English Premier League 2017-2018 Preview

1) Manchester United
Jose Mourinho always wins the league in his second season. United were a trainwreck at times last year, but the manager had inherited a mess of a squad and needed time to rebuild. Mourinho ruthlessly moved on from the aging Wayne Rooney and out went flops from the old regime like Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlein, and Bastian Schweinsteiger. In comes powerhouse forward Romelu Lukaku and midfield anchor Nemanja Matic. Lukaku has been prolific in the Premier League and amazingly is still just 24 years old. Much of United's fortunes hinge on the Belgian taking the next step up in his career to become a cold-blooded 30-goal scorer ala Didier Drogba during Mourinho's first stint at Chelsea. Matic still has plenty left in the tank and his positional discipline will allow Paul Pogba the freedom to roam forward and be the talisman United paid a then-record fee for last summer. Eric Bailly proved an astute addition in defense and Henrik Mkhitarayan is brimming with confidence after a difficult start to his United career. It could come down to the wire between the red and blue halves of Manchester like it did on the last day of the 2011-2012 season, but my money is on the Red Devils.  

2) Manchester City
Pep Guardiola's first season in the Premier League was an uneven one as he failed to get consistent performances from his team after a blistering start to the campaign. In the summer City got a lot younger, lowering the average age of their squad down from 28 years old to 25. Pep rightly focused on invigorating a wretched defensive unit by bringing in Danilo from Real Madrid and Benjamin Mendy from AS Monaco. While City got younger at the back, in attack they remain overly-reliant on the creativity of 31-year old David Silva and goal scoring of not-getting-any-younger Sergio Aguero at age 29. Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus will take over those respective attacking roles in time, but it feels like this squad needs another year to marinate before they're ready to dominate the league.    

3) Chelsea
The Blues moved on from long-serving captain John Terry, Matic, and striker Diego Costa, replacing them with Antonio Rudiger, Tiemoue Bakayoko, and Alvaro Morata. All of these are great moves long term, but manager Antonio Conte may encounter some depth issues having also sold or loaned out a number of younger squad players. The team was fortunate to not endure any long term injuries last season and now will have to juggle European competition in addition to the weekly rigors of the Premier League. I think Chelsea takes a step back this season while Conte puts a more permanent stamp on the club.     

4) Everton
After a very successful season in which Everton challenged for a Champions League place before fading at the tail end of the season, Ronald Koeman splashed the cash this summer in an effort to take the club to the next level. The manager injected his squad with young talent, bringing in English goalkeeping phenom Jordan Pickford (23 years old), defender Michael Keane (24), attacking midfielders Davy Klaassen (24) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (27), and striker Sandro Ramirez (22). Even among so many impressive moves, the headliner by far was the return of striker Wayne Rooney 13 years after he left his boyhood club to become a legend at Manchester United. With Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Arsenal largely standing pat over the summer, I think there's room for Everton to move up several spots in the standings and finally make good on the potential that's been building under Koeman.

5) Arsenal
While last year's team lifted the FA Cup for the third time in four years, they also finished outside the top four in the league for the first time in Arsene Wenger's tenure as manager. No Champions League football for the Gunners could be a blessing in disguise. Midweek Champions League fixtures make for a grueling schedule and it's no coincidence that the last two league winners did not have to contend with both competitions. With the additions of Sead Kolasinac and Alexandre Lacazette, there is no doubt Arsenal have the talent to finish in the top four and even win the league, but the uncertain futures of star players Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil will be ominous clouds hanging over the entire season as both enter the final year of their contracts. The FA Cup win and club-record signing of Lacazette papered over the cracks of last season's 5th place finish and the fanbase remains split over whether a 2-year contract extension for Wenger was the right move. If the team has one of their patented month-long swoons at the wrong point in the campaign and both Ozil and Alexis continue to avoid signing new contracts, the wheels could fully come off the bus and plunge the club into a deep state of uncertainty.

6) Tottenham
Spurs enjoyed their best-ever season in 2016-17 as the club finished second in the league with the highest point total for a runner-up since Manchester United in 2011-12. Mauricio Pochettino might be the best manager in the Premier League as he's turned an also-ran football club into legitimate title contenders. After selling Kyle Walker for over $50 million, a staggering sum for a one-trick pony fullback, the club have made only one signing to add to a small squad that has enjoyed a remarkable run of form and good health. A long term injury to any one of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, or Christian Eriksen could spell disaster for Spurs as the depth behind them is non-existent. The squad as-constructed could be close to a breaking point having played match after match at maximum effort over the last two seasons. It will be up to the manager to make the necessary additions to the squad in order to consolidate their position as annual title contenders moving forward. I think Spurs will struggle to replicate the impressive form of the last two years while temporarily playing home games at Wembley Stadium as they wait on construction of their new stadium.  

7) Stoke City
Mark Hughes oversaw a lot of turnover in the summer, but on the whole this should be a much improved team from last season. After three straight 9th place finishes, the club sank to 13th on account of scoring the third-fewest goals among surviving teams. Stoke moved on from long-serving players Jonathan Walters, Glenn Whelan, and Phil Bardsley and sold enigmatic winger Marko Arnautovic to West Ham, replacing him with vastly talented striker Jese formerly of Real Madrid and PSG. The club signed two young powerhouse defenders in Kurt Zouma, on loan from Chelsea, and Bruno Martins Indi permanently from FC Porto. They also should get see what a fully focused and healthy season from Saido Berahino looks like after his protracted transfer from West Brom. Overall, Stoke will be less reliant on older players in decline and suddenly appear to have some intriguing upside.    

8) Liverpool
Abject defensive performances plagued Liverpool last season and thus far the club has done little to address the team's shortcomings at the back. Their marquee summer signing was another fleet-footed attacker in former Chelsea flop Mohamed Salah who revitalized his career during the last two seasons at AS Roma in Italy. It seems likely that Liverpool will cave into an astronomical offer from Barcelona for Brazilian midfield dynamo Philippe Countinho and thus leave manager Jurgen Klopp with a very similar squad makeup from the end of last season. I think Manchester United, Arsenal, and Everton all improved more than Liverpool did this summer, so a slide out of the European places seems likely without one or two defensive signings in the last weeks of the transfer window.  

9) Leicester City
The Foxes regressed to the mean in a big way after their shocking Premier League triumph in 2015-16, flirting with relegation before finishing 12th. Leicester are much better than they looked at times last year and they won't have to contend with Champions League football this time around. With the pressure of a title defense gone, I think Leicester could actually surprise some and challenge for a place in the top four, especially if they can keep hold of wantaway winger Riyad Mahrez.

10) Crystal Palace
New manager Frank de Boer was the biggest summer addition at Crystal Palace. After six wildly successful seasons as manager of his boyhood club Ajax, de Boer signed on at Inter Milan in August of last year. He lasted just 85 days before getting sacked and will now try his luck in the Premier League. There's no doubt about de Boer's managerial chops and he should be given ample time to make his mark at Selhurst Park. Palace finished one point better than 17th and 5 points below 8th, so there is a wide range of outcomes here. The switch from Alan Pardew to de Boer alone should be worth 4 or 5 places in the standings.

11) Bournemouth
The Cherries finished 9th last season and will look to consolidate their position in the top half of the table. The team trimmed a number of squad players from their roster while bring in three major signings. Asmir Begovic will take over as the first choice goalkeeper after two low-key seasons at Chelsea. Nathan Ake was signed permanently after a successful loan spell and the ageless Jermain Defoe comes aboard on a free transfer to add to the team's end product. The main question for me is whether Benik Afobe and Callum Wilson can score enough goals to supplement Joshua King's 16-goal tally from last season. Defoe has scored everywhere he's gone in the Premier League so they'll probably be okay barring a rash of injuries like they endured in 2015-2016. 

12) Watford
Although Watford finished 17th, their position in the table did not accurately reflect how well they played at times last season. Consistent goal-scoring was the main problem for the Hornets after striker Odion Ighalo failed to live up to expectations and was eventually sold to China for a hefty sum. Watford added some creativity to the team, making loans for Tom Cleverley and Nathan Chalobah permanent, and signing striker Andre Gray from Burnley. The club also added Richarlison, a young winger from Fluminese in Brazil, and Will Hughes, a well-regarded young attacking midfielder from Derby County in The Championship. The injection of talent should help Watford recover from last season's stumble and resume a move higher up the table.

13) West Brom
Thanks to their disciplined defensive tactics, the Baggies finished 10th last year despite scoring just 43 goals, at least ten less than any other team in the top half except for Southampton. The team moved on from midfielders Craig Gardner and Darren Fletcher, replacing the latter with the ageless Gareth Barry who is still an above average Premier League midfielder even with over 600 league appearances under his belt at age 36. The team also added talented but oft-injured striker Jay Rodriguez to their ranks. As with any Tony Pulis-coached side, their biggest scoring threat will come from set pieces. It's a formula that should keep West Brom comfortably in the Premier League, but without any real upside.

14) Southampton
Despite not scoring many goals, the Saints put in a fine defensive performance throughout last season, including seven 0-0 draws. Displaying consistent discipline and cohesion shows just how good the club's youth academy is at turning out competent Premier League players. The team's new manager Mauricio Pellegrino will head into the campaign with largely the same squad, although standout center back Virgil van Dijk could be sold to Liverpool before the transfer window closes. With only six points separating Southampton's 8th place finish from 17th last year, a team that largely rode its luck will probably slip a fair bit in the standings.  

15) Newcastle United
The Magpies laid waste to the Championship, earning promotion back to the Premier League at the first opportunity. Disagreement between manager Rafa Benitez and owner Mike Ashley over the club's transfer policy has loomed throughout the summer and seems to be coming to a head just as the season gets underway. Newcastle fans have been on a roller coaster ride since Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007 and the situation seems very likely to continue. I could see Newcastle finishing anywhere from rock-bottom to a place in the top 10, so I'll split the difference and put them here at 15th.  

16) West Ham United
A move away from their historic home ground of Upton Park to the cavernous Olympic Stadium sapped the atmosphere from West Ham home matches and the team seemed listless for most of the season. The Hammers allowed the sixth-most goals in the league last season, 11 more than Middlesbrough who were relegated. To shore up such a leaky defense, manager Slaven Bilic brought in vastly experienced defender Pablo Zabaleta on a free transfer and former England goalkeeper Joe Hart on loan, both from Manchester City. The club also spent big money to bring former Manchester United hero Javier Hernandez back to England and paid a club-record fee to sign combustible winger Marko Arnautovic from Stoke City. West Ham were one of the worst teams in the league for long stretches last year and if Bilic loses his grip on the dressing room, the team could come unglued in a hurry. I wouldn't be shocked to see West Ham get relegated, but there are too many bad teams at this end of the table to pick against a roster with this much talent.       

17) Huddersfield Town
Even the most passionate American soccer fan has probably never heard of Huddersfield Town, yet the club actually has a greater history of success than many established Premier League clubs. While this will be their first ever Premier League season, the club has won England's top flight competition three times in their history. Huddersfield won the FA Cup in 1922 before reeling off three straight league titles from 1924-1926 under legendary manager of Herbert Chapman who went on to even greater success at Arsenal. Huddersfield made a flurry of moves in July to strengthen their squad, most notably sealing the permanent transfer of Australian Aaron Mooy from Manchester City. Mooy was outstanding as a loanee last season, appearing in 51 games for the club. The odds are heavily against Huddersfield staying up, but it's such a great story that I'm picking them to pull it off just so I can root for it!   

18) Swansea City
Hull City and Sunderland were so bad last season that the battle against relegation was already settled heading into the final month. The Swans finished a comfortable seven points above the drop, but they were by far one of the worst teams that stayed up. In the summer Swansea sold off a couple of key contributors in Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jack Cork while culling a number of expensive squad players. At this point the roster looks much more like a Championship side than a Premier League one. Swansea have only delayed the inevitable the last couple of seasons and their only saving grace might be that the two of the three promoted sides are Premier League first-timers Huddersfield and Brighton. 

19) Burnley
I picked Burnley to go down last season and they just managed to stay up, finishing 16th. In the summer they sold their best defender Michael Keane to Everton and their best attacking player Andre Gray to Watford. They signed prolific Leeds United striker Chris Wood, but you never know how goal totals from the lower leagues will translate to the Premier League. Burnley scored the fewest goals of any team that avoided relegation and then sold their best striker, so I think goalscoring will be an issue yet again. I like this club and their team plays with a lot of heart, especially at their home ground Turf Moor (what a great name for a stadium), but I think a second season in the top flight is too much to ask.    

20) Brighton & Hove Albion
Brighton is another Premier League first-timer. In 1997, the club narrowly avoided being relegated out of the football league altogether on the final day of the season. After selling their stadium and enduring several seasons of further turmoil, the Seagulls began a long climb to the top flight. They finally reached the summit by securing automatic promotion after a narrow loss in the playoffs the prior season. Brighton's big name summer signing was midfielder Davy Propper from PSV Eindhoven and it appears they'll move forward with largely the same squad that won them promotion. I'm sure the club's fans will enjoy a season in the Premier League regardless of the outcome, but unfortunately I think their stay will be a short one.