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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Premier League 2017/18 preview: Will Chelsea retain the title? Team-by-team guide and top half predictions

As the 2017/18 Premier League season fast approaches, Richard Jolly provides his team-by-team guide and predictions.

Antonio Conte led Chelsea to the Premier League title in his first season. Can the Italian inspire his side to retain it? Mike Egerton / PA Wire
Antonio Conte led Chelsea to the Premier League title in his first season. Can the Italian inspire his side to retain it? Mike Egerton / PA Wire

SOUTHAMPTON

Sofiane Boufal offered flashes of class last season but Southampton will need greater consistency from the winger this year. Ian Walton / Getty Images
Sofiane Boufal offered flashes of class last season but Southampton will need greater consistency from the winger this year. Ian Walton / Getty Images

Claude Puel lost some of his best players, reached the League Cup final and finished eighth. He was still sacked. It struck many outsiders as harsh, but supporters could point to a drop-off in points, excitement and quality last season. Enter Mauricio Pellegrino, who inherits a well-drilled defence, but with its classiest component, Virgil van Dijk, wanting a move, a midfield in which James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond are promising England internationals, but where Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg flattered to deceive last year, and an attack where Charlie Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini had scoring bursts but both suffered from injuries and Southampton mustered a mere 41 goals. It will be hard for Pellegrino to top his predecessor’s eighth-place finish, especially should the outstanding Van Dijk get his desired move, but Southampton require signs they are a progressive, entertaining team again.

Player to watch: Fraser Forster. The goalkeeper signed a new contract last month but it has not escaped some supporters’ attention that his save percentage is consistently among the lowest in the division. Decent defensive records have owed more to others and Forster could do with justifying a lofty reputation, especially if the most coveted defenders leave.

Signing to watch: Jan Bednarek. The Poland Under-21 international is the only arrival so far, but a centre-back is also a much-needed acquisition. Jose Fonte was never properly replaced after his January departure and Van Dijk’s long-term future probably lies elsewhere. While Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens acquitted themselves well last season, a newcomer was necessary.

Point to prove: Sofiane Boufal. The club-record signing became an indictment of Puel. Boufal showed he could score the occasional spectacular goal. The problem was that he did too little in between them and Saints looked a stronger side in the 23-year-old winger’s absence. Perhaps Pellegrino can conjure the form that saw him score 11 times in Ligue 1 for Lille in 2015/16.

Talking point: The home form. Few things were more damaging for Puel than Southampton’s sterility at St Mary’s. They scored just 17 goals – only Sunderland mustered fewer – explaining why many fans felt the Frenchman’s dull persona was reflected in his football. They would relish a return of the excitement Ronald Koeman brought.

Prediction: 10th

WEST HAM UNITED

Javier Hernandez is the goalscoring predator West Ham have been lacking. Peter Cziborra / Reuters
Javier Hernandez is the goalscoring predator West Ham have been lacking. Peter Cziborra / Reuters

It may surprise some that Slaven Bilic is still in a job after West Ham’s mediocre season last year. If there will be a focus on the charismatic Croatian, especially if they start badly, at least deficiencies in the squad have been addressed. West Ham needed a first-choice goalkeeper, right-back and striker and, in Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta and Javier Hernandez, they have got all. As the mid-season buy Robert Snodgrass rarely impressed, Marko Arnautovic may be seen as a belated replacement for the January departure Dimitri Payet and this summer’s spending spree ought to be better than last year’s recruitment, which was largely disastrous. West Ham should not flirt with the drop again, but with questions if too many players are past their prime, it is hard to see them scaling the heights of 2015/16, when they threatened a top-four finish.

Player to watch: Joe Hart. West Ham may deem the goalkeeper’s arrival on loan a coup. For Hart, it is a chance to rebuild his career after, for the second successive summer, Manchester City proved unable to sell him. After Adrian and Darren Randolph struggled last season, Bilic required a more reliable shot-stopper.

Signing to watch: Javier Hernandez. West Ham have a dismal record in signing strikers in recent years – 20 of the 31 to arrive under David Gold and David Sullivan scored three or fewer goals – but Hernandez, who struck 39 times in two seasons for Bayer Leverkusen, promises to change that. He is the predator they lacked.

Point to prove: Andre Ayew. The Ghanaian became the £20.8 million (Dh100.44m) club record signing last summer but West Ham really needed a striker, not a winger. He got injured 35 minutes into his debut and, while he went on to score six times, it was an underwhelming debut year. With Arnautovic’s arrival, he faces a battle for a place.

Talking point: The London Stadium. West Ham lost more league games than they won at their new home last season, suffering some notably heavy home defeats. They had problems with stewarding, ticketing and the atmosphere. They could do with putting teething troubles behind them and turning their new ground into a fortress.

Prediction: 9th

LEICESTER CITY

Vicente Iborra should exert his influence on the Leicester City midfield. Nigel French / PA Wire
Vicente Iborra should exert his influence on the Leicester City midfield. Nigel French / PA Wire

It looks like a three-season arc plucked from the 1930s: 14th, 1st, 12th. If it suggests Leicester’s title was a complete anomaly, it nonetheless poses the question of what comes next. They spent two days in the relegation zone last season while Craig Shakespeare then became the first British manager to win his first five Premier League games, highlighting the two extremes within their capabilities; like the team, Jamie Vardy proved capable of blowing hot and cold. It will be harder to recreate their old magic if Riyad Mahrez leaves but Shakespeare seems to be reshaping Leicester. The spine of the side has been bolstered by defender Harry Maguire, midfielder Vicente Iborra and the £25m man Kelechi Iheanacho, who has the potential to be prolific in attack. Unlike in 2013/14 or 2015/16, they ought to be comfortably in mid-table.

Player to watch: Vicente Iborra. The man who captained Sevilla as they mounted an unexpected title charge has something in common with his new teammates. A steadying presence in the midfield, Iborra also has an eye for goal. He could potentially exert a huge influence at the King Power Stadium.

Signing to watch: Kelechi Iheanacho. Averages a goal every 106 minutes in Premier League football and, even if it will be difficult to sustain such a remarkable ratio when he trades the role of a super-sub in for that of a starter, the Nigerian promises potency. It will be instructive how he combines with Jamie Vardy.

Point to prove: Islam Slimani. Twelve months ago, the Algerian became Leicester’s record buy. But he only started 13 league games, scored a solitary top-flight goal on the road and lost his place to the industrious Shinji Okazaki. Now Iheanacho’s arrival has made him seem surplus to requirements, but he has the quality to prove otherwise.

Talking point: The tactics. Leicester prospered playing 4-4-2 when they won the title and Shakespeare reverted to Claudio Ranieri’s old formula as caretaker manager. But he has used three central midfielders at times in pre-season and looks as though he could be more flexible.

Prediction: 8th

EVERTON

Wayne Rooney is back at his boyhood club and needs to prove he can still be effective at the top level. Adam Holt / Reuters
Wayne Rooney is back at his boyhood club and needs to prove he can still be effective at the top level. Adam Holt / Reuters

Last season offered encouragement for Everton but they nevertheless finished it in no-man’s land, marooned between the best and the rest. This brings more pressure and a greater challenge: can they break into the top six? Their spending – which may eventually approach £200m – shows their intent, but they do start with the initial impediment of exiling Ross Barkley and losing their premier match-winner, Romelu Lukaku, and his 25 goals. Much will rest on how Sandro Ramirez, Wayne Rooney and perhaps another forward addition compensate. Ronald Koeman has secured valuable upgrades elsewhere in the side, in goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, centre-back Michael Keane and attacking midfielder Davy Klaassen. Should he join, Gylfi Sigurdsson’s huge fee means he will be under the microscope. So, too, Koeman. This is his team now and owner Farhad Moshiri has brought a belated injection of ambition to Goodison Park. But with ambition comes expectation.

Player to watch: Jordan Pickford. Dismal as Sunderland’s season was last year, it would have been far worse without Pickford. Some felt he was the division’s best goalkeeper then. Now, at £30m, he is the costliest English shot-stopper ever. The goalkeeping spot has been a problem position for Everton. It surely will not be now.

Signing to watch: Sandro Ramirez. Much as Everton have spent this summer, the £5.2m Spaniard promises to be a bargain. Koeman used the release clause of a forward who scored 14 times in the Primera Liga for Malaga last season, who is just 21 and who can score a wide variety of goals.

Point to prove: Wayne Rooney. “I am not coming into a retirement home,” said Rooney on his return to Everton. The last few years have suggested his career is in a possibly terminal decline. Koeman clearly thinks otherwise, but his last 50 Manchester United games produced just nine goals. He needs more to win over the critics.

Talking point: The away form. While, in contrast to their struggles under Roberto Martinez, Everton were excellent at Goodison Park last season – and it remains to be seen if they are similarly good without Lukaku – they won just four times on the road. Each of the top six won at least nine away league games.

Prediction: 7th

LIVERPOOL

Philippe Coutinho is attracting interest from Barcelona but remains a key part of Liverpool's plans. Victor Fraile / Getty Images
Philippe Coutinho is attracting interest from Barcelona but remains a key part of Liverpool's plans. Victor Fraile / Getty Images

Assuming they negotiate a play-off, Liverpool will compete in the Uefa Champions League this season for just the second time in eight years. It is a sign of progress and an added complication. Their only top-four finishes since 2009 have come when they were not in any European competition. Jurgen Klopp required a bigger, better squad for the challenge. It is a moot point how much of one he will have. Liverpool have encountered frustration so far in their attempts to take Leipzig midfielder Naby Keita and Southampton centre-back Virgil van Dijk to Anfield. The only A-list addition is Mohamed Salah, though Dominic Solanke is a futuristic arrival in attack and Andrew Robertson is a rival for James Milner at left-back. Liverpool seemed unstoppable at times last season, unconvincing at others. Their chances of another top-four finish depend on how often they scintillate and how often they stutter.

Player to watch: Philippe Coutinho. Barcelona’s £72m bid for the Brazilian and the suggestions that the Catalans see him as the long-term replacement for Andres Iniesta highlights the quality Liverpool’s classiest player possesses. He may play more in midfield this year, but few are as spectacularly potent from outside the penalty area.

Signing to watch: Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian has already given indications why Klopp has made him Liverpool’s record signing with his prolific form in pre-season. He scored 19 times for Roma last season and, besides bringing incision, promises to reduce Liverpool’s reliance on the similarly speedy Sadio Mane.

Point to prove: Daniel Sturridge. The most natural finisher at Anfield only started seven league games last season, despite being fit for the majority of the campaign. Salah’s signing increases the competition for places in the forward line and Sturridge, who many expected to leave, looks more and more of a back-up player.

Talking point: The goalkeepers. Klopp surprised some by refusing to buy another. Perhaps Simon Mignolet justified that stance with his fine form at the end of last season. Perhaps Loris Karius will with his potential. Perhaps Danny Ward will leapfrog both. Or perhaps Liverpool will just have a worse keeper than their rivals.

Prediction: 6th

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

Tottenham may not have signed any new players but keeping Dele Alli, left, should be considered great business. Harrison McClary / Reuters
Tottenham may not have signed any new players but keeping Dele Alli, left, should be considered great business. Harrison McClary / Reuters

After their highest league finish for 54 years, with their highest goal total for 52, perhaps Spurs find themselves needing one last push to clinch the title that has eluded them in two seasons when they have arguably played the most exciting football in England, while constructing the most miserly defence. The difficulty is that their rivals have spent heavily while Spurs are yet to strengthen. Given Kieran Trippier’s displays, losing Kyle Walker to Manchester City may not weaken them much and they repelled Manchester United’s interest in Eric Dier. Mauricio Pochettino’s favoured 13 or 14 were terrific, but he must hope for more from squad players and it is still a lot to ask for Harry Kane to average a goal every league start again. With the budget limited by building the new White Hart Lane, it would be an extraordinary feat to make Spurs champions.

Player to watch: Dele Alli. Managed to be a revelation in successive seasons. Jumping from 10 to 18 league goals last year showed his capacity for exponential improvement. Advance at the same rate again and he will be the best player in the league. Amid the focus on signings, the best news for Spurs is that he and Kane stayed.

Signing to watch: No one. At the time of writing, Spurs are alone in not signing anyone. Perhaps it means Daniel Levy will do business late in the window, possibly for Ross Barkley. Or maybe Spurs will test the merits of continuity and prudence and try to overcome big-spending, radically-revamped rivals.

Point to prove: Erik Lamela. The temptation is to nominate Moussa Sissoko or Vincent Janssen after their difficult first years in London. But Lamela, another who began slowly at Spurs, flourished two years ago, missed most of last season injured and saw Son Heung-Min kick on and Pochettino sometimes switch to 3-4-2-1, rendering his right-wing role redundant.

Talking point: The Wembley factor. Tottenham have only won one of their last nine games at the national stadium. In contrast, they were the Premier League’s only undefeated team at home last season, winning 17 of 19 matches and conceding just nine goals. They could do with showing their White Hart Lane form at Wembley.

Prediction: 5th

ARSENAL

Alexandre Lacazette's arrival means Arsenal finally have the top-class forward they have needed. John Walton / Press Association
Alexandre Lacazette's arrival means Arsenal finally have the top-class forward they have needed. John Walton / Press Association

One era ended at the Emirates Stadium last season. Another did not. Arsene Wenger lost his impeccable record of top-four finishes but kept his job, signing a new two-year contract. If some of the criticism of the Frenchman died down during Arsenal’s end-of-season revival and FA Cup win, the atmosphere has the potential to turn febrile again. Different conclusions can be drawn: the uncertainty about Alexis Sanchez’s future provides a concern, but Alexandre Lacazette’s signing offers optimism. Sead Kolasinac should add an option at wing-back but, as Arsenal conceded the most goals in the top six last season, more solidity is required. There are too many issues to resolve for Arsenal to appear possible champions. The more pertinent issue is if they can galvanise those eyeing the exit and organise those whose flaws have been apparent before enough to return to the Champions League.

Player to watch: Alexis Sanchez. It is impossible to pick anyone else. Sanchez will leave a huge void if he goes. If his departure is delayed for a year, Arsenal should reap a dividend on the field. The Chilean’s will to win means a repeat of his 24-goal, 10-assist season last year is very plausible.

Signing to watch: Alexandre Lacazette. Wenger has been criticised for years for not buying a high-class striker. That charge can no longer be levelled at him. Arsenal’s £53m record signing scored 37 goals for Lyon last season. A repeat at the Emirates Stadium would be transformative, if bad news for Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck.

Point to prove: Theo Walcott. Some may say that Walcott forever has a point to prove, that he always remains a case of potential. He actually scored 19 goals last season, a very respectable total. But his role became redundant in the switch to 3-4-2-1 and it is hard to see how he gets into the strongest side now.

Talking point: How Arsenal cope without Cazorla. Both Arsenal’s results and Francis Coquelin’s performances have been far better in recent years when Santi Cazorla has been fit. Sadly, the catalytic Spaniard has been injured too often. They need to find a midfield combination to ensure his absences do not come at such a cost again.

Prediction: 4th

CHELSEA

Alvaro Morata has arrived as Chelsea's record signing tasked with scoring the goals. Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts / Getty Images
Alvaro Morata has arrived as Chelsea's record signing tasked with scoring the goals. Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts / Getty Images

History rarely repeats itself, but it is particularly difficult for Chelsea to effect an action replay: a record 30 wins, 93 points, a run of 13 straight wins when they only conceded four goals? It had the hallmarks of a one-off. But whereas Chelsea slumped to 10th after last winning the title, Antonio Conte proved he could retain it with Juventus. While most champions exhibit continuity, there is more change in the air at Chelsea. Nemanja Matic has already gone, so too should Diego Costa. Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Antonio Rudiger have already arrived, with maybe more to follow amid hints Conte has been dissatisfied. Another new element is the added workload caused by Champions League commitments; Conte will have to rotate more. This season will differ from last: if it is to ends with Chelsea in the same position, it would be a remarkable double.

Player to watch: Eden Hazard. The first time the Belgian helped inspire Chelsea to the title, he did not score a league goal until April 23 in the following campaign. After 16 goals last season, Conte cannot afford a similar hangover. But now he seems more mature and more at ease with himself. He may be better equipped to cope.

Signing to watch: Alvaro Morata. Costa’s idiosyncrasies mean no one can completely duplicate his contribution but Morata is charged with providing the goals and the hold-up play without the drama. A £58m price tag is a millstone for a prolific force for Real Madrid, but a man unaccustomed to the responsibilities of being the main striker.

Point to prove: Gary Cahill. Perhaps that is a harsh assessment of one who captained Chelsea to the title and scored vital goals, but Rudiger’s arrival and Andreas Christensen’s return from loan means the Englishman should be under more pressure for his place. His defending was flawed at times last season, and Conte is a perfectionist.

Talking point: The wing-backs. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso were arguably Chelsea’s greatest overachievers last season. It will be difficult for them to maintain such standards again. Conte’s interest in Alex Sandro, Kyle Walker and Danilo suggested he wanted upgrades. Thus far, however, he has not found them.

Prediction: 3rd

MANCHESTER UNITED

Romelu Lukaku, right, has proved he can score against the rest. Can he now do it against the best? Niall Carson / PA Wire
Romelu Lukaku, right, has proved he can score against the rest. Can he now do it against the best? Niall Carson / PA Wire

Jose Mourinho has his own version of second-season syndrome: he wins the league at his second attempt everywhere. Extending that record is no easy task, given Manchester United finished 24 points and five places below Chelsea last season. At least the League Cup and Europa League holders have demonstrated a winning mentality, but they must demonstrate the right sort of consistency in the league. Improving on a dismal return of eight home league wins – United were undermined by 10 draws – is a prerequisite. Romelu Lukaku’s arrival should help rectify that, especially if Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back in January. Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan excelled at times last season. Now each has settled, United could do with them delivering more often. They have the makings of a formidable side, but it may take more signings or a third season for them to become a quintessential Mourinho team.

Player to watch: Eric Bailly. The Ivorian showed plenty of promise last season. Now a fast, physical defender could be paired with another Mourinho buy, the £31m Victor Lindelof, in a centre-back partnership that might last for years. They may be the cornerstones of a side who have improved at the back under the Portuguese.

Signing to watch: Romelu Lukaku. At £75m, Lukaku has not come cheap, but he does represent a guarantee of goals in the Premier League. It will be instructive to see if Mourinho can take an improving player’s game to another level and if he can terrorise the defences of the best; he has already shown he can destroy the rest.

Point to prove: Anthony Martial. A superlative solo run through the Real Madrid defence to supply a pre-season goal for Jesse Lingard was a reminder of the pace and ability the Frenchman showed in his debut year at Old Trafford. Mourinho has rarely seemed convinced, however, and his bid to sign another winger, preferably Ivan Perisic, is a reflection on Martial.

Talking point: Can United mount a title challenge? In the four seasons since Alex Ferguson retired, they have never finished in the top three, never really been in the title race and never ended up within 17 points of the eventual winners. If they cannot become champions, the first step will be to get close.

Prediction: 2nd

MANCHESTER CITY

Gabriel Jesus enters his first full season with Manchester City having impressed since his arrival in January. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
Gabriel Jesus enters his first full season with Manchester City having impressed since his arrival in January. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Manchester City actually took 12 points more last season than in the previous year, but such was the level of expectation surrounding Pep Guardiola that it was not presented as a success. A further, and more telling, improvement should be anticipated now. It helps that, after inheriting a decidedly mixed squad, Guardiola now has a group more suited to his management, aided by City’s investment. Three new attacking full-backs, in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo, ought to offer added energy and incision. Bernardo Silva looks a classy addition to the midfield and, whether or not Alexis Sanchez joins, City possess plenty of firepower. City’s best should be very good. The challenge is to be more consistent and more defensively solid – and a fully fit Vincent Kompany would be a boon – to turn a talented team into trophy winners.

Player to watch: Gabriel Jesus. The focus on the summer signings should not obscure the fact this is City’s first full season with the Brazilian prodigy. Jesus only started eight league games last season and struck seven times. Factor in his ability to create, his potential to improve and Guardiola’s coaching and he could be superb.

Signing to watch: Ederson. Guardiola got off to something of a false start in his quest to give City a high-class footballing goalkeeper. Now Ederson is his second attempt, charged with succeeding where Claudio Bravo struggled. The Brazilian will be scrutinised for errors but, with his passing, could give City the added dimension Guardiola wants.

Point to prove: John Stones. Some of the criticism of Englishman was excessive last season but Stones has admitted that he did not always do his job as well as he wanted to in mixed debut year in Manchester. With added experience and in a revamped defence, he ought to fare better this season.

Talking point: The summit clashes. When City played Manchester United off the park in the first half at Old Trafford last September, it seemed improbable that they would only muster one more league win against any of the eventual top seven, and none against the rest of the top four. It is a record they must improve.

Prediction: 1st