Neil Blackmon continues his EPL Preview marathon. (Too bad he doesn’t work for you guys ESPN)
Part III of our Barclay’s Premier League preview focuses on five teams that should all contend for the Europa League, which, depending on who you ask, is either great (because some ownership boards are honest enough to admit they aren’t going to make the Champions League), or the European soccer equivalent of college basketball’s NIT. One disclaimer before we get started: two of these sides could conceivably make a Champions League run. And at least one of them certainly could, and may, finish fifth. Those two teams are placed in Part III rather than Part IV of the preview simply because in most conceivable scenarios, a finish of 6th or 7th, respectively, is far more likely than a Champions League spot, or even a tough-fought 5th place finish. On we go…
FIVE WHO’LL FIGHT FOR EUROPE(A)
Last Year: Overcame a rugged stretch early in the year to find a measure of consistency and form down the stretch. They never really got hot—they just avoided lengthy losing streaks, eventually finding enough goals in Mark Hughes’ rather predictable system to defeat the teams they should defeat and avoid embarrassing defeat to the teams they tend not to defeat. They also managed to qualify for the Europa competition for the coming season by earning the UEFA Fair Play award, despite a red card scare from Zoltan Gera in the season’s final fixture against Arsenal. After a marvelous run in the Europa league a year prior, last year was really about Fulham continuing to establish itself as a legitimate, impressive club firmly among the EPL’s top-half, and even though Mark Hughes departed on acrimonious terms, it should be noted that he certainly left Fulham better than he found out, which is becoming a trend.
Summer Additions: Fulham were relatively quiet this off-season, and at a small club with limited but not dire economic resources, that’s probably a good thing.
New gaffer Martin Jol did add one nice piece, 30 year old Norwegian left back John Arne Riise from Roma, whose attacking prowess from the fullback position will add flexibility to an already respected attacking side—a flexibility that was lacking after a subpar year from Mexican international Carlos Salcido.
Swiss U-20 international Patjim Kasami is another intriguing signing, and he’ll add physicality and size to a midfield that at times struggles against more physical opposition. Czech midfielder Marcel Gecov also joins the side at the bargain price of $650,000, but that about rounds up the help brought to Craven Cottage, and as the transfer window winds down, it is unlikely Jol or the board will make additional moves.
Summer Losses: Addition by subtraction, at least in TSG’s view.
Zoltan Gera didn’t have much left in the tank at the end of last year and nearly cost the team its spot in Europe. Now he’s West Brom’s payroll’s problem. John Pantsil has his days but he has many more mundane ones than good, as evidenced by his move to a lower division of English football. Diomansy Kamara is also departed, off to Eskisehirspor in Turkey to close out a once-promising career that was mired by injury and difficulty adjusting to the physicality of the English game. Getting him off the payroll could also benefit the Cottagers come January.
Strengths: The midfield, led by the finest American player in the world and for the time being, the finest player in CONCACAF, Clint Dempsey, is deep and with the addition of the promising young Swiss player Kasami, it is capable of attacking in a variety of ways.
Dempsey is at his best when he’s allowed to roam, drift centrally and create, and the pairing of he and a Dutch manager in Jol who sees the game quite similarly to Dempsey could be a match made in heaven. Danny Murphy remains a heartbeat player for the Cottagers as he nears the twilight of a long and (somewhat unappreciated?) career—he’ll join Dempsey, Simon Davies and Damien Duff in the league’s most economical (production-wise) midfield. Beyond the strong middle, Fulham are, as ever, steady in the back, led by two of the world’s finer defenders in Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes, as well as one of the EPL’s only “elite-class” goalkeepers, Mark Schwarzer. If golden academy boy Matthew Briggs can add anything, this too will be a more deep unit fit to the rigors of balancing both the EPL and Europa League demands—which you’ll remember was troubling for the Cottagers two seasons ago.
Weaknesses: Obviously, the closer you get to the top of the table, the less pronounced a club’s weaknesses are. This is not to say the top ten clubs don’t have them, and certainly Fulham are depending on the injury prone Bobby Zamora to carry the water bucket at forward yet again. Behind Zamora, there is 24 year old Belgian Moussa Dembele, who certainly shows flashes but also has significant scoring droughts. That’s not a great deal of depth for a team that will likely play a more attacking style of football under Martin Jol, and its part and parcel the reason the side will either need a new forward in January or absolutely require another fine year of goal scoring from Dempsey and a healthy Riise adding a backline threat to give Fulham extra offensive versatility.
Best Case: 7th, simply because one almost expects them to hang out in the Europa League for at least a couple of months. In fact, only moments after they had seen off RNK Split to advance to the playoff stages, manager Martin Jol conceded balancing the two will be the biggest challenge for the Cottagers in league play. The longer they do hang around in the competition, the tougher time a team that added depth but is still relatively thin by contenders’ standards will have hanging around high in the table.
Worst Case: 14th, thanks to another injury to Zamora, a broken down Riise, Clint Dempsey finally planting his knee wrong while “trying something” (that was difficult to type), and stalwart veterans Danny Murphy and Aaron Hughes showing old age early in the spring. Don’t see it happening, but it could. And who knows how the Jol transition will work from the get-go—though Europa was probably helpful in that limited manner.
Our Guess: 8th, and edging further towards permanent respectability, and all the American adulation being the club of Brian McBride, having Clint Dempsey and a statue of the King of Pop entails.
Last Year: The team famously dubbed the “Oakland Raiders of the Barclay’s Premier League” weren’t terrible like the Oakland Raiders, but they weren’t very good either. Come to think of it, they were a lot like last year’s Oakland Raiders. Still, after sacking Chris Hughton, who had led them back to the EPL, they enjoyed top-flight football again very much. They earned a remarkable 4-4 draw with Arsenal that will go down in Magpie lore, defended well after a shaky beginning in the back and avoided the drop. Now the hard part—avoiding “second season syndrome” in year two back in the big boys league.
Season Additions: Gabriel Obertan is in from Old Trafford on a five year deal that will hopefully provide a spark to the Newcastle flank as well as the young Frenchmen’s once star-destined career. He’s only 22—the Toons seem a fine place to start over, toiling in relative opposition hatred like at Old Trafford, but with the security blanket of mid-table anonymity. Alan Pardew also brought Jen Chang favorite Demba Ba in from West Ham on a free—and if the speedy, athletic Senegal attacker can find any measure of consistency, that could be an absolute steal.
Shola Ameobi also inked a new deal, indicating that Newcastle was determined to bolster the attack should the saga with completely crazy hipster footballer person Joey Barton continue. And it will, as Alan Pardew, himself a certifiably crazy person, has said whether Barton plays or not is “absolutely his call.” Beyond those moves, French midfielders Yohan Cabaye and Sylvain Marveaux add depth.
Season Losses: Joey Barton? Bueller? In all seriousness, Kevin Nolan leaving for West Ham United is one of the only losses, though that one certainly isn’t insignificant. Perhaps more damaging to a team that just added Obertan on a flank will be the loss of a man surely expected to provide link-up play with him, as Jose Enrique has confirmed that he will be leaving for Liverpool.
Strengths: If Pardew lets Barton out of the doghouse and the team is healthy, this is an above-average to good midfield even without Kevin Nolan. Pardew favors a 4-4-2 but with added depth in the midfield a 4-5-1 is possible, with French signings Cabaye, Marveaux and young RC Lens starlet Medhi Abeid battling for starting spots alongside incumbents Barton, Jonas Gutierrez and United transfer Obertan on the flanks. A clean bill of health for speedy Tunisian winger Hatem Ben Arfa would also be a blessing for the Magpies, and likely make a 4-5-1 deployment or some modification thereof more likely.
Weaknesses: After the messy break up with Andy Carroll, there are questions about the strikers that are large enough to flirt with a 4-5-1. That said, it might not be all bad if Demba Ba plays up to his healthy amount of ability and can develop a working relationship with longtime starter Shola Ameobi. That spot certainly has the potential to depart from the “weakness” section. Defensively, however, the Magpies are a bit below average. Fabricio Coloccini has settled in and become one of the league’s more reliable center backs, but there is little depth in the back beyond he and fellow centerbacks Mike Williamson, who epitomizes ordinary, and Steven Taylor, who epitomizes mediocre.
Best Case: Demba Ba is the same guy who scored seven times in twelve matches for the relegation-threatened Hammers. Barton focuses less on Twitter and more on winning football matches. Pardew’s French infusion brings a much-needed level of distributive and creative flair to a team that was already dangerous on the flanks before they brought in the uber-talented Obertan. Coloccini, Taylor, and Williamson all stay healthy and prove that a mild talent deficiency doesn’t matter if you’ve played together long enough to have instinctual familiarity. The Magpies finish 7th, and make an extended FA Cup or Carling Cup run.
Worst Case: Even with the formidable midfield, the defense shows that hard work alone doesn’t grind out results in the week-in, week-out “dog days of winter” fixtures that make contenders in the Barclay’s Premier League. Demba Ba is inconsistent; Shola Ameobi isn’t worth the extended investment. Barton implodes, sits on the bench, pouts and waits for January and a transfer that may or may not come. Newcastle seem to have too much talent centrally to be relegated, but they narrowly avoid the drop. 15th.
Our Guess: 10th, and somewhere in between. They’ll win some they shouldn’t and lose some that make you scratch your head. They’ll play passionately, and they’ll be well-followed, and hated, wherever they go. After all, they are the Oakland Raiders of the EPL.
Last Year: A mess, by Villa standards. Owner Randy Lerner seems to have rescued the Villans from financial dire straits, but at the cost, some fans say, of being highly competitive. Gerard Houllier is out to deal with his health, but he wasn’t splendid anyway, leading Villa to a 9th place finish that saw them languish near the drop zone until early April.
Summer Additions: Not enough, given what they’ve lost. Shay Given is in from Manchester City to replace the Brett Favre of Villa Park, Brad Friedel, but it’s not conclusive that he’s an upgrade. Charles N’Zogbia is saying the right things after coming over from Wigan, but replacing Ashley Young will be no easy task and at 9.5 million pounds, results will be demanded quickly.
Summer Losses: Ashley Young is off to Manchester United to prove to the universe that he’s more than a player who utilizes his exceptional space to create 1-3 brilliant moments a match and then disappear, which is the cynical view. Stewart Downing, arguably the most underrated midfielder in the league, has left for Liverpool, leaving Alex McLeish, a manager not exactly known for creative attacking football, without a great many influential attacking options. Brad Friedel is off to at least provide stability to the shaky goalkeeper situation at White Hart Lane. John Carew has departed for West Ham United—a break to the balance sheet more than a personnel loss. Nigel Reo-Coker takes his enigmatic, “Are you sure you’re name isn’t Nigel Bua-Morte?” game to Bolton Wanderers, and while the nickname playfully suggests it isn’t a devastating loss, it certainly reduces depth. MB 90’s brief, pedestrian loan from Borrusia M’Gladbach was not extended, and the former coach’s son is, for the time being, back in Germany.
Strengths: The forward tandem of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Darren Bent is daunting if both stay healthy, as their games are well-suited for one another. Emile Heskey provides depth despite the fact that he’s getting up-the-ladder in age.
There isn’t depth beyond that but we still characterize it as a strength given the ability of the first two. Defensively, Alex McLeish teams are always strong and this team, led by the central defensive pairing of James Collins and Richard Dunne will be sturdy. Shay Given might not be an upgrade over Friedel, but he certainly isn’t a downgrade either, which means the Villans are one of a handful of top-flight English clubs that can trust their goalkeeper when the going gets tough.
Weaknesses: The midfield lacks depth and now it lacks the star power last year’s unit had, but that’s not a horrid weakness. Again—at this stage, it’s the little things. Central midfield was the team’s weakest spot last year, but Stilyan Petrov is an effective, poor-man’s Luka Modric type player that can direct traffic in the center. A full preseason with January Lyon transfer Jean Makoun can’t hurt, either- and perhaps things will get better. Mark Albrighton doesn’t strike fear into opposing defenses but he won’t be asked to if Stephen Ireland can return to form and serve as Charles N’Zogbia’s flank deputy. Thing is—that’s a big if. The young Scot Barry Bannan is an impressive player to keep an eye on—in the view of this writer, and more importantly Scottish manager Craig Levein, he’s the best mid produced by his country since Barry Ferguson. There is also the swinging gate on the left flank in the absence of Ashley Young.
Best Case: Bent and Agbonlahor stay healthy and prove to be a dynamite partnership. Collins, Dunne and company make Villa tough to break down even if the central midfield struggles again. The gaping hole at left wing is filled admirably by committee. N’Zogbia cashes in on his guarantee to produce goals and the Villans surprise many with a run at the top six. Barry Bannan shines by January.
Worst Case: The losses of the uber-talent Downing and the NFL Combine “wow look at that guy” measurable of Ashley Young are too much to overcome. Dunne and Collins are a year older and a year less effective. Agbonlahor breaks down early in the year as he is prone to do. N’Zogbia is a nice target but becomes the focal point of defenses when Bent can’t repeat last season’s performance. A poor man’s Luka Modric is not Luka Modric, and it isn’t even close. McLeish’s negative tactics lose the dressing room when the going gets tough. Villa finish around 14th and flirt with a shocking drop.
Our Guess: Another 9th place finish, thanks to the youngster Bannan and a reasonably complete season from Agbonlahor, as well as McLeish’s ability to grind out draws against teams he ought to lose to—which is the reason a manager who hasn’t won much is constantly getting hired by teams looking to earn maximum points out of minimal potential.
Last Year: Death, Taxes, and David Moyes’ Everton in the springtime. After a horrendous start hushed Champions League dreams (started by Sir Alex Ferguson, no less) had Finch Farm hearing relegation whispers around the blue side of Merseyside up until late November, Everton got their act together and provided their fans with the robust, expansive football they are capable of when they are playing as a cohesive and proud unit. They failed to earn a result only twice at Goodison from November forward, continued their bogey side status over Manchester City, who is quickly becoming a rival thanks to their great fortune and Everton’s seemingly endless poverty, managed results in both Merseyside derbies and finished once again in the top seven. A shocking late round FA Cup loss to Reading did add to the typical bittersweet, “What if?” taste.
Summer Additions: This is a rhetorical question, right? No. Are these men Nazis, Walter? No, Donny, these men are nihilists. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Oh. Sorry. Everton added no one. Everton need only Everton men. Dude.
Summer Losses: Dude. It’s Everton. The current players really tie the team together. Donny, please.
Strengths: The manager. David Moyes has replaced, or is at least in the conversation with the far-better bankrolled Arsene Wenger as the manager most capable of getting optimal performance out of the pieces around him. Yes, there are those who think his tactics are at times too negative and who wonder why he bunkers in and settles for draws against inferior competition—and those questions are nearly fair. Then you note that Moyes regularly has to place academy products on lineup sheets just to have eighteen men dressed, or you watch one of his teams in the spring absolutely undress a Champions League side, and you begin to get the idea.
On the pitch, when healthy, the starting eleven is among the more elite in the league. The midfield, if healthy, is an elite unit led by emerging star Marouane “Screech” Feillaini and longtime underappreciated Spaniard Mikel Arteta, who showed glimpses of his brilliant 09-10 form towards the end of the last campaign.
Tim Cahill is the glue guy, the player every team’s opposing fans can’t stand but you love to have on your team—the Joakim Noah of the Barclay’s Premier League, if you will—though he too battles fitness issues too frequently. Ageless captain Phil Neville has become an Everton man through and through, rounding out the midfield starters. Young star-fated Jack Rodwell remains at Goodison along with his potential, adding potent depth along with gritty Leon Osman. Seamus Coleman suffered an injury last week, but the young Irishmen will return later in the fall and adds pace and great technical skill on the flank. Defensively, club player of the year Leighton Baines hopes to build on a remarkable campaign last season that saw him being what Goodison (and Three Lions) faithful hope will be a meteoric rise to one of the world class fullbacks in all of football. His tremendous free kick ability and service on the left adds dynamism to the Everton attack. England international Phil Jagielka remains in an Everton shirt despite Chelsea and Arsenal flirtations, solidifying the center. Tim Howard remains one of the finest goalkeepers in the Barclay’s Premier League and the world.
Weaknesses: The ownership. English theatre man Bill Kenwright seems like an amicable enough fellow, and he certainly bleeds Toffee blue, but his longtime search for a buyer of his beloved club has Everton on the edge of financial panic. To make a long story brief–Everton run a substantial debt, but resign players anyway because their business model is contingent on securitizing that debt through merchandise revenue and season ticket sales.
As long as they field a competitive product, it works, but the pressure on Moyes is immense because when they aren’t achieving, the debt simply doesn’t allow them to buy the help they need. On the field, the striker situation at Goodison remains a question mark at best, mostly because there simply isn’t money to get help.
Instead, they’ll rely on the unreliable health of Louis Saha, a marvelous but erratic talent who spends more time on Finch Farm training tables each year, and last year’s Leeds United transfer Jermaine Beckford, who at the very least showed that he’s adjusting to the rigors of top-flight football with a strong showing late last season. The lack of money is directly responsible for the other problem—a horrific lack of depth—which, as mentioned above, often forces Moyes to field talented but not ready academy products like Jose Baxter and Ross Barkley simply because there is no else in the cupboard.
Best Case: They still healthy. The street riots in London offer a reprieve to a sure and patented trademark defeat at White Hart Lane to open the year. After that, a soft schedule early is navigable and Everton get off to a flier, securing ten points or so by the time they face off with Manchester City, a side they’ve handled in years past. An early Carling Cup exit proves to be a blessing, and once again, Everton plays its finest football after the New Year. The final Champions League spot is within reach as the calendar reaches April.
Worst Case: They aren’t healthy. Riots in the streets of London kill the deejay, but only delay the inevitable beating to Spurs. A soft schedule early just means the losses are more embarrassing. The Champions League is out of reach by November and Europa is threatened by the end of December. More injuries follow, and there is no money (of course) to get the pieces necessary to stop the bleeding. Only the guts of whoever’s left standing prevent the unthinkable, and Everton narrowly escape danger.
Our Guess: Death, Taxes, David Moyes’ Everton playing brilliantly in the spring. Three things you can count on in life. 7th.
Last Year: Fifth place, secured on the final day of the season, and with it a berth into the Europa League. Champions of Milan, eliminating both AC and holders Inter Milan in the UEFA Champions League en route to an impressive quarterfinals appearance where they played some of the flashiest and beautiful football in the competition.
Summer Additions: Brad Friedel from Aston Villa on a free. Pretty good deal for a team that was relying on Heurellho Gomes last year, with (mostly dreadful) results. Other than that, all was quiet on the White Hart Lane front, save the rioters outside the stadium, of course.
Summer Losses: Eternally injured Jonathan Woodgate is off to Stoke as a free reclamation project. Jaime O’Hara departs for Wolves at a bargain price of five million pounds. Luka Modric? Well, he wants out. But Van der Vaart says he’ll stay. The rioters outside White Hart Lane are convinced of nothing, and neither is TSG.
Strengths: If Modric stays, there’s a compelling argument this is the best midfield in the English game. Modric is the key, a guy Fabio Capello once noted every team would love to have and clone. Van der Vaart is a true number ten, and one of the most thrilling Dutch players of his generation. Gareth Bale has the keys to the city of Milan. Okay, maybe he doesn’t. The promising young Brazilian Sandro has stayed put despite transfer rumors and is as promising a young defensive midfielder as there is in the league. What’s more—he seems to be more suited for Spurs’ balanced, Modric as heartbeat, use all the field attack than the powerful but clumsy Honduran Palacios. Aaron Lennon adds width and devastating pace that coupled with Bale means Spurs can stretch and space a defense out with a varied, unpredictable attack. In addition to Palacios, Tom Huddlestone and Jermaine Jenas each bring a little something different to the table and that’s the best sort of depth. Defensively, this is a pretty steady, albeit not elite group aided by a midfield that, absent Van der Vaart, does a nice job of covering the meters necessary to effectively offer defensive support. Michael Dawson is the best of that group, but they could become a noted strength should Ledley King’s knees not explode in week two. William Gallas and Younes Kaboul are solid, if not spectacular, team sheet fillers.
Weaknesses: Consistency at goalkeeper. Who will start will remain a mystery until Spurs finally take the pitch next weekend. Whoever wins the job can’t possibly believe it’s safe for very long. Goalkeeper by committee isn’t the best way to chase glory, and if personal experience isn’t enough, Spurs fans could always ask their buddies from Arsenal. The striker position is still a glaring concern as well, although it is more a square peg, round hole problem than a talent issue. Peter Crouch has proven he can score goals in this league far too long to merit much laughter, despite the obvious jokes. The problem is that Spurs balance becomes limited to a particular type of entry pass when he’s on the pitch, as anyone who watched much of the Champions League noted. Spurs ought to be able to dictate the game more in the opposing half as well, considering the immense talents on the wings, but Crouch simply isn’t strong enough to hold the ball up long enough for large stretches of the game to make that tactically possible. Roman Pavlyuchenko certainly has the ability, but like so many of his countrymen who have come to top-flight English football he is prone to weeks of inactivity and disappointment. That must stop if Spurs are to threaten for a top four spot.
Best Case: Van der Vaart is correct and Modric stays put. Bale finds his Champions League form again instead of the somewhat inconsistent player we saw in the spring (when he was on the pitch). Sandro continues to develop and gives Spurs an answer to the dominant defensive mids they’ll face against other championship contenders. Brad Friedel has an inspired, one-last-run-at-glory type of year between the sticks. Van der Vaart continues to compensate for the problems at striker, and after a quiet summer, Spurs owners find the money to get help in January. Spurs reach the Champions League for the second time in three years under Harry Redknapp.
Worst Case: Modric leaves. Van der Vaart finds the going tough without his “point guard.” Crouch continues to inhibit an attack that should be more diverse because of his limitations. Aaron Lennon’s growth curve levels out, and he can’t fill the scoring void without Modric to distribute either. Three goalies means no goalies. There’s no money for a transfer in January. Redknapp’s ego means he bolts when the tough times hit, and Van der Vaart wants out shortly thereafter. Happy Saint Totteringham’s Day!! 9th.
Our Guess: 6th, for now, but only because we don’t know if Modric is going to stay or go. If he stays and Arsenal remain dormant in the wake of the Fabregas’ departure….5th.
Last Five to Come…