The Premier League in 2011-12 was a very interesting season indeed. Some have labelled it the most exciting since the PL started some 20 years ago. With hours left before the PL starts up again, things are looking very intriguing as to where the trophy will end up, who will finish in the precious CL places and who will face the drop. Not that I am the definitive expert on these matters, but I’ve got a brain and a keyboard and that’s good enough to delve into a little previewing.
I’m hardly going out on a limb in suggesting the trophy will end up in Manchester again this season. Despite not making that many signings, both clubs still stand head and shoulders above the competition.
Manchester City could have won the league more comfortably than they did last season. That they didn’t highlights some of the challenges Mancini had at the club. That they still won it gives that entire squad a boost of confidence and self-belief which will prove to be critical this season.
It is not good that they have left their purchasing of new players so late before the deadline. If Jack Rodwell turns out to be the only signing they make, then it will give more of a psychological advantage to the other Manchester side. It is important to strengthen at any time, but particularly when you become the team to beat. The fact that they haven’t substantially may become an issue.
Yet in their favour the squad appears to be more settled – let’s face it, there hasn’t been any reports of squad shenanigans. They tried a new formation in pre-season playing with wing-backs. It’s interesting. People have pointed out how much better Tevez appears and are keen to see what partnership he might cause with Aguero now that he is looking a lot fitter. Though some pundits suggesting he’s like a new signing are way off the mark in looking to be optimistic. He played his role in the run-up to the end of last season.
Understandably there’s been considerable fuss over at Old Trafford with the signing of Robin van Persie. Make no mistake it is a mouth-watering prospect to consider how an influential and fit RvP will join Wellbeck, Hernandez, Berbatov (ha!) and the man Rooney. Carrying on the ‘like-a-new-signing’ theme the return of Vidic cannot be underestimated and if Fletcher is also able to make progress in his recovery that could be a crucial addition to a central midfield that’s come in for ongoing criticism.
The single factor that makes United a title contender remains their manager. His insatiable appetite for success and the fact that his side won nothing last season will be all the fuel he needs to get that Premier League trophy back. Some make the argument that City might find the need to improve on their Champions League performance a hindrance, but United also flopped in their European travels, so they have a desire to do a lot better this time.
Kagawa, Powell and RvP – is that enough to help United claim the PL back? Kagawa will take a while to settle in the PL, Powell appears to be more of the signing for the future types. A lot rests on RvP, but United are strong even when he gets injured. It is very tight between them and City to see who will emerge the winners – almost too close to tell.
Champions League Contenders
What isn’t so close to tell is that the Manchester clubs will have the minimum requirement for the season to finish in the top two. Anything else will be considered as abject failure. Some have suggested that there could be a bid from the title to come from the capital city, but let’s have a look at the likelihood of that happening.
Chelsea: Some would suggest that you shouldn’t write off a club that has players who know how to win the PL in the likes of Cech, Terry, Cole and Lampard. To turn around a season that looked so fraught with crisis last season and end it with the FA Cup and the Champions League will make Chelsea fans quietly hopeful of the season ahead.
They’ve confirmed the position of Di Matteo at the club. They’ve invested funds in more players to improve the squad. There are reasons to be positive that they can certainly improve on last season’s PL performance which is the worst that Chelsea have had since Abramovich purchased the club.
Yet considering the signing they have made and the weaknesses in the side, I am not certain if they have got a squad that is sufficiently balanced to be competitive in more games than not. Hazard, Oscar and Marin are promising attacking type players … but they’re not out and out strikers. Only Torres can be classed as a true out and out striker. Sturridge doesn’t appear to be flavour of the month, so to say the Stamford Bridge outfit are light up front is something of an understatement.
Not only that, but those signings are unproven in the Premier League which means once more that time has to be given for the players to settle. Not only that, but although he had something of a run out at the end of last season, Di Matteo is still not a proven PL manager. This team is yet to play in a style of his making. All that suggests a team continuing to be in transition.
They are certainly in a stronger and more settled position than they were last season, but there is something about their set up that doesn’t give confidence that they can sustain a title-winning run. They will certainly improve, no doubt about it – they have to. They remain a few signings away from giving the Manchester clubs a reason to worry.
Arsenal: Let us be clear. RvP’s statement back in July was not the first time that Arsenal thought they could lose their best player. His announcement should not have been a surprise, and the signings they made suggested they were planning for life after him anyway. So when United finally got him the only issue was about selling your best player to one of your main rivals for the trophy. The reasoning is fair – player in the last year of his contract, getting over £20m for him is good business. The business sounds better when you consider how little you paid for him and his age.
Positive though that all sounds, it is still at least questionable to have sold him to someone you were hoping to overtake in a quest to win the Premier League. Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud are reasons for Arsenal to be hopeful, but they are actually not going to make that much of a difference to catch up with the Manchester clubs. With the current uncertainty of Song’s status at the club and Walcott taking his time with contract negotiations it hardly looks like a club that will win the Premier League. Chiefly because Arsenal are not a club who can win the Premier League.
Finishing third last season was a notable achievement considering the mess they had at the beginning of the season. The new signings are also reason to believe that Arsenal should really be up there in the top four places. If Wenger should come across a couple more outstanding signings before the window shuts, then there could be even more of a hope that Arsenal can ruffle the feathers of Mancini and Ferguson.
As it sits at the moment, however, Arsenal still lacks a consistent enough defence, enough proven PL goal-threat, squad mental strength and overall quality to lift the Premier League trophy come May 2013. The Arsenal story rumbles on, and for me makes for fascinating viewing.
Liverpool: Four seasons ago anyone suggesting Liverpool won’t make the top four would be given quizzical looks. This season anyone suggesting Liverpool will make the top four will be given quizzical looks. It’s one thing to suffer one season, it’s another to go three seasons and get nowhere near the top four. Last season had supporters talking about being unlucky with the number of shots that hit the bar. (In fact the ball hit the bar so often, there were concerns that the ball was an alcoholic.) The bottom line remains the quality at Anfield was not good enough and so heads rolled.
It really is all change on the red half of Merseyside with a new manager coming in and insisting on a new style of play at the club which puts players on their toes. The owners are also asserting how the club is still recovering from the Hicks/Gillet damage done to the club which affects finances and gets intriguing rumours in the footy press about Agger going to Man City.
Why on earth should Liverpool be considered as a contender for the top four when you consider the strength of the sides ahead of them, most of whom have strengthened since then?
Liverpool fans will not take a top four place for granted, but with an exciting new manager coming in, promising an exciting brand of football that may actually see the team scoring goals, and with the factor going in their favour of not being fancied, they are the best placed to make a bid from a position of the dark horse. Liverpool still have quality players with the likes of Suarez, Agger, Reina and captain Gerrard. They certainly won’t be the favourites, but if they get a good start and build momentum, there’s no reason to believe Liverpool won’t surprise a few pundits.
Tottenham Hotspur: Arsenal fans think they’re in a bit of upheaval and disappointment, but they take heart that they’re not Spurs. Those from White Hart Lane had another golden opportunity to overtake the Gunners in the Premier League last season and they messed it up. Some refer to the Redknapp for England thing, but that is no excuse for the spluttering end to the season that Spurs faced. They play good football at their best – they had rights to claim to play the best football in the Premier League. All that counts for nothing if you finish fourth and cannot even qualify for the Champions League.
Dismissing Redknapp and appointing Villas Boas is an interesting move. Spurs thus find themselves in that position of needing to get accustomed to a new manager with different qualities and different values. The side itself is still a favourite to make the top four, but they’ve lost a bit of the momentum to make it with lacking to sign enough players to prove themselves. Like Chelsea, Spurs seem to be taking the Spain model of playing without a striker a bit too literally with only one proven striker on their books in Defoe.
The squad they have isn’t one that would threaten a Premier League push, whatever Harry may say, but if they can bring in a few more players before the transfer deadlines, and if they can establish a sense of consistency, there is no reason why they cannot make an asserted charge on the top four.
Just look at the teams that have a realistic chance of getting relegated this season – Aston Villa, Fulham, Norwich City, Wigan, West Brom, West Ham, Sunderland, Southampton, Swansea, Reading and Stoke City.
Eleven teams. Over half the Premier League could be spending their season struggling to stay up. Over half the Premier League saying that if they stay in the League it will be a success. Now that should give heart to the teams recently promoted. There really isn’t that much difference between the likes of Southampton and Reading compared to Norwich and Swansea.
Stoke City do well, but that is not enough for them to think they can take their PL status for granted and they are only an injury or two away from struggling.
As West Brom have a new guy in charge who has never been in charge, and don’t have that much of a threat anywhere in their side, there’s nothing to suggest their place in the division is safe. Martin O’Neill at Sunderland would give people reason to believe they can survive, but then you look at the team and think otherwise. Worse for Aston Villa who have a promising manager, but not that much of a promising team. Norwich have a promising manager as well and a team that did well under the last promising manager, but that doesn’t promise much for this season.
Fulham have not replaced the players that have left and are under threat of losing some of the key players still there. If this happens, they they should not take their PL status as a given at all. Jol may be a solid manager type, but he has yet to face a scrap and show himself capable. West Ham should think they can survive, for the same reason why Man Utd should be counted as part of the title race because of their manager. Big Sam will never win the Premier League, but he shouldn’t see a club get relegated from it either, not that West Ham will make it easy on themselves.
The start of this season will be all the more important for these clubs to help determine their own destiny, but there is no reason to think any of these might not slip perilously close to the dreaded drop zone.
And The Rest
Let me start with QPR and explain quite clearly why last season’s last day save from relegation won’t happen again. They have a savvy Premier League manager in Mark Hughes, they have an ambitious club outlook from the board level. They have sufficient quality throughout the squad, especially with the signings they’ve made to suggest that mid-table mediocrity is a realistic goal they will achieve.
Speaking of mid-table mediocrity, no team sums up a safe PL place than Everton Football Club. It was success for them to finish above Liverpool last season. In Jelavic they came across a striker who scores goals regularly, which has been a rarity at Goodison Park. Losing Rodwell and Cahill is still a loss despite their relative worth to the first team action at the end of last season. Yet a man like Moyes has established the following realities at the club. They won’t have a blistering start to the season. They won’t get relegated. They won’t lose all their best players. They won’t qualify for Europe and they won’t win a trophy. That degree of predictability about Everton makes the club a safe bet for Premier League football next season.
The last time in the mix that hasn’t been mentioned is Newcastle United who had a tremendous season last time out. Alan Pardew put together a team and a squad that did remarkably well. They have not as yet lost any of their key players. They may have European distractions, but they are still committed to doing well in the Premier League. It would be an almighty fall from grace for them to get stuck in the relegation mire.
Some may be surprised that I’ve not put them in the race for the Champions League especially considering how high up they ended the last season. Seriously, though, the level of season by season consistency required to stay up there is just beyond the Geordies at this moment. Their European exploits will inevitably take up more energy and stretch their resources more than they’ve been used to in recent seasons. That might be enough for them to seek to just maintain a place in the top ten this season.
So the DMCD PL Top Six and Bottom Three Prediction Is …
Now that you ask – here is the top six
1. Man City
2. Man Utd
And the bottom three will be …
19. Norwich City
Things might change subject to what goes on in the transfer market between now and the end of the season