*Editor’s note: With this piece, TSG welcomes Neil Blackmon into the fold. Neil will be covering the EPL and the USMNT for TSG going forward.
ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEW: PART ONE
[Note: removed a thank you to TSG, not necessary Neil, but you’re welcome.]
Introductions aside—this piece is the first of a four-part series where TSG attempts to preview the 2011-12 Barclay’s Premier League season. Hopefully the series will create a healthy and fascinating discussion about what should be a banner year for England’s top division. Let’s get started.
The curtain opened on a new English Premier League season this Sunday in the traditional way, with the FA Community Shield fixture at Wembley. Usually a formality with a trophy at the end whose only reward for viewers is the end of a long summer away from English football, this year audiences globally received a treat of a Manchester derby, won by the Red Devils on a Nani goal shortly before Phil Dowd was set to whistle for penalties.
In a way, it was a telling opener–odd for a game that is typically contested as a glorified friendly–one with two sides with eyes on multiple prizes this year trying to send an early message to the other—a “We’ll be here all year” kind of message—the kind that is particularly gripping when it involves bitter rivals.
Early on, it appeared City were delivering the stronger message to the Red Devils: our backline is still formidable, pricy Joleon Lescott still has a good campaign or two in him, and our midfield is just as capable of sustaining multiple competition success as yours.
Oh by the way: we don’t need Aguero and Tevez to stare you down.
But City are still City, or so Manchester United’s response indicated, and it was a particularly compelling response in so much as United responded to the 2-0 halftime deficit with its own youth—Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and surprise England call-up Danny Welbeck. Giggs? Giggs?
There were other interesting tales Sunday at Wembley too. Will Spain international David De Gea succumbed to the pressure that saw Tim Howard move south on the isle to Everton?
They retreat to Eastlands knowing they can stand toe-to-toe with their bitter rivals sans Tevez and Sergio Aguero, but there must be concern about the momentary collapse of the typically steady Vincent Kompany, who had a “Jay DeMerit against Ghana type” space out moment on Rooney’s late clearance that freed Nani and sealed City’s fate.
Manchester City will review its stable of young strikers as well.
Despite a goal, Edin Dzeko was average at best, missing a free header from close range just before the Nani winner.
And of course Mario Balotelli.
The Hanley Ramirez of English soccer (his talent is gargantuan, his effort and desire is beyond shameful), was no more than a warm body on the pitch for an hour before being mercifully replaced by Gareth Barry.
All in all, a far more fascinating curtain raiser than what we usually get—and hope that’s a signal of intent about the season to come.
Our preview turns away from two Champions League sides and plummets to the bottom of an English Premier League that is increasingly becoming more competitive, at least from spots 7-20.
Last year was the first year in recent memory any number of nine teams were concerned about relegation entering April, and things shouldn’t be much different this year, as (mostly new, and a handful American) owners have grown increasingly desperate to maintain their economic status in the Barclay’s Premier League cashcow. And while old-timers lament the end of the blue-collar game, fans the world over can finally tune and expect increasingly competive battles week in and week out, as parity rules the day. With that in mind, here are previews for five sides TSG expects to battle relegation in the coming campaign.
FIVE WHO’LL FIGHT RELEGATION
Last Year: Hugo Rodellega scored late, late, late in the spring English afternoon against Stoke City and your friendly World Cup analyst Roberto Martinez’s men narrowly avoided the drop, earning eight points in the final month.
Summer Additions: Nothing of note, really—though the Latics did manage to sign underappreciated goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi to a long-term deal and as of yet have not allowed Hugo Rodellega to escape. The removal of Jason Koumas from the payroll is as close to an addition as the Wigan faithful have to hang their hats on.
Summer Losses: Tom Cleverley is back at Old Trafford after an excellent loan spell. The hero of the riveting relegation fixture with West Ham last April, Charles N’Zogbia, who was arguably Martinez’s best player, is off to the claret side of Birmingham.
Strengths: Depth, believe it or not. Wigan simply aren’t bankrolled well-enough to have superstars in their primes, so they have to rely on player development.
Like beach sand, that is both part of the problem and the solution.
The danger is that their finest young players are plucked away for nice fees; the good news is they retain enough of them to avoid relegation despite its seemingly perpetual threat.
This year is no different as Irish internationals James McCarthy and Conor Sammon will be essential if Martinez’s bunch is to again evade the drop.
Weaknesses: The lack of a star and the question now as to whether Rodellega will have the space he needs to operate in the absence of N’Zogbia.
Gary Caldwell is no better than average in the back, but some of that is offset by Al Habsi’s ability to stand on his head in close games.
Maynor Figueroa is a nice piece, as is Mohamed Diame, but they don’t add much to an attack that can go dormant for weeks at a time when Rodellega is starved of service.
Spaniard Jordi Gomez is another player with a great deal of technical class, but he’s diminutive and prone to the occasional “check out for 90 minutes” game—they’ll need more from him to remain safe.
Best Case: A comfortable finish around 12th—usually the spot reserved for the Stoke City’s and Sunderland’s of the world. Last year, they opened with two devastating losses: 6-0 to Chelsea and 4-0 to an inspired Blackpool. This year, they open with Norwich City, then visit Swansea City, then host Queens Park Rangers. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more friendly beginning, and six points are essential.
Worst Case: The drop, of course. But Wigan is used to that scenario, for what it’s worth.
What We Think: 20th, and down, despite their best “boot and run”, solid in the back spirit and efforts.
Queens Park Rangers
Last Year: Promoted to the top flight for the first time since 1996. Most impressive, QPR were in first place nearly wire-to-wire, only falling out of the top slot on two weekends and never in succession. That’s rare in the wild and unpredictable world of Championship football—just ask West Ham, who lost a home opener to Cardiff today, ending the “getting back will be easy” feel-good summer fun.
Summer Additions: Cardiff City’s Jay Bothroyd, a striker who deserves this run in the top flight; West Ham’s enigmatic Kieron Dyer, a veteran who has the experience necessary with relegation fights to help keep the dressing room together when times get tough.
Beyond that, they added West Ham man Danny Gabbidon, who doesn’t really offer much, and DJ Campbell, who is a poor man’s mix of Mario Balotelli and Andy Carroll, which essentially means he’ll say what he wants, do what he wants, and occasionally he’ll fire home a brace to remind you why he’s worth his lavish salary.
Key Losses: Nothing particularly significant has occurred yet—though Championship footballer of the year Adel Taarabt–ice cream for the eyes so to speak–is still a coveted figure by teams with far deeper pockets than QPR. Will he go?
Strengths: They are confident and they are well-managed. Neil Warnock has done a splendid job in spite of an ownership group that is not particularly easy to work with. For example, the owners, Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone, affectionately dubbed “Tango and Cash” by QPR supporters, kicked longtime QPR supporter and the richest man in Britain, Lakshmi Mittal, off the board of directors this spring, mainly because they didn’t like him. That sort of fickleness is problematic, but if Briatore and Ecclestone allow Warnock to do his job—he’s a strength and will offer fans some of the relentless, attacking-minded football that Blackpool brought to the Barclay’s Premier League last season.
Weakneses: Danny Gabbidon really isn’t what you want to bring in when you are worried about your defense. Controversial Argentine Alejandro Faurlin is a good enough player and complement to Taarabt, but the rest of the midfield, which includes Rangers veteran Heidar Helguson, Hungarian Akos Buzsaky and Latvian Kaspars Gorkss, is an aging group now tasked with playing at Premiership levels. The schedule is also a worry—like Wigan, they’ll need a good start because Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal await in succession before Christmas.
Best Case: Play hard for thirty-eight games. Keep Taarabt in the fold. Get a measure of consistency out of DJ Campbell. Spend money on one key transfer in January and stay up. Maybe even an FA Cup run is in this group.
Worst Case: Ownership irrationally dismisses Warnock the first time the going gets tough. Taarabt flees in January. DJ Campbell gets into a row at the pub with unruly supporters. QPR finish last.
Our Guess: More of the best case than the worst case. QPR prove to be dangerous and quick on the counter and not afraid to get up and down the field. The owners open the purse strings a bit in January, and they remain in the top division, finishing seventeenth.
Last Year: Finished 17th, thanks to two marvelous goals in the second half in the game’s final fixture from Jaime O’Hara and Stephen Hunt, and of course thanks to Blackpool losing at Old Trafford and Tottenham finding the net late against Birmingham.
A Houdini act to stay up as Wolves were miserable at times—but they did what they needed to do closing the year to stay a point above the drop.
Summer Additions: 12 million pounds to ensure Jaime O’Hara and Roger Johnson stayed on, plus a token Frenchmen, the fine keeper, Dorus de Vries, on a free from Swansea City.
Summer Losses: Greg Halford was sold to Portsmouth for a million pounds. A few others were released, including American goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann—but mostly they avoided disastrous losses in the summer, partly thanks to Chairman Steve Morgan’s decision to open the wallet a bit more.
Strengths: O’Hara and Johnson are a start, and along with Matt Jarvis, who has improved in each of his seasons in the top flight, provide a nucleus that is certainly good enough to stay up for another year. Manager Mick McCarthy is a strength in stability type figure—he knows his players and seems to get the most out of them at crunch time—which is why they’ve avoided the drop of late. Stephen Hunt provides sound midfield depth. Wolves also offer nice width—both Hunt and Jarvis have improved greatly on the left and right respectively in the past year and Adam Hamill and Michael Kightly offer depth if that’s the direction McCarthy decides to use to initiate attack.
Weaknesses: Kevin Doyle is infuriating because he scores great goals and misses simple chances—he’ll need to stop that.
Ditto Steven Fletcher, who spelled Doyle after his injury last year—but was bad enough prior to that to force McCarthy to change his formation to a 4-5-1 with Doyle alone at the top.
The backline is still a problem, even with the addition of Roger Johnson, and preseason fixtures provided no answers as to who a stable mate for the new skipper will be. Jody Craddock isn’t a positive answer—and the fact that Wolves kept zero clean sheets with him in the starting eleven last year is proof positive of that fact.
Best Case: The Kids are Alright—and Jarvis keeps getting better. Roger Johnson means less 2-1 defeats late, and Kevin Doyle finds the net with a bit more consistency. A sound Carling Cup or FA Cup would be a bonus too.
Worst Case: Wolves have been a bit lucky the past two seasons and the luck runs out. They face the drop, which is more possible given the injury proclivities of key figures Hunt, Doyle and Steven Fletcher.
Our Guess: Wolves play top-flight football for a fourth consecutive year in 2012-13, assuming the world doesn’t end, and finish 16th, a couple points above safety.
Last Year: Relegation threatened to the end, Rovers didn’t so much as stay up because they earned so much as they stayed up in spite of themselves. They won twice in the final fourteen weeks of the campaign, freefalling from the safety of the middle of the table, and they were bleeding financially by season’s end as well. To say the club with the beautiful rose on its emblem is in a thorny spot heading into this campaign is to put things mildly.
Summer Additions: Mauro Formica is finally set to join the side, injecting talent into a team that is rather bland, but not much else has been done to this point, and a deal for Argentine Mariano Pavone of Real Betis never materialized—as the striker instead decided to go where Carlos Tevez only dreams of going—home—to play for Lanus.
Summer Losses: Phil Jones, who appears to be the heir apparent to Vidic at Old Trafford.
Strengths: On their day, they can still be very difficult to breakdown, thanks to captain Ryan Nelsen and Congo’s Chris Samba. Problem is, Samba wants out, and while Blackburn’s 12 million pound demand might forestall an exit from E’Wood Park in the short term, it isn’t as if Blackburn hold a very good negotiating position given their financial situation. Paul Robinson is well, Paul Robinson—a serviceable keeper in a league full of serviceable keepers. Yes—that was a plug for MLS goalkeepers. Gail Givet is a nice player out wide. Offensively, striker Nikola Kalinic is quite talented and has his moments—how long Rovers can keep him around is a question because he’s a player who would thrive with better service.
Weaknesses: It’s never good when Morten Gamst Pedersen is one of your leading scorers. It also isn’t particularly good when your key options in midfield include Brett Emerton or Vince Grella. Mauro Formica will certainly strengthen Blackburn’s center, but who will he feed the ball to and where? Here’s betting Steve Kean doesn’t know—his tactics are entirely too negative and the Rovers counterattack is often too slow to threaten at this level. Making matters worse, the Venky ownership duo talk a big game but have no idea how to manage a football team—that’s why Sam Allardyce is managing West Ham and not Rovers. They said they would sign players like Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Robinho, Ronaldinho and the like when they arrived. Instead, they sold Phil Jones.
Best Case: Blackburn do what they do and finish fifteenth for the fourth time in eight years, with all the usual bells and whistles of nearly getting relegated that position on the table entails. Thanks to promising young Scot Grant Hanley, they also play great defense, find a couple goals and make a deep FA Cup run, which is actually possible for any team that is willing to defend and grind.
Worst Case: A gap in class (think West Ham without a Scott Parker) catches up with Blackburn, who finally have too much age in the backline to hold off implosion.
Our Guess: 19th spot, and the Coca Cola Championship, where the Venky’s may finally be able to find a place where Ronaldinho would still be effective.
Last Year: A flurry of late heroics earned Swansea a playoff spot, where they promptly defeated Nottingham Forest and pounded Reading at Wembley to earn a spot in the top flight for the first time since it was dubbed “The Premier League” in 1992. The Welsh side is even more proud to have joined the top flight at the expense of bitter rivals Cardiff City, who crashed out in the Championship semifinals.
Summer Additions: Jose Moreira is in from Benfica to fill the shoes left by their outstanding goalkeeper Dorus de Vries, who left for Wolves. Moreira was out of favor in Portugal and hasn’t been a first teamer in a few seasons, so that should be interesting. Leroy Lita is in from Middlesbrough and adds top flight football experience at striker.
Summer Losses: The aforementioned de Vries in goal and, perhaps more troubling, the MVP of their promotion run, Darren Pratley, refused a contract extension to play with Stu Holden and Bolton Wanderers. They’ve also had to return Chelsea youth striker Fabio Borini, who is off to Parma this year. Really, of all the “relegation-threatened” sides we’ve addressed—the Swans are battling the most key losses.
Strengths: The Swans play a free-flowing, attack oriented style of football that you don’t often see in a Championship side. Manager Brendan Rodgers relies heavily on a midfield that is steady and actually is relatively talented, particularly centrally with Leon Britton and Scott Sinclair. Nathan Dyer is a fan favorite on the flank, and also reputed to be a scam artist and petty thief. (Kidding…sort of?) Defenders Garry Monk, Angel Rangel and young Daniel Alfei shore up a defense that was stingy at times last year—but there are, as noted, questions between the posts.
Weaknesses: Leroy Lita might have top-flight experience at striker but that doesn’t make him a top-flight striker—his eight goals in forty-seven appearances prove that. Free flowing football is nice and early in the year it can trouble opponents, but ask Blackpool about how long the novelty lasts before you realize the game is quicker at this level and the tackles that disrupt that style are nastier. As summer turns to winter, expect the Swans to have trouble adjusting to grinding, low-scoring fixtures. Luke Moore is reputed to be a nice English talent at forward—but we’ve heard those fairy tales before.
Best Case: Lita is enough at striker to help a midfield that often scores the goals itself. Swansea’s defense is ready for the adjustment to the Premier League even if the attack isn’t early on. A trip to notoriously slow-starting Everton early in the year builds confidence and garners three points. Manager Brendan Rodgers, a former assistant to one Jose Mourinho, avoids the drop.
Worst Case: The attack doesn’t translate to the increased skill and physicality of the top flight game. Garry Monk gets hurt because Garry Monk gets hurt. The youngsters aren’t ready for the leap. The goalkeeping is a disaster. They finish last.
Our Guess: Somewhere closer to the worst-case than the best-case. But they’ll be the best team from Wales. 18th place and down.
More to Come….