The new TV deal has seen a number of high-profile signings join Premier League clubs for record figures. One might wonder that this will increase the competitiveness of the league. However, the reality is completely different.
In the 2015-16 season, Manchester United finished 6th with 69 points and Everton finished 7th with 61 points. If the 8-point gap looks huge, then Southampton finished 8th and amassed just 46 points. Thus, the gulf between Premier League elite and the rest is huge as well.
If the teams outside top six are investing more, then the top six are spending much more every summer. Thus, it is almost impossible for the rest of the league to crack the elite consisting of champions Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United.
However, just like Leicester showed by winning the league in 2016 against all odds, football always gives a chance. Therefore, one or two teams have a chance of cracking the top 6 and upsetting the apple cart.
Now, a truly surprising season can lead to any team outdoing themselves. Nevertheless, there are a few teams who have a genuine chance with the quality at their disposal to have a fabulous season. Everton are not considered as dark horses for they are relatively regular contenders who fight for a top six spot.
Here are those 6 dark horse teams who can challenge for the top 6 next season.
#6 AFC Bournemouth
If pundits and media are to be believed, Eddie Howe is the next big manager in English football. His Bournemouth side has won many plaudits for their attacking style of play in the past seasons. Howe deserves merit because most of the promoted teams get relegated playing an attacking style or adopt a defence-first approach to stay up.
Howe has built a terrific unit with a strong youth core that can take the attack to any team in the league. So far, the Cherries have been unable to crack the top 10. However, if there is any season they have a good chance, then it is now. The team is now experienced in the league with the spine of the team unchanged.
Joshua King had a season to remember with his goals and young winger Ryan Fraser broke through as well. Harry Arter has signed a new contract while the defence remains unchanged.
Further, the summer signings are bound to give the side a real lift. Jermain Defoe is a PL veteran and if his goals for relegated Sunderland are any indication, he will thrive with better support at the Vitality stadium. Asmir Begovic from Chelsea is another league veteran with his experience at Stoke.
Another Chelsea player and last season’s loanee Nathan Ake has been signed on a permanent basis. His performances for Bournemouth were promising till the loan was cut short by Chelsea last season.
The Cherries are bound to add a few more players and each of their signings strengthens the team. Thus, Bournemouth are genuine dark horses for the top six with their quality and manager gives them an outside chance.
Southampton are one of the best-run and consistent sides in England. Every season they tend to lose their best players and even managers yet they always manage to be competitive. The club is extremely efficient in replacing players as well as managers. This is further confirmed by their regular top-half finishes.
Currently, Mauricio Pellegrino is in charge of the St. Mary’s hotseat, having taken over from Claude Puel this summer. Pellegrino has built a reputation for himself in Spain with Alaves and continues the quality managers’ entrée at the South Coast club.
The Saints are very likely going to lose their captain and center-back Virgil van Dijk in this window. Left-back Ryan Bertrand is being courted by Manchester City as well. However, they have already signed another defender in Jan Bednarek from Lech Poznan Further.
Nevertheless, their defence is one of the best in the league. Further, their signings always ensure the team does not lose its rhythm. Therefore, Southampton always have a chance to do well every season and are a tough team to play against.
This stability alone makes them a top-half favourite. The presence of Pellegrino gives them an extra edge this season and they are one of the dark horses for a top six finish in the coming season.
#4 West Ham United
The Hammers looked set to break the top brass after their 7th place finish in the 2015-16 season. However, they struggled to carry the momentum to 2016/17 season and huffed their way to an 11th place finish.
Nevertheless, West Ham still possess a strong squad with Winston Reid, Jose Fonte, Aaron Cresswell and James Collins in defence. The addition of Manchester City legend Pablo Zabaleta brings further experience to the back-line.
Sofiane Feghouli, Cheikhou Kouyate, Manuel Lanzini, Robert Snodgrass and Michail Antonio provide attacking quality from midfield.
Andy Carroll continues to be a threat when fit and Andre Ayew had a topsy-turvy first season at the London club. In manager Slaven Bilic, the Hammers have an astute coach and the side will be looking to perform to their potential this season.
So far, Joe Hart is set to join along with rumoured interests on poacher Javier Hernandez and Stoke playmaker Marko Arnautovic. Each of these signings, if completed, bring a wealth of talent, experience and add further depth to the squad.
Thus, West Ham can be considered a threat for the top six this season. However, question marks over their ability to deliver continue to linger. So, the Hammers have a lot to prove and fight for this season.
#3 Leicester City
2016 Premier League champions Leicester City began their title defence in the exact opposite manner and flirted with relegation at one point. However, the inevitable departure of manager Claudio Ranieri brought about a change in fortunes.
The team picked up form and points under caretaker-manager Craig Shakespeare and ended the season on a high. The improved performances fetched Shakespeare a full-time contract and Leicester enter the new season with an optimistic outlook.
2016 Player of the Year Riyadh Mahrez looks to be the only high-profile casualty with Arsenal and Italian side AS Roma interested in him. Wilfred Ndidi’s form in the back-end of the season looks to have plugged N’Golo Kante-sized hole in the middle of the park.
Most of the spine remains same as the one that won the title. Further, the addition of promising centre-back Harry Maguire from Hull and defensive midfielder Vicente Iborra from Sevilla adds quality depth.
Also, clinical finisher Kelechi Iheanacho from Manchester City looks set to join the Foxes as well. His ability to play across the front three along with his sharpshooting ability will compliment Jamie Vardy. Young winger Demarai Gray and young left-back Ben Chilwell had a great summer with England and will bolster the squad.
Thus, Leicester are all set to have a good season. If they can continue the form towards the end of last season, then they definitely have the players, experience and ability to have a crack at the top six.
#2 Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace were the biggest underperformers for most of the last season. The quality in their squad would speak otherwise yet they were dragged into the relegation battle. No wonder they sacked Alan Pardew and got in Sam Allardyce, known well for steering teams close to relegation.
The results instantly improved and the Eagles beat relegation comfortably in the end. Now, the onus is on them this season to play much better and the reality is they have the players to do so. The appointment of former Ajax and Inter Milan manager Frank de Boer gives them further appetite for climbing up the table.
Christian Benteke is back to his goalscoring best after the horror year with Liverpool. Another Liverpool outcast, Mamadou Sakho lifted the team with his performances on loan. However, Palace are refusing to pay the quoted transfer fee of £30 million as things stand.
Wilfried Zaha is finally realising the potential that made Sir Alex Ferguson take him to Manchester United. The winger had a phenomenal year and will look to build upon it. 21-year old Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a superb signing from Chelsea as the youngster comes with a high reputation.
Finally, the summer signings will only strengthen a set team and give them squad depth. As long as they avoid a start similar to last season, Palace can ruffle the top six next season.
#1 Newcastle United
It is almost impossible for a promoted team to straight away compete for a top six spot. However, like Leicester have shown in 2016, never say never. If any team has the quality and experience to do it, it’s Newcastle United.
Their manager Rafa Benitez is well-known for his time with Liverpool and Chelsea, with whom he won European trophies. His experience coupled with the quality in Newcastle’s squad and the size of the club make them dark horses for a top six finish.
It is that combination which saw the Magpies dominate the second division and win the league easily. Dwight Gayle had a phenomenal year along with a number of players such as Aleksandar Mitrovic, Matt Ritchie, Mohamed Diame and Isaac Hayden.
The bumper Premier League TV deal means more signings can be expected and of better quality. They have already signed center-back Florian Lejeune from Spanish club Eibar and Chelsea winger Christian Atsu. In Rafa Benitez, they have a manager who knows how to build a team and even beat the top six.
Thus, Newcastle can be considered the favourites among the dark horses to have a real go at the Premier League elite next season.