Triple-check the functionality of your coffee (or tea) pots, because Saturday mornings are about to get rough again: The Premier League season is upon us. It's a glorious time, full of singing angels and dancing fairies. What, you don't see any dancing fairies?
Just like every offseason, some good teams got better, while other good teams got slightly less-good. There isn't time to go through every team before kickoff on Saturday, so instead we're only going to cover the teams that we believe have a chance of finishing in the top four. This isn't to say the likes of Aston Villa, Burnley, Leicester, or Swansea don't exist; they have swell clubs over there (well, not so much Villa), but we thought it might be more worthwhile to take a closer look at the bigger clubs.
Despite the time-honored tradition of sportswriters pretending everything makes perfect sense, I will freely admit it's a mystery to me that Chelsea didn't win the league last year. I mean, I get it because 38 games is an arbitrarily small sample size, but I don't get it because Chelsea was probably the best team in the EPL last year.
Chelsea surrendered just 27 goals in league play last season, which is 10 fewer than any other club. Likewise, the club finished favorably in many advanced statistics. The Blues were better than everyone else at getting shots on target and preventing their opponents from doing the same. Meanwhile, their shooting percentage and save percentage were fairly close to even, which suggests they aren't due for the kind of statistical regression one might expect from Liverpool and Manchester City. This is to say that, if the 2013-14 season were played over, I'd still put my money on Chelsea.
Now for the scary part: Chelsea got a hell of a lot better, mostly by raiding La Liga champions Atletico Madrid.
Chelsea's only clear weakness last year was at center forward, where manager Jose Mourinho trotted out the permanently slumped Fernando Torres, antiquated Samuel Eto'o and occasionally some random guy like Demba Ba. That's not going to happen again, because Chelsea signed Diego Costa, who led Atletica with 27 goals in La Liga last season. Chelsea also bolstered its defense with Filipe Luis, Atletico's left back. At keeper, Thibaut Courtois returned from loan at … yep, Atletico Madrid.
The only major non-Atletico additions are Didier Drogba and Cesc Fabregas. Drogba, Chelsea's prodigal son, returns to the club for what could only be his swan song. It's hard to imagine he gets too much playing time, with Costa the clear first choice and Torres a superior option, but he adds necessary depth with Ba and Romelu Lukaku officially out of the picture.
Meanwhile, Fabregas, who once plied his trade on the other side of London for Arsenal, joins an already crowded Chelsea midfield. Fabregas was deployed at all kinds of bizarre positions at Barcelona that never really made sense, but Mourinho seems to have a very specific plan for him to play central midfield. This means an attacking line of Eden Hazard, Costa, and Oscar, with Fabregas behind them.
This year's squad has no flaws, but that seems more or less standard for the biggest clubs these days. Rather, it's all about how a collection of the game's biggest stars can play a coherent game. This roster fits together like a puzzle, and there's arguably no manager better at this specific task than Mourinho. Chelsea demand to be the favorites once more.
Strengths: Scoring goals, preventing goals.
Concerns: Depth at center forward and the back line; Hobo Mourinho won't show up to every match.
Chelsea will win the league because: Its biggest problem last year, scoring goals, was addressed with a vengeance.
Chelsea won't win the league because: Injuries, cosmic events, statistically irrelevant streaks of bad luck; Hobo Mourinho will get arrested for public urination before a big match.
Considering the high profile moves its rivals made, it doesn't feel like City did a whole lot this transfer window. Yet spenders spend, and so City still found a way to shell out more than £60 million just for the heck of it.
It bought a center back, Eliaquim Mangala, for a relatively absurd price of £44 million (maybe), and the Brazilian defensive midfielder Fernando, who will confusingly be on the same team as Fernandinho. Former Arsenal right back Bacary Sagna joined the club after his contract with the Gunners expired and should figure for a starting role.
Like Chelsea, City didn't lose anyone important, or, really, anyone at all, and has only improved its title-winning side. City still has Yaya Toure, one of the best midfielders in the world, Vincent Kompany, one of the best center backs in the world, and is four deep at center forward. This would all be incredibly scary if Chelsea and, to some extent, Arsenal, hadn't improved in kind.
Aside from Chelsea's upgrades, there's reason to believe City will had to improve on its title-winning side in order to repeat. City's PDO, or the ratio of shooting percentage to save percentage, was the highest in the EPL, which is generally unsustainable over long periods of time.
It's very likely that City will score on a smaller percentage of its shots on target and/or give up more goals per shot on target based simply on regression to the mean. This isn't to say City can't repeat or will definitely be a worse team, but that it would have to shoot more often to have the same number of goals and/or give up fewer shots to have the same number of goals allowed.
That being said, City dealt with far more injuries last season than Chelsea, a testament to its incredible depth, which has only been improved this year. City's B Squad features the likes of defenders Aleksander Kolarov and Sagna, midfielders Jesus Nava and James Milner, and striker Alvaro Negredo, and could easily beat most of the EPL, which is just mind-boggling to think about.
As the season goes on, other teams will tire and injuries will catch up with them while City will be able to plug along with its absurd depth. It's a good bet to make. It worked last season.
Strengths: Unfathomable depth.
Concerns: Will they be as lucky as last season in having so many shots go in the net?
Manchester City will win the league because: Injuries are a real thing that happen during a nine-month season and they are prepared.
Manchester City won't win the league because: Chelsea.
By Arsenal standards, the Gunners had a busy transfer window, which means it wasn't all that busy. In fact, they still spent less than Manchester City's "calm" business window. But City's moves were largely for depth, whereas Arsenal's were important upgrades.
When Theo Walcott went down last season with a torn ACL, Arsenal desperately missed pace and finishing skills from the wing. Accordingly, manager Arsene Wenger wasted little time this offseason in wooing Alexis Sanchez, the former Barcelona winger. Sanchez should vastly improve Arsenal's offense, especially with Walcott's eventual return and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's continued improvement.
Likewise, Arsenal filled its Sagna-sized hole at right back with Mathieu Debuchy, the former Newcastle man who, if not an upgrade on the aging Sagna, is at least an adequate replacement. The Gunners also contributed to the Great Southampton Pillaging of 2014 with perhaps the only reasonably priced Southampton sale, 19-year-old Calum Chambers. He mostly played right back, but Wenger has stated Chambers will shift to defensive midfield because Arsenal desperately need some help there, which brings us to Arsenal's weaknesses.
For one, they have no skilled defensive midfielder. Mikel Arteta has adjusted well to the role over his time at Arsenal, but he was mediocre last season and on the wrong side of 30. Arsenal's other option, Mathieu Flamini, is unreliable and reckless. Further, the drop-off in talent at the back makes the Mariana Trench look gradual. Meanwhile, Olivier Giroud is still Arsenal's frustratingly good-but-not-great striker of choice.
With its abundance of attacking midfielders and improved (read: not-yet-injured) wingers, Arsenal could be this year's Liverpool, scoring a ton of goals but surrendering a lot, too. Because Arsenal improved at roughly the same rate as its competitors, the skinny on the Gunners is largely the same as it was last year: a lot of things have to go right. Arsenal's talent doesn't quite fit together the way Chelsea's does, with extreme depth in some positions and glaring holes in others.
Strengths: Signed a winger; several layers deep in attacking midfield; French guys named Mathieu willing to take you out back and rough you up a bit.
Arsenal will win the league because: All of the inevitable injuries could hit their midfielders of whom they have plenty; the transfer window isn't over yet.
Arsenal won't win the league because: One swing of Hobo Mourinho's crowbar would end Laurent Koscielny's season.
First things first: Louis Van Gaal replaced Ryan Giggs who replaced David Moyes as manager, which makes sense because 1) David Moyes was not a good manager; 2) Ryan Giggs is not actually a manager; and 3) Louis Van Gaal is a very good manager. This, more than anything else, is the key reason why United are on this list: a real, grown-up manager.
Said grown-up manager then looked at his players and thought, "Well, this is no good" and went about lighting everything on fire. Some of those burnings were tactical, since Van Gaal favors a 3-5-2 formation. He will need three center backs and two wing backs to make the system work. (Wing backs, unlike traditional wingers, need to be pretty competent defenders in order for the system to work.) Other changes were simply talent-driven, which is a nice way of saying those players started sucking.
As one might expect given Van Gaal's new system and United's problems, he's working on a fairly extensive remodeling. Gone are defenders Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic. Van Gaal also revealed that he told Marouane Fellaini, Wilfried Zaha, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Nani and Rafael that they have no role with the club this year. To replace them, he has brought in potential wunderkind Luke Shaw, attacker Ander Herrera and … uh … well, the transfer period isn't over yet!
At the moment, the Manchester United roster is probably the EPL's most varied in quality. On the one hand, Van Gaal has Juan Mata, a world-class attacking midfielder who actually played quite well for Manchester United after transferring from Chelsea last January, Robin Van Persie, he of the dolphin goal, and Wayne Rooney, who one day will decline in quality (but that day has yet to come). To a lesser extent, there's Adnan Januzaj, who is only 19 years old but a supremely talented winger. On the other hand, Van Gaal will have to make competent defenders out of Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling (related: Manchester United needs more center backs).
It's hard to imagine Van Gaal turning this roster into a bona fide title contender, assuming no major transfers are completed before the deadline. But many people thought the same thing about Liverpool a year ago. This is the thing about modern European soccer: Because the talent level at every top club is so ridiculously high, great managers can make significant differences.
In the conservative world of the English Premier League, many managers pride themselves on being tactically rigid, so the managers willing to play to their opponents (cough, Brendan Rodgers, cough) have a huge advantage. After all, the inverse happened at United last season, when they went from arguably the best manager in soccer history to … well, David Moyes isn't the worst, is he?
I'm not predicting a United title, but when the talent level is so high, managers become the marginal difference. This team is going to have a vastly different look and feel from Sir Alex Ferguson's title-winning side two years ago, but that doesn't mean it will be worse. However, it will have a pretty big advantage over other title contenders: No long mid-week trips to the butt-crack of Europe for Europa League matches, which undeniably helped Liverpool last season.
Strengths: They are no longer managed by David Moyes.
Concerns: They have some of the same players that were managed by David Moyes; biggest transfer -- Luke Shaw -- is a 19-year-old playing a new role.
United will win the league because: Louis Van Gaal is a great manager who knows what he's doing.
United will not win the league because: Louis Van Gaal does not play central defense.
Warning: the following team preview will have no biting puns.
Liverpool, also known as New Southampton, lost its best player (Luis Suarez, perhaps the best striker in the world, who will join the best player in the world at Barcelona) but gained many good ones, mostly from Southampton: midfielder Adam Lallana, center back Dejan Lovren, and forward Rickie Lambert. In total, Liverpool shipped some £54 million south (I like to imagine they did so by putting cash in a van and driving down the M6).
Lambert, a crafty veteran, is part of the short-term solution to replacing some of Suarez's goals, but Liverpool have one of the greatest compilations of young attacking talent in the EPL. Lazar Markovic (20), Daniel Sturridge (24) and Raheem Sterling (19) are all more than capable goal-scorers.
Without Suarez occupying a significant amount of defensive attention (and scoring regardless of said attention), it's difficult to tell if Sturridge and Sterling can repeat last season's success. For Sturridge, this is a massive campaign to demonstrate he can be successful as the primary goal-scorer. Still, much of the trepidation about this attack comes from knowing what it was capable of last year.
If I didn't know about last year, I'd tell Liverpool fans that it's OK if everything doesn't come together this season, because this attack is built for the future. Sterling appears to be one of the great English future stars (hold the snickering, please) and Sturridge is a clinical finisher. Meanwhile, Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho and Lallana should work well with this group.
But I do know about last year, and Liverpool's defense simply wasn't that good. Now, they have potentially addressed these issues through Lovren and recent signee Alberto Moreno, who should combine to bolster the back line.
Their PDO was second only to Manchester City's, which, again, suggests some regression is quite possible. Also, Liverpool was able to play its best roster on full rest for virtually every game since it didn't make the Europa or Champions League. With a Champions League slot this season, Liverpool's (improved) depth will be tested. That said, the Reds' main competitors have drastically improved while it's not entirely clear whether they improved in absolute terms or merely shuffled the chairs. It was already going to be difficult to repeat last season' magic, but the cards seem especially stacked against another run at the title this year.
Strengths: Will score goals in bundles; underrated midfield.
Concerns: Scoring rate of last season unlikely to repeat; no Suarez; must compete in Europe.
Liverpool will win the league because: Brendan Rodgers is the most tactically flexible manager in the EPL.
Liverpool will not win the league because: Suarez is gone.
Tottenham tinkered around the edges, but fundamentally Spurs are a very similar team. This may seem like the end of the discussion, since Spurs had a pretty disastrous season and have to compete in the Europa League, which, if you listen to British newspaper columnists, is like being sent to Siberia for a few days a year.
Over the past few campaigns, one of Tottenham's largest problems has been chairman Daniel Levy sacking all the managers. Upon canning Harry Redknapp in 2012, André Villas-Boas took over for … a little while! Tim Sherwood took his place under an "interim" 18 month contract, which made no sense for anyone (he only made it five months before being sacked). This lack of continuity makes it hard for a club to put any kind of plan together. Even worse, this managerial shuffling occurred during the influx of Gareth Bale money and the subsequent roster turnover. It's not quite clear what the plan was other than "buy players," which isn't necessarily a bad plan, but it's not exactly a good one, either.
So this is the situation Spurs find themselves in: They have lots of talented players who did diddly squat last season, but they finally have a real manager in Mauricio Pochettino, who led Southampton to an impressive campaign last year (and got out while the gettin' was good, an underrated coaching skill). In short, the questions surrounding Tottenham are the same ones as last year. Can they make a real team out of a bunch of parts?
Erik Lamela and Roberto Soldado are perhaps the two most important players in answering this question. Lamela, a 22-year-old winger who was the most expensive of the post-Bale lot, found a gap in space-time and managed to not exist for a while, playing only 331 minutes the whole year which is even shorter than Tim Sherwood's tenure. Soldado played plenty before he was benched because not being able to put the ball in the net is a problem for a center forward. Still, Lamela looked revitalized in preseason friendlies (I know, I know, but really, he's alive!) and Soldado's troubles were wildly out of character. It would be a pretty big shock if he failed to rebound this year.
Pochettino must like something about this roster because he's running back into the flames with the same crew. This isn't an entirely poor strategy; there are lots of good, talented players on this roster. Last season, Spurs had a mix of bad luck and bad managing. Everything can't go wrong two years in a row, right? Right?
Strengths: Fairly deep; everything can't go wrong twice; new, pants-wearing manager.
Concerns: Need Soldado to score goals; Europa League will test depth; ceiling is probably a top-four spot.
Tottenham will win the league because: Stranger things have happened, right?
Tottenham will not win the league because: On second thought, I actually can't think of any stranger things that have happened
I don't have too much to say about Everton because it's basically the same side as last season. The Toffees' major purchase, forward Romelu Lukaku, was on the team last year, loaned from Chelsea. They sold no one. Unlike Tottenham, though, Everton have the same good manager from last season, Roberto Martinez.
Since not much has changed, teams should know what to expect when they play the Toffees, which is a tough, challenging game, but ultimately a winnable one. Everton will be the underdogs to every team on this list (with the possible exception of Spurs, depending on how things go in North London). This is the position they're used to and even embrace. But that doesn't mean they should be taken lightly, as their 72 points last season suggest.
The big questions surround Everton's young talent. Can Lukaku, only 21 years old, continue his torrential scoring rate? Will Ross Barkley, 20-year-old English international, have his first truly big season? Who slots into center back alongside Phil Jagielka? I do not have answers to these questions, so look elsewhere for empty prognostications. All I know is that Everton must also slog through the Europa League and probably doesn't have the depth to do so while still competing for a top-four place. All the other top clubs have improved, whereas Everton has stood still, counting on internal player development and superb coaching. If Martinez manages to get a top four finish out of this club, it will be his masterpiece.
Strengths: Same roster as last season.
Concerns: Same roster as last season.
Everton will win the league because: Magic.
Everton will not win the league because: Logic.