Spurs salvage a point from defensive wreck

Spurs were out of the contest. For the first hour, anyway. Playing against Liverpool, who were coming off a spectacular flop against newly-promoted Burnley, things were not looking good. They were 1-0 down, not creating any chances, and being exposed time and time again in defence. An injury to Kyle Walker threw Mauricio Pochettino’s pre-match plans out the window, and in the centre of the park Victor Wanyama and Dele Alli were unable to keep the ball out of their opponent’s hands. Tottenham’s attack received no delivery, and the defence was more than a little shaky.

Eric Dier had started the match playing in central midfield, but he was moved into right back after Walker went off. Throughout the ninety minutes it was like watching Jekyll and Hyde; sometimes he was composed, most of the time he gave the ball away in very bad positions. Jan Vertonghen was not much better. He looked frazzled when he came under pressure from Senegalese winger Sadio Mane, who nearly took Spurs apart on a number of occasions with his pace in behind. Toby Alderweireld was a rock at the heart of the defence, and Michel Vorm was ensuring not many goals were scored, but those two couldn’t do everything.

Under pressure: Eric Dier (left) is challenged by James Milner.

Liverpool, on the other hand, looked completely rejuvenated. Coming off a loss in which they had over 80 percent of possession, they had learned from their mistakes. Mane had come in for Daniel Sturridge, a player who wants to be at the heart of absolutely everything and had expressed annoyance at playing on the right wing. Mane tore Tottenham to shreds on a number of occasions, sliding in behind Danny Rose and beating Vertonghen for pace. He received good support from Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, both of whom had been out of action against Burnley, and he generally boosted everything about Liverpool’s attack. Against Burnley they had played with all the pace of a funeral procession. Now, they played with purpose, taking advantage of the extra space available and looking for more opportunities through quick ball movement.

Liverpool had a plethora of great chances in the first half as they were able to exploit the extra space in Tottenham’s defence. No longer suffocated by Burnley’s rigid defensive structure they found their niche against a side who looked to attack them back, and they had nearly opened the scoring within five minutes. Vorm made an excellent save to deny Coutinho from close range after Firmino had played him through, with a well-placed foot trapping the ball on the line and allowing the Dutch keeper to gratefully reel it in.

Mane looked most dangerous on the break, when Tottenham players lost the ball after some errant passing. Vorm was up to the test, even as Mane broke the defensive line on multiple occasions. Vorm risked being booked or even sent off more than once by coming off his line to clear the ball, but he was able to keep it level. Finally, just minutes before the break, Liverpool broke the deadlock. They scored from the spot, with a very soft penalty being awarded to Firmino after a minute clip on the heels from Erik Lamela. The contact was there, but ultimately the Brazilian fell after tripping over his own feet. Either way, the penalty stood, and James Milner was there to stroke it home.

If Pochettino was hoping that his side would recover after the break, he was very much mistaken. After a brief settling in period, the game resumed its familiar rhythm, but with a slightly different beat. Liverpool had reached their zenith, and it was in this short period just after half time that they came closest to sealing a win. Things happened very quickly for Jurgen Klopp’s men. Joel Matip brushed the bar after getting his head to Milner’s corner, and shortly afterwards Vorm had to make an excellent save to deny Nathaniel Clyne, who had marauded into the box from right back. Then came the disallowed goal.

Georginio Wijnaldum, who had been much improved due to increased time on the ball, intercepted yet another poor pass from Dier and started off down the left wing. He had plenty of support, but he kept running to the edge of the area before feeding Adam Lallana with an excellent through ball. Lallana played Mane on the near post, and the ball was promptly blasted into the back of the net. It appeared to be the death knell for Spurs, the sign that Liverpool had finally sealed the victory. But the linesman’s flag said otherwise. It was a very tight call, with Lallana in an offside position by the barest of margins, and it gave Tottenham the lifeline that they needed. Perversely, the disallowed goal acted as a turning point in the match, as Spurs sputtered into gear, albeit belatedly.

Finish: Danny Rose (in white) levels the score.

It was Wanyama and Alli who stepped up. The solid pairing in central midfield started to cope with Liverpool’s pressure, and the attack found more of the ball and more space. Harry Kane started to pick it up in dangerous positions, and Vincent Janssen looked like a big threat. The hosts started to look like their former selves, stringing together great passing moves and creating some excellent chances. Lamela’s free kick had to be tapped over the bar by Simon Mignolet, and another top-drawer save had to be made moments later as Alderweireld got a head to Christian Eriksen’s corner. Spurs were starting to probe again, and suddenly it looked as if they could punish Liverpool for their missed opportunities. They did.

It started with a brilliant ball over the top from Alderweireld, with Milner completely misjudging it as it flew over his head to the feet of Dier. Milner was beaten again with a good touch, and while Lamela could not get a solid connection on the cross the ball fell to Rose at the back post. It was not an easy finish, but the left back made it look easy. He bundled the ball past Mignolet, and Matip, who had gone in behind to protect the line, had no chance as the shot rolled in next to the post. Liverpool looked to get an equaliser straight away, but the moment had already passed: Liverpool’s momentum was gone.

Liverpool had some chances late as the game opened up, and Alderweireld had to make an incredible challenge to deny Lallana in injury time. The Belgian was Tottenham’s last line of defence, and he risked a penalty by sliding in and blocking Lallana’s effort straight of the boot. The game trailed on, with some meaningless substitutions and a yellow card to Matip only delaying the finish as injury time drew to a close. Liverpool were the better side on the day, but they could not capitalise on the opportunities they created, and Tottenham’s porous defence did not prove costly in the end.

London – White Hart Lane
Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Rose 72)
Liverpool 1 (Milner 43 pen)
Referee: Robert Madley

Tottenham Hotspur (4-2-3-1): Vorm – Walker (Janssen 28), Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dier, Wanyama; Lamela, Alli, Eriksen (Winks 90+3); Kane (Onomah 83).
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet – Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Lallana (Stewart 90+4), Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane (Sturridge 88), Firmino, Coutinho (Origi 69).

Top 5
1. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur)
Alderweireld was excellent at the heart of Tottenham’s defence, staying unfazed under heavy pressure and often covering up the defensive mistakes of his teammates. He created the goal with a pinpoint pass over the top of Liverpool’s defence, and he made a brilliant challenge to deny Lallana as the game drew to a close.
2. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Mane made all the difference for Liverpool after coming into the side to replace Sturridge. He cut swathes through Spurs with his pace and ability to get in behind, and he was unlucky not to score. He was the most dangerous attacking player on the ground, and he will be a big threat as the season progresses.
3. Joel Matip (Liverpool)
Matip provided a much-needed solidity for Liverpool in central defence, making life very difficult for Spurs and ensuring that not much got through. He was a significant threat at set pieces, and he came very close to scoring after beating his man in the air early in the second half. He played well in his Premier League debut, and he will want the good form to continue.
4. Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur)
Rose was Tottenham’s best attacking player, and while Mane often caught him out when his teammates carelessly lost possession he was fairly solid in defence as well. He created problems for Liverpool with his ability to go forward and put in incisive crosses, and he finished with excellent precision when he was given the opportunity.
5. Michel Vorm (Tottenham Hotspur)
Vorm had less to do in the second half as Liverpool’s influence waned, but he was excellent in goal throughout and did well to only concede once. His decision making was first-rate, and he saved a number of goals by coming off his line and clearing the ball away. He will only start until Hugo Lloris comes back, but he will take comfort from his early season form.

Disorganisation proves costly as Burnley take the points

If ever there was a game where the stats did not tell the full story, this was it. A quick glance at the stats sheet for the game between Burnley and Liverpool shows that Liverpool had over 80 per cent of possession, registered 26 shots (Burnley had 3), and won a staggering 12 corners to their opponent’s one. You could easily be forgiven for thinking that Liverpool won the match easily. Instead, they lost 2-0, with the hosts going ahead early and managing to keep their opponents at bay through some excellent defensive work.

The game was barely ninety seconds old when Burnley took the lead, with an aimless pass from Nathaniel Clyne intercepted by Andre Gray. The ball was played to the edge of the area, where Sam Vokes turned away from Dejan Lovren and blasted the ball past Simon Mignolet into the back of the net. The home fans were in complete ecstasy; Liverpool fans everywhere were in shock. Eventually the Liverpool defence was able to get past Burnley’s forwards, and they had soon taken control of the tempo. They were dominating possession, and it seemed as if they would eventually break Burnley down.

They couldn’t. Liverpool’s attack was a mess, the kind of mess which comes about when there are no boundaries. Sometimes the Reds had no centre forward, sometimes they had three, and it seemed as if Jurgen Klopp had instructed all of his forwards to roam free. Philippe Coutinho was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, moving around in Liverpool’s front third like a bee buzzes from flower to flower, hitting one sideways pass after another. James Milner, picked to start at left back over Alberto Moreno, permanently parked himself on the left wing. He had almost no defensive work to do, but he was fairly useless in attack when he received the ball.

Daniel Sturridge had come in for the game, replacing an injured Sadio Mane on the right wing. At least, that was where he was meant to play. Sturridge is always interesting to watch when he is picked as a winger, and by the end of the first half he was essentially operating as Liverpool’s main striker. Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana were given licence to push into attack from midfield, but neither had a significant impact on the match.

Then there was Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian, who was named at centre forward by Klopp, was nowhere to be seen. With as many as three of his teammates pushing into his position he drifted to the outer, and he barely touched the ball in the first half. In the second, although he was still technically playing as a striker, he started bobbing up deep in midfield. Liverpool’s attack was a picture of chaos throughout, especially when compared to Burnley’s pacey counter-attack.

Jump for joy: Andre Gray celebrates scoring Burnley’s second goal.

Burnley scored again just before the break, with new signing Steven Defour feeding Gray on the counter. The Belgian ran halfway up the field as Gray went with him, the star striker struggling to keep himself onside. Eventually he managed to get it right, and he received the ball on the edge of the area. He took one touch to get past Jordan Henderson, and his second touch brought him past Ragnar Klavan. Lovren was looking to close him down, but the shot came too quickly. It was an excellent strike, and Mignolet couldn’t get a glove to it as the ball found its way into the bottom corner.

Up to this point the Reds had been fixated on trying to get through Burnley’s defence, but they completely ignored the fact that the lethargic tempo with which they conducted their attack was the reason for their inability to do so. As the game went on the crosses kept coming in from Milner on the left, but Coutinho gave up on playing through balls in an attempt to beat Michael Keane and Ben Mee. He started shooting every time he found himself in a somewhat dangerous position, missing the target with almost every attempt. His teammates took up his lead, and soon Liverpool were taking shots from thirty yards out whenever they could not break through Burnley’s solid structure. The result was inevitable, and by the end it was quite clear who played the better game. Liverpool entered the Turf Moor brimming with confidence after a stunning performance against Arsenal. They left with their tail between their legs after a lethargic attacking effort, leaving Jurgen Klopp with a number of unanswered questions.

Burnley – Turf Moor
Burnley 2 (Vokes 2, Gray 37)
Liverpool 0
Referee: Lee Mason

Burnley (4-4-2): Heaton – Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Boyd, Marney, Defour (Gudmundsson 56), Arfield; Gray (O’Neill 90+3), Vokes (Jutkiewicz 82).
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet – Clyne, Lovren, Klavan, Milner (Moreno 77); Lallana (Grujic 78), Henderson, Wijnaldum; Sturridge (Origi 65), Firmino, Coutinho.

Top 5
1. Andre Gray (Burnley)
Gray started the game brilliantly, cutting out an errant pass from Clyne and setting up the first goal of the game after less than two minutes. He continued to threaten throughout, causing massive problems for both Lovren and Klavan as he looked to get in behind the Liverpool defence. He showed plenty of skill and composure, and looks set for a big season.
2. Dean Marney (Burnley)
Marney formed a solid partnership with Steven Defour in the centre of midfield, doing plenty of defensive work and making life difficult for Liverpool with his balls in behind the defence. He worked harder than anyone else on the field, and he was still giving his all when the final whistle blew.
3. Dejan Lovren (Liverpool)
Lovren was a rare plus in an otherwise poor performance for Liverpool, making some excellent stops to deny Gray and holding Liverpool’s defence together as Burnley looked to hit them on the break. He looked composed throughout, and he can hold his head high after a strong performance.
4. Michael Keane (Burnley)
Keane was a rock at the centre of Burnley’s defence, making interception after interception as Liverpool looked to break through. His positioning was first-rate, and he ensured that the Reds could not get past him. He had less to do in the second half as Liverpool took more shots, but he didn’t make a mistake and will take great confidence from his performance.
5. Matthew Lowton (Burnley)
Lowton was exposed to most of Liverpool’s attack, and his work shutting down Milner was excellent. He didn’t give Liverpool any free space, and he made some crucial blocks to deny them as they looked to score. He showed great composure under pressure, and his efforts will go a long way as he looks to keep his place in the team safe from Tendayi Darikwa.

Where did it all go wrong for Leicester City?

As the opening day of the season drew closer, things kept looking better and better for Leicester City. Shock champions of the Premier League last season, they were ready to start their campaign against a Hull City side embroiled in political issues and ravaged by a pre-season injury crisis. All the advantages lay with the Foxes going into the big day, with the champions possessing a better side and a working bench. Yet they still lost. It was a shocking defeat, and it left many asking where it came from. Yet the truth is that while Hull were undoubtedly the better side on the day, Leicester were tactically inadequate, and it cost them dearly. Manager Claudio Ranieri could not adapt to the clever approach adopted by Mike Phelan, and ultimately Hull City won as a result. This article will look at the three big problems Leicester faced on the opening day, highlighting the issues that need to be rectified if they are to find success this season.

1. Long ball doesn’t work well as a tactic, and Hull showed why.
Leicester won the Premier League last season with what was essentially a glorified version of kick-and-chase, their tactics centring around defence and the ability of Jamie Vardy to slip in behind when long balls were slung forward from the back half. They looked to do the same against Hull, but Phelan was ready for them. Leicester’s system failed them on two fronts, both allowing Hull to gain a foothold in the game and being woefully inefficient in attack. Leicester had the better, more skilled set of players, and had they pressed Hull harder in the opening stanza it is likely they would have cracked the newly-promoted Tigers. They didn’t. Hull could pass around the back for as long as they wanted to, not having to worry about Vardy and Ahmed Musa, who didn’t really try to press them. This was Ranieri’s biggest mistake. The Tigers fielded a side full of inadequacies, with Jake Livermore, a midfielder, playing as a makeshift centre half. Yet the Italian was content to cede possession to his opponents, which allowed Hull to settle comfortably into the rhythm of the game.

Furthermore, Ranieri’s long ball approach was effectively countered by the Tigers. Graham Taylor, who found incredible success at Watford thirty years ago using a combination of long balls and pressing, diagnosed the flaws in his strategy against better quality teams, and later admitted to being surprised that these issues were not exposed earlier. The issue with his system, he said, was that if a team could keep possession under pressure they could do whatever they liked. This game highlighted these inadequacies perfectly. Vardy was taken out of the game as Phelan dropped his centre halves deeper to reduce the space in behind the defence, and both Livermore and Davies were good enough to shut down the English international. They were also good enough to keep the ball as Leicester pressed desperately in an attempt to find an equaliser, and they were able to push Leicester back into their own half time and time again.

2. Ranieri stuck to his guns and showed no creativity when inspiration was needed.
Leicester came into the match with a clear plan, but when it began to unravel Ranieri did not change his approach. Shinji Okazaki aside, the substitutes he brought on were uninspiring, and the use of Daniel Amartey only weakened a midfield which was already struggling to cope with the loss of N’Golo Kante. Amartey later moved into defence as cover for the substituted Danny Simpson, and Danny Drinkwater, who had already toiled without support from Andy King, was left to contend with David Meyler, Tom Huddlestone and Sam Clucas on his own. Ranieri made no attempt to change his delivery for Vardy, and the mindless long balls kept flying into Leicester’s front third and flying back out again as Hull intercepted them. Leicester needed a new approach which better involved players like Riyad Mahrez, but they only followed their initial plan more rigorously as the game progressed. Mahrez had a devastating impact in the first half, but as Leicester went behind he saw less and less of the ball as the champions became desperate. Ranieri and Leicester panicked, and they could not cope with playing from behind.

3. There were communication problems in defence, and these need to be addressed.
From the start, warning signs were there for Ranieri, but nothing was done and the defence continued to look shaky when the ball was played into the box. Robert Snodgrass provided excellent delivery from set pieces, but he was aided by the lack of communication between centre backs Luis Hernandez and Wes Morgan. Hernandez should move out of the side when Robert Huth returns from injury, but the lack of communication in the German’s absence raises some big questions about the quality of Leicester’s pre-season. There were multiple instances of the two defenders letting aerial balls past them, each leaving it for the other to clean up, and while Kasper Schmeichel was able to plug most of the gaps the Danish keeper was only able to do so much. Leicester’s lack of defensive organisation was always going to cost them with the quality of Snodgrass’ delivery, and the issues that exist down back need to be fixed.

In the end, Leicester still have a good side, and after such an early wake-up call they should respond next week as they look to get back to their winning ways. Hull City were disciplined and smart, and the Tigers have posed plenty of difficult questions which the Foxes will need to answer if they are to have any chance of contending for European spots this season. Their confidence will have taken a large hit, but Leicester are not done yet and they could well use this loss as a stepping stone for bigger and better things. They have the personnel, and if these key questions are answered Leicester will be very tough to beat.

Hull break all the rules as Leicester go down

Nobody could have picked this. Eldin Jakupovic gratefully clutched the ball to his chest, Mike Dean blew his whistle and one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Premier League was confirmed. It was a fairytale, full of suspense and drama with a touch of injustice added in on the side. Hull City had undergone a torrid off-season, with the most successful manager in their history walking out less than a month out from kick-off and an injury crisis ruling out all but thirteen of their senior players. The owners of the club had fallen out bitterly with the fans, and the fans were planning a big protest at this match. That protest was soon forgotten as the Tigers showed spirit and class to defy all odds and win.

Leicester City came into the game as defending champions, with such stars as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Wily Italian Claudio Ranieri led the Foxes to greater heights than they had ever reached before, and they were brimming with confidence against a Hull City team in turmoil. The real question going into this match was not who was going to win, but how much Leicester were going to win by.

The reigning champions looked to play this game according to their model, but this time Hull were ready for them. Vardy, who took the league by storm last year, was beyond ineffective, with ball after ball being picked up by Jake Livermore and Curtis Davies. He looked lost, like he didn’t belong on the pitch. Mahrez dazzled the crowd with some occasional touches of brilliance, but the Algerian struggled to penetrate the determined defensive front. Hull were allowed plenty of breathing space, and they established a firm foothold in the game.

The warning signs were there for the champions. While Hull looked unable to create many chances, alarm bells should have rung as Robert Snodgrass wreaked havoc with his well-placed set pieces. He delivered the ball into dangerous positions, and while he did not have many chances the threat was ever-present. The Foxes started to ramp things up as the first period drew to a close, but Hull kept knocking them back.

Beaten: Jamie Vardy (left) and Jake Livermore challenge for the ball.

The first real chance came when Christian Fuchs was played through after an excellent passing move. It was atypical of the Premier League champions, a far cry from the direct approach which brought them so much success last season. Even still, a marauding Fuchs was able to penetrate Hull’s defence, and Jakupovic did well to keep him out. Then it fell to Vardy, who was confronted with an open goal. Livermore threw himself in front of the shot, and it bounced away. The threat was still not gone. Jakupovic had recovered, but now Mahrez was streaming into the box, driving the Hull defence closer and closer towards their own goal as they backpedalled to keep pace with the right winger. It didn’t matter in the end, as the left footed effort on goal went well wide. More than ever, it looked a matter of when, not if.

Then Ahmed Musa got involved, giving Vardy a brilliant chance to open the scoring. A careless pass back to Davies was the issue, as the Nigerian swooped in to pick it off. He sprinted down the right before centring it for Vardy, but the star of last season could not convert. The ball flew over the bar, and Hull survived again.

Then came the goal. Leicester should have seen it coming, but they didn’t. Snodgrass whipped in the corner, and Wes Morgan, solid as a rock last season, was beaten in the air. Davies managed to get his head to the ball, and Kasper Schmeichel needed to make a brilliant save to keep the score at 0-0. The deadlock only lasted for a few seconds, however, as Abel Hernandez received the rebound. The Uruguayan attempted to control it with his chest, but he got a bad bounce and it looped up over his head. He had the same idea as Adama Diomande, and the two went up for the bicycle kick in unison. It was hard to tell who scored; possibly Hernandez, possibly Diomande, most probably a combination of the two; but it didn’t matter. Hull had the lead, and the fans were back behind their team.

Leicester came out after the half with the goal fresh in their minds, and it was not long before they levelled. Less than half a minute of the second half had elapsed when Demarai Gray was falsely awarded a penalty, with the replays showing that Tom Huddlestone had in fact fouled the pacey youngster outside the area. It didn’t matter to Leicester, and Mahrez stepped up to drill the ball past Jakupovic, who never stood a chance. Leicester had the equaliser, and it looked as if the Tigers were going to be overrun.

It didn’t happen. Ranieri allowed his team to settle back into their old rhythm, giving Hull plenty of breathing space and failing to challenge the newly-promoted Tigers. The fans had plenty of spirit, and a chorus of boos rang out over the KCOM Stadium every time the ball fell to Gray on the left wing. Then Hull went back ahead, and there was no more need for the boos. The injustice had been corrected.

The game had died down, but a rare mistake from Schmeichel opened the door for Hull. Ahmed Elmohamady intercepted the Danish keeper’s long throw towards the left wing, and the right back streamed forward with pace. He put the ball in, and all the Leicester players in the immediate vicinity flung themselves at the ball in an effort to contain it. There was no organisation, and while Danny Simpson managed to get his body to the ball Snodgrass had all the time in the world inside the area. He delivered, sending his shot hurtling into the bottom corner.

From that point onwards the game adopted a familiar rhythm. Ball after ball would go in, seeking out Vardy up front, and ball after ball would fly back the other way, with the Hull defence booting it forward wherever they could. Mike Phelan had only one senior player on his bench, and the former Manchester United assistant was not making any changes. The starting eleven fought with everything they had, knowing all the while that no bench support would come. Shinji Okazaki was a breath of fresh air for the champions, but Ranieri’s other changes were uninspiring at a time when Leicester needed inspiration. Leicester came in riding a wave of excitement and expectation, but on this day they looked sluggish and predictable. Hull came in to the game with a plan, and they came out of it with one of the biggest victories in their history as a club. They have silenced the doubters, and no matter how this season plays out they will remember this day forever. For one moment at least, the backroom dealings and political issues were forgotten, as Hull City celebrated a famous victory.

Hull – KCOM Stadium
Hull City 2 (Diomande 45+1, Snodgrass 57)
Leicester City 1 (Mahrez 47 pen)
Referee: Mike Dean

Hull City (4-3-3): Jakupovic – Elmohamady, Livermore, Davies, Robertson; Meyler, Huddlestone, Clucas; Snodgrass, Hernandez, Diomande.
Leicester City (4-4-2): Schmeichel – Simpson (Ulloa 83), Hernandez, Morgan, Fuchs; Mahrez, King (Amartey 68), Drinkwater, Gray (Okazaki 68); Vardy, Musa.

Top 5
1. Robert Snodgrass (Hull City)
A class above. Snodgrass was in complete command throughout, providing excellent delivery from set pieces and eventually scoring the winner with a perfectly executed half-volley. He used all of his experience in the closing stages to ensure that the Tigers finished the match well, and he showed brilliant skill and composure as he secured a famous victory for his team.
2. Curtis Davies (Hull City)
Davies was in top form in central defence, making a number of critical interceptions as Hull looked to peg their opponents back time and time again. He provided a significant attacking threat with his ability to win the ball in the air, and he will be very pleased with his performance.
3. Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)
Mahrez scored Leicester’s only goal with a penalty early in the second half, and his skill on the ball was impressive as he looked to break through. He came very close on a number of occasions with his ability to find space, and he showed some very positive signs in an otherwise disappointing day for the Foxes.
4. Adama Diomande (Hull City)
Diomande scored the opening goal of the game with a well-executed bicycle kick just before half time, and the Norwegian striker was a significant threat for Hull on the break. He showed good pace and skill, and he caused plenty of problems for Leicester with his ability to transition between attack and defence.
5. Ahmed Musa (Leicester City)
Musa was one of the quickest players on the field, and he put Hull City under a lot of pressure with his skill and pace. He pressed the Tigers hard from start to finish, and created plenty of opportunities with some well-placed passes. He was one of Leicester’s best, and showed plenty of positive signs on debut for the club.

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The Relegation Battlers


Manager: Eddie Howe
Captain: Simon Francis
Ground: Dean Court
Last Season: 16th
Top Scorer: Joshua King (6)
Most Assists: Matt Ritchie (6)
Prediction: 17th


Goalkeepers: 1. Artur Boruc, 21. Ryan Allsop, 23. Adam Federici.
2. Simon Francis, 3. Steve Cook, 11. Charlie Daniels, 14. Tyrone Mings, 15. Adam Smith, 29. Rhoys Wiggins, 38. Baily Cargill, Nathan Ake, Brad Smith.
4. Dan Gosling, 6. Andrew Surman, 7. Marc Pugh, 8. Harry Arter, 16. Shaun MacDonald, 17. Joshua King, 18. Lewis Cook, 19. Junior Stanislas, 32. Eunan O’Kane, 33. Jordon Ibe, Ryan Fraser, Emerson Hyndman.
9. Tokelo Rantie, 10. Max Gradel, 13. Callum Wilson, 20. Benik Afobe, 22. Lys Mousset, 28. Lewis Grabban.

Bournemouth were able to stay up last season despite a poor defensive record, with manager Eddie Howe steering his side well clear of the relegation zone in their first season in the Premier League. They recorded victories over Manchester United and Chelsea, and they rose to eleventh place before a late season slump saw them drop to sixteenth on the table. Howe has taken the side to incredible heights by playing attacking football, and he was touted as a possible candidate to take over from Roy Hodgson as the English manager. Callum Wilson (pictured) has recovered from the injury that kept him out of action for six months last season, and the pacey striker is sure to cause plenty of problems for opposition defences. Max Gradel, Joshua King and Junior Stanislas are excellent players who will provide excellent support for Wilson, and Andrew Surman, Dan Gosling and Harry Arter will be solid in the centre of the park.

Bournemouth have an excellent attack, but the same cannot be said about the defence. Only Aston Villa allowed more goals than them last season, and the back four is full of holes. Artur Boruc is 37, and his failure to perform in goal has left Howe with a dilemma. Neither one of Adam Federici and Ryan Allsop is good enough to take over from the Polish veteran, and if the problem is not fixed then Bournemouth could struggle. Adam Smith, Steve Cook, Simon Francis and Charlie Daniels are all small-time players, and while Nathan Ake and Brad Smith have been brought in to provide cover at left back the defence is still not as strong as it could be. Matt Ritchie has departed for Newcastle United, and the loss of the side’s main playmaker could prove costly come the end of the season. Ultimately, Bournemouth do not have the quality to compete with the best sides, and while they punched above their weight last season this may not happen again.

Star Player: Callum Wilson

Wilson’s rise over the last few seasons has been meteoric, with the pacey striker developing from a fringe player at Coventry City into one of the Premier League’s most dangerous attackers. He nearly outscored all of his teammates last season despite missing six months with a knee injury, and he could be very difficult to deal with when he is on his game.

Key Player: Artur Boruc

Boruc has played at the highest level for over fifteen years, and the veteran Polish stopper will be looking to use all of his experience to help Bournemouth beat the drop this season. He was not at his best last time around as Bournemouth let in nearly two goals a game, and while he is still the number one choice he will need to improve if Bournemouth are to succeed.

One to watch: Jordon Ibe

Ibe made his professional debut at the age of 15, and while he arrives in Bournemouth after five seasons at Liverpool he is still only 20. He became the record signing for the Cherries when he arrived over the off-season, and they will be looking for him to fit in immediately. He has plenty of pace and skill, and he is a very exciting prospect.

Likely team (4-4-2): Boruc – Smith, Cook, Francis, Ake; Ibe, Surman, Gosling, Gradel; King, Wilson.


Manager: Sean Dyche
Captain: Tom Heaton
Ground: Turf Moor
Last Season: Championship, 1st (promoted)
Top Scorer: Andre Gray (23)
Most Assists: Andre Gray (9)
Prediction: 19th


Goalkeepers: 1. Tom Heaton, 17. Paul Robinson, 29. Nick Pope, 36. Conor Mitchell.
2. Matthew Lowton, 3. Daniel Lafferty, 4. Jon Flanagan, 5. Michael Keane, 6. Ben Mee, 23. Stephen Ward, 26. James Tarkowski, 27. Tendayi Darikwa, 28. Kevin Long, 34. Tom Anderson, 38. Cameron Dummigan.
8. Dean Marney, 11. Michael Kightly, 14. David Jones, 20. Fredrik Ulvestad, 21. George Boyd, 25. Johann Berg Gudmundsson, 37. Scott Arfield, 41. Aiden O’Neill.
7. Andre Gray, 9. Sam Vokes, 10. Ashley Barnes, 18. Rouwen Hennings, 19. Lukas Jutkiewicz, 24. Chris Long.

Burnley emerged victorious last season in a three-horse race at the top of the Championship, with Sean Dyche’s men edging out Middlesbrough and Brighton to win automatic promotion back to the top flight. Andre Gray (pictured) was in top form last year as he led the league in goals, and he will be well supported by Welsh frontman Sam Vokes. Johann Berg Gudmundsson has been brought in from Charlton Athletic after leading the Championship for assists last season, and the Icelandic winger is sure to create plenty of chances with his ability to put in pinpoint crosses from the right flank. Michael Keane and Ben Mee will form a solid combination in the centre of defence, and Tom Heaton will be a solid presence in goal for the Clarets. David Jones, Scott Arfield and Dean Marney are solid presences in the centre of midfield, and Burnley could well have what it takes to beat the drop this season.

Burnley were very strong as they won automatic promotion to the Premier League after just one season, but there are still issues. The loss of Joey Barton to Rangers has left Burnley a man short in the centre of the park, and Dyche is yet to sign a replacement. There is not much bench depth in attack should Gray or Vokes fail to fire, and this could leave the team in a difficult position. The biggest problems exist in defence, where the losses of Jason Shackell and Michael Duff over recent seasons have left the side stretched thin. It is unclear who will start at right back, but Matthew Lowton and Tendayi Darikwa are not top quality players and this could cause problems for the team. Stephen Ward has plenty of experience at left back, but he is only really getting a game based on the lack of other options available. There is a significant gap in quality between Burnley and their opponents, and they could face a big challenge if they are to survive this season.

Star Player: Andre Gray

Gray moved to Burnley from Brentford at the start of last season, and his purchase had an immediate effect. Gray finished the season as the leading scorer in the Championship, and the pacey striker is sure to make an impact as Burnley look to beat the drop. He can also operate as a winger, and it will be interesting to see how he performs at the highest level.

Key Player: Tom Heaton

Heaton was in top form last season as Burnley won promotion, playing every game and keeping 20 clean sheets. His form led to a call-up to the English squad for the Euros, and he will be looking to perform in Burnley’s return to the Premier League. Burnley’s defence is not as strong as it could be, and if Heaton does not clean up at the back then there will be problems.

One to watch: Michael Keane

Keane is a former product of the Manchester United youth academy, and the young central defender has firmly established himself in Burnley’s best eleven. He played 44 games as the Clarets won promotion, and if they are to stay in the top flight he will need to provide plenty of solidity in the heart of defence. He is still only 23, and he has a long career ahead of him.

Likely team (4-4-2): Heaton – Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Gudmundsson, Arfield, Jones, Boyd; Gray, Vokes.

Hull City

Manager: Mike Phelan
Captain: Michael Dawson
Ground: KCOM Stadium
Last Season: Championship, 4th (promoted via the play-offs)
Top Scorer: Abel Hernandez (20)
Most Assists: Sam Clucas (8)
Prediction: 20th


Goalkeepers: 1. Allan McGregor, 16. Eldin Jakupovic, 30. Dusan Kuciak.
3. Andrew Robertson, 4. Alex Bruce, 6. Curtis Davies, 12. Harry Maguire, 21. Michael Dawson, 31. Brian Lenihan, 33. Josh Tymon.
2. Moses Odubajo, 7. David Meyler, 8. Tom Huddlestone, 10. Robert Snodgrass, 11. Sam Clucas, 14. Jake Livermore, 15. Shaun Maloney, 27. Ahmed Elmohamady.
9. Abel Hernandez, 25. Adama Diomande, 32. Greg Luer, 34. Calaum Jahraldo-Martin.

It has all been downhill for Hull City after they beat Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley to seal promotion to the Premier League. The club’s Egyptian owners have managed to alienate almost everyone involved with the club, and as such they have just thirteen players and no manager going into their first game. The Tigers still have plenty of quality all over the park, and Allan McGregor will be a solid presence in goal when he returns from injury. Curtis Davies will form a solid partnership with Michael Dawson in the centre of defence, and the pair will bring plenty of experience and leadership. Abel Hernandez (pictured) will lead the attack, and Sam Clucas and Robert Snodgrass will ensure that he receives excellent supply. David Meyler will play alongside Tom Huddlestone in the centre of the park, leaving Hull City with a very well-rounded side.

The Tigers have a fairly strong team, but political issues are already putting their season in jeopardy. They will kick off their campaign against Leicester City in a couple of days, and they are seriously underprepared. An unsuccessful attempt by the owners to rename the club has led to a mutual hatred between the Allam family and the fans, and the club is currently in a period of transition as the owners look to sell. The situation was not helped by an injury crisis which has ruled out many of Hull’s best players, and Steve Bruce’s resignation in response to the club’s inaction on the transfer market has only created more issues. Mohamed Diame, who scored the winning goal against Sheffield Wednesday, has since moved on to Newcastle United, and with Hernandez reportedly looking to move on it is difficult to see how the Tigers will pull themselves out of their current predicament. It is a matter of hours before they host the reigning champions, and it is hard to see them avoiding relegation unless some drastic changes are made.

Star Player: Abel Hernandez

Hernandez was in top form last season as Hull City won promotion to the Premier League, scoring 20 times and causing plenty of problems for defenders. He failed to perform as the Tigers dropped out of the Premier League two years ago, but he has improved a lot since then and could cause plenty of issues if Hull City can hold onto him.

Key Player: Curtis Davies

Davies has plenty of experience at the highest level, and Hull will need him to marshal the defence until Dawson and Alex Bruce return from injury. He is a former captain of the club, and he will need to use all of his experience if the Tigers are to beat the drop this season. He will have a very tough job, and he will need to do it well if Hull are to have any chance of avoiding relegation.

One to watch: Harry Maguire

Maguire emerged as one of the hottest prospects in English football in his time at Sheffield United, and the young centre back will receive more game time this season due to the injuries which are currently sweeping through the defence. He is still only 23, and he is good enough to make the step up to the Premier League. He will get a great chance this year, and he will look to make the most of it.

Likely team (4-4-2): McGregor – Elmohamady, Dawson, Davies, Robertson; Snodgrass, Huddlestone, Meyler, Clucas; Diomande, Hernandez.


Manager: Aitor Karanka
Captain: Grant Leadbitter
Ground: Riverside Stadium
Last Season: Championship, 2nd (promoted)
Top Scorer: David Nugent (8)
Most Assists: David Nugent (7)
Prediction: 14th


Goalkeepers: 1. Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, 12. Brad Guzan, 13. Tomas Mejias, 26. Victor Valdes.
3. George Friend, 4. Daniel Ayala, 5. Bernardo Espinosa, 6. Ben Gibson, 15. Alex Baptiste, 17. Antonio Barragan, 22. Dael Fry, 24. Emilio Nsue, 40. James Husband, Brad Halliday, Adam Jackson, Mark Kitching.
7. Grant Leadbitter, 8. Adam Clayton, 14. Marten de Roon, 16. Carlos de Pena, 19. Stewart Downing, 20. Adam Reach, 21. Gaston Ramirez, 23. Julian de Sart, 27. Albert Adomah, 34. Adam Forshaw, 38. Harry Chapman, Bryn Morris, Mustapha Carayol.
9. Jordan Rhodes, 10. Alvaro Negredo, 11. Viktor Fischer, 18. Cristhian Stuani, 35. David Nugent, Bradley Fewster.

Middlesbrough won promotion on the final day of the season against Brighton, with a 1-1 draw at the Riverside Stadium enough to send Aitor Karanka’s men into the Premier League. Boro have invested heavily in the transfer market over the off-season, with Viktor Fischer and Alvaro Negredo (pictured) added to bolster the attack. Brad Guzan and Victor Valdes have been signed from Aston Villa and Manchester United respectively, and the two keepers will compete with Dimitrios Konstantopoulos for the starting spot. Karanka likes to base his teams around a solid defence, and the Spaniard will look for good performances from Antonio Barragan, Ben Gibson and Daniel Ayala. Emilio Nsue can cause plenty of problems when pushing forward from right back, and he will look to combine effectively with Stewart Downing and Albert Adomah. Negredo will compete with Scottish target man Jordan Rhodes to start in attack, and they will receive excellent support from Gaston Ramirez, who has the ability to get forward and contribute to the scoresheet. Grant Leadbitter, Adam Clayton and Marten de Roon are all solid presences in midfield, rounding off a strong side.

Middlesbrough have some excellent attacking options, but their defence could be found wanting. Ayala, who was in top form last season, is facing a battle to be fit for the season opener, and Barragan, his replacement in central defence, is more of a converted right back. Karanka has many options at his disposal in attack, but he is unlikely to change his formation to accommodate for the new additions. This means that players such as Rhodes and Adomah, who are very talented, will be left on the bench despite worse players featuring elsewhere. The new signings have created a clear split between Boro’s best and worst players, and this could prove costly in the event of an injury to a star player. Negredo is a quality option up front, but the Spanish international has not been in top form for some time and he could struggle to fire in the Premier League. Middlesbrough have some major weaknesses, but they have made some shrewd signings in the transfer market and they should be good enough to beat the drop.

Star Player: Alvaro Negredo

Negredo has scored goals wherever he has gone over the course of his career, from his time as a youth player at Rayo Vallecano to his time at Sevilla. His scoring has dropped off since 2013, when he earned a big-money move to Manchester City, but he will be a regular starter at Middlesbrough and has the potential to score plenty of goals in his return to England.

Key Player: Ben Gibson

Gibson has been firmly established in Boro’s first eleven since 2013, when the former English youth international broke into the side after a successful loan spell with Tranmere Rovers. He has become the anchor at the heart of Karanka’s defence, and he will need to lead the charge at the start of the season while Ayala is on the sidelines. There are other options, but he still needs to perform.

One to watch: Viktor Fischer

Fischer has spent most of his short career with Ajax, and he has accumulated plenty of experience at the highest level. He is still only 22 and has plenty of time to develop, but he will play a key role in shaping Middlesbrough’s success this season. He is a winger who can cut inside and make an impact on the scoresheet, and he is sure to provide plenty of excitement.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Valdes – Nsue, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Leadbitter; Downing, Ramirez, Fischer; Negredo.


Manager: David Moyes
Captain: John O’Shea
Ground: Stadium of Light
Last Season: 17th
Top Scorer: Jermain Defoe (15)
Most Assists: Adam Johnson (5)
Prediction: 18th


Goalkeepers: 13. Jordan Pickford, 25. Vito Mannone.
2. Billy Jones, 3. Patrick van Aanholt, 5. Papy Djilobodji, 15. Younes Kaboul, 16. John O’Shea, 23. Lamine Kone, 27. Jan Kirchoff, Paddy McNair, Donald Love.
4. Liam Bridcutt, 6. Lee Cattermole, 7. Sebastian Larsson, 8. Jack Rodwell, 14. Jordi Gomez, 17. Jeremain Lens, 22. Wahbi Khazri, 28. Charalampos Mavrias, 41. Duncan Watmore.
9. Fabio Borini, 18. Jermain Defoe.

Sunderland avoided relegation by the finest of margins last season, edging out rivals Newcastle United by two points to beat the drop once again. Sam Allardyce has since left to take charge of England, and new manager David Moyes will be looking to steer the Black Cats clear of relegation for another year. Jermain Defoe (pictured) is a very strong player up front, and the experienced striker will be looking to back up the form he showed last season with another strong performance. He will get good support from Duncan Watmore and Jeremain Lens, who will provide plenty of pace on the wings, and Sebastian Larsson, Lee Cattermole and Jack Rodwell will be solid presences in the centre of the park. Vito Mannone is a strong goalkeeper, and he will receive good protection from the experienced central defensive pairing of John O’Shea and Younes Kaboul.

Sunderland have been facing a perennial relegation battle since their return to the Premier League, and while they have been able to stay in the division since 2007 they have been forced to change managers many times over that period. Allardyce is the latest in a long line of Sunderland managers to leave the club, and the instability has had an impact on the club’s ability to perform. O’Shea is getting older, and he is nowhere near as good as he was in his time at Manchester United. He was dropped as Irish captain midway through the Euros, and if he is unable to perform then it will leave a hole in the defence. Sunderland have not made many attempts to address the issues raised by their ageing side, and with many of their best players on the decline this could be the season they fall into the relegation zone. They are almost certain to be in the relegation picture at the end of the season, and if they cannot find another gear they could easily go down after years of fighting to stay up.

Star Player: Jermain Defoe

Defoe is one of the most prolific strikers the Premier League has ever seen, and his haul of 15 goals in 32 games last season was one of the bright spots in Sunderland’s campaign. He has accumulated over 50 caps for England over a long career at the highest level, and Sunderland will be looking for a series of strong performances from the diminutive forward.

Key Player: Vito Mannone

Mannone took over as Sunderland’s first-choice keeper halfway through last season, and the former Arsenal stopper was a rock in goal as the Black Cats beat the drop. With Costel Pantilimon’s departure to Watford he will be the number one for the duration of the season, and if Sunderland are to stay up he will need to perform.

One to watch: Duncan Watmore

Watmore burst onto the scene last season, with the former Manchester United reject impressing with his skill and ability to get in behind. He is starting to establish himself as a regular first-team player for the Black Cats, and it will be interesting to see how he performs with more exposure this season. He has a bright future, and could be a star in years to come.

Likely team (4-3-3): Mannone – Jones, Kaboul, O’Shea, van Aanholt; Larsson, Cattermole, Rodwell; Watmore, Defoe, Lens.

This brings to an end my preview of the Premier League for season 2016-17. It is sure to be a tight race at the top of the table, and it will be an intriguing start to the season as the teams look to establish themselves in the competition. Stay tuned over the course of the season for my reports on Premier League matches, starting with the season opener between Hull City and Leicester City.

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The middle of the pack

Crystal Palace

Manager: Alan Pardew
Captain: Scott Dann
Ground: Selhurst Park
Last Season: 15th
Top Scorer: Yannick Bolasie, Yohan Cabaye, Scott Dann, Connor Wickham (5)
Most Assists: Yannick Bolasie, Damien Delaney, Jason Puncheon, Connor Wickham (3)
Prediction: 16th


Goalkeepers: 1. Julian Speroni, 13. Wayne Hennessey, Steve Mandanda.
2. Joel Ward, 6. Scott Dann, 19. Zeki Fryers, 23. Pape Souare, 27. Damien Delaney, 34. Martin Kelly, James Tomkins.
7. Yohan Cabaye, 10. Yannick Bolasie, 11. Wilfried Zaha, 14. Lee Chung-yong, 15. Mile Jedinak, 18. James McArthur, 20. Jonny Williams, 22. Jordon Mutch, 26. Bakary Sako, 28. Joe Ledley, 38. Hiram Boateng, 42. Jason Puncheon, Andros Townsend.
9. Fraizer Campbell, 21. Connor Wickham, 32. Kwesi Appiah.

Crystal Palace were solid last season, making it to the final of the FA Cup and comfortably staying out of the relegation zone. Yohan Cabaye (pictured), Mile Jedinak, Joe Ledley and James McArthur provide a solid base in the centre of the park, and new signing Andros Townsend will provide plenty of width. The English international will compete with Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon for a spot on the wings, and they will be looking to provide excellent delivery for Connor Wickham up front. The defence is solid, and new recruit James Tomkins will face stiff competition as he aims to start ahead of Damien Delaney at centre back. Scott Dann was in top form last season, and the new captain will look to keep this up as he anchors the defence. Steve Mandanda has been brought in from Marseille, and the French number two will replace Wayne Hennessey in goal.

Crystal Palace are a solid side defensively, but there are some problems in attack. They were only able to score 39 goals last season, with centre back Dann finishing the season as one of the team’s top scorers. He was able to score as many goals as Wickham, who was Pardew’s main option in attack throughout the campaign. The losses of Marouane Chamakh, Emmanuel Adebayor and Dwight Gayle have left Palace devoid of the few attacking options they had at the end of last season, and unless they can find a new striker before the transfer window closes they will find it incredibly difficult to penetrate opposition defences. Cabaye, a defensive midfielder, has been functioning as the team’s main playmaker since his arrival from Paris Saint-Germain. The French international failed in this role during his first season at the club, and Palace will need him to deliver if they are to get anywhere this season.

Star Player: Yohan Cabaye

Cabaye has racked up nearly 50 international caps for the French national team, and he has gathered plenty of experience in both France and England. He was reunited with Pardew when he moved to Palace from French giants PSG at the start of last season, and he is still good enough to take on the best players in the world. He will be a constant presence in midfield throughout the campaign, and Palace will be hoping he can deliver.

Key Player: Scott Dann

Dann moved to Crystal Palace from Blackburn Rovers midway through the 2013-14 season, and he has slotted effortlessly into the centre of defence at the club. He is a good leader, and he has replaced Jedinak as captain after showing great form last season. He is the best player Palace have in defence, and if he fails to step up they will struggle to keep their opponents out.

One to watch: Wilfried Zaha

Zaha made his debut for England in 2012, and he has been on the scene for such a long time that it is hard to believe that he is still only 23. He was unsuccessful during a brief spell at Manchester United, but he still has plenty of potential and could take Crystal Palace to greater heights as he continues to develop. He has been a regular over the last couple of seasons, and he will play a big role again.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Mandanda – Ward, Dann, Tomkins, Souare; McArthur, Jedinak; Zaha, Cabaye, Bolasie; Wickham.

Stoke City

Manager: Mark Hughes
Captain: Ryan Shawcross
Ground: Bet365 Stadium
Last Season: 9th
Top Scorer: Marko Arnautovic (11)
Most Assists: Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri (6)
Prediction: 9th


Goalkeepers: 1. Jack Butland, 24. Shay Given, 29. Jakob Haugaard, 35. Daniel Bachmann.
2. Phil Bardsley, 3. Erik Pieters, 5. Marc Muniesa, 8. Glen Johnson, 12. Marc Wilson, 17. Ryan Shawcross, 20. Geoff Cameron, 23. Dionatan Teixeira, 26. Philipp Wollscheid.
4. Joe Allen, 6. Glenn Whelan, 7. Stephen Ireland, 14. Ibrahim Afellay, 16. Charlie Adam, 21. Giannelli Imbula, 22. Xherdan Shaqiri, 34. Ollie Shenton, Ramadhan Sobhi.
10. Marko Arnautovic, 11. Joselu, 18. Mame Biram Diouf, 19. Jonathan Walters, 25. Peter Crouch, 27. Bojan.

Stoke City have been consistent performers in the Premier League for a long time, and they have not looked like being relegated since their return to the top flight in 2008. Mark Hughes has guided the club to three consecutive ninth-place finishes since taking over in 2013, and this consistency looks set to continue. Joe Allen has joined the club from Liverpool after showing impressive form at Euro 2016, and he will form an effective combination with Giannelli Imbula and Glenn Whelan in the centre of midfield. Ryan Shawcross is one of the most consistent defenders in the Premier League, and he will combine with Philipp Wollscheid to ensure that not much gets through. Jack Butland is still very young and will continue to develop over the course of the season, and the English international will provide an excellent safety net for the back four. Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri (pictured) are both incredibly talented players, and they should cause plenty of problems for opposition defences.

Stoke have been in need of a quality target up front for years, but no amount of money has done the trick since their return to the Premier League. Arnautovic was the main scoring option last season, and while he netted 11 times from the left wing Hughes was only able to get a total of 21 goals out of Bojan, Mame Biram Diouf, Jonathan Walters and Joselu. Stoke were barely able to manage more than a goal a game last season, and if they are looking to improve they will need to find a player who can get them the goals they need. There is not a lot of time left before the season kicks off, and if they cannot find a new target up front they will struggle. The defence was fairly leaky last season, and while some of this was due to an injury to Shawcross they will need to ensure that their defensive woes do not become a recurring problem. There are some things which could go wrong for Stoke as they look to finish in the top half of the table for a fourth consecutive season, but they are a fairly well-rounded side and are unlikely to drop off significantly.

Star Player: Xherdan Shaqiri

Shaqiri has played for Basel, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, and the Swiss winger became a record signing for the Potters when he was signed from the Italian giants in 2015. He is not tall, but he makes up for it with pace, skill and an ability to put the ball into dangerous positions. He has the ability to take down another team on his own, and he could be a massive influence this season.

Key Player: Marko Arnautovic

Arnautovic led Stoke for both goals and assists last season, and the Austrian international has the ability to cause plenty of problems for opposition defences over the course of this campaign. He has plenty of skill and will look to present himself as a target for Shaqiri, who will function as the team’s main playmaker. He is Stoke’s best scoring option, and he will need to maintain his output.

One to watch: Ramadhan Sobhi

Sobhi is exceptionally talented, and the young Egyptian playmaker will be looking to make an impact for his new club after moving to the Premier League from Al Ahly. He made his Egyptian debut at just 17, and his signing could prove to be a massive coup for Stoke City in years to come. He is unlikely to feature too heavily this season, but it will be interesting to see if he can make the most of his chances.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Butland – Johnson, Shawcross, Wollscheid, Pieters; Allen, Imbula; Shaqiri, Afellay, Arnautovic; Bojan.

Swansea City

Manager: Francesco Guidolin
Captain: Ashley Williams
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Last Season: 12th
Top Scorer: Andre Ayew (12)
Most Assists: Kyle Naughton, Gylfi Sigurdsson (3)
Prediction: 12th


Goalkeepers: 1. Lukasz Fabianski, 13. Kristoffer Nordfeldt, 19. Mark Birighitti, 25. Gerhard Tremmel.
2. Jordi Amat, 3. Neil Taylor, 5. Mike van der Hoorn, 6. Ashley Williams, 14. Franck Tabanou, 22. Angel Rangel, 26. Kyle Naughton, 33. Federico Fernandez, 35. Steven Kingsley.
4. Ki Sung-yueng, 7. Leon Britton, 8. Leroy Fer, 10. Andre Ayew, 12. Nathan Dyer, 15. Wayne Routledge, 20. Jefferson Montero, 23. Gylfi Sigurdsson, 24. Jack Cork, 30. Josh Sheehan, 53. Adam King, 56. Jay Fulton.
9. Fernando Llorente, 11. Marvin Emnes, 17. Modou Barrow, 62. Oliver McBurnie.

Swansea started last season poorly, and they were facing a relegation battle before Francesco Guidolin, a relative unknown outside of Italy, stepped in. The experienced Italian guided the Swans to safety over the second half of the season, recording wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool on the way to a twelfth-placed finish. Andre Ayew and Gylfi Sigurdsson (pictured) scored 23 goals between them last season, and they will be complemented by new signing Fernando Llorente. Jack Cork is a solid presence in midfield, and he will be ably supported by Leroy Fer, Ki Sung-yueng and Leon Britton. New signing Mike van der Hoorn will bolster the defence, where he will play alongside captain Ashley Williams, and Lukasz Fabianski will be very hard to beat in goal.

Swansea are very solid down back, but there are some issues in attack which need to be fixed. Bafetimbi Gomis has been loaned out to Marseille, and with Eder making a permanent move to Lille the Swans have been left with just four genuine strikers on their books. Llorente has been brought in to fix the problem, but he did not play regularly in stints at Juventus and Sevilla and is short on match practice. He reached his peak years ago during his time at Athletic Bilbao, and he is likely to be taking on a very heavy burden with little support. Neither Modou Barrow nor Marvin Emnes were regular options last season, and the lack of bench depth will make Llorente’s job very tough. Swansea struggled last season before Guidolin came to the club, and there is no way of knowing that this will not happen again. They have a solid base, but they could be very inconsistent.

Star Player: Gylfi Sigurdsson

Sigurdsson was a key member of the Icelandic side that made the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, and he has developed into one of the Premier League’s best attacking midfielders. HHehnbHe is a skilled playmaker, and he managed to score 11 times over the course of last season in a more attacking role. He is an excellent player, and he can have a big impact this season with his skill and his eye for goal.

Key Player: Ashley Williams

Williams has plenty of experience at both club and international level, and he has been in charge of Swansea’s defence for a long time. He led Wales to the semi-finals of the Euros, and he will be a key member of Swansea’s team as they look to improve on last season. If he is unable to perform it will be very difficult for the Swans, who need their defence to hold firm if they are to succeed.

One to watch: Mike van der Hoorn

Swansea may have uncovered a hidden gem in van der Hoorn, an imposing central defender who is still developing and has the potential to become one of the world’s best. He is not particularly well-known outside of the Netherlands, but he is strong in the air and should be able to immediately compete for a place in the first-team.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Fabianski – Rangel, van der Hoorn, Williams, Taylor; Cork, Ki; Routledge, Sigurdsson, Ayew; Llorente.


Manager: Walter Mazzarri
Captain: Troy Deeney
Ground: Vicarage Road
Last Season: 13th
Top Scorer: Odion Ighalo (15)
Most Assists: Troy Deeney (7)
Prediction: 15th


Goalkeepers: 1. Heurelho Gomes, 13. Rene Gilmartin, 34. Giedrius Arlauskis, Costel Pantilimon.
2. Allan Nyom, 3. Miguel Britos, 5. Sebastian Prodl, 14. Juan Carlos Paredes, 15. Craig Cathcart, 18. Juan Camilo Zuniga, 25. Jose Holebas, 26. Brice Dja Djedje, 27. Christian Kabasele, 31. Tommie Hoban, Essaid Belkalem.
4. Mario Suarez, 7. Nordin Amrabat, 8. Valon Behrami, 16. Abdoulaye Doucoure, 17. Adlene Guedioura, 21. Ikechi Anya, 23. Ben Watson, 28. Sean Murray, 29. Etienne Capoue.
9. Troy Deeney, 10. Isaac Success, 19. Jerome Sinclair, 24. Odion Ighalo, Matej Vydra.

Watford comfortably avoided relegation in their return to the top-flight, with Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney (pictured) causing plenty of problems for opposition defences. Quique Flores has since made way, and new manager Walter Mazzarri has wasted no time in leaving his mark on the team. Brice Dja Djedje has come in from Marseille, and Christian Kabasele has been added to the defence after showing brilliant form at Genk. Kabasele will play alongside Craig Cathcart and Miguel Britos in the centre of defence, while wing backs Dja Djedje and Juan Camilo Zuniga will look to provide width and create a connection between defence and attack. Heurelho Gomes is an experienced presence in goal, and the Brazilian international will look to perform as well as he did last season. The midfield of Ben Watson, Etienne Capoue, Mario Suarez and Valon Behrami is very solid, and Deeney and Ighalo will provide plenty of bite in attack. Watford have a very well-rounded side, and they should be consistent throughout.

Watford are fairly solid in all areas, but they are too reliant on Deeney and Ighalo for goals and this could prove costly. The two provided 28 goals between them over the course of last season, and while they were prolific their teammates were only able to contribute 12 between them. No other player scored more than two goals, and this over-reliance on the strikers could prove costly as the season progresses. Capoue, Suarez and Behrami, while experienced, are all defensive midfielders, and Mazzarri lacks a real connection between defence and attack. This could be particularly costly as Ighalo and Deeney are the key to Watford’s chances this season, and if they are not involved in the game then the team will have huge problems. The defence is not as strong as it could be, and the inexperience of Kabasele and Dja Djedje could prove costly. There is a quality gap between Watford and the big clubs that will be difficult to breach, and if the strikers don’t fire they could find themselves in a relegation battle.

Star Player: Troy Deeney

Deeney has been one of Watford’s most consistent performers since he joined the club in 2010, and he netted 13 goals on their return to the Premier League. He showed last season that he is capable of mixing with the best in the world, and there is no reason why he cannot continue to form a dominant strike partnership with Ighalo this time around.

Key Player: Valon Behrami

With the departure of Almen Abdi to Sheffield Wednesday the Swiss international will be more influential than ever, with Behrami set to act as the side’s main playmaker in addition to his defensive duties. Watford are in need of a link between defence and attack, and if Behrami cannot deliver in this role then Mazzari will have some big problems to deal with.

One to watch: Christian Kabasele

Kabasele came from nowhere to take a place in Belgium’s squad at Euro 2016, and the centre back should slot easily into Watford’s defence. He is not a well-known quantity, but he showed great form at Genk and has the physical qualities to succeed in the Premier League. He can be a dangerous presence at set pieces, and it will be interesting to see how he performs.

Likely team (3-5-2): Gomes – Kabasele, Cathcart, Britos; Dja Djedje, Suarez, Behrami, Capoue, Zuniga; Deeney, Ighalo.

West Bromwich Albion

Manager: Tony Pulis
Captain: Darren Fletcher
Ground: The Hawthorns
Last Season: 14th
Top Scorer: Salomon Rondon (9)
Most Assists: Chris Brunt, Darren Fletcher, Craig Gardner, James Morrison (3)
Prediction: 13th


Goalkeepers: 1. Ben Foster, 13. Boaz Myhill, 38. Jack Rose.
3. Jonas Olsson, 4. James Chester, 6. Jonny Evans, 15. Sebastian Pocognoli, 16. Cristian Gamboa, 23. Gareth McAuley, 25. Craig Dawson.
5. Claudio Yacob, 7. James Morrison, 8. Craig Gardner, 10. Matt Phillips, 11. Chris Brunt, 14. James McClean, 19. Callum McManaman, 24. Darren Fletcher, 47. Sam Field.
9. Salomon Rondon, 17. Rickie Lambert, 18. Saido Berahino, 45. Jonathan Leko.

West Bromich Albion have been a constant presence in the Premier League for a long time, and they were solid last season under the guidance of experienced Welsh manager Tony Pulis. The Baggies have an excellent defence, with James Chester, Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley battling it out to start in the heart of the back four. Manchester United youth product Jonny Evans is a top-quality player at left back, and Craig Dawson will be a constant presence on the right. English international Ben Foster has plenty of experience in goal, and he will ensure that not much gets through. Darren Fletcher and Claudio Yacob are solid in the centre of midfield, and new signing Matt Phillips has the potential to do plenty of damage on a wing. Saido Berahino is one of the most promising players in English football, and he will form a dangerous partnership with Salomon Rondon (pictured).

Pulis has plenty of experience at the highest level, but ever since he guided Stoke City to promotion in 2008 his sides have been unable to put the ball in the back of the net. Only Aston Villa, who went through four different managers and finished with just three wins, scored fewer goals than the Baggies last season. Rondon was excellent, scoring nine times, but Berahino could not back up the great form he showed early on in his career. Rickie Lambert was nowhere near his best, and it is likely that the 34-year-old will be unable to return to the form he showed a few seasons ago. There is no-one creating chances in the middle of the park, and while the Baggies will be defensively solid they lack a link between midfield and attack. Pulis will take them to safety, but they are unlikely to get close to the top half of the table.

Star Player: Salomon Rondon

Rondon is a top-quality player in attack, and he has the potential to cause plenty of problems for opposition defences. He has plenty of experience of European competitions, and the Venezuelan international immediately made his mark in his first season in England. He netted nine goals despite a poor supply chain, and if he can combine well with Berahino the Baggies will be hard to beat.

Key Player: Darren Fletcher

Fletcher spent 13 seasons at Manchester United, making over 200 league appearances and featuring over 60 times in Europe. He has also made 73 appearances for Scotland, and his vast experience at both club and international level will serve West Brom well over the course of the season. He will be a constant presence in the centre of the park, and he will look to serve as a calming influence.

One to watch: Jonathan Leko

Leko made his Premier League debut last season at the age of 16, racking up five league appearances and starting in three games. He is quick, skilful, and terrorised opposition defences late in the season when given the opportunity. He is a dangerous presence up front, and he is good enough to push for a place in the starting line-up this season. He is still only 17, and is a very exciting prospect.

Likely team (4-3-3): Foster – Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Evans; Gardner, Yacob, Fletcher; Phillips, Rondon, Berahino.

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The Europa League Challengers

As the Premier League gets closer, I am continuing my look at the teams in the English top flight by assessing the teams who will be looking for spots in European competitions come the end of the season. Enjoy.


Manager: Ronald Koeman
Captain: Phil Jagielka
Ground: Goodison Park
Last Season: 11th
Top Scorer: Romelu Lukaku (18)
Most Assists: Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu (8)
Prediction: 11th


Goalkeepers: 1. Joel Robles, 22. Maarten Stekelenburg.
Defenders: 3. Leighton Baines, 5. John Stones, 6. Phil Jagielka, 8. Bryan Oviedo, 23. Seamus Coleman, 25. Ramiro Funes Mori, 26. Matthew Pennington, 27. Tyias Browning, 29. Luke Garbutt, 30. Mason Holgate, 32. Brendan Galloway.
Midfielders: 4. Darron Gibson, 7. Aiden McGeady, 11. Kevin Mirallas, 12. Aaron Lennon, 15. Tom Cleverley, 16. James McCarthy, 18. Gareth Barry, 19. Gerard Deulofeu, 20. Ross Barkley, 21. Muhamed Besic, 31. Kieran Dowell, 34. Tom Davies.
Forwards: 9. Arouna Kone, 10. Romelu Lukaku, 14. Oumar Niasse, 24. Shani Tarashaj, 35. Conor McAleny.

Everton were disappointing last season, with Roberto Martinez making way after a run of bad results left them in the bottom half of the table. Ronald Koeman has moved from Southampton to manage the team, and the former Dutch international has already added Maarten Stekelenburg to replace the departed Tim Howard in goal. The new boss is yet to sign an outfield player, but Everton still have quality all over the park. Romelu Lukaku (pictured) is one of the best strikers in the Premier League, and Ross Barkley will ensure that he gets excellent supply. John Stones and Phil Jaigielka form an excellent combination in the centre of defence, and they are well backed-up by Ramiro Funes Mori. Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines are both fullbacks who provide plenty of attacking support, and they will cause big problems for opposition defences.

Everton have some excellent players, but they are very dependent on Lukaku for goals. The Belgian striker scored nearly a third of the team’s goals last campaign, with no other player scoring more than eight. Chelsea are very interested in bringing him back to Stamford Bridge, and this could leave Everton with a massive hole and not much time to fill it. Even if he stays the 23 year-old will be under immense pressure to perform, as will 22 year-old playmaker Barkley. Both players are still very young, and the burden of holding up Everton’s attack could prove too much for them. Everton were very disappointing last season, but Koeman has not made any moves to improve the squad. He will need to make some changes fast, or Everton could slip back to the same lows as last season. Overall, the Toffees are a fairly strong side and could challenge for the Europa League under the right guidance, but there are some issues which need to be resolved before this can happen.

Star Player: Romelu Lukaku

Lukaku led the Belgian Pro League for scoring at just 17, and he has only improved since then. He was signed by Everton in 2014 after a successful loan spell yielded 15 goals, and he has become the focal point of their attack. He managed 18 goals last season despite the side’s poor performance, and he could take them very far if he is on his game.

Key Player: Ross Barkley

Barkley has developed into one of the best playmakers in the Premier League, and he has drawn comparisons with Michel Ballack and Paul Gascoigne due to his pace and technical ability. He is Everton’s main creator, and he will be relied upon to provide plenty of chances for Lukaku. If he fails to fire then it will be very difficult for Everton to score, and they will struggle as a result.

One to watch: Gerard Deulofeu

Deulofeu is a product of the Barcelona academy, and he was sold by the Catalan giants after an unsuccessful loan spell at Sevilla. He is not a prolific scorer, but he is a dangerous presence on the wing and can ease some of the pressure on Barkley with his ability to create chances. He has enormous potential, and he should benefit from increased first-team action this season.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg – Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Baines; McCarthy, Barry; Lennon, Barkley, Deulofeu; Lukaku.


Manager: Jurgen Klopp
Captain: Jordan Henderson
Ground: Anfield
Last Season: 8th
Top Scorer: Roberto Firmino (10)
Most Assists: James Milner (11)
Prediction: 7th


Goalkeepers: 1. Loris Karius, 13. Alex Manninger, 22. Simon Mignolet.
Defenders: 2. Nathaniel Clyne, 3. Mamadou Sakho, 6. Dejan Lovren, 12. Joe Gomez, 17. Ragnar Klavan, 18. Alberto Moreno, 26. Tiago Ilori, 32. Joel Matip, 38. Jon Flanagan, 47. Andre Wisdom, 56. Connor Randall.
Midfielders: 5. Georginio Wijnaldum, 7. James Milner, 10. Philippe Coutinho, 14. Jordan Henderson, 16. Marko Grujic, 20. Adam Lallana, 21. Lucas Leiva, 23. Emre Can, 25. Cameron Brannagan, 35. Kevin Stewart, 50. Lazar Markovic, 54. Sheyi Ojo, 68. Pedro Chirivella, Luis Alberto, Allan.
Forwards: 9. Christian Benteke, 11. Roberto Firmino, 15. Daniel Sturridge, 19. Sadio Mane, 27. Divock Origi, 28. Danny Ings, 45. Mario Balotelli, Taiwo Awoniyi.

Liverpool have been very active over the off-season, bringing in Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum to bolster the attack and adding Ragnar Klavan, Joel Matip and Loris Karius in an effort to improve the defence. Jurgen Klopp has no shortage of options all over the park, and he will be aided by the versatility of Mane, Philippe Coutinho (pictured) and Roberto Firmino. Wijnaldum is likely to drop deeper than he did at Newcastle, and the Dutchman will form an excellent combination with Emre Can and Jordan Henderson in the centre of the park. Karius should replace Simon Mignolet in goal after showing excellent form at Mainz, and Matip and Klavan look set to form a solid combination in the heart of the defence. Daniel Sturridge, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Danny Ings are all quality players who will be pushing for a start in attack, and there is sure to be plenty of competition for spots throughout the season.

Klopp has been very smart in the transfer market, but the same cannot be said of his predecessors and he has inherited a squad with too many expensive flops. There has been a lack of continuity over past seasons, with the large number of strikers signed from other clubs in the last couple of years often taking time on the pitch away from each other. As it stands, none of them are playing well enough to command a place in the first team, and Klopp may decide to use Coutinho up front instead. There is a general lack of depth on either side of the defence, and while Nathaniel Clyne is a top level right back the same cannot be said of left back Alberto Moreno. Moreno is currently in the first team by virtue of being the only option, and if no other left back is added then Liverpool could experience some serious issues. Liverpool are likely to contend for a spot in European competitions, but they are not good enough to contend for the title.

Star Player: Philippe Coutinho

Coutinho’s career has taken off since joining Liverpool from Internazionale in 2013, and the Brazilian has firmly established himself as one of the Premier League’s most dangerous playmakers. He is skilled and pacey, and he is sure to provide plenty of problems for defenders over the course of the season.

Key Player: Jordan Henderson

Henderson has progressed quickly, and at 26 he is already coming into his second season as Liverpool captain. He will be a constant presence for the Reds this season, and they will need him to be in top form throughout. He will function as the side’s main link between defence and attack, and he will need to move well through the middle of the park.

One to watch: Loris Karius

Karius was one of the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga last season, keeping nine clean sheets and saving two penalties. He has been brought in from Mainz to replace Mignolet, and the former Manchester City reject now has a chance to perform on the big stage. He is an excellent player, and has the potential to serve Liverpool well for a long time.

Likely team (4-3-3): Karius – Clyne, Matip, Klavan, Moreno; Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane, Coutinho, Firmino.


Manager: Claude Puel
Captain: Jose Fonte
Ground: St Mary’s Stadium
Last Season: 6th
Top Scorer: Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle (11)
Most Assists: Dusan Tadic (12)
Prediction: 8th


Goalkeepers: 44. Fraser Forster.
Defenders: 2. Cedric Soares, 3. Maya Yoshida, 5. Florin Gardos, 6. Jose Fonte, 15. Cuco Martina, 17. Virgil van Dijk, 21. Ryan Bertrand, 33. Matt Targett.
Midfielders: 4. Jordy Clasie, 8. Steven Davis, 11. Dusan Tadic, 14. Oriol Romeu, 16. James Ward-Prowse, 18. Harrison Reed, 27. Lloyd Isgrove, Nathan Redmond, Pierre-Emile Hojberg.
Forwards: 7. Shane Long, 9. Jay Rodriguez, 28. Charlie Austin.

Southampton have turned plenty of heads since they won promotion to the Premier League in 2012, and in 2015-16 they recorded their best finish since their return to the top flight. Ronald Koeman has departed for Everton after two successful seasons as manager, and the Saints have recruited Claude Puel from Nice as his replacement. Puel has inherited an excellent side, and new signings Nathan Redmond and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will provide a massive boost to a midfield containing Steven Davis, James Ward-Prowse, Jordy Clasie and Dusan Tadic (pictured). Fraser Forster is a solid presence in goal, and he will receive excellent support from the defence of Jose Fonte, Cedric Soares, Ryan Bertrand and Virgil van Dijk. Shane Long is an excellent option up front, and Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez are likely to see more first team action this season after the departures of Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane.

Southampton have long relied on the transfer strategy of selling off their best players for a massive profit, and while it has not adversely affected the side in the past the losses of Pelle and Mane will make things very difficult. Redmond can fill Mane’s spot on the right wing, but he will not necessarily be able to provide the same level of performance as the Senegalese star. Long will lead the attack in Pelle’s absence, but it is unclear who will partner him up front. Rodriguez has only played eight times in the last two seasons, and Austin was unable to take his performances with him when he moved to the Saints from QPR. Southampton have lost a key midfield player in Victor Wanyama, and the Kenyan will be difficult to replace. These issues will make life difficult for Southampton, but Puel has had plenty of success before and can take them a long way.

Star Player: Dusan Tadic

Tadic is very fast and incredibly skilful, and the Serbian winger will be relied upon to provide consistent delivery for the strikers. He was not able to find that consistency under Koeman, but his talent is undeniable and he is sure to bounce back under a new manager. He has become one of Southampton’s most important players, and he will need to use all of his skill if they are to succeed.

Key Player: Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg

Wanyama’s departure has left a big void in the Southampton midfield, and new signing Hojbjerg will be expected to fill it. He has plenty of potential, and after successful loan spells with Augsburg and Schalke he has moved to the Premier League from Bayern Munich. He may take some time to adjust to his new surroundings, but he is an excellent player and Southampton will need him to step up.

One to watch: James Ward-Prowse

Ward-Prowse is a product of Southampton’s brilliant academy system, and he is sure to feature heavily for the Saints this season. He already has plenty of first team experience with the Saints, and he is likely to provide plenty of opportunities for the forwards with his pace and skill. He is still developing, and has the potential to become one of the best players in the Premier League.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Forster – Cedric, van Dijk, Fonte, Bertrand; Hojbjerg, Clasie; Redmond, Ward-Prowse, Tadic; Long.

West Ham United

Manager: Slaven Bilic
Captain: Mark Noble
Ground: Boleyn Ground
Last Season: 7th
Top Scorer: Andy Carroll, Dimitri Payet (9)
Most Assists: Dimitri Payet (12)
Prediction: 10th


Goalkeepers: 1. Darren Randolph, 13. Adrian, 34. Raphael Spiegel.
Defenders: 2. Winston Reid, 3. Aaron Cresswell, 19. James Collins, 21. Angelo Ogbonna, 22. Sam Byram, 25. Doneil Henry, 32. Reece Burke, 37. Lewis Page.
Midfielders: 4. Havard Nordtveit, 7. Sofiane Feghouli, 8. Cheikhou Kouyate, 14. Pedro Obiang, 16. Mark Noble, 17. Gokhan Tore, 23. Diego Poyet, 27. Dimitri Payet, 28. Manuel Lanzini, 30. Michail Antonio, 35. Reece Oxford, 39. Josh Cullen, 42. Martin Samuelson.
Forwards: 9. Andy Carroll, 11. Enner Valencia, 15. Diafra Sakho, 24. Ashley Fletcher.

Slaven Bilic’s first season at West Ham United was a massive success, with the Croatian manager taking them within striking distance of the Champions League. They have not been particularly active in the transfer market, but they have not lost many players either and they are in strong form heading into the season. Dimitri Payet (pictured) starred at Euro 2016, and the versatile French international will be looking to continue his incredible form throughout this campaign. He will provide excellent service to the likes of Andy Carroll, Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia, and he will be well backed up by Michail Antonio and Sofiane Feghouli. Angelo Ogbonna and Winston Reid will anchor a solid defence and provide plenty of support for Adrian in goal. Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate are steadying presences in midfield, and the former will be looking to build on the excellent form he showed last season.

West Ham are a fairly solid side, but there are some problems which they have to deal with. Carroll, Valencia and Sakho are all decent options, but Bilic is still in need of a top-quality striker. Further issues exist down back, where the squad is lacking defensive depth. Central defender James Collins is currently the Hammers’ best option at right back after the end of Carl Jenkinson’s loan spell, and there is no real cover for Reid and Ogbonna should either player suffer an injury. There is a general lack of depth which exists throughout the squad, and West Ham may struggle as a result. They are a strong side and could go a long way this season, but they are not good enough to keep up with the big clubs and are unlikely to perform as well as they did last campaign.

Star Player: Dimitri Payet

Payet was brilliant in the Premier League last season, and the versatile French midfielder backed it up with his performances at Euro 2016. He starred as France made it to the final of their home tournament, and this season he will be looking to cause plenty of problems for defenders with his pace, skill and ability to put the ball into dangerous positions. He is a class act, and can take West Ham to the next level.

Key Player: Angelo Ogbonna

Ogbonna was a strong presence at the back for West Ham last season, and he will be needed more than ever this time around. He will marshal the defence, and he will need to stay on the park given the lack of depth that exists down back. The defence is seriously undermanned, and he will need to step up if the Hammers are to perform as well as they did last campaign.

One to watch: Reece Oxford

Oxford became the second youngest player to start in a Premier League game last season when he took the field in West Ham’s opening match against Arsenal. He is still only 17, and he is sure to get more of a chance this campaign. He has shown glimpses of his ability to perform at the highest level, and he could be the future of English football.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Adrian – Collins, Reid, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Kouyate, Noble; Feghouli, Payet, Antonio; Carroll.