That’s right kids, another season of fast paced, high octane, non-stop, tantrum causing, joy bringing, Saturday filling, frantic, manic, slightly pedantic Premier League football is upon us once again. The twenty best teams in the land battle it out week after week to decide that Manchester United will win.
We’ve had a real rollercoaster of a summer, and with no World Cup or European Championships in the way, most of the players are well rested, as are we, and everyone is raring to go. There have been many stories to sink our teeth into since May, and we here at NAFB round them all up as we go club-by-club, pointlessly predicting what to expect from each member of the Barclays Premier League. And don’t just skip straight to your club you lazy sod.
Always starting the season top of the league (praying Accrington Stanley don’t make it to the Premiership, luckily their players never drank their milk), Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are often labelled the least predictable team in the land.
One week they’ll be playing scintillating one touch passing and flowing football, blowing a mid-table team away 4-0 at the Emirates and delighting us all with their verve and swagger. The following week they’ll play like a pub team and lose 2-0 at West Brom. It is because of this that I would argue they are in fact the MOST predictable team in the land. Since the Title winning days, Arsenal have followed an almost identical formula year-upon-year. Start well, go into Christmas leading or at least in the race, have everyone saying they have finally matured and could well win the League, get a few injuries, go out of Europe, then completely obliterate their Title chase and finish about 10-points off the top. However, to use an old football cliché, this year I think will be different. I don’t think Arsenal will blow their Title chances in April, because I think they’ll be out of the race by Christmas.
True, Arsenal have lost great players before and managed okay, but losing (presumably) both Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri is a hammer blow. Their two most creative sparks leaving to be replaced by unknown quantity Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey, it could work, but you’d be brave to bet the Ivory Coast and Welsh Internationals could maintain Arsenal’s current level. Ramsey is a very good player, but Fabregas he isn’t, and neither is Jack Wilshere (despite what determined Arsenal fans will tell you) and while I believe they will still do well and win most games, certainly at the Emirates, I can see Wenger’s men dropping out of the top 4 for the first time in many years, and this possibly being our last season of seeing Arsene patrol the touchline in his Michelin Man coat. Wojciech Szczesny is a promising goalkeeper, but it’s a big ask for him to be number one all season. Scott Dann is a potential signing, but Arsenal really should have pushed for Gary Cahill. They need a leader at the back, and as good as Dann is, it isn’t him. Still only Alex Song to call on as a mediocre holding midfielder, and the big money spent on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton may bear fruit, but in typical Wenger style, he’s invested in a player for two or three years down the line, when The Gunners desperately needed money investing for the now.
Arsenal’s season will be dependant on how and if Wenger spends the Fabregas and Nasri money, but if he refuses to, or buys young again, I fear an unfamiliar season in which Arsenal are fighting for European qualification, and not the Premier League Title.
Controversy creates cash, well, that’s the theory. The ‘C’ word was in the ascendancy at Villa Park this summer as the unfortunately ill Gerard Houllier was forced to vacate his position. Some Villa fans, although sympathetic for the Frenchman, were pleased as last season was a true disaster for them. Having finished sixth three seasons in a row under Martin O’Neill, they plummeted to fifteenth last year, and something had to be done. The popular American owner Randy Lerner decided in his infinite wisdom to appoint Alex McLeish, a man who had managed bitter rivals Birmingham City, and had just got them relegated. Personally, I thought that should make him a hero with Villa fans, but they didn’t seem to agree. The Scot’s appointment was met with protests, but as is the way with protests, they achieved precisely nothing. McLeish is in the hot seat and I’m here to tell you Villa fans that as Bob Marley said, every little thing is gonna be alright.
Okay, a manager who specialises in relegation is in charge (though to get relegated, you have to have been promoted first, which is no mean feat) and like Arsenal, the two best players have left in Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. A shame, but light is there. The two wingers were supplemented splendidly at times last season by youngster Mark Albrighton, who showed glimpses of a very promising right winger who, in my opinion, has a very bright future both domestically and on the International stage. On the other flank will be Charles N’Zogbia, a quick, skilful and dangerous (just ask Andy Carroll) player who pretty much single-handedly kept Wigan up last season. At less than £10m, it was a shrewd move by McLeish, and with those two providing the ammunition for goal-machine Darren Bent, Villa will have no problems hitting the net this season.
The issues lie at the other end of the pitch. The loss of Brad Freidel will have hurt, but to replace him with Shay Given, in my eyes, is actually a slight upgrade. Dunne and Collins are a solid partnership, but surprisingly lacked the organisation they once had. This was doubly surprising given the way Houllier moulded Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz at Liverpool. One thing McLeish specialises in though is building sides on solid backs, and before an unfortunate injury to Scott Dann, Birmingham had one of the meanest defences in the league. I would be surprised if Villa didn’t bring in another defender, be it in the centre or at full back, but I really believe they will keep more clean sheets this season than last, and coupled with potency at the other end, Aston Villa should be returning to the top half.
Oh dear. When Blackburn won the Premier League in 1995 it was a glorious moment. Jack Warner, local boy come good, invested his hard earned money into ‘his’ football club and it bore fruit. Despite a team containing Stuart Ripley, Jason Wilcox and Mike Newell, Rovers beat Manchester United to the Title and Blackburn became only the second team to win the Premier League Title. Blackburn haven’t been rich since then, so haven’t been anywhere near the top as goes the game. But then Venky’s came in on a white horse (or chicken), and they’re still not rich.
The writing was on the wall in January when the new owners sacked Sam Allardyce for doing a decent job, promoting inexperienced coach Steve Kean to the big chair, and promised him a transfer war chest of a whopping and mind blowing £5m, before asking him to bring them Ronaldinho and David Beckham. He didn’t, he brought them unknowns Mauro Formica and Ruben Rochina. No doubt he told them they were Real Madrid and Barcelona’s two best players, but as lifelong Rovers fans, they quit La Liga for Ewood Park with a hope and a dream.
Sure enough, the investment hasn’t come this summer, with Kean only bringing in Serbian midfielder Radosav Petrovic, left-back Myles Anderson from Aberdeen, and Dundee Utd’s David Goodwillie (teehee). While Petrovic is relatively unknown, Anderson is decent and Goodwillie was good in the SPL, but the Premier League is a different animal, and the Scot in all honesty is more likely to sink than swim.
I’d hate people to think I’m being purposefully harsh on Blackburn, but I just see all the ingredients for a relegation battle, like last season, but without an experienced manager, no particular star quality in attack, and Christopher Samba wanting a move away, as good as Ryan Nelsen is, I just cannot see Rovers maintaining their Premier League status for another year.
Bolton spent most of last season as one of the success stories. Flirting with the European spots, playing an unfamiliar pass and move style under a boss who favours the ball on the ground in Owen Coyle, and making one of the deals of the season by bringing in Daniel Sturridge on loan from Chelsea. It was then a great surprise when an end of season blip saw them fall to 14th, with a final day defeat costing them £6m in prize money. That money could have been used to replace the outgoing Johan Elmander, or Sturridge, who doesn’t look like he will return for a second spell.
Wanderers need to bring in a striker to compliment Kevin Davies (lovely hair Kevin, and you’re great to be around), but their purchases have been sensible if unspectacular. Darren Pratley was a key cog at Swansea, but whether he can raise that level to the Premier League remains to be seen. Nigel Reo-Coker on the other hand is very experienced in the top flight, and should bring better shape to the centre of the pitch. Coyle also went back to Turf Moor to raid former club Burnley, bringing Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears back to the big time. Losing Matty Taylor will be a blow, but Eagles showed glimpses of quality during Burnley’s time in the Premier League that suggests he could provide Davies with sufficient ammunition. I am a big fan of Mears, but sadly he suffered a broken leg just days after moving to the Reebok Stadium, and will likely miss at least the first half of the season.
This piece of bad luck followed another broken leg, this time to Lee Chung Yong, which has surely left Coyle wondering what could happen next. Hopefully for Wanderers they are simply getting their rotten luck out of the way in pre-season, and if Coyle can get his men playing the sort of scintillating football that saw Mark Davis score what was, in my opinion, goal of the season last year, then I predict a minor improvement in Bolton’s position this time around.
The irrepressible Roman Abramovich wielded his platinum axe once more this summer, sacking Carlo Ancelotti for daring to finish second and not win the Champions League. The only solution was clearly to go for a manager with two years experience of management under his belt and no experience of managing in the Champions League. That would have been a sarcastic comment, if said manager wasn’t Andre ‘don’t call me Mourinho’ Villa Boas. The new darling of football management alerted several top European clubs after guiding FC Porto to a dominant season in which they won four trophies, including the Europa League, and went unbeaten through the whole League season, dropping only six points. It was expected Villas Boas would be allowed to stay at Porto to take them into the Champions League, but patience is never a quality that has been levelled at the Russian oligarch, and the 33-year old was on the next plane to Heathrow.
The big question this season at Stamford Bridge is more to do with the squad. Is it worrying that Chelsea’s best players are all in their thirties? Will the sometimes brilliant, sometimes not, David Luiz gain more consistency as he settles into the League? And will Fernando Torres be the best striker in the world as he can be, or the worst in the Division as he was for much of last season after making the £50m January switch from Anfield? The long-term loss of Michael Essien won’t help matters, as young Oriel Romeu, signed from Barcelona, is more one for the future, as is the impressive Josh McEachran. If Chelsea can prise Luka Modric from Tottenham then they will be in business, but without a replacement in that position it remains a worry as to how the midfield will manage in tight away games.
The hulking Romelu Lukaku may well turn out to be the new Drogba, but while the old Drogba is still there, I doubt Lukaku will see enough game time initially to make a significant difference. With Torres, Drogba and possibly Sturridge ahead of him, Romelu could be on an internship year this season (except this internship pays millions of pounds).
While impressive last season, there is still a big question mark over how Villas Boas will cope with a changing room full of egos, some of which older than he is, but the respect he is already commanding is notable, and with a bucket load of talented players, and a blank chequebook, Chelsea should once again be the main men running Manchester United all the way for the Title.
Like Arsenal, Everton have followed a pattern the last few seasons. Unlike The Gunners, however, David Moyes’ men play it in reverse. They make a shaky start, flirt with relegation, but soon pick up and before you know it they’re sniffing after the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool. With absolutely no new signings to speak of (barring teenage defender Eric Dier on loan from Sporting Lisbon, no, me neither), it wouldn’t be surprising for the same to happen again.
On the plus side, Moyes has so far kept hold of his key men, rejecting offers for Phil Jagielka from Arsenal, and supposedly Leighton Baines from Manchester City (pre-Clichy). With those two in the side, accompanied by Mikel Arteta and Tim’s Howard and Cahill, Everton are a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League. Stats show Baines supplied 100 successful crosses into the penalty area last season, more than double that of any other left back in the Division, and his goals and assists were a huge part of what shaped Everton’s successful seventh-placed season.
If Moyes could just find the money to bring in a goalscorer, ideally one to make full use of Baines’ supply, then Everton could give serious thought to challenging their fierce Red rivals once more. However, as Bill Kenwright is unable to hand over anything more than a whip-round, it appears that Moyes will have to perform miracles on a shoestring once again, and I fully expect him to. (‘Miracles on a Shoestring’, a new play by Bill Kenwright).
The managerial situation at Craven Cottage has had one heck of a transition in the past year. After being moulded into an efficient and organised team by Roy Hodgson, ending in a Europa League Final appearance, they were allowed to be a little more expansive by Mark Hughes, and finished a respectable eighth last season. Now they are led by everyone’s favourite Dutch Uncle, Martin Jol.
The man with a voice like stone-washed velvet has been charged with firing Fulham up the table with his gung-ho, total football. The signing of John Arne-Riise was a signal of intent that Jol meant business. Buying a left-back who is more famed for scoring spectacular goals than stopping attacks is typical Jol. He loves expansive football, and lets face it, so do we. Jol’s other signings have included youngsters Pajtim Kasami, Mercel Gecov and Dan Burn (all 6ft 7” of him), so it appears the former Tottenham and Ajax boss is happy enough with the majority of the squad he inherited from Hughes.
Expect fireworks at Craven Cottage next season, especially with free-roaming Clint Dempsey playing just off Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson, but as Jol found out at Spurs, with great attacking comes great responsibility. Having Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes and Mark Schwarzer at the back helps, but playing the style that they will, certainly at home, those three may find themselves having to work twice as hard as normal, so it will be interesting to see how many clean sheets they are able to keep this season.
As entertaining as I’m sure Fulham will be, the Premier League is cutthroat, and punishes expansive teams who aren’t filled with wall-to-wall quality, as Blackpool found out last season. That is why I feel Jol may not fire Fulham up the table, but possibly the other way.
Every year since 1990, Liverpool fans have been sure it would be the season they would finally reclaim old glories, and every year they have been left disappointed. From the Souness years (sell our three best players to Villa? What harm could it do?), through Roy Evans (pass and move is the Liverpool groove. Defending? Well if we have time), then Gerard Houllier (defending is the Houllier groove. Attacking? Well that’s what Michael Owen’s for), and Rafa Benitez (you know my ideas, I win Champions League, you like me, I say the word ‘fact’ in accent you find amusing, you don’t like me) to Roy Hodgson (we may well have lost 8-0 to Leigh RMI, but I maintain that was our finest home performance of the season). Nothing clicked, there were glorious moments along the way, but nothing that led to the bread and butter, what fans live for, the Title, coming back to Anfield. So what do you do when nothing else works? Go back to what you know does work.
Kenny Dalglish is Liverpool’s greatest ever player, and one of their greatest ever managers. He is seen as an icon of the Liverbird badge, and is held in high esteem alongside the legendary Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. He is a man of inspiration, and most importantly, has already won a Premier League Title with Blackburn. The question was, after a decade out of the game, could King Kenny keep up with the modern game? That Liverpool were the second best team in the second half of the Premier League season after he took over from the disastrous Roy Hodgson reign tells its own story. Dalglish is more than capable of returning Liverpool to past glories, what was holding them back was the players.
In January, the new American owners splashed the cash on Luis Suarez (my tip for PFA Player of the Year) and Andy Carroll. Much has been made of Carroll’s fee, and it must feel like a weight on the big man’s shoulders, but Dalglish will not be judging the not-so Divine Ponytail on his goals per tenner ratio. Kenny will be expecting goals, but Carroll can offer so much more in terms of hold-up play, winning balls in the air, and generally making games a nightmare for defenders. His partnership with Suarez could be worth around 40-50 goals for the Reds this season.
More money spent this summer on Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jose Enrique sees problem areas addressed and the future catered for, but none of these are what you would call ‘world beaters’, or at least not proven ones yet. It will be intriguing to see how the team gels, and the centre of defence is still a worry with Daniel Agger’s injuries, Jamie Carragher’s advancing years and Martin Skrtel’s inconsistency, so perhaps one last foray into the market for a centre back is called for.
With Dalglish in the dugout, Liverpool could probably field eleven ducks and get a spirited draw with Sunderland, but luckily (or duckily) they have a team who all of a sudden, look a little more balanced. The Reds need Champions League qualification to progress towards building another Title challenging team, and under King Kenny, I’m backing them to do just that.
A shiny new dime for the man who can predict what City will achieve this season. Despite taking a surprisingly long time to do it, the blue half of Manchester is finally to compete in the Champions League after spending oodles and oodles of money on their squad. This is now a squad that boasts Carlos Tevez (pending), Edin Dzeko, David Silva, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, Nigel De Jong and Sergio Aguero, and yet they’re not everyone’s tip for the Title. By comparison, if all of those players signed for United, there would be no market on the Premier League, bookies would payout on Fergie’s charges before the season began (Fred Done probably will regardless). But this is Man City we’re talking about, with a very different manager in the shape of Roberto Mancini. This is a club still getting used to challenging the big guns, and whether or not they are ready to make their move for England’s top prize is one of the biggest debates in the game.
In theory, they should be up there from beginning to end, but star quality doesn’t always win you Titles, just ask Real Madrid. What wins you Titles is having a team, a cohesive unit that can play at their best with one another, just ask Barcelona. The Community Shield showed that while City have great players, United are a great ‘team’, and that is what won them the match (that and Kompany’s uncharacteristic brain fart).
City do have a solid base which is important. Joe Hart is a fine keeper, with Kompany and Lescott ahead of him, and Richards or Zabaleta on the right, and Clichy or Kolarov on the left. A midfield boasting the likes of Toure, De Jong, Barry, Milner, Johnson and Silva is also among the best in the Premier League, and probably Europe. Up top they have an array of talent, but it’s just not quite ‘there’. Tevez is the best player at the club, but is desperate to leave for Italy, so he can be closer to his family in Argentina (hmm), Dzeko is struggling to find his feet in England (quite literally it seems at times. “Where are they, oh, there’s the left one!”), and Mario Balotelli has decided that being a talented footballer is boring, so plays like a Sunday League player and kicks opponents at random moments, in between moments of brilliance. There is no reliability beyond Tevez up front, or is there?
Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero is the biggest signing of the summer so far, moving from Atletico Madrid for £38m, and brings with him a big reputation and one of the finest scoring records in La Liga. Aside from being Diego Maradona’s son-in-law, Aguero is a quiet man who just likes to get on with his football, the anti-Balotelli if you will, and his ability to link up play, and the thought of what he could achieve playing alongside Silva, means City should finally have some sort of non-Tevez constant threat this year. With another big signing expected in the shape of Samir Nasri, City’s squad looks good enough to win the Champions League, but given that they’re not a ‘team’ yet, the best I can offer them is further qualification for next season.
Last season saw Alex Ferguson achieve what he set out to achieve when he took over at Old Trafford in 1921 (was it 1986?) by taking United’s Title haul past that of arch-rivals Liverpool. There was an air of inevitability about it, but that didn’t matter to the Red Devils. What did matter was the 3-1 thumping at the hands of Barcelona just days later at Wembley. Ferguson can check the League wins off his list, but there is something in him that believes he can also overhaul Liverpool’s European Cup record, and I don’t think he’ll retire until he’s either done it, or has to on health grounds.
Despite a very successful season, United realised they couldn’t rest on their laurels. They won the Title almost by default, finishing on just 80 points (they got 85 the previous season when they came second). With Chelsea, Arsenal, and City all experiencing major blips through the season, United used their experience and nous in the home straight to pull away and clinch the Title. The amount of dropped points away from home will have worried Ferguson, which is no doubt why he has splashed the cash this summer at debt-ridden United.
In has come promising Spanish keeper David De Gea, as a replacement for Edwin Van Der Sar, Ashley Young as another line of service for Rooney and Hernandez, and Phil Jones, although the original plan was to wait until next summer to buy the talented centre-back from Blackburn, but a bid from Liverpool forced their hand. These signings alone don’t appear to strengthen United much in the immediate term, especially as Young’s presence surely means less playing time for the immensely talented Antonio Valencia. De Gea and Jones though have plenty of potential and could well be world beaters in years to come.
One signing that could tip the scales is that of Wesley Sneijder. The most bizarre transfer saga of the summer must have a resolution in the next three weeks, and if the Dutch midfielder does join the Old Trafford side, then the retired Paul Scholes has been well and truly replaced, and then some. Despite Inter, United, Ferguson personally and Sneijder personally, all denying a deal is being done, the media have always insisted it is, and with Sneijder’s comments this week that contact has been made, it appears the media were correct (well they had to be at some point). With the former Real and Ajax man in the side, United would be near unstoppable at home, and a lot more dangerous away, and as it looks as though this deal may well happen, Hernandez is ready for another goal-filled season, Ferdinand and Vidic are fit, and Rooney is leaner and hairier then ever, I fully expect number twenty to be winging its way to United’s trophy room next May.
When Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal and filled his team with French players, people questioned him. Fifteen years later Alan Pardew is doing the same thing and no-one seems to mind. The summer purchases of Frenchmen Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux, Mehdi Abeid and Gabriel Obertan, along with Senegalese (French speaking) striker Demba Ba have no doubt made the Toon Army stronger than at the end of last season, with Cabaye and Ba in particular very shrewd buys for a paltry £4.5m.
With the impressive Cheik Tiote and the physio’s best mate Hatem Ben Arfa, Newcastle could field a front six made of entirely of French speaking players, perhaps the real reason Joey Barton was told he could go. “Eh la, I don’t understand a word these fellas are sayin, it makes me feel like punchin’ someone!” Whether Barton does leave St James’ Park is still up in the air, but if he stays then Pardew’s side will have a steely and determined creative spark, when he’s not suspended.
Replacing Andy Carroll with Demba Ba means a slight change in approach at the spearhead of Newcastle’s attack, but the former Hoffenheim striker showed enough during his short spell at West Ham to suggest he will be capable of scoring the goals necessary to keep his new team away from the drop.
The loss of Jose Enrique and club captain Kevin Nolan will be a blow, with Enrique being one of the more consistent performers in the side and Nolan scoring a higher than average amount of goals from midfield.
Pardew seems to have attempted a similar tactic to that he employed at West Ham. Build a team to not get relegated, rather than challenge the European spots. Whether Geordie fans accept mid table as their place in the top flight will be key in whether Pardew has time to implement a more ambitious plan further down the line. Having only been back in the Premier League for a year, Newcastle may have to be patient before they attempt to recapture the glory days of the nineties.
Two years ago, the Canaries lost 7-1 at home to Colchester United on the opening day of the League One season. They sacked Bryan Gunn, hired Colchester boss Paul Lambert, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The City fans who tore up their season tickets and threw them at the dugout on that day will surely be feeling a little more positive about things now as they ready themselves for their third spell in the Premier League. Lambert has built a real team capable of playing most sides off the park with their pass and move style. However, they can also rough it up with the best of them as Grant Holt provides a physical presence up top. The summer’s purchases have reflected both sides of their play as well, with James Vaughan, Steve Morison, Bradley Johnson, Anthony Pilkington, Elliot Bennett coming in and loan deals for Richie De Laet and Kyle Naughton supplementing what appears to be rather a large squad all of a sudden.
One thing to note though is that while these are some impressive signings, there is very little Premier League experience between them. That could be a big key as to how Norwich fair, especially in away games, this season. Something Hull City were able to do in their first season in the Premiership was to bring in experienced veterans like George Boateng and Geovanni, and that proved decisive in that campaign, despite a late scare. Norwich will have to go blind this year, and assume the likes of Morison, Johnson and Pilkington can bring their Football League form to the top table.
The talent already at Carrow Road in the shape of Holt, Wes Hoolahan and Andrew Surman will also need to raise their game, but if it all clicks together, Norwich could prove to be this seasons surprise package, and may upset a few of the big guns along the way.
From my view, the lack of top flight experience is too important, and although there will surely be some big headlines, I predict a bit of a Blackpool rerun from Lambert’s men this year, despite the European Cup winner being one of the best young managers in the game today.
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
The richest club in the world they said, could afford to buy Messi and Ronaldo they said, the new Manchester City they said. Well this summer QPR have bought Jay Bothroyd, DJ Campbell, Kieron Dyer, Danny Gabbidon and Bruno Perone, Messi must have thought he wouldn’t get a game.
Despite not quite spending the wads of cash initially suggested when the club was taken over in 2007 by Flavio Briatore, Bernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal, Rangers have bought sufficiently to produce a side that comfortably won the Championship Title last season, sealing their place in the Premier League for the first time in fifteen years. A huge amount of credit for this must go to manager Neil Warnock, who claims he was working from a budget smaller than those of most of his rivals.
The outspoken Warnock is far from everyone’s cup of tea, but like him or not, the former Sheffield United and Crystal Palace boss is successful, and has done a fantastic job since taking the reigns at Loftus Road, a position previously thought to be a poisoned chalice after the likes of Iain Dowie and Paolo Sousa were evicted mere weeks into their jobs.
The key to the Hoops’ success last season lay at the feet of the outrageously talented Moroccan, Adel Taarabt. The 22-year old was a revelation, scoring 19 goals in 45 games last campaign, and assisting many more. His trickery and wizardry in impossible parts of the pitch captured the imagination and ensured his side won the division at a canter come May. However, the former Tottenham prodigy still raises question marks about whether he can maintain that level in the top flight, something he failed to do at White Hart Lane. That QPR have kept hold of him despite interest from the actually mega-rich Paris St Germain shows an ambition to do more than just survive this season, and with a potent attack of Bothroyd and Campbell, with Taarabt supplying the ammunition, a sturdy defence with the underrated Paddy Kenny between the sticks, I feel that Warnock will not be left bitter and twisted by relegation, the way he was at Sheffield United (that is unless Liverpool play an understrength team against Swansea on the final day, leading to a Swansea win and QPR going down, but that could never happen… could it?).
Since being promoted in 2008, Tony Pulis has performed a minor miracle at the Brittania Stadium, and has achieved something that many bosses of Football League clubs see as the holy grail. He took a small and inexperienced team from a Championship also ran, to a solid and established Premier League side. That few tipped the Potters for relegation last season was a mark of the outstanding work Pulis has performed with a small budget.
Cheered on by the loudest fans in the country, Stoke built up a reputation in their first season of being all about physicality and relying on Rory Delap’s monstrous throw-ins to supply their goals. However, the team has evolved since then, as has the style of play. Stoke’s run to last seasons FA Cup Final was testament to how they are now able to play in a more refined way when needs must, perfectly shown off in their 5-0 demolition of Bolton in the Semi-Final at Wembley. The likes of Matthew Etherington, Jermaine Pennant and Glenn Whelan can move the ball around the floor at pace, while Kenwyne Jones and Jon Walters can work on the ground or in the air to equally devastating effect.
Stoke’s biggest strength though is in defence. In Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth, Matthew Upson and Jonathan Woodgate, Pulis has a group of centre backs to rival anyone in the League, and Asmir Begovic is one of the most underrated keepers in the game, saving Stoke on more than one occasion last year having wrestled the number one spot from Thomas Sorensen.
Their first foray into Europe will be intriguing; especially to see which style they go for. Some of Europe’s finest could get a rude awakening at The Brittania. However, the important thing for Pulis is to not let a small squad become exhausted towards the end of the season, and should he manage this, another top half finish should be achievable.
After a new revolving door was installed at the Stadium of Light this summer, Steve Bruce decided he best put it to good use, letting eight players leave and a whopping ten players arrive (and counting). The question was though, did Sunderland’s squad need an overhaul?
Losing promising midfielder Jordan Henderson will be a blow, especially given how his dip in form post new-year coincided with the Black Cats dropping points, such was the England international’s importance, though the £16m received from Liverpool has been reinvested in some shrewd buys. They are (breathes in) Ahmed El Mohamady, Connor Wickham, Seb Larsson, Kieran Westwood, Ji Dong Won, Craig Gardner, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, David Vaughan and James McClean (breathes out). There is a lot of Premiership experience in there, especially in the form of Brown and O’Shea. Gardner and Larsson were superb at Birmingham last season, despite their side’s ultimate demise, the same with Vaughan at Blackpool. Westwood is a solid keeper, and El Mohamady did well during his loan spell at the club last season. Wickham was the most expensive purchase, arriving for £8m from Ipswich. There is an awful lot of potential in the 18-year old, who could eventually cost £12m, but given his return at Portman Road last season, don’t expect him to fire Bruce’s men into Europe this season, maybe in two or three years though.
Bruce himself is a very good organiser, and often succeeds in getting the best out of players. Losing Darren Bent was a blow last January, but in Asamoah Gyan they have another player capable of producing the goods in the box, and a lot of the responsibility will fall on the Ghanaian this season after Bent’s departure and Danny Welbeck’s return to Man Utd.
The pivot this year for Sunderland will be how long it takes for the new boys to settle in and become a team, as a large chunk of the Black Cat’s starting line-up is now made up of new players. If Bruce can get them to gel quickly, then it could be a very fruitful season for him and his men, if not, then they could really finish anywhere. Mid-table seems the safest bet.
There’s nearly always one. A team which gets promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their history, play attractive football, entertain the masses, pick up an upset or two along the way, but ultimately end up back in the Championship. Last season it was Blackpool, this year it’s the turn of Swansea.
Brendan Rodgers did fantastically well to get his side up via the playoffs, impressively dispatching of Reading at Wembley to become the first ever Welsh member of the Premier League. It wasn’t simply that he had defied the odds, but that he did it by producing a team capable of playing some really sublime football. In Scott Sinclair they have one of the leading lights of English youth football, finally coming to prominence after various loans and a lack of chances at Chelsea. He scored 25 goals in all competitions last year, which is no mean feat from the wing, but he and new recruit Wayne Routledge will have to prove the doubters wrong if they are to take their excellent Championship form and reproduce it in the top division.
The Swans signings have been similar to Norwich, in that they have bought well, but have gone for relative inexperience in the shape of Danny Graham, Routledge, Michel Vorm, Jose Moreira, Leroy Lita and Steven Caulker (loan).
Another big problem for Rodgers could be at the back. Swansea were devastating going forward last year, but even in the Championship they leaked a fair amount of goals, and will need to tighten up a lot if they are to avoid hammerings by some of the Premier League’s big boys.
No doubt we are in for an excitement filled rollercoaster from Swansea this year, but given the inexperience in the squad and the tenderness of their defence, I’m afraid I must assume that it is to be a one season wonder from the Welsh side.
Last season, it was widely agreed that the best squad in the land was not at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, or even the expensively assembled one at Eastlands. White Hart Lane was the home of Harry Redknapp’s charges (and still is thanks to West Ham), and his squad of players put on a terrific showing in their first ever journey into the UEFA Champions League, picking up historic wins against both Milan sides along the way.
However, domestically, Spurs were disappointing. That may seem harsh considering they finished fifth, but as I said, they had arguably the best squad in the League, with one of the most revered managers in the shape of Redknapp, but they were unable to qualify for the Champions League for a second season. The emergence of Gareth Bale as suddenly one of the greatest players on the planet, the form of Luka Modric and Rafael Van Der Vaart, and the solid performances from Michael Dawson, William Gallas and yes, even Huerelho Gomes, suggested that Spurs were becoming a team capable of permanently breaking the top 4. However, a lack of goals from their strikers (none of Crouch, Defoe of Pavlyuchenko managed to reach double figures) and a series of injury problems meant that Tottenham had to make do with fifth. Throwing away silly points at home didn’t help matters, and a number of draws towards the end of the campaign meant they were unable to catch fierce rivals Arsenal, who also fell away near the end.
It was clear that Redknapp had to act and bring in the one or two world class players he admitted himself his team needed to make that next step. But so far, that hasn’t happened. Tottenham’s only senior signing has been Brad Freidel (and you don’t get much more senior than the American keeper), so it seems Redknapp is going to keep faith with his three strikers, who, to be fair, are all capable of much better than they produced last season. Rumours of Guiseppe Rossi, Fernando Llorente and Mirko Vucinic have either proved, or look like proving, false. Further stories of a loan move for once hated Emmanuel Adebayor seem to have more base to them, but the former Gunner’s wages could prove prohibitive.
The bigger problem that Redknapp faces is keeping hold of Modric, who has been very open about his desire to join Chelsea. The creative spark of Spurs’ midfield would be missed immeasurably if he was allowed to go, though it seems Daniel Levy and Redknapp are playing hardball. They have said the Croatian is not for sale, despite his pleas, and have apparently rejected a bid of £27m from the Blues.
If they can keep hold of Modric, and keep him happy by bringing in the one or two players Redknapp was looking for, then Spurs could certainly challenge for the top four once again. However, it appears Levy is not being as generous with the chequebook as in previous seasons, and Redknapp may have to persuade Modric to give it one more year, and show faith in the current crop. If this is the case I feel the CL places will elude them once more, and Modric will almost certainly move on to pastures new, if he hasn’t done so already by then. On the plus side I do predict that Crouch and Defoe will be more potent this season.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
It was rather an odd season last year for Roy Hodgson. Finally given the opportunity at a big club in his home country, and deservedly so after masterminding the most incredible season for Fulham in 2009/10, ending in Europa League Final heartbreak. However, Hodgson’s reign at Liverpool was a bit like Tom Hanks’ last film, a complete disaster from start to finish (except unlike Hanks, I doubt Hodgson will reimburse the fans who went to Anfield). Was his reputation tarnished? Well, slightly, but in another way, not really. Hodgson had never been known as a manager who could challenge the elite. The only big club he’d managed before was Inter Milan, and his task there was to stop the rot rather than challenge for honours. All Roy’s Liverpool reign showed us was that he wasn’t that type of manager, but his start at The Hawthorns has confirmed what type of manager he is. Roy Hodgson specialises in taking average teams and making them punch above their weight.
Perennial yo-yo artists, West Brom were many peoples favourites to go down last season, and after a seemingly bizarre sacking of Roberto Di Matteo, it almost seemed like an inevitability. But in stepped Hodgson, and he masterfully guided the ship to safety, and comfortably as well.
This year must see The Baggies aim for the same. Only after two or three consecutive years in the Premier League can they then look to make inroads up the table, and Hodgson’s signings reflect that. Bringing in Ben Foster (loan), Billy Jones, Gareth McAuley, Marton Fulop and the returning Zoltan Gera for precisely zero pounds and zero pence sees the squad made bigger, and strengthened in two areas. This allowed Hodgson to splash his budget on one player, and knowing he needed a striker desperately, he chose to splash it on Shane Long. The Irishman scored 26 goals in 51 games for Reading last season, and had been chased by a whole host of top flight teams. Whether he can replicate that form in the Premier League is up for debate, but he certainly knows where the goal is and has International experience to help him with the step up.
If Long, Chris Brunt, James Morrison, Gera, Foster, Somen Tchoyi and of course last season’s hero Peter Odemwingie can produce what they are capable of on a consistent basis, then under Hodgson they really could be safe of relegation with plenty of games to spare.
Wigan sealed their Premier League status on the final day of last season, and manager Roberto Martinez was labelled a legend of Lancashire, till he almost joined Aston Villa over the summer, but he turned them down and legend status was restored.
Surviving relegation means one sure fire thing, you will be favourites to go down next season. The Latics have a reputation as a small club, partially due to the fact they rarely sell out their home at the DW Stadium as most Wigan natives prefer that other game where you big the ball up and run at gorillas. However, the Wigan Athletic fans who do turn up show as much passion as any other, and will be hoping to see more fight earlier on in the season than they got last year. When the heat was on, Wigan produced, but the reason they got into the mess they did was due to lacklustre displays, especially at home, against teams they should have been getting points against, most notably the 4-0 home defeat to Blackpool on the opening day.
Another big reason for their survival was the form of enigmatic Frenchman Charles N’Zogbia, whose goals from the wing won more than a few matches. The big worry is that N’Zogbia has done what Martinez didn’t, and departed for Villa. Whether the Spaniard will be allowed to reinvest any of the £9.5m will be crucial in how this team recovers, but they will need the likes of Victor Moses and Hugo Rodallega to stand up and be counted this season. Fellow striker Connor Sammon showed a lot of promise towards the end of the campaign that he can cut it at this level, and the permanent signing of keeper Ali-Al Habsi from Bolton will be a boost, given how impressive he was on loan last year. Wigan also boast one of the better holding midfielders in the League in the shape of Mohamed Diame, and if the very promising James McCarthy can take over the creativity of Tom Cleverley, who has returned to his parent club Man Utd after a terrific loan spell last season, then Wigan could be safer this year than last. I still see it being a close run thing though.
I hear many teams fans moan about producing in big games but never being able to beat the weaker teams. We can’t all be doing it, we just think we are, unless you are a Wolves fan, in which case you have every right to feel that way. Last season, Mick McCarthy’s side boasted wins over Liverpool, Man Utd, Chelsea and Man City, and yet they finished 17th. The problem of course was losses against the teams around them, with home defeats against Wigan, Villa, Bolton, Everton and Blackburn.
Nevertheless, they stayed up by a solitary point, and now Big Mick gets another go with the Wanderers in the Premier League. The biggest key is tightening the defence, as only Blackpool, West Ham and West Brom conceded more last campaign. This has been addressed with the impressive signing of Roger Johnson from Midlands rivals Birmingham. Johnson was a lynchpin in the City defence, and should help keep the goals at bay this season. The centre back has been supplemented by Dorus de Vries and the permanent signing of Jamie O’Hara, which although important, doesn’t strengthen the first eleven greatly (given O’Hara was already at Molineux).
What will be decisive this season is the form and fitness of the strikers. Statistically, who was the deadliest striker in the Premier League last season? Hernandez? Tevez? Torr… err no. It was of course, Steven Fletcher. Although he only bagged 11 goals, the Scottish striker had the best goals to chances ratio, which suggests that if Matt Jarvis and O’Hara can provide more service, Wolves could have a twenty goal a season man on their hands. If Kevin Doyle can stay fit and be a bit more prolific in front of goal himself, then defenders could have nightmares when they face Wolves this season, and if McCarthy can get the best out of January signing Adam Hammill, then the balls into the box method may well see the Wanderers finish a lot more comfortably than they did last season.
And there you have it, twenty teams all previewed, all rated, all predicted, and what do you know; we have Manchester United to come top and Swansea to come bottom. See it’s expert and intricate analysis that allows us to decide these things, I mean did you think the same? I highly doubt… oh.
We here at NAFB hope you enjoy the Barclays Premier League season (and ignore that this preview has come AFTER the start of it) and that its filled with goals, exciting games, a close Title race, and a Gary Neville sexist slur that sees him ousted from Sky Sports and replaced by Jimmy Bullard. ALL HAIL FOOTBALL!
When Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff serenaded us with their various musings regarding how the summertime is a joyous occasion, I became aware that it was unlikely they were season ticket holders at Doncaster, or any other football team for that matter. Yes the weather is nicer, the festivals begin and we get to spend our hard earned annual income on a trip to some clichéd Spanish location (or ‘hot Essex’ as I call it), but for the humble football fan, there is a massive gaping hole missing in our lives.
When the final whistle went at Wembley in May and Barcelona were crowned Champions of Europe, I was filled with a cloud of sadness. Having been honoured to witness the greatest side of a generation continue to write their legacy, it dawned on me that it was like cramming that last chocolate bar in your mouth a minute before lent begins. Three months without the Premier League, the Football League, the Champions League, La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, even the Evostik League would be better than another sodding Come Dine With Me.
Every four years we are given a golden egg in the shape of the World Cup. Matches morning, noon and night and it’s simply glorious. But what about the other three years? Yes we get European Championships, but they’re just not quite the same. Half as many teams, no random countries you’ve never heard of trying to beat Brazil, and remember, Greece won it seven years ago and Theo Zagorakis was their star player, which renders winning the tournament now fairly meaningless. We also get Confederations Cups where specially selected countries play half-assed in half-built stadiums, that are half-full and by half-time you’re contemplating going down the King’s Arms to get half-cut. There’s youth tournament’s as well, such as this year’s surprisingly good Under-17 World Cup, where we were able to see stars of the future, but by the time they are old enough to break onto the world scene they will be long gone from our memories (though try to remember the name Souleymane Coulibaly, who has just signed for Spurs for £2m at the age of 16. I couldn’t even tell time when I was 16!)
This summer we were also treated to what was a stonkingly dull Copa America, only illuminated by the sublime Uruguay and the Brazilian master-class on how to miss a donkey’s backside with a banjo from 12-yards. With most of the matches being played at a time where you half expect them to be accompanied by that sign language guy who looks like Michael Stipe, the competition provided more draws than a Western saloon and as many underwhelming performances from big names than an X-Factor special. The likes of Messi, Di Maria, Pastore, Neymar, Ganso and Falcao were expected to make the tournament one of the biggest starring and memorable for a generation. But it wasn’t to be as Brazil never got out of first gear and Argentina served up disappointing performances akin to their disastrous but still somehow successful World Cup qualifying campaign under Diego Maradona. Like the great one, Sergio Batista has paid the price for underachievement and been relieved of his duties. Is the job of making Argentina’s superstars play as a unit do-able? I will tip my hat to the next man who attempts that poison chalice, I hear Bryan Robson’s available for a small fee.* As fantastic as it was though to see the deserving Diego Forlan, Alvaro Peirera and player of the tournament Luis Suarez lift the trophy, I did feel slightly upset that Larissa Riquelme’s promise was left unfulfilled (Google it).
*On the advice of my lawyers I swear I’ve never even heard of Dispatches.
So now that the Copa is over (sorry Mr. Manilow) we look to the next step in our summer of torment, pre-season friendlies. It’s time for club football once again as your heroes line-up to take on Stevenage, a Northampton select XI, and a group of milkmen from Singapore. Yes, friendlies are still football, but not as we know it. Played at a pace that makes Serie A feel like air hockey, friendlies give the football fan a slight feeling of comfort, but it’s just not the same. It feels like an addict being given just enough of their substance of choice to get by, but nothing that’s going to make you wake up in the middle of the night and scream Bobby Moore’s name at the top of your lungs. You come away in the knowledge that your new signings are settling, that midfielder you forgot you had looked sharp, the star striker needs to shed some holiday weight before the season begins, but most importantly “The pitch looks like a snooker table doesn’t it?” But on the plus side, it gives you something to do with your Saturday’s now, and the staff at B&Q are getting sick and tired of babysitting you.
Compiling this piece, I have been wracking my brain trying to think of what it is that keeps us going through the eight years of pre-season (eh? Three months? You liar). It is of course every football fanatic’s guilty pleasure, what brings us closer to our animal instincts, and makes us no better than the women we mock for getting all excited about J-Lo’s new hairdo, yes, it’s the transfer window. It’s quite an amazing phenomenon to see. Grown men reduced to gossiping grannies sharing the latest rumours that have come from papers, word of mouth, or the new rumour processing machine that is Twitter. Whether you support Manchester United or Leyton Orient, a summer glued to Sky Sports News and the internet is inevitable. You just have to be the first to find out whether you’ve signed that Costa Rican right back who once made a sub-appearance for Bochum. Any titbit of information feels like a morsel of ecstasy, and after a real actual signing is complete, you find that rush fades and you get a thirst for another rumour. Another invention that has made the transfer window almost unbearable is the now legendary I.T.K (In The Know). An I.T.K will pop up on your club’s forum or Twitter claiming to be a mate of a mate who knows the physio’s daughter, so of course is armed with all the knowledge of what the on-loan Guatemalan goalkeeper has for lunch. Often they leave a short message, and then scarper to leave a horrific explosion of devastation in their wake. One supposed I.T.K on a Liverpool forum recently suggested the club would sign Juan Mata, and the place went into meltdown. There was absolutely no proof or reason to believe this fellow had any credibility or history of getting things right, but hope, belief and common sense are not always bedfellows. From there on in, the damage is done. Everywhere you go you hear “Are we in for Mata? I heard we’re in for Mata.” “Well I heard he’s already bought a house in Kirkby.” “Well I heard he’s already enrolled his kids in the same school as Stevie G’s.” “Well I heard Kenny is gonna be the best man at Mata’s wedding.” “I’m sure I saw Mata and Comolli sharing a seafood platter in Liverpool One.” While Liverpool fans are among the worst culprits for the madness of the window, they are far from alone. Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, City, United, Villa, in fact all the fans of top teams are desperate for new players, but why? Is it the feeling that if their team doesn’t sign anyone that they will fall behind? Is it just for something interesting to happen so they can ignore all non-football aspects of their lives? Or is it something more than that? I have made the comparison in jest of course, but transfers, like pre-season friendlies, are like a drug to a football addict. Transfers sustain us, they give us something to talk about and something to look forward to, and that’s what football does for us, all year round. When the season finally begins once more we will look forward to Saturday’s more than any other day of the week, and then at 4:45pm on Saturday we’ll wonder why we were looking forward to a 1-0 home defeat, but then we won’t learn our lesson and go right back to looking forward to righting that wrong on Tuesday night.
We may not enjoy long summers without football, but let’s face it; absence makes the heart grow fonder.