My 2015/16 Premier League predictions

Can anyone detect the faint rumble of a new Premier League season ahead? Maybe it’s the ubiquitous Sky Sports adverts, or the imposing BT Sport billboards? Or maybe just the football?

Ah yes, it’s definitely the football.

Normally, nothing much should be ascertained from pre-season – especially with regards to form. However, there have been some noticeably quiet clubs in the transfer window – with some more in need of fresh faces than others.

What seems to be clearest though, is that the 2015/16 Premier League season will be closer than the last campaign.

Anyway, enough waffling. Let’s get stuck in to the main course – some predictions.

  1. Sunderland – 16th last season – 9/4 to be relegated

Wearsiders look away now. This season has the makings of relegation for Dick Advocaat’s side. Sunderland will need goals to stay up, but having sold Connor Wickham and with the misfiring Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher supporting an aging Jermain Defoe, they are in big trouble. One ray of light is the signing of Jeremain Lens, a goalscoring Dutch midfielder – but one good deal alone is not going to save the Black Cats.

  1. Bournemouth – Championship winners last season – 7/5 to be relegated

The Cherries make their Premier League debut after snatching the Championship title from under Watford’s noses, but they look short of the requirements to stave off relegation. Boss Eddie Howe has made some interesting signings, with 37-year-old Sylvain Distin, Christian Atsu and Max Gradel all coming to Dean Court. Bournemouth play some attractive football and have plenty of energy in their side but in terms of defensive quality they are desperately short, and that spells doom.

  1. Leicester City – 14th last season – 3/1 to be relegated

Like all promoted clubs, Leicester’s target was merely to stay up. They did so dramatically as a stunning end-of-season winning run helped them survive by six points. Claudio Ranieri has assumed managerial control after the anti-PR Nigel Pearson was sacked, but “The Tinkerman” has hardly enhanced his reputation after a dismally poor stint with Greece. New signings include Shinji Okazaki and N’Golo Kante, but a defence that conceded 55 goals last season looks like relegation material.

  1. Watford – Championship runners-up last season – 6/5 to stay up

Having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the Championship title race last season, Watford have wasted no time in preparing themselves for the Premier League, making 11 signings for a combined £21m. They have bought astutely, with Valon Behrami and Jose Holebas the headliners. The good news for Watford is that they have goals in them. Captain Troy Deeney, coveted by many PL clubs, scored 21 league goals last term and his goals could prove crucial in keeping them up.

  1. Norwich City – Championship play-off winners – 4/5 to stay up

The main advantage Norwich have this season is that most of their squad has Premier League experience and in Alex Neil they have a tenacious manager with a growing reputation. This summer they have strengthened in midfield with Youssouf Mulumbu arriving from West Brom and the guile of Robbie Brady adding a threat from dead-ball situations. Norwich will be fine this season, and a nice little bonus would be a return to form for Ricky van Wolfswinkel.

  1. Aston Villa – 17th last season – 3/1 to be relegated

If Aston Villa had not found a replacement for Christian Benteke, they would have been in big trouble, but in Rudy Gestede they have a striker ready to step up to the Premier League. Manager Tim Sherwood has also been in talks with Emmanuel Adebayor and, after getting the most out of him at Spurs, repeating the trick could be worth up to 15 goals. Villa’s young side will feel the loss of Fabian Delph, but offsetting his departure is the bright talent of Jack Grealish.

  1. West Ham – 12th last season – 8/15 for a bottom 10 finish

If West Ham end up qualifying for the Europa League their Premier League season could go up in smoke. The average cost of a Europa League campaign was recently put at -4 points by a PL statistician. Add to that the fatigue of starting your season in early July and boss Sam Allardyce will have some tired players come May. The signing of Dimitri Payet with his eye-catching skill is exciting Hammers fans as another solid season awaits.

  1. West Brom – 13th last season – 9/2 to be top Midlands club

The Baggies have cause for optimism this season as the emergence of Saido Berahino continues to develop. His 14-goal campaign helped them massively last season and the wily Tony Pulis has pulled off a great signing in Rickie Lambert, who struggled to impose himself at Liverpool. Lambert and Berahino are set to form a fantastic combination and, with a propensity for putting defence first, Pulis will guide West Brom to another mid-table finish, with the top ten within reach.

  1. Crystal Palace – 10th last season – 4/7 for a bottom 10 finish

Palace have signed some excellent players this summer, not least Yohan Cabaye from PSG. The Frenchman will be keen to cement a place in the France squad with a home Euro 2016 campaign next summer and his goalscoring prowess at Newcastle under boss Alan Pardew’s guidance is another good sign. Connor Wickham has also arrived, while Eagles fans will be hoping that Yannick Bolasie kicks on from his breakthrough displays last term.

  1. Newcastle United – 15th last season – 1/2 to be top North East club

New manager Steve McClaren was building a good team at Derby, but has ditched them to join Newcastle. Drawing on his time in Holland, McClaren has kept a close eye on neighbours Belgium and has dipped into the transfer market to bring in Anderlecht pair Aleksandar Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba. The goals of Serbia striker Mitrovic are much needed in Tyneside and with McClaren’s focus on defending they will challenge for a top ten finish.

  1. Stoke – 9th last season – 10/1 to finish tenth

Ex-Barcelona striker Mark Hughes seems set on raiding his former club to bring as many Barcelona players to the Potteries as he can. Marc Muniesa and Bojan were already on the club’s books, and now Ibrahim Afellay joins them. Afellay struggled with injury and lack of form for Barca, but if Hughes can get him fit his pace will be a major threat. Hughes has also added Marco van Ginkel to his ranks, and another top ten finish will be the target for the ambitious Welsh manager.

  1. Swansea – 8th last season – 6/4 for a top 10 finish

The Swans have been fairly quiet in the transfer market but the quality of their squad is there for all to see. Often lauded as playing the most attractive football in the league, Garry Monk’s side have added striker Eder to replace Wilfried Bony, with Andre Ayew another capable arrival up front. Swansea will be aiming for a Europa League spot but they may come up just short.

  1. Southampton – 7th last season – 40/1 to go unbeaten at home

Saints boss Ronald Koeman is a pragmatic coach, and he will realise that the club’s Europa League exploits will have an impact on their Premier League endeavours. The signing of Jordy Clasie is a massive coup for the south coast side, while the return to fitness of Jay Rodriguez will give Koeman a potent extra option up front, but overall their season might not hit the heights of last.

  1. Everton – 11th last season – 4/11 for a top 10 finish

Everton will expect a big improvement on last season when a taxing run in Europe impacted their Premier League ambitions. Romelu Lukaku scored just 10 PL goals last term and will aim for 15 this season, while the permanent signing of Gerard Deulofeu adds pace and creativity. Everton boast the best PL full-backs in Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, but Roberto Martinez’s best work has been to rebuff the overtures from Chelsea for centre-back John Stones.

  1. Spurs – 5th last season – 8/11 for a top 6 finish

White Hart Lane purred at the form of striker Harry Kane last season, but the goals dried up at the end as the strain of his first full PL season took hold. Kane’s challenge will be to sustain his goalscoring form throughout the campaign as Spurs push for a Europa League place and beyond. Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino has reinforced his defence with Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Tripper arriving, but will they plug the leakiest defence in the top ten last season?

  1. Liverpool – 6th last season – 4/7 for a top 5 finish

The spending at Anfield has risen to £300m under Brendan Rodgers’ stewardship, and now he must start producing results. Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke have arrived for £60m, but the club has departed with Raheem Sterling for £49m. Jordon Ibe seems like a ready-made replacement for Sterling, and this could be his breakthrough season. There is no doubting the quality of players at Liverpool, but is their manager holding them back?

  1. Manchester City – 2nd last season – 3/1 to win title

There is a stuttering around Man City’s form over the past 12 months that seems more serious than the club are willing to admit. Yaya Toure has gone off the boil and last season the squad’s average age was the highest in the league. A signing of massive intent was made with Sterling, and manager Manuel Pellegrini is hoping to add Kevin de Bruyne for a cool £60m as he looks to freshen up City’s midfield. Sergio Aguero may miss the start of the season but he will score 20 goals when fit, however, worryingly for City their defence is getting shakier and that could prove their downfall this term.

  1. Manchester United – 4th last season – 11/2 to win title

United announced their first signing – Memphis Depay for £31m – very early on and he has looked excellent in partnership with Wayne Rooney in pre-season. United’s signings have been eye-catching, with Bastian Schweinsteiger prised from Bayern Munich and Morgan Schneiderlin, Sergio Romero and Matteo Darmian following. Darmian looks the dark horse of the transfer window, as the Italian right-back tore teams apart at the World Cup and went relatively unnoticed. United have strengthened but their defence remains a concern and will end up costing them the league.

  1. Chelsea – reigning champions – 7/4 to win title

Jose Mourinho has been unusually calm in the transfer window, happy to sign players only when one leaves. Asmir Begovic is their only signing of note, but goalkeeping stalwart Petr Cech has left for Arsenal, which paved the way for Begovic to sign as competition to Thibault Courtois. The trouble for Chelsea lies up front this season. Diego Costa is injury and suspension prone, while Radamel Falcao has struggled desperately at Premier League level. Too much pressure could be placed on Eden Hazard for goals and that could mean Chelsea faltering in their title defence.

  1. Arsenal – 3rd last season – 4/1 to win title

This could be the year that all the talent finally translates into a Premier League title for Arsene Wenger and his squad. A midfield studded with jewels such as Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla is backed up by the energy of Francis Coquelin and Jack Wilshere. Up front, Theo Walcott is back from injury and Olivier Giroud will always score goals. Cech’s arrival boosts a defence marshalled by the impressive Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, while Hector Bellerin is the best young full-back in the league. Arsenal, more than any other team in the league, are capable of destroying teams at will and the presence of a world-class keeper in Cech will spread confidence throughout the team. Arsenal are champions in the making.

  • You can follow me on Twitter: @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

Cazorla downs battling Wigan in FA Cup shoot-out

Santi Cazorla scored the winning penalty as Arsenal came from behind to beat holders Wigan Athletic in their FA Cup semi-final clash at Wembley.

Jordi Gomez had given Wigan a second-half lead with a penalty after Per Mertesacker chopped down the impressive Callum McManaman.

Arsenal rallied after the penalty and Mertesacker redeemed himself by equalising from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s scuffed shot.

After a goalless extra-time there was to be no fairytale defence of the crown for Wigan as they missed two penalties in the shoot-out, allowing Cazorla to calmly slot home to record a 4-2 shoot-out win and send his team to the final in May.

The win lifts the pressure on manager Arsene Wenger after he selected a weakened starting-line up following a torrid 3-0 loss to Everton, placing faith in a young and energetic side.

Arsenal’s pace caused Wigan big problems and they should have taken the lead after five minutes when Yaya Sanogo powered a header straight at Scott Carson from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s volleyed cross.

Oxlade-Chamberlain quickly asserted himself along Arsenal’s right-hand side and his pace almost created an opening as he chased a chipped ball, but an alert Carson stooped to turn the ball away for a corner.

For all of the Gunners’ early possession they created little in the opening quarter of the game as Wigan’s 3-4-3 formation set about stifling their opponent’s creative midfield.

It was left to Aaron Ramsey, making his first Arsenal start since Boxing Day, to rustle up some quality in a congested midfield.

His incisive pass to Sanogo was skewed away for a corner which presented Bacary Sagna with a good chance from an acute angle after Thomas Vermaelen’s knock-down, but the Frenchman could only lift the ball over the Wigan crossbar.

The Latics had hardly ventured into Arsenal’s half and a dismal Gomez cross that drifted out of play was a fair reflection of their start to the game.

However, Uwe Rosler’s side gradually worked themselves into the game and looked more dangerous with McManaman in possession – a point justified when the young winger briefly got in behind the slow Arsenal defence only to waste his opportunity with a heavy cross.

Arsenal were also proving to be profligate with their opportunities and Sanogo was again guilty of wastefulness when he blazed over from 20 yards after another threatening run from Oxlade-Chamberlain.

McManaman had easily been Wigan’s best player in the first-half and, after earning a shooting opportunity with his pace, a rifled shot was followed by a tame effort from Marc-Antoine Fortune who worked Lukasz Fabianski for the first time.

Moments later Sanogo’s poor finishing continued as he spurned the best chance of the half.

The inexperienced French striker was sent clear by Lukas Podolski’s clearance but a shoddy touch enabled Carson to close on him quickly and dispose of the danger.

For all of Sanogo’s impressive link-up play during the half his goalscoring ability has been in question and Arsenal might have led had his chances fallen to the benched Olivier Giroud.

Arsenal began the second half at a breathless speed, but it was actually Wigan who were the more menacing as a spell of pressure – including a weak penalty appeal after a nudge from Ramsey on James McArthur – induced jitters in the Arsenal defence.

The cup-tie was suddenly wide open and Wigan were the first to profit when McManaman held off Nacho Monreal before cutting inside and drawing a foul from the sliding Mertesacker to earn a penalty.

Arsenal were livid as they believed Monreal was fouled but, after a four-minute delay to treat the Spaniard’s groin injury, Gomez  confidently swept the ball home from the spot.

Rosler, who couldn’t bear to watch the penalty, reacted by replacing the excellent McManaman and Josh McEachran with Nick Powell and Jack Collison respectively.

Rosler’s counterpart Wenger also made a change at this critical phase of the game by hauling off Podolski for Giroud and switching to a 4-4-2 formation.

Arsenal consequently began to mount growing pressure on the Wigan defence and were desperately close to an equaliser when Sagna hit the post with a header from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross.

Seconds later a chipped cross was flicked on by Sanogo which released Kieran Gibbs on goal but he was denied by a fabulous save from Carson before Stephen Crainey hooked clear.

Eventually Wigan buckled and Arsenal equalised with eight minutes remaining.

Sanogo’s strength was again a key factor as he laid the ball off for Oxlade-Chamberlain whose mishit shot was turned in by Mertesacker at the far post as the German made amends for conceding the earlier penalty to take the game into extra-time.

Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo combined again to create the only meaningful shot of the first extra-time period, but the Frenchman could only fire at Carson after a neat swivel.

With just ten minutes of extra-time remaining, Arsenal struck the woodwork for a second time when Oxlade-Chamberlain unleashed an outswinging shot from 20 yards that crashed against the angle.

Wigan still looked a threat on the break, and a mazy run from Powell past the tired Arsenal defence might have produced a winning goal but the on-loan Manchester United man dragged his early shot harmlessly wide as the match headed for penalties.

Wigan’s Gary Caldwell and Collison had dreadful penalties saved by Fabianski, enabling Arsenal to open up a 2-0 lead when Mikel Arteta and Kim Kallstrom slotted home.

A Giroud penalty was sandwiched between successful Jean Beausejour and James McArthur spot-kicks but Cazorla was left with the decisive strike and he made no mistake to send Arsenal through to the final as they look to win their first silverware since a 2005 FA Cup win.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Have Arsenal had an easy start to the Premier League season?

Arsenal are flying, or so most people believe.

Top of the Premier League with a four-point gap to Chelsea and currently sitting in first place in their Champions League group with a game to play, they could not have asked for much more going into the busy Christmas schedule.

However, there is a cold reality which lies stealthily beneath the hullabaloo of their superb beginning to the new season – they have had an easy start.

Gunners fans may scoff in disgust at that statement, but looking at the thirteen games Arsenal have played so far, they have come up against limited opposition.

Since the opening day, when they lost 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, Arsene Wenger’s side have played Manchester United, Liverpool and rivals Spurs, losing 1-0 away to United and beating Liverpool and Spurs at the Emirates.

Compared to the two Manchester clubs, for example, Arsenal have played just three ‘big’ sides, whereas City and United have each played Chelsea, Spurs and each other.

United have additionally played Liverpool and Arsenal, meaning that they’ve already faced the five teams that are realistically expected to challenge with them for the title.

Looking more closely at Arsenal’s results reveals another clue as to why their start should be considered an easy one.

Of the 13 matches played so far they have played against 9 teams currently in the bottom half, including those in each of the lowest five places, meaning their start has been vastly overrated.

The form of Aaron Ramsey and his fellow midfielders has largely helped to gloss over these informative statistics, together with an encouraging performance in the Champions League.

Arsenal have also been heavily reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and, added to Ramsey, the pair have been responsible for 15 of the 27 Premier League goals the North Londoners have scored to date.

Despite all the criticism of their start, Arsenal must be praised for improving their side in several areas.

Ramsey’s emergence as a goalscoring midfielder has been coupled with the arrival of Mesut Özil, who has created six goals and scored twice since his £42.5m move from Real Madrid in the summer.

The signing of Özil may have been widely heralded as one which has transformed the Gunners, but it is actually in defence where they have improved the most.

Mathieu Flamini’s return to the club has enabled attacking-minded midfielders such as Ramsey, Özil and Jack Wilshere to forge forward, knowing that Flamini will unselfishly sit deep and protect the back four in their absence.

Arsenal’s shaky defence, a key reason for their vulnerability and profligacy last season, has suddenly become watertight – they have kept five clean sheets this term.

To underline their advancement, on December 3 in the 2012/13 season Arsenal were languishing in tenth place with 21 points, and trailed leaders Manchester United by 15 points after just 15 games.

This season, exactly one year on, they sit on 31 points having played two games less with a gap to United of nine points. What a difference a season makes.

Perhaps the biggest asset to Arsenal’s displays so far has been the ability to claim maximum points against teams from the bottom half.

In seasons past Arsenal had become renowned for dropping points against teams who they would ordinarily have expected to beat, and were mocked for doing so.

This season, they are being praised for the fluidity and quality of their football (as they always have been), but now they have the defensive foundation to fall back on, enabling them to beat ‘lesser’ sides.

Their centre-back partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, once considered maladroit and unreliable, has kept Thomas Vermaelen out of the side with a series of imposing displays, while goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has benefitted from a more mature attitude, dropping the casual arrogance he once paraded.

So, while it is easy to be fooled by Arsenal’s excellent recent performances, do not forget that they have made smooth progress during an easy start.

Three of their next four games are against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton.

If they are still top of the league after a Christmas fixture list bearing obstacles as testing as those, they will have every right to receive the flattering acclaim they are garnering now.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89