The Swans are the smallest club in the Premier League, yet showed no fear last year, playing beautifully home and away to secure a deserved 11th place. A summer of change has left an air of uncertainty at the Liberty Stadium as manager Brendan Rodgers and star midfielder Joe Allen both left for Anfield.
Michael Laudrup replaced Rodgers and seems a logical fit. He has expressed his belief in the style of play Swansea are now famous for and appears ready to continue the good work down by his predecessor. Jonathan de Guzman has been loaned in from Villarreal, where he and the club endured a very poor season – resulting in relegation. But De Guzman carries a weighty reputation, largely due to his one year at Mallorca, coincidentally under Laudrup.
Laudrup’s knowledge of Spanish football has permeated into the squad as seen by the signings of Michu and Chico – both set to start regularly for the Swans.
The brief looks simple – avoid relegation. And although in Michu and De Guzman Swansea have two classy goalscoring midfielders (Michu was the top-scoring midfielder in Spain last year), there is precious little depth. They have also lost Steven Caulker who enjoyed a fine loan spell at the club last year, adding further pressure on Chico or fellow new-boy Kyle Bartley.
It’s a big ask, but I see Swansea just slipping out of the division and Laudrup leaving midway through it.
Key Man: Ashley Williams
I’m not his biggest fan – he can be cumbersome and impetuous with his defending, but he is a leader and will be relied upon even more so this year to help his side stay resolute at the back. Swansea kept 14 clean sheets last campaign and will need to get near that again if they’re going to survive.
I’ve written an awful lot about Spurs this summer and despite the initial wave of enthusiasm on Andre Villas-Boas’ arrival, it’s evident that the fans are getting a little twitchy ahead of the big kick-off. To keep it short, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jan Vertonghen are good signings, but to not follow that up with at least one striker is criminal.
Levy’s dallying will cost Spurs points in August but if he does get it right come 1st September, the Villas-Boas should have a better chance of righting a few wrongs from his time at Chelsea.
That said, I think it will be a slow start for Tottenham and patience will most definitely be required. The high defensive line (which will be the most overused phrase this season) may cause a few of the more traditional defenders (Dawson I’m looking at you) some time to adjust to and I won’t be surprised to see a mistake or two in the opening months.
However, if Villas-Boas gets it right, I can see a strong second-half to the season and Spurs maintaining their familiar top six position. I do think a slow start will prevent the club from finishing fourth again.
Key Man: Gareth Bale
He’s looked fantastic in pre-season from the left, a little lost from the right and not involved enough through the middle. Regardless, the Welshman looks fit and raring to go and it will be intriguing to see how much freedom Villas-Boas gives him alongside Aaron Lennon and [a striker]. It was a real coup to tie Bale down to a new deal even if it effectively just generates a bigger transfer fee next summer, but Spurs will be relying on the winger to help propel them back into the Champions League – possibly the only way of keeping him at the club.
Under Roy Hodgson the Baggies finished in a highly commendable 10th place – their highest league finish since 1980-81 and proved a lot of doubters wrong in doing so. Just as they appear to be shaking off the tag of yo-yo team, Hodgson was poached by the FA and career assistant manager Steve Clarke is at the helm.
Fortunately for Clarke, he has been left a capable squad. It isn’t blessed with stars but in forward positions he can call on a number of attackers with Premier League pedigree. In Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie, West Brom have strikers capable of troubling most defences but by signing Romelu Lukaku and Markus Rosenberg, they now also bring the threat of the unknown. For all Lukaku’s hype, we’ve simply not seen the Belgian enough to even judge if he was worth the reported £18 million Chelsea spent on him.
Wrapping up a deal for Ben Foster should not go unnoticed either as securing the former United goalkeeper seems a wise investment given his impressive form last season. Though Paul Scharner and Nicky Shorey have left the club, Jonas Olsson has been retained, ensuring the Baggies have a trustworthy defensive line.
Clarke’s biggest challenge will be ensuring the defence remember what they learnt under Hodgson. By the end of his tenure, the Baggies had found a solidity not often associated with the club and that will be key in keeping them afloat.
Key Man: Chris Brunt
You can think of a few inspirational players possibly better suited to captaincy but Brunt is going into his sixth year as a Baggie and is well aware of what is expected of him. In a midfield trio alongside James Morrison and Youssef Mulumbu, Brunt provides the spark and a goal threat from range. If he can find top fitness following a spate of injuries, he will once again prove pivotal to any success West Brom have.
It must be rare to predict the play-off winners to be the best of the promoted teams, but in West Ham I think (a) they should have won the Championship in the first place and (b) they have the best manager suited to dealing with the pressure of being a newly promoted side.
Sam Allardyce would probably admit his side should have finished in the top two last year but showed in the play-off final that when a team is forced to come at them, they are capable of picking them off. The problem last year, was too many mid to lower-half Championship teams were happy to head to Upton Park and park the bus.
That won’t be the case this year for the majority of their home games and that could well play into West Ham’s hands. They won’t be a huge threat on the counter attack as the first team lack pace but they will ensure that any team leaving east London will know they’ve been in a battle. Allardyce’s style isn’t for everyone but you can guarantee his team will be competitive in every fixture they play this year.
There are a couple of worries though: Rob Green’s departure has left uncertainty between the posts. Will Stephen Henderson play or will Allardyce trust his old mate Jaaskelainen? At the back, are they asking too much for James Tomkins to be the primary centre-back? There is also a worrying lack of quality in the full-back positions as well as a real unknown quantity up front in Modibo Maiga.
Despite those worries, Allardyce has bought well in midfield. Mohammed Diame and Alou Diarra perfectly fit the Allardyce mould and offer strength and intensity in the middle of the park. With Mark Noble, possibly the club’s best footballer alongside them, it may be just the right mix. I expect West Ham to be a tough away day and always stay competitive on the road, finishing comfortably above the relegation zone.
Key Man: Mark Noble
Since making his debut for the Hammers eight years ago, Noble has tied down a regular starting spot as well as being promoted to vice-captain of the club. In the middle of the park he will be assisted by Diame and Diarra as well as Kevin Nolan and Jack Collison on occasion and Noble will be expected, as the ball-player, to move possession to the flanks and into Maiga or Carlton Cole. Expect him to pick up his fair share of goals and assists and truly make his mark on the Premier League after a season away.
To be honest, I still don’t know how Wigan escaped last season but a run of seven wins and two defeats will help. Roberto Martinez isn’t for everyone – the Spaniard seemingly covers up six months of dross with a final relegation sparing flurry but no-one can begrudge the style his team try and play.
The 3-4-1-2 formation he introduced last year took a while to get going but once it did, it helped defeat Arsenal, Liverpool, Man Utd and Newcastle leaving them in 15th. With little cash to spare at the DW Stadium, I feel Martinez has done well by loaning Ryo Miyaichi and signing Arouna Kone. The latter, certainly could be a revelation and looks to be a more than adequate replacement for Hugo Rodallega.
The future of Victor Moses is still up in the air and although it is expected that he will leave (and that will be a big blow), the arrival of Miyaichi could be fantastic. This will be expected to be the Japan international’s breakthrough year after a mixed time on loan at Bolton. He has pace and trickery and if he finds more space in Wigan’s system than Bolton’s (as I suspect he will) we could see his true colours.
That said, I’m predicting Wigan to finally leave the Premier League. Their squad is smaller this year and I still have big doubts over whether Gary Caldwell and Antolin Alcaraz have the necessary ability to keep clean sheets. However, I’ve predicted Wigan to go down just about every season since they arrived in the league in 2005-06 and they always surprise, so I could be very wrong. We’ll see.
Key Man: Shaun Maloney
He took a while to feature regularly in the Wigan team last year after joining in the summer but it was no coincidence that his inclusion in the first team led to such a vast improvement in form. His three goals in 13 games last year were welcome – particularly as the club’s top scorer was Franco Di Santo with seven. He’s a precise set-piece taker as well as adept from the spot and I expect he’ll improve on his first year at Wigan this campaign.
That concludes my preview and to sum up I’ve put my full Premier League positional predictions below. Football is BACK!
1. Man City
2. Man Utd
11. Aston Villa
14. West Ham