This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Our fourth Premier League preview brings together Southampton, Stoke City, Sunderland and Swansea City. All will harbour hopes of a top-half finish, but this target is more realistic for some than others. Indeed, at least one of this quartet could find themselves drawn into the relegation battle before the season's out. You can read our previous previews here.
Southampton look like they could be something of an unknown quantity this season. Having established themselves as a team of overachievers under Mauricio Pochettino, their last two campaigns under the guidance of Ronald Koeman brought seventh and sixth-placed finishes respectively, garnering Europa League football and widespread praise. With Koeman departing for Everton, however, it's hard to predict how the team will respond. They have also lost some of their best players in the form of Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle and Victor Wanyama, and could find it seriously difficult to compensate for their absence.
That said, Claude Puel has been hailed as a forward-thinking and progressive coach, and proved himself to be an overachiever in his previous job with Nice. If the last few years are anything to go by, Southampton's hierarchy have a knack for appointing the right manager. With Europa League football providing an added complication this season, Southampton's success will depend upon his ability to juggle several balls at once.
Ninth last year, ninth the year before and ninth the year before that, Stoke's form over recent season must be some kind of emergency – after all, they've just dialled 9-9-9.
Are you still reading? It must be said that Stoke are a strange case. Having established themselves in the Premier League, their consistent mid-table finishes appeared very respectable. After all, what more could a club of their size and resources hope for?
Then along came Leicester – fucking Leicester, with their title win and their pizza – and suddenly Stoke's achievements look pretty bland. After all, they've spent more money than the Foxes on what most people would consider to be better players. So why is there no Premier League trophy at the (freshly and horribly re-christened) Bet365 Stadium?
Though Mark Hughes gets a bad wrap from some sections of the press, presumably because he's a bit of a miserable sod, he has largely overseen effective and successful Premier League teams. He'll do it again this year, and with some fine players, but chances are that will mean finishing between ninth and 12th. Xherdan Shaqiri will score a few wonder-goals, Jack Butland will attract the interest of Champions League clubs, but they'll still finish in that meaningless no-man's land.
And so there is an emergency of sorts at Stoke. This is a club that must looks inwards and ask: why the bloody hell are we doing this? To keep Jonathan Walters off the streets? To give Peter Crouch somewhere to go every morning? To ensure that the Premier League has at least one hippopotamus mascot?
Life, ultimately, is a futile endeavour. Nowhere is this more true than at Stoke City Football Club.
Having escaped their umpteenth relegation dogfight last season, Sunderland fans were looking forward to seeing the team gradually climb the table under Sam Allardyce. Instead, they will now have to watch their team gingerly creep towards mediocrity under David Moyes, after Big Sam elected to become England manager, and so pass the buck on the utterly joyless task of coaching Sunderland.
Moyes is a decent appointment for The Black Cats, in fairness, and should bring a level of stability to proceedings. Sunderland have had a quiet summer in the transfer market but, with several weeks to go until the close of the window, Moyes has enough time to transform them from a team which consistently finishes 17th to a team which is consistently 15th.
If we were writing one of those Premier League previews for betting websites that no bugger ever reads, we'd tip Swansea boss Francesco Guidolin to be the first for the chop. Like all things betting, this is just a hunch. The Italian did an admirable job keeping the Welsh side up last term, but it seemed that the partnership had reached a mutually beneficial conclusion.
This is not to suggest Swansea are heading for the drop – though they may well be towards the lower end of that vague 12th-17th bracket. But a poor start is conceivable, and if they're hovering around the bottom three Guidolin could be shown the door. It's just a hunch, okay – a vibe. Don't stick the rent on it or anything.
Swansea's biggest concern is the loss of skipper Ashley Williams. Quietly excellent for the entirety of the Swans' Premier League existence, he was very noisily excellent during Wales' Euro 2016 campaign, banging the drum of his own brilliance with heroic defending and a vital equaliser against Belgium. Suitably impressed, Everton have completed a £12m deal for the 31-year-old.
On the plus side, Swansea have added a striker, a vital move given that they never truly replaced Wilfried Bony. Fernando Llorente comes in on a free, though at 31 he's at best a short-term answer. Still, signing Llorente – a World Cup winner who has turned out for Juventus and Sevilla – adds a little starpower, and is enough to leave Swans fans of a certain vintage wondering if they're in a beautiful football-themed coma.
There is a good side at Swansea, one that includes Gylfi Sigurðsson, Lukasz Fabianski and Neil Taylor. But filling the hole Williams leaves will be very difficult, perhaps more for his leadership qualities than the job he does on the pitch. This, you feel, could define their season.