Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Premier League Predictions 2011/12

Even aside from Mario Balotelli, there are many reasons to be excited about the upcoming Premier League season.

The £38million signing of Sergio Aguero appears to have strengthened Manchester City’s claim to be considered genuine title contenders, but United’s stirring comeback victory in last Sunday’s Community Shield suggests Sir Alex Ferguson and his latest crop are going to make their “noisy neighbours” fight for every inch of the success they hope to achieve.

There is a fresh buzz around Chelsea, where a progressive young manager with an illustrious – if short – track record is looking to revive the aging limbs of the 2010 champions and inspire them to recapture former glories. Is Andre Villas-Boas the new “Special One”? Time will tell.

The Red half of Merseyside is also awash with optimism ahead of the new campaign, with Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish backed by Fenway Sports Group to the tune of almost £100million and charged with the task of trying to form the club’s first title-winning side since 1990.

In north London, however, the mood is not quite so positive. The solitary arrival of Brad Friedel has done little to convince Tottenham fans that their club is capable of breaking back into the top four, while rivals Arsenal are bracing themselves for the seemingly inevitable departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri and manager Arsene Wenger faces up to the most testing season of his Gunners reign.

The promoted trio of QPR, Norwich and Swansea enter the season with confidence and the promise of attacking football. Will they surprise and thrive against their more established opponents, or be worn down by long and arduous Premier League campaigns? Whatever their fates, the battle at the bottom promises to be even closer than the one at the top.

Over the course of the season all these issues will be settled, but until then observers like me have to content ourselves with idle predictions. Without further ado, then, here are my thoughts on what lies in store for all 20 Premier League teams…

1st - Manchester United

It’s hard to look beyond last season’s champions for the big prize again this time around. Sir Alex Ferguson may have lost a wealth of experience in retired duo Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes, but replacing them at Old Trafford is a crop of formidably talented young players.

David De Gea looks an extremely capable, if slightly raw, successor to the big Dutchman between the sticks. Tom Cleverley, back from a productive loan at Wigan Athletic last term, is ready to add energy and guile to the United midfield, while Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda will further bolster an already rich array of attacking talents.

Ashley Young and Phil Jones provide further strength in depth. If Wesley Sneijder completes a much-touted move from Inter Milan, United’s claim to a 20th league title will become even harder to dispute.
2nd - Manchester City
Last season, there was a feeling among many observers – including this one – that while City enjoyed their most successful campaign in recent memory, it could have been so much more, if only Roberto Mancini had been willing to take the handbrake off his talented team.

The same applies this year. Sergio Aguero’s arrival is a powerful statement of intent from the Eastlands hierarchy, but also one which will be in vain if Mancini once again falls into the trap of thinking one point is better than none. Fortune favours the brave, and never more so than in this league.

There is a worry that City’s domestic aspirations could be derailed by a maiden Champions League campaign, in much the same way as Tottenham’s were last year. But Mancini has a far greater depth of resources at his disposal than Harry Redknapp, and this should ensure his side can challenge on all fronts.
3rd - Chelsea
Andre Villas-Boas may be the new name over the manager’s door at Stamford Bridge, but not much else has changed. This remains largely the same squad, aging and arguably lacking in hunger, which began to creak badly last season and put paid to Carlo Ancelotti’s hopes of building on a superb Double-winning first season in charge.

Moreover, there remains the same owner, one who plans in months rather than years and who refuses to countenance failure, even if it is his own. While the signings of Romelu Lukaku and Oriol Romeu hint at some form of long-term planning at the club, there is no reason to suggest it has been extended to the role of manager.

It is impossible to escape the feeling that should Villas-Boas’ Chelsea go on a bad run and – God forbid – fail to win the Champions League, rumours hinting at his inevitable exit will begin to surface. It is not an atmosphere which is conducive to success.
4th - Arsenal
I’m willing to bet Arsene Wenger has never felt under so much pressure.

Gunners fans, exasperated by the continuing wait for a trophy, have been pushed to the point of rebellion by the Frenchman’s continuing stubbornness to act decisively in the transfer market and a significant hike in season ticket prices.

The boos reverberating around the Emirates Stadium during the eponymous friendly tournament a couple of weeks ago are the most significant and worrying development to date in the relationship between Wenger and the fans.

If no more new faces come in and, worse, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri leave, the Gunners boss will be under huge pressure to get off to a good start to the season. If the team falters, he could for the first time face concerted calls for his resignation.
With or without Fabregas and Nasri, Arsenal are still not capable of winning the title. It is my belief, however, that they will hang on to fourth place from Liverpool and Spurs – just – even if they lose the midfield duo.
5th - Liverpool
Liverpool ended last season strongly, but the performances yielded from a team under no pressure can be misleading. The weight of expectation will accompany Dalglish’s efforts this time around, and despite some eye-watering summer spending, his team is not ready to mount a concerted title charge.

The level of understanding forged between expensive strike duo Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez will be key to the success they do have, however. If the pair can hit it off, they will worry any defence in the country.

Despite some notable additions, Liverpool’s midfield is still not the equal of any of the four sides ahead of them, and captain Steven Gerrard’s persistent injury problems are a cause of growing concern. The Reds also lack a top centre-back to complement ever-committed local boy Jamie Carragher.

A work in progress then, but should still push Arsenal hard for fourth.
6th - Tottenham Hotspur
Even if they do manage to prevent star man Luka Modric leaving for Chelsea, Tottenham’s lack of significant activity in the transfer market makes it hard to see them improve on last season’s showing.

Spurs fans will hope Brad Friedel will prove a more reliable presence between the sticks, but the real problems lie up front.

Neither Jermaine Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko nor Peter Crouch have the class to capitalize on the quality of service provided by a stellar midfield, and this is borne out by the trio’s modest goal returns last term.

Unless ‘Arry works his magic in the last hours of the transfer window, I fear sixth is as good as it will get for Tottenham.
7th - Fulham
Fulham may not have caught the imagination in the transfer market this summer, but then they don’t need to.

They possess a very capable, settled first team squad which has secured consistent top half finishes for both Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes, and there is no reason why they won’t repeat the feat under new man Martin Jol.

Jol is a good fit for Fulham. The expansive passing style the Dutchman became known for at Spurs will go down well at Craven Cottage, and is a pretty seamless continuation of how the side have been playing for a number of years now.

Fulham are a shoe-in for the top-half and, if they can keep star striker Bobby Zamora fit, should come top of the “best of the rest” league outside the top six.
8th - Everton
David Moyes just cannot catch a break. I’m willing to bet he’s never even been lucky enough to find a tenner lying discarded in the street, never mind a spare £10million to spend on a striker.

Once again, new signings have been conspicuous at Goodison Park only by their absence as beleaguered owner Bill Kenwright continues his fruitless search for fresh investment in the club.

Yet Moyes has become quite adept at swimming against the tide of Premier League spending. His hard-working, experienced and loyal squad of players have had more than enough about them in recent seasons to maintain a consistent top half presence, and I don’t expect that to change this year.
9th - Stoke City
Tony Pulis’ much-maligned side finally began to receive some long overdue credit last season by reaching the FA Cup final. Their reward is an inaugural Europa League adventure this time around, and it is one I suspect they will enjoy without experiencing a decline in their domestic form.

The job Pulis has done over the past three seasons has been nothing short of magnificent, bringing Stoke into the top flight and establishing them as mid-table regulars.

In doing so, he has made positive, and indeed necessary, changes to the way the team plays. They are now, if no more subtle, then at least a little more diverse in their approach, and in the Britannia Stadium they possess one of the Premier League’s genuine fortresses.
10th - West Bromwich Albion
Last season was about Roy Hodgson’s redemption. This one is about consolidation. After finding themselves in the heady heights of mid-table rather than a desperate relegation scrap last term, West Brom’s task this year is simply to make sure the good times continue.

As far as that aim is concerned, the early signs are promising. The key components of last season’s surprise packages have been retained and bolstered with several shrewd additions. Ben Foster is literally a safe pair of hands in goal, while Zoltan Gera will add quality and energy to the midfield.

But perhaps most importantly, Shane Long has arrived from Reading to hopefully lessen the scoring burden last season placed almost entirely on the outstanding Peter Odemwingie. In summary, the Baggies should have more than enough class to enjoy a trouble-free season.
11th - Aston Villa
It’s safe to say the mood has been better around Villa Park.

After a season in which they had to endure Martin O’Neill’s shock departure five days before the start of the campaign and a prolonged flirtation with the relegation zone under successor Gerard Houllier before January signing Darren Bent’s timely arrival lifted them to a respectable mid-table finish, Villa fans could have been forgiven for thinking the bad times were over.

They still might be, but owner Randy Lerner has taken a huge – as well as hugely unpopular – gamble in appointing Alex McLeish to take charge of the team for the new campaign. McLeish only had the length of the city to travel to assume his new post, having previously been in charge of arch-rivals Birmingham City. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d just got them relegated.

Villa fans have also looked on with dismay as first team stalwarts Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Brad Friedel have departed. The replacements – Charles N’Zogbia and Shay Given – are capable enough, but McLeish knows he will have to get off to a fast start this season, or the Villa Park faithful could make his position untenable very quickly.

With or without McLeish, Villa’s admittedly depleted squad still has enough about it to stay clear of any trouble.
12th - Sunderland
It’s all change at Sunderland this summer, with seven players exiting the Stadium of Light and eight coming in, as Steve Bruce looks to improve on the squad which showcased European form in the first half of last season and relegation form after the turn of the year.

Increasing squad depth has been Bruce’s main aim, to avoid the fatigue and injuries which led to his side’s spectacular slump last term. Steed Malbranque is the only senior player to depart, while the new arrivals are almost all of proven Premier League quality.

Manchester United duo John O’Shea and Wes Brown will add experience and steel to the Mackems’ occasionally brittle backline, while Craig Gardner and David Vaughan will contribute drive and energy to the midfield.

Up front, Connor Wickham and Korean Ji-Dong Won promise future rather than immediate impact, so the scoring burden will continue to rest largely on the shoulders of the mercurial Asamoah Gyan.
13th - Newcastle United
To say the transfer strategy which Mike Ashley and co. have pursued this summer is strange is like saying Manchester wasn’t top of Carlos Tevez’s list of potential summer holiday destinations.

Some of the additions boss Alan Pardew has made to his squad look shrewd. Midfielder Yohan Cabaye, signed from French champions Lille, is a full France international and should add a touch of assurance and class to the Toon midfield. Demba Ba impressed last season in a poor West Ham team, and looks to have all the attributes to be a success in the Premier League.

But these new signings, along with wingers Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveaux, have done nothing to persuade the club’s fans that the £35million received for Andy Carroll in January will be reinvested.

Instead, other key players have been discarded. Club captain Kevin Nolan has been allowed to leave for West Ham, Jose Enrique has followed Carroll to Liverpool and Joey Barton has felt exasperated enough by developments at the club to make his feelings known to the world on Twitter.

With the spine of this team having been ripped out and replaced, it’s almost impossible to predict Newcastle’s fate with certainty, but I’m willing to bet there are still quite a few teams worse than them in the top flight.
14th - Bolton Wanderers
Owen Coyle was rightly commended for his achievements with Bolton last season. For a long time his side looked capable of both qualifying for Europe through the Premier League and reaching the FA Cup final, all the while showcasing a style of football which went some way towards rehabilitating the image of the club in the eyes of football purists.

But then it all fell apart. A 5-0 thrashing in the FA Cup semi-final against Stoke had a devastating effect on squad morale, and the Trotters lost each of their last six games to slump to 14th.  The bad news for this campaign is they don’t look capable of improving on that showing this time around.

Coyle has wisely guarded against the possibility of a serious injury of the kind which midfielder Stuart Holden suffered against Manchester United last season with the acquisitions of Nigel Reo-Coker from Aston Villa and Darren Pratley from newly-promoted Swansea, and winger Chris Eagles is an exciting signing from Burnley.

But it’s up front where the problems lie. Top scorer Johan Elmander has departed for Galatasaray, while there will be no repeat of Daniel Sturridge’s sensational loan spell at the end of last season. Coyle is still trying gamely to bolster his attacking options before the end of the month, but if he doesn’t, a lack of goals could seriously inhibit Bolton’s progress.
15th - Wolverhampton Wanderers
Given Mick McCarthy’s men stayed up only by the skin of their teeth on the final day last season, it may appear strange for me to have predicted Wolves to finish as high as 15th this term.

Except, that is, when you consider that Blackburn finished 15th last year and yet were still involved in the relegation scrap until the very last day. I expect this year’s tussle at the bottom to be just as open.

McCarthy has gone for quality rather than quantity in the transfer market this summer. Roger Johnson, who proved himself one of the top flight’s most reliable defenders at Birmingham, has come in and assumed the captain’s armband, while Jamie O’Hara has returned to Molineux on a permanent deal.

But like Bolton, Wolves’ problems lie not with keeping goals out, but with putting them in at the other end. Last season’s top scorer Steven Fletcher notched 10 in the league, but he needs more support from the likes of Doyle, Ebanks-Blake and more attack-minded members of the midfield. If he doesn’t get it, Wolves could be in for another struggle.
16th - Blackburn Rovers
This outrageous and hilarious club advert might have you believe otherwise, but all is certainly not rosy at Ewood Park.

There still appears to be tension left over from the sacking of Sam Allardyce last season and the team’s subsequent flirtation with relegation, and the mood has not been helped by the sale of homegrown gem Phil Jones to Manchester United.

Key defender Christopher Samba has also had his head turned by reported interest from Arsenal, and his departure would be even more devastating to the club’s ambitions.

Despite some big promises from the Rovers’ hierarchy, the highest profile arrivals at Ewood Park so far this summer are striker David Goodwillie from Dundee United and defender Bruno Ribeiro from Vitoria Setubal. Both are unknown quantities in the Premier League, and it is as yet unclear how much they will be able to contribute to a team which presently fails to excite.

Perhaps only Newcastle and QPR are more shambolicly-run than Blackburn in the Premier League, but nevertheless my feeling is they will survive again – just.
17th - Norwich City
This season is the latest chapter of an amazing story for Norwich. Only two years ago the Norfolk-based club were in League One, reeling from a 7-1 opening day demolition at the hands of Colchester City.

Fortunately for Norwich, however, the manager who inflicted that thrashing soon agreed to assume the reins at Carrow Road, and now Paul Lambert has become the first manager to reach the Premier League with back-to-back promotions since Joe Royle with Manchester City a decade ago.

Now both Lambert and his players face their toughest test yet. Norwich have roared into the Premier League with much the same squad which secured them passage out of England’s third tier, and the learning curve at this level will be steep.

But the Canaries’ biggest asset is their manager. Paul Lambert is proving himself to be one of the most promising managerial talents in Britain and, with him at the helm, I can see Norwich’s success story continuing for at least one more year.
18th - Swansea City
There are many reasons to hope Swansea do survive in the Premier League this season.

Those who value the novelty of having a Welsh team in England’s top flight for the first time ever will of course wish them well, while those who heralded Brendan Rodgers’ men the best footballing side in the Championship last year will hope their expansive approach once again pays dividends this time around.

But as romantic the idea is, I just can’t see it happening. Firstly, the loss of several key players is almost certain to have an effect. Darren Pratley, Dorus De Vries and Fabio Borini were all key components of the team whose late charge secured the Premier League dream last year.

Their replacements – Michael Vorm, Danny Graham and Leroy Lita – are not of proven top flight calibre, and the disruption caused by this turnaround in core personnel may mean Swansea’s vaunted passing game is not quite as fluid as it needs to be in order to save them.
19th - Wigan Athletic
That Wigan are entering their seventh consecutive season in the Premier League is in itself an incredible achievement worthy of praise, but it’s hard to see them being granted an eighth.

The Latics have demonstrated tremendous survival skills in numerous relegation battles over the years, but the yearly exodus of key players from the DW Stadium has stretched the squad to breaking point. The departure of Charles N’Zogbia to Aston Villa could be the straw which ends up breaking the camel’s back if the money received from the deal is not reinvested wisely.

Roberto Martinez’s decision to turn down the Aston Villa job this summer speaks well of both him and of the family culture which exists at Wigan, but I fear he may regret it come May.
20th - QPR
QPR’s title triumph in the Championship last season was all the more astonishing for the fact it was achieved against a backdrop of utter turmoil at all levels of the club.

The credit for the triumph must go entirely to Neil Warnock – QPR’s 10th different manager in four seasons – who shook off constant speculation about his own position and the threat of a points deduction for fielding an ineligible player to guide the club back to the top flight for the first time since 1997, and in doing so secure the seventh promotion of his career.

The Rangers board, which consists of F1 giants Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone and one of the world’s richest men in Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, has done nothing to either make Warnock feel secure in his role or back him in the transfer market. All of the club’s summer acquisitions have been players passed up by other Premier League clubs and brought to Loftus Road for nominal fees.

As a result, Warnock must do the best he can with a squad of Championship players heavily reliant on the gifted but hugely temperamental Adel Taarabt. While the Moroccan playmaker clearly has talent, there remain serious questions over his attitude and ability to deal with adversity.

If a new culture of stability and investment doesn’t take hold at Loftus Road soon, I fear QPR’s return to the Premier League could be a brief and miserable one.

No comments:

Post a Comment