james debate
james debate

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Welcome back football fans.  I hope everyone had a great summer, but it is time to get back to business. A new season of Premier League football is approaching, and once again it looks like a corker, promising fake drama, real tears, and hopefully some good football. As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few inevitably accurate predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.

premier league 2015/16 preview

Premier League 2017/18 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester United
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool
Relegated: Swansea, Crystal Palace, Brighton
Golden Boot winner: Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)
Golden Glove winner: David de Gea (Manchester United)
Player to watch: Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur)
New signing to watch: Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United)
Young player to watch: Tammy Abraham (Swansea)
First manager to get the sack: Craig Shakespeare (Leicester City)
Shock of the season: Arsene Wenger leaves Arsenal


Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 5th
Manager: Arsene Wenger

Fifteen years without a league title, and now for the first time in Wenger's Arsenal tenure, no Champions League football. It's going from bad to worse for Arsenal, and it's no surprise that the calls to replace manager Arsene Wenger have increased and reached a fever pitch. Many expected him to go after last year's failures, but he has stuck around for another year. Make no mistake though, there can be no excuse for a repeat performance this season.

Typically the problem with Arsenal has been money, not that they don't have it, but that they refuse to spend it. Whether by some misplaced morality, or the simple greed of the club's board, the club has become typified by a lack of ambition. Now with massive recent outlays on transfer spending, including the £50 million deals for Ozil and Sanchez, £40 million on Granit Xhaka, and this year a cool £50 million for Lacazette, the club seems finally to have accepted this new reality. The money has been flowing, now the question is whether they waited too long and are simply too far off the pace to seriously challenge the big clubs. Based on last year's showing, it would appear that this may be the case.

The headline signing of the summer has been French striker Alexandre Lacazette. It's a excellent start, but won't be enough in itself to paper over the deficiencies elsewhere in the squad. More concerning for Gunners is the ongoing saga over Alexis Sanchez, by far their best player of the last few years. At a time when they need to be retaining their key personnel and building a squad, losing Sanchez would come as a bitter blow to their chances.

Key Signing: Alexandre Lacazette
Key Man: Alexis Sanchez (if he stays)

Verdict: A lot of question marks, they face a tough challenge to break back into the top 4.


Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Capacity: 11,700
Last season: 9th
Manager: Eddie Howe

An impressive season for Bournemouth saw the side secure a top half finish in only their second Premier League campaign. Great credit has to go to manager Eddie Howe for his constant drive to exceed expectations. No time to rest on laurels though, two good seasons doesn't guarantee sustained success.

Their meteoric rise through the leagues (League One just five years ago!) is only part of the feel-good story surrounding the club right now. Progress has been made on a new stadium, while their summer's transfer activity has been ambitious, and astute. The signing of Aké from Chelsea could be one of the signings of the season, while the addition of experienced goalkeeper Begovic is a smart purchase. Jermain Defoe also joins this summer, a player who, despite his advancing years, still inevitably brings goals.

Equally, they have done a good job in retaining their key players from last year. It's not the league's deepest squad, particularly at the back, but they are well stocked in the midfield and up front. Striker Joshua King riding a wave of goalscoring form from last season, and could form a deadly partnership with Defoe. There is no doubting the difficulty of what lies ahead, but Eddie Howe is a good manager and on paper they don't look worse off than last year.

Key Signing: Nathan Aké
Key Man: Joshua King

Verdict: A tough ask for them to repeat last season's feats, but who would bet against them? We're going for a solid mid table finish.


Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 30,750
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Chris Hughton

These Premier Legaue debutants may have been unexpected runners up in last year's Championship, but will need to adapt quickly if they are to navigate the colossal step up to the Premier League. At a time when even the league's smaller clubs command great financial resources and high quality on the pitch, there is no room for hesitance or inexperience. Brighton will require great strengthening just to survive.

It is to their credit that they have at the helm the experienced management of Chris Hughton, and players such as Anthony Knockaert and Liam Rosenior who are familiar with the league. But otherwise there remains a great question mark over much their squad.

They have been active in the transfer market within the confines of their financial means, the most notable of which will be the key signing of goalkeeper Mathew Ryan from Valencia. The additional depth will serve them well and ensure that they are no pushovers in this league, but have they made the kind of moves, and brought in the kind of experience that new clubs need to succeed in this league? I'm not so sure.

The Seagulls understandably begin the season on a wave of enthusiasm, but they know they face an uphill struggle in order to survive. Away fans best enjoy the opportunity for football trips to the beach while they can.

Key Signing: Mathew Ryan
Key Man: Anthony Knockaert

Verdict: No pushovers by any means, but among the favourites for the drop.


Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,800
Last season: 16th
Manager: Sean Dyche

Sean Dyche is a fine manager and has done very well to survive last season with such meagre resources at his disposal. Burnley now heads into a second consecutive season in the Premier League and will be looking to consolidate their position.

To this end they have reinforced with some solid Premier League experience in Jack Cork and Phil Bardsley, but with key player Andre Gray going in the other direction. They will be looking for players like Sam Vokes to take up the mantle of main goal threat, while doing everything to keep ahold of key players like Steven Defour and Benjamin Mee.

Many pundits have favoured Burnley for relegation this season, but I think this does them a disservice. Make no mistake, this is not an especially strong squad, and with another manager they may be favourites for the drop, but with Dyche at the helm they stand a good chance of survival.

Key Signing: Jack Cork
Key Man: Sam Vokes

Verdict: Tough battle for survival, but one they can win.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: Champions
Manager: Antonio Conte

It's difficult not to feel a sense of deja vu. Two years ago Chelsea were champions, but after a summer of stagnation, incompetent transfer policy, and complacency, they ended their title defence in 10th. They scapegoated the manager and swept the failure of that season under the rug. Duly they strengthened, bounced back, and are champions once more. Well surprise surprise, they didn't learn from their mistake. History is set to repeat itself.

Chelsea's squad last season was already among the smallest in the league. They owe much of their title win to the fact that they missed out on Europe, and thus had fewer games than their competition. So the fact that they have reduced the size of their squad over the summer is hard to understand. They have signed three decent players, Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid, Antonio Rudiger from Roma, and Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco, but they have sold twice as many players as they have brought in. The result is a squad which currently has only 14 senior outfield players, barely enough to fill a subs bench, and no proven striker.  Sure, they still have Eden Hazard and N'golo Kante, but two players can't carry a team. A single injury or suspension here could send the squad into a crisis. Just look at the bench of their opening fixture, populated almost entirely by youth products.

Even more inexplicable is the lack of a pre-season. They have played just three pre-season games this summer, compared to 6 - 8 that they ordinarily play. It is no wonder then that they looked so sluggish and unfit in the Community Shield game.

I've never seen a team of champions enter a title defence with such pessimism. This is a squad that is clearly insufficient in depth and quality for a title challenge, and perhaps for a top four finish. It is also a squad that is bizarrely unprepared for a new season, with little in the way of warm up to pull them out of their summer holidays. Two years ago, I made a bold prediction that the champions could miss out on top four, a prediction which was widely mocked, and yet turned out to be highly prescient. All signs indicate that this season could be just as bad.

Key Signing: Alvaro Morata
Key Man: Eden Hazard

Verdict: Any notion of a title defence is absurd, without at least 3 more signings top four will be a struggle.


Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,456
Last season: 14th
Manager: Frank de Boer

Stability has been tricky to come by for Crystal Palace in recent times, through a slew of managerial changes and squad upheaval. Yet they will be hearted by the fact that they enter a 5th consecutive season in the top flight. Now with the appointment of Frank de Boer, a manager with genuine status, there is the hope that the club is starting to be seen as a Premier League mainstay, rather than one concerned with mere survival. This is a mistake, their position is far more tenuous than it appears.

It's not just luck that has led to this managerial merry-go-round. There is work that needs to be done to build consistency. Yet the club has let go of a whopping 13 players this summer, and brought in just 1 on a permanent basis. The club with nevertheless be buoyed by the promising loan moves for Chelsea youngster Ruben Loftus Cheek and Manchester United youth Timothy Fosu-Mensah, both very intriguing additions who will be interesting to see gaining regular Premier League football.

The rest of the team is not bad by any means, with the likes of Christian Benteke, Wilfried Zaha and Patrick van Aanholt in the first XI, but beyond that the depth of the squad seems a little suspect for a Premier League campaign, and one would hope that they bring in additional new faces before the end of the transfer window.

There is much to be intrigued by this Crystal Palace team, but it's clear that they have not addressed the main concerns with the squad, and seem increasingly reliant on unproven quality. The lack of squad depth makes a battle for survival a very real possibility this season. They must avoid complacency.

Key Signing: Ruben Loftus Cheek
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha

Verdict: Not safe by any means, relegation a very real possibility.


Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 7th
Manager: Ronald Koeman

Premier League mainstays Everton enter this season in an unfamiliar position, with serious financial backing from their board. The famously frugal management has splashed a cool hundred million this summer in order to back manager Ronald Koeman. That's the kind of money one would expect of a side that's pushing very much for Champions League qualification.

Serious money has been spent on Jordan Pickford, Davy Klaassen and Michael Keane, while former youth star Wayne Rooney has been resigned from Manchester United. They will, of course, be missing the goalscoring threat of Romelu Lukaku, who went in the other direction.

So what are their prospect this season? They're a good side, one of the best in the league and with decent depth. There is an absence of players who can offer real penetration, particularly among their extended squad, and of course they miss a frontman with the calibre of their outgoing Lukaku. Of their signings, Pickford has potential but still has much to prove, while with Rooney Koeman is gambling that the former England captain was written off too soon at United. They'll make a good showing of it, but unlikely to trouble the top four this season.

Key Signing: Michael Keane
Key Man: Morgan Schneiderlin

Verdict: Probably looking at a similar finish to last year, just outside the top four.


Nickname: The Terriers
Ground: John Smith's Stadium
Capacity: 24,500
Last season: Promoted (Play-off)
Manager: David Wagner

The league's "biggest underdogs", "certain for the drop". These are all things being said about Huddersfield. And sure, they're nobody's favourite. They're Premier League newcomers, with little in the way of Premier League talent, but that also means low pressure, and belies the fact that they have actually made some pretty solid transfer moves this summer.

Steve Mounie and Mathias Jorgensen will provide decent talent for a low level Premier League side, but the most significant new face is Tom Ince, a highly talented player with plenty of top flight experience. Frankly it's surprising that no bigger side has moved for him sooner given the promise shown during his Blackpool years, but Huddersfield will reap the benefits.

Make no mistake, a monumental challenge faces this team in the coming year, but then no one fancied them for promotion last year either and look where we are. This is a club with a manager who can motivate his team and get more out of them than one might expect. They have strengthened shrewdly and reinforced in precisely the right areas. I think they could surprise people.

Key Signing: Tom Ince
Key Man: Christopher Schindler

Verdict: Everyone's favourite for relegation, I think they could surprise, and maybe survive.


Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,315
Last season: 12th
Manager: Craig Shakespeare

It is not at all a surprise that Leicester City failed to live up to their previous season's billing. Their title winning heroics were among the most astonishing feats in sporting history, and a subsequent slump to mid table is mere reversion to the mean. So where does that leave them? Hard to say. Is mid table the natural place for this club, or can they push on again into the top tier of clubs. Might they even be at risk of relegation as one might expect of a club with such limited top flight experience? It's hard to say.

There are warning signs for sure. Shakespeare does not look a longterm solution in the dugout. A change in management usually leads to a temporary resurgence in form, but beyond that it's hard to see what he brings to the table that his title winning predecessor did not.

More promising is the club's positive activity in the summer transfer market, which has seen some fairly big money moves for the likes of Harry Maguire, now set to start in the heart of defence, and Kelechi Iheanacho, the former Manchester City striker. They will complement the largely intact core of this Leicester team, which includes the likes of Jamie Vardy, Wes Morgan and Riyad Mahrez. These are all quality players who could thrive in just about any team in the league. The trouble is that beyond them the squad still looks closer to a second tier team than a top of the table side.

Ultimately Leicester have the look of a side that have marginally improved upon last season, but still face a number of challenges if they are to progress. Pre-season has not been promising, there is still a lot of work to be done if Leicester are going to consolidate their position. A top half finish will do them just fine.

Key Signing: Harry Maguire
Key Man: Jamie Vardy

Verdict: Will push for a top half finish, but face significant risk from teams lower down the table.


Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: 4th
Manager: Jurgen Klopp

Last season saw a marked improvement for Liverpool, and a return to the Champions League. With Jurgen Klopp, one of the hottest managers in the world today, the feeling at the club is finally one of genuine optimism and direction. Can he take this club back to the top?

Now it might seem like such statements are made every season, and there is something to that, especially with the dominance of ex Liverpool players in the pundit class, but the things Klopp accomplished at Dortmund are not to be sniffed at, when faced with the total monopoly of German football and sponsorship that is Bayern Munich. That they won the title and damn near won the Champions League should not be understated.

More importantly, this is a Liverpool team bristling with quality, from Mané to Firmino, and the new big money signing of Mo Salah. Then there is the story of Philippe Coutinho, still the essential Liverpool player. Coutinho currently looks dead set on pushing through a Barcelona transfer, though Liverpool are holding firm at the time of writing. His loss would be a big blow to the team

So what is the target for this season? The title is always on the mind of Liverpool fans. More realistic is another top four finish, and this year that looks a very achievable goal.

Key Signing: Mo Salah
Key Man: Sadio Mané

Verdict: Another top four finish on the cards.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,097
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Pep Guardiola

So what to make of this Manchester City team? On paper one of the deepest and strongest squads in the country. They finished a disappointing 3rd last season, with no major silverware, after spending a whopping £200 million in the transfer market. They have spent yet another £200 million this summer.

I've long been a vocal critic of Pep Guardiola, a manager who has only ever succeeded when inheriting a team that was already the best in the world, and has invariably left his club worse off than when they hired him. Regardless of whether you acknowledge these facts or buy into the hype, the simple fact is he has not gotten results, despite the fact that he has every resource in the world at his disposal.

He has the players. Sergio Aguero remains one of the world's best goalscorers. Kevin de Bruyne has joined a long list of neglected Chelsea youngsters to go on to become world class elsewhere. Kompany, Silva, Sané, Sterling... this is a squad packed to the rafters with quality in every position, and they have added to that abundance with the likes of Kyle Walker and Danilo, Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva.

It's a squad that's up there with the best in the world on paper, with the money and facilities to accomplish anything. The only question mark remains the manager. Surely the club will not tolerate another season of failure. It's the title or bust for Pep.

Key Signing: Kyle Walker
Key Man: Sergio Agüero

Verdict: A title favourite, anything less would be a failure.


Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 75, 643
Last season: 6th
Manager: Jose Mourinho

It seems as though the stars are beginning to align for Manchester United. They have capitalised on the foolishness of their competitors to acquire one of the best managers in the world in Jose Mourinho, one of the best young strikers in the world in Romelu Lukaku, and to top it all off they have added the hugely underrated midfield general Nemanja Matic. Add to this an already strong squad of Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and others, and this is starting to look like it could be their year.

Really, the only weakness remains their defence. Man U currently rely on Phil Jones, Eric Bailly, an ageing Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind, none of whom have really proven themselves as top class defenders. Victor Lindelof has been signed to bolster that backline, but had not have the most auspicious of starts in red. It is fortunate that they have one of the world's best goalkeepers in David de Gea to pick up the slack.

The current imperfections in the squad suggest that any ambitions of challenging the top clubs in Europe are still a ways off, but there will be time for that later. The target this season is very much to reclaim the Premier League title. Reassert domestic ascendancy, and then build on that to compete in Europe. That's what a big club is supposed to do, take note Chelsea board.

Key Signing: Romelu Lukaku
Key Man: David de Gea

Verdict: Genuine title contenders, should be there or thereabouts.


Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,354
Last season: Promoted (1st)
Manager: Rafa Benitez

The Newcastle rollercoaster ride continues. Up and down and up again. This time, however, there is an altogether more positive atmosphere about the club. Mike Ashley has reconciled with the fans. Rafa is doing a decent job keeping everything together, and now they're back in the top flight, with a solid chance of staying up this time.

Do they have the squad to compete at this level? There is certainly talent in this side, particularly the mercurial Jonjo Shelvey, and he is joined by the likes of Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle and Jamaal Lascelles. These are solid players, but going into this summer there was the clear impression that reinforcement was needed, and it's not clear that they have really done enough.

The signings of Christian Atsu and Javier Manquillo are good additions for sure, but they have been unable to add the dependable top flight striker they were after, having failed to bring in Tammy Abraham as expected.

Where is all this going? Who knows. Newcastle on paper are a side that can achieve survival, but it's going to be difficult.

Key Signing: Christian Atsu
Key Man: Jonjo Shelvey

Verdict: A tough fight for survival awaits, but they should have enough about them.


Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 8th
Manager: Mauricio Pellegrino

One of the Premier League's great success stories in recent years, Southampton's rise to the top has been hugely impressive. But a series of managerial changes and player departures has started to leave them looking a bit disjointed. A club that wishes to remain at the top needs to at some point consolidate what they have, and yet Southampton continue to turnover at a rate more befitting a club of less promise. Last season we predicted a slight regression into mid table, and they duly delivered. Now the challenge is for them to reverse the decline and build.

Mauricio Pellegrino, formerly of Manchester City, is the man now charged with taking the club forward. A fine choice with a history of success behind him. General consensus has it that he was hard done by at Manchester City, but at Southampton he'll have the patience and time to get his vision into practice.

In terms of signings, it's been a quiet summer compared to the rest of the Premier League. Mario Lemina from Juventus is the most notable of the signings. Instead the focus has been on keeping ahold of their key players, in particular Virgil van Dijk who has been linked with just about every top club in Europe and also Liverpool.

Fortunately for the most part Southampton have managed to maintain the key squad elements, the likes of Ryan Bertrand, Cedric, Fraser Forster, and striker Manolo Gabbiadini. The latter in particular will need to have a good season if Southampton are to meet expectations. The team's main flaw last season was a lack of goals. With Gabbiadini now entering a first full season with the club, fans will be hoping that he solves that particular problem.

Key Signing: Mario Lemina
Key Man: Manolo Gabbiadini

Verdict: Pellegrino to steady the ship, but too soon to push further up that table.


Nickname: Potters
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Capacity: 28,384
Last season: 13th
Manager: Mark Hughes

After a good few years of incremental improvement, Stoke had seemed to be becoming a bit of a hot thing in the Premier League, with many expecting a push into the top 10 last season. So to have ultimately slumped to a 13th place finish is being seen as something of a disappointment, and a step backwards. Certainly one can't argue that Mark Hughes has done a very impressive job with this team. Stoke are after all no longer a team merely fighting for survival every season, and in shaking off the utilitarian ways of Tony Pulis they have managed to build a side that can play real football and play it well. Still even fans will have to admit that they have lost some of their recent lustre, and worrying times may lie ahead.

Perhaps spurred on by last season's unmet expectations, the club have been fairly active in the summer transfer market. They have made a solid 6 signings, most notably for Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indy, as well as former Manchester United and West Brom midfielder Darren Fletcher. They have also made two highly shrewd loan moves for Jese of PSG and Kurt Zouma of Chelsea. At the same time, the loss of key player Marko Arnautovic is a bitter blow, and perhaps an indication that even players are worried about the direction of the club.

So what to expect this season? Based on the strength of the squad and the track record of Mark Hughes, one would have to think they're too good to get sucked into the relegation battle. Still I'd fancy them for a slump back into the lower half of the table.

Key Signing: Bruno Martins Indi
Key Man: Joe Allen

Verdict: Could be a tricky season for Mark Hughes and his team.


Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Capacity: 21,088
Last season: 15th
Manager: Paul Clement

It's all starting to go pear-shaped for Swansea City. The club has made a good account of itself over what has been a very solid top flight run, playing good football, claiming a few giant scalps, and generally becoming a real fixture in this league. But now the frustration is starting to seep through, with more backwards movement in the league and upheaval on and off the pitch yet again (a whopping 15 players out and 9 in over the summer).

Great credit to new manager Paul Clement, who came in part way through the last season and really turned around what could have been an even worse season, but he'll have his work cut out for him this year.

The loss of Gylfi Sigurdsson is a massive blow, and one that could push the club into a relegation tussle over the coming year. That Fernando Llorente might follow him out the door makes matters even worse. Loan signing Tammy Abraham looks like he'll have a great deal more pressure on him than might have been expected. The youngster broke all kinds of teenage goalscoring records in the Championship last season, let's see if he can bring that form to the top flight. If their options look thin up front, then at least they have solid depth to fall back on in the midfield, with the likes of Jordan Ayew, and last season's inspired signing of Tom Carroll.

There's a lot of new faces, and one would have to assume there will be a gelling process before we see this Swansea team come together. The question is do they have the time to develop, or will it all be too much for them this season?

Key Signing: Tammy Abraham
Key Man: Jordan Ayew

Verdict: Could find themselves sucked into a relegation battle of not careful.


Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Wembley
Capacity: 90,000
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

There's not much more than needs to be said about manager Mauricio Pochettino. The man was a phenomenal success at Southampton and he has carried that midas touch on to Tottenham. Last season was a remarkable feat, achingly close to the title, and another year of Champions League football to come.

With Chelsea taking their foot off the gas, one might have suspected that Tottenham would leap on the opportunity to stake their claim for their surrendered title. Yet this summer we have seen a strangely unambitious Tottenham, incredibly still yet to make any new signings. However unlike Chelsea they have managed to keep ahold of most of their key players, with only Kyle Walker so far moving for the exit. As such, their lack of activity may not necessarily be a problem, after all this was a very fine team last year and retains the same depth of quality as before.

The squad undoubtedly ranks among the strongest in the league, with the likes of Lloris, Dier, and Christian Eriksen all performers of the highest quality. But the keys to this team undoubtedly belong to Dele Alli and Harry Kane. Picking one out of the two of them as a key man for this team is a difficult task, so central are they both to the way this club plays. With a squad this good, and still largely intact from last season, anything really is possible.

Key Signing: N/A
Key Man: Harry Kane

Verdict: Will be right up there, top four and likely title contenders.


Nickname: Hornets
Ground: Vicarage Road
Capacity: 21,577
Last season: 13th
Manager: Marco Silva

The rollercoaster continues, another managerial change, and another summer of mass squad upheaval. This summer has seen them sign 9 new players and sell 11. Despite this madness, the team actually performed fairly decently last season, coming comfortably in the mid table and never really looking at danger of relegation. New manager Marco Silva has created a sense of calm about the club and looks the right man to take this club forward.

Indeed they have signed well this summer, bringing in the likes of Tom Cleverley on a permanent basis, as well as Nathanial Chalobah and Burnley's Andre Gray. The addition of former hot prospect Will Hughes is also a tantalising move, if he can recapture the promise that was shown prior to the cruciate ligament injury he could be one of the finds of the season. The addition of so many central midfielders suggests a switch to a 4-3-3, which will give their lead man Stefano Okaka room to shine. At the moment this squad looks a little thin at the back, but their quality in midfield and attack should make them good fun to watch this season.

They won't have an easy going of it this season, but they should survive. It's important to hit the ground running or they could find themselves sucked into the relegation battle early on.

Key Signing: Tom Cleverley
Key Man: Stefano Okaka

Verdict: Lower half of the table but should survive.


Nickname: Baggies
Ground: The Hawthorns
Capacity: 26,852
Last season: 10th
Manager: Tony Pulis

The Tony Pulis project continues, and indeed the nails from Wales appears to have worked his magic on West Brom. From previous relegation battlers, Pulis has built his customary solid mid table side, and ultimately ended up squeaking into the top half last season. History tells us that pushing beyond that will be a tricky ask, but West Brom have built a fine team and should give a good account of themselves again.

Tony Pulis is one of the very best when it comes to winning Premier League points with only meager resources at your disposal. He did it with Stoke, and he did it with Crystal Palace. With Pulis at the helm, West Brom will be safe from relegation. The question now is can they push on and make a case for the top half of the table.

The loss of Darren Fletcher is a big blow, but they have replaced experience with experience by signing Gareth Barry, who now becomes arguably the key player in this West Brom side. Meanwhile the club's move for Jay Rodriguez may well solve their goalscoring issues. Those familiar with Pulis teams will however point out that great emphasis is rarely placed on the front man.

The extra spice to the tale is the upcoming expiration of Pulis, and the relatively new club owner Guochuan Lai. How will that play out? Does Lai want to keep this a Pulis team, or is the ambition somewhere else? Time, and good results, will tell.

Key Signing: Gareth Barry
Key Man: Gareth Barry

Verdict: A comfortable mid table but unlikely to break the top 10 again.


Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 11th
Manager: Slaven Bilić

A solid mid table finish was perhaps not what was expected following the previous season's heroics. Many had been expecting the Hammers to inaugurate their new home at the Olympic stadium, now inexplicably renamed London Stadium, with a genuine push to the next level. European qualification was the aim, and with bumper crowds and the resources for squad building, it looked a realistic one.

Bilić has been getting a lot of credit for the fine work that he has done during his tenure as West Ham manager, but he'll be under pressure this season to keep the momentum going. West Ham has always been a club with ambition, and that is the case again this year as they step back out into the transfer market. The signing of experienced Man City defender Pablo Zabaleta will be a fine move, but the key additions here are the signings of Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). Joe Hart joining the club on loan is also a very fine choice. Mark Noble is still a key figure at this club, along with Andre Ayew. Indeed they look reasonably well stocked up front, while their summer business will hopefully shore up that thin defence.

So when will everything settle down? That remains to be seen. While this squad is by no means bad, it perhaps has not improved enough to suggest that a renewed push into the top tier of the league is a realistic goal for this season. With increased scrutiny on his job, Bilic is unlikely to have much leeway either. This will perhaps be another season of consolidation, rather than progress.

Key Signing: Javier Hernandez
Key Man: Mark Noble

Verdict: Another mid table finish on the cards.

Predicted table:
1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Tottenham
4. Liverpool
5. Chelsea
6. Arsenal
7. Everton
8. Southampton
9. West Ham
10. West Brom
11. Leicester
12. Bournemouth
13. Watford
14. Newcastle
15. Stoke
16. Burnley
17. Huddersfield
18. Swansea
19. Crystal Palace
20. Brighton

Monday, 14 August 2017

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by James Graham
Starring Bertie Carvel, Richard Coyle
Theatre Almeida / Duke of York

ink rupert murdoch the sun almeida west end james graham this house

When you're writing a play about politics, there is a danger in turning your script into a soapbox. Many writers give in to this temptation, using the opportunity to press an obvious personal agenda in a way that's often naked and self-serving. But audiences don't go to the theatre to watch a cartoon. Excessive pandering can be a turn off, even where I actually agree with the opinion being expressed.

So you can imagine that when a play is dealing with a particularly prominent and controversial figure, that danger is even greater. Rupert Murdoch is undoubtedly one such figure, and it would have been entirely too easy to pander to the liberal London theatre crowd by portraying the man as some kind of monster. Murdoch has spent a career building the vast media empire News Corporation, and in doing so has earned himself no small share of revulsion for ethically questionable activities like phone-hacking, fake news, and a troubling influence over British politicians. Deserved though the public's general animosity may be, if I had walked into this theatre and spent 3 hours watching some anti-Murdoch circlejerk, I'd have been disappointed. Fortunately, James Graham is far too deft a writer to take such an obvious approach to this story.

Anyone who has seen This House, probably Graham's most famous work, will know roughly what to expect. Graham has shown himself to be a playwright singularly capable of bringing dry subjects as politics to life in a way that's both crowd-pleasing and insightful, whilst never feeling preachy. With Ink, Graham delivers yet again, with a production that's as energetic and funny as anything you will see this year.

The focus is on Murdoch's early years in the UK, his acquisition of the struggling The Sun newspaper, and the tumultuous road to turning it into the biggest paper in the country. At most the script only lightly alludes to his future controversies and political ambitions. Instead Murdoch is portrayed as an outsider, an irreverent upstart looking to shake up the old boys' club in the journalistic industry, and whose single-mindedness and ruthless business instincts allow him to succeed.

Murdoch is certainly not portrayed as some kind of saint; he's unashamedly arrogant and frequently puts his ethical views secondary to his ambitions, but Graham finds the kernel of humanity that motivates this drive, and presents us with an individual that is neither likeable nor detestable, but simply is. Taking such an approach is a wise decision by the writer, presenting a story that's less controversial, and yet still cuts to the core of what makes Rupert Murdoch so notable. It's also a far more entertaining story than what might otherwise have been. True to form, Graham packs his script full of wit, pithy observations, ostentatious montages... this is rock and roll politics with the tone and style to match.

Equally important to Ink's success is the quality of the performances, most notably Bertie Carvel whose Murdoch portrayal leaves an indelible impression. More than simply some likeness or impression, Carvel's performance is an entirely distinct creation, yet captures such an essence of the character that it becomes impossible to separate the two in the mind. Every now and then you see a portrayal so captivating that it replaces your mental image of that person. Carvel has achieved that here, and will surely be a contender for the Oliviers.

The combination of strong script, memorable acting and adventurous production make this an easy recommendation. This is an excellent play, possibly the best in what has been a very strong year for theatre so far. Bertie Carvel is sure to be decorated for his performance, while James Graham further establishes himself as unequalled in political storytelling. Ink is now set to transfer to the West End. Go get yourself some tickets.

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