By Neil Blackmon — Part I here
As noted in the first helping of the TSG Barclay’s Premier League preview, last year saw at least nine teams threatened by relegation entering April, so we’re taking liberties in suggesting that the following five teams will be unequivocally safe. The truth is, they won’t—we just think their odds of seeing the drop are markedly lower than the five teams from the opening piece.
In the end, expect these five teams to battle it out for the traditional after-ran status spots of 11-15, with an outside chance of looming disaster should the football stars cruelly align.
Last Year: The Canaries, as they are called, capped a meteoric two-year rise from League One to the top flight by finishing second in the Championship, scoring a league-high 83 goals in the process. It should be noted they managed to concede a somewhat eyebrow-raising 58 goals.
Still, the season was remarkable given they came straight from League One, and much has been made of the rising-star manager Paul Lambert, who, now in his third year at Carrow Road, faces his biggest challenge yet: keeping Norwich City up and doing so by building a base that makes an extended stay in the top flight possible.
Summer Additions: To the promoted briefly go the spoils, or so the adage should go, and Norwich City have not been afraid to spend money attendant to making the top flight jump.
Kyle Naughton is a very talented young right back in on loan from Tottenham Hotspur who can be dangerous getting forward. He’ll have to be intelligent about choosing when to make his runs, and that’s an adjustment for any young top-flight regular, but he could be a bargain for those who enjoy the Fantasy side of the EPL.
Manchester United loanee Richie de Laet is another promising youngster who has looked outstanding in the preseason, most recently in a convincing and encouraging 3-0 victory over Parma (yes, the one of MB 90 repute). Signee additions include Elliott Bennett, a former Wolves youth academy product and former Everton man James Vaughan, a nice talent who was unable to stick at Goodison but might find the absence of European pressures a relief and a great chance to start over. Of all these, Naughton and Bennett look to have the largest upside, but the key is they all possess youth and if Norwich can stay up—a sound nucleus to remain up will be in place. Millwall’s Steve Morrison, a plucky striker who can score the dirty goals required to avoid relegation, was another Lambert signee, and a bargain at just under 3 million pounds.
Summer Losses: Losses to transfer haven’t been a problem this summer, but Paul Lambert has released four players who played mid-size to even large roles in Norwich City’s promotion, including Matt Gill, Sam Habergham, Scotish midfielder Owain Tudur Jones, and clumsy, rugged Danish defender Jens Berthel Askou.
Strengths: Attractive football isn’t necessarily a strength but certainly the ability to score goals is, and while the jump in class between the Championship and the EPL is large, as Blackpool showed at times last year, a team that can score goals can simply score goals. Elliott Bennett will be a name everyone knows by the end of the campaign if he can stay healthy, he’s a winger who makes defenses stretch or respect his space, and his ability to deliver a pass should be well-utilized by top-scorer and Championship Player of the Year candidate Grant Holt, as well as Steve Morrison and James Vaughan, the latter of who at least your writer thinks will revive his career away from Everton.
Canadian international Simeon Jackson provides another scoring option who adds pace and width to an already diverse attacking structure. Finally–there’s something to be said for a manager who secures two consecutive promotions and has a Champions League winner’s medal on his wall as well—a rising star who players trust because of his historic success might be a large strength when the tough stretches inevitably come.
Weaknesses: The defense. Sure, Kyle Naughton is an exciting young right back in terms of his ability to get forward but he didn’t get much of a run out at Tottenham Hotspur and will be asked to start more than FA and Carling Cup matches on the right. That learning process is okay if it’s just one player, but he’ll be expected to make it with fellow loanee Richie de Laet of Manchester United and some growing pains are inevitable. American Zak Whitbread is a steady player, but the Premier League is a step up in class, and it might be too much to ask for Whitbread to make the adjustment. Another “nothing special” player in Marc Tierney rounds out the likely starters in the back, and the depth isn’t great either. In goal, another England prospect, Declan Rudd, sits behind former Tim Howard ball boy Dean Ruddy, which in addition to raising a host of jokes about last names creates more concerns about teams with mediocre defenders and very average keepers.
Best Case: The goals keep coming. Grant Holt doesn’t find a second rise in competition to be too overwhelming at the age of thirty. Elliott Bennett shines and loanees Kyle Naughton and Richie de Laet prove their big-club pedigree is worth its salt by solidifying concerns behind the midfield. The club starts strongly, building on a very impressive run of form in the preseason. Cup runs are short, but mostly because the manager is astute enough to know home points are the thing and the occasional draws on the road will be enough. A 13th isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Worst Case: One of two sides in this portion of the TSG preview who could still see the drop. Holt can’t adjust to another step up in competition. Injuries expose the gulf in quality between the starters and reserves. Attractive football from width becomes choppy football without a top flight forward after the jump. Ruddy shows why David Moyes was afraid to play him in anything but the Carling Cup, and costs the Canaries a few points on howlers. Relegation.
Our Guess: Fifteenth, thanks to a fine manager whose star is rising and an astute transfer window where money was well spent, as the temptation to acquire a brand name player was passed over in order to alleviate club needs. That’s how you stay up these days.
West Bromwich Albion
Last Year: Roy Hodgson’s well-documented implosion at Liverpool was West Brom’s renaissance (and Liverpool’s, come to that), as the Baggies turned a season seemingly destined for relegation into one of the more compelling stories of the campaign, earning more points than more than half the teams in the league from February onward.
The season included two signature victories—a stunning 3-2 win at the Emirates in September that proved to be an omen of Arsenal’s goalkeeping woes to come, and a 2-1 victory over Liverpool in April, only two months and change removed from the end of the Hodgson experiment on the red side of Merseyside.
Summer Additions: More than anyone brought in—the Baggies can rest their laurels on who didn’t escape the Hawthorns.
Nigerian forward Peter Odemwingie- MVP of nearly every EPL fantasy champion and one of the most electrifying players in the Premiership as winter turned to spring last season, did not depart despite high-profile suitors such as Juventus circling.
Captain Chris Brunt (Editor’s note: This guy is scintillating) whose season on a personal level reflected the rollercoaster ride of West Brom’s season, re-signed despite interests from the likes of Everton and Liverpool.
Ben Foster was an essential addition as well following the surprising departure of Scott Carson for Bursaspor in Turkey. Roy Hodgson being Roy Hodgson, the signing of Fulham man and Hodgson favorite Zoltan Gera should surprise no one—what will be surprising is if Gera has anything left in the tank. Hodgson claims there is more money to spend, but if any additional moves are made, they likely won’t be head-turning names. Instead, Hodgson has suggested shoring up a defense that was porous at critical moments times is his priority, so look for any additional signees to fall into that category.
Summer Losses: The aforementioned loss of Scott Carson means the Baggies must decide on a new goalkeeper. Gianni Zuiverloon departed for Mallorca, but his loss was by ownership choice not player choice, which says what you think it does.
Strengths: They are well-run, both at the ownership level, where they spend enough money to stay up and also make money, and with Hodgson at the helm, who thrives at getting the most out of players who are a bit short of truly class.
On the field, this is a side with an underrated midfield, especially in terms of its ability to play effectively within Hodgson’s “Defense-first, counter-second” system. Steven Reid, James Morrison and Somen Tchoyi all meet that bill, and each are capable of quickly getting forward and outward to provide width.
Hodgson would probably prefer a target man like he had at Fulham, but if he can get more consistency out of Odemwingie and his running mate Marc-Antoine Fortune, perhaps that’s a buy that won’t be necessary in January after all. If Zoltan Gera has something left in the tank, then the midfield will be progressively more creative, and perhaps that will generate the extra bit more needed in attack to threaten the top half.
Weaknesses: Defense, but there’s a pretty large caveat because Hodgson demands that his teams defend, and typically, they do. Here’s the caveat: if they can stop conceding goals late in games, defense is at least average, and then the weakness of this side is more a general lack of any greatness. Jonas Olsson and Nicky Shorey aren’t going to overwhelm anyone with ability but they are savvy veterans who don’t make very many mistakes (think Carlos Bocanegra), and they’ll do a nice job directing traffic while the new goalkeeper (has to be Ben Foster, right?) gets settled in.
Best Case: A ninth or tenth just because they lack a truly great player and they lack the expansive type of attacking football required to compete with the best six or seven sides in the league. That said, if the defense is stabilized, effort and commitment won’t be an issue, and a team without a glaring weakness is precisely the type of team that can win an FA Cup or Carling Cup (see, oh..Stoke City).
Worst Case: More late goals are conceded spoiling otherwise fine efforts meriting points. Hodgson loses his patience with Odemwingie and Fortune and acquires an ineffective, overpriced target man in January, making his predictable attacks even less effective. Olsson and Shorey start to look too long in the tooth to keep things stable centrally, and Gera has nothing left in the tank meaning the midfield defends well but lacks any ideas. Foster struggles too. West Brom is in a relegation dogfight.
Our Guess: Somewhere in between, with a 13th place finish and at least one lengthy quarterfinal type cup run.
Last Year: What an odd season for Steve Bruce’s men. After the Boxing day fixtures, you’d be hard-pressed to suggest Sunderland would fail to finish in the top eight, and you’d have been reasonable in suggesting they’d claim a place in the Europa League. Unfortunately, 2011 wasn’t as kind, and a team with only five losses at the New Year interval stumbled to a fifteen loss campaign and a tenth place finish that was deceptive in that it was only eight points from safety.
Summer Additions: A bunch, to Steve Bruce’s credit and a relatively strong retort to those who claim Sunderland lack the ambition necessary to achieve European football. Among those on the way in are former England international Wes Brown and his Manchester United mate John O’Shea, the talented Craig Gardner of Birmingham, Blackpool’s David Vaughan on a free, and the next great English hope, Ipswich striker and U-17 EURO hero Connor Wickham, in for eight million pounds, which is quite an expenditure on the part of the Black Cats, but certainly conjures up images of young attacking glory if he’s paired with a certain Gyan-ian who will remain nameless. See what we did there?
Summer Losses: Steed Malbranque is out, off to France play for his umpteenth-thousandth club as his career winds down. Jordan Henderson, the club’s youth player of the year the past two campaigns, who some may have seen starting alongside Steven Gerrard for England last autumn, is headed to play with Gerrard permanently this year. The price on his talent simply became too high for Sunderland to resist, and to be frank—as excited as Reds fans are (see this video) at 20 million pounds, for the time being, we think the Black Cats got the better end of the bargain.
Strengths: Forward, even for a side that clearly missed Darren Bent desperately after his departure last January. This is particularly a strong suit if Wickham is ready, and if Sunderland have found what they think they’ve found in South Korean signing Di Jong Won, who at 21 was the top scorer in the K League last year and has netted six times for a sound South Korean side as an international already. That said, the side’s heartbeat, though offensively less-gifted, resides in the midfield where captain Lee Cattermole (originally signed by Middlesbrough at age ten) plays with a motor that would make MB 90 blush and a temper that makes Javier Mascherano seem gentile. Sure, he’s card heavy, but he’s also a grinder and a passionate player who likely will blend well with the lower key veteran Craig Gardner, who will be asked to match his ten goal total for Birmingham last year and add offensive teeth to a midfield that is stout defensively. Sebastian Larsson, in from Birmingham on a free, adds depth, as does the aforementioned David Vaughan.
Weaknesses: Sometimes they are too negative tactically or too predictable, which is a product of Bruce’s inability to think too far outside of the box. The midfield doesn’t score enough goals, but the addition of Craig Gardner is a fine remedy if he continues his past form and the youngster Stephane Sessegnon certainly is intriguing. Defensively, John Mensah is there sure and John O’Shea and Brown would seem to be able to solidify things, but how much is left in the tank for the former United man and why in the world was Wes Brown ever on Manchester United or an England international—those are fair questions. Sunderland have options in goal—but that can be a bit like quarterbacks—if a manager says he has “three quality goalkeepers”—does he really have any? Bet on the disappointing dimming star of Craig Gordon to keep his job.
Best Case: Gyan and Wickham fire on all cylinders. Sessegnon lives up to Bruce’s “Little Drogba” nickname and Gardner adds attacking teeth to a tenacious midfield. John O’Shea brings a calmness to the back in big moments. The Black Cats finish sixth, and play in Europe next summer against Little Boys or someone of that nature.
Worst Case: Gyan looks lost like he did without Darren Bent for much of the second half of the campaign. Craig Gordon and his mates in goal disappoint and cost the team points. Wes Brown is a slightly sophisticated version of Jon Bornstein, and that’s not a good thing. Lee Cattermole’s head explodes in the Newcastle game. Steve Bruce bunkers in during the transfer window and plays conservatively so the team avoids a relegation fight. Fifteenth.
Our Guess: 11th place, and we’d be a bit higher on this group if we trusted Wes Brown and John O’Shea a bit more and if we thought Steve Bruce were the type of manager you need to get you over the hump. The former is a bit of bias; the second concern, well…that’s empirically proven to be a legitimate worry.
Last Year: Yet another finish beyond the pale of disaster for Tony Pulis’ charges (but only seven points clear this time), who certainly have the personnel to see the face of disaster, but manage to avoid it under his guidance. Despite a 13th place finish, only six sides won more games than Stoke last year, which is impressive stuff. There was also the little matter of the deep FA Cup run, which sealed a spot in the Europa League for Stoke. (Stoke saw off Hajduk Split, which is a fantastic team name, but I digress, and are now one tie away from the group stages in that competition.)
Summer Additions: Not a whole lot. Jonathan Woodgate was added, and if his fragile body can hold up, Stoke might have picked up a steal. Keeper Carlo Nash comes over from Everton, continuing in the long line of Tim Howard ball boys who have to leave town when they realize they don’t even get FA Cup fixtures.
Summer Losses: With a modest budget, Stoke is always a team that will be concerned about losing elite players. This summer, it avoided losing anyone of consequence, although the oft-loaned out left back Carl Dickinson, long a Stoke youth project, was sold to Watford for a modest fee, and former England U-21 center back Andrew Davies (no relation, as far as I know, to the other Davies’), was loaned away to Crystal Palace.
Strengths: They’re terribly difficult to break down, big, and physical. Tony Pulis demands that they play together and are accountable to one another and they are. Like most English mid-table sides, they play steady in defense, and if Woodgate can remain fit, it becomes a very versatile defense, although one would hesitate to suggest that Woodgate would displace one of the Premiership’s finest central defense pairings in Robert Huth and the ageless captain Ryan Shawcross. That group becomes even more difficult to break down when you factor in a midfield that understands its first responsibility in Pulis’ system is to track back. The goalkeepers are terrific, regardless of whether they go with the veteran Sorensen or the young Bosnian Asmir Begovic.
Weakness: Attack. Certainly the old-school top-flight fan can appreciate blue-collar footballers like Rory Delap, Glenn Whelan, and Salif Diao. They’re work rate is terrific, they track back as instructed and they don’t often get too clumsy in their tackling. At the end of the day, however, that trio of central midfielders is just that: a blue-collar group that offers little in terms of flair or upside. Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington do provide attacking impetus on the flank, but Pennant’s career revival has seen opposing managers adjust, drifting their midfielders wide in defense to bottle what is truly Stoke’s only mode of attack. The result has been that when Stoke struggle to score, it often takes them two to three weekends at a time to correct the issues, and the loss of points can pile up. One could speculate safely that this is precisely why they finished last year less close to safety than in the past, and if Trinidad striker Kenwyne Jones can’t get his career back on track this year, more goal-starved losing streaks could result.
Best Case: Stoke are a club with honest supporters and reasonable expectations. They’ve managed to stay up because they play together and are well-managed. A top ten finish has been Pulis’ main motivation all along, and that is certainly possible if Jones gets back on track and if they find goals from a talented defense on set pieces. They’ll be tough to break down too, which means a decent Europa run isn’t out of the question.
Worst Case: Not enough goals, magnified by the continued struggles of Jones and a slightly long-in-the-tooth Etherington being a bit less effective out wide. Injuries in defense occur and new addition Woodgate can’t alleviate that pressure because he too is on the trainer’s table. An early Europa exit hurts morale, and Stoke find themselves in the thick of a relegation dogfight.
Our Guess: 12th place, and more ammo for the cliché—“You better come to play against Stoke City, that old EPL mainstay, because they play the English way.”
Last Year: A dream start faded late, with key injuries crippling a team that seemed poise for a berth in the Europa League. Still, Bolton finished safe in 14th in Owen Coyle’s first year, despite a late collapse and will enjoy a 73rd year in top-flight football.
Summer Additions: Cash never available to Sam Allardyce (the man must be stark-raving mad, as he always manages teams with no money) has become available at least in teaspoons to Owen Coyle, and in his second full year at the helm he’s added two nice players from Burnley, Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears. They’ve also added one of the Barclay’s Premier League’s most enigmatic figures- Nigel Reo-Coker to add the attack, and fans hope the good version shows up more than the bad version. Finally, Swansea’s Darren Pratley, relatively integral to his side’s rise to the top division, refused a new contract in Wales and arrives at the Reebok to add more creativity to a midfield that already does a pretty decent job of breaking teams down.
Summer Losses: The most obvious loss is the departure of Johan Elmander, who couldn’t agree to new contract terms and was swiped up immediately by Turkish power Galatasaray. The more crippling loss, at least in the view of this writer, is not a loss at all but another key injury—South Korean attacking maestro Lee Chung-yong broke his leg in a preseason fixture and will be out until the spring. That’s a huge problem given the other injuries the club is battling, and it seems unlikely the trio of Reo-Coker, Eagles, and Pratley can alleviate that pain. Longtime Bolton man Matt Taylor is also gone, off to hit unleash his long-range howitzer for his old manager Allardyce at Upton Park in the Championship. Making matters worse, new signee Tyrone Mears broke his leg in training last week and will miss several months. Most recently, Gary Cahill was rumored to be headed out too, but those rumors have since been crushed by the gaffer. Needless to say, the losses are among the worst in the top division.
Strengths: When completely healthy, Bolton’s midfield is formidable. The club’s best player, Stu Holden, hopes to return in October and given his sound link-up with a sturdy back four and his ability to break down defenses centrally will certainly bring a level of potency back to the attack that we saw from Wanderers early in the year. To illustrate just how meaningful Holden was to Coyle’s side—note that Bolton were on 38 points and firmly in the top half when he was injured ¾ of the way through the season; they won only two more times after his injury, and were absolutely crushed by Stoke City in the FA Cup semifinals, quite literally adding insult to injury. The loss of Chung-yong magnifies the damage done to what on paper is a strong group when fit. The defense is steady, though it lacks the bite to aid the attack, led by Cahill and the steady if not sexy Zat Knight. David Wheater and Marcos Alonso both could make the backline a bit more adventurous, though the latter has a host of concerns off the field and is clumsy with his defensive responsibilities at times.
Weaknesses: Goal-scoring, in the absence of Elmander, Chung-yong, Chelsea loanee Daniel Sturridge and new Hammer Matt Taylor. Perhaps Bolton can hit loan gold again, securing another Sturridge or Wilshere to bolster the attack, but until that time, they will be wholly reliant on the hard-working but unsensational Kevin Davies and the oft-injured, frustrating talents of Croat Ivan Klasnic. Throw in Holden’s injury until at least October, and couple it with the following start: @ Queens Park Rangers, Manchester City, @ Liverpool, Manchester United—and you can say the schedule stacks up against them at the onset as well.
Worst Case: The loss of Chung-yong is devastating to a formerly difficult midfield to contend with (the one we saw boss Everton around, for example). Holden can’t get back on the field until after Thanksgiving, because hiccups happen to oft-injured players. The sometimes sparkling keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen shows more of his Almunia side than his Brad Friedel side early in the year, when Wanderers need him most. A relegation battle ensues, with only a soft-landing schedule at season’s end keeping Coyle’s men from disaster.
Best Case: A proud defense grinds out draws early. Kevin Davies playing his heart out as usual keeps the offense going just long enough for Holden to return on schedule and as good as ever. Chung-yong returns before April. Nigel Reo-Coker is consistent. Bolton challenge for the top half.
Our Guess: Bolton played well enough against top sides last year to avert a West Ham like early disaster. Stu Holden is on schedule. He makes everyone around him better, and will be good enough to ensure safety. 14th.
Next Installment: Five Who’ll Battle For Europe