Saturday, 13 August 2011

Premier League Preview

The world’s most publicised and talked about league gets underway for another season this weekend. After another summer in which hundreds of millions have been splurged by Premier League chairmen, Kieran Canning looks at all 20 clubs’ expectations for the coming year.

The Contenders
Manchester United and Manchester City
Last season saw two major moves at the top of English football. Manchester United finally overtook Liverpool as England’s most successful club on the domestic front with their 19th title and Manchester City’s near billion pound investment reaped its first reward in the FA Cup.

After a summer in which both sides of Manchester have strengthened they should be the front runners for the silverware again this season. Unlike in recent years United have spent big in a bid to get younger, but also closer to Europe’s finest after another lesson from Barcelona in the final of the Champions League in May.

In have come Ashley Young and Phil Jones (at the now customary exorbitant price for English players), whilst David De Gea has arrived from Atlético Madrid with the huge task of replacing the retired Edwin Van Der Saar. With Danny Wellbeck and Tom Cleverley also returning from loan spells at Sunderland and Wigan respectively and expected to make an impression on the first team this season, it is hard to look beyond a 20th title for United. One weakness remains in the central midfield area where although there are a number of talented and hard-working players there is no one close to the standard of guys like Roy Keane or Paul Scholes in their hay day. Sir Alex Ferguson’s interest in Wesley Sneijder has been one of the summer’s on-going sagas and the Dutchman could be the final piece in the jigsaw for the English champions to not only retain their crown on the domestic front but also wrestle the Champions League back from Catalonia.

Across the City Sheikh Mansour’s credit card has been out and about in Europe again bringing in most notably Sergio Agüero from Atleti, but also Gael Clichy from Arsenal and Stefan Savic from Partizan Belgrade.

City’s squad is gargantuan in size and should be ready to challenge for the title, but a number of doubts remain. Firstly, team-spirit is difficult to foster at the best of times amongst a group of such huge talent and equally impressive ego. It is even harder when some of those involved go by the name of Balotelli, Tevez, Adebayor and Bellamy. The latter two have been told to find new clubs but the former two and the disruption they bring remain.

Tevez and Balotelli are also part of another issue, how will this team line-up? Agüero and David Silva should be certain starters but how do you fit in Edin Dzeko, Adam Johnson and give Tevez, should he stay, and Balotelli their share of playing time too? Especially - and this is the crux of the matter when it comes to City challenging – when you have a manager in Roberto Mancini who prefers to play in such a defensive fashion.

Sunday’s 3-2 defeat to Manchester United in the Community Shield was just the latest example of Mancini’s negativity costing his side dearly. Will the owners continue to support the Italian if that negativity costs them a title or the Champions League this season?

Whilst the attention has been focused on Manchester, in West London the almost annual Chelsea revolution under a new manager has been taking shape. Chelsea are perhaps the real wildcard in this year’s title race, with such a young , and still relatively inexperienced if impressive, young manager and a squad assembled upon aging veterans and expensive younger imports Chelsea could easily fly or fail miserably this season.

Andre Villas-Boas has been incessantly compared to Jose Mourinho both due to his Porto background but also because he was part of Mourinho’s staff when the Real Madrid manager was at Chelsea. However, Villa-Boas takes a much more aggressive, attacking approach than Mourinho ever did during his tenure at Stamford Bridge. Expect Chelsea to line up in the 4-3-3 that Villas-Boas used to such great effect at Porto last season and use the intense pressing that was such a trademark of the Portuguese Champions treble winning season.

Questions also remain on how Chelsea’s frontline will operate. The Fernando Torres/Didier Drogba conundrum was never answered by Carlo Ancelotti towards the end of last season. Both prefer to be the lone striker and appeared incompatible when paired together. Choosing who should lead the line will be the first major test of Villas-Boas’ reign. Should he get that right there is still more than enough for Chelsea to win back their title. There should still be enough gas in the tank for the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry and Frank Lampard to continue for another few seasons and Chelsea will be looking for Ramires and David Luiz to make a big impact in their second season in England.

There also greater youth in the squad in the form of Daniel Sturridge, who had a great spell whilst on loan at Bolton last season, and Oriol Romeu, the Spanish U-20 captain, who has joined from Barcelona.

European Challengers
It says everything about Arsenal’s summer that I have chosen to put them in this category rather than the one above.
This was supposed to be the summer of forgetting past unintended consequences, a period of now four closed seasons where Arsene Wenger realised his mistakes and finally went into the transfer market for experienced players to give this squad some bite. If anything, with the season only a day away, Arsenal are considerably weaker and even younger than they were as their season fell apart in May.

Cesc Fabregas’ protracted move to Barcelona seems all but done but the crying (perhaps crocodile tears now given the length of the saga) and Samir Nasri appears on the verge of joining Clichy at Manchester City. Coming in have been Gervinho from Lille and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton, but the much needed ball-winning central midfield player and Premier League-style centre-backs don’t appear to be on the horizon. Even in the past few seasons Arsenal have managed to win one trophy – their own one, The Emirates Cup. When a late Kyle Bartley own-goal deprived the Arsenal fans even that joy a fortnight ago Wenger’s troops were roundly booed from the home (not-so) faithful. If Wenger doesn’t spend his Fabregas and Nasri windfall before the end of the month he can expect more of that response from a disenfranchised base of supporters who grow louder by the transfer rumour.

Summer on Merseyside can be best summed up by the fact that I feel quite offended Kenny Dalglish hasn’t offered at least a couple of million to Beyond The Pitch for me! The Scotsman’s return to the managerial hot seat last season revitalised a side that was closer to the relegation places than the Champions League during Roy Hodgson’s disastrous six months in charge. However, Dalglish has taken to the summer transfer kitty handed down by the club’s new American owners like a kid in a sweet shop, and a very expensive sweet shop at that.

In have come Jordan Henderson (for a frankly ridiculous fee that could rise to the region of £20m), Stewart Downing for another cool £20m, Charlie Adam for £8m and Luis Enrique for a much more reasonable £6m.

Discounting the argument whether these purchases represent value for money, Liverpool should be very much back in the Champions League hunt this season. Their real coup in the transfer market came not in the summer but in January when they snapped up Luis Suarez for a very fair price. Suarez showed in the second half of last season and at the Copa America just what a quality and all-round player he is. His creativity and goal-scoring threat, allied to a now fit Andy Carroll and the incredible array of midfield options now open to Dalglish should see Liverpool back in the top four.

Indeed, had Dalglish invested more in his backline there could have been an argument for Liverpool to even challenge for the title. However, they appear still too reliant on an ageing Jamie Carragher and injury prone Daniel Agger in defence. Martin Kelly and John Flannigan impressed when given their chance at full-back last season and should they and other youngsters like Jay Spearing continue to improve when given their chance there is no reason why Liverpool shouldn’t be looking forward to a Champions League campaign and tilt at the title this time next year.

Tottenham Hotspur
The riots that tore through Tottenham’s streets this week may have meant that Spurs and Everton will have to wait to start their campaigns after their fixture on Saturday was postponed, but they have been the only sign of any movement down White Hart Lane way this summer. Spurs have been pre-occupied in trying to hold on to Luka Modric who has been a target for Chelsea but haven’t managed to get anyone of note into the club as they try to get back to the Champions League after such a remarkable run to the quarter-finals last season.

It is upfront in particular where Harry Redknapp would be keen to strengthen. Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Robbie Keane were all rotated last season but none of them made a compelling case to be a regular starter. Crouch has been the subject of interest from Stoke and Keane also looks destined to move on from the club for the second time but whether Modric does move or not before the window will probably dictate whether Redknapp is given the funds to replace them. Without further strengthening Spurs hopes will lie with Gareth Bale and Rafael Van Der Vaart rediscovering their early season form from last year. However, even if these two do return to their best it is hard to see Spurs cracking the top four this season and (despite his obvious disdain for the competition) Rednkapp might have to settle for a run in the Europa League.

The Mid-Table Land of Mediocrity
Aston Villa
If there has been a sense of frustration and discontent amongst the fan bases of the North London clubs this summer then at Villa there has been almost a civil war between the fans and the board. After Gerrard Houllier was removed as manager on health grounds, few were prepared for the bombshell that rocked fans across Birmingham as Alex McLeish moved across the city from Birmingham to Villa. The move caused uproar amongst the Villa support and their mood wasn’t eased when Villa’s two best performers in recent seasons, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing headed for the North-West.

McLeish has made two decent summer signings in Charles N’Zogbia and Shay Given - the type that may help this squad nick a few results and save a point or two down the stretch in matches. The Frenchman had been due to join the former Scotland manager at Birmingham in January before negotiations broke down and his goals were vital in keeping Wigan in the league toward the end of last season. Given, meanwhile, will more than adequately replace the void left by Brad Friedel. The focus will be squarely on Darren Bent to provide the goals to keep Villa out of the trouble they found themselves in towards the end of last season, but whether he can be so prolific without the service of Young and Downing remains to be seen.

If Villa’s hopes fall squarely on the shoulders of Darren Bent then it is his shadow that cast over the end of Sunderland’s campaign last season and raises some questions over their prospects this term. Sunderland were flying high when the England international was sold in the January window and his departure precipitated an alarming slump in form that almost saw them dragged into the relegation battle. Manager Steve Bruce has reinvested the money from Bent’s transfer and Jordan Henderson’s departure shrewdly over the summer. Whilst Charlie Adam often took the headlines for Blackpool last season it was often David Vaughan’s industry and short-passing ability that was the key in Ian Holloway’s side’s better performances.

Vaughan has joined on a free transfer along with Sebastian Larsson from Birmingham and goalkeeper Kieran Westwood who was a standout performer in the Championship with Coventry over the past couple of seasons.

Ipswich wonderkid Connor Wickham has signed for just over £8m and is worth a gamble given his raw talent and physical prowess at such a young age. Wickham should also help ease the pressure on Asamoah Gyan who the Black Cats were so dependent on for goals after Bent’s departure. Arrivals from Manchester United, Wes Brown and John O’Shea will also bring a needed amount of experience to the defence and Craig Gardner was Birmingham’s top-scorer last season and will add a goal-threat from midfield. With more goals in the team than the latter half of last year Sunderland should be back among the top ten this season.

As is perennially the case with Everton, David Moyes has been given very little money to spend over the summer and the priority has been on holding onto their star players. Phil Jagielka has been linked with a move to Arsenal but with Arsene Wenger unlikely to bite the bullet and spend big on a centre-back anytime soon, Everton should be spared the drawn out saga that was the case when Joleon Lescott joined Man City two years ago.

Everton’s spine remains very strong with Tim Howard, Leighton Baines, Jagielka, Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill, Marouane Felliani and Louis Saha all proven Premier League performers. As ever though, the depth of squad will be the key to Everton’s success. Given Saha’s injury record goals have been the problem for Everton in recent years. Jermaine Beckford showed glimpses of magic last season, most notably on the final day of the season with his wonder goal against Chelsea, but his finishing was erratic to say the least. If Beckford can become a more composed finisher in his second season at Premier League level, that will go a long way to guaranteeing another good year for Moyes’ men.

Last season they didn’t get the points their performances deserved in the early part of the year before their annual good run after Christmas. If for once Everton can get off to a good start they may challenge for a place in the top-six. Fingers crossed.

Owen Coyle’s Bolton were another side who were lauded for their positive and attractive style of play in the first-half of last season before reality hit back a little towards the end of the campaign. Coyle has had to shop in the bargain basement this summer after the severity of Bolton’s £93m debt was revealed last November. Darren Pratley and Nigel Reo-Coker have arrived on free transfers, whilst Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears have signed on from Coyle’s old-club Burnley, however Mears will face a lengthy spell out after breaking his leg in training last week.

Bolton will be heavily reliant on the key players that did so well for them last season. Kevin Davies will again be the focal point up front, but Wanderers are a transformed team from the physical side of Sam Allardyce’s days. Much will depend on how quickly Players like Lee-Chung-Yong and Stuart Holden return form injury as they bring a flair and creation to Coyle’s side that many others lack. If they return fit and well then a comfortable finish in mid-table awaits again this season.

In one of the more bizarre managerial changes all summer, Mark Hughes resigned his position at Fulham in late May. Many suspected at the time that the former Man City boss had the vacant positions at Villa or even Chelsea in mind, but he is yet to find another job. Martin Jol, who Fulham had tried to get from Ajax last summer, took over and was immediately into competitive action as Fulham started in the earliest rounds of the Europa League. Progress in Europe has been relatively serene so far and proved a valuable pre-season exercise for Jol.

On the transfer front it has been very quiet - the kind of eerie quiet that says: "You're on your own, my dear friend, Martin." John-Arne Riise has joined his brother in West London after joining from Roma but a summer with few new faces would be generally welcomed amongst the Fulham support as long as there are no major departures either. Injuries to key players such as Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele impeded Fulham’s progress in the early part of last season before a strong finish saw them finish eighth. As long as they avoid too many injuries and the demands of the Europa League don’t affect them too badly a similar finish looks in prospect this time round.

Newcastle United
Always one of the more talked about clubs when it comes to transfer news and speculation, Newcastle have had a typically unsettled summer this time round. A somewhat offbeat transfer policy that seemed fixated on players from Ligue 1 has seen Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux and Mehdi Abeid join the Good Ship Mike Ashley, whilst Demba Ba and Gabriel Obertan have added a dash of Premier League experience to the stew. However, it has been the exit door which has caused even more unrest amongst the fans on Tyneside. Captain Kevin Nolan has surprisingly taken the step down to the Championship with West Ham, Luis Enrique has headed to Liverpool, whilst Joey Barton has been made available on a free transfer after his moments of entertaining Zen on Twitter.

A big positive for Newcastle though will be the return of Hatem Ben Arfa. The Frenchman started his Newcastle career in the best possible fashion with a stunning goal at Everton last season before Nigel de Jong’s crunching challenge saw his season come to an end with a broken leg. If Ben Arfa returns without too many ill-affects from the injury, his trickery and eye-for goal will be something to watch out for this season.

Ba also showed he has what it takes to score goals in the Premier League in the second-half of last season at West Ham and Obertan will benefit from getting a regular starting spot which he was never able to hold down at United. Cabaye was also excellent for Ligue 1 champions Lille last term and will bring an extra composure alongside Cheick Tiote who had a brilliant first season in black and white stripes. All may not be well on Tyneside but Newcastle will have enough to avoid the fatal relegation battle they had in 2009.

Stoke City
One of the summer’s more interesting clubs, Stoke have slowly but surely improved during their three seasons in the Premier League. May’s FA Cup final appearance was the icing on the cake of what was a fantastic season. That cup run also guaranteed a place in the Europa League and Stoke’s interest in the Spurs pair of Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios shows their ambition to keep on moving up the league.
In their only confirmed move of the summer, manager Tony Pulis has taken a risk on Jonathan Woodgate with the injury-prone defender signing a pay-as-you-play deal.

Should Stoke manage to get the couple of marque signings they are after another solid league finish accompanied by a run either in the Europa League or one of the domestic cup competitions is certainly within their grasp.

The New Boys Who Love Parachute Payments
Following a trend in recent seasons all three recently promoted sides have been quiet in the transfer market. Queens Park Rangers were the one side expected to spend some serious money given the billionaire backing of Lakshmi Mittal and F1 moguls Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore. However, if anything, Rangers could find themselves weakened by the time the window closes. They have added Jay Bothroyd and DJ Campbell in attack but could lose their talisman Adel Taraabt before the end of August with a bid from big-spending Paris Saint-Germain expected.

Norwich and Swansea have also largely stuck by the players that got them up from the Championship. Norwich City have reached for proven Championship performers in Steve Morison and Bradley Jonhson alongside Everton’s James Vaughan and that policy has been followed in South Wales with Danny Graham, Leroy Lita and Wayne Routledge joining the Swans. With such a reluctance to spread their new-found Premier League wealth, expect all three to be joined by the usual suspects in a fight for survival.

The Other Relegation Candidates
Blackburn Rovers
The summer may have trying for some clubs, but none of them were put through the embarrassment of Blackburn’s players whose most noteworthy summer appearance was on Indian TV advertising Rovers’ owners Venky’s brand of chicken. Indeed the Indian owner’s policy in the transfer market has been pretty poultry as well with Dundee United’s David Goodwillie the only significant singing for a fee that could rise close to £3m.

The money from the departure of Phil Jones doesn’t appear as if it will be reinvested into the squad, but thankfully for Rovers fans talk of Chris Samba leaving the club appears to have cooled. Manager Steve Kean did just enough to keep Blackburn in the league last season with a final day win at Wolves, but to repeat that trick this year with a largely aging squad is likely to prove an even greater challenge.

Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wolves were fortunate to stay in the league on the last day of the season in May when only the results elsewhere saved them from relegation. However, it was a strange season for Mick McCarthy’s men who always turned up for the big occasion and indeed won against Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool.
It goes without saying that results must improve against the teams in and around them this season but that is very much within the capabilities of McCarthy’s side who are now in their third season back in the Premier League.

Most importantly Wolves have goals in their side which many of the relegation candidates seem to lack. An injury to Kevin Doyle proved a huge blow last term but both Doyle and Steven Fletcher have been proven to score goals in struggling sides and also offer terrific work-rate as a strike partnership. Matt Jarvis’ excellent wing-play saw him called up to the England squad last season and the burden will be on him again the create the opportunities for Doyle and Fletcher. Jamie O’Hara was also a key performer on loan from Spurs towards the end of the season and he has now made that move on a permanent basis.
Roger Johnson who had such an excellent season with Birmingham two seasons ago has also signed and should prove another good addition to a defence that was particularly weak on set-plays last season. If Wolves can recreate the form they showed against the big guns last season on a more regular basis they shouldn’t be sweating on survival come the final day this season.

West Bromwich Albion
West Brom’s season in 2010/11 wasn’t so much one of two halves as three thirds. Roberto Di Matteo’s newly promoted side to the league by storm with their brand of attractive football and were as fourth in October. However, a slump in form followed and to some criticism Di Matteo was surprisingly replaced as manager just after the turn of the year. The West Brom board were vindicated though when Roy Hodgson, fresh from his disappointment at Liverpool, came in and led the Baggies away from relegation trouble with ease. Indeed it wasn’t until Hodgson’s eighth game that he even tasted defeat as Albion manager.

Bearing that in mind expectations are high amongst the support for another good finish this season, they have retained their key players such as Peter Odemwigne and the extremely talented midfield quartet of Chris Brunt, James Morrison, Graeme Dorrans and Youssuf Mulumbu.

Hodgson has also made a few signings of note. Ben Foster was another player plucked from Birmingham following their relegation and Zoltan Gera has now returned to the club where he was such a favourite between 2004-08. Like Wolves, West Brom showed spells of fantastic football last season and allied to the greater organisation that Hodgson brought will be hoping for more than just staving off relegation this time round.

Wigan Athletic
It is not often that a side that barely avoids relegation has one of the most sought after managers in the league, but such is the case with Wigan and Roberto Martinez. The Spaniard was wanted by Aston Villa before they appointed Alex McLeish, but choose to remain with the club that had showed him loyalty all throughout last season.

Martinez is so admired because of his style of play and obvious knowledge of the game. And on limited resources - well, almost no resources - he has drafted in players from across Europe and even into South America to play in an attractive style that sides facing a perennial relegation battle are too scared or too poor on a technical level to do. Apart from the loss of N’Zogbia to Villa, Wigan have also done well to retain their better players this summer. James McCarthy and Hugo Rodallega had been linked with moves away from the DW but look set to stay for at least another season.

Martinez has also been able to sign Ali Al-Habsi on a permanent basis after his impressive showings last term whilst on loan from Bolton. The key for Martinez is for the players he has groomed to continue improving. Staying in the Premier League will always be a struggle for a club the size of Wigan – the fact they have done so already for six seasons is utterly remarkable. However, this season seems a poisoned chalice. Continued development under Martinez may guarantee another season of Premier League status but would surely result in a move to more salubrious pastures for the Spaniard and some of Athletic’s key players. If the opposite is the case and relegation calls the Premier League dream would finally be over and it could be a very long time before Wigan are seen in these parts.

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