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.

A Taxpayer-funded Stadium is a Financial Own Goal for St. Louis

Today I read a column from Benjamin Hochman in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that made my blood boil. Hochman was attempting to counter the argument put forth by Governer-elect Eric Greitens that taxpayer-funded sports stadiums are "welfare for millionaires". I happen to agree with the governor-elect that taxpayers have no business speculating on sports stadiums, but that's not what made me sigh and shake my head at Mr. Hochman's column.

He's entitled to his (wrong) opinion that building a Major League Soccer (MLS) stadium using taxpayer funding would be good for St. Louis and spur economic growth in the city. What I take issue with is presenting a nonsensical investment scenario as sound practice such as in the following excerpt: 

"Let’s consider it this way. A house appraises at $150,000 — but someone buys it for $240,000 and plans to wait for it to increase in value, just to see a return. The house’s investor understands that buying the house could benefit the whole community, so it’s worth this initial cash loss.

Well, Forbes says an MLS franchise, in a market similar to St. Louis, is worth $150 million. But SC STL is willing to invest $240 million (paying for the MLS expansion fee and some of the stadium), acknowledging that it could take eight to 10 years to make the money back."

The way I read it, Hochman is arguing that taxpayers should support the "partnership" offered by SC STL because the ownership group is ready and willing to overpay to bring an MLS franchise here by putting up 65% of the cost of the project. This is apparently worth it to the benevolent owners of SC STL because it will benefit the whole community now and then they'll worry about recouping their investment down the line when the value of the team has appreciated.

One problem, of course, is that this is NOT a return on investment. In the house example, if you paid $240,000 for a $150,000 house, you would need the house to appreciate in value by 60% just to break even. At that break-even point your "return" is a big fat ZERO. No intelligent investor would take that deal and expect to come out ahead more often than not.

However, there is a reason that such a senseless investment scheme could make sense to the ownership group behind SC STL if they get some help from the city. In broad terms, Major League Soccer is a single entity made up of all the teams in the league. The ownership group of each team holds one "share" in the league and thus the profits or losses of individual teams are shared equally. Through normal operations, MLS loses money each year, but in order to buy into the league, you need to pay a hefty expansion fee which has increased with each additional team. This expansion fee is shared among the existing owners.

The way I see it, even though SC STL would be paying for 40% of the cost of construction in order to get a stadium deal done, this is a small price to pay for an opportunity buy a share in the league with their $150 million expansion fee. They won't get such an opportunity without a new stadium to operate in. SC STL has presented this as evidence that they're being a generous partner in the deal. While they're only paying for some of the cost of the stadium, they're paying for all the cost of the expansion fee. How nice of them!

Although, according to Forbes (via Hochman) that $150 million is exactly what the team would be worth once it is up and running. Since ever-increasing expansion fees are the only way MLS owners are currently making any real return, having a share of the league pie (and any future expansion fees) is the only appreciating asset in the deal. The league owners' hope is that by the time MLS stops expanding, the league will be profitable and the value of each share (team) will go up value. There's no guarantee the league will be profitable in the future, but as long as new money keeps coming in via expansion fees, those holding a share in the league will get paid. If you're thinking this makes MLS seem like a Ponzi scheme, you're not alone. 

So, if we apply this to Hochman's example, here's what's actually going on: SC STL wants to buy a house that's worth $150,000 right now, but the price tag to acquire it is $350,000. Their proposal is that SC STL will pay $150,000 for the house only (exactly what it's worth) and will own the house free-and-clear. To satisfy the seller, they still need to come up with the remaining $200,000. To do this, SC STL is proposing that they put up $80,000 (40%) as long as the taxpayers will take out a loan for $120,000 to cover the remainder.

When it's all said and done, SC STL would own a house worth $150,000 that they paid $230,000 for. That's a 53% premium, but assuming the house is truly worth $150,000 and they're bringing their own money to the deal, they'll have a 65% equity position. The taxpayers will owe $120,000 on their loan and own nothing except conjecture from SC STL that doing this deal will improve the value of adjacent homes in the neighborhood, create jobs because they'll hire people to cook, clean, and do maintenance at their house, and also create new tax revenue by having out-of-towners to come visit them and spend money at nearby bars, restaurants, and hotels. I think it's pretty obvious that the SC STL proposal is not a benevolent investment partnership, but more like a bait-and-switch.

The potential benefits to the taxpayers of such a deal may indeed come to fruition, but what if they don't? What if the addition of an MLS team doesn't create any additional revenue for the city after all? The SC STL ownership group will very likely make a return on their investment no matter what because they own the only appreciating asset in the deal, a share in MLS along with a cut of any future expansion fees. The ownership group would also receive 100% of any profits from a future sale of the team. If "build it and they will come" doesn't come true, the city could take a total loss on their end of the deal even while the ownership group pockets a healthy profit. Does that sound like a "partnership"?

If the projections do come true and enough new revenue is created to pay the taxpayers back in full, what was the return on investment for the risk they took funding the unsecured end of the deal? Even if there was an actual net positive return for the city over the life of the stadium lease, time and again we've seen sports teams come back to taxpayers and ask for more money for renovations or a brand new stadium. One team is currently suing to get out of their lease and others have threatened to move the team to gain leverage.

I would love to see MLS come to St. Louis, but not at the expense of taxpayers. Adding a team here would be a definite plus for the city both in terms of civic pride and financially. I am not disputing that. However, if the city has to put up $80 million with no guarantee of success and no asset to fall back on if it doesn't work out like SC STL says it will, it's a terrible proposition any way you look at it.

Simply put, the city would put a lot of taxpayer money at risk in order to help the investors behind SC STL acquire the a potentially lucrative share in Major League Soccer. You can argue the merits of various tax incentives that have been given to many other businesses in St. Louis, but there's no denying that the proposal put forth by SC STL socializes the majority of the risk while privatizing any potential for a hefty profit in the future. That's not a partnership to make St. Louis great again; it's the definition of welfare for millionaires.

In the spirit of bad analogies (thanks Mr. Hochman!), I see this "deal" as asking St. Louis to score an own goal in order to spur growth. Imagine your soccer team is coming off a string of draws and losses, but they've been playing better recently and it's unclear at this point what the outcome of the season is going to be. The next match is about to start and their opponent is much more talented and has your team outmatched. The other team comes to your team before kickoff with a proposition: we'll let you score an own goal right from the kickoff.

It will put your team behind and definitely give the other team an immediate advantage, but being behind might spur your team to play really hard over the remaining 90 minutes which could help them have a chance of coming back to tie or even win the game. While winning after scoring an own goal right away is possible, it's unlikely. A tie is probably the best your team can hope for and it's almost certain that giving the other team an advantage will just end up helping them score more goals than they otherwise would have in the rest of the game. There's always a chance it could work in your favor though. Would you want your team to accept that proposal?

English Premier League 2016-2017 Preview

1) Manchester City
The most-talented squad in the league quit on a lame duck manager last season and barely scraped 4th place as a result. They added the world's best manager in Pep Guardiola while shoring up central midfield (Ilkay Gundogan) and defense (John Stones) in the transfer market. The Premier League title is City's to lose for the foreseeable future. 

2) Manchester United
This summer United added four immediate starters, including the most expensive footballer of all time, and a manager with an exceptional Premier League resume to a squad that finished level on points with 4th place Manchester City last season. Assuming overachievers Leicester City and Tottenham revert toward the mean and Jose Mourinho maintains his hoodoo over Arsene Wenger, United should easily finish in the top four and challenge for the title.

3) Chelsea
Much like Manchester City, the Chelsea squad quit on their manager Jose Mourinho after a dismal start to the season and The Special One was fired for the second time as Chelsea manager. With as deep a squad as any outside of Manchester, new manager Antonio Conte has plenty of talent to work with and should make Chelsea a title contender again in short order.

4) Arsenal
Despite an asinine transfer policy that pushes a threadbare squad to the brink of disaster each season, Arsene Wenger has stubbornly managed to keep Arsenal in the Champions League for 17 years running. If history is any guide, Arsenal will do just enough to secure a top-four finish in what is likely to be Wenger's final season at the helm.

5) Liverpool
Jurgen Klopp's makeover of a team that was headed definitively in the wrong direction just two years ago is nearly complete. With an enviable array of young attackers at his disposal, Klopp's pressing style of play should give Premier League opponents fits for years to come. Questions remain at the back, but if Liverpool can discover some measure of defensive solidity, they will be immediate contenders for the top four.

6) Leicester City
The Foxes shocked the world by winning the Premier League last season and surely there is no chance at a repeat. Even so, Leicester City weren't simply lucky winners; they played like champions from start to finish. While they will struggle to reach such epic heights ever again, especially while playing in the Champions League for the first time, Leicester has a solid team and an experienced manager who should be able to keep them from immediately falling back into mediocrity.

7) Tottenham
After months of desperately clinging to Leicester City's coattails, Tottenham came unglued in an epic second-half meltdown at Stamford Bridge before losing their final two matches to finish below arch rivals Arsenal yet again. Most of their key players then went on to experience similarly harsh letdowns at the Copa America and European Championships in the summer. With no time to rest and recharge after the stress of playing at full-tilt for most of the last year, Tottenham will struggle to cope with their rejuvenated top four rivals as well as a full slate of Champions League fixtures.

8) West Ham United
The Hammers were sneaky-good last year and looked on course to secure a place in the Champions League before sputtering down the stretch with a series of disappointing draws. Unfortunately, the club followed up such a promising season with a fairly bland summer transfer window and another 7th place finish now looks more like a best-case scenario. Moving from the intimately rowdy confines of Upton Park to the cavernous Olympic Stadium will also negate what had been one of the best home field atmospheres in the Premier League.

9) Stoke City
The Potters finished 9th for the third successive season and while they could probably move a couple of places higher if things break right, it seems unlikely they will suddenly mount a serious push for a European place. Gone are the days of having to worry about getting dragged into a relegation scrap, but until the roster's overall talent level improves significantly, Stoke will simply remain among the best teams in the second tier of the Premier League.

10) Southampton
Over the course of three weeks this summer, Southampton lost their manager and then sold their best defensive midfielder, best creative player, and best striker. Such an mass exodus of talent would hamper the prospects of any football club, but after finishing 8th, 7th, and 6th in successive seasons, the Saints are hoping that selling off the club's best assets will help consolidate their position in the top half of the table for the long haul. In the meantime, the club puts their Premier League status at risk while attempting to rebuild their roster on the fly.

11) Watford
As long as Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo can maintain their scoring record from last season, The Hornets should finish comfortably mid-table. I also see some upside here as Watford maintained the status quo during the summer while also shoring up their squad depth. Several teams around them in the table were forced to sell key players so Watford could rise in the table simply due to attrition.

12) Bournemouth
After barely surviving their first-ever season in the top flight of English football, minnows Bournemouth will look first and foremost to secure a third season in the Premier League. Last September, the team lost star striker Callum Wilson to a torn ACL after just seven games in which he had already scored five goals. The Cherries held their own though and sat in 11th place well into the second half of the season. When it appeared that Bournemouth had secured safety, the team took just one point from their final five matches and sank like a stone. Manager Eddie Howe will hope that having his best players available for a full season will allow Bournemouth to retake last season's high water mark and this time hold onto it.

13) Middlesborough
I've always had a soft spot for Middlesborough so I am thrilled to see them back in the Premier League again. In the early 2000s Boro boasted a fascinating cast of swashbuckling players that managed to reach the 2006 UEFA Cup (Europa League) Final at their peak. The club fell on hard times after that and were eventually relegated, but now they're back and have shown the ambition to remain in the top flight. So far this summer they've added former Premier Leaguers Alvaro Negredo, Brad Guzan, Fabio, Victor Valdes, and Gaston Ramirez to an already deep squad of experienced campaigners. 

14) Everton
Ronald Koeman is a manager whose stock is on the rise after a very successful stint at Southampton, however, his new club is headed in the opposite direction after woefully underachieving last season. Everton is so far planning to run back basically the same exact squad minus their most-talented young player in John Stones who was sold to Manchester City for a hefty sum. The club replaced Stones with (ages as of September 1, 2016) 32-year old Ashley Williams who will play alongside 34-year old Phil Jagielka and 31-year old Leighton Baines in defense. While the midfield boasts several intriguing yet oft-injured young talents, if Everton does not age gracefully at the back, they could find themselves sinking into a relegation dogfight. 

15) Crystal Palace
A popular pick for relegation this season, I think that the impending demise of Crystal Palace is a bit overblown. They have a very supportive home atmosphere and an experienced roster of veterans who have been through the wars at this end of the table. Alan Pardew is a bad manager, but it took him a number of years to take Newcastle down so I imagine Palace survives for at least another season before things go south completely.

16) West Brom
Professional shouter Tony Pulis is the embodiment of a brand of English football that's well past it's sell by date. It's good enough to keep a club in the 21st century Premier League, but it won't ever inspire ambition of achieving more than that. Pulis' repugnant band of knuckle-dragging hatchet men will likely kick and punch their way to 40 points using any means necessary. 

17) Swansea City
After returning to the top tier of English football for the first time since the mid-1980s, Swansea ascended to record levels of success for the club by winning the 2013 League Cup and earning a place in the Europa League. After another season of punching above their weight, the cracks started to show in early 2015 before a disastrous 2015-2016 season where Swansea only avoided finishing much lower in the table thanks to surprising wins over Chelsea, Liverpool, and West Ham in the final month of the season. Even long-serving club captain Ashley Williams jumped ship this summer from an ever-weakening roster, leaving Swansea squarely in the fight against relegation from day one.

18) Burnley
The Clarets were relegated in 2015 after just one season in the Premier League, but will make an immediate return after finishing last season on a 23-match unbeaten run to win The Championship. The club faces an uphill battle to shake the label of a yo-yo club by earning a stay in the top flight. Burnley tends to stick with the players who earned promotion instead of going on a spending spree. It's a strategy that has rarely worked for any promoted club, but with so many bad teams in the bottom half of the Premier League, I wouldn't be surprised if they managed to stay up.

19) Sunderland
For some reason David Moyes decided to return to the Premier League aboard Sunderland's sinking ship and he faces a massive task to keep them up. Big Sam Allardyce worked his hoof-and-chase magic to just avoid relegation last season before deciding to take the England job. Sunderland has a thin squad of mostly Manchester United cast-offs and I just can't see how they're not going to finish at or near the bottom of the league. Maybe Jermain Defoe has one more year of magic and can score enough goals to give them a puncher's chance, but it seems very unlikely. Overall it's a sad state of affairs for one of the biggest football clubs in England.

20) Hull City
The Tigers enter the Premier League with no manager and without even enough professional players to field a full match day squad. Steve Bruce, the most successful manager in the club's history, resigned in July due to ongoing disagreement with management over transfers. While Bruce was making the most of the meager resources at his disposal, the club's ownership was engaging in a ludicrous ongoing dispute with fans over dropping "City" from the club's name in order to rename it Hull Tigers. With no end to the turmoil in sight, Hull City will be fortunate to eclipse Derby County's shameful record of 11 points as the fewest in Premier League history.

Contemplating Arsenal: Matchday 1 Dilemmas

Everyone knows that you can't win the league by September's end, but I believe you can go a long way toward losing it. With Liverpool, Leicester City, Southampton, and Chelsea among their first six opponents, Arsenal can ill afford to start the season in a sluggish manner if they want to avoid the all too familiar burden of playing catch-up. For me, 10 points is an absolute minimum in these first six matches and given that Arsenal play Liverpool and Chelsea at home, meaning trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge loom in the second half of the season, banking points now against their title rivals is even more paramount. Unfortunately, inaction in the transfer market and ill-timed injuries have left Arsene Wenger with several key dilemmas heading into Matchday 1.

On the field, the preseason has been quite fruitful. While the club searches high and low in the transfer market for a new striker, the team has come through five friendly matches with a unbeaten record and 17 goals scored. Fringe first-team attackers Chuba Akpom and Joel Campbell caught the eye in the offensive third and are pretty much assured of being involved in at least Arsenal's three August fixtures as Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud have yet to start training after their exploits at the European Championships. For two players most assumed would leave on loan, or even permanently in the case of Campbell, it's been a statement preseason to this point.

At the back, two defenders new to the first team also had impressive preseasons. Krystian Bielik did very well as an 18-year old thrown in alongside and against much more experienced players. The young Pole had a few nervy moments, but mostly showed a much more advanced game than his age would suggest. Rob Holding, a new signing from Bolton Wanderers, also played well and seemed to improve with each successive game. Based on their preseason performances, either player could argue that at this point they should be well ahead of Calum Chambers on the depth chart.

Last year's stalwarts Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal, and Alex Iwobi picked up right where they left off and all three should find themselves in the starting XI against Liverpool. New signing Granit Xhaka also caught the eye as he seamlessly integrated into the team. His wide range of passing ability immediately had the midfield functioning better than it had at any point in the final two months of last season. Mohamed Elneny was very assured in preseason and while I don't think he'll be first-choice to start the season, he's going to be a very important player for Arsenal. After missing large chunks of last season through injury, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla both looked fit and ready to get back to their best. Santi, playing in the #10 role, completely bossed the 8-0 win over Viking FK and The Coq was as energetic and tenacious as we've seen him in 2016. 

Based solely on preseason performance and fitness, I would pick the following team to play Liverpool:

Starting XI:

Bench: Opsina, Gibbs, Elneny, Ramsey, Alexis, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain

Conversely, there are nearly as many less positive aspects to Arsenal's preparation for the season that have left the squad criminally lacking in central defense and as limited on options up front as when last season ended nearly three months ago. Frankly, I think the lack of a striker signing has more to do with a lack of viable options rather than a lack of trying. Jamie Vardy was content to stay on a Leicester. Higuain was way overpriced for his age and appears to have gotten over Argentina's Copa American Final defeat by shame-eating bread pudding for the last two months. Arsene Wenger would never go for a player with Ibrahimovic's attitude. Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo have joined the Premier League, but neither would be an upgrade over Olivier Giroud. Arguably no player who has already moved would've fit the bill for Arsenal so I have a hard time raking Wenger over the coals for a lack of action here.

Lacazette seems to be available only if Arsenal are willing to overpay. Mauro Icardi has been mentioned, but it felt so out of the left field that it's more likely an agent is fishing for a new contract. Unless Arsenal is waiting for a big domino to fall and free up an angle to move for Lewandowski or Lukaku, I can't see what move folks will be pointing to on September 1st saying see, see, that was the one that Wenger missed out on. I think a last-minute move for one of Mahrez, Lacazette, or Draxler is the most likely scenario at this point unless something dramatic happens and a true impact player becomes available. As reactive to perception and fan sentiment as Ivan Gazidis has been in recent years, I also believe early season results will have an impact on Arsenal's deadline day dealings. If things go awry against Liverpool and Leicester, there will be immense pressure on Wenger to make something happen no matter what. It's not an ideal scenario, but a very possible one.

On the defensive end, the ankle injury suffered by Gabriel Paulista on Sunday leaves Calum Chambers as the only fit senior central defender in the squad less than a week before the season starts. An established central defender had to have been on the club's shopping list at the start of the summer as Per Mertesacker enters the final season of his contract, Laurent Koscielny turns 31 years old in a month's time, and the other existing internal options, Gabriel and Chambers, having failed to impress. When Mertesacker was ruled out until 2017 with an injury in the club's first preseason game the need for a defender become more urgent. Inexplicably though, more time passed with no movement on the transfer front before Gabriel's injury left the club in a serious lurch and without enough time to do much about it.

Surely Wenger already knew that getting in a central defender before the window closed was no longer an "if the right deal comes along" scenario where if it didn't happen then at least he still had the same options he finished with last season. With Mertesacker gone as a fallback option, the situation the club finds itself without any of the three available in is akin to fiduciary irresponsibility. Some people would say Wenger simply "took a risk" that the players on hand could bridge the gap until the end of the transfer window when players supposedly become available. I find this line of thinking ludicrous; a risk coincides with a potential reward and I just can't find any upside to this approach aside from possibly saving a few dollars on a transfer fee or maybe getting a slightly better player at the last moment were they to become available instead. When circumstances change and necessity emerges, those in charge need to make the tough decisions that guarantee needs are met at the expense of wants. Frustratingly, club management has failed miserably in this area yet again.

As it stands, I think Arsene Wenger will have little choice but to field a makeshift defense in the opening match against Liverpool. I really can't believe that he would take the added risk of bringing Koscielny back from the beach and straight into the side against a team as good as Liverpool. Not only is there a risk that Koscielny plays poorly because of a severe lack of match sharpness, but I have to believe that straining to keep up would increase the risk of injury and thus worsen an already dire situation. It seems absurd to take such a gamble with a player that Wenger has routinely said needs careful management because of a chronic achilles problem as well as a recurring hip injury. Look no further for a glaring example of bringing a player back too soon out of necessity than the poor performance of Alexis Sanchez in the first half of last season.

The "best" option is probably to play Nacho Monreal in the middle alongside one of Chambers or Holding. That he paired Holding with Gabriel from the start against Manchester City would hint to me that Wenger, like anyone who watched the preseason, feels that Holding is simply a better option at his point. Kieran Gibbs was solid in preseason and will be eager to stake a claim to playing time early on in the season. The only other option, aside from moving Francis Coquelin from midfield to center back, would be to play Holding and Chambers together, but playing two inexperienced central defenders against the pressing of Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool side seems like a recipe for disaster. Remember in December of 2014 when Wenger deployed a very green Chambers alongside an unfit Per Mertesacker and then-unproven Hector Bellerin at the Britannia Stadium? Stoke led 3-0 at halftime and Calum Chambers was later sent off.

Looking at all aspects of the situation, I think Arsene Wenger will pick the following team on Sunday.

Starting XI:

Bench: Opsina, Chambers, Koscielny, Elneny, Campbell, Walcott, Akpom

From the midfield forward, it's actually not a weak team at all. Ramsey probably isn't fit enough to do 90 minutes, but neither is Cazorla so they could split that position something like 55/45. Alexis probably won't last 90 minutes either, so Walcott or Akpom will likely get a run out in the second half depending on if Arsenal need a goal. Campbell can bring an injection of creativity as well as defensive solidity to the right hand side, so it seems almost guaranteed that he gets on the field at some point. Bielik probably earned more consideration than many would have thought, however, I can't see Wenger relying on an 18-year old assuming Koscielny can at least suit up. Any way you slice it, Sunday will be an engrossing Opening Day for Arsenal fans, for better or for worse.