Premier League: Who Could Be This Year's Leicester City or West Ham?
The English Premier League is typically a league defined by clear favorites. Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham are pretty much always expected to be the teams competing to qualify for Champions League or Europa League, making it difficult for smaller teams to break through.
Last season, however, was different.
Leicester City shocked the world by coming out of nowhere to win the title, and West Ham United was also a major surprise as they were able to qualify for Europa League by finishing in 7th place.
Will there be another Leicester City in the 2016-'17 season, or maybe, more realistically, will there be another West Ham?
Here is a shortlist of the underdog teams who are most likely to qualify for a European competition next season.
Swansea City finished in 12th place last season with 47 points. That put them 15 points behind 7th-place West Ham, but they may be able to close the gap this year.
Swansea City's strength was their central defense. Center backs Ashley Williams and Federico Fernandez both had strong ratings, per WhoScored.com, as did central defensive midfielder Jack Cork. Swansea has all three of these players back this season.
In addition to their stout defense, Swansea also possesses a very strong offensive duo in Andre Ayew and Gylfi Sigurdsson. Ayew plays mostly as an attacking midfielder or forward, and he scored 12 goals with 2 assists last year. Sigurdsson put up similar numbers, scoring 11 goals with 3 assists, mostly as an attacking midfielder.
Swansea also have 30-year-old French striker Bafetimbi Gomis, who tallied eight consecutive seasons scoring 10 goals or more in French Ligue 1 from the 2006-'07 through the 2013-'14 season. He has not had quite the same success in the Premier League, scoring a total of 13 league goals over the past 2 seasons for Swansea, but if he can somehow find his old form, he could help propel the Swans up the standings.
Swansea has a strong offensive and defensive core, and if the supporting cast comes together, they could be able to make a run at a European spot.
Watford would be a true underdog story if they could manage to qualify for a European competition this season. They just got promoted to the Premier League last year, and they finished in 13th place.
Can they take the next step this season?
Watford is not quite as strong as Swansea is in the central defense, but last season they were able to make up for that with great goalkeeping from Heurelho Gomes. Gomes posted a 7.07 rating, according to WhoScored, which was the best rating for any goalkeeper in the league. This kind of quality goalkeeping can cover up a lot of defensive lapses.
Offensively, Watford brings back two players who scored more than 10 goals, just like Swansea. Forwards Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo combined to score 25 goals with 10 assists last season, making this a clear position of strength for the Hornets. Both players are still in the prime of their careers, and they should be able to put up similar numbers to last season.
Watford has also bolstered their roster during the summer transfer window, adding attacking midfielder Isaac Success from Granada for a club record fee. Success scored 6 goals with 2 assists last year at the age of 20, and he is a player with the potential to have a breakout year. If Success develops this season, then Watford will have a very dangerous trio of attacking players.
In addition to adding Success, Watford also brought in 25-year-old right back Brice Dja Djedje to help sure up the defense. Brice had a bit of a down year last year, but in the 2014-15' season, he had a rating of 7.04, per WhoScored, so he certainly has the potential to significantly help out.
These new signings are far from sure things, but if they work out, Watford will have a chance to climb up the standings and threaten for a spot in Europa League.
Crystal Palace finished 15th in the Premier League last season, but they've made two key additions that could really help their team this year.
Palace brought in attacking midfielder and England international Andros Townsend from Newcastle. He scored 4 goals with 2 assists in limited playing time (13 games) last season, and he figures to improve on these numbers now that he will be playing regularly. Townsend is a much-needed addition to a team that scored the third-fewest goals in the Premier League last season.
Palace also added 27-year-old defender James Tomkins from West Ham. Tomkins has a career WhoScored rating of 7.10. Adding two quality players, both in their prime, should be enough to at least boost Palace a few places up in the table.
Several key players for Palace will also return this season, including Yohan Cabaye, Yannick Bolasie, Scott Dann, Wilfried Zaha, and Jason Puncheon. This is a very solid core group for a team that finished toward the bottom of the EPL last season. All of these players had good ratings on WhoScored last year (6.8 is roughly an average rating), but none of them are prolific goal scorers.
Palace already has some talent, but the main piece they were missing last season was a reliable goal scorer. If Townsend can provide some goals, then Palace should fair much better than they did a year ago.