The BIG Premier League Preview

by Alex Richards

Nobody could have possibly imagined the dramatic finale to last season’s Premier League campaign, as the English title race went right down to the wire with the two Manchester clubs rivalry encapsulating the entire country.

Alas, as United ended the season with a 1-0 win at Sunderland, the match at the Etihad Stadium remained ongoing, meaning Sir Alex Ferguson’s side didn’t know if they had claimed another English league title. At that moment City were being held 2-2 by Queens Park Rangers, a topsy-turvy match from which they had been expected to emerge as comfortable winners, but had seemingly thown away their title hopes against ten-men.

But when all hope seemed lost, when it appeared that to acknowledge defeat in their title quest was all that was left to do for all connected with City, Sergio Aguero struck; The blue half of Manchester erupted with unbridled joy, leaving the “noisy neighbours” to peer from their pedestal atop the English game, looking down on those below, including their most bitter rivals, the Blue Moon firmly in the ascendency.

For many, the last day of the 2011/12 Premier League season has been hailed as something of a changing of the guard. The vast finances on offer at Eastlands, courtesy of Sheikh Mansour, and the ability to sign some of world football’s top players (whatever the expense) ar the most pointed reasons, not to mention the excellent cast already in place, who just about dragged the side to glory last season. However, Sir Alex Ferguson has never been one to shy away from a challenge, be it knocking Liverpool off their “f****** perch” or powering his United side back past Arsenal’s invincibles. As such, the Red Devils aren’t to be discounted from reclaiming their crown, especially with Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie now amongst their ranks.

And what of Arsenal, perennially in the Champions League spots but having lost last seasons 30-goal top scorer, and the reigning European Cup holders Chelsea, who have spent more money than anyone this summer in their quest to add some fantasy and youthful exuberrance to a squad which had reached its peak on two splendid nights in Barcelona and Munich – Could they have a say in the destiny of the title race this season?

Likewise, what is in store for other European hopefuls such as Tottenham and Liverpool – under new managers in Andre Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers respectively – and Newcastle United, last season’s surprise package, courtest of a mixture of wonderful scouting, astute tactics and good man-management. Alternatively, could either David Moyes Everton or Martin Jol’s Fulham be about to turn comfortable seasons into something more?

Newcomers have arrived from the Championship in the shape of the promoted trio, Reading, Southampton and West Ham United. Others will be looking towards them, the likes of Wigan Athletic, Norwich, West Brom, QPR and Swansea, nervously hoping that they aren’t upto much, but in a league where its said anyone can beat anyone else, it’s not difficult to make a case for the relegation credentials of numerous sides.

2011/12 was a wonderful season, full of action, goals, mistakes, jam-packed with incident and talking points galore. The Premier League is often rammed down consumers throats as “the best league in the world,” but whether that’s true or not is open to debate. If 2012/13 matches the excitement of the previous instalment, then it may go some way to making believers out of those who say otherwise.

Arsenal

Last Season: 3rd

Key Player: Santi Cazorla

Nobody does turbulent summers quite like the Gunners in recent years, and the Robin van Persie episode has completely overshadowed what has been a summer of clever recruitment from Arsene Wenger.

The signings of Lukas Podolski and Montpellier striker Olivier Giroud both appear to point that Wenger’s side, still without a major trophy since their 2005 FA Cup success, are looking to add a more direct cutting edge to their play in the final third, and even without van Persie, goals are unlikely to be a problem for the side.

Santi Cazorla’s arrival from Malaga adds La Liga’s best player, outside Barcelona and Madrid, into the Emirates mix. His creativity and ability to open up defences may well have found the perfect stage to flourish, in midfield alongside compatriot Mikel Arteta , the former Everton man who made the transition from an advanced playmaker into a deep-lying regista over the course of his debut season in north London. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain experienced a wonderful breakthrough season last year, and Arsenal supporters will be keen on seeing much more of him over the next nine months, whether that be on either flank, or in a central midfield role, in tandem with Cazorla.

Nevertheless, as has been the case in recent years, it’s defensively where the problems remain. Laurent Koscielny improved last season into a capable defender who snuffs out danger through his excellent reading of the game, but Thomas Vermaelen was far from his dominant best. Hopefully he’ll take to the added responsibility of being club captain like the proverbial duck to water. Bacary Sagna’s injury, teamed with Gael Clichy’s departure and Kieran Gibbs often-poor positioning, highlighted a real problem in full-back areas. Steve Bould’s coaching progression will hopefully see the Arsenal defence develop into a much tougher unit, like that which he was used to playing in during the late 80′s and early 90′s. If it doesn’t then a title challenge – especially one that isn’t over come early April – will surely be out of the question. However, whilst others may be quick to question their top-four credentials, Gunners fans would do well to continue placing their trust in the sides manager.

Prediction: 4th

Aston Villa

Last Season: 16th

Key Player: Darren Bent

Last season was nothing short of dismal for the Villains, who managed a mere seven league wins under Alex McLeish, and who ended the campaign just two points off the relegation zone. The former Birmingham City boss was never a favourite of the supporters, but his brand of football – overly cautious, offensively restricted – was the major reason for that, not his previous employers.

Hope has been renewed amongst the Holte Enders this summer, with Paul Lambert having taken over after an excellent three years at Norwich, and there is a fresh optimism surrounding Villa Park. If Lambert can unite the players and the fans once more, and turn Villa Park into a fortress in the process, then a reasonable finish is on the cards.

Darren Bent missed the final three months of last season, but he has returned to lead the attack during pre-season and his goals will be important for a side who scored a mere 37 last season, whilst Lambert will look to get the best out of winger Charles N’Zogbia, who was a major disappointment in his first season in the Midlands. Stephen Ireland was the clubs player of the year for 2011/12, but he still hasn’t shown his best on anything like a consistent basis. New arrivals from Holland’s Eredivisie have arrived in the form of Moroccan midfield anchor Karim El-Ahmadi and Dutch international defender Ron Vlaar, both from Feyenoord and also Brett Holman from AZ Alkmaar. Full-back Matthew Lowton has joined from Sheffield United and is likely to be first-choice right-back over the coming campaign, should Alan Hutton leave Villa Park. Emile Heskey was released at the end of last season.

With a fresh enthusiasm amongst the squad, brought about by the vitality of the new manager, and a support full of renewed optimism, there is no reason why Villa cant push for a lower top-half finish this season. They drew 17 matches last season, five more than anyone else. With a fit and firing Bent (how many of those draws would have been wins with him up front in the final three months?), and a rejuvenated core – Given, Dunne, Ireland, N’Zogbia, Agbonlahor – there’s no reason why a season of vast improvement shouldn’t lie ahead.

Prediction: 10th

Chelsea

Last Season: 6th

Key Player: Juan Mata

For much of the previous campaign, Chelsea appeared mired in a level of disarray that hadn’t been seen at Stamford Bridge since Roman Abramovich arrived in west London with his roubles in 2003, with an ageing squad seemingly hellbent on fighting against their new manager’s attempts at change. However, after Andre Villas-Boas demise – his attempts at revolution having backfired on a dismal February night in Naples – and the appointment  (albeit on a temporary basis) of Roberto Di Matteo, the Blues somehow had the temerity to end the season with two major trophies; The FA Cup and the one that Abramovich has craved during his nine years as owner, the Champions League. That they defeated favourites Barcelona in the semi-final and a Bayern Munich side playing in their own Allianz Arena in the final, simply added gloss to an achievement that was nothing short of miraculous to most.

Di Matteo has since been handed a two-year deal to lead the club permanently, and after the departures of the likes of club legend Didier Drogba, his status in the hearts of Chelsea supporters secure following his cup final heroics, Salomon Kalou and Jose Bosingwa from the squad, Di Matteo has been gifted some of world football’s most talented youngsters as he looks to take Chelsea into a new era.

Eden Hazard has joined from French club Lille for £32m to add rapier-like incision to the left-side of the Blues attack. Marko Marin and Brazilian playmaker Oscar have also arrived, as the Blues look to add more flair and dynamism to their attack, in support of Fernando Torres, who supporters will hope is rejuvenated at the thought of taking over Drogba’s mantle and after his successful summer with Spain at Euro 2012. Last season’s player of the year Juan Mata remains vital, his scheming from a traditional number 10 position still their best hope of opening up stubborn opponents, Frank Lampard’s new withdrawn role alongside Jon Obi Mikel a now vital part of Di Matteo’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, whilst David Luiz continues to improve defensively.

How the Blues season pans out depends much on how quickly the new signings gel with their more battle-hardened team-mates, aswell as the integration of a more free-flowing attacking style – Di Matteo has been keen to point that the supposed parking of the bus in both Munich and Barcelona was a means to an end. Those factors, as well as the form of the likes of skipper John Terry and goalkeeper Petr Cech, will play a big part in deciding whether the Blues can be potential champions, be it this season or one in the not too distant future.

Prediction: 3rd

Everton

Last Season: 7th

Key Player: Steven Pienaar

Again David Moyes worked his usual trick of ensuring the Toffees punched well above their weight last season, taking them to a seventh place finish, and somewhat crucially for their supporters, above near-neighbours Liverpool.

Much has been made of the goals of Nikica Jelavic during the second half of the season – the Croatian was excellent following his move from Rangers, scoring nine times in 13 league appearances and adding genuine threat to tidy build-up play – but Steven Pienaar’s penchant for majestic wizardry on the left-side of midfield during his loan-spell from Spurs, and his tandem play with left-back Leighton Baines, was just as big a reason for the sides terrific post-Christmas run.

Pienaar has returned on a permanent deal this summer, along with the versatile Scotland international Steven Naismith from Rangers. Tim Cahill and Jack Rodwell have both departed, Rodwell’s sale to Manchester City giving Moyes room to manouvere during the current transfer window, should he deem it necessary to add to one of the divisions smallest squads. The sale of Rodwell is no great loss to Moyes, given the players struggles to make a regular spot his own over the past two seasons, whilst Moyes has numerous central options with the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Darron Gibson, Phil Neville, Ross Barkley and the criminally underrated Leon Osman. Of great hope to the Goodison Park support is the highly-rated youngster Barkley, who should be ready for more first-team action after an injury troubled first full season.

Having lost six of their opening ten matches last season, in their familiar role as slow starters, the Toffees were always playing catch up last season. If they can start the new campaign the way they finished the last one, then there’s no reason that they can’t challenge for a European place come season’s end.

Prediction: 7th

Fulham

Last Season: 9th

Key Player: Moussa Dembele

Martin Jol’s side played some of the most attractive football around last season, (after overcoming something of a sticky start under their new boss) as the Dutchman looked to set the side up in a more expansive manner than his predecessors, Mark Hughes and Roy Hodgson.

Clint Dempsey’s 23 goals played a major part in their success, but his future remains very much up in the air, with the American keen on a new challenge. Experienced midfield duo Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu – key men during the clubs 2010 run to the Europa League final – have both departed for Blackburn in the Championship, having seen playing time dwindle during the course of the last season, due to the arrival of Mahammadou Diarra and the excellent performances of Moussa Dembele, following his withdrawal from a more advanced role.

Jol will be expecting much more from Costa Rican forward Bryan Ruiz, who scored only two goals after his big-money arrival from Twente, but the vastly-experienced Mladen Petric and Wigan striker Hugo Rodallega have both been shrewdly snapped up on free transfers. A problem position for much of last season was right-back, where Aaron Hughes looked largely uncomfortable having seen his centre-back partnership with Brede Hangeland interrupted by Philippe Senderos. Neither Stephen Kelly nor Chris Baird have been able to make the place their own either, but Sascha Riether could prove the answer to that headache having arrived from Koln on a season-long loan.

Craven Cottage provided the Cottagers with many home comforts last season (10 of their 14 wins and 36 of their 48 goals), and Fulham will need another good season in front of their home supporters to achieve a top half finish, having only won seven times on the road in the last two seasons.

Prediction: 11th

Liverpool

Last Season: 8th

Key Player: Luis Suarez

A League Cup triumph and an FA Cup final weren’t enough to save Kenny Dalglish his job, after Liverpool’s league campaign struggled to ever really get out of neutral, largely thanks to their struggles at home (a mere six wins and 24 goals in front of their own supporters). Replacing Dalglish is Brendan Rodgers, who will look to bring his Swansea City blueprint, which has impressed so many over the past two seasons, to Anfield.

The signings of Joe Allen and Fabio Borini have reunited Rodgers with two of his former Swansea fledglings (Borini only briefly, although the two did work together at Chelsea previously). Oussama Assaidi has arrived from Heerenveen to add competition on the flanks and more new faces could be forthcoming, notably Real Madrid’s Nuri Sahin. Lucas Leiva’s return from injury will also be a major plus, whilst Raheem Sterling has been impressive in pre-season, bringing electric pace to a side that has appeared short of it for far too long.

Luis Suarez will once again be the Reds main attacking threat, and if Rodgers can unlock the true potential of the Uruguayan, then he’ll go some way to adding to the 47 goals the side scored last season, of which Suarez netted 11. Getting him to do more of his work within the width of the 18-yard box, rather than on either flank, could certainly make the side more potent. Rodgers would do well to note how Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez used Suarez during his extremely successful 2011 Copa America – Suarez was named the tournament’s best player, having been deployed by Tabarez as an out-and-out number nine playing on the shoulder of centre-backs, whether in a 4-4-2 with Diego Forlan as a number 10, or in  4-3-3, with Forlan to his left and Edinson Cavani to his right.

Of major interest under Rodgers, to England supporters in particular, will be his deployment of Steven Gerrard and whether the Euro 2012 skipper will be asked to be more restrained in both his movement and his passing, and also his use of Andy Carroll, who turned down the opportunity to join West Ham.

Given time Rodgers could well have the managerial talent – he certainly has the self-assuredness and determination – to take Liverpool back to the top of the English game.He’ll certainly be looking to create a platform to do just that over the coming nine months. But as his ill-fated spell at Reading showed, there are no guarantees, and time isn’t always something that every manager is granted.

Prediction: 5th

Manchester City

Last Season: 1st – Champions

Key Player: Vincent Kompany

Having claimed a first league title for forty-four years with a last-gasp Sergio Aguero goal, many expected the Citizens to use the summer to flex their considerable financial might and to make the kind of signings that would ensure their place at the top of the English game was safeguarded for the next two-three years. Instead, the champions have been rather quiet this summer, thwarted in their bid for Robin van Persie, and having only spent an initial £13.2m on Jack Rodwell, the Everton midfielder who is huge on potential but has seen his career stall due to a succession of muscular injury problems. Subsequently, tension has reportedly surfaced between manager Roberto Mancini and sporting director Brian Marwood.

Nevertheless, Mancini’s side head into the 2012/13 season as favourites with the bookmakers to retain their crown, and with good reason. In England keeper Joe Hart, Belgian defender Vincent Kompany, monstrous midfield powerhouse Yaya Toure, Spanish schemer David Silva and quicksilver striker Sergio Aguero, City have arguably the strongest spine to a side that the Premier League has seen since its inception twenty years ago.

Furthermore, the re-integration of Carlos Tevez into the first team appears complete, the controversial striker having been Aguero’s regular partner during pre-season, and having lost some of the excess weight he was carrying when he returned to the City squad after his self-imposed exile in the latter part of last season. Ominously for City’s title rivals he scored a wonderful goal during the community shield success against Chelsea and looked sharp throughout. Throw Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli and Samir Nasri into the mix and City, who netted 93 times last season (Tevez only scored four), appear full of goals once more.

The squad looks strong for another title charge, although there are rumours that some fringe players – notably Nigel De Jong, Adam Johnson and Aleksandr Kolarov – could be set to depart Eastlands. However, should any be allowed to leave, it’s almost certain that a replacement would be obtained. Additionally, following van Persie’s move to Manchester United, a showpiece signing could well be on the cards regardless, and Italian international Daniele De Rossi has been increasingly linked over the past week.

Key to City’s success last season was skipper Vincent Kompany, and his on-field leadership will be vital once more, both defensively and in terms of the sides organisation. This will be especially true if the 3-4-1-2 formation that has been trialled by Mancini during pre-season becomes a more regular occurrence, with Kompany at the heart of a back three. However, in crunch matches against other Champions League contenders, the 4-2-2-2 formation which achieved so much domestically last season will likely remain Mancini’s go-to move.

An almost perfect home record (18 wins, one draw) was the rock on which City’s title campaign was built, and Mancini will be hoping that Eastlands remains a fortress once again. The Italian will also be looking to improve on an away record which encompassed five defeats last season, knowing full well that Sir Alex Ferguson will be looking to pick up on any slip-up no matter how small. If City ensure that slip ups are kept to a minimum, as they did (just about) last season, then it’ll be difficult for anyone to wrestle their title from their grasp.

Prediction: 1st

Manchester United

Last Season: 2nd

Key Player: Wayne Rooney

Having seen the blue half of Manchester ascend to the Premier League thrown, Sir Alex Ferguson will have spent the summer plotting just how to win United a record 20th English league title. As such, a £24m splurge on Arsenal striker and reigning footballer of the year Robin van Persie has been sanctioned, to add to the £12m arrival of Borussia Dortmund’s fleet-footed attacker Shinji Kagawa. Crewe wonderkid Nick Powell has also joined the Red Devils.

Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that a United side shorn of their club captain and key defender Nemanja Vidic, for the best part of six months , finished a matter of minutes away from being champions last time round, and as such they’re well placed to fight with their city rivals for another championship.

Key to any title tilt will be how Ferguson utilises his forward options – van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck and Kagawa are effectively vying for two forward spots each game (Dimitar Berbatov’s future is likely to be away from Old Trafford but he still remains on the payroll) – and whether van Persie’s arrival sees an addition to the 89 goals scored last season, or whether the Dutchman merely takes goals away from other areas of the side. There will be much interest in his partnership with Rooney. Once again, Ashley Young, Nani and Luis Valencia will compete for spots on the flanks, the Ecuadorian also offering a potential option at right-back.

Midfield, and the lack of a dominant, Roy-Keane type remains a source of anguish for many United supporters, but while flaws in that area may be highlighted more ruthlessly in Europe, the likes of Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Anderson (excellent in the opening weeks of last season when United were scoring goals for fun) and Tom Cleverley are more than good enough for the day-to-day slog that is the Premier League.

Age continues to catch up on Rio Ferdinand, but Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones are more than capable deputies. One worry may be the poor form of Patrice Evra over the past 12 months, and the absence of recognised cover in that position.

Another close campaign looks in store at the top of the table and whether United can reclaim their crown may simply have everything to do with their head-to-head record against City, which they lost 7-1 last season, with City claiming all six points. If United can improve upon that, and collect an identical points total across the board against the remaining 18 sides as they did last season, then a 20th title may be theirs. But having got the taste for victory, there’s just something about City…

Prediction: 2nd

Newcastle United

Last Season: 5th

Key Player: Papiss Demba Cisse

Alan Pardew’s collection of imports from the continent were the overachievers of last season’s Premier League, and in Senegalese strike duo Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, the Toon Army had two of the best buys of the entire campaign. And that’s without mentioning the French playmaker Yohann Cabaye.

Pardew’s side were largely tipped to struggle before a ball was kicked, but his combination of tactical nous – the mid-season switch from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 enabled them to kick on in the second half of the campaign, led by the goals of Cisse and the trickery of the enigmatic Hatem Ben Arfa who forced his way into Pardew’s starting line-up- and man-management, meant that the Magpies finished in their highest position since the Bobby Robson era.

The summer has thus far been a quiet one. Youngsters Gael Bigirimana, Curtis Good and Romain Amalfitano have all arrived, as well as Ajax midfield tyro Vernon Anita, who will add tenacity and depth to a midfield shorn of Danny Guthrie after his defection to Reading, whilst also offering cover in either full-back position. Pardew has made no secret of his desire to add at least one more face before the end of the transfer window.

Whether the former West Ham boss can get enough out of his side to be top-four contenders again this season is debatable; There was an over-reliance on Cisse for goals after his arrival from Freiburg, which coincided with Ba’s drought in front of goal, whilst sides around them have improved their squads to greater effect this summer. However, backed by the Geordie faithful, another good season should be in store. If the Senegalese duo, supported by the mercurial Ben Arfa, can both get amongst the goals early in the new campaign, then a confident and boisterous St James’ Park could go some way to providing a platform for another excellent season.

Prediction: 8th

Norwich City

Last Season: 12th

Key Player: Grant Holt

A summer of change has been in effect in Norfolk, highly-rated boss Paul Lambert’s move having allowed Chris Hughton another crack at the top-flight after his strong season in charge of Birmingham City, whilst the Canaries have also been busy in the transfer market, signing Leeds United attacking midfielder Robert Snodgrass, Michael Turner, Steven Whittaker and Barnsley’s tigerish midfielder Jacob Butterfield and letting a number of fringe players move on to new pastures.

Expectations may well be inflated at Carrow Road after their 12th place finish, and although a number of players enjoyed excellent seasons – chief amongst them Grant Holt – it has to be wondered whether they were playing above themselves, and that the unit was far greater than the sum of its parts, due to the manager.Wes Hoolahan proved himself last season to have both the talent and temperament to dictate play in the top flight, but whether Hughton will be as accomodating of the Irish trequarista as Lambert, remains to be seen.

There are very few certainties about Norwich heading into the new campaign, apart from the fact that Lambert is a very tough act to follow for Hughton. And In truth, Canaries fans would probably bite your hand off if you offered them a third season in the top-flight. Pre-season results haven’t been the best (one win in five) and only three sides – the relegated trio – conceded more last season. Were they to find goalscoring difficult during the upcoming campaign, then it could turn into an almighty struggle against relegation to the Championship. And unfortunately, a defence with less stability than the Greek economy, looks as though it could be set to prove their downfall.

Prediction: 19th

Queens Park Rangers

Last Season: 17th

Key Player: Alejandro Faurlin

Whilst the margins at the top of the table were so minute last season, it is worth reminding ourselves that Queens Park Rangers remain in the Premier League not through anything outstanding that they themselves did over the course of the final day, but rather due to two dismal refereeing decisions by Chris Foy at the Britannia Stadium which relegated Owen Coyle’s Bolton Wanderers.

What Mark Hughes will desperately be striving for in the coming nine months is to ensure that Tony Fernandes upwardly-mobile club aren’t in a similar situation heading into the last day of 2012/13, and he has set about bolstering his squad with experienced Premier League performers. Goalkeeper Robert Green joined from West Ham, Bosingwa from Chelsea, Andy Johnson has arrived from Fulham, to vie with Djibril Cisse for a place alongside Bobby Zamora, and Ryan Nelsen, formerly Hughes on-field lieutenant at Blackburn Rovers, has also signed. Additionally Samba Diakite has turned his loan deal permanent, Fabio (loan) and Park Ji-Sung have joined from Manchester United whilst the exciting winger Junior Hoilett was pinched from Blackburn Rovers after the expiration of his contract. The squad now has much more in terms of both depth and quality.

One player who the entirety of Loftus Road will be pleased to see back on the pitch is midfielder Alejandro Faurlin, who was having an excellent debut season in the Premier League before damaging knee ligaments. The Argentine isn’t the flashiest of players, but he makes those around him look better, through his clever passing and ability to retain possession and is always an available option.

Hughes set about making the R’s tough to beat at Loftus Road following his arrival – without their late season home form, which was nothing short of outstanding and included wins in each of their final five home matches, they’d have been relegated – and sides certainly won’t be getting an easy when they visit west London this time round either. If they can improve their away form – no-one lost more, not even a dismal Wolves side – then a comfortable season in mid-table could be in the offing.

Prediction: 12th

Reading

Last Season: Promoted – Champions (Championship)

Key Player: Pavel Pogrebnyak

Brian McDermott’s side stormed to the Championship title last season, an excellent second-half to the season ensuring that they returned to the league which they last graced in 2008.

The signing of Danny Guthrie looks shrewd in midfield, the former Liverpool youngster having enjoyed perhaps his best season in the top-flight with Newcastle last time round, whilst Russian hitman Pavel Pogrebnyak, previously on-loan at Fulham has also signed. Whether he can fire enough goals to keep them in the division, remains to be seen, having only enhanced his reputation as something of an impact finisher whilst at Craven Cottage; Five goals in his first three matches were followed by just one in his next nine.

Nottingham Forest winger Gareth McCleary has arrived on a free transfer after an excellent season at the City Ground, and will rival the inconsistent Jimmy Kebe for a place on the right-wing, and his former Forest teammate Chris Gunter has also made the move to the Madejski Stadium. Watford’s player of the year Adrian Mariappa has also arrived as McDermott looks to shore up his defence.

Last season, the Royals were regularly seen playing McDermott’s preferred 4-4-2 formation, encompassing wingers on either side, both hugging the touchline, which can leave them quite open, leaving the central midfielders somewhat overworked and a defence, which is by no means the quickest, somewhat exposed. Additionally, a backline lacking in genuine top-flight experience – the only exceptions being Nicky Shorey and Ian Harte – could quite simply prove to be out of its depth and backing to make an instant return to the Championship could be the sensible move.

Prediction: 18th

Southampton

Last Season: Promoted – 2nd (Championship)

Key Player: Adam Lallana

Nigel Adkins has done a remarkable job at St.Mary’s over the past two seasons, leading the Saints to successive promotions, and if he can keep the south coast club in the Premier League after eight years away, then he’ll be nothing less than a legend amongst Saints supporters. However, the former Scunthorpe boss has got his work cut out for him, and will be realistic about their chances of competing with much wealthier clubs.

Burnley striker Jay Rodriguez and Crystal Palace’s highly-rated defender Nathaniel Clyne, who had been a target for Manchester United at the start of summer, have been added to the squad, and both are exciting young talents (though Rodriguez does look overpriced at £7m). The big signing however could still be to come, in the shape of the Uruguayan forward Gaston Ramirez, who having been a target for both Liverpool and Spurs, could be set to pitch up on the south Coast. Unquestionably talented and with a sledgehammer of a left foot, Adkins would be banking on Matt Le-Tissier-style performances from a player who is still relatively inexperienced to give his side a top-level creative edge. Nonetheless, there would be serious risk involved with a massive outlay on the Bologna man and it would certainly something of a gamble.

Elsewhere, Steven Davis has arrived from Rangers and is a neat midfielder, Adam Lallana is a wonderful mix of poise and trickery, whilst Rickie Lambert has scored at every level at which he has played, but the Premier League is a new step for him, and his lack of pace may be exposed (likewise Billy Sharp, likely to be his deputy this season). However, if delivery into the penalty area is good, Daniel Fox  an excellent taker of set-pieces, then he will get chances.

However, similarly to Reading, the sides big weakness does look to be its defence, which will be given a thorough examination when it meets Manchester City on the opening weekend. Left-back Fox is better going forward with the ball at his feet than he is defensively, whilst Jos Hooiveld and Jose Fonte are both painfully lacking in pace, meaning they often sit deep and allow space in between defence and midfield. As such high quality forwards from opposing sides are likely to find space within which they can wreak havoc. Unfortunately for Adkins, in spite of the quality that Ramirez would bring if a deal can be done, his side look quite simply outgunned and do have a lack of genuine pace running through what is likely to be their first XI (Clyne apart). An extremely difficult season may lay in wait.

Prediction: 20th

Stoke City

Last Season: 14th

Key Player: Peter Crouch

Comfortable in  mid-table once more last season, Potters boss Tony Pulis will be looking to continue his sides Premier League existence in similar fashion during the upcoming campaign, but he’ll know they need to become more clinical in front of goal if they’re to improve.

Goalscoring was a struggle for Stoke last year, netting only 36 times, and Pulis will quite simply be wanting more from his strikers. Peter Crouch is unquestionably first choice, and while Jonathan Walters has more often than not been his strike partner, Cameron Jerome’s pace and Kenwyne Jones power remain options, but none of that trio have proven themselves to be anything like prolific. A move for another striker has been mooted, especially if Jones were to depart.

Rory Delap’s age and subsequent passing from first-team regular to bit-part player means that the long-throw is no longer as viable a weapon as it once were, despite Ryan Shotton’s claims to the crown. Michael Kightly has arrived for a potential £3m fee after a solid last six-months at Wolves – after three years of injury hell – and he’ll offer variety on both flanks, whilst American defender Geoff Cameron – good in the air (as is the way with Stoke defenders) and also a good user of the ball – could prove a very astute signing, having joined from Houston Dynamo. One player who must step up his game at the Britannia Stadium is Wilson Palacios, who has struggled both for form and fitness since his arrival last August from Tottenham for £8m.

There are no longer any secrets where Stoke City are concerned in the Premier League: They’re big, strong, physical, and the Britannia Stadium remains an intimidating place for away sides. But they can play some decent football also, and shouldn’t be denigrated for their style. Tiki-Taka it ain’t, but effective it has most certainly been, and it likely will be again.

Prediction: 13th

Sunderland

Last Season: 13th

Key Player: Stephan Sessegnon

Martin O’Neill brought the feel-good factor back to Wearside last season and he’ll be looking to improve on the job he did following his December arrival last season, when he led the side from a relegation dogfight into a comfortable 13th place finish.

The main creative forces of the side remain, meaning that Stephan Sessegnon will be free to wreak havoc from a central position behind a main striker. Who that will be remains unknown, the club having failed to agree a deal for number one target Steven Fletcher, but they have signed Louis Saha on a one-year deal, whilst Fraizer Campbell, Ji Dong-Won and Connor Wickham are also at the club. On either flank remain the Swedish dead-ball specialist Seb Larsson and the explosive winger James McClean, both of whom enjoyed magnificent debut seasons at the Stadium of Light.

Additionally, the Mackems have retained their solid defence, which conceded only 46 goals, less than third placed Arsenal and comfortably the best amongst the bottom eleven sides,adding Carlos Cuellar on a free transfer.

If O’Neill can add a striker capable of netting 12-18 goals next season then having been just seven points behind eighth place last season – that despite their dismal start to the season and their final five matches where they failed to pick up a win – there is no reason why they can’t finish in the top half of the table.

Prediction: 9th

Swansea City

Last Season: 11th

Key Player: Ashley Williams

“The King is dead, long live the King” – Brendan Rodgers departure has opened the Premier League up to Danish legend Michael Laudrup, and the former Spartak Moscow and Mallorca coach will be looking to continue with Rodgers fine work at the Liberty Stadium.

Laudrup has lost Gylfi Sigurdsson and Joe Allen from last years side, as well as the excellent young defender Steven Caulker who has returned to Spurs. Nonetheless, he has replaced the trio astutely, using his knowledge of the Spanish market to bring in Rayo Vallecano’s goalscoring midfielder Michu for a mere €2.5m, defender Chico, and Jonathan de Guzman on loan following Villarreal’s relegation.

The Swans will once again adapt between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 formation, but pre-season signs have been that they may be a little more adventurous and flamboyant in their attacking play, which could be to the detriment of their defence. Expect the Dutch keeper Michel Vorm, and his defence to be kept busy throughout the season, meaning the pressure will be on Danny Graham to prove that his 12 goals last season were no fluke. Whether Scott Sinclair will remain at the club to do likewise is yet to be seen, the winger having rejected another new contract.

Laudrup, like Chris Hughton, has inherited a side that somewhat overperformed last season. He’s optimistic that some fresh ideas will allow the Welsh side to kick on and finish in an improved position this time round. However, given his colourful managerial record – relative success at Getafe & Mallorca, failure at Spartak Moscow – it could be a very interesting season at the Libety Stadium, and the Swans may finish closer to the relegation places than they would like.

Prediction:16th

Tottenham Hotspur

Last Season: 4th

Key Player: Gareth Bale

Harry Redknapp’s sacking, after a swashbuckling season which promised so much but delivered so little, has allowed Andre Villas-Boas another crack at English football, and AVB has spent pre-season trying to mark his territory with the introduction of his 4-3-3 formation, and the high defensive line which was much-maligned during his spell at Stamford Bridge.

The excellent Belgian Jan Vertonghen has joined from Ajax, to partner Younes Kaboul in the Spurs backline and Gylfi Sigurdsson has also arrived. On the other hand, creator in chief Luka Modric looks set to join Real Madrid, leaving a hole in the Spurs midfield. Porto midfielder Joao Moutinho has been mentioned as a potential replacement, but Rafael van der Vaart remains at the club and could fill that deeper position. Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon have major roles to play on the flanks, but the club are in desperate need of a centre-forward, with only Jermain Defoe and the untested Harry Kane on the clubs books. As such improvements are still needed, but Daniel Levy has appeared willing to back his man so far in the transfer market, with player sales, such as that of Niko Kranjcar having freed up extra funds.

The main aim for the upcoming campaign will once again be a top four finish and subsequently Champions League football (not even Spurs can be as unlucky as they were last year again) and that makes at least two new players a necessity. Without them, then Spurs could find themselves back where they were a few years back, stuck on the outside looking in.

However, if Villas-Boas can get the side off to a quick start to the season, and can get confidence flowing, then they’ll in the running for the Champions League places. But a striker, be it Leandro Damiao, Emmanuel Adebayor or another, is an imperatice purchase. If not, then there is simply no way they can secure a top-four finish for a second successive season.

Prediction: 6th

West Bromwich Albion

Last Season: 10th

Key Player: Youssef Mulumbu

The wonderful work of Roy Hodgson and his players last season sawthe Baggies end the season in 10th place, their highest finish since they made their Premier League bow in more than 25 years.

However, Hodgson’s move into the England job has seen the Baggies board – led by chairman Jeremy Peace and technical director Dan Ashworth – employ former Chelsea and Liverpool number two Steve Clarke as their new head coach. Nevertheless, whereas he’s proven an outstanding number two, there are many, chief amongst them Brian Kidd, who will tell you that being the number one is a completely different job, requiring a completely different skillset.

Clarke hasn’t been the only new arrival at the Hawthorns, with more intriguing signings – in the vein of a number of their recent purchases including Peter Odemwingie and Jonas Olsson – in the shape of Markus Rosenberg, Argentine midfielder Claudio Yacob and winger Yassine El Ghanassy. Additionally, Ben Foster has penned a permanent deal and Romelu Lukaku, the £18m Chelsea striker, has arrived on a season-long loan, but Clarke has been quick to let the Belgian international know that he is not guaranteed a first-team place.. How the four outfield players adapt to regular football in the Premier League could have a  big bearing on the Baggies season. 10 home defeats, as last season, is unlikely to be tolerated by the home supporters again and must be improved upon.

Another comfortable season in mid-table would once again represent progress for Albion, but suggestions that they’ll improve upon last season, or will even repeat it, could be viewed as fanciful, given the loss of Hodgson’s experience, tactical nous and the additions made by other clubs of similar stature. As rivals Wolves showed last season, making it through to a third season in the top-flight is by no means a sign that you have “made it.”

Prediction: 15th

West Ham United

Last Season: Promoted – Play-offs (Championship)

Key Player: Modibo Maiga

Quite simply, Sam Allardyce doesn’t do relegation, and having led the Hammers back into the Premier League at the first attempt, the former Bolton, Newcastle and Blackburn manager has set about improving his squad to ensure that they don’t return to the Championship anytime soon.

Jussi Jaaskelainen and Stephen Henderson have both arrived to battle to be the clubs first-choice goalkeeper following Rob Green’s departure, and James Collins has returned to the club from Aston Villa to take his place in the sides defence, most likely alongside James Tomkins.

French international midfielder Alou Diarra has arrived to anchor midfield on the back of a difficult 12 months for both former club (Marseille) and country, whilst the enigmatic Mohammed Diame has signed from Wigan on a free transfer as Allardyce looks to add more power to his midfield schemers, Mark Noble, Kevin Nolan and Jack Collison. Hammers fans also have a new striker to look forward to in Modibo Maiga, the Malian who has arrived from Sochaux for £5m and who failed a medical at Newcastle in January before they turned to Papiss Cisse.

Key to the sides survival chances will be turning Upton Park into something of a fortress – they struggled at home last season – but with sides in the Premier League less inclined to head to east London to shut up shop. Allied to lower expectations than last season, then it should suit Allardyce’s side. West Ham will be well organised, and have enough goals throughout their squad to ensure that they aren’t in the bottom three come May.

Prediction: 14th

Wigan Athletic

Last Season: 15th

Key Player: James McCarthy

Wigan last year were the footballing equivalent of a man at the Blackjack table who hits 16, sees the dealer has a ten and decides there’s nothing to it other than to hit – they went for it. Having been nothing less than abject playing 4-3-3 during the first half of the season, proving far too flimsy defensively, and struggling in the final third, Roberto Martinez changed tactics, went with a 5-4-1/3-4-3 (depending on how you look at it and who they were playing against) and the Latics ended the campaign as one of the Premier Leagues form sides, making yet another successful escape from relegation.

The question now is whether they can do it again? Losing Hugo Rodallega isn’t that big a blow considering his poor season last time round, and Arouna Kone has been signed on the back of netting 15 goals for Levante last season in La Liga. However cautious Latics supporters will be aware that the enigmatic Ivorian had previously spent four years with Sevilla, scoring just once in 40 matches.

Also arriving at the DW Stadium are Arsenal’s young Japanese winger Ryo Miyaichi and Mallorca defender Ivan Ramis, but speculation continues to link Victor Moses with a move away. Were he to leave, the onus would be on Republic of Ireland international midfielder James McCarthy to be more decisive in attacking areas and to start stamping his authority on Premier League matches.

Logic would dictate that there will eventually come a time when Wigan aren’t able to withstand the pressures of a relegation scrap and therefore fall through the trap door. Much will depend on the experienced heads of Maynor Figueroa, Gary Caldwell, Emmerson Boyce and Ali Al-Habsi to ensure that the defence concedes less than the 62 goals that beat the Oman stopper last season, but another battle against relegation would appear the most likely outcome. Whether they can be successful once more, is another matter.

Prediction: 17th

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply