It’s that time of the year again. The new football season starts this weekend, so it’s time to cobble together a few words about the Premier League and beyond, kicking off with Arsenal, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Everton.
Arsenal: Plus ca change, appropriately enough. The buzzwords around The Emirates Stadium over the course of the summer have been “stability” and “confidence,” and these are not phrases that have often been associated with Arsenal before the start of too much in recent years. For once, the scaly fingers of the likes of Barcelona have not been hanging around London Colney, attempting to wrap themselves around their most prized assets, and this, coupled with a comprehensive humping of Aston Villa in the most one-sided FA Cup final of recent years has led to a sense of belief that Arsenal might just be ready to take a step up and challenge for the Premier League title this season.
And yet and yet, though. We might well contend that, attempted kidnappings aside, Arsenal were in this position this time last year, and if they are anywhere near dependent on the Manchesters City and United stepping sideways or backwards in order to progress themselves, then this confidence may just turn out to be more brittle than many would assume at present. Having said that, however, they have their best goalkeeper in a decade – a position that Arsene Wenger has often seemed strangely ill at ease with – and the hub of last year’s team felt stronger than its third place Premier League finish would tend to suggest. It seems unlikely that Arsenal will be able to negotiate their way through the choppy waters that represent the latter stages of the Champions League but, in the Premier League this season, a strong start might well see Arsenal improving on last time around. Whether that will be enough to stop Chelsea zooming away into the distance for a second successive year, however, is another matter.
Aston Villa: It may seem difficult to believe, but it has only been three months since there was something approaching sunshine and rainbows over Villa Park. The team had scrambled its way clear of a relegation dogfight in the Premier League, whilst a surprise win against Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final saw the club headed to its first FA Cup final in a decade half. How times change. As if being gutted and filleted by Arsenal in front of a global television audience wasn’t enough, this summer has brought little better news for the club, with the transfers of Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph to Liverpool and Manchester City respectively robbing Villa of a sizeable proportion of its team’s spine, with the players that have been brought in to supplement the squad either failing to set the pulse racing or falling into the category of being unknown quantities. Much may come to depend upon Jack Grealish, who has the licks but may well find himself under the most intense of media spotlights over the next few months or so. It feels like a lot of burden for a nineteen year old lad to have to carry.
The man who should be sharing that burden, Tim Sherwood, remains more of an enigma than we probably believe him to be. Thus far, Sherwood’s managerial career has resembled a seismologist’s graph at the point of an earthquake, but the ease with which a hole was torn through his team in the Cup Final coupled with a degree of anaemia in front of goal without Benteke’s presence means that there may well be grounds for Villa supporters, who have become plenty used to torpor in recent years, to be concerned about. There probably are three worse teams than Aston Villa in this year’s Premier League, but the use of the word “probably” in the previous sentence speaks volumes about a club that has been treading water for far too long, and seems likely to do so again this season.
AFC Bournemouth: Against a perpetual backdrop of realpolitik, us football supporters cling to our fairy-tales like a comfort blanket, at times. There comes a time in all of our lives, however, when shit starts to get real and that day of reckoning may be growing close for a club that is making its most surprising of Premier League debuts this weekend. As the top division turned into a blue and white procession last spring, many eyes turned to the bunch of unlikely lads from the south coast who were purring their way towards the top flight. When, we all asked, would this story end? Well, the answer to that question is that it hasn’t, yet. AFC Bournemouth remains on cloud nine, for now, at least. The new signings have been modest in nature, though Sylvan Distain and Tyrone Mings do stand out- literally, in the case of the latter player, a defender brought in from Ipswich Town who turned down a handful of other Premier League suitors in order to pitch up at Dean Court to join this particular party.
Those who care about such things will doubtlessly be working themselves into a lather at the prospect of a young (yes, he’s still young), talented, English manager getting the sort of opportunity that Eddie Howe has given himself this season. His previous managerial excursion away from Bournemouth at Burnley didn’t work out so well, but this season grants us a rare opportunity to see how far diligent coaching, a wave of optimism and a considerable amount of goodwill can get a team in the thankless world of Premier League football, but it is important to remember that Bournemouth are in this division on merit, and those tipping the team to fall off its bottom have no more idea of what will happen to this team than those of a more sanguine disposition over their chances. Much may come to depend on what happens should last season’s confidence start to dry up as the nights draw in, but of they can start this season as they ended last season, there’s no reason whatsoever why Bournemouth can’t continue to develop in the Premier League. Neither relegation nor survival are foregone conclusions for AFC Bournemouth this season.
Chelsea: As the Chelsea players paraded the Premier League trophy around Stamford Bridge at the end of last season, Jose Mourinho might have been forgiven taking a step back from the cheers and flag waving, and asking himself the simple but strangely bewildering question of how this trophy landed is lap with such ease. Such was the extent to which his team cantered to the title that last couple of months of the season felt like a procession to such an extent that even the tiresomely voracious press couldn’t muster much drama or excitement around it all. Contained within that question is, of course, the most extraordinary aspect of the club’s achievements in the Premier League last season. Those sitting below them may not have been up to the task of chasing them all season, but winning and making it look easy is the trickiest thing of all to achieve, and the fact that their title win went unchallenged by anybody in even these most bantertastic of times is worthy of note.
With this in mind, the changes made to the squad over the course of the last three months have been tweaks rather than wholesale improvements, and there is something faintly ominous about such a wealthy club not spending lavishly during the summer break. But then again, as Jose Mourinho may well rationalise, what would be a reasonable prospect of Chelsea improving on the performances of, say, Diego Costa or Eden Hazard last season without having to spend the equivalent of the GDP of a small country in order to do so? A settled squad may well turn its attention towards the Champions League as a mark of further progress, and it is likely here that we will see the fruits or otherwise of the coach’s apparent current belief system. In the Premier League, however, Chelsea remain the team to beat, and with good reason. Any of the others could catch them should they click into place – this Chelsea team doesn’t seem likely to dominate English football in the way that, say, the Liverpool team of the 1980s did – but for now Jose Mourinho seems to have adopted the policy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and all of this comes with the caveat that he has the money spend, spend, spend should everything not going completely according to plan.
Crystal Palace: On two occasions at the start of the 1990s, Crystal Palace came agonisingly close to European football. In 1990, the club forced a replay in the FA Cup final against Manchester United, only to see the team that beat them go on to win the European Cup Winners Cup the following season. The following year, the backwash of English clubs’ European ban hit them, when a third placed finish in the First Division wasn’t enough to get them a place in the UEFA Cup. A shot at the Intertoto Cup a few years later notwithstanding, Palace have still yet to play European football, but a wave of confidence has been sweeping Selhurst Park following a disarmingly successful first season back in the Premier League last time around. Perhaps it is only our familiarity with Crystal Palace as a club with a pedigree in the top division that has blinded us from seeing what an achievement this has been. It’s only five years since the club was only a short hop from bankruptcy. They’ve come, to paraphrase a supporter of their biggest rivals, a long way, baby.
Every step of the way since then, Crystal Palace have made a virtue of overcoming adversity, and progress has been steady enough to slip under many radars. Bumps in the road, such as the departure of Tony Pulis just before the start of last season, have dealt with consummately, and the stable feeling that now sits over the club gives the impression that last season’s tenth place Premier League finish might not even be the end of this story, yet. Yohan Cabaye has signed from Paris St Germain. Patrick Bamford, on loan from Chelsea, set the hairs on the back of the neck on end at Middlesbrough last season and may well be fascinating to watch in the Premier League for the first time. Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha offer power and precision up front. For any team outside the gilded six or seven at the top of the table, the first priority of any Premier League club should be doing enough to avoid getting sucked into a relegation dogfight. Crystal Palace feel ready to further build upon their recent achievements. Next stop Europe? We shall see.
Everton: For all the dismay that it occasionally feels can envelop Goodison Park, it’s worth nothing that last season was the first time since the 2006/07 season that Everton had finished in the bottom half of the Premier League and that, on both of the occasions that topped and tailed those nine years, the team finished in eleventh place in the table. Everton may have occasionally looked as if they were treading water over the last few years, but they have at least been consistent. Still, though, there are reservations over Roberto Martinez and the manager’s job there. Last season was considered a disappointment, and eight of the team’s first ten matches of this season come against teams that finished above Everton, in the top half of the table, last season. Dissatisfaction with the manager and the hair trigger fingers of so many football club owners these days… it’s easy to see how this season could even conceivably end up not being an improvement on the last.
This, however, is more a reflection of Everton’s consistency over recent years than anything else and there is enough quality in their squad to be able to build upon over the last four weeks of the transfer window. Defender John Stones seems to have Chelsea infatuated at the moment but their attempts at wooing have thus far been rebuffed. That said, however, Roberto Martinez has already admitted that he still wants to strengthen his squad before the end of the summer transfer window, so there could be further changes in either direction before everything settles down at the end of August. Bearing this in mind, the mood over Goodison Park could yet change considerably before this month is even out, but Everton, members of English football’s top flight since 1953, can likely look forward to another push towards European football this season.
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