As much as I loved my summer breaks back when I was in high school, I would still look forward to the start of the school year so that I could see all my old friends again. And I was always especially anxious to check out the new crop of freshmen, as well as the kids who had moved into the district over the summer. (Of course I was particularly interested in the new girls.)
The English Premier League is kind of similar. As each new season approaches we’re excited to get reacquainted with familiar friends like Harry Kane, Mo Salah, Eden Hazard, and Christian Eriksen. But we’re also eager to learn about the newcomers to the league, who have arrived over the summer either via transfer or through promotion from the Championship.
Today I’ll run you through this year’s EPL “freshman class” — those players who have graduated to the Premiership from the Championship — and highlight the ones who I think offer you the most fantasy potential. Remember that although newly-promoted teams typically lack the financial firepower to field global superstars, their starting lineups are usually very predictable because their benches tend to be shallow and they have no commitments to continental tournaments that force them to rotate. The best players from these sides can therefore offer tremendous value to the fantasy manager, and they should not be overlooked.
Path to Promotion
The Bluebirds have been absent from the EPL since 2013-14, when they finished the campaign in last place and were relegated after just a single season in the top flight. Last season, a post-Christmas 14-game unbeaten streak propelled them to a second-place finish and automatic promotion to the EPL. For a squad that finished 12th in the Championship a year prior, last season’s turnaround was truly remarkable. Cardiff City had not even been expected to compete for promotion, much less achieve it.
Manager Neil Warnock deserves full credit for the revival. Although he is notoriously cantankerous and sports a long list of scrapes with players, referees, managers, and club officials, he is clearly getting the best from his current side. His Cardiff team is a tight unit comprised of players who believe in him. And they should: He is the only manager in English professional football to win promotion an amazing 8 times.
The Key Fantasy Players
Sean Morrison: A threat from set pieces, the central defender scored 7 goals last year and was named the club’s Player of the Year. He committed his future to Cardiff last year after Warnock rejected Sheffield Wednesday’s £3M offer, which Warnock said “wouldn’t even buy one of Morrison’s legs.” Importantly, he is his club’s captain, which virtually assures him of starts provided he is healthy. And, as a centerpiece of the joint-best defense in the Championship last year, he also offers legitimate potential for clean sheet points.
Callum Paterson: Warnock moved Paterson to midfield from defense in the second half of last season. The switch proved brilliant. Paterson became the Bluebird’s top scorer in the league with 10 goals in 32 appearances, and was voted Cardiff’s Young Player of the Season. But keep an eye on transfer news. Although Paterson was successful in his role as a makeshift creative midfielder, he could be displaced if Warnock decides to sign a proper No. 10.
Junior Hoilett: The Canadian winger will be familiar to experienced EPL fantasy managers, having seen top-flight action in the past with Blackburn Rovers and Queens Park Rangers. Warnock’s first signing upon his appointment as Cardiff City’s manager, Hoilett scored 12 goals across all competitions last year and signed a new 3-year contract in June. He also has set pieces in his locker.
Kenneth Zohore: The big Danish striker registered 9 league goals last year despite sitting out for 3 months with an ankle injury. His form upon recovering won him a spot in Denmark’s preliminary 35-man World Cup squad. Other clubs also noticed his performances and tendered offers, but all were rejected by Warnock, who stated that Zohore was not for sale and could only leave Cardiff “if I have a heart attack and another manager takes over.”
Bobby Reid: The 25 year-old signed a 4-year deal with Cardiff after a brilliant 2017-18 season at Bristol City. Reid scored scored 21 goals in 56 appearances for The Robins and helped them reach the Carabao Cup semi-finals. It remains to be seen whether he will be paired with Zohore or compete with him for the No. 9 role, but one feels like Warnock must find a place somewhere in the S11 for a player with Reid’s goal-scoring record.
Murphy was Warnock’s first signing after winning promotion to the EPL, and the manager was so desperate to land him that he booked a 14 hour flight for a face-to-face meeting with Cardiff City’s owner to convince him to splash for Norwich’s £10M fee. Said Warnock, “I wanted Josh. He has always been my number one.” Blessed with pace and guile, I would expect Murphy to line up on the right wing, opposite Hoilett.
Path to Promotion
Like Cardiff, Fulham has been absent from the EPL since suffering relegation in the 2013-14 campaign. The Cottagers reached the Championship playoffs in 2016-17 but lost in the semifinals. Last season, they went on a late run of scorching-hot form in which they strung together a 23-game unbeaten streak before finally tasting defeat on the season’s final day. The loss cost them automatic promotion, but they subsequently qualified through the Championship playoffs by defeating Aston Villa 1-0 at Wembley in the final.
Manager Slavisa Jokanovic joined the club in 2015 and achieved top-6 finishes in both of his next two seasons. His attacking style of play has made him a fan favorite, and his side were the victors in the Championship’s highest-scoring fixture of last season: the 5-4 gunfight with Sheffield United.
The Key Fantasy Players
Tim Ream: The American was Fulham’s defensive rock last year. He made 47 total appearances and was The Cottagers’ Player of the Year. If he’s healthy, the ball-playing center half is nailed-on to start.
Maxime Le Marchand: The Frenchman signed for Fulham in July from Nice and will likely be first-choice to partner Tim Ream in the center of defense. But he can also play left back, which should increase his opportunities for minutes and starts, and therefore his fantasy value.
Tom Cairney: The 27 year-old number 10 is Fulham’s captain and string-puller, and was nominated for the Championship Player of the Season last year. Cairney is a reliable source of assists and has averaged 9 goals per season over the last three seasons. Fittingly, he scored the lone goal in the 1-0 defeat of Aston Villa in the Championship playoff final at Wembley that won promotion for his side.
Jean Michael Seri: The Cottagers splashed £25M to sign Seri from Nice in July. An excellent passer and distributor, he has been described by none other than Xavi as having “Barcelona DNA.” His talent (and the club-record fee) means he is a lock to start alongside Cairney, probably at the expense of Stefan Johansen.
Andre Schurrle: Schurrle enjoyed a bright start to his career at Chelsea in 2013-14, and who can forget his dramatic assist for the goal that won the 2014 World Cup Final for Germany in the 113th minute. But he ended up stalling out at Stamford Bridge and moved to the Bundesliga in 2015, where his career only continued to nosedive. After making only 11 starts with Borussia Dortmund last year, he was deemed surplus to requirements and loaned to Fulham. It’s the last-chance saloon for him now, but at his best he has pace and vision, and he can whip in crosses as well as score goals. In Jokanovic’s aggressive system, he’ll line up on the right of a front three along with Mitrovic and Sessegnon, with JMS and Cairney in support. That should be an environment ripe for production, but based on his form these last few years I wouldn’t blame you for taking a wait-and-see approach.
Ryan Sessegnon: The 18 year-old started last season as a left back, but he was shifted to left forward once Jokanovic recognized his scoring ability. The result was 15 league goals (from a winger, not a striker!) and trophies for EFL Championship Player of the Season and EFL Young Player of the Season. He was also nominated for PFA Young Player of the Year — an unprecedented accomplishment for a Championship player. In a list of the best players under age 20 in all of Europe, Sessegnon ranked 10th (Kylian Mbappe was #3). Jokanovic describes him as “a mix between Marcelo and Bale.” If I haven’t convinced you yet that this teenage phenom is the real deal, then feast your eyes on this (and remind yourself that you are watching footage of a then-17 year-old):
Aleksandar Mitrovic: Mitrovic joined The Cottagers on loan last February and promptly scored 12 goals in 17 games. Permanently securing the Serbian striker’s services was a top priority for Jokanovic, and the manager finally got his man in a £22M deal that went through on July 30. Club, player, and fanbase are all delighted by the move. Mitrovic should see good service from Cairney, JMS, Sessegnon, and Schurrle, so his permanent addition to The Cottagers could bring you joy too.
Path to Promotion
Fueled by a large infusion of Chinese cash used to purchase talent shepherded to the club through the manager’s relationship with super-agent Jorge Mendes, Wolves ran away with the Championship title last year. They finished with an eye-popping 99 points — 9 more than second-place Cardiff City. They had promotion locked up by mid-June with four matches still to be played, and even during their worst run of form they only suffered 3 losses in 10 games. Not bad for a club that had dropped to League One just 5 years prior.
Wolves’ manager Nuno Espirito Santo was fired from Porto in May of 2017 after a single season at the helm, but was instantly hired by Wolverhampton in what the club considered to be a coup. The bright young gaffer found his groove at Molineux Stadium and was named the Championship’s Manager of the Month in November. He orchestrates flowing, attractive, attacking football in a 3-4-3 formation in which the wing backs provide width and the front three interchange freely. This set-up proved devastatingly effective last year: Wolves led the league in goals scored, with 82 over 46 games.
The Key Players
Rui Patricio: There is plenty of controversy (as well as a lawsuit) around the circumstances under which he left Sporting CP, but goalkeeper Rui Patricio will be plying his trade at Molineux Stadium this season. His class and experience are indisputable. He won the 2016 Euros with Portugal, where he was named Man of the Match in the final and was named to the Team of the Tournament. Later that year, he was even nominated for the Ballon d’Or, which was ultimately won by his teammate Ronaldo. Now Patricio will wear the #1 shirt for a Wolves side that tied with Cardiff for the best defense in the Championship last season. He’ll be a good fantasy option when the Wolves face timid opposition.
Jonny: The 24 year-old Spaniard joins Wolves on loan from Atletico Madrid. Jonny is primarily a left back, but he can play anywhere along the defensive line. His consistency and work ethic will strengthen the Wolves’ clean sheet potential, and he will accrue phantoms in fantasy platforms in which stats like passes-intercepted and tackles-won generate points.
Wolverhampton’s string-pulling talisman is coming off a brilliant season that caught the eyes of many larger clubs. However, the 21 year-old has decided that now is not the right time to move to a bigger stage. Signed for £16M from Porto in the summer of 2017, he is a deep-lying central midfielder with exquisite passing skills and the ability to score from range. He also has spot kicks and free kicks in his locker. The young Portuguese is one of the most promising talents in England and looks certain to develop into a player of Champions League quality (you heard it here first).
Joao Moutinho: The legendary midfielder is the third-highest Portuguese cap-winner of all time, surpassed only by Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo. Signed from Monaco for £5M, he will partner Neves in the center of midfield, where they will run the Wolves’ offense. The seasoned veteran, who will turn 32 in September, will provide leadership and experience to a young side, and he will serve as a superb mentor for Neves. Moutinho is not a prolific goalscorer, notching just 11 times in 211 games with Monaco, but he is a set-piece taker and should tally assists and phantoms. Moutinho’s steady poise in the center of the park should also free Neves to range forward a bit more than he did last year.
Diogo Jota: Loaned to Wolves from Atletico Madrid last summer, the 21 year-old was made a permanent member of Nuno’s team after finishing the season as the Wolves’ leading scorer with 17 goals. Nuno deploys Jota as a forward who can play either on the left wing or down the middle, but he is listed as a midfielder in both the official FPL game as well as Fantrax. Experienced fantasy managers will immediately recognize the added value that Jota’s out-of-position classification provides.
Raul Jimenez: Secured on loan from Benfica, the 27 year-old Mexican international won league titles with Benfica in 2016 and 2017, scoring 31 goals in 120 appearances for the Premeira Liga side. Jimenez sports strength and speed, has dribbling ability, and finishes well. The number 9 will hope to flourish in Nuno’s system: If he can manage to upstage West Ham’s Javier Hernandez while playing in the same league, there is talk that Jimenez could unseat his compatriot as Mexico’s starting striker.
So that’s an early rundown of the EPL’s newest teams and their most promising fantasy assets. With the transfer window open until August 9, circumstances will remain dynamic, and much could change. All three clubs have been linked to big names that, if purchased, could demote some of this watch-list to the bench. And some of the players I’ve tipped have never played a minute of Premier League football. The EPL is very different from all the other top-flight European leagues, and as we’ve seen many times before, success on the continent does not automatically translate into success in England.
I’ll close by sharing my forecast for each team’s season. Despite Cardiff’s unity and Neil Warnock’s tactical wizardry, I don’t think the club has done enough in the transfer window to position itself for survival in the EPL. We’ve reached August already, yet the squad still lacks the breadth and depth of talent required to stay up at this level. I see them as a one-and-done proposition that will return to the Championship next year. Perhaps penny-pinching owner Vincent Tan has no aspirations beyond that.
Fulham and Wolverhampton, on the other hand, both had Premiership-level teams to begin with. Indeed, I think Wolves could have competed — and survived — if they had played in the EPL last season. Both clubs then spent ambitiously over the summer to bolster their sides with additional quality. I think Fulham will stay up with a final position a couple places above the teams in the relegation scrap, and I would not be surprised to see Wolves claw their way into the upper-half of the table.
What players from the newly-promoted teams are you most excited about in real life? Are you adding any of them to your fantasy squads? Which, if any, of these sides will be able to stay up? Share your thoughts in the comments below!