The 2011-’12 Premier League season is already promising to be one of the most exciting of all time. For the first time ever there are six teams who can actually win the title and there are at least ten teams who could end up getting sucked into the relegation zone thus making the league one of the most competitive in recent years.
Here we take a look at the title race with Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea and the race for fourth with Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur as well as the relegation battle which could in all reality almost involve the rest of the league!
The Title Race:
As it stands, there are only really three viable contenders for this season’s Premier League title. Those being; Manchester United, Chelsea, and Manchester City.
Arsenal have declined since 2005, Liverpool just aren’t of title chasing quality – just yet – and Spurs have stayed still after making huge progress since 2008.
United will, once again, be the team the best. They have a squad packed with experience, vitality, youth, and drive and they may just about have too much for an aging Chelsea squad and an inexperienced Manchester City squad to match.
If there is one weak spot it is the goalkeeper. Over the last two decades only two goalkeepers have cost more than £10 million and they were (Buffon £30 million, Peruzzi £10.5 million) both over a decade ago. Now, in 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson has chosen to sign 20-year-old David De Gea for £20 million. In short, never in the history of football has so much been spent or so much trust been placed on someone so young.
The pressure on the youngster will be immense. Last season he conceded more goals from outside the box than any other ‘keeper in La Liga and if early form is any judge he will have to improve for United to claim the title.
If he doesn’t, then Chelsea and Manchester City will be much closer to the title than they should be.
While De Gea may be under pressure, the very same can be said of Andre Villa Boas and Roberto Mancini.
Both managers will have hefty demands from their clubs respective billionaire owners and anything less than second place or significant progress will be deemed as failure.
The Blues boast the best defensive unit in the league, two of the best strikers in the world, a couple of teenage wonder-kids, and a midfield that is the team’s strongest and weakest point at the same time.
Villa Boas utilised a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 style formation while at Porto but in recent games he has experimented with a 4-2-3-1. However, the main thing to note of all these formations was that Frank Lampard played a much deeper role than usual.
Central midfield is where Chelsea are strongest but their game breaks down when “wide” teams attack down the flanks and it will be interesting to see how the Portuguese manager remedies this aspect of the team.
Last year, everything fell apart in November when the Pensioners’ “spine” all got injured at the same time. That won’t happen again this season, but it is too much to expect these aging players to go the whole season without missing the odd game here or there. If that happens, they just don’t have the strength in depth to hold off potential challengers.
Manchester City’s problems will all be caused by Roberto Mancini’s negative tactics. Sheikh Mansour could not have bought the club at a better time. Liverpool was in the middle of imploding whilst Arsenal was declining slowly and without a huge amount of effort, the Citizens are now guaranteed top four material.
They are an incredibly tough unit to break down and have made a habit of brushing weaker opposition away but they still seem to be missing that vital x-factor to win the title. Kun Aguero may just have it but it is too much to ask the mercurial Argentinian to produce world class performances every week in his first season. Maybe next year…
The Battle for 4th:
There are only really four challengers for 4th spot. Arsenal is the current favourites to hold on, despite the imminent sales of Fabregas and Nasri. Liverpool seems to be coming from the back like a train and have built huge momentum since Kenny Dalglish took over eight months ago. While Spurs and Everton remain the outside bets to upset the applecart.
Arsenal has dropped away from the front runners over the last couple of years and will be further separated from the contenders if and when Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri leave. With Fabregas in the side the Gunners have averaged 2.01 pts per game since he joined in 2003. Without him they average 1.65 pts per game. Tallied up and over 38 games that would leave Arsenal with 62 pts, just outside the top four.
It is for this very reason that bookmakers have placed a top four without the Gunners at 11/4.
Liverpool seem to be every body’s favourite to take 4th place from Arsene Wenger’s side but defensive frailties and a lack of pace through midfield may detract from the beginnings of a fine squad.
The signing of Jose Enrique from Newcastle will do wonders to shore up the problem left back area while Martin Kelly’s progress remains one of the highlights of Dalglish’s excellent time at the club.
The Reds are the best equipped club to break back into the top four but they will still need to play to their full capacity and rely upon Arsenal having another poor season.
Kenny Dalglish now boasts the largest collection of midfielders this side of Jupiter and one wonders who is going to miss out. Whichever way you look at it the canny Scot can only pick four players considering he must play Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez in his team.
So who out of Adam, Henderson, Downing, Lucas, Gerrard and Kuyt will miss out? Never mind the cast of thousands sitting in the bench. (Aquilani, Shelvey, Spearing, Meireles, Cole, Rodrigues, Poulsen, El Zhar)
In Luis Suarez they possess a mercurial talent. He has been in phenomenal form since joining in January and is already the heartbeat of the team. However, the striker has not rested now in almost three seasons and Liverpool will need to rest him adequately after his heroics in the Copa America this summer and the World Cup last summer.
Spurs are in a similar position to Liverpool in that they have a squad capable of getting the top four but they will also need results to go their way elsewhere. Defensively they are solid enough. Brad Friedel’s signing makes a lot of sense as he will undoubtedly improve upon Heurelho Gomes’ disastrous season last term. He will provide the foundation for a defence that should include Kyle Walker, Michael Dawson, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and the walking injury that is Ledley King.
If Harry Redknapp can get these four out every week his team will have a great chance of doing well this year. Midfield wise they will always create chances with players like Bale, Modric and Lennon in the set up but it is very surprising to find Wilson Palacios linked with a move away from the club. With the Honduran in the team last year Spurs won 55 percent of their matches. Without him they only won 35 percent.
The forward line is causing all kinds of headaches for Redknapp. Rafael van der Vaart is too good to leave out of the team so he has to play every week. However, the Dutchman cannot play in a traditional 4-4-2 so that means playing a lone striker beside him. Peter Crouch has no pace, Jermaine Defoe does not have the right link up skills and Roman Pavlyuchenko does not seem to be trusted, even though he has the best striking record of all of Tottenham’s forwards, so ‘Arry is scouring Europe for a big man with pace.
Given Chelsea’s recent signature of Romelu Lukaku and their want to sign Luka Modric it is very surprising to find that Spurs have not requested a swap deal involving Daniel Sturridge or Didier Drogba plus cash. If they got either or both of those two players they would push Arsenal and Liverpool all the way for fourth and maybe even push for third.
At this moment in time, Everton are the only side in the Premier League not to have spent any money. Everyone knows the restrictions David Moyes is under at Goodison and season after season he produces teams that push for Europe very very hard.
This however could be his last year as Everton manager.
Rumour has it that Harry Redknapp is guaranteed to take over from Fabio Capello after Euro 2012 and the Spurs chairman Daniel Levy is a huge fan of Moyes…
The Relegation Zone:
Gravity has a way of making even the strangest man weak and the old saying of what goes up must come down is not too far away in describing this years relegation battle in the EPL.
You can find QPR, Norwich, and Swansea to be relegated at 16/1 with most bookmakers and on paper it looks like an excellent bet. None of the sides have strengthened significantly during the summer and much will be asked of the three respective managers.
This season, most probably, represents Neil Warnock’s last tilt at the Premier League and having won promotion on eight different occasions he will do everything in his power to avoid an eighth relegation. Unfortunately, QPR just don’t have the funds and they should struggle all season.
The challenge for Paul Lambert and Brendan Rogers is completely different. Both are hailed as up and coming talents in the game and both are seen as the main reason for their respective teams’ promotions. They are both ambitious managers who will want to see their reputations rise but to do that they will have to play good football and keep their teams in up.
This will be no easy task given the finances on offer but Lambert does appear to be in the best position as Norwich are a very well run club who have accepted life as a yo-yo club with the obvious aim of securing Premiership status when it happens.
Outside of the promoted trio there are a number of clubs who could struggle. In recent years the relegation battle has sucked in as many as ten teams before the dust finally settled, and expect more of the same this term.
Blackburn, Bolton, West Brom, Wigan, Newcastle, Aston Villa and Wolves will make up the rest of the relegation zone this year with Bolton offering exceptional value at 11/2 to go down.
Owen Coyle did very well last year but his team struggled to score goals, 52 across 38 games, and since then they have lost Johan Elmander and Daniel Sturridge who contributed 18 goals between them. Neither has been replaced and now their best creative midfielder, Lee Chung-Yong, is out injured for nine months. Their away record is also pretty abysmal having only won one of their last 18 matches on the road.
Wolves and West Brom are easily the two best sides of the bottom grouping and both managers have added astute signings during the summer. Shane Long will score goals for Roy Hodgson while Roger Johnsen will keep them out for Mick McCarthy. Both teams should avoid relegation with Wolves in particular showing they have the ability to push into the top half of the table.
Blackburn boss Steve Kean is facing another tough season. The 1995 Premier League champions have a poor to average squad and face an uphill battle if Christopher Samba joins Spurs or Arsenal as expected. And from there it is hard to see Rovers scoring enough or keeping goals out.
Alex McLeish is already on rocky ground as Aston Villa manager and having lost Ashley Young and Stewart Downing they could struggle to score goals. However, Mark Albrighton and Charles N’Zogbia should provide the chances for Darren Bent to score and they should have enough to avoid being sucked into battle come May.
Newcastle seem to be gambling upon the promoted teams being significantly weaker than they are but selling their best players is not the way to confirm this. Last seasons spectacular success has been undermined by the sales of Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll, Jose Enrique and the impending departure of Joey Barton and now they go into the season without any real striking options and a significantly weakened midfield, not to mention an incredibly low morale.
Roberto Martinez and Wigan have flirted with relegation for the last couple of seasons are they are heavily reliant upon keeping their main players fit and healthy. Should they lose Hugo Rodeallega, Ali Al Habsi or even James McCarthy for a significant part of the season they could go down.
Predicted Premier League Table May 2012
C. Manchester United (Chelsea)
2. Chelsea (Manchester United)
3. Manchester City
4. Liverpool (Spurs) (Arsenal)
5. Arsenal (Liverpool) (Spurs)
6. Spurs (Liverpool) (Arsenal)
Midtable: 7 – 14
Stoke City, Everton, Sunderland, Fulham, Wolves, West Brom, Aston Villa