Premier League previews: E-M

Next to fall under our microscope are Everton, Leicester City, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.

Everton

Just in case

Last season: 11th

Players in: Tom Cleverley (Manchester United), Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona)

Players out: Antolin Alcaraz (released), Sylvain Distin (AFC Bournemouth)

Best XI: Howard, Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Baines, Barry, Barkley, McCarthy, Deulofeu, Mirallas, Lukaku.

Roberto Martinez heads into his third season as Everton manager under considerable pressure. After a fine first season at the helm in which the Toffees flirted with the Champions League places before finishing fifth, the 2014/15 campaign provided quite the opposite, with the Blues languishing near the relegation for much of the campaign as they stumbled to 11th position after a late run of decent results.

Everton fans became accustomed to a certain amount of stability under David Moyes, and it was a comfortable – yet not exhilarating – time for the club and a return to the days of relegation battles will not be tolerated.

But, as is always the case for the blue half of Merseyisde, there is debt that needs to be paid and while many clubs are splashing the cash following an injection of TV money, Everton have spent comparatively little. Gerard Deulofeu returns to Goodison Park after a successful loan spell two seasons ago, and Tom Cleverley arrives on a free transfer from Manchester United.

Importantly, no big-name players have been sold, although Chelsea's interest in John Stones is on-going, but that is unlikely to be enough to achieve a good result. As was the case last season, much of Everton's best business was retaining the players they had, with Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry handed permanent deals after impressing on loan, but that ensured that Everton stood still while others were moving forward, and it showed in their results.

The Everton defence was on walkabout last season, with the defensive reliability of previous seasons a distant memory and goalkeeper Tim Howard going from American hero at the World Cup to liability in the Premier League. If Everton are to improve this season, they need to regain their defensive structure. 

A change of mindset may also be needed from Martinez. At times it appeared that Everton had become too obsessed with retaining possession, always deciding against an attacking ball in favour of one that ensured possession was not relinquished; it was dreary to watch and not particularly effective. 

Prediction: Top half. Everton will struggle to break into the top eight given the level of recruiting those around them are doing. It's a big season for the Toffees, and may show a sign of where the Merseysiders are likely to find themselves in the remainder of the decade.

 

Leicester City

Just in case

Last season: 14th

Players in: Christian Fuchs (Schalke), Robert Huth (Stoke City), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz), N'Golo Kante (Caen), Yohan Benalouane (Atalanta) 

Players out: Chris Wood (Leeds United), Esteban Cambiasso (Free)

Best XI: Schmeichel, Albrighton, Huth, Morgan, Fuchs, Drinkwater, Kante, Mahrez, Okazaki, Vardy, Kramaric

Leicester looked doomed for much of last season after spending 140 days at the bottom of the standings but, with their backs against the wall, they turned their fortunes around and secured their Premier League status. However, any feelings of good will that may have been carried over from their survival from relegation have dissipated.

Nigel Pearson oversaw the Foxes' promotion to the Premier League and ensured they remained in it for another season, but off-field incidents resulted in the Leicester owners cutting Pearson loose in the off-season. The two parties had already grown estranged when Pearson's son was involved in what was reported as a 'racist orgy' during a what was supposed to be a goodwill summer tour to Thailand.

Claudio Ranieri has been recruited to replace him, a decision that was not met with much glee from the Foxes' faithful. Nicknamed the 'Suitcase Man' due to the number of clubs he has managed, and the 'Tinkerman' for his fondness for changing his line-up, Ranieri faces a tough task if he is to keep Leicester in the Premier League.

First on the agenda for Ranieri will be replacing midfielder Esteban Cambiasso, who has decided that one season at the King Power Stadium was enough for him. The Argentine had a massive impact, and his absence will surely be felt. Added to that, Matty James is out with a long-term knee injury, and so the gap into middle of the park grows only deeper.

Cambiasso aside, the remainder of the squad that did battle last season is largely in tact, and while that will provide some stability it won't be enough to survive another season. Japan international Shinji Okazaki has arrived from Mainz with a scoring record that suggests he will bag a few goals, but a failed bid to secure QPR striker Charlie Austin indicates that the Foxes brains trust knows they will be short of goals.

The arrival of Robert Huth on a permanent basis from Stoke after an incredibly successful loan spell provides some reason for cheer, with the German set to continue to play the anchor role in the Foxes' defence.

Prediction: Relegation. There will be no Great Escape 2.0, it's going to be a long season of toil for the Leicester.

 

Liverpool

Just in case

Last season: Sixth

Players in: James Milner (Manchester City); Danny Ings (Burnley); Adam Bogdan (Bolton Wanderers) Joe Gomez (Charlton Athletic); Roberto Firmino (Hoffenheim); Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton); Christian Benteke (Aston Villa)

Players out: Steven Gerrard (Los Angeles Galaxy); Glen Johnson (Released); Brad Jones (Released) Sebastian Coates (Sunderland); Raheem Sterling (Manchester City); Andre Wisdom (Norwich City); Rickie Lambert (West Brom)

Best XI: Mignolet, Clyne, Skrtel, Sakho, Moreno, Milner, Henderson, Coutinho, Firmino, Benteke, Sturridge

Following a somewhat disappointing campaign last time out, Liverpool have undoubtedly made dramatic improvements to their squad in the off-season. In Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner and Christian Benteke they have signed a trio of experienced Premier League players who constitute a significant upgrades to the defense, midfield and attack from last season, while the likes of Danny Ings, Adam Bogdan and Joe Gomez may prove valuable squad members.

While they are slightly different players, Roberto Firmino was in effect signed as Raheem Sterling's replacement and how well the Reds do this season may well depend on how well the Brazilian settles on Merseyside. How exactly the former Hoffenheim player fits into Brendan Rodgers' plans may not be clear, considering that in Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana the Ulsterman has similar players in his squad already. If Firmino finds a regular spot in the Liverpool attack, he will add goal-scoring threat that was missing last season, if not, then Rodgers will have another ineffectual, experienced forward in his squad contend with.

One of the main issues Rodgers will face is how to integrate his new signings, as well as Divock Origi – who spent last season on-loan at Lille – into the squad. Historically, teams who challenge for top honours domestically tend only to make a few additions to an already well-functioning squad and Liverpool may well struggle into find the best way to incorporate three or four new signings into their starting XI.

The talent of everyone of Liverpool's signings are clear for all to see, but it is doubtful whether or not they improve the squad sufficiently to close the eight-point gap to the Champions League spots from last season. The top four from last season have all improved as well and Liverpool will require a similar near-perfect storm to two seasons ago, when Sturridge and Luis Suarez fired them to second, if the club's owners are to be satisfied come May 2016.

Prediction: In the Europa League places. The Reds will be better than last season, but not good enough for the top four.

Manchester City 

Just in case

Last season: Second

Players in: Enes Unal (Bursaspor); David Faupala (Lens); Raheem Sterling (Liverpool); Fabian Delph (Aston Villa); Patrick Roberts (Fulham)

Players out: Scott Sinclair (Aston Villa); James Milner (Liverpool); Dedryck Boyata (Celtic); Angelino (New York City); Micah Richards (Aston Villa); Karim Rekik (Marseille)

Best XI: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy Fernandinho, Toure, Silva, Nasri, Sterling, Aguero

Even though they finished well behind Chelsea last time out, Manuel Pellegrini's squad remains a powerful one and anything short of winning the title would constitute something of a disappointment. That said, City haven't strengthened too much in the transfer window and only Raheem Sterling and Fabian Delph are likely to feature frequently.

Sterling's acquisition in particular has been a topic of much discussion and how well the former Liverpool ace settles will be a significant factor for City's hopes of regaining the Premier League title. Sterling's ceiling in terms of what he can achieve is particularly high and the versatile forward will in all likelihood be part of the starting XI more often than not. How the 20-year-old deals with being the most expensive English player in history will be interesting to observe, but if the weight of his transfer fee starts weighing the Jamaican-born youngster down, Pellegrini will have a situation at hand that will need to be diffused.

Elsewhere, Delph certainly provides depth to the City midfield and will add more impetus than the disappointing Fernando offered, but the Englishman arguably wasn't signed with the immediate first team in mind.

Another problem Pellegrini faces is finding a formation which will get the best out of his plethora of stars – a problem the Chilean has often had to deal with during his time at the Etihad. Pellegrini's sides tend to play easy-on-the-eye attacking football but defensively they remain somewhat suspect. 

Club captain Vincent Kompany hasn't been far from his best over the last 18 months and the much-maligned Martin Demichelis remains the Belgian's most effective defensive partner, while the Eliaquim Mangala hasn't quite come to grips with the pace and physicality of the Premier League after being signed for a hefty fee. If City aren't able to sort out their defensive issues, they are unlikely to add to their two Premier League titles, irrespective of the quality of their attack.

Prediction: Third. Arsenal and Chelsea both look in better shape than the Citizens. While you can never count a side like City out, they may struggle to stay in the title race come the business end of the season.

Manchester United

Just in case

Last season: Fourth

Players in: Memphis Depay (PSV Eindhoven); Matteo Darmian (Torino); Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich); Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton); Sergio Romero (Sampdoria) 

Players out: Tom Cleverley (Everton); Ben Amos (Bolton Wanderers); Tom Thorpe (Released); Saidy Janko (Celtic); Nani (Fenerbahce); Will Keane (Preston North End); Robin van Persie (Fenerbahce)

Best XI: De Gea, Darmian, Smalling, Rojo, Blind, Schneiderlin, Carrick, Herrera, Mata, Depay, Rooney

Manchester United have been far from convincing under Louis van Gaal, but despite the inconsistency of their performances last season, results went the right way more often than not and the Red Devils finds themselves back in the Champions League, albeit at the final qualifying stage of the event.

While Antonio Valencia did a credible job for the Dutchman at right-back last season, Italian international Matteo Darmian will probably take the Ecuadorian’s place in the starting XI and with good reason – the former Torino player is a fine defender who is equally comfortable in either half of the pitch. Morgan Schneiderlin has been one of the most consistent defensive midfielders in the Premier League over the past two seasons and Bastian Schweinsteiger's excellence has filled many column pages, even though the German may be somewhat long in the tooth at this point of his career.

Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger provide a significant boost in midfield numbers which would allow Wayne Rooney to play in his more favoured forward role, particularly after the departure of Robin van Persie.

In Memphis Depay Van Gaal has one of the brightest young forwards in his game at his disposal and will undoubtedly add more to the team than the man he in effects replaces – Angel Di Maria, is on the verge of joining PSG. Van Gaal was able to get away with playing a similar team more of then not in the Premier League last season, since they were knocked out of both domestic cup competitions during the initial stages and didn't have a European campaign to contend with. This time around things couldn't be different. 

Similar early exits domestically will not be acceptable for a club of United's stature and the Champions League adds a significant number of fixtures to the season. Van Gaal's squad may be deeper in defense and in midfield, but up front they are arguably a man short after the on-loan Radamel Falcao failed to impress last season. Should Rooney suffer an injury or go through a lean patch up front, goals may prove difficult to come by for the Old Trafford club, which would make a Premier League victory unlikely.

Nevertheless, United have a strong squad at their disposal with an experienced European manager at their disposal and should be among the title challengers for most of the season.

Prediction: Fourth. United are certainly title challengers, but they don't have the look of title winners just yet.

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