2018-19 EPL Match Day 1 Preview — Fulham (0-0-0) vs. Crystal Palace (0-0-0)

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)

Back in the Premier League for the first time in five years, Fulham hope they have spent enough to not be a one-season wonder as they open play at Craven Cottage in a London derby against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

It has been a three-year process to get here for the Cottagers (25-13-8 in 2017-18 Championship), whose fortunes turned after hiring Slavisa Jokanovic to avoid relegation to League One in 2015-16. Fulham finished sixth in 2016-17 and then third this past season. After edging Derby County in a two-legged tie to reach the playoff final, Fulham earned their Premier League spot with a 1-0 win over Aston Villa at Wembley Stadium on a goal by Tom Cairney.

With the deep pockets of owner Shahid Khan – who already owns the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and is bidding to buy Wembley Stadium – Fulham have made the financial commitment to remain in the Premier League by spending approximately £100 million in transfers.

Their biggest offseason signing was acquiring striker Aleksander Mitrovic from Newcastle United for a reported £22 million – at the time a record for Fulham – after the Serbia international was a driving force in their run to promotion by scoring 12 goals in 17 matches after arriving on loan in January.

“We have obviously talked to Mitro since last season and he always wanted to come back here,” midfielder Stefan Johnson told Fulham’s official website regarding Mitrovic. “He knows the head coach well, he knows the players around him and he knows the club, so it’s a good match for him and for us obviously so I’m sure he will do big things.”

The Cottagers then broke that spending record right before the close of the window Thursday, agreeing on a reported £30 million transfer for Marseille midfielder and Cameroon international Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa. That further strengthens Fulham’s side as they had previously added central midfielder Jean Michael Seri from Nice and centre back Alfie Mawson from relegated Swansea City in deals believed to total £33 million.

The Cottagers also poached Bristol City left back Joe Bryan, who had undergone a physical to make a lateral move to Aston Villa in the Championship. Goalkeeper Sergio Rico, defender Calum Chambers and winger Andre Schurrle also are on Fulham via loans from Sevilla, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, respectively, and striker Luciano Vietto was a late loan arrival from Atletico Madrid.

Rico is expected to start the season deputising behind Fabri, who signed from Turkish side Besiktas and is the No. 1 since Marcus Bettinelli has been sidelined all preseason due to injury. Schurrle makes his return to the Premier League after scoring 11 goals in 44 league matches for Chelsea from 2013-15.

Behind Mitrovic up front, Fulham have one of England’s top young players in 18-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, who moves up to the wing in their 4-3-3 formation after playing left back last season and scoring a team-high 16 goals in all competitions to win EFL Player of the Year honours. Cairney is the team’s primary playmaker, having totaled 21 assists in all competitions in the last three seasons.

Thirteen kilometres to the southeast, Crystal Palace (11-11-16 in 2017-18 Premier League) are out to avoid a second straight disastrous start that would have relegated most teams. The Eagles set a dubious standard last term by becoming the first side in 129 years of English football to lose their first seven matches while failing to score in any of them.

They sacked Ronald de Boer after the first four defeats and called on Roy Hodgson to rescue his boyhood team. The former England manager did that and more, missing out on a top-half finish behind Newcastle United on goal difference as a return to a four-man back and simpler playing style proved more conducive to success.

For his efforts, the 71-year-old Hodgson was rewarded with a one-year contract extension through the 2019-20 season. This will be his 43rd season on the touchline overall as Palace seek a seventh straight season in the top flight starting with Saturday’s contest.

Repeating last season’s success, however, could prove challenging. Midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek is no longer with the side as the England international’s loan from Chelsea ended. Palace stayed true to their word they would not sell winger Wilfried Zaha, cognizant of the fact they lost all 10 league matches he did not play last term.

Luka Milivojevic, who led Palace with 10 goals last season – seven from the penalty spot – is the creative force of the midfield and will look for help from Zaha and Andros Townsend on the wings. Christian Benteke leads the line, looking to rebound from a dismal season in which he scored three goals in league play after bagging 15 in 2016-17.

“We have a lot of abilities through our team with a lot of players able to score, whether it be from free kicks or headers,” Benteke told his team’s official website. “(The season opener) is going to be big for both teams, they will be looking to show their fans that they are back and will be looking to win the game but we will also be going there looking to get maximum points.”

Palace’s two notable summer signings – defensive midfielder Cheikou Kouyate from West Ham United and Max Meyer from German side Schalke04 – will likely be available as reserves for Hodgson. The Eagles added striker Jordan Ayew on loan from relegated Swansea City ahead of the transfer deadline.

Fulham are 2-1-1 in Premier League matches versus Palace, taking four points in the most recent meetings in 2013-14. The Cottagers lead the all-time series 17-11, and there have been 15 draws.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Fulham are slight favourites at 29/20 odds, while Crystal Palace check in at 9/5. There are 9/4 odds on the teams splitting the points.

A potential parlay could be to play both teams scoring with a Fulham victory at 15/4 odds plus the over of 2.5 goals at 3/1 odds.

Mitrovic getting first goal-scorer odds at 4/1 feels like a fair play considering his 7/5 any-time odds, while new Fulham signing Vietto jumped into joint-second for first-goal honours at 11/2 with Zaha. At 2/1, Zaha also ranks ahead of Benteke (9/4) as Palace’s top any-time goal-scorer.

PREDICTION

The buzz of top-flight football at Craven Cottage for the first time in five seasons is augmented by Fulham’s staggering aggressiveness in the summer window. The triumvirate of Mitrovic, Sessegnon and Cairney will hold much of the Cottagers’ hopes for success, and the sooner Sessegnon can transition to his wing role from left back, the better.

Palace will undoubtedly be a better team than it was at this time last year after Hodgson’ rescue job, but how they replace Loftus-Cheek’s industry in the middle will be pivotal. Benteke also has to get going quickly because even with Ayew’s addition, the options at striker will not put fear into the hearts of any defences.

Look for the new boys to start out on the right foot as Fulham make their return to the Premier League with a victory.

PREDICTION: FULHAM 2, CRYSTAL PALACE 1

2018-19 EPL Match Day 1 Preview — Newcastle United vs. Tottenham Hotspur

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)

With three straight top-three finishes, a new stadium, and their star player signed to a new long-term contract, the future is bright at Tottenham Hotspur.

Yet a lack of reinforcements from the transfer window could loom large early as Spurs open their season for the second straight year at St James’ Park on Saturday against a Newcastle United squad again embroiled in self-inflicted turmoil.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Tottenham (23-8-7 in 2017-18) had 12 players take part in the World Cup this summer, third-most in the top flight behind Manchester City (16) and Chelsea (14). Three Lilywhites – Kieran Trippier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane – were full-time starters for England while Eric Dier and Danny Rose made multiple starts as they reached the semifinals.

Additionally, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris backstopped France to their second World Cup title while centre backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen along with midfielder Mousa Dembele claimed third place with Belgium, who beat England twice. Christian Eriksen (Denmark) and Davinson Sanchez (Colombia) both progressed to the round of 16, with Sanchez losing to his English teammates.

Heung-min Son was the only Spurs player not to reach the knockout round, but his South Korea side sprung one of the biggest upsets in Russia by defeating 2014 champion Germany.

All these players are just returning to camp and coupled with dual-track responsibilities domestically and in Champions League, chairman Daniel Levy was curiously inactive as Spurs made zero personnel moves coming or going in the summer window. Levy made a late charge at Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish but was rebuffed by the Championship side as his £25 million offer was deemed insufficient by new ownership.

Levy, however, blew apart his carefully built wage scale for Kane, the Golden Boot winner in Russia with six goals as he signed a new six-year deal in June worth a reported £90 million only 11 months after putting pen to paper on his previous contract.

This new deal, worth £200,000 per week, recognizes the value of the 25-year-old striker who scored 79 goals in the last two seasons in all competitions, narrowly missed winning a third straight Premier League Golden Boot last spring, and is the face of English football as talisman of the Three Lions.

The other big contract was signing manager Mauricio Pochettino to a five-year extension worth over £40 million through 2023 in May, tying together the fates of star player and gaffer.

“Daniel and I have spoken at length about our aspirations for this football club,” Pochettino said at the time of his signing. “We both share the same philosophies to achieve long-term, sustainable success. This is a special club – we always strive to be creative in the way we work both on and off the pitch and will continue to stick to our principles in order to achieve the success this club deserves.”

Kane’s new deal raised eyebrows among his teammates, many of whom experienced difficult negotiations with Levy. Alderweireld was hoping Manchester United would pry him from White Hart Lane, and Rose expressed his desire last season to find his market value with his next deal at Spurs or elsewhere.

On the pitch, the 4-2-3-1 Pochettino prefers should see little change from last season, though Sanchez now occupies the centre back spot Alderweireld once held. Dier may have supplanted Victor Wanyama as a midfield partner with Dembele, and the attacking quartet of Kane, Alli, Eriksen and Son remains intact.

A higher-up not spending money is nothing new for Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez, who has seemingly been at odds with club owner Mike Ashley since taking over the club in 2016. The Spaniard did yeoman’s work last season with what was essentially the same side that won promotion from the Championship in 2017 as the Magpies (12-8-18) finished 10th mainly on player graft and coaching guile – their 39 goals were second-fewest among top-10 clubs.

This summer, the soap opera renewed as Ashley again promised Benitez he would open the purse strings and never fully delivered. This created fresh enmity between owner and supporters, the latter of whom share a two-way street of adoration with Benitez and fearful he will quit St James’ Park after one empty promise too many.

The Toons made targeted moves this summer – centre back Fabian Schar, defensive midfielder Ki Sung-yueng and forward Yoshinori Muto all signed for a combined total of less than £13 million – and Ashley kept a hawk’s eye on the balance sheet as Newcastle off-loaded striker Aleksander Mitrovic to Fulham for £22 million.

Newcastle secured winger Kenedy on loan from Chelsea for a full season, and Benitez will work on Salomon Rondon as a reclamation project after being loaned from West Bromwich Albion in exchange for Dwight Gayle. The Magpies also signed keeper Martin Dubravka on a permanent deal after he arrived in January from Sparta Prague. Right before Thursday’s deadline, they added defender Federico Fernandez from Swansea City.

While friction between Benitez and Ashley is nothing new, the same holds true for players and owner. They boycotted “walk-up” media duties for broadcasters for one day due to a row over bonus payments Ashley promised from both the FA Cup and last season’s finish. It was resolved Wednesday, and captain Jamaal Lascelles is looking forward to leaving all the distractions behind.

“We’ve managed to sort the off-field stuff; now that’s out of the way, we don’t have any reason why we can’t go out and put on a good performance,” he told Newcastle’s official website. “Everybody looks sharp, we’re training hard and we’ve all got our heads in the right place.”

Benitez is counting on a standout season from midfielder Johnjo Shelvey, one of the league’s most creative yet mercurial playmakers. The 26-year-old nearly made England’s World Cup squad after heeding his manager’s call to be more under control – Shelvey was not disciplined the final 15 matches after being ejected twice in the first 13.

One of those red cards came in last season’s opener when he needlessly stamped on Alli’s ankle in the 48th minute and swung the match in Spurs’ favour. Alli would get the last laugh with the first goal just after the hour and Ben Davies added a second nine minutes later for a 2-0 win.

Tottenham did the double over Newcastle last season and have won three of their last four at St James’ Park.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Spurs are an even money favorite while a draw has 12/5 odds and a Newcastle victory has 14/5 odds. Tottenham and under 2.5 goals has a 17/5 return while the same over/under with a Newcastle victory returns 13/2 odds.

PREDICTION

There are some managers who know how to steal points in various places, and despite all the chaos surrounding Newcastle — even if the bonus payment is settled and even if Ashley is done spending his money on a new investment — this feels like an opportunity where Benitez’s shrewdness can pay off with three early points for Newcastle.

Shelvey is not going to make the same mistake he did last year and get sent off, which will be a huge plus for the Toons. Additionally, the ICC tour did not give Tottenham any benefits aside from giving most of the fringe side substantial playing time in contrast to Newcastle, which has spent the preseason drilling towards this match.

While the Magpies have not recorded a clean sheet at home versus Spurs since 2003, 13 matches ago, there is a sense they can pull that off here with a disciplined effort. I can’t give a reason or a goal-scorer for Newcastle, but just simply offer a hunch they will open the season with a victory by catching Spurs off-balance.

PREDICTION: NEWCASTLE UNITED 1, TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR 0

Revisions to my EPL predicted order of finish

So after doing 20 teams in 20 days and offering a predicted place of finish, it was time to look back across three weeks of copy and see if anything lent itself to different interpretations and different places in the table.

TL;DR version — I’m making some changes based on the full transfer window and some gut hunches.

(Original Version)                               (Revised Version)
1st — Manchester City                        1st — Manchester City
2nd — Liverpool                                  2nd — Liverpool
3rd — Tottenham Hotspur                3rd — Arsenal
4th —  Arsenal                                     4th — Manchester United
5th — Chelsea                                      5th — Tottenham Hotspur
6th — Manchester United                 6th — Chelsea
7th — Everton                                      7th — Everton
8th — Burnley                                     8th — Burnley
9th — Newcastle United                    9th — West Ham United
10th — West Ham United                 10th — Wolverhampton
11th — Bournemouth                        11th — Fulham
12th — Crystal Palace                        12th — Bournemouth
13th — Leicester City                         13th — Leicester City
14th — Fulham                                    14th — Crystal Palace
15th — Wolverhampton                    15th — Newcastle United
16th — Southampton                          16th — Southampton
17th — Watford                                    17th — Watford
18th — Brighton and Hove Albion   18th — Brighton and Hove Albion
19th — Huddersfield Town                19th — Huddersfield Town
20th — Cardiff City                              20th — Cardiff City

And now, some completely irrational reasons on the shuffling of some teams:

I am bullish on Arsenal because the Gunners have so much offensive firepower they have the potential to turn 1-1 draws into 2-1 wins. Given the compressed nature of the bottom 13 teams, those extra four, six or even eight points will loom large in how the top seven shakes out, and the hunch is Arsenal reaches the podium after having some teething pains defensively early.

The more I scrutinize Tottenham, the more fatigue of its top 15 players is a glaring concern in the fight for a top-four finish. The backhanded best thing that could happen to Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs is a group play exit in Champions League so they have one less front to battle.

This might be an American thing, but switching No. 1 goalkeepers right before the start of the season never fully pans out. It’s like switching quarterbacks in football. The sooner Kepa Arrizabalaga can step under the crossbar, the better because Chelsea’s transition to Sarri-ball could result in a few draws where wins would have been expected.

I’m buying West Ham partially because of its increased depth following an aggressive summer spending spree, but I also want to believe Manuel Pellegrini figured out how not to have a team disappear on the road while in China. That was one of the things that held City back from reaching that next level before Pep Guardiola entered and more money was spent. The Irons another team which will have some confounding losses before separating themselves from the pack.

Newcastle United’s drop is solely attributed to the fact I expect Benitez to walk before Boxing Day and have to grind the rest of the season to survive. This is the third consecutive transfer window Ashley has rope-a-doped him into believing money would be there, and while what available money was available well spent, I imagine Benitez was less than thrilled with the assets purchase of House of Fraser Ashley made, the owner’s non-football business acumen notwithstanding.

Fulham and Wolverhampton are peas in the same pod. Whichever side transitions to Premier League life better while sacrificing the lesser amount of attacking nous and club identity will finish higher in the table. They are both like Bournemouth if Bournemouth spent money.

While I am convinced Huddersfield and Cardiff will be bottom two, the top of the drop is still somewhat up for grabs. Despite the talent at Southampton, I am far from sold on Mark Hughes after he did only just enough to keep the Saints afloat. Watford’s instability on the touchline means it is always a mystery package until after the second international break, and Javi Gracia can ill-afford a slow start.

Leicester City has talent despite Riyad Mahrez’s departure, but it’s on Claude Puel to make it mesh.

All these things said, the season should be a fun ride. Happy viewing!

 

2018-19 EPL Match Day 1 Preview: Manchester United (0-0-0) vs. Leicester City (0-0-0)

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)

It is difficult enough for teams to open the season following a World Cup because rotations are out of sync due to player availability.

Add that to the usual third-season chaos Jose Mourinho has had at his previous coaching stops, and you have a recipe for combustion as Manchester United head into Friday night’s Premier League opener versus Leicester City at Old Trafford.

POTENTIAL STARTING LINEUPS

United (25-6-7 in 2017-18) finished distant runners-up to eternal rivals Manchester City, 19 points adrift despite their highest point total (81) in five seasons. It was the club’s best finish since Sir Alex Ferguson made his farewell with his 13th Premier League title in 2013, but there was no silverware for Mourinho after winning the Carabao Cup and Europa League in 2017.

United – similar to other high-profile European clubs – had multiple first-team players participate in the World Cup this summer. Seven of the 11 players who went to Russia reached at least the semifinals.

Of those 11, Marcus Rashford and Phil Jones (England), David De Gea (Spain) and Victor Lindelof (Sweden) are expected to be available for this match. Nothing definitive has been offered regarding the status of Belgium teammates Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini and England duo Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard.

“Rashford will be in a better situation than (Tuesday),” Mourinho told MUTV on Tuesday. “Lindelof the same, Jones the same and let’s see if one of the others is ready to give us a help, 20-25 minutes. Any help that can come from them, is welcome.”

Midfielder Paul Pogba won the title with France, and while he will not play this match, things are tense between him and Mourinho. The United boss offered a backhanded compliment by saying the World Cup “is the perfect habitat for a player like him to give (their best),” to ESPN FC.

This was a pointed observation considering Mourinho spent last season trying to slot Pogba into the type of midfield partnership with Nemanja Matic that France manager Didier Deschamps successfully achieved with Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante.

Mourinho made those comments while United toured the United States. He often cut a frustrated and angry figure between poor performances and the lack of first-team players available. He railed about both following a 4-1 loss to Liverpool in Michigan in which he told The Independent, “We start the game with almost half the players who are not even going to belong on our squad on August 9 (the transfer deadline day). So what did this game give me? Nothing. Nothing at all.”

These comments could be one-time snipes and aggravations, but they also fit Mourinho’s track record when things go pear-shaped in season three. It happened in 2007 in his first stint with Chelsea after winning the Premier League title the season before. A falling out within the locker room with Real Madrid star players including Cristiano Ronaldo marked his third and final season at the Bernabeu in 2013.

And most recently, the third season during his second go-round at Chelsea – again after winning a Premier League title the season before – was so toxic another parting of the ways resulted after nine losses in the first 16 league matches in 2015-16.

But Mourinho is not in jeopardy. His frustration also stems from United chairman Ed Woodward’s failure to land many of the players Mourinho sought in this summer’s transfer window. That shortcoming is magnified by Thursday’s close of the England window compared to the FIFA calendar, which runs until the end of August.

United’s biggest signing was a £47 million transfer for midfielder Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk, who missed out on playing for Brazil at the World Cup due to a knee injury suffered in the tournament run-up. Starlet Diogo Dalot came over from FC Porto with a £19 million price tag, but the 19-year-old will likely start the season behind Antonio Valencia at right back.

With both nursing injuries, though, it is expected Lindelof will get the start at right back. Jones provides depth in central defense in the event Eric Bailly is unable to go after picking up a knock, and Andreas Perreira slots into the defensive midfield role with Matic sidelined by injury.

One marquee player Mourinho will have is attacking winger Alexis Sanchez, who starts his first full season at Old Trafford after arriving from Arsenal in January. His industry will be vital in the early part of the season, especially until Lukaku is ready to return and lead the line.

While United’s star players will eventually return, Leicester City (12-11-15) move on without top playmaker Riyad Mahrez. The Algeria international made his long-sought jump to Manchester City, with the Foxes wrangling a £60 million transfer fee from the reigning champions after a deal fell through in January.

The jury remains out on manager Claude Puel despite guiding Leicester City to a top-half finish following the sacking of Craig Shakespeare. The Foxes won just five of their final 21 (5-6-10) league matches, and filling Mahrez’s role may require multiple players.

James Maddison is expected be first in line, but another option is Mahrez’s compatriot Rachid Ghezzal, who has been reunited with Puel from their Lyon days after a £12 million transfer from Ligue 1 side AS Monaco on Sunday.

“I know the coach and I know his work and I like it,” Ghezzal told Leicester City’s official website. “I want to be here. It’s a good club with many ambitions and many great players. I think I will make a great season.”

Two of those “great players” – defender Harry Maguire and striker Jamie Vardy – may not be available after playing for England. Maguire boosted his stock immensely in that run to the semifinals while in Russia, with Leicester City valuing the centre back at £65 million and rebuffing United’s advances.

Leicester City were active in the summer window, adding promising attacking midfielder Maddison from Norwich City and right back Ricardo Pereira – who played for Puel at Nice – from FC Porto for nearly £50 million combined. The Foxes added to their depth in central defense with veteran Jonny Evans from relegated West Bromwich Albion.

If Vardy – a 20-goal scorer last term – is unavailable, Puel has Kelechi Iheanacho to lead the line. He was on Nigeria’s roster for the World Cup, but fellow Super Eagle Ahmed Musa left for Saudi side Al-Nassr last Saturday. Shinji Okazaki and Islam Slamini remain options as a second striker for Puel.

This is the second straight season Leicester City are playing the league’s Friday night opener, having lost 4-3 at Arsenal in 2017-18. Manchester United are unbeaten in the last seven between the teams (4-3-0), though Maguire rescued a point for the 10-man Foxes with a stoppage-time equaliser that resulted in a 2-2 draw at King Power Stadium on Dec. 23.

United are unbeaten in their last nine (7-2-0) at Old Trafford versus Leicester City since a 1-0 defeat Jan. 31, 1998, and 15-7-2 in the Premier League era. The Red Devils are also 19-5-2 in Premier League home openers, losing only to Everton in 1992 and Swansea City in 2014.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester United are a solid favorite at 4/9 odds to win, while Leicester City check in at 6/1. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 3/1.

50628.jpg

Sanchez offers a good return at 10/3 odds as the first goal-scorer and 6/5 odds as anytime scorer, and his industry offers a good chance of the match’s first goal being scored on a defensive breakdown by Leicester City. That rates him as a better option than Rashford (7/2) and Juan Mata (11/2) among likely United starters for first goal-scorer.

The Chilean has four goals in six lifetime matches versus the Foxes but none in the last three since banging a hat trick in Arsenal’s 5-2 win at King Power Stadium in the 2015-16 season.

A potential parlay could be taking both teams to score (27/10) with a 2-1 Manchester United scoreline (15/2). While he is listed on the right flank of the 4-3-3, it would not be surprising to see Mata track back into the middle of the park to link with Fred and Herrera, giving Rashford the opportunity to use his pace to run at defenders and create scoring chances.

PREDICTION

Both sides are far from a finished product, but both defensive midfielders — Wilfred Ndidi for Leicester City and Andres Perreira — are both going to have to put in heavy shifts to put out fires in front of their back lines. Ndidi has grown into this role since the Foxes parted ways with Kante, while Andres Perreira has not had as many opportunities to do so since Matic stepped into the role last season.

Also of note is how Lindelof transitions to right back for this match after a summer of manning a centre back spot for Sweden if Valencia is unable to play. United will do well to work through Sanchez on the left as it serves the double effect of pinning back Ricardo Perreira on the right.

It seems likely both Lukaku and Vardy will be introduced as match-changers for the final half-hour depending on the scoreline, and it would not be surprising to see Maguire starting the match despite Puel’s claims the England duo will not be in the first XI. Given how last season’s lid-lifter was a chaotic seven-goal affair, there should be multiple goals and another win for the home side.

Prediction: Manchester United 2, Leicester City 1

Coming soon, the revisions to the EPL predictions, and a quick note for the upcoming season

So one of the fun (or not so fun) things about doing these Premier League previews was the ebb and flow of the transfer market while writing them. It is somewhat challenging to get a peg on a team that is still not “whole,” and that challenge was made all the more difficult coming off a World Cup year.

And to everyone who pointed out mistakes in formation and personnel while reading them, thank you, your criticisms and corrections are appreciated.

With the intra-England transfer window closing Thursday (the European transfer window continues until the end of the month), I will likely revisit my predicted order of finish for the Premier League teams.

Also, I will be sharing (and augmenting) the Premier League previews I do on a freelance basis for STATS. I will be doing five matches per week, and they are straight text-based. I am not sure how I will augment them here just yet, but I am leaning towards retaining the formation graphics and betting tips sections from the team previews as well as a key matchup breakdown that doesn’t repeat from the text preview.

So again, thanks to all for reading and please keep doing so! And if you like what you read, tell a friend!

2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester City (August 6)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 20th and final preview of 20 EPL teams in 20 days ahead of Friday’s league-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City. Links to previous teams’ previews can be found at the bottom of the page.)

MANCHESTER CITY CITIZENS

Manager: Pep Guardiola (Hire Date: July 1, 2016)
Tenure Length: 10th/20 in Premier League and 30th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 32-4-2, 100 points, 1st in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 106
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-79
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 17 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2002
Last Relegation: 
2001 (Premier League to First Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Quarterfinal loss (Liverpool)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Champions
2017-18 FA Cup: Fifth-round loss (Wigan Athletic)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester City sputtered out of the gate, having to grind out a 2-0 victory at promoted Brighton and Hove Albion to start the season and then was held to a 1-1 draw by Everton to open its home slate as it played 44 minutes down a man after Kyle Walker was given his second yellow card late in the first half.

Then came the winning. A lot of winning.

City reeled off 11 consecutive victories across all competitions with some ridiculous score lines along the way. 5-0 over Liverpool. 4-0 at Feyenoord to open Champions League play. 6-0 at Watford. 5-0 versus Crystal Palace. 7-2 over Stoke City. The Citizens trailed for all of eight minutes of the 990 during their winning streak, which finally came to the end in the Carabao Cup against Wolverhampton, which pushed them to penalties before falling.

Another eight victories followed before a 2-1 loss at Shakhtar Donetsk in a dead rubber to complete Champions League play marked City’s first loss of the 2017-18 season. The good news was that it came at the perfect time ahead of their first Manchester derby at Old Trafford, where Guardiola’s men recorded a 2-1 victory to open up an 11-point chasm between the teams after 16 matches.

City set a Premier League record with their 15th consecutive league win by thrashing Swansea City 4-0 in Wales. They would push that run to 18 matches before a scoreless draw at Crystal Palace on New Year’s Eve in which the flash point was a horrific challenge on Kevin De Bruyne by Palace’s Jason Puncheon in the final minutes that the Belgium international was fortunate to escape serious injury from.

The dream of matching Arsenal’s “Invincibles” would end a fortnight later at Anfield, where Liverpool ran riot for a nine-minute stretch and scored three times to take a 4-1 lead before holding out for a 4-3 victory. That would be a foreshadowing of things to come not in the Premier League race, which was being readily conceded to City despite it being only mid-January, but in Champions League.

Guardiola’s charges would resume their winning ways, reeling off four on the bounce and reaching the Carabao Cup final before a 1-1 draw at always-stubborn Burnley. Manchester City made quick work of Swiss side FC Basel in the round of 16 in Champions League play, winning 4-0 on the road in the first leg to render their 2-1 second-leg defeat moot.

In between, however, was a shocking FA Cup exit at the hands of Wigan Athletic, which brought back the nightmares of losing to a relegated Latics side in the 2013 final. Manchester City took its frustrations of that loss out on Arsenal in emphatic fashion, winning the Carabao Cup final 3-0 at Wembley before handing out another 3-0 beating at the Emirates four days later.

Now champion-elect, Manchester City drew arguably the worst of the remaining Champions League sides in Liverpool, though it was still a winnable tie. Guardiola, however, made his largest mistake of the entire season in the first leg at Anfield, inexplicably starting Ilkay Gundogan as a holding midfielder over Raheem Sterling.

Within a half-hour, Liverpool turned Anfield into the vaunted cauldron it always has been for high-pressure matches and fashioned itself a 3-0 lead. The damage done, the Reds added insult to injury by holding that lead and putting up a clean sheet to make City do the heavy lifting in the second leg.

The hangover of that loss did not carry into the second Manchester derby as City attempted to become the first team to clinch a Premier League title in their 32nd match. The chance to do it against their eternal rivals United at home was a once in a lifetime opportunity that seemed to good to pass up.

For the first half-hour, it was exactly that as Vincent Kompany and Gundogan scored six minutes apart for a two-goal lead, and City nearly ran United out of the Etihad the remainder of the first half. But just as suddenly, the match swung red. Paul Pogba scored twice in two minutes, and Chris Smalling was first to a free kick and beat Ederson and both history and a title would have to wait as United salvaged some pride with a 3-2 victory.

There was no time to wallow, though, as Liverpool was coming to the Etihad and a three-goal deficit had to be overturned. Gabriel Jesus scored in the second minute, and City just applied pressure in waves at Liverpool looking for a second to further the momentum and gain everything to play for. They thought it came when Leroy Sane scored just before halftime, but it was incorrectly chalked off for offsides.

Guardiola went ballistic in complaining to referee Mateu Lahoz, earning himself an ejection at halftime. The combination of the disallowed goal and Guardiola’s thunder and banishment sapped City, who gave up a back-breaking goal to Mohamed Salah before the hour and another to Roberto Firmino late as Liverpool advanced 5-1 on aggregate.

All that was left for City was to play for history and a re-writing of the Premier League record book. They scored 12 goals in winning their next three matches, surpassing the century mark in a 4-1 hiding of West Ham United in their 35th match.

The Premier League presentation trophy was the highlight of a scoreless draw against Huddersfield Town, which all but secured a second season in the top flight with the valuable point, and it left City needing two wins to become the first Premier League team to achieve 100 points.

The first win was a straightforward 3-1 home victory over Brighton and Hove Albion, and the second took a little work. City left it very late as Jesus’ goal in the 94th minute provided the historic 1-0 victory at Southampton that made Guardiola’s side centurions. The 32nd win established a new Premier League record for victories, bettering the mark of Tottenham’s famous 1961 side.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester City Lineup.png

The frightening realisation for the rest of the Premier League, and by extension England for domestic cups and Europe for Champions League play is Guardiola can arguably flex his side into any formation and any lineup he wants on a match-to-match basis.

For argument’s sake, the XI presented here is based on a 4-3-3. Look at the names out there. Now consider the names missing: Bernardo Silva. Aymeric Laporte. New signing Riyad Mahrez. Gundogan. Danilo. Phil Foden. Benjamin Mendy barely played last season due to a torn ACL, yet it is well known he is one of the best at his position and still was good enough to make France’s roster this summer.

A serious case can be made the weakest backup link is Claudio Bravo between the sticks.

If Guardiola opts for a three-man backline, Kompany or Stones gets sacrificed, and given how well Stones played in Russia, it would be hard to sit him even at the expense of Kompany, who himself had a solid run for Belgium when he was 100 percent. This is a team that is going to have 60 percent possession or better in all but a handful of league matches and domestic cups, and Guardiola will relish in the challenge of tinkering his team between those set-ups.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

After spending and spending and spending the past two seasons to build a team Guardiola was confident could run a two-track course between Premier League and Champions League, this summer was refined and specific: Welcome, Mahrez.

The Algeria international’s arrival from Leicester City nearly came in the January window, but the deal feel through late. Six months and £60 million later, City finally got their man — arguably one of the most creative playmakers in the Premier League and the world.

What makes the move interesting is it is entirely possible Mahrez is little more than a rotation player on both tracks except for early in the season as players recover from World Cup responsibilities and again starting in December when the fixtures come fast and heavy. Still, his quality cannot be denied in being the driving force of Leicester City’s run to the Premier League title in 2016 and quarterfinal appearance in the subsequent Champions League.

Mahrez totaled 40 goals and 29 assists in all competitions in his last three seasons with the Foxes and was one of four players to rack up at least 35 goals and 20 assists in league play in that stretch along with Dele Alli, Roberto Firmino and Alexis Sanchez.

More grating to City’s rivals is the Citizens recouped more than half of that outlay by loaning out some of their promising younger players. Third-choice keeper Angus Gunn commanded almost £15 million in going to Southampton, while defenders Pablo Maffeo and Angelino nearly matched that total between them on loans to VfB Stuttgart and PSV Eindhoven, respectively.

Veteran midfielder Yaya Toure was released, and backup keeper Joe Hart is reportedly close to finalising a move to Burnley, which is in need at the position following a long-term shoulder injury to Nick Pope.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Kevin De Bruyne (MF)

There is something about De Bruyne’s game that borders on ethereal. If it’s not the direct pass that leads to the goal, he often gets the “hockey assist” in making the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the goal.

Whether it is his vision to make passes few see, let alone successfully make, or his sense of timing when to take over a match in terms of trying to score, the Belgium international rightfully created a split in PFA voting last year and would have been a worthy winner had he not finished runner-up to another worthy winner in Liverpool’s Salah.

De Bruyne had a solid World Cup campaign in leading Belgium to a third-place finish in Russia, and with an embarrassment of riches around him in Aguero, Sterling, Jesus and now Mahrez, De Bruyne’s biggest threat comes in the form of being able to pop up anywhere in the opposing half of the pitch to create a scoring chance for others or fashion one for himself.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, City are overwhelming favourites to become the first team to repeat as champions since Manchester United won the last of its three straight titles in 2009. The Citizens are 8/11 odds to win it all again, and there are ridiculous odds for top-four (1/20) and top-six finishes (1/500).

It is a little closer to even money Guardiola’s team will be atop the table on Christmas Day at 10/11, and for top-two finishes, City have 3/1 odds to finish 1-2 ahead of Liverpool and 9/2 with United.

Aguero is listed fifth in odds to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 8/1, with Jesus sixth at 14/1. Sane and Sterling are further long shots at 33/1. Player of the Year odds is where it gets interesting as De Bruyne is a slight favorite at 8/1, Sane fifth at 14/1 and David Silva seventh (16/1).

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 12 — Arsenal (6th) A
Aug. 19 — Huddersfield Town (16th) H
Aug. 25 — Wolverhampton (N/A) A
Sept. 1 — Newcastle United (10th) H
—————
April 20 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
April 27 — Burnley (7th) A
May 4 — Leicester City (10th) H
May 12 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A

OUTLOOK

For a team that won the Premier League by 19 points, reached 100, set all sorts of single-season records (it’s easier to just link to the Wiki page rather than add 200 superfluous words and numbers) and also registered a double by also winning the Carabao Cup, there is still unfinished business for Guardiola and Manchester City.

Some of that was self-inflicted by the Spaniard, whose decision to start Gundogan in the first leg of City’s Champions League quarterfinal at Liverpool ran counter to everything he had been building on the blue side of Manchester to that very point, and he paid for it.

Dearly.

Guardiola will not be prone to overthinking this time around, but it will also not be as easy to repeat as champions either. There is always a bizarre variable that comes off a World Cup summer, and while City have more than enough depth to rotate players to address any matchup issue Guardiola may perceive, there will be a creeping unknown of sorts until they actually play the matches and get through them.

Additionally, the primary foil in the Premier League is no longer City’s hated rivals across town, but is indeed, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. Manchester City had five meaningful losses all of last season — the Champions League ones to Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Basel had nothing at stake — and three of them came to Liverpool.

Further, the one victory over the Reds can be talked away as a match turned on its head when Mane got his red card and a 1-0 game turned into a 5-0 laugher. Liverpool has spent… and spent… and spent to get its team up to a point where it can at least attempt to stand with Manchester City, and it will be upon the reigning champion to knock the Reds down once more.

The success of teams hitting on the counter at the World Cup will probably result in a renewed effort to do so among clubs who play Manchester City. It is nothing new for the Citizens to face, but it will be something to watch. Guardiola loves a game of cat-and-mouse like few other managers, and with his legacy on the line as he enters his third season at the Etihad, expect a cagey and focused Spaniard on the sideline as he hunts glory and beyond.

PREDICTED FINISH

1st place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City

2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester United (August 5)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 19th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page.)

MANCHESTER UNITED RED DEVILS

Manager: Jose Mourinho (Hire Date: May 27, 2016)
Tenure Length: 9th/20 in Premier League and 27th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 25-6-7, 81 points, 2nd in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 68
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-40
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 44 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 1975
Last Relegation: 
1974 (First Division to Second Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Round of 16 (Sevilla)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Quarterfinal loss (Bristol City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Runner-up (Chelsea)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester United hit the ground running last season, rolling past West Ham United, Swansea City and Leicester City by a combined 10-0 margin as Romelu Lukaku made an instant impact with three goals in his first two matches in a United shirt. The Red Devils held out for a 2-2 draw at Stoke City, but the sprint out of the blocks resumed with six wins on the bounce — two of them to open their Champions League account.

Some of the excitement from the start was tempered when Manchester United lost influential midfielder Paul Pogba to a hamstring injury that would sideline him two months. Despite 32 goals and only three against in this 9-1-0 run to open the term, the cries of anti-football against Jose Mourinho came immediately after a lifeless 0-0 draw at Anfield against Liverpool on Oct. 14.

Mourinho set up his team pragmatically and defensively as United finished with one shot on target. Liverpool’s five shots on frame were one less than Mourinho’s side attempted all match.

The “Special One” had a flash of thunder after a 2-1 loss at promoted Huddersfield Town the following week, excoriating his team for a lack of “aggression, desire, motivation and sacrifice” despite having nearly 80 percent possession as Pogba’s absence continued to loom large. United regrouped with three wins, but another high-profile match came and went without a goal as they came up short in a 1-0 loss at his old Stamford Bridge stomping grounds.

While United never dropped below second in the table all season, it was becoming painfully clear their eternal rival Manchester City was pulling away with every match day United did not get all three points. Pogba finally returned in mid-November, making an instant impact in a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United, though it was also the first time Mourinho used Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial together.

Mourinho’s renewal of antagonisms with Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger for what would be their final head-to-head clash at the Emirates ended with Manchester United recording a 3-1 victory in what may have been the perfect way for Mourinho to get the better of “Le Professeur” once more. Despite allowing the Gunners to take 33 shots and have 75 percent possession, United were lethal on the counter as Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard scored in the first 11 minutes.

Lingard would complete his brace after the hour, and the only blemish on the victory was Pogba taking a needless red card right before the final quarter-hour. They did place atop their Champions League group with 15 points and 12 goals from their six matches, the lone blemish a 1-0 defeat at runner-up and Swiss side FC Basel.

Pogba’s absence would loom large as the first Manchester derby went blue with a 2-1 City victory that also ended United’s record-tying 40-match unbeaten run at Old Trafford. The result left United 11 points adrift of their eternal rivals after just 16 league matches, a daunting deficit.

Manchester United would regroup with back-to-back wins in league play before a stunning fifth-round Carabao Cup exit at Championship side Bristol City in which Korey Smith delivered a stoppage-time winner for the host club. That led into the congested holiday fixture list in which United ground out three draws before turning the calendar year over with a win at Everton.

The January transfer window brought in Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal while Henrikh Mkhitaryan went in the other direction, his strong start little more than a flash in the pain as his playing time was gradually cut as the season progressed. United won their first five matches in 2018 before a 2-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur marked by the embarrassment of conceding a goal in the first 11 seconds.

By February, it was clear City would win the league, which meant United could turn their attention to the Champions League. Mourinho played a classic pragmatic first-leg tie at Sevilla and got what was needed with a scoreless draw in which his team had only one shot on target and six overall.

The Red Devils won their next three on the bounce in league play, beating Chelsea and Liverpool at home around a victory at Crystal Park. But any dreams of a deep Champions League run to offset not being able to catch Manchester City fell apart with a shocking 2-1 home loss to Sevilla.

Wissem Ben Yedder turned the match on its head, breaking a scoreless deadlock two minutes after being introduced and completing his brace four minutes later in the 78th. Lukaku would pull one back for United, but the shock was too much to overcome as it would be a 10th straight year without lifting the Champions League trophy.

It also marked a week in which Mourinho went white-hot in attacking his team through the media, a spleen-venting that was unprecedented even by his already-high standards of using the press to get his message across. After the loss to Sevilla, he decried the lack of winning culture at United while City has risen to the ascendancy in Manchester over the past decade.

That, however, was just a broadside before the fusillade of criticism he unveiled after United’s 2-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup quarterfinals. He said his team had a “lack of personality, a lack of class and a lack of desire” and was only happy with the result of the game as he called out nearly everyone save Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay.

Call it withering, call it scathing, call it anything you like, but the tirade was also one of Mourinho’s moments where he lays the groundwork for his vision going forward. The stinging rebuke was still echoing through his players’ ears three weeks later at the Etihad, where City had taken a 2-0 halftime lead and were 45 minutes away from setting a Premier League record for the earliest clinching of a title with the bonus of doing so at home against their most hated rivals.

Mourinho again reached into his bag of motivational rhetoric ploys at intermission, telling his team “you don’t want to be the clowns standing there, watching them get their title,” and this time they responded. Pogba had two scintillating goals four minutes apart before Chris Smalling latched onto a free kick by Sanchez to bag an unlikely winner. While the 3-2 United win merely delayed the inevitable of City’s third Premier League title in seven years, it was enough to calm the nerves for one weekend at least.

United reached the FA Cup final by beating Tottenham 2-1 at Wembley, then showed Wenger out the door with grace and another victory over their London foils with a 2-1 triumph as Marouane Fellaini grabbed a stoppage-time winner.

Despite losing just seven times in league play, the past season will also be remembered for the fact United somehow lost to all three promoted teams on the road, though it should also be noted Newcastle United is anything but a typical promoted side. Still, Mourinho’s side fell 1-0 at Brighton and Hove Albion, a famous victory for the Gulls that secured a second season in the top flight.

United wrapped up  league play with a draw at West Ham against former manager David Moyes and a 1-0 win over Watford. Their bid to end the season on a positive note with the FA Cup title fell by the wayside with a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at Wembley as they could not overcome Eden Hazard’s penalty on 22 minutes.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester United Lineup.png

Frankly, there is little confidence in this as a projected starting XI beyond De Gea between the sticks, Sanchez on the left and Lukaku eventually leading the line in a 4-3-3 set-up that fails to take into account a potential signing of Toby Alderweireld. Luke Shaw, who has been one of Mourinho’s favorite whipping boys, likely gets the initial run-out at left back while Ashley Young recovers from World Cup duty.

Victor Lindelof should be one of the players in central defense after a solid World Cup run to the quarterfinals with Sweden. Jones moves up into a defensive midfielder’s role until Matic recovers from surgery while flanked by Pogba and summer signing Fred.

Rashford will be given every chance to lock down the spot on the right opposite Sanchez, while Martial can provide depth at either position while preferring to play on the left. It is also likely there will be room for both of them early should Lukaku be unavailable for as Sanchez can lead the line if needed.

One player who needs to find his way onto the pitch is Jesse Lingard, who was another productive player for England at the World Cup and could provide a different look in attack. Juan Mata could serve in the playmaking role in limited bursts, and Fellaini — a Mourinho favorite — also is in the mix despite rumours he wanted to leave Old Trafford.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

While a missing figure for much of last season due to injury, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was released in March to continue his goal-scoring exploits in the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer. Among more immediate first-team players, Daley Blind departed for Ajax, and Matteo Darmian is reportedly trying to finalise a deal with Benfica.

While Anthony Martial wants to leave United, the current plight of missing players due to World Cup recovery means the French winger — who missed out playing for the World Cup-winning Les Bleus — likely will not get his wish. Mourinho has given his blessing for veteran defenders Marcus Rojo to move on from Old Trafford.

United have made three official signings entering the final days of the summer transfer window, the most notable one being Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk. The £52 million midfielder and Brazil international, though, suffered an injury in the run-up to the World Cup and missed out on the tournament for the Selecao.

The other confirmed signings were teenage defender Diogo Dalot from FC Porto and veteran goalkeeper Lee Grant from Stoke City. United are reportedly close to a deal for disgruntled Spurs central defender Alderweireld after being rebuffed for both Leicester City’s Harry Maguire and Barcelona’s Yerry Mina.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Paul Pogba (MF)

A lightning rod all season long for play that ranged from breathtakingly brilliant to boringly inspid with often no middle ground, Pogba returns to Old Trafford a World Cup winner, but it was the method that raised eyebrows, including Mourinho’s.

Pogba was used in tandem with N’Golo Kante in a reserved midfield role for France once manager Didier Deschamps realised the United star could not fully co-exist in an offence that featured Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe running in every direction underneath Olivier Giroud.

To his credit, Pogba played the role beautifully — highlighted by his stunning two-way play against Belgium in the semifinals — and he did net the match-winner in the final versus Croatia. What made the success so startling is that the role Deschamps defined for Pogba was the one Mourinho was unsuccessfully trying to slot Pogba into for United.

Mourinho even lamented Pogba’s international success while praising him, noting United’s success this season could hinge on “him understanding why he was so good, especially in the second part of the competition.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, United are the third-best choice to win the Premier League at 13/2 odds and for a top-four finish at 2/7. They are also joint-second with Liverpool for a top-six finish at 1/20. Manchester United is third at 7/1 odds to top the table on Christmas Day and receiving 9/2 odds for a top-two finish behind City for a second straight year.

Lukaku is joint-third with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 6/1 odds, while Sanchez is further down the list at sixth with 16/1 odds. Pogba and Lukaku are the top United players in terms of Player of the Year odds, listed joint-eighth with Aubameyang and Spurs’ Christian Eriksen at 20/1.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 10 — Leicester City (10th) H
Aug. 19 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A
Aug. 27 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
Sept. 1 — Burnley (7th) A
—————
April 20 — Everton (8th) A
April 27 — Chelsea (5th) H
May 4 — Huddersfield Town (16th) A
May 12 — Cardiff City (N/A) H

OUTLOOK

With a third season of Jose Mourinho on the touchline usually comes some sort of madness that results in club disaster and/or him leaving said touchline. The track record is plainly evident — third season unrest at Chelsea in 2007 after winning the Premier League title the season before. Third season exit at Real Madrid by mutual agreement in 2013. Third-season meltdown in his second go-round at Chelsea in 2016 in which he was out the door in December.

Now he enters his third season at United. He cut an angry, disappointed figure throughout the team’s tour of the United States this summer, largely because he missed out on seemingly all his major transfer targets, but also because the tour did little to sharpen the players he needs to have any chance of ending what could be a burgeoning dynasty on the other side of the city.

His critiques about his team, while harsh, had plenty of merit. It’s hard to feel anything but aggravation like he did after the 4-1 loss to Liverpool in which so few first-team roster players, let alone starting XI players, were on the pitch.

It is a team that does not lack for talent at every position, yet there has nothing about this preseason build-up that lends belief United will contend for a title. One of the underreported storylines of the early part of the season is how will keeper David De Gea recover from a sub-par World Cup in which he made exactly ONE save in Spain’s four matches while allowing six goals and failing to stop any penalties in the loss to Russia in the round of 16?

Matic’s absence in the early part of the season could loom very large. Mourinho’s demand for a central defender seemed to offer hints he wanted to go to a three-man back line, and he may be able to do that should Alderweireld come on board, but there is a certain irony in that his pragmatic ways may become necessary ways for United to navigate their opening stretch of schedule.

Still, when everyone does become available, it is a United team that has to improve. Pogba must retain his form from the World Cup. While Lukaku did not score after the knockout rounds for Belgium, he showed plenty of nous in creating opportunities for others, and his interplay with Sanchez will determine how far United really can go.

Mourinho may have to play Martial and Marcus Rashford together more often, something he was loathe to do last season. Also, the back-and-forth with Martial has to end quickly, and chairman Ed Woodward’s insistence on not selling the Frenchman could have lasting repercussions.

Unlike the United teams under predecessor Louis van Gaal, this is not a rudderless team. But it also feels like a side drifting without a direction while the teams around them — save Tottenham Hotspur — all began moving forward with a plan. After last season’s runner-up finish, one gets the sense Manchester United is going to have to graft hard to retain a Champions League spot in the top four, and if Mourinho gets mercurial, then all bets are off.

PREDICTED FINISH

6th place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City