I’m both a Premier League junkie and film buff. As a writer, I view that as an opportunity to use movies as metaphors for this three-part Premier League preview. As a reader, at least you don’t have to pay too much for the popcorn. You can read the first two installments in this trilogy elsewhere in the IRAIW movie-plex. The Magnificent Seven covered clubs that are European and/or league title hopefuls. The Abyss featured the sides who will be trying not to look down. Now showing on your monitor, The Other Guys.From a fan’s perspective, the worst thing that can happen to their club isn’t relegation. While that’s an unhappy ending to a season, the journey is filled with nervous energy and raw emotion. You feel. You live on the edge. You chase waterfalls.
The same applies to narrowly missing Champions League qualification, although Arsenal supporters not too proud to beg Arsene Wenger to leave don’t exactly believe me right now.
No, the last thing devotees want is for their side to nestle safely into a mid-table spot. It’s an empty void. There’s no hope, no despair. Just predictable, mind numbing routine. It’s the worst place you can be.
Someone asks which club you support. When you answer West Brom or Stoke, the questioner gets that disconnected look in their eye. Quickly, they segue to another topic.
“Oh, that’s nice. Do you think MacGregor has a chance against Mayweather?”
In response, you’ll try to shift the conversation back to your side, pathetically playing up the team’s cup chances or future prospects. You’re a bit like the stereotypical Jewish mother. Embarrassed her son has gone into carpentry rather than law or medicine, she concocts wild tales about all the public speaking and charity work he does on the side.
Don’t deny it. If you support one of these five clubs, you know I’m talking about you.
To be honest, the Saints are probably the most interesting mid-table club in Premier League/First Division history. Year in, year out, the south coast club develops exciting young talent. It shrewdly signs capable veterans for value to support the youngsters. Then, it watches helplessly as its best players (and coaches) are plundered by Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United every summer. Still, Sot’on comes back each fall, revitalised by fresh, eager faces, plays positive, attacking football, and threatens to creep creep its way into the Europa League. On balance, it’s a good life.
In 2017-18, there’s a new manager again, only this time by the club’s choice. Claude Puel’s tactics did the job but were too rigid in comparison to Nigel Adkins, Mauricio Pochettino, and Ronald Koeman.
Mauricio Pellegrino should get things flowing again, although that hasn’t been reflected in Southampton’s summer transfer dealings. Young centre back Jan Bednarek has come over from Lech Poznan. Little used forward Jay Rodriguez has chosen to be isolated on the pitch at the Hawthorns rather than on the bench at St Mary’s. That’s about it.
Pellegrino appears happy with the talent on hand and why not? Manolo Gabbiadini was a pleasant surprise up front in 2016-17. Charlie Austin, Dusan Tadic, Nathan Redmond, James Ward-Prowse, Jordy Clasie, Oriol Romeu, and Shane Long are all serviceable options for a manager to call upon. The critical issue will be keeping unsettled centre back Virgil van Dijk in the fold, or, more likely finding a replacement at the last minute.
If the Dutch defender goes, it’s difficult to see how Southampton holds its place in the table’s top half. Then again, isn’t that the question asked every season and don’t the Saints find a way to make it work?
West Bromwich Albion
Tony Pulis is king of mid-table security. He won his crown with Stoke but has since moved to a new castle in the West Midlands. His sides are antithetical to Southampton’s. Stubborn and stoic, they dig themselves in like a cornered badger, attacking only when opponents venture too close.
Work is the Baggies’ ethic. Teamwork to be more precise. The ball-capped Welshman’s squads don’t undergo much turnover but, as his parts are typically interchangeable, it isn’t an issue. Darren Fletcher (33) was allowed to join Stoke, Craig Gardner (30) Birmingham. Jay Rodriguez (28) and Ahmed Hegazy (26) came in from Southampton and al-Ahly. While the tradeoff netted a defender and striker for two midfielders, West Brom are now younger.
It’s been a calm summer at the Hawthorns. They say still waters run deep. Baggies fans can expect smooth sailing for yet another year.
West Ham United
It’s been far more difficult for Slaven Bilic to maintain stability with the Hammers. The running track at the club’s new home, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, has distanced supporters from their side, muting their influence. Not that there was much to shout about after playmaker and set-piece sorcerer Dmitri Payet conjured an abrupt exit in January.
Manuel Lanzini hasn’t been so spectacular. Still, his consistency has allowed Bilic to spend on a proven goalscorer rather than a replacement for Payet. Not looking for any scrubs, the Serbian recruited Javier Hernandez from Bayer Leverkusen. The former United sensation is eager for a second crack at the Premier League egg. Chicharito’s poacher instincts offer hope for a functional partnership with aerial specialist Andy Carroll.
Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart’s arrival from Man City provide a winning influence. If all goes well, the Serbian boss may edge his side a little closer to the top.
The Potters have become a poor man’s Southampton under Mark Hughes. Given Sot’on are a poor man’s club to begin with, the comparison isn’t exactly complimentary. Still, the board got what was advertised when it hired a boss nicknamed “Sparky.” Stoke has been a more exciting club to watch. it hasn’t been so easy to label them “The Plodders” as it was when Tony Pulis stood in the technical area.
Unfortunately for those more entertainment than result-driven, Hughes appears to be adopting a more conservative approach in 2017-18. Xherdan Shaqiri is still around to provide magic moments. Peter Crouch may be able to defy Father Time in a supporting role for one more season. Marko Arnautovic is gone, however. So are Jonathan Walters, Charlie Adam, Phil Bardsley, and Bruno Martins Indi. That’s a great deal to lose on both sides of the ball.
Darren Fletcher, Kurt Zouma, and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting hardly seem sufficient to balance the scales. Choupo-Moting scored three goals and provided eight assists from the flank with Schalke in the Bundesliga and Europa League. Is his arrival intended to derive optimal mileage from whatever Crouch has left in the tank?
And can Bojan Krkic, the false dawn heralded as the second coming of Messi when he emerged from La Masia, find himself if given one last chance? Hughes seems to have no longer have any takers for the unrealised talent on the loan market.
The best news is that the club has yet to spend any money on players. Zouma is on loan from Chelsea. Fletcher, Choupo-Moting, and Josh Tymon were all free transfers. The untouched proceeds from Arnautovic et al’s sales are there if Sparky can find a difference maker in the three weeks remaining in the window.
Rafael Benitez is famous for liking facts. Seating him next to Donald Trump at your daughter’s wedding probably wouldn’t be ideal. Otherwise, Rafa’s penchant for facts has become a good thing. It’s a fact he’s transformed himself as a manager. It’s a fact he can suppress his ego to work with veterans and youngsters, on a big club or small, and with a difficult owner. His presence alone makes the Geordies a safe bet to stay in the top flight where, let’s be honest, everyone, even the Mackems, thinks they belong.
That presence will have to do the heavy lifting, too. This isn’t the Toon of yesteryear. The squad isn’t filled with familiar names. There is no new Alan Shearer, no Kevin Nolan, Nobby Solano, nor Jonas Gutierrez. Fabriccio Coloccini departed when the Magpies were relegated. Sammy Ameobi was ushered out after they returned.
The new names are less renowned, the faces fresher. Dwight Gayle. DeAndre Yedlin. Aleksandar Mitrovic. Christian Atsu. Jack Colback and a returning Tim Krul provide calm experience at the back. Jonjo Shelvey adds a sharp edge from box to box. The weakest link is Siem de Jong. The Dutch midfielder has lost his mojo and hasn’t rediscovered it while on loan back in the Eredivisie. Rafa has to decide how patient he can be in giving him one last chance in the Premier League.
In the past, Benitez has won titles with marquee names. Now, he’s ready to put in a solid shift with the other guys. All it will take is a bit of tender loving care.