Right, well, let’s get this over and done with as quickly as possible then, shall we? It’s time for the next part of our pre-season Premier League previews, so let’s go through the next group of teams in this division. (Out of interest, I’d like to know whether West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United have shorter pre-season previews written about them than anybody else – I can’t help but feel that there’s a possibility that this may be the case.)
Southampton: “Change is the only constant in life,” uttered the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He may have lived five hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, but it’s proven to be an enduring adage, a motto of the postmodernist art movement which emerged at the end of the 1940s, and now taken up with some gusto by, somewhat unusually, Southampton Football Club in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. An escape from the jaws of bankruptcy was followed by successive promotions from League One to the Premier League, and this has been followed by three seasons of consolidation and continued growth in spite of the constant attention of predators prizing their most valuable assets away from the club, culminating in the achievement of the return of European football to Southampton again this season, for the first time in eleven years. This time last year, the vultures were circling. Mauricio Pochettino left for Spurs, Calum Chambers, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana were also tempted from the club. Meanwhile the press circled issuing portents of doom and shedding crocodile tears over the futility of trying to build a squad capable of doing something unless one of the pre-appointed five or six.
The apocalyptic end of last year’s predictions never came to pass, of course. New coach Ronald Koeman steadied the Southampton ship still further last season, and this summer has been considerably more peaceful for the club than the last was. Morgan Schneiderlin has gone to Old Trafford and Nathaniel Clyne to Anfield, but the new arrivals at St Marys have a solid look about them and there is little sense that the Saints’ world is about to cave in, as there (incorrectly, as it turned out) was this time last year. Bringing in goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg on loan from Fulham feels like an extremely canny piece of business, whilst full-back Cedric Soares has both Champions League and international football already under his belt at twenty-three years of age, whilst Jordy Clasie, who played under Koeman at Feyenoord and has been cherished by the coach since he arrived at Southampton last year. And that’s just the pick of the bunch. Perhaps the Europa League and Southampton will be a good fit, and the club may benefit from treating this competition as a benefit to their season rather than a burden, as others have seemed to in recent years. Otherwise, a serious tilt at a domestic trophy would make for a fitting coda to their last couple of seasons. The social stratification of the Premier League may well inhibit much further progress in the Premier League for the time being, but Southampton remain headed in the right direction at the moment.
Stoke City: In amongst the the hullabaloo, the state of perpetual CRISIS, and the other constituent ingredients that make up the white noise that is modern football discourse, lurking in the shadows doesn’t always seem like such a bad idea. Away from the hysteria of the annual relegation avoidance bunfight and the glittering fragility of the Champions League, Mark Hughes has been quietly getting on with building the best Stoke City team in decades. Last season’s ninth placed finish marked the first time since 1975 that a team from the Potteries had finished in the top half of the top division for two successive seasons, and few so much as batted an eyelid. More significantly still, he did so with a team that is shaking off its reputation for treating a football like something approaching a hand grenade, yet the first thing our memory banks switch to when thinking of this club is wet Tuesday nights and Tony Pulis. The former manager is, however, still a part of the current team’s success. Stoke City may be more refined than they were under Pulis, but the team retain the physical strength of his era and this gives them a backbone that makes the likelihood of sliding back towards the possibility of relegation less likely than it might be elsewhere.
It won’t be completely plain sailing, of course. The departure of Asmir Begovic to Chelsea leaves a gap in goal that will be filled by the largely untried – though still highly regarded – Jack Butland, whislt the departure of Steven N’Zonzi is a definite loss. But Stoke’s summer transfers – Marco Van Ginkel on loan from Chelsea and Joselo from Real Madrid B, to name just two – look adventurous, and the return of Bojan after six months out will add the team a further attacking flourish and Charlie Adam showed the sort of form last season that led Liverpool to take a chance on him in the first place. Having said that, however, Stoke City continue to progress. Unfashionable and unheralded, they’ll likely never be media darlings, but who needs that when life in the shadows can prove to be so fruitful?
Sunderland: There were times last season when the home team on the pitch at The Stadium of Light looked as washed out as the once-red seats that sit immediately beyond the touchline there. Rather than being bleached from being bathed in sunlight, however, Sunderland AFC’s season lurched from one minor disaster to another, and the team’s sixteenth placed finish ended up a decent return on a previous nine months that could have resulted in something far worse. Over the last three years or so, supporters have been pushed from rock to hard place and back again, and although manager Dick Advocaat, the oldest in the Premier League, has been tempted to stay another year, owner Ellis Short has a tendency towards an itchy trigger finger and it wouldn’t a huge surprise if an underwhelming start led to further conjecture over the coach’s future.
Still, though, this summer hasn’t been an unmitigated disaster for Sunderland. Adam Johnson may well be disposed for the foreseeable future and the loss of Connor Wickham to Crystal Palace will be a blow, but both Sebastian Coates and Younes Caboul are plenty capable, and a new contract for Lee Cattermole offers more security and a figurehead on the pitch around which the team may be able to bind. It’s in front of goal that Sunderland really suffered last season, though, scoring just thirty-one times in the league, and much may come to rest on the shoulders of Jermain Defoe if Sunderland aren’t to struggle again this time around. Sunderland need a season of stability, but whether the popularity that Advocaat earned himself on Wearside from dragging the team clear of relegation will last may depend on a solid start for his team this time around, and the jury’s out on whether that will happen, for now.
Swansea City: Where next for Swansea City? This weekend brings the start of the club’s fifth successive season in the Premier League, but the glass installed between the eighth placed finish that the team managed last season is particularly thick, and to equal its best ever finish in the top division – a sixth place finish was achieved at the end of the 1981/82 season – it will require a monumental effort from a club that has achieved an enormous amount just to be a part of the Premier League in the first place. Since breaking into this division in 2011, the Swans have finished eleventh, ninth, twelfth and eighth, seldom bothered by worries concerning relegation but seldom looking particularly likely to push much higher up the table either. This represents an outstanding return on their last four seasons – especially when we consider the club’s League Cup win two years ago – but continual improvement for those in the Premier League’s middle rankings can be difficult, and the team is likely to have to settle for another mid-table finish again this season.
This summer has seen tweaking from manager Garry Monk, rather than anything like a wholesale overhaul of this squad. The signatures of Portugal international Eder and the Ghanaian Andre Ayew are likely to give his team a little more attacking flourish – and it’s worth noting that even the mid-season sale of Wilfried Bony felt more like a blip than a seismic event of any sort, last season – whilst French defender-cum-midfielder Franck Tabanou and Sweden goalkeeper Kristoffer Nordfeldt will a little depth to his defensive options. And Swansea supporters may well hope that any European distraction on the part of Southampton, who finished four points above them in seventh place at the end of last season, might even end up working to their advantage.
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