Soccer

Premier League Preview Part II: The Promotees and Foreign Imports

The Promotees

Burnley F.C.

After suffering through a heartbreaking relegation at the end of their first season in the Premier League in 2014-15, Burnley rebounded immediately by winning the Championship, England’s second division, the following year. Sean Dyche will hope to make a statement this season and to achieve the results he believes the team is capable of – a series of points narrowly lost in hard-fought matches cast a shadow over the Clarets’ previous top-flight campaign, and hopefully they will have learned some valuable lessons from that experience.

Middlesbrough F.C.

After seven years in the Championship, the North Yorkshire club finally made its way back into the Premier League. Manager Aitor Karanka took the reins in 2013 after a playing career at Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao and three seasons as an assistant to José Mourinho at Madrid. He led the Smoggies to second place in the league in the 2015-16 season, earning promotion for Boro’s 15th Premier League season and their 60th in England’s first division. They currently sit in ninth place, with their first win coming away from home against northern rivals Sunderland and their dramatic and devastating defeat to Crystal Palace on matchday four showing signs of the grit that they will need to maintain throughout the season if they wish to stave off relegation.




Hull City

Having only been relegated from the Premier League a year earlier, Hull were led by top scorer Abel Hernandez to a fourth-place league finish last season. They ultimately won promotion by defeating Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday in the league playoffs. The Tigers have gotten off to a wonderful start to the new season, defeating champions Leicester City in their début and earning seven points in their first four games. In fact, interim boss Mike Phelan was named Premier League Manager of the Month in August despite having yet to be named full-time coach – he will hope to build on those impressive performances if he succeeds in signing a permanent contract.

 

The Imports

Paul Pogba* (Manchester United, from Juventus)

I have to admit I was surprised that this deal went through, considering Real Madrid’s dogged pursuance of the all-purpose French midfielder. United’s thwarting of the reigning champions of Europe evokes memories of last summer’s David De Gea saga, and along with the acquisition of perpetual vagabond Zlatan Ibrahimovic (see below) will prove to be a sign of the Red Devils’ return to prominence. At least, that’s the hope of José Mourinho and crew. Pogba’s deft touch, exceptional vision, and ability to command enormous swathes of the pitch would be welcome on any squad, but when combined with United’s overflow of talent could be devastating to Premier League opponents.

*Pogba played three league matches for Manchester United in 2011-12.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United, from Paris Saint-Germain)

When this transfer was announced, everyone had an opinion to share: Emmanuel Petit called it a gamble on the part of United management to bring in a 34-year-old striker to play beside Wayne Rooney, 30, who has noticeably lost a step, while Patrick Vieira speculated that Manchester would become the football capital of the world. The fans were delighted, and when rival supporters engage in competitive sneering, you know you’ve got something good going. It’s too early to say for sure how successful this new configuration will be, especially considering a performance against City that left much to be desired, but for the big Swede, four goals in as many games is a damn good start.




Henrikh Mkhitaryan & Eric Bailly (Manchester United, from Borussia Dortmund & Villarreal, respectively)

For any other team, these signings would have been front-page news. For United, who have reportedly spent upwards of £145 million this summer despite Ibrahimovic’s free transfer, these two world-class players are just gravy. Armenian national team captain Mkhitaryan arrives from the Bundesliga’s traditional runners-up fresh off of the best season of his career, notching 23 goals in 51 appearances. Bailly, a sturdy Ivorian center back who has developed an odd-couple pairing with Daley Blind, has already received several Man of the Match nods by United fans and at the young age of 22 has his best soccer ahead of him.

Nolito, Ilkay Gundogan & Leroy Sané (Manchester City, from Celta Vigo, Borussia Dortmund & Schalke 04)

Pep Guardiola has a famous affinity for midfielders, and these three are top-shelf additions, with the 29-year-old Spaniard Nolito already making an impact and earning himself a spot in the starting lineup against West Ham and Man United. If he can stay healthy, Gundogan should be a good replacement for Yaya Touré, playing centrally beside Fernandinho, and Sané provides width on the field and relief for tired attacking players who will likely be ahead of him in the pecking order. Superstar Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil had high praise for the two Germans, welcoming them to the league and presumably feeling thankful he won’t have to face his countrymen until late December. With a combined 28 goals and 18 assists for their clubs last season, Pep’s new midfield contingent gives the Champions League semifinalists a major boost.




Claudio Bravo (Manchester City, from Barcelona)

The 33-year-old Chilean keeper replaces club legend and James Van Der Beek look-alike Joe Hart, sent out on loan to Torino, in the revamped City side. Allegedly this deal was a long time in the making, with Guardiola unimpressed by the England No. 1’s ball skills and distribution, although after a shaky performance in the derby, Bravo will himself have a few questions to answer on that front. Nonetheless, the new signing will add a considerable amount of pep (pun intended) to City’s counter-attack.

Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi & Lucas Perez (Arsenal, from Borussia Monchengladbach, Valencia & Deportivo La Coruna)

Another year and another somewhat disappointing transfer window for the Gunners (although they made more progress than the notorious summer of 2015, during which Arsène Wenger signed a grand total of zero outfield players). The 23-year-old Swiss Xhaka fills the gap in the center of midfield that has been a perennial problem for the North Londoners, coming off of four seasons with German upstarts Monchengladbach. The German Mustafi will replace his aging compatriot Per Mertesacker in the center of defense, a noticeable weakness for the past few seasons, and the Spaniard Perez will compete with Olivier Giroud up top, widely considered to have underachieved in last year’s unsuccessful bid for the title. Wenger has addressed his team’s key problem areas, but without one or two elite signings, Arsenal will continue to hover in status below their chief rivals both in England and on the continent.




Ahmed Musa & Nampalys Mendy (Leicester City, from CSKA Moscow & Nice)

The strike partnership between the 23-year-old Nigerian Musa and English sensation Jamie Vardy will present a formidable threat in their first ever Champions League group stage. We’ve already gotten a glimpse of Musa’s ability, scoring twice in a preseason match against Barcelona, and his six goals in 26 continental appearances with CSKA are extremely promising. As I detailed in Part 1 of my Premier League preview, the loss of N’Golo Kanté was a major hit to Claudio Ranieri’s midfield, but the hope is that fellow Frenchman Nampalys Mendy can perform at an equally high level next to Danny Drinkwater.

 

 

David Luiz**, Marcos Alonso*** & Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea, from Paris Saint-Germain, Fiorentina & Marseille)

Despite a storied career with the Blues, the return of David Luiz to Stamford Bridge leaves some pundits scratching their heads. Will the 29-year-old Brazilian add some flair to a squad lacking in excitement? Sure. Will he sell merchandise? Unequivocally, yes. Does he solve the problem of Chelsea’s serious defensive vulnerability? Nope. Alonso, a left back who most recently plied his trade in manager Antonio Conte’s home country, is more defensively sound and, if he performs well, could perhaps push Branislav Ivanovic to the bench, moving Cesar Azpilicueta to his natural position on the right flank. Batshuayi, the young French striker who has already tallied in his first few weeks in the league, will give Diego Costa a run for his money as Chelsea’s foremost rabble-rouser.

**Luiz played 81 league matches for Chelsea in 2010-14.

***Alonso played nine league matches for Bolton Wanderers in 2010-12
and 16 on loan at Sunderland in 2013-14.




Roberto Pereyra (Watford, from Juventus)

Having struggled to get much offensive traction last season with strikers Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney scoring 28 of the team’s 37 goals, the Hornets’ productivity will be greatly improved with the arrival of the Argentinian winger.

Fernando Llorente (Swansea City, from Sevilla)

Like Ibrahimovic at Man United, veteran striker Llorente brings valuable experience and leadership to his new club, and will be a major presence following the departure of Bafetimbi Gomis. Fellow Spanish recruit Borja, picked up from Atletico Madrid but having been loaned out to different clubs for each of the past five seasons, should also help to jump-start the Swans’ season.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Southampton, from Bayern Munich)

The former Pep Guardiola protégé is a top-class addition to a side who have sold several exceptional midfielders over the last few years. The Danish youngster’s passing ability will be a crucial asset in the team’s Europa League campaign, which kicks off this week against Sparta Prague, as well as in the physical, fast-paced domestic game.

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