And so we come to the final instalment of this season’s pre-season previews for the forthcoming Premier League – Tottenham Hotspur, Watford, West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United. This Friday evening we’ll be talking about the coming season on episode 23 of the 200% podcast, so don’t forget to tune into that, as us old people are still wont to say.
Tottenham Hotspur: Given the precipitous rate at which they’ve changed managers in recent years and the frequently adoring glances from other clubs towards their more accomplished players, it’s no great surprise that the days and weeks before the start of a new season can often be a nervy time for Spurs supporters. This summer, however, has been uncharacteristically quiet. Mauricio Pochettino remains in the manager’s seat. Harry Kane hasn’t been lured elsewhere by the promise of a wheelbarrow full of money and a cut of the profits from a trademarked goal celebration. Wherever the drama has been this summer, it hasn’t been at White Hart Lane. Spurs finished last season exactly – to an uncanny extent – where pre-season predictions would have placed them. Fifth place in the Premier League without ever looking particularly likely to break into the top four and stay there, beaten in a domestic cup final, and knocked out of Europe as soon as the going got tough.
This summer, however, the club has abandoned its traditional, Chicken Licken approach to rebuilding and has settled on something altogether on something altogether more understated instead. Defending was an issue last season – Spurs’ defensive record was woeful, especially for a team with Champions League ambitions – so almost all of the new players acquired this summer have been defenders. Meanwhile, many of the ghosts of experiments past have been exorcised. Whether this year’s Spurs squad is vastly improved on last season’s is debatable. It’s certainly leaner, though.
Defensive improvements however, do not make for DRAMA and HEADLINES, though, so most eyes will fall upon Harry Kane, their curiously Roy Race-esque talisman. The worry for Spurs supporters is that the team becomes over-reliant on this one prodigious talent, his goals dry up a little, and the defensive reforming that seems to be being attended doesn’t gel. That way lies the possibility of a lower league position than last time around. Kane, however, doesn’t seem to be particularly prone to injury, so the likelihood of Spurs having becoming dependent on the goals of Roberto Soldado or the undoubtedly talented but erratic Christian Eriksen doesn’t seem particularly high. If last season was a transitional one for Tottenham Hotspur, then there is little question that Mauricio Pochettino hit his targets. A serious challenge for a Champions League place may turn out to be out of reach at the moment, but matching last season certainly isn’t, whilst turning a domestic cup final appearance into a domestic cup win would probably be considered a fine, but welcome, margin.
Watford: You have to speculate to accumulate, they say, and last season the Pozzo family, the owners of Watford Football Club, speculated on managers to a dizzying extent. Many on the media scoffed at such a policy – had this website not been on something of a hiatus at the time, we probably would have done the same – but, somehow or other, they managed what many had thought impossible. When the dust settled with Quique Sanchez Flores in the hottest managerial seat in English football, Watford were promoted back into the Premier League for the first time in eight years. This speculation has continued into the summer. Watford have spent more than £20m on new players since the end of last season, not an insignificant investment from a club that many of the great and good have already decided to be doomed to sink straight back from whence they came before a ball has even been kicked at the start of the season.
As ever, though, the portents of doom fail to take much nuance into account with regard to the club’s position. Flores is a highly experienced coach and has been involved in relegation battles before, while his squad itself is peppered with a combination of potential, experience and unknown quantities. The headline signing, Etienne Capoue, cost £6.2m from Tottenham Hotspur. Whilst Capoue never fulfilled the potential that it had been suggested that he was capable of fulfilling prior to his arrival at White Hart Lane, he will most likely get greater opportunity to prove himself at Watford. Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes is thirty-four years old now but has experience coming out of his ears, whilst other new signings, such as Jose Manuel Jurado, Steven Berghuis, Valon Behrami, Jose Holebas and Sebastian Prodl make for an intriguing combination of players who, should they manage to gel early on, give Watford at least a fighting chance of scrambling their way to seventeenth place. Considering that their fixtures over the two weeks surrounding Christmas see them playing Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, it might be argued that Watford need a strong start to the season more than most, if heads are not to drop too far by the start of the new year. With the right wind behind them, however, immediate relegation back to the Championship is not quite a foregone conclusion yet.
West Bromwich Albion: Saido Berahino has, it’s fair to say, already had an eventful life for a twenty-two year old. He arrived in the UK at ten years old, a refugee fleeing the Burundian civil war – which had already claimed the life of hus father – seeking the rest of his family, who had already successfully settled in the UK. Unable to locate them, alone and only able to speak French, he was initially placed in a care home initially before a DNA test confirmed his family ties. Within a couple of years he was signed up by West Bromwich Albion’s Centre of Excellence. He scored a hat-trick on his debut for Albion against Newport County in 2013, and last season was by far and away their top goalscorer, with fourteen goals. This story is worth retelling here, primarily because West Bromwich Albion’s clamber clear of the relegation places last season was as much down to Berahino as the appointment of Tony Pulis at the end of 2014. Indeed, the manager’s chief challenges for the new season include persuading this player – who has publicly signalled a desire to move to a bigger club – to stay at The Hawthorns whilst other clubs lasciviously eye him up and weaning the rest of his team away from an over-dependence on his goals.
The signature of Rickie Lambert, who may be feeling somewhat chastened after a disappointing season at Liverpool, may able to lift that burden a little, but along with James McClean – a player who comes with a little baggage of his own – and James Chester, it’s been a quiet summer in that particular part of the world. West Bromwich Albion are certainly a capable team. After all, last season they beat Manchester United at Old Trafford and Chelsea by three goals to nil, but there is a sense that, as others around them have invested their new television money in players, Albion have not kept pace and it might well be that this is what prevents them from making significant steps forward from last season’s thirteenth placed finish. This position may well change before the end of this month of course, but for clubs the size of West Bromwich Albion, this can be a double-edged sword. Just as they may strengthen between now and the start of September, so might they alternatively be weakened by then, should Berahino’s head be sufficiently turned by a suitably plump offer. As such, this may be a most peculiar season for this particular club – difficult to predict and enigmatic, facing the possibility of a transitional season without having undergone much transition in the first place.
West Ham United: When Sam Allardyce was handed his cards by West Ham United within approximately forty-three seconds of last season ending, it’s unlikely that too many of the club’s supporters were terribly upset. Hiring Allardyce is a version – and yes, there are many, many others – of the Premier League’s equivalent of a Faustian pact. True enough, he’ll likely protect your team from too many undignified scrambles to avoid relegation, but the means he’ll use will be agricultural and if the results run out, he has little else left to fall back upon in terms of reserves of goodwill. West Ham started last season like a veteran greyhound coming out of the traps, but they ended it like one crossing the finishing line. Three wins in their last twenty-one games of the season sealed his fate.
The new man in charge at Upton Park is Slaven Bilic, who is something of a hero to supporters of a certain age and is the man who saw off England’s hapless bid to make the finals of the 2008 European Championships, but Bilic is untested as a Premier League manager and this of all seasons is not one that West Ham can afford to get wrong. After one hundred and twelve years, at the end of this season the club will leave the Boleyn Ground for the milk and honey of the Olympic Stadium, which has been sold to supporters by the club’s owners as a key to vastly increased revenue streams and an end to craning necks upwards towards the top end of the Premier League. Bilic was successful as the manager of Croatia, but his club record has been patchy. At Lokomotiv Moscow, he was in charge for the club’s worst league season in more than twenty years, and he was unable to bring any silverware to Besiktas after two seasons in Turkey. Perhaps, though, England will be more suitable to his managerial temperament. It certainly was in November 2007.
West Ham United are unusual, in that we have been able to see them play competitively already this season, in Europa League qualifiers. After shuffling comfortably past the Andorran club FC Lusitanos, a second leg defeat against the Maltese side Birkirkara saw them scramble through after a penalty shoot-out win. The first leg of their Third Qualifying Round match against the Romanians of Astra Giurgiu ended up in a draw, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the club could be out of Europe by the time you read these words. These results are underwhelming, but we perhaps shouldn’t read too much into them. The Premier League will almost certainly take priority over the Europa League for Slaven Bilic this season. In the transfer market, meanwhile, Bilic has been busy. £25m has already been spent on new players, and Dimitri Payet, Angelo Ogbonna, Pedro Obiang and Manuel Lanzini all look like strong signings in their own way. Elsewhere, Reece Oxford became the club’s youngest ever player last month at sixteen years old and, while he may only be a peripheral performer this season on account of his age, he will almost certainly be a player to watch very closely if or when he makes his big step up.
With the start of the new season only days away, West Ham United feel enigmatic and unpredictable. Slaven Bilic has the goodwill of supporters glad to see the back of Sam Allardyce and pleased to see the return of a cult hero from the past. And, whilst competitive results have thus far been less than scintillating, we should bear in mind that there is one step of remove between this competition and the domestic league season ahead. The appointment of Bilic does, however, carry an air of gamble about it and this is a season that the club cannot afford to end badly. West Ham United can probably look forward to a season on mid-table relative anonymity. So long as they start the season after this in the Premier League, though, dreams of greater glory can probably wait for the big move.
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