The English Premier League (and, no, I see no reason to use the league sponsor’s name in place of the national designation) debuts next weekend. One of the cool things about soccer leagues is the general state of disarray in which they start the season. It is the exact opposite of American football. Teams are still trying to sign impact players and will be through the month of August.
So fans don’t even know 100% who will be on their team yet. Imagine combining the thrill of opening day with the most intense hot stove in baseball history. That’s what they’ve got in European soccer leagues right now.
For instance, until today the rumor was that Real Madrid may buy Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. If that happens, then Man U. supposedly would have purchased Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham Hotspur while Real would have sold Robinho to Chelsea. In turn, Spurs no doubt would have bought another striker while Chelsea may have sold some players (e.g. Andriy Shevchenko, Florent Malouda or Shawn Wright-Phillips). Now all those teams are scurrying to make other moves.
That’s the rough equivalent of a situation where A-Rod, Chase Utley and Brandon Webb could all be on the move in the last week of March … only it would have been much bigger, because we’re now talking about players who are household names around the globe.
The point here is it’s almost impossible to review teams for the upcoming season because monstrous impact deals are still being made. Yet I’ll give it my best shot and we can make updates accordingly as the news pours in.
One of the main points of interest for Prem fans this season should be the style of play. The Spanish Armada may never have landed on English soil, but the Spanish passing game is about to conquer the country. Almost every team with visions of finishing in the upper half of the table is looking to employ a quick passing attack. Many are doing this with the wholesale importation of Latin creativity (with the lower leagues becoming the final stop for much of the native talent). Combine that with speed on the wings, ferocious defense and quality finishing and the EPL should be in for some exciting football.
Unfortunately I have my doubts the table itself will be all that exciting to watch. You’ve got to go back to 2005 for the last time Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool didn’t claim the Champions League qualifying spots in the league and that likely won’t change this season. Also, the three teams that have gained promotion this season – West Brom, Stoke City and Hull – stand an excellent chance of being the three clubs relegated at the end of the campaign.
Yet, I maintain, there will be some significant tectonic shifts that begin to take shape down the road. So let’s get to the teams.
The Big Three
Sir Alex Ferguson took over the Red Devils in 1986 with the stated goal of surpassing Liverpool’s record for top flight titles. With 10 titles during the past 16 seasons, he’s one crown short of Liverpool. Don’t think he and this team don’t know that. They’ve got a date with history and no one’s going to keep them from it.
The led the league in goals scored and fewest goals allowed last season, the third straight season they’ve lead the scoring parade and the first where they’ve led on the defensive end of the pitch. Ronaldo isn’t going anywhere, but the team’s top star is injured (supposedly he’ll be out three months). It still leaves Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, Louis Saha (if he doesn’t get sold) and an insanely deep midfield to score in his absence.
With Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand holding down the center of the defense and Edwin van der Sar in net (the best keeper in the league last season), the clamps will be on most opponents too. Expect a third straight title. This team is going to be all about business from day one.
Johnny Rotten’s favorite team started fast last season, only to fade late under the weight of injuries and a monster schedule. Expect it to happen again.
The Gunners are young and on the small side. The upside is that they play some of the most beautiful soccer on the planet, the down side is that eventually bigger, stronger men rough up this collection of lovely lads. Yet they should be on the improve in 2008/9.
Samir Nasri has been brought in to combine with Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky in the midfield. That’s a terrifying group of players for any team to contain. Who plays defensive mid behind them remains to be seen (Alexandre Song seems like the nominal choice, but many expect Arsenal to buy a pit bull – I’d love to see Reno Gattuso add some indomitable will to that side).
Gael Clichy and Bakary Sagna are as good as it gets as outer backs, but the central backs are a bit small. Opponents can go over Arsenal.
Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott, Carlos Vela and Nicklas Bendtner form a young, but potential deadly strike force (particularly given the service they’ll receive.) Some have speculated they won’t be up to snuff, but I disagree. Arsenal will score enough, it’s the defense that will keep them from winning the league.
On paper Chelsea looks unbeatable. Their B team – Cudicini, Belletti, Alex, Invanovic, Bridge, Mikel, Cole, Malouda, Wright-Phillips, Kalou and Shevchenko – would be considered one of the best in any league.
The defensive spine of Petr Cech (not the Reds minor league catcher), Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry (overrated, but still damn good – kind of like Rio Ferdinand) and Michael Essien is imposing. Then you add in Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack to attack from the midfield with Deco as the quarterback and Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka to finish (not to mention Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole busting it up the sides from the outer back positions). That’s a bear of a team.
Deco’s creativity could be the thing that catapults Chelsea to another title. Last year the club lacked distribution. If anyone upends Man U, it will be Chelsea, but there’s a little too much chaos around this club and new coach Felipe Scolari may take a while to sort things out (giving Sir Alex the small advantage he needs). Then again, if the Drogba of 2006/7 returns, none of that may matter.
Feel free to keep calling the Big Three the Big Four. I have no doubts that Liverpool will finish fourth again, but they won’t finish higher, nor should they be all that close to third place by the end of the season. I’m looking for at least a 10-point gap.
Like the other top teams, they’ve got depth galore. Danny Agger/Martin Skrtel, Xabi Alonso and Dirk Kuyt all look to be starting the season on the bench (not sure whether Agger or Skrtel will be starting next to Jamie Carragher at center back). Robbie Keane’s been brought in to pair up front with Fernando Torres (expect them to combine nicely). Gareth Barry is supposedly coming over from Villa (though it’s not official yet), putting him a midfield with Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano.
Yet the ownership situation, with Texas Rangers head honcho Tom Hicks (never trust a man who’s done business with George W.), has been a constant cause of distraction in recent years. And the team isn’t as insanely dangerous as the Big Three. You can bottle up this midfield and starve out the strikers. The halfbacks aren’t going to blow past you if you blink at an inopportune moment. Lesser clubs are going to play for, and get, a draw more often than Liverpool fans are going to like.
Ambition in Their Eyes
Spurs believed last season would be their chance to break the stranglehold at the top of the league. They had back-to-back 5th place finishes in 2005/6 and 2006/7, but they discovered they didn’t have the coach or the players to do the job. Juande Ramos took over the club in mid-season and he’s been cleaning house ever since.
Heurelho Gomes is now in net (replacing the disastrous Paul Robinson). Luka Modric and David Bentley have been brought in to create a more dynamic midfield. Gilberto’s been brought in to join Gareth Bale as a dangerous wing back pairing.
The striker ranks are a bit bare with the exit of Robbie Keane, but Berbatov is still around. Darren Bent has talent to burn and Giovani Dos Santos could be a sleeper. Also, Spurs still seem like they’ve got money to spend, possibly on Andrei Arshavin.
Look for them to be a bit of a cup team this year (UEFA, FA, Carling) with their big push on a Champions League spot coming after Ramos has a chance to make some more additions.
Manchester’s other team has got stars in its eyes, particularly since picking up Mark Hughes to manage the club. He turned Blackburn into a top 10 club on a shoestring budget and the hope is he can turn City into an international force.
Jo should be the best new striker in the league this season. He’s big, fast and incredibly skilled. Benjani Mwaruwari and Darius Vassell give him two skilled partners to work with. The Dunney Monster anchors the defense. Blumer Elano, Martin Petrov and Stephen Ireland make for a compelling midfield, but it’s the collection of young talents which could propel this club upward. Central midfielder Michael Johnson, defender Micah Richards and keeper Joe Hart might be the top three 21-and-under English players. Remarkably, there are still more kids in line behind them.
Hughes could be sitting on top of something akin to what Arsene Wenger’s got at Arsenal. Another stud central defender and this team could be ready to take a massive step forward.
Then again, their owner could go to jail (he’s wanted in Thailand) and the funds for a golden era could dry up.
Pompey’s about to get its first taste of European football and it’s clearly hungry for more. The plan would seem to be THE powerhouse along the south coast, with a new stadium (something that’s now fallen through three times) and a dynamic international roster.
The team starts with size, muscle and experience on the back line with Sol Campbell and Sylvain Distin. David James is solid in net. Lassana Diarra and Papa Bouba Diop add even more steel in the central midfield.
Niko Kranjcar runs the offense and Jermaine Defoe, John Utaka, Kanu and the newly acquired Peter Crouch are around to fill up the net. Slightly better forward transition (that means less Sean Davis) and this team could radically increase its 2007/8 goal tally of 48.
This is the team that’s supposed to be on the brink of breaking through, the one club in the best position to challenge Liverpool for that last Champions League slot. Thanks to Joleon Lescott, Joseph Yobo and Co., the Toffees play top tier defense. Tim Howard is coming into his prime as a keeper.
Mikel Arteta is one of the most gifted midfield players alive and the Yak might be the most muscular striker alive.
Yet it’s been radio silence from this club all summer. It hasn’t added anyone. Supposedly Joao Moutinho might be headed over from Sporting Lisbon (the football factory that gave the world Paulo Futre, Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo). The club certainly needs central midfield help. If another defender is found, Phil Jagielka (my vote for hardest working man in the league) could play defensive mid instead of center back. Another striker is needed to support the Yak too.
The Villans have the scoring savoir faire to threaten the top of the table, but they’re still inconceivably thin. At this moment they’ve only got four healthy defenders (because one is injured). There’s no way that can compete with teams like Chelsea and Man U, which have top quality defenses sitting on their benches.
Supposedly there’s a race on to sign Reading left back Nick Shorey and Martin O’Neill can’t afford to lose out to another competitor.
The good news is Brad Friedel’s in to man the net and Brad Guzan is being groomed as his successor (American keepers are the rage in Birmingham). Nigel Reo-Coker is exactly the kind of defensive midfielder you want to anchor a club that wants to overachieve (he’s ferocious) and Steve Sidwell could be a nice addition after a lost season with Chelsea. Gabriel Agbonlahor, John Carew, Ashley Young and Marlon Harewood have got goals in their boots.
Yet what if Gareth Barry leaves? Supposedly Steve Finnan, a much needed defender, would be part of the return, but will the midfield be able to match the passing flair of other top sides?
Rovers fans (and I’m one of them) are surely hoping that there is life after losing a quality coach (Mark Hughes) and a star player (David Bentley). Paul Ince has been tabbed as the next big thing in the coaching ranks and Chilean MVP Carlos Villanueva has been brought in to keep the midfield in attack mode. Christopher Samba is a man mountain in central defense and Roque Santa Cruz is the leader of a talented set of strikers.
Ince’s hot after a kid from Ghana named Anthony Annan, whom some have compared to Michael Essien (impossible standard to live up to, but more steel at the back of the midfield would be a welcome addition to this club).
Yet the lingering question hanging over the team has to do with the keeper situation. Friedel played every minute of every game for Rovers since the club returned to the Prem in 2001. Now he’s being replaced by the wayward talents of Paul Robinson, formerly England’s #1 keeper, now a bit of a running joke. It’s a move that can only go horribly wrong or incredibly well.
Michael Owen’s a bit like Kris Kristofferson, he used to be a star. Now he’s making a living for himself off of that reputation. Obafemi Martins is the scorer who’ll need to carry the Magpies if they intend to accomplish anything this season.
Damien Duff is also going to need to be healthy and flying up the wings (with Charles N’Zogbia on the other side), because this club does not have the passing skill to match pretty much every club listed above. It’s going to need to score with brute force.
The defense was wretched last season (only two relegated clubs were worse) and Fabricio Coloccini has been the only notable addition to that unit. He brings a lot of skill to the central defense, but he might be too finesse-oriented to be fully effective in the Prem.
Shay Given still mans the nets when he’s healthy. He can count on a lot of exercise with this club.
Whereas Newcastle lacks style and defense, West Ham flat out lacks talent. Outside of striker Dean Ashton and keeper Robert Green, you can make a case that the rest of the team is comprised of players who’d be better fits on second flight clubs.
For instance, no one’s banging down the doors for players like Scott Parker, Matthew Upson, Hayden Mullins and Lee Bowyer. I suppose Anton Ferdinand would have some takers, mostly because his brother may have created a market for him. Carlton Cole might gin up some interest because he looks like he can score, though he rarely does. Luis Boa Morte could probably find Prem work too.
Yet the larger point is this is a thunderously dull squad that got seriously outplayed in the recent MLS All-Star game (and the MLS players showed absolutely no fear of West Ham at any point during the game, as opposed to the smash-and-grab tactics they’ve employed against better opponents in previous years).
I don’t expect West Ham to get relegated because the recently promoted teams profile as being too easy to beat over the course of 38 games, but the club is bad enough to deserve a relegation and Alan Curbishley should be hunting for new employment before Christmas.
This should be a fun team to watch this season. They’ve got a lot of scoring ability with Afonso Alves, Mido, Tuncay and Jeremie Aliadiere. They’ve even got a respectable midfield with Stuart Downing, Didier Digard, Julio Arca and Gary O’Neil.
The problem is the defense and keeper situations look shaky. All right, shaky is too kind, it looks dire (all respects to center back David Wheater, who’ll feel like an island too often this season).
Expect a lot of high scoring contests with this team. Other teams will be rewarded for opening up the game against them and Borough should be happy enough trying to win in a shootout.
The strikers and midfield are good enough to collect points against lesser clubs and occasionally steal some points from better ones on days when the back line holds.
This club almost crashed out of the league last season, but Gary Megson (surprisingly) has made some solid additions this summer.
The biggest and best being Danny ****tu for the back line. It’s hard to go through, around or over him. He’s a big man who positions himself well.
Johan Elmander can score if you play him front and center. Like a lot of this team, he’s got beef (they really ought to play “Meat Is Murder” when they take the field). Riga Mustapha brings some much needed pace on the wings.
Kevin Nolan basically willed the club out of relegation last season. He’d be an interesting man to add muscle to a more skilled team, but Bolton this season should at least do well enough to spend the last month of the season not clawing for survival.
Phase two of Roy Keane’s master plan to conquer the universe appears to be collecting players good enough to slot the Black Cats comfortably in the mid-table.
Steed Malbranque is a perfectly respectable second tier playmaker. Teemu Tanio adds skill and nerve to the midfield. El-Hadji Diouf and Pascal Chimbonda may be complete punks at times, but they have talent (and they might just fear Keane enough to stay in line).
The club will need more goals from Michael Chopra and Kenwyne Jones (when he returns from injury in October), but they should have better service this season. As such, this is one team that should avoid a sophomore slump. Money has been spent, additions have been made and Sunderland looks ready to spend a decade or so in the top flight.
More importantly, if this club wants to continue up the ladder, is the emergence of young players like Jean-Yves Mvoto and David Meyler. Keane will have to build from within for some of what he needs.
Steve Bruce was, far as I’m concerned, the top story of the league last season. He had Birmingham on track to stay up and then pulled a hooded cape rescue job at Wigan when he switched jobs. Simply put, this team should not have survived.
It’s still not a good team, but Bruce has added talent. Wilson Palacios, Antonio Valencia, Olivier Kapo and Danel de Ridder add a lot more skill to the midfield. Remember that short passing game everyone wants to play? Wigan’s going to be better at it than many suspect.
Lee Cattermole gives the club a combative defensive mid.
Amr Zaky may not be well-known, but he’s been the top scorer for the two-time defending champs of Africa, Egypt. Don’t be surprised if he opens things up for Emile Heskey up front.
Yet the defense still features Titus Bramble at the center, so that’s a problem that demands fixing.
Do you believe in miracles? They do at Craven Cottage because they saw one last season.
It should be interesting to see who exactly is on this team on Aug. 16 because all the new bodies recruited by Roy Hodgson must mean that a large number of players currently on the roster are going away. Expect Fulham to hold a fire sale for Championship clubs looking for upgrades.
Striker Andrew Johnson is the latest arrival. He brings yet more pace to an already pacy front line with Diomansy Kamara and Eddie Johnson.
Clint Dempsey looks like he’ll be out to the right of midfield with Jimmy Bullard (last year’s savior) and Danny Murphy holding down the middle.
John Paintsil and Fredrik Stoor are among the new arrivals targeted at improving the defense, which won’t be good, but almost has to be better.
The team still has to sort out the keeper situation with Mark Schwarzer and Antti Niemi.
Survival is far from assured, but the team should be better than what it was last season.
Enjoy the Beatings
If one of the newly promoted sides survives, it will be the Baggies. They dominated the Championship the past two seasons, but they’re likely to find out how little that means in the Prem.
The biggest problem spot is striker. Roman Bedner and Luke Moore join a corps of Ismael Miller and Craig Beattie. Not a one of them has proven worthy of a top flight striker role. That is an unsettling unknown heading into a campaign like this.
On the upside, Scott Carson has been acquired to play in the net. He has what has been the top defensive line in the Championship in front of him (they’ve even got a guy name Pele), minus Curtis Davies (gone to Villa). That is a big subtraction, mind you. Gianni Zuiverloom and Marek Cech have been brought in to add more quality to a sound defensive scheme.
New arrival Kim-Do Heon will be asked to quarterback the midfield. Given the generally poor play of Koreans in the Prem, that would seem a risky move. At least Robert Koren should be able to make the quality jump up to the next level.
A dream come true that could turn into a nightmare is what the Tigers face. The club spent its first 104 years of existence never making it to top flight football. Now that it’s there, it needs to avoid the annihilation that Derby suffered last season.
George Boateng has been brought in to add tenacity to the midfield. A good bit of money was spent for Peter Halmosi out on the left wing, but he’s not young (28) and he’s stepping up to a new class of football. Craig Fagan, who did just about squat for Derby last season, has been the main striker addition.
Bernard Mendy should add some pace as a right back. Anthony Gardner adds size if not skill on the back line.
This team mostly is comprised of lower division players on a moonlighting tour, not the sort of thing anyone should expect to succeed.
One the bright side, at least we get a full season of Dean Windass.
The only way to characterize this team’s summer is with the word “complacent.” It spent some money on Dave Kitson and Seyi Olofinjana, the sort of players you acquire to graduate from the Championship and then replace when the degree of difficulty rises in the Premiership. Yet that’s all the club has done and it isn’t threatening to do much more.
Or maybe the word is “clueless” and the management simply doesn’t understand the quality of player needed to succeed at the highest level.
Or maybe the word is “resigned” and the Potters are planning to get some experience for kids like Ryan Shawcross, make a few midseason acquisitions and head back down to the Championship next season with some money in their pockets and a better chance of survival next time around.
Whatever it is, no one needs to worry about survival in 2008/9. Relegation is assured.
Don’t let this year’s dog class of promotees fool you. Better teams are coming up from below in the future. Birmingham’s had a good summer, adding the sort of talent (Lee Carsley, Marcus Bent) that should make promotion a given and help to insure it gets off the yo-yo in the future.
Wolves were the best side in the league at the end of last season and are poised to bring a fairly young team up to the Prem in 2009.
QPR has got money to spend and is putting together the sort of international, passing squad that is becoming all the rage in the Prem. Daniel Parejo, on loan from Real Madrid, might be the most gifted playmaker in the league. This may be the most ambitious club in England at the moment.
If outfits like that gain promotion then there could be some serious realignment of the top flight in the future.