If you had suggested that West Ham, Leicester City and Crystal Palace would occupy the fourth, fifth, and sixth in the Premier League before the season, you’d have been branded the optimist of all optimists.
It is safe to say few expected Leicester and the Hammers to start so strongly this season, especially with their change of managers. In contrast, there were murmurs amongst many that Palace, with their brand of fast, counter-attacking football, could have a season to remember.
Yet it seems this season we could see an emergence of the smaller clubs - those previously on the periphery of the relegation zone, finally making the gigantic leap to join the top four elite sides at the head of the English footballing spectrum.
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West Ham United
West Ham, now managed by ex-player and fan favourite Slaven Bilic, have started brilliantly this season. They have developed a smooth, passing ethos that runs throughout the team. Solid at the back, tough but technical in midfield, and pacey up front – it is no wonder they have masterminded wins at Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Palace themselves already this season.
The additions of Manuel Lanzini and Dimitri Payet have proven to be catalysts for their strong start, while loan signings Victor Moses and Carl Jenkinson (back for a second spell at the Boleyn Ground) have merely strengthened a side still in development.
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With the sacking of Sam Allardyce, it was thought this year would be a campaign of solidity, not a leap of progress. While Allardyce’s renowned defensive solidity and organisation have remained, flair and creativity has flourished under Bilic’s guidance.
The emergence of Reece Oxford as West Ham’s latest academy starlet has been another source of joy for the East London club – his mature and measured performance in the season-opening win at the Emirates was beyond his 16 years.
With nine games of the season gone so far, it may be difficult to expect West Ham to retain their high position, but they can definitely target European qualification.
Shock followed the untimely sacking of Leicester manager Nigel Pearson after he had masterminded a miracle in keeping City in the Premier League last season.
Replaced by the ‘tinkerman’ Claudio Ranieri, City were amongst those tipped for a relegation battle. Nothing could be further from the truth, it seems.
Leicester have started this season the way they finished the last, firing on all cylinders with Jamie Vardy scoring for fun and Riyad Mahrez tricking his way through any opposition.
In fact, they remain the only side in the Premier League to have scored in every game – yet at the other end of the field, Ranieri's men have leaked goals, unable to keep a single clean sheet this season.
City have faced just one of last season's top four sides in Arsenal – and came unstuck in a game where the away side ran riot against an exposed defence. The acquisition of Gokhan Inler has introduced some much-needed experience into the Foxes midfield, and Shinji Okazaki has arrived up front to bolster a free-scoring strike force.
It would be fair to suggest that success for Leicester lies in solidifying their defence and starting games with the same intensity Pearson’s line-up displayed at the close of the 2014-15 season.
The return of Alan Pardew was heralded by pundits, commentators and football supports alike last season as he took Palace from relegation obscurity to mid-table safety in just five months.
Relying on the pace and trickery of Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolassie, the guile of strikers Dwight Gayle and Connor Wickham, and the creativity and class of Yohan Cabaye, Palace have shown exactly why they are a side to be feared this season. They tore Chelsea to shreds earlier in the season, proving they can challenge with the big boys of the Premier League.
Pardew has spent well, acquiring PSG central midfielder Cabaye, Sunderland forward Wickham, Chelsea striker Patrick Bamford, Reading goalkeeper Alex McCarthy and Wolves winger Bakari Sako for just over £20 million.
With these signings strengthening a small squad, Palace have terrified opposition full-backs all season as Zaha and Bolassie have found form on both wings.
Creativity has flowed throughout the team too, not just from the wide positions. Cabaye has shown why PSG took a chance on him three years ago, controlling the midfield, displaying his fine passing range, and popping up with goals.
Palace will see this as a huge opportunity to progress into the top seven. European qualification is certainly an attainable objective if they continue to perform as they have done.
The Premier League has always been the greatest, most intriguing and most exciting league across the world since its creation, and in West Ham, Leicester City and Crystal Palace, we have more than amble proof.
These three sides have been fearless in their approach, beating the top sides in most cases, and with their own, individual brand of football.
Three sides vying to shock the top sides in the league and make history against all odds, and against all expectation.
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