For a large part of the past decade, the Premier League mid-table has been occupied by mostly the same stalwarts that thrived in the limelight of being just below the limelight – names such as Newcastle United, Everton, Tottenham, and Aston Villa come to the fore.
Over the past two or three years however, the trend appears to be shifting. Newly promoted clubs circumvent the dreaded second season syndrome with heartening nonchalance, and indeed the rise of “Club Businesses” has seen some shrewd business decisions bring up some new faces into contention for the European spots, and those just below. Here’s a look at some of those aiming to become fresh fixtures in the top 10 of the PL.
Ever since their promotion in 2008, the Potters have scarcely, if ever, flirted with relegation. They have, however, mostly languished in the lower reaches of the standings. Long-serving manager Tony Pulis made them a side to be physically feared, with some remnants of the imposing specimen favoured by him still first team regulars, such as captain Ryan Shawcross.
Under the management of Mark Hughes, who insists on rebranding the team into one that plays a more attractive and less direct way of football, Stoke have made some remarkable signings including Champions’ League winners such as Xerdan Shaqiri and Bojan Krcic. Going into the 2015/16 season, Stoke have raised expectations with both the signings and perhaps the beginnings of the promised flair, with a 6-1 demolition of Liverpool in the final match-day of last season still fresh in the memory.
They now look, over the course of the season, to make the Britannia Stadium an even stronger fortress and cement their position in the top half of the league table. But can they do it on a cold, windy night at Stoke?
With the (sometimes unfairly) much-maligned Sam Allardyce out of the picture, the reins have been handed over to former player and fan favourite Slaven Bilic. The Croat has aimed to revamp the team into a classic counter-attacking side, and to his credit his plan seems to be working wonders: the Hammers have become only the fourth team in the history of the competition to have won away at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City in the same season.
But some of the old grumblings remain – the form at the Boleyn Ground in the final season before their move to a new home next season, remains lukewarm. It can’t be denied, however, that West Ham fans have a lot to look forward to this season, with the likes of Dimitri Payet, Diafra Sakho and Cheikhou Kouyate more than able to deliver a top-half finish and allay any lingering doubts the Hammers fans may yet have over the overall quality of their side.
In a case somewhat similar to West Ham, a former player and fan favourite has come around and turned the side into one of the most feared counter-attacking units in the top tier of English football. Alan Pardew may never have truly won over the Toon Army at Newcastle, but few at Selhurst Park have much to complain about.
The more glass-half-empty may still argue that home form can improve, but in the calendar year of 2015, no side has taken more points or scored more than Palace, away from home. Swift, sweeping reversals of play with ample strength and pace provided by the likes of Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon and now Bakary Sako have become their trademark.
The signing of Yohan Cabaye and the continued performances of the long-serving Scott Dann, Mile Jedinak and Joe Ledley have added a grit and measured calm to the defence. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship for Palace, with many touting them for a lofty finish this season, and why not, with play reminiscent of Aston Villa at their peak, a decade or so ago.
Branded as a “selling” club, something associated with the so-called “smaller” clubs that can’t resist the pull clubs with financial clout have over the former’s best players, has done anything but dampen the spirits of the Saints faithful. Despite losing their best players to the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United in the past two seasons, Ronald Koeman has found a formula that still keeps his side well afloat in the league, particularly with a Europa League finish last season.
The influx of talent can only be described as inspired; both their famed academy (which has churned out Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale, amongst others) and the signings of Eredivisie talents such as Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle has ensured that a trip to St Mary’s now commands respect and a lot of attention from the traditional big boys of the league as well as the relative featherweights.
It only remains to be seen if and when the rate of players leaving outweighs the incoming talent, but if the trend continues as it has in the past few years, Southampton look to be a long-time fixture in both the top 8 and European club competitions in the near future.
The Welsh club are proud of their business acumen almost as much as their attractive, incisive style of play that has continued from the days of Roberto Martinez, including the play that afforded Brendan Rodgers the Liverpool job, to the present reign of former player Garry Monk.
They know when to sell, they know whom to sell, and most importantly, they always seem to have viable alternatives in mind for spending the money gained. A prime example lies in the arrival of Bafetimbi Gomis following Wilfried Bony’s departure to Manchester City, with the Frenchman being a regular on the scoresheet this season.
Further clever signings such as Jefferson Montero and Jonjo Shelvey have ensured the continued rise of Swansea City FC. With possession-based play focussed heavily on very little wasted motion, and indeed, wasted passes, it is hard to imagine that this is the same club that was not too long ago in dire straits among the lower leagues of English football.