Part I of the Preview can be found here.
In the 2nd part of the two-part series, we take at the how the clubs at the lower half of the table will fare in what is bound to be a long hard slog for some of them.
One of the more intriguing features of any Premier League season is how the newly promoted teams adapt to the rigours of life in the top flight. This season three such teams – Reading, Southampton and West Ham United – will be emboldened if they cast their mind back only as far as last season, when all three of their predecessors avoided the drop. This was only the second time in the history of English Premier League that such an event occurred.
Reading are back in the top flight after 2008. Expectations of a repeat of their first season when they defied all predictions to finish 8th may be too optimistic. However, survival in the league should be an achievable target with the players presently assembled at Madjeski Stadium. The squad that won the Championship last season has been bolstered with the addition of Nickey Shorey, Adrian Mariappa and Danny Guthrie – all players with Premier League experience. Chris Gunter has been acquired from Nottingham Forest to strengthen an already formidable defense.
It is the capture of Pavel Pogrebnyak for free which has got the fans most excited and may turn out to be an astute move come May. The Russian striker spent a successful loan spell at Fulham last season and would be hoping to continue his scoring streak at his new club. Midfield is the obvious weak link in the squad, with the present batch severely lacking in craft if not in industry.
The manager Brian McDermott, who has achieved steady progress since taking over in January 2011, will look earnestly towards the club’s new owner, Anton Zingaverich – son of a Russian billionaire, to provide the necessary cash injection to address the deficiencies in the squad. A skillful midfielder and a backup striker are the need of the day. Coaxing the funds out of Zingaverich for them will be the first of many challenges to be faced by McDermott in the coming nine months.
At the south coast, it has been a near perfect summer for supporters of Southampton. As if their own team clinching promotion was not enough, the trials and tribulations endured by arch-rivals Portsmouth would have added an extra gloss to their celebrations. However, the summer of gloating is coming to an end and deep down they will be bracing themselves for a season of long hard slog.
Any other year, a team which was plying their trade in League One as recently as two seasons back, would be expected to struggle in the English Premier League. But thankfully for Southampton, the blue-print of success (read: survival) has been laid out by Norwich last season. Whether they can emulate the East Anglian club for the third successive season remains to be seen.
Nigel Adkins, the architect behind Saints’ steep ascent within the English league structure, has made a couple of high-profile acquisitions in striker Jay Rodriguez from Burnley (£6 million) and highly rated right-back Nathaniel Clyne from Crystal Palace (£2.5 million). Steven Davis has come in from Rangers to add some much-needed top flight experience to the squad. For a club which has faced the bitter consequences of administration as recently as in 2009, the transfer outlay till now may represent the limit of their spending. Telling contributions will again be required from the heroes of last season with the most revered among them being the veteran journeyman striker Ricky Lambert, who was Championship Player of the Season last term.
Among the three promoted teams, West Ham United have probably got the most riding on Premier League survival this season. With the jury still out on the tenancy of the magnificent Olympic Stadium, top flight status is critical, if not mandatory, for the clubs’ sale pitch to Olympic Park Legacy Company.
Veteran manager Sam Allardyce’s footballing philosophies may not win him many fans with the neutral observers but it has proved effective in the previous Premier League seasons in staving off relegation. The owners till now have backed the manager to the hilt in the transfer market. The squad, which on paper was head and shoulders above the rest of the championship last season, has been further strengthened by a number of quality signings.
Alou Diarra and Mohamed Diamé will add steel to the midfield while fans would expect Modibo Maïga to bring along his scoring boots from France. George McCartney and James Collins too are back in Upton Park to help shore up the defense. The club made an eye-catching bid for Andy Carroll only for it to predictably fall flat. It still does serve to demonstrate the lofty targets being set by the owners this season. There is a very good reason bookmakers have installed Big Sam as the favourites to be first Premier League manager to be out of job in the new season. Cost of failure this season at Upton Park can turn out to be catastrophic in the long run.
The term ‘too good to go down’ maybe an old cliché, but ask supporters of Newcastle and Leeds before you start accepting it as a gospel truth. All the same, there is a select group of clubs who, barring a disastrous run of results, should stay clear of being dragged into the relegation scrap towards the end of the season. At the same time, it would be too much of a stretch to expect these clubs to be involved in the shake-up for European qualification spots in the table.
When Martin O’Neill took charge of Sunderland last December, the club was sitting precariously at 16th place in the table having won just twice all season. Since then the ex-Villa boss has done an admirable job of steadying the faltering ship with Sunderland eventually evading relegation with something to spare. This is expected to be a season of consolidation at the Stadium of Light and in contrast to last summer, things have been quiet on the transfer front. The squad does look a bit thin upfront but once a deal can be agreed with Wolves over Steven Fletcher, that particular problem should be put to bed.
At Villa Park, a season of discontentment has given way to a summer of cheerful outlook with the sacking of the much maligned Alex McLeish and installation of Paul Lambert. It is easy to blame McLeish for all of Aston Villa’s woes last season and majority of the fans have happily done so – but some of the senior players in the squad, like Gabriel Agbonlahor and Stephen Warnock, need to take a long hard look at themselves prior to the new season. This fact has not been lost on Lambert, who has made a few shrewd acquisitions to freshen things up. Among them, the Feyenoord duo of Ron Vlaar and Karim El Ahmadi should straight-away make the first team. Darren Bent, if fit, can be relied to get the goals upfront. This could be the breakthrough season for a number of talented youngsters at the club.
Fulham under Martin Jol has been a model of consistency with consecutive top half finishes (8th and 9th, respectively) and more of the same is expected. The key for them to rise up the table and challenge for Europe is in retaining the services of Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembélé, both of whom had been excellent last season. Hugo Rodallega and Mladen Petrić have been brought in to boost the forward line after Pogrebnyak opted to join Reading. The squad could do with addition of quality midfielder, especially if Dembélé leaves.
Like Fulham, Stoke City too has been consistent during their present four-year stay in the top flight. To his credit, Tony Pulis has ensured a continuous evolution in the team’s style of play. Stoke caught opponents off-guard with their aerial bombardments in their maiden season but the last couple of seasons has seen a subtle shift towards a style of play that is more pleasing to the eye. Make no mistake about it, Stoke are still the most physical side in the Premier League but there are a few different types of arrows in the Pulis’ quiver these days. Signing of Michael Kightly is another step in this new direction. Last season, Pulis found it tough to marry the challenges posed by the club’s European excursions with the demands of the League and Stoke made a slow start. With no such ‘distractions’ this term, a top half finish should be a realistic ambition.
For supporters of Norwich City, the last three seasons have played out like a perfect dream. As if successive promotions were not enough, the club defied all expectations and stayed up in the top division with relative ease. The problem with such outstanding success is that it leaves a club of Norwich’s stature vulnerable to losing men pivotal to their success like Paul Lambert, who left the club to take charge at Villa. In Chris Hughton, the club has found possibly the next best man available for job ensuring they don’t fall prey to the dreaded second season syndrome.
Grant Holt’s decision to extend his contract is a big fillip, whereas in Jacob Butterfield and Robert Snodgrass, Norwich have captured two of the finest players in the Championship. Defensively, Norwich has to do better than they did last term (only the teams relegated conceded more goals than Norwich) and Michael Turner has been acquired from Sunderland to help out in this regard. At goal, John Ruddy must maintain the level of performance that earned him a call up to the national team if Norwich are to survive.
Queens Park Rangers, in all honesty, should not have much problem in avoiding relegation. In fact, with the resources at his disposal, both in terms of players at the club and funds available thanks to owner Tony Fernandez, Mark Hughes should steer Rangers clear of any relegation battle long before May. However question marks still linger over a team which survived only on the last day of the season and that too ultimately due to failings of another i.e. Bolton. Due to the final day madness at Eastlands, captain Joey Barton was banned for twelve matches due to his starring role in the tiff involving Carlos Tevez and Vincent Kompany. His future at the club is yet to be resolved.
Rob Green has come in from West Ham and would take over goalkeeping responsibilities from outbound Paddy Kenny. Hughes has turned to his ex-club Manchester United to help him out in his quest for mid-table stability and acquired the services of Fabio da Silva on loan and Park Ji-Sung on permanent basis. Signing Junior Hoilett can be termed as a coup of sorts given the number of clubs which were supposedly in queue for him. All in all, unless things go horribly pear-shaped, Rangers should be perched comfortably in lower middle half of the table in May.
Swansea City, like their fellow promoted club from last season – Norwich, has fallen victim to its own success. After Brendan Rodgers proved many a pundit wrong by keeping his team up without sacrificing his footballing philosophy of a passing the ball around the park, he was made an offer too good to refuse by Liverpool. Any gentleman’s agreement he might have made with his ex-club about not luring away their best talents in the near future, obviously counted for little. Joe Allen, one of the outstanding players from last season, has followed Rodgers to Anfield with Scott Sinclair next in line.
To their credit, Swansea bosses have replaced Rodgers with a man of much higher profile in the world of football. Denmark legend Michael Laudrup may not yet have as glittering a reputation as a manager as he had as a player, but he still has enjoyed moderate success in Spain while in charge of Getafe and Mallorca. As a result, his moves in the transfer market have a distinct Spanish flavor to it with Michu and Jonathan de Guzman arriving at the Liberty Stadium from La Liga.
Loss of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who turned down Swans for a move to Spurs, may yet prove critical in the club’s battle for survival. Swansea’s home form was imperious till March (only Manchester United came away from South Wales with three points) of last season and only faltered slightly once there was effectively nothing left to play for. Such doughty displays at home need to be repeated for the Welsh club is to stand a chance for survival.
To supporters of West Bromwich Albion, who have got used to alternate promotions and relegations year after year, most of the last season must have felt like heady days. This was the first time the club survived for two consecutive seasons in the Premier League and they did so with their highest ever League position (10th) since 1981. However with Roy Hodgson, the man who guided them to it gone to take up the national team job, the cycle starts all over again. In his place has come in Steve Clarke, assuming the mantle of manager for the first time in his career. His credentials as an assistant manager is beyond reproach and some would say his appointment is just reward for years of dedication he has demonstrated while learning the tricks of the trade from the likes of José Mourinho and Kenny Dalglish.
However the harsh reality remains that the Premier League is not the ideal place for a manager to cut his teeth. Thankfully for Clarke, he has got a settled squad to play with and tweaking rather than overhauling is the need of the hour at Hawthornes. In Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long, the Baggies have possibly the most potent strike-force among all potential relegation scrappers. This is before the addition of the callow but talented Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea on a season-long loan and Swedish international Markus Rosenborg from Werder Bremen. The deal for Ben Foster has been made a permanent one. Getting off to a good start is the key for West Brom else doubts about Clarke’s abilities are bound to creep in and the fans could be in for a long hard season.
A normal feature of previews of all Premier League seasons in recent years is the discussion regarding Wigan’s chances of survival, which usually range from bleak at best to non-existent at worst. However somehow or the other the plucky minnows from the land of the giants (Wigan’s nearest neighbours being the Manchester duo) do just about enough to escape the drop every season.
Deep down inside though, Wigan fans, the few of them that are there at least, would know all fairy tales do come to an end. It is an unfortunate quirk that constraints of geography would not allow the club to expand as much as one would have expected a club about to embark on their eight consecutive season in the most cash rich League in the world to have. Manager Roberto Martínez knows it better than anyone else and hence his steadfast refusal to abandon ship till now, which may seem unfathomable in light of cold logic, should be genuinely applauded.
Even by their standards, this close season has been especially grim for Wigan. Losing Mohamed Diamé on a free is a double whammy from perspective of both football and finances. Hugo Rodallega is gone too but of much greater concern to Martínez will be the noises made by Chelsea regarding signing Victor Moses. Logic dictates that Wigan squad lacks the sufficient depth in quality to cope with such losses, but then again logic and Wigan’s performance in Premier League have never been best of bedfellows.
THT Prediction: Swansea City, Wigan Athletic, Southampton