There are 16 teams who tried and failed to win the Premier League last year and who are back to try again this season. Here, we take a look at one key problem that hindered their efforts in 2014-15, and whether they’ve used the off-season transfer window to solve it.
• NUMBER: 16 clean sheets That’s tied for sixth in the BPL, on par with relegation battlers Sunderland. For Arsenal to make good on their title hopes, they need to be rock solid at the back and get up around the 17 shutouts Chelsea enjoyed last year.
• SOLVED? Two words: Petr Cech. After the coup signing of the Czech veteran from Chelsea, the Gunners finally have their backs fully covered. Cech had 16 clean sheets in 2013-14, his last season as a starter at Chelsea. There’s little to suggest he’s lost a step. If Arsenal fail to claim the Premier League crown this season, it won’t be because of a lack of quality and experience in net.
• NUMBER: 31 goals for Second worst in the BPL last season, behind only Burnley, who were relegated. This is where the game of soccer is really simple: if you don’t score, you can’t win. Villa failed to score in 17 games last year, enduring a six-game goal drought in the heart of the season. That’s a recipe for relegation, which the Villains only narrowly escaped.
• SOLVED? Sadly for Villa fans, the transfer window has been marked by the exit of their most prolific striker. Christian Benteke potted 13 times last season, over a third of his team’s tallies. New signings Jordan Ayew and Rudy Gestede may have worked as support for Benteke in bringing Villa’s offense up to snuff, but to replace his contributions last season—and more—they have their work more than cut out for them.
• As champions, their struggle isn’t to climb the table—it’s to stay on top of it.
• NUMBER: 40.5% possession average It’s pretty hard to win when you’re only getting close to a third as much time on the ball as your opposition. Which makes Palace’s bang-on middle-of-the-pack finish last season pretty impressive. How high could the Eagles fly with more possession under their wings?
• SOLVED? Give Alan Pardew credit, he’s made a big move in the right direction, rescuing midfield playmaking maestro Yohann Cabaye from the bench at Paris St. Germain. The Frenchman is a complete midfielder, adept in the tackle, a keen passer and a lethal goal threat. Expect Palace to see more of the ball with Cabaye in the middle of the park.
• NUMBER: 12 wins If you’re Crystal Palace, that’s a decent season. Except Everton are not Crystal Palace; they’re Everton, and they had 21 wins in 2013-14. It’s gotta hurt to follow up a great season where you finished fifth and pressed hard for a Champions League spot with a season where you win over 40 percent fewer games. Besides which, Crystal Palace ended last season with 13 wins. So that hurts, too.
• SOLVED? Well…no. Not obviously, at least. It’s hard to believe that Everton are actually as bad as last season—especially the beginning of last season—suggests. But if they are, are the transfers of Gerard Deulofeu and Tom Cleverly really the answers? Fans unwilling to call 2014-15 a blip for this squad will be hoping Roberto Martinez has something up his sleeve.
• NUMBER: 1 win in first half of the season against the BPL’s bottom sides Leicester’s not going to win the Premier League, so their primary goal is just to stay in it. Last season they came close to failing in that goal, largely because they stumbled out of the blocks against the very teams with whom they’d have to compete in any relegation battle. In their first meetings with teams that eventually finished in the bottom half of the league, the Foxes notched just one win while suffering five losses and settling for three draws. A much-improved second half of the season against their neighbours in the table saved Leicester from relegation, but if they want to avoid flirting with the drop again they’ll need to be as motivated and on-point for games against lowly opposition as they are against the likes of Manchester United.
• SOLVED? Experience and maturity seem like the most obvious answers to the problems Leicester are grappling with, and they’ve addressed both well. Austrian international fullback Christian Fuchs and Japanese international midfielder Shinji Okazaki—both Bundesliga imports—each seem modelled after the highly successful signing of Esteban Cambiasso last year: grab a high-quality veteran with plenty of wisdom, maturity and miles left in his legs.
• NUMBER: £116 million That’s what Liverpool spent to keep the momentum of the oh-so-close 2013-14 season going, despite the loss of Luis Suarez to Barcelona. It didn’t work. Where Luis Suarez soared to 31 goals for the Reds in his last season, his replacements flopped hard: Rickie Lambert scored twice, same with Lazar Markovic; Mario Balotelli tallied only once in the league. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s 48 goals against don’t exactly rave about the contributions of big centre-back acquisition Dejan Loveren.
• SOLVED? Hard to say. The wallet has been whipped out at Anfield again this off-season, with Roberto Firmino, Nathanial Clyne and Christian Benteke brought in for nearly 70 million. If the rumour mill is at all correct, they won’t be the only ones. Only time will tell if this year’s big spend will correct last year’s.
• NUMBER: 872 clearances It’s hard to quantify Manchester City’s defensive difficulties last season—at their end of the table the margins are razor thing. But this number of defensive clearances—dead last in the league—hints at it. As does being fifth in goals-against (this from a returning Champion side, remember) and in the bottom third in aerials won. The upshot: when you score 83 goals in a season, 10 more than your nearest competitor, but still finish eight points out of first, something at the back needs to be fixed.
• SOLVED? No. City may still spend, but they have yet to add to their backline. In fact, City have done away with defenders this summer, letting the loaned-out duo of Matija Nastasic and Micah Richards go permanently, and waving goodbye to centre-back Dedryck Boyata and strong-tackling midfielder James Milner. Clearing the decks for a backline addition? City fans might hope so.
• NUMBER: 12 Goals for Rooney last season That’s a poor return for the England superstar, who United need to come up huge. Partly it’s down to Louis Van Gaal playing Rooney in central attacking midfield rather than his most productive spot at centre forward.
• SOLVED? Seems so. The exits of Radamel Falcao and, especially, Robin Van Persie leave a slot open up front for Rooney. The addition of Morgan Schneiderlin and, especially, Bastian Schweinsteiger, to the Red Devils’ midfield frees Rooney to move up and take that striker’s role. Especially with that kind of midfield support, expect Wazza to be closer to his career-best 20-something goals by season’s end.
• NUMBER: 63 goals against The worst of any returning BPL team. Actually, more goals against than two of three teams that got relegated last season. A must fix if progress is in the cards at St. James’ Park.
• SOLVED? It would take a huge leap of faith to say that Chancel Mbemba—a 20 year old who cut his teeth at Anderlecht in Belgium—is enough to plug Newcastle’s leaky backline. Apart from him, the Magpies have made attacking additions.
• NUMBER: 10 losses by 1 goal Southampton’s goal differential last season was plus-21. That’s very good—top-four good. But they finished seventh. How does that make sense? Because the Saints tend to win big and lose narrow. Ten times they lost by one goal. Six of those times the single goal that beat them was scored in the last third of the game. If Southampton were able to see out those games as draws—gaining that one point and denying their opponents two—they could well have earned a Champions League spot.
• SOLVED? So far the transfer window has set the Saints back rather than moved them forward. Losing defender Nathanial Clyne and key defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin will only make it harder for Southampton to close games out. Incoming defensive mid Jordie Clasie doesn’t appear an upgrade on Schneiderlin, but then Southampton have made a habit entering a season looking like they’re in deep trouble before surprising everyone.
• NUMBER: 16 away goals Stoke is better than a goal-a-game away average. That’s bottom-half-of-the-table stuff. Their 10 home wins and 32 home goals, however, is the stuff European spots are made of. Mark Hughes has revolutionized things at the Britannia—all the Potters need now is to take that revolution on the road.
• SOLVED? The most obvious answer to the problem of jitters on the road is to bring in quality and experience. Stoke has done that to a degree—and on the cheap. Right back Glen Johnson is a veteran hand with miles left in his legs, and while midfielder Ibrahim Affelay may not have ever gotten off the ground at Barcelona, he’s been playing top-flight football for a decade and definitely has something to offer. Losing goalkeeper Asmir Begovic to Chelsea will hurt, but Shay Given should steady the ship as England international Jack Butland comes of age.
• NUMBER: 17 points dropped from winning positions The Black Cats may curse their own luck, but last year was about handing away leads for them. Four times they let a game they led end in a draw; three times they lost a game they had been winning. If they even hang on to 10 of those points, they would have enjoyed mid-table safety rather than having to gut out a relegation battle.
• SOLVED? Without the cash or cache to nab a marquee CB, Sunderland have prudently purchased a handful of defenders to help see out games and keep leads intact. Where the aging pair of Wes Brown and John O’Shea have faltered, the likes of Younes Kaboul (CB, ex of Tottenham) Sebastian Coates (CB, Liverpool) and Adam Matthews (RB, Celtic)—while hardly a collective silver bullet—are bargain buys aimed at defensive depth.
• NUMBER: -3 goal differential That’s not good enough, quite simply, for Swansea to take the next step in what is already a very impressive Premier League existence for the club from South Wales. Losing key striker Wilfried Bony—who had 9 goals up to his sale in January—didn’t help.
• SOLVED? Which new striker—if either—will replace Bony? Portugal international Eder is big and powerful, a Premier League–ready physique, but didn’t totally light up La Liga last year, with 10 goals in 29 appearances. Andre Ayew, meanwhile, is less physical and, well, only just as productive with 10 goals for himself at Marseille last year. Neither look like the man to fill Bony’s big boots at the Liberty, but maybe the combination of the two can push Swansea into positive differential territory.
• NUMBER: 50% Tottenham’s perpetual goal is to crack into the top four; but when they’re as likely to lose against top-half teams as they are to win or draw, they’ll find that glass ceiling near impossible to shatter. Against the eventual top-four sides in 2014-15, Spurs won two, drew two and lost four. Same story against teams that finished in the top half of the table: won five, drew four, lost nine. Top-four status demands better.
• SOLVED? Top quality is the only answer. Have Spurs brought in the elite-level players they’ll need to secure Champions League football? Doesn’t look like it. Toby Alderweireld is a very strong defender and could be an astute signing from Atletico Madrid, but he’s not a game winner. Tottenham’s attack is leaning very heavily on Harry Kane’s shoulders—shoulders that, unlike last season, are also bearing a huge weight of expectation.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
• NUMBER: 3 managers last season West Brom have already made their big acquisition for this year by hiring Tony Pulis in January. Stumbling to 10 losses and just four wins before the turn of the year, the Baggies were boosted to seven wins and six losses under Pulis, saving them a relegation dogfight come season’s end.
• SOLVED? See above. Just stick with Pulis and things should be OK is the feeling at the Hawthorns. Hard to fault it. The additions of James Chester at the back and James McClean on the wing have a nice ring to them, too. And if Ricking Lambert can put Liverpool behind him and rediscover his Southampton form, his low-cost signing by Pulis could prove a coup.
WEST HAM UNITED
• NUMBER: 9 wins, 4 draws, 4 losses That was West Ham’s record on Christmas Day last year. They were fourth in the table. Fourth! Hopefully the Hammers enjoyed the holiday because come Boxing Day they went into a tailspin, losing three in a row and five of seven. They still finished the season respectably mid-table, but if West Ham want to realize the promise of the early part of last season, they need to learn to stay consistent and recover quickly from setbacks.
• SOLVED? The Hammers have upgraded in the off-season. The signing of playmaker Dimitri Payet, who was an assist machine for Marseille last season, more than makes up for the loss of Stewart Downing. The French international appears the kind of player who will consistently create goals all season, and chip in with a handful of his own, too.