EPL 2017-2018: Is it Chelsea Again?
The 2017-2018 EPL season begins this week and opens with a lot of changes and questions. Notice right away that the opening graphic is a bit misleading. The season’s first match is actually a historic opening. For the first time ever the EPL opens on a Friday night with Arsenal hosting Leicester City at the Emirates stadium. So what else is new for the EPL this season?
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
1. Lets get right to the long coming big rule change. Starting next Monday, a panel of three (an ex official, an ex player, and a former manager) will review the films from the previous weeks matches specifically to look for players who take a dive or feign and injury. If the panel agrees unanimously that a player took such an action they will receive a two match suspension. And if a player was wrongly carded because of the dive then that card will be rescinded. This is past due and hopefully will get adopted universally to correct what in my opinion is the number one issue facing the sport. The game is so fast and the players have become so adept at acting that its just about impossible for a referee to get it right even close to 100% of the time.
2.. In an effort to improve the fan experience, all the EPL clubs have agreed to a new seating arrangement such that all away fans will be seated together at away matches. Additionally, each stadium will have at least one block of away seating pitchside.
3. For the 18th straight year, Nike will be supplying the official match balls. This year’s version is called the Ordem V and features an updated bladder for better touch and feel as well as Aerowtrac grooves for accurate flight. While this may sound ho hum to most fans, recognize that the players have become so good at what they can make the ball do that they covet the best technologies that can be used to turn out these balls. Additionally, as has been the case the last several years, once the time changes in England they will also have a hi-vis version.
4. The league has worked with their official partner, Sporting iD, and will have new kits featuring different lettering styles. See below.
5. In alignment with UEFA, the EPL has banned any designs on their playing surfaces. Only the traditional white lines will be allowed. So this cute looking field…..no more.
6. EPL matches will be held in three new stadiums for the first time. Brighton and Hove Albion will play their home matches at Amex Stadium, Huddersfield Town will play at home at John Smiths’s Stadium, and Tottenham will play their home matches at Wembley Stadium while White Hart Lane is renovated.
Now on to the questions for the upcoming season. As always the summer transfer window was full of moves. Some surely will help the club and some more of the save some money variety. While history has shown that crazy things can happen in the EPL (Leicester City coming out of nowhere two season ago) the fact is that the EPL is very top heavy. The top teams have been good for a long time, make the most money, and spend the most to stay on top. So lets look at the how many see the top six shaking out this season. Remember finishing in the top six is a big deal. The top four earn automatic berths in the next seasons Champions League and the fifth and sixth place finishers earn berths into the Europa League. Both those leagues mean more prestige, more top flight matches, and more money. And its more money not only for the clubs (directly) but the players (indirectly) as well. Players often use these extra matches to build their resumes for future contracts. And in fact, these extra matches are critical to some players just outside the normal starting XI. Given that these leagues add so many extra games to a clubs schedule, it all but forces the clubs to give lots of playing time to many players and not just their top 15 or so. The season is just too long for that for these clubs. So here are the six clubs I predict to finish atop this season, in alphabetical order.
Last season was quite a disappointment for the Gunners finishing out of the top four for the first time in 20 years. Many, including myself, were somewhat surprised to see the ownership give Arsene Wenger a new two year contract. But apparently they didn’t feel there was anybody out there who they’d rather have. But look for him to be on a bit of a short lease this season. The Gunners did salvage a bit of their year by winning the FA Cup. Not the EPL crown but still a pretty big deal. The best off season news for them was that they didn’t lose striker Alexis Sanchez. There was a lot of speculation that he was going to transfer to Manchester City or Bayern Munich. Luckily for the Gunners he stayed put. Losing the third highest goal scorer in the EPL would be tough to deal with.
Having won last year, always puts extra pressure on a club to repeat. Winning the EPL is a hard thing to do. Repeating is just even tougher. Still they have a deep squad and are built for the long season. They may not have quite the individual game changers of some of the other clubs but over a long tedious season their depth plays out. Remember the led the league by seven points, a pretty comfortable margin. They do lose one key player from last years bunch, Diego Costa. But manager Antonio Conte has really got them playing a great formation with a back three and he will have them ready.
They managed to finish in the top four last season with a thin squad. Manager Jurgen Klopp has the players believing in themselves and the fans behind the team. However, the team suffered a pretty big blow last week when playmaker Adam Lallana was lost for several months due to a thigh injury. Their stellar attacking play will take a hit for sure. Hopefully, he will be back in October and the club will have plenty of time to stay high in the table. Thankfully, their schedule in August and September isn’t overly difficult so they may stay mid pack or higher until they get him back.
Once again, manager Pep Guardiola has one of the premier clubs in the EPL. And he isn’t a happy camper giving all the talent they put on the field and their lack of hardware to show for it. So all he did this summer was to go out and ensure they kept Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus up top and defender Vincent Kompany. Then he went and signed several players not the least of which is Ederson Moraes, one of the top young goalkeepers there is. Paired with Claudio Bravo this provides Man City with one of if not the best goal keeping tandems in the world.
Manager Jose Mourinho wasted no time after the end of last season to bolster his squad by signing midfielder Nemanja Matic and forward Romelu Lukaku. They should compliment the returning players quite well especially Paul Pogba. Look for Pogba to have a big season. With the young talent Man U placed out on the field last season (Marucs Rashford and Anthony Martial) they are a really deep team. If Matic and Lukaku mesh well with the first team they could be really good this year. As in really good (there’s a hint).
The Spurs had an outstanding season last year finishing second in the league and have kept the roster almost in its entirety in place. They have one of the top goal scores in England in Harry Kane. He flat knows how to put the ball into the net. Manager Mauricio Pochettino seems to have really instilled a winning culture in this program and they should be in the mix this season. Unfortunately, the Spurs do have one extra hoop to jump through this season. Playing their home matches at Wembley Stadium is not a plus. Teams love to win at Wembley and always seem to come out with a little bit extra in that place.
So there are the teams I see finishing in the top six spots for the upcoming EPL. Its a long and very physical season and lots can happen but here’s a crack at their order. And to answer the question posed in the title. No Chelsea does not repeat.
1. Manchester United (Lukaku and the young stars look primed for a breakout season).
2. Manchester City (it’s pretty hard to not put them at the top)
Now that I went out on a limb (Man U is a fair stretch) let me back track just a bit. All six of these teams have the talent and manager to challenge for the title. I don’t expect to have a repeat of last season where the top spot is pretty well known weeks before the end of the season. Stay tuned it will be a fun ride and don’t forget that many matches will be shown again this year on the NBC family of channels.