2014 EPL Preview
August 11, 2014
By Toby Maxtone-Smith
This year's Premier League sees the most competitive betting heat in years. Only five teams have ever won the Premier League, but this year the fifth favourites (Liverpool) are 12/1 for the title. There is some nice depth to the market this season, and after some excellent acquisitions over the summer it is Chelsea who look value favourites to win their first title since 2010.
The boys from West London missed a major opportunity last year. They were often unable to break down stubborn defences and this cost them. Chelsea beat Manchester City and Liverpool home and away. The away results were particularly stunning. Both came when the opposition was in their best form of the season. Of all the stars in Chelsea's ranks, it is manager Jose Mourinho who shines the brightest. When it comes to getting big results in the big games, no-one in world football is close to Mourinho.
That inability to beat lesser teams was largely due to the lack of a top class striker, but the signing of Diego Costa looks to have remedied that, while Cesc Fabregas, no stranger to the Premier League after his days with Arsenal, will give them that little bit more creativity they need. If Costa and Fabregas fire, there are very few weaknesses in this Chelsea side. Chelsea raided Atletico Madrid again for left-back Filipe Luis, while Thibaut Courtois has returned from loan and looks set to challenge Petr Cech for the number one spot.
If there is a weakness, it is a lack of depth in defence. Chelsea will rely primarily on five defenders, and while that is made more possible by the versatility of Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta, it is still a risk. Young centre-back Kurt Zouma is still very raw and Chelsea would be reluctant to call on him in a big game.
But this is only a minor fault in an ominous-looking side. At 17/10 with sportsbook.ag Chelsea look value shots to lift their fifth English title.
Their main challengers look set to be Manchester City at 5/2. At times they were devastating last year, although it took a major slip up from Liverpo ol to give them the title. Their summer business has been more about adding depth to the squad than buying stars. This has echoes of their strategy two years ago under Roberto Mancini, and it did not work that time.
Another concern with City is their strikers. Sergio Aguero has not been fully fit since November and struggles to play two games in quick succession. Stevan Jovetic is never too far away from a knock, and Alvaro Negredo scored the last of his nine league goals on 12th January. This only leaves Edin Dzeko as a reliable source of goals up front.
Despite their worst finish in the Premier League era last season, you can get twenty-times English champions Manchester United at 4/1 to win the Premier League. New manager Louis van Gaal has put United in optimistic mood so far. There is a sense that, after a year of disaster, the high standards of Sir Alex Ferguson are returning to Old Trafford.
But it would take a brave man to back them at that price. Their two signings so far, Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, promise a lot, but there are still a lot of weaknesses in this side. First off, they are without a world class centre-back. None of the three constantly under-performing wingers, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani, have been moved on and United need two replacements there. Then there is the question of how best to accommodate Juan Mata into the team, with him and Wayne Rooney both best suited to the same role.
Another world class central midfielder, at least one top draw centre back and at least one excellent winger are still needed by United for a title challenge. Without all three of them, a Champions League spot may be the height of their ambitions.
Arsenal are fourth in the betting and, for once, the Gunners have money to spend. Alexis Sanchez looks a fantastic signing from Barcelona and looks set to take the league by storm. He is a versatile player with a real cutting edge. As well as being excellent on the ball, he brings the best out of those around him. It is baffling to me why Barcelona let him go.
I can't have them at 11/2. People will point to their FA Cup victory in May, their first major trophy for nine years, as a sign that Arsenal have rediscovered how to win, but that success was made far harder than it should have been. They could not get past Wigan Athletic and Hull City in normal time in the semi-final and final.
There is still a softness about Arsenal in the big games, and none of their signings yet suggest that Wenger is willing to change personnel to confront this problem. He has handed Mikel Arteta the captaincy, which suggests no new defensive midfielder will be coming in. This could be a major error, as Arteta was particularly poor in Arsenal’s many big-game thrashings last year. As for centre-backs Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, they are like Arteta: good in most matches, exposed in the hardest.
And what of Liverpool? It seems amazing that a side who were 1/6 to win the league with just three games to go last season are now fifth favourites at 12/1. The Reds really threw away the league last year. They effectively lost the league with a 2-0 home defeat to a second-string Chelsea side that would have been happy to settle for a draw, as Liverpool would have been.
Their comparatively big quotes are mainly due to the loss of Luis Suarez, and their inability (so far) to replace him with a like-for-like star. To make up for Suarez’s attacking menace Liverpool have signed Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert from Southampton and Lazar Markovic from Benfica. In defence, another Saints star from last season has come in - Dejan Lovren.
This team scored 101 goals last season, and even when Suarez wasn’t playing they still struck fear into defences. They will do well again, but this time they have the Champions League to contend with as well as a title push. There has not been enough done to bolster the defence, and I think Liverpool (and Steven Gerrard) have missed their chance.
Few give Everton or Tottenham Hotspur much chance of winning the league, but a top four finish is an ambition, albeit a lofty one, of both. Of the two, I would give Everton the better chance. The summer has been one of stable progression for the Toffees, while new Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino has a big job on his hands getting the most out of a squad that looked lost and systemless for much of last season.
Everton are superbly managed by Roberto Martinez and can always rely on a strong home record at Goodison Park. They have secured their big target of the summer in Romelu Lukaku, and Everton cannot be written off to finish in the Champions League. This is a highly talented side that is well-motivated, stable and extremely likeable. They may be a good bet to finish in the Top 4 at 5/1.
Before I move onto relegation I will quickly run through the sides I do not expect to be in a battle.
Newcastle United always have off-field problems, but their summer business looks very good (particularly the signing of Ajax captain Siem de Jong for £6m), and they will have too much quality to be drawn into a battle.
Swansea City have made a risky managerial appointment in Garry Monk, but like Newcastle have too much quality in their ranks and should be looking at a top-half finish.
Stoke City are another club to have had a promising summer, and the Potters exceeded expectations last year. Another well-run, pragmatic club that should be somewhere in the middle.
The three previous teams to have got over a hundred points in the Championship all stayed up comfortably, and I expect Leicester City to follow suit. Their team is settled, full of quality and very hard to play against.
Sunderland ended last season in buoyant mood under Gus Poyet and, while off-field issues are never far away on Wearside, they look too strong for relegation.
Southampton have lost most of their team, but they have received a windfall of around £100m for them - plenty of money for new coach Ronald Koeman to assemble a quality squad, though they may start slowly.
Crystal Palace still operate on a tiny budget compared to many, but they’ve got the best manager in the business when it comes to avoiding relegation - Tony Pulis. His record at Selhurst Park last season was unbelievable after Palace’s disastrous opening to the season. At 5/2 for the drop they are very much one to swerve.
So that leaves six teams who I predict to be in a relegation battle. First up is West Ham United. Their manager, Sam Allardyce, has never been relegated, but he is disliked in East London for his pragmatic, defensive tactics and there is a good chance the West Ham owners will bow to fan pressure if the Irons have a tough start. New £12m signing Enner Valencia is a big risk, and if he fails to settle into English football, a key part of Allardyce’s tactics will be missing.
Another claret and blue side, Aston Villa, will be in trouble. They are in the midst of a takeover which has limited their spending power and, in any case, there has been little progress for the Birmingham side in the last two years. Their two best strikers, Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak, are both missing for a good chunk of the start of the season. The rest of the squad is young and inexperienced. Paul Lambert has done a good job cutting costs at Villa, but this could well be risking Villa’s Premier League future. Relegation may be mire likely than quotes of 11/4 suggest.
Burnley are everyone’s favourites to go down at 1/2. They came from nowhere to get 93 points in the Championship last year and, at first glance, their squad is worse than the other 19. However in Sean Dyche they have a great up-and-coming manager who will manage expectations very well. Burnley do not have much in the way of spending power, but they have a ferocious team spirit and play in an aggressive, pressing style that will surprise many who will take them lightly. I’m tipping them to defy the odds and stay up.
Possibly the hardest team to predict are Queens Park Rangers. They were relegated two years ago under a cloud of financial mismanagement and were far from being the third best team in the Championship last year. However, QPR have money. They are still signing lots of experienced players on big wages, but there is surely no chance they can be any worse than they were last time. Jordon Mutch and Steven Caulker look shrewd acquisitions, while keeping hold of Loïc Rémy would greatly increase their chances of survival.
Hull City could be in danger of the drop. They have lots of things going for them - a manager who knows what he’s doing, financial stability and a good home record. However they nose-dived at the end of last season and may well have dropped into the relegation zone had they not clawed back a draw from 2-0 down at Fulham. Add to that the distraction of European football for the first time, and questions hover as to whether Hull’s squad is up to the job. They are one of three teams at 5/2 to go down.
Comfortably my favourite bet for relegation are West Bromwich Albion. No team won fewer games than West Brom last season (seven), and the really stayed up because there were three teams who were just worse than them, rather than because they were any good. The team looks stale and there has been a lack of investment in the squad. The appointment of Alan Irvine is an unambitious one and the £10m signing of Brown Ideye looks a big risk. He only scored five for Dynamo Kiev last season, although he notched 19 before that.
The Baggies have had three good years in the Premier League, but this now looks like a squad that is in need of an overhaul - an overhaul that has yet to appear. They are a great bet at 5/2 to be relegated to the Championship and are also worth an interest in the ‘To Finish Bottom’ market, where they are 10/1.
Top Future Bets:
Chelsea to win Premier League at 17/10
West Bromwich Albion to be relegated at 5/2
West Bromwich Albion to finish bottom at 10/1
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