We may be in the midst of a gripping World Cup but yesterday’s announcement of the 2014/15 Premier League fixture list served a reminder of footballing life after the lifting of the Jules Rimet. Next season, as ever, we’ll be scanning the horizon on a weekly basis to ascertain the teams with the best and worst schedules over the forthcoming four to six Gameweeks.
This afternoon, we roll out our first look at next season’s fixtures and focus on teams with the kindest opening schedules. New United boss Louis van Gaal receives a very generous welcoming gift from the FA, while Chelsea can also be optimistic of a flying start and the likes of Stoke and Palace will be hopeful of continuing the form that saw both sides finish the previous campaign strongly.
Last season’s ignominious false dawn for life after Sir Alex has been consigned to history and Old Trafford has been rebooted with the installation of fiery Dutchman Louis van Gaal. His spectacular steering of the Dutch World Cup campaign, combined with his relationship with talisman Robin van Persie has seeded high hopes from fans and media alike, and their opening schedule can only stoke the flames. The Red Devils’ first six games include all three of the promoted sides plus home games against Swansea and West Ham and a trip to Sunderland.
Of course with the transfer window in embryonic stage and a feeling that van Gaal will want (and can attract) an all all-star dressing room refit, our Fantasy targets are merely tentative – changes to personnel and tactics will cause a re-think nearer the season kick-off. It’s a fair bet that van Persie will be sticking around, though, and we can expect very high ownership from the get go, especially if he continues his eye-catching World Cup form. In midfield, it remains to be seen if and how van Gaal uses Juan Mata but his undoubted talent still makes him a contender, while at the back, David De Gea could be a profitable early season goalkeeper if you’re prepared to splash the cash.
Steve Bruce guided his promoted team to some very respectable heights before eventually slipping to 16th place in 2013/14. The Tigers’ opening fixtures provide hope for a good start – the first six fixtures include home games against Stoke and West Ham as well as trips to QPR, Aston Villa and Newcastle, although the visit of champions Man City in Gameweek 6 heralds the beginning of a marked downturn in fixtures.
Last season, the Tigers were a solid, if unspectacular, source of budget defenders and we can expect more of the same, though we might hope for better away form in that respect. Curtis Davis’s goalscoring exploits could see his price rise beyond budget bracket but James Chester will hope to be fully fit again and may be more affordable. Few of Steve Bruce’s midfielders emerged as Fantasy options last season but up front, Nikica Jelavić and Shane Long both performed admirably and with those opening fixtures, either one could be a solid budget enabling third striker.
The Blues had a mixed campaign under the returning Jose Mourinho due in no small part to a lack of real bite in attack. With the capture of Cesc Fabregas and Mourinho’s widely-reported aim to land a world class striker, Chelsea are poised to pose a bigger threat to next season’s title chasers. Their opening schedule ought to give them a head start, with three tasty looking home games in the first six (Leicester, Swansea and Aston Villa) as well as a trip to Burnley. Visits to Everton and Man City will prove a sterner test, though.
Mourinho’s playing style and preference for a stable defence made all four of his chosen defenders profitable options and despite a likely price-hike, they are still likely to attract investment from the off. In midfield, Eden Hazard will compete for our attentions with Fabregas and, to a lesser extent, Oscar, whose World Cup showing is demonstrating his ability – if he can finally bring that talent to bear on the Premier League, he could be a real Fantasy asset. Up front, speculation is rife that Mourinho will bring Diego Costa to London. Opinions on his suitability for the role are mixed and if he does don the Chelsea kit, it is likely that many Fantasy managers will prudently forgo the promise of these early fixtures in favour of waiting for evidence of goals.
The departure of over-performing manager Mauricio Pochettino is a blow to the Saints but Ronald Koeman is widely regarded as a good bit of business, bringing a CV brimming with European success. Certainly, Southampton’s prices will inevitably take a hike across the Fantasy games after last season’s exploits but Koeman is no beginner and even if one or two first-teamers leave, it’d be folly to write off their prospects in light of a kind opening schedule. After a testing first game at Anfield, Koeman can bed his methods in with home fixtures against West Brom, Newcastle and QPR as well as trips to West Ham and Swansea.
Such matches could be profitable at both ends of the pitch, bringing Artur Boruc into contention again, though his price will undoubtedly be rather high, whilst Jose Fonte may be best of the centre-backs. If Adam Lallana departs St Mary’s, James Ward-Prowse may the biggest beneficiary and, with limited game time last term, is likely to remain relatively budget-friendly. With Rickie Lambert gone and Jay Rodriguez sidelined through injury, acquiring a new forward is clearly crucial for Koeman and his dealings in the transfer market may well tempt us to invest up front.
Tony Pulis’ arrival half-way through last season brought a dramatic turnaround in the Eagles’ fortunes, as he rapidly turned Selhurst Park into a fortress for visiting teams and a source of much Fantasy profit with cheap clean sheets galore. Palace’s away form needed work but saw some improvement towards the end of the season and the opening fixtures cater marvellously for such a Fantasy profile – splendid home games against West Ham, Burnley and Leicester interweaved with nasty trips to Arsenal and Everton. If Fantasy managers can find a good rotation partner (QPR have perfect dovetailing fixtures but have big question marks over their defence) then Joel Ward and Julian Speroni may well be worth their inevitable price rises.
Mark Hughes did a great job of silencing the critics last time around, steering the Potters to their best-ever Premier League finish in his first season in charge. A series of gradually improving performances, as Stoke slowly moved away from Tony Pulis’ defensive pragmatism towards a more attractive brand of football, suggests the Staffordshire outfit could be worth our consideration this term – a theory heightened by the first few fixtures. The opening six games includes just one big name – Man City – to detract from the appeal of home games against Aston Villa, Leicester and Newcastle and visits to Hull and QPR. Such fixtures bring the burgeoning talents of Marko Arnautovic firmly onto Fantasy radars; something of a disappointment in the first half of the season, the Austrian gradually settled and finally turned in some eye-catching performances. At the other end of the pitch, Asmir Begovic’s shot-stopping talent should be priced more kindly this time around, and likewise the bonus points of Ryan Shawcross may become more affordable. If new boy Mame Biram Diouf can oust Peter Crouch from the starting XI, Fantasy managers may well be eyeing up the former United man as a legitimate third striker.
Tim Sherwood achieved some decent results out after replacing Andre Villas-Boas but an over-candid media persona and perceived tactical naiveté led to his departure late last month. Given how quickly new manager Mauricio Pochettino made an impact at Southampton, there is plenty of optimism for his tenure at Spurs and the opening schedule looks fairly kind too, with four of their first six games quite favourable. Many are hoping that the defensive resolve he instilled into Southampton will translate to Spurs, bringing Kyle Walker into contention as an attacking full-back, while Jan Vertonghen can expect a price dip after a poor showing in 2013/14 – with luck the pre-season campaign will tell us more about the favoured defensive partnerships. In midfield, Christian Eriksen’s wildly successful second half of the season makes him favourite for a slice of our Fantasy budgets, whilst up top, Emmanuel Adebayor is always a contender, though whether his work-rate will fit in with Pochettino’s high pressing game is yet to be seen.