at least another term.

Burnley

They’re right where they’ve spent most of the season: in the drop zone. But they’re a side that fights, and their 1-1 draw at Chelsea at the weekend is an example of it. They were on the road against the league leaders, but when given a man advantage after Nemanja Matic was sent off, the Clarets pulled level, and they’ve got the players to get the goals they need to survive. Youngster Danny Ings is one of the highest-scoring Englishmen in the league this term, and fullbacks Ben Mee and Kieren Trippier have been effective at supplying him. Ashley Barnes and Sam Vokes have been valuable attacking assets as well, and Tom Heaton has done his part in net, as the Clarets look for survival. I think they’ve got the fight they need, but unlike Leicester City who embody that same spirit, the points suggest Burnley might just live to fight another day in the league.

Premier League Dropouts

Queen’s Park Rangers

The Hoops are an weird bunch. They have name – good names – filling their team sheets each week, but the results they’ve earned hardly reflect the talent. The simple fact about Rangers is that they’re a team without a purpose. Watching them play, they lack spirit, they seem to believe that they’re going to lose before the opening kickoff, and once they fall behind there’s not much getting back into the game. Charlie Austin is the league’s highest-scoring Englishmen, and he’s just been given no support. Bobby Zamora and Eduardo Vargas have provided sparks of intensity from time to time, but the Hoops just don’t connect. They’re all on different pages, and a book that isn’t in the right order ends up at the bottom of the stack, which is where QPR will finish: in the drop zone.

Aston Villa

The Villans have the players and they have the money. But they don’t have the quality. They’re a collection whose whole has yet to equal the sum of its parts. They’ve lost their last six in the league, and they’ve fired manager Paul Lambert two thirds of the way through the season. Norwich City tried it last year, hoping it would give them a spark that would ignite a resurgence. It didn’t work, and the move is typical of desperation that’s setting in at Villa Park. They sit 19th and boast the league’s worst defensive record. It wouldn’t be so bad if the offensive weapons at interim manager Tim Sherwood’s disposal could find the net, but since the new year they often appear as if they don’t know what the goal looks like, let alone how to put a ball in it. They’ve failed to score in four of their last six, including matches against Hull City and Leicester. Their inability to beat the teams around them in the table bodes very ill indeed for a team that’s one of just seven never to be relegated from the Premier League, and I expect we’ll be watching a league without the Villans in 2015/16.

3 Points With Aaron Hampton

By Aaron Hampton

Three thoughts from the past weekend of EPL action that saw Chelsea impress, Manchester United earn a hard fought three points, and Southampton continue to improve their top four credentials:

Chelsea Impress, City Search for Answers

The two clubs at the summit of the Premier League put in two contrasting performances over the weekend as Chelsea cruised to 5-0 victory over Swansea, while Manchester City struggled in their 2-0 defeat to Arsenal. After a 5-3 defeat to Tottenham to start the new year, Chelsea now seem poised to put their recent lackluster run of form behind them, having now kept back-to-back clean sheets in the Premier League and netting a combined 7 goals against Newcastle and Swansea City respectively. Saturday’s win over Swansea was everything we’ve come to expect from Jose Mourinho’s side on both sides of the ball, as they took the lead just 48 seconds in behind a goal from Oscar and rode a sublime performance from Diego Costa en route to victory.

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Saturday’s win over Swansea took the Blues five points clear of Manchester City, who themselves could not muster a result against an Arsenal team that has quietly won 5 of their last 7 Premier League matches. The return of Vincent Kompany was thought to give City a boost going into the match-up, but the Belgium international showed rust throughout and personified an unimpressive day for the City defense.  With Arsenal striking for goals on either side of the half, City were unable to find a breakthrough despite enjoying a healthy amount of possession.  With their unbeaten streak of 12 snapped, and their midfield engine Yaya Toure away on international duty, all eyes will be focused on a January 31st clash with league leaders Chelsea, which has the potential to see Chelsea move eight points clear of their nearest threat to the Premier League crown.

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Manchester United Survive

Louis Van Gaal has long admitted that Manchester United remain a work in progress despite sitting fourth in the Premier League, and Saturday’s 2-0 win over QPR showed his squad still have much smoothing over to do before they are a finished product.  For a majority of the first half, QPR looked much the more threatening side in carving out better chances of the two squads. United, who rolled out a 3-4-1-2 formation to start the match, showed they still have yet to achieve a comfort level using three at the back and looked much better once Van Gaal went to a more orthodox back four in the second half.

Goals by Marouane Fellaini and James Wilson were enough to allow Manchester United to pick up the three points, but they have still yet to click going forward with all of their expensively assembled attacking options. Radamel Falcao put in decent shift against QPR, but his scoring touch has yet to make its way to Old Trafford as he could not find the back of the net despite having at least two clear-cut chances at goal.

Falcao was partnered up top with Angel Di Maria, who Van Gaal continues to experiment with up front as a forward to mixed results at best.  Di Maria works best centrally or out wide were he can take advantage of his blistering pace to move past defenders to go either on goal or set-up teammates.  When you pay close to $100 million dollars to bring in Di Maria you have to maximize his strengths, and playing with his back to goal or dropping deep just doesn’t allow him to impact the game in ways we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

In the end, it’s hard to argue after a club takes home three points, but if this result is any indication Van Gaal will remain the mad scientist tinkering for answers, while United remain a work in progress.

Southampton Continues to Impress

A recent run of 16 points out of a possible 18 have Southampton sitting third in the Premier League table and bunkering in for what will be a season-long push for Champions League football at St. Mary’s Stadium come next season.  Recent loan signing Eljero Elia repaired the Saints gratitude as he scored his first two goals for the club to help take them past Newcastle 2-1. Despite missing both Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama from their starting 11, Southampton never seemed as though they were ever truly threatened in the match by Newcastle, who themselves suffered their third defeat in four games.
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It seems like only yesterday questions surrounded Southampton and their ambitions to field a competitive club after selling off the likes of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, and a host of others, and yet week in and week out they continue to defy expectations and make us all of wonder if they have yet to even played their best football this season.  Whether or not Southampton can this up and see out the season in one of the four Champions League spots remains anybody’s guess, but with matches against Crystal Palace, Swansea City, and QPR all looming on the horizon, one has to fancy their chances to at least ride this wave of incredible form for the foreseeable future.

A Tale of Two Cities

By Greg Hudson

Liverpool and Manchester United both made headlines this summer as the two English giants completed several majors moves, signing and selling big names throughout the pre-season. But looking at each club’s outlook for the future, it is indeed a tale of two cities.

Let’s start in Liverpool, where things look to be heading for the best of times. The club handled the departure of volatile striker Luis Suarez with class, and considered it wiser to invest the over $100 million revenue from his sale into strengthening the squad as a whole, particularly the defense, and to do so primarily by signing young talent.

Defenders Dejan Lovren, Javier Manquillo, and Alberto Moreno all joined the club in the summer, while midfielder Adam Lallana and winger Lazar Markovic also arrived at Melwood to complete their transfers. Lovren and Lallana are already established and highly-rated in the Premier League after success at Southampton last season, while Manquillo, Markovic, and Moreno all arrive from the Iberian Peninsula – Manquillo and Moreno from Spain and Markovic from Benfica in Portugal – and none of the trio is over the age of 21.

Meanwhile Manchester United look headed for the worst of times, and the desperate moves they made this summer show the fear at the heart of the once-great club. Three of last year’s starting four defenders are gone, as Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra have all sought pastures new. Meanwhile strikers Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck have left the club, and veteran leader Ryan Giggs has announced his formal retirement. It left the Devils with many holes to fill and they generally did a poor job of it.

They did sign big names. Angel Di Maria and Ander Herrera join as positive attacking midfield options and Daley Blind could serve useful as a holding midfielder. But they did not sign any quality defenders. Fullback Luke Shaw, the 20-year-old Southampton prodigy, was pried from Saints for a handy $45 million, but no other moves were made to shore up a back line which was porous at best last season when Vidic and company were still around.

They made a desperation move on the transfer deadline day, signing Monaco striker Radamel Falcao on loan. Not only is the deal temporary, it doesn’t solve the problem. An already top-heavy side with great attacking options and a shaky defense now sits even more precariously balanced, with such a plethora of attackers that new maager Louis van Gaal will have difficulty finding a way to use them all, and such a blight of quality defenders that he’ll need his 3-5-2 system to work to avoid fielding four defenders when only three are really worthy of a shirt.

United have stated that their goal is to finish in the top four, to secure Champions’ League action next season after missing out for this year. But the simple fact is that there’s no balance at Old Trafford and the Devils are doomed to stumble and fall short of those ambitions until they can create a squad that’s top-rate from front to back. Until they can, they’ll fall behind their northwest rivals Liverpool, who have made a move to strengthen the club for the present AND the future.

For the two biggest clubs in the history of English football, the summers were very similar, as players joined and departed with regular frequency. But for these two neighbor clubs who play just 35 miles apart, it was indeed a tale of two cities.

For the two biggest clubs in the history of English football, the summers were very similar, as players joined and departed with regular frequency. But for these two neighbor clubs who play just 35 miles apart, it was indeed a tale of two cities.

Premier League Preview III

Cardiff City v Manchester City - Premier League

By Greg Hudson

MANCHESTER UNITED F.C.

Nickname: The Red Devils
Kit Colors: Red/White/Black; White
Home: Old Trafford
 
The Red Devils have been the dominant force in English football in the past quarter century, but when legendary boss Sir Alex Ferguson retired at the end of the 2012-13 season, United’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. David Moyes took the helm last season, but seemed to immediately run into trouble getting results from the team considered by many to be the most fearsome in England.
 
So it was of little surprise when David Moyes was sacked towards the end of last season, when United finished a lowly 7th. He was replaced by Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal, who guided the Dutch to the World Cup Final in 2010 and to a third place finish this past summer in Brazil. Van Gaal comes in with a highly touted tactical understanding of the game, something which cannot always be said of his predecessor, and with some money to spend on new players.
 
But that money has been invested in attacking midfielder Ander Herrera and left back Luke Shaw, a 20-year-old phenom who impressed last season with Southampton. It isn’t to say that these are bad signings, but the departures of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and captain Nemanja Vidic have left an already shaky defense even more vulnerable. Their attack looks strong, so they shouldn’t struggle to score against the lesser clubs, but they’ll struggle to keep the likes of City, Liverpool, and Arsenal out of the net, and that will hurt their finish in the end. But make no mistake, United are a Champions’ League calibre side.
 
Predicted Finish: 4th
 
NEWCASTLE UNITED F.C.
Nickname: The Magpies
Kit Colors: Black/White; Grey
Home: St. James’ Park
 
Newcastle are a unusual outfit. A side comprised mostly by French players or African players from French-speaking countries, the Magpies have had a volatile combination of intensity and class, but a tendency towards inconsistent play has kept them from reaching their full potential, as they lost 19 of their 38 matches last season en route to a 10th place finish. 
 
Looking to improve their inconsistent attack, Alan Pardew has made several additions to his side this summer. After the departure of fullback Matthew Debuchy to Arsenal, defenders Jack Colback and Daryl Janmaat have moved to St. James’ Park, while new attacking midfielders Remy Cabella and Emmanuel Riviere and strikers Ayoze Perez and Siem de Jong will help the Magpies score the goals they need to convert narrow defeats into draws, and turn close matches into wins.
 
They aren’t a top team, not yet, but the signings they’ve made this summer show intent to develop young up-and-comers into star talents who can challenge the top teams for a place in Europe in the coming years.
 
Predicted Finish: 8th
 
QUEEN’S PARK RANGERS F.C.
Nickname: The Hoops
Kit Colors: Blue/White; Red/Black
Home: Loftus Road
 
Rangers make their return to the Premier League after a year in the Championship, having won the playoff final with a last-gasp goal over favourites Derby County. The Hoops had spent the previous two seasons in the top flight, and their squad leaves little doubt why. They’ve got several Premier League regulars in their ranks, and while they have no star power, the likes of Loic Remy, Junior Hoilett and Adel Taarabt all have potential to become household names throughout English football as top attacking options.
 
But it was QPR’s porous defense which doomed them to relegation in 2012-13 and with that in mind, two of the three new additions to the Hoop’s back line are defenders Rio Ferdinand and Steven Caulker. Ferdinand, the 34-year-old veteran who won several titles with Manchester United, will no doubt serve largely as a mentor and advisor to the young Caulker and the other Rangers defenders as they look to keep opponents off the score sheet and give their club the best opportunity to survive. Should they succeed in tightening the defense, they should survive comfortably, but if they remain a porous unit, they’ll struggle to stay afloat in a league where you either sink or swim.
 
Predicted Finish: 17th
 
SOUTHAMPTON F.C.
Nickname: The Saints
Kit Colors: Red/White; Navy
Home: St. Mary’s Stadium
 
Saints exceeded expectations in 2013-14, sitting in the top five for much of the season in just their second season since promotion in 2012-13. But with time Mauricio Pochettino’s men returned to earth and settled for and eighth place finish, which is still well above their fans’ expectations. 
 
But as is often the case, a mid-table side with standout players often has trouble keeping them, and most of Saints’ side from last season have left for pastures new. Defenders Luke Shaw, Callum Chambers, and Dejan Lovren have all left the club, as have midfielder Adam Lallana and strikers Rickie Lambert and Dani Osvaldo. These big-name sales left Saints fans feeling broken and many pundits have picked them to be sent down.
 
But new manager Ronald Koeman has dipped into the transfer market with the hopes of finding players capable of saving Saints, and he’s done quite well. New ‘keeper Fraser Forster and new defender Ryan Bertrand, both highly underrated players, will look to keep what remains of the Southampton defense in good shape to keep opponents off the sheet, while Dusan Tadic will attempt to fill the shoes vacated by Lallana. But this shouldn’t be as difficult as one might think; last season for FC Twente, Tadic created over 120 goal-scoring opportunities – over fifty more than the next man behind him. Meanwhile, bargain-priced Shane Long replaces Lambert, and when Jay Rodriguez returns from knee injury, these two should help the Saints produce the goals they’ll need to survive. It won’t be a comfortable ordeal and there will be hard moments, but Saints remain a Premiership-quality side.
 
Predicted Finish: 16th
 
STOKE CITY F.C.
Nickname: The Potters
Kit Colors: Red/White; SkyBlue/Navy
Home: The Brittania Stadium
 
In their sixth season in the top flight since their promotion in 2008, the Potters secured their first top-half finish last year when they ended the season ninth. But it was also a season of transformation for Stoke, who had earned a reputation as a side that did everything except play football during their time under Tony Pulis, when they were known more for a hard-tackling, foul-committing side that played simply to disrupt opponents’ strategy and win the game with physical play and expert set piece work. But last season under new manager Mark Hughes, the Potters showed that they can do more than just tackle, clear, and head the ball – they are a legitimate footballing side that can entertain crowds like the best teams in England.
 
While the quality of the squad at Stoke is below that of the elite teams, the Potters are a solid mid-table side with a variety of attacking options with slight and spry striker Peter Odemwingie offering an entirely different skillset of his giant strike partner, the 6-foot 8-inch Peter Crouch. But the two Peters represent what makes Stoke who they are – a unique blend of physical muscle and finesse that can both bully an opponent and create quality scoring chances.
 
New acquisitions reflect this unique combination. Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell represent the physical side of the Stoke way, while highly-rated young attacker Bojan Krkic is the embodiment of style and flair. This combination certainly isn’t typical of a side capable of winning silverware, but it’s effective, certainly enough so to earn the Potters another mid-table finish and perhaps a decent run in one of the domestic cups.
 
Predicted Finish: 11th