Don’t look now, but the 2014-15 Premier League season is already upon us! Following a summer that included one of the best World Cups to date, the wait for England’s top-flight action to return thankfully didn’t seem all that long. Nonetheless, the usual plethora of offseason activity once again leads us into another massively anticipated Premiership campaign.
Managers have been sacked, signed, and replaced. Teams have been relegated and promoted. Players have come and gone, with more movement still on the horizon. All in all, the summer activity makes for a new-look league with endless possibilities.
However, one constant remains: the thrill of playing fantasy soccer. Throughout the upcoming season, I will continue to provide a weekly preview of Premier League action, with a focus on highlighting which players stand to make the biggest fantasy impacts at their respective positions in each given gameweek. In doing so, my goal is to help fantasy owners pinpoint potential standout players by providing a Best XI team for all 38 gameweeks from mid-August to mid-May.
Since this is a projected all-star squad for each gameweek, fantasy team budgets will be ignored, although no more than three players from the same team will be included in a Best XI side. Also, factors such as scheduling, matchups, tactics, injuries, roster moves, player rotations, current form, and recent history will be among the abundance of considerations taken into each edition of this team. In the end, I hope my input can propel readers to a better understanding of what to expect and more importantly, Fantasy Premier League glory.
Without further ado, let’s turn our attention to this weekend’s opening slate of fixtures.
The ball gets rolling with Manchester United hosting Swansea City in Saturday’s early match. While Swansea endured their share of changes this offseason, the prevailing storyline here undoubtedly surrounds United’s new boss.
In the wake of a tumultuous, historically bad, failed season with David Moyes at manager, United hired the accomplished Louis van Gaal to coach the Red Devils moving forward.
With experience at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and most recently, the Netherlands National Team, van Gaal brings a proven pedigree and ruthless fear factor to Manchester. The Dutchman followed a third-place finish at the summer’s World Cup with an undefeated record (6-0-1) in United’s preseason schedule. As such, there is fresh optimism at Old Trafford that the club has found Sir Alex Ferguson’s heir on their mulligan attempt.
Later in the day, last season’s runaway winners of the Championship, Leicester City, will make their return from a 10-year Premiership absence by welcoming Everton to King Power Stadium. In their second year under manager Roberto Martinez, the Toffees will aim to build upon last season’s widely successful fifth-place finish.
Elsewhere, Queens Park Rangers, who earned promotion by winning the Championship playoff, also opens the campaign at home versus Hull City, a team that narrowly avoided the drop last season.
Meanwhile, Stoke City carries momentum from their best-ever Premier League finish into a home tie versus dwindling Aston Villa to start this season. The Villains remain without top striker Christian Benteke (Achilles), while Stoke could hand club debuts to striker Mame Biram Diouf and former Barcelona starlet Bojan
In a pairing of two lower-half teams from a season ago, West Bromwich Albion clashes with Sunderland, where gaffer Gus Poyet worked wonders following his mid-season hiring last term.
Then, to close the preview of Saturday’s games, two London derbies see Tottenham at West Ham and Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace.
In both matches, the visiting teams are sporting new managers. Spurs brought in Mauricio Pochettino, who coached Southampton to fabulous results last season, while Crystal Palace is forced to deal with the shattering blow of Tony Pulis resigning from his post on Thursday, just two days before their opener.
Tottenham hopes Pochettino can finally be their manager that sticks, something Palace thought they found in Pulis, who resurrected the club in finishing 11th last season, but fell out with management over policy disputes.
On the other side of the coin, both hosts West Ham and Arsenal are hyped to see how their activity in the transfer window can conquer the challenges that lie ahead.
Managers Sam Allardyce and Arsene Wenger strengthened their squads across the team sheet this summer, albeit with differing budgets and commodities. While the Hammers eye a return to the top half, Arsenal will take aim at the league title after ending the club’s well-documented trophy drought with the FA Cup in May.
Last season’s top two begin their respective seasons on Sunday, with Liverpool hosting Southampton and Manchester City traveling to Newcastle.
Coincidentally, Liverpool bought three players from Southampton this summer, but will embark on life without last term’s Premier League Player of the Season Luis Suarez.
Meanwhile, Southampton is in transition mode, with a new manager and fresh faces littering the team.
Newcastle also features a number of new additions, while money-throwing Manchester City was surprisingly quiet in the transfer window after last season’s second title in three years. The Citizens will hope to repeat as champions in headman Manuel Pellegrini’s second season at the helm.
Finally, Monday pits Chelsea at new-boys Burnley in the closing fixture of Gameweek 1. The Blues have been an increasingly popular pre-season selection to win the league after improving their roster with world-class talents in all departments over the summer. Conversely, Burnley finished second in the Championship last year and will probably target surviving relegation this season.
With the stage for the Premiership’s opening gameweek now set, let’s dive into the first edition of this season’s Best XI.
Simon Mignolet (Liverpool) – Upon arriving at Liverpool last season, Mignolet not only ousted long-time Reds keeper Pepe Reina to start in goal, but the Belgian also posted three straight clean sheets. To kick off this season, Mignolet faces a Southampton side that was stripped from top to bottom over the summer. Blossoming manager Mauricio Pochettino left for Tottenham. Then, Southampton sold their reigning Player of the Season and a striker with a 20-goal average over five years, as Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert completed moves to Liverpool. Additionally, the Saints’ top scorer from last season, Jay Rodriguez, is still recovering from a torn ACL. If those shake-ups weren’t enough, Southampton’s new manager and replacement attackers begin their Premiership lives at Anfield, where Liverpool’s defense fared far better last term. Knowing that, look for Mignolet to take advantage of a wide-eyed Southampton setup.
John Terry (Chelsea) – With Jose Mourinho returning to Chelsea at this time last year, no player benefitted more than Terry. During the 2012-13 campaign, Terry was handed just 11 league starts. To be fair, a knee injury cost him significant time throughout that season; however, with Mourinho back in charge, a revived Terry started 34 Premiership encounters last season, earning 16 clean sheets along the way. A road date at promoted side Burnley is how Terry’s Chelsea begins this season. Playing in the Premier League for just the second time in 39 years, the Clarets may find it difficult to break down a Chelsea defense that conceded 10 fewer goals than any other team last season. Additionally, Terry chipped in three goals during the Blues’ preseason preparations, so there’s some sneaky goal potential here.
Ryan Shawcross (Stoke City) – Another club captain and center-back, Shawcross and manager Mark Hughes led the Potters to a ninth-place finish last season, the club’s best closing rank in Premier League history. In doing so, Shawcross helped keep the Britannia Stadium a fortress, as only Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City allowed fewer home goals than Stoke’s 17. Aston Villa makes the trip to Staffordshire this weekend having scored fewer than one goal per game on the road last season. Further, the Villains ended the season by going scoreless in five of their last seven away matches.
Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal) – While Aston Villa’s attack was plenty poor on the road last season, Crystal Palace’s was even worse, with just 15 goals in 19 games away from Selhurst Park. Conversely, Arsenal tied for the league’s best home defensive record last term. The Gunners blanked Palace in both meetings between the teams during '13-'14, so recent history certainly favors another clean sheet. Then, when factoring in manager Tony Pulis’ sudden resignation, Palace’s chances are further damaged. While Arsenal new-boy Mathieu Debuchy has been correctly touted as a fantasy defender on the rise, his opposite full-back has been thoroughly impressive during the preseason lead-up. From a tactics perspective, left-winger Santi Cazorla prefers to cut inside, which often results in the speedy Gibbs overlapping in Arsenal’s attack. Couple in Palace right-back Adrian Mariappa currently nursing a rib injury and Gibbs could enjoy freedom in the final third this weekend.
Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – The Gunners’ marquee signing this offseason, Alexis awaits his Premiership debut with huge anticipation from all onlookers, especially fantasy squad managers. That’s because the Chilean is designated as a midfielder in some fantasy formats, offering tasty goal compensation potential. Expected to receive more freedom of movement at Arsenal than in his time at Barcelona, Alexis is equally comfortable playing on the wings as he is at center forward, where he starred for his country at the World Cup this summer. Now the ripe age of 25, Alexis registered 19 goals and 10 assists in La Liga last season. With initial feedback from Arsenal’s players replete with admiration of Alexis’ quality, he’ll get his first taste of the Premier League at home versus a manager-less side, perhaps the perfect situation for a triumphant debut.
Yaya Toure (Manchester City) – The only midfielder who would have topped Alexis with 20 goals last season, Toure became the best central playmaker in England under new gaffer Manuel Pellegrini last term. In leading the eventual Champions in goals, Toure was fantasy’s best midfield option by some distance. The Ivorian and City head to Newcastle this weekend, with Toure having scored five goals in his past five outings against the Magpies, including one in last season’s opening gameweek. Additionally, City have bagged at least two goals in 12 of their past 13 matches versus Newcastle and have kept a clean sheet four consecutive times against the Tyneside foe as well.
Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal) – Had Ramsey not missed over three months during the middle of last season due to injury, the Welshman very well could have pushed Toure to be fantasy’s best midfielder. Of course, Ramsey’s pre-injury form largely factors into that projection, as he already totaled eight goals and six assists in Premiership action before going down on Boxing Day. No matter, in only 20 starts, Ramsey still finished fourth in goals and seventh in assists among midfielders. An extra-time goal to win the FA Cup in May and another in Arsenal’s Community Shield victory last weekend evidence Ramsey has returned to top-form ahead of this season. With that in mind, Arsenal’s talisman should be raring to go as the Gunners welcome a Crystal Palace team scrambling from losing their manager less than 48 hours before the new season.
Raheem Sterling (Liverpool) – An absolute revelation for Liverpool and England last season, the 19-year-old Sterling quickly became one of the top-flight’s most promising young talents by scoring nine goals in 24 starts. What's more impressive is that Sterling’s goal return came from merely 45 shot attempts, including 22 on target. That crazy conversion rate was continued in Liverpool’s pre-season Champions Cup matches, where Sterling netted twice in seven shot attempts (five on goal) across four appearances. Now with top-scorer Luis Suarez out of the picture, Liverpool will rely on Sterling to complement countryman Daniel Sturridge in attack this season. He’ll get his first opportunity to do so at home versus a Southampton team that sold the tantalizing full-back duo of Luke Shaw (Manchester United) and Calum Chambers (Arsenal) this summer. After scoring in his most recent game against the Saints, expect Sterling to take-on Southampton’s defense with a full head of steam from either wing this weekend.
Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) – With five goals and an assist in six preseason ties, as well as 158 goals in 307 appearances since joining Manchester United in 2004, Rooney properly merited his recent appointment as club captain from new boss Louis van Gaal this week. The 28-year-old accounted for 17 goals and 10 assists last time around, leaving him just 34 goals shy of becoming United’s all-time leading scorer. To start off this season, Rooney will lead the Red Devils out of the Old Trafford tunnel to host Swansea City. The Swans lost three of their first-choice back five this summer, when defenders Chico (Lekhwiya SC in Qatar) and Ben Davies (Tottenham) were sold along with goalkeeper Michel Vorm (Tottenham). Moreover, with strike-partner Robin van Persie presently working his way back from a deep run at the World Cup, Rooney will be United’s unquestioned focal point in attack, where van Gaal’s signature 3-5-2 system should feed his captain scoring chances.
Diego Costa (Chelsea) – Like Sanchez, Costa embodies another La Liga star taking his talents to London for the foreseeable future. Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi outscored Costa in Spain last season, when the imposing forward’s 27 goals led Atletico Madrid to a surprising league title campaign. That production sparked the interest of Chelsea, who suffered through dismal front play from the expired Fernando Torres and nearly extinct Samuel Eto’o last season. To reward Jose Mourinho’s investment, Costa has rebounded from a nightmare World Cup to put away four goals this preseason, including a brace in last weekend’s win over Real Sociedad. Come Monday, Costa will lead the line for Chelsea at newly promoted Burnley, presenting another favorable debut situation.
Daniel Sturridge (C) (Liverpool) – Following a pair of encouraging seasons, Sturridge took England by storm last term while partnering Luis Suarez up front for Liverpool. At 24 years old, Sturridge finished second to only Suarez with 21 league goals and also provided seven assists to boot. The Premiership’s top returning fantasy forward, Sturridge is now the Reds’ No. 1 option, after the club granted Suarez a move to Barcelona in light of another biting incident this summer. That dynamic should allow Sturridge to flourish this season as Liverpool’s featured man going forward. To provide context, while the still-teething Suarez was suspended for the first five games of last season, Sturridge rattled off four goals to start the campaign. The Englishman will aim to replicate such a strong start beginning Sunday against Southampton. As previously mentioned, Southampton offloaded numerous key contributors and lost their manager this offseason. With three of the Saints’ regular defenders now elsewhere, including new Liverpool center-half Dejan Lovren, Sturridge should enjoy a second straight season opener at Anfield, earning him the Gameweek 1 Best XI captain’s armband.
Terry- Shawcross – Gibbs
Alexis – Toure – Ramsey – Sterling
Rooney – Costa – Sturridge (C)