2015-16 Premier League Preview

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The 2015/16 Barclay’s Premier League season is just days away, and while the spending and the speculation are far from over, the countdown clock to opening day is all but spent. The big boys will fight for glory and the minnows will fight for survival, and to kick off the 2015/16 season preview, The Starting Point takes a look at the clubs to watch in the hunt for glory this season, courtesy of Premier League analyst Greg Hudson.

Club to Win it All: Chelsea F.C.

Jose Mourinho’s men won it all last season, and there’s no reason to think they won’t do it again in 2015/16. They have a seemingly irresistible mix of solid defense anchored by John Terry, quality midfield play in the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Oscar, and clinical attack through Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, and that makes them a danger on their worst days, and a juggernaut on their best.

The summer has been fairly quiet at Stamford Bridge, with the biggest activities being the departures of backup goalkeeper Petr Cech to Arsenal and the return of defender Felipe Luis to Atletico Madrid after an unremarkable year with the London side.

But the relative quietude for Chelsea is more a sign of their confidence than of a lack of initiative. It’s often said that champions who don’t improve don’t remain champions very long. It’s true, but although they haven’t added to their squad, this is a fairly young group of players – goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, defender Cesar Azpilicueta, midfielders Oscar and Nemanja Matic, and both Hazard and Costa are still at-or-before their prime – and they’ve spent the summer gelling into an even better side. A 1-0 setback in the Charity Shield to Arsenal won’t bother them much: they’re still the favorites to win the title – and for good reason.

Dark Horse Title Contenders – Arsenal F.C.

Arsenal were the in-form team of the second half of last season, and they’ll look to continue that hot streak in 2015/16, as star forward Alexis Sanchez begins his second season with the club and home-grown talent Francois Coquelin and Hector Bellerin look to become staples in the fiber of the club.

The biggest action of the summer was the acquisition of goalkeeper Petr Cech from Chelsea, and while he’d been supplanted at Stamford Bridge by young hotshot Thibault Courtois, expect Cech to step right into the Arsenal squad between the sticks and make an immediate impact for Arsene Wenger’s side at the Emirates this season. Goalkeeping was Arsenal’s Achilles heel last term, as both Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina failed to really bolster the defensive unit.

With Cech in goal, Arsenal can fully commit to the kind of attacking play that saw them finish third last season. That gives the likes of Mezut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey the confidence to get forward and help Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott with the goals Arsenal need to mount a title challenge.

Most Overrated Club – Manchester United F.C.

Yes, yes, I’m on the Hate United bandwagon. But not really. If you look at Manchester United, you see the single most imbalanced team in all of European football – world class attacking talent in front of a back line with no true leader and a goalkeeper whose days at Old Trafford are numbered – and that number is alarmingly small.

There’s no denying that United have some world class attacking ability. Even with the departures of Angel di Maria and Robin van Persie, the Red Devils still have Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera helping create magical moments on the pitch. So when I looked at Man U’s situation at the end of last season – particularly given that they’d be returning to European competition in the Champions’ League – I assumed their top priority would be defensive strength. With Mats Hummels strongly linked to Old Trafford and Chelsea’s Petr Cech available to replace goalkeeper David de Gea, whose move to Real Madrid is somewhat of a foregone conclusion, it seemed compulsory that United make the move to bring world class defending to the Theatre of Dreams, in a necessary attempt to improve a side which allowed five goals to Leicester City last season.

But they didn’t. The only defensive move the team has made has been the addition of fullback Mateo Darmian, which was followed with the departure of long-time right back Rafael. Instead, the side have brought on Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger to improve the midfield, and world-class winger Memphis Depay to add to the goals department. But where is the defense!? It’s a question manager Louis van Gaal has ignored, or else he’s lost the memo. When your top defensive unit includes Chris Smalling, you’re in big trouble. And with de Gea gone in the coming weeks, there’s no way United can mount a serious title challenge. If you want proof that an all-attack-no-defense system doesn’t win the title, just ask Liverpool: they came about as close to pulling it off two seasons ago before it all unraveled at the finish line. Don’t be looking to see Manchester United at the top of the pile this season – unless they make some serious moves between now and deadline day.

Most Underrated Club – Liverpool F.C.

Two seasons ago, the Reds came as close to winning the title as a team can come without a solid defensive unit. Sadly, two years later, that defensive unit hasn’t improved much. But Brendan Rodgers has a much more all-around team now than he had in that (un)forgettable campaign in 2013/14. The likes of Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic are beginning to come into their own, and Emre Can looks set to finally make a difference for Liverpool in his natural position in midfield. Yes, the team has lost three of its core players in the last 13 months in Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling. And yes, last season was an unmitigated disaster with Mario Balotelli proving perhaps the transfer blunder of the season and Daniel Sturridge finding the net just four times as he missed three quarters of the season through injury.

But the Reds still managed to finish sixth for Rodgers and the Anfield faithful, and another summer of spending has again highlighted Rodgers’ smart mentality. Joe Gomez is a top defender of the future, and while he’s unlikely to make a big difference now, Nathaniel Clyne is a top fullback and his addition to the back line will make an immediate impact, both at the back and going forward. Roberto Firmino will partner well with Philippe Countinho in the attacking midfield, and young Jordan Ibe will feature a lot in the side after making some breakthrough performances in the preseason. But the move of the summer was the addition of Christian Benteke, a man whose numbers at Aston Villa nearly mirrored those of Luis Suarez in his time with Liverpool and whose strong attacking presence will surely help the Reds with their biggest problem from last term: goals.

They aren’t title contenders. They simply aren’t that quality a side yet. But this is a predominantly young team, one of the youngest in the league, and the talent and creativity is undeniable. Of all the teams that failed to finish in the top four last year, I rate Liverpool as most likely to do it this season.

Stay tuned to The Starting Point for more of Greg’s preseason thoughts as he looks at teams who will be fighting for their Premier League futures in the upcoming campaign – and who might just make it out alive.

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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

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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