Top Notch and Tosh: An EPL Season Preview

By: Ian Clark

The English (Barclay’s) Premiere League is set to begin its 21st season this Saturday with seven opening matches. Recall, the 2011-2012 session left us in spectacular fashion – the epitome of drama – with Manchester City claiming the title in the last minute of seasonal play owing to Sergio Aguero’s late strike that put City 3-2 up on Queen’s Park Rangers and a notch ahead of rival Manchester United in the table.  With that, Man City became only the 5th team to win the Premiership title since the league’s modern day inception back in 1992-1993. The question this year is: will we see a 6th?

Incredible drama.

If you are as excited about the upcoming title race, relegation battle, and epic matchday fixtures as I am, then please enjoy the Same Page 2012-2013 EPL Pre-Season Preview.

The Big Four?

For a number of seasons soccer pundits have cited “The Big Four” as having perennial title hopes.  This year it may be a bit more difficult to establish those specific four teams.  Based on off-season transfers, last season’s performance, player development trends, and confidence with and stability in coaching ranks, I expect only three teams to really challenge for the title – Man City, Man United, and Chelsea.  All three teams have the talent, coaching and depth to challenge for the title this year. And unlike their large London rivals (Arsenal and Tottenham) have not been plagued by departing stars or uncertainty surrounding key players.  However, The Big Four becoming a Big Three does not mean less parity within the league. Oh contraire! The next three title hopefuls (the Smaller Big Three) are all capable teams with exceptional talents – Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham – could all challenge the teams from Chelsea and Manchester. And while these second tier teams lack in top end talent coming off the bench, injuries, busy schedules, and suspensions can put pressure on second team substitutes to consistently excel. Granted, it is consistency which often separates first and second team players on the world’s most elite teams.

Although I expect this round of the Premiership to be a three-way race, it is hard to imagine any of my Big Three teams running away with the title.  The competition these teams will confront in the likes of my Smaller Big Three, as well as in teams like Sunderland, Stoke, Newcastle and Villa are sure to make every match difficult.

Team Previews

First up, a discussion of the teams expected to finish in the top ten:

Man City won the title despite on-going team drama.  They are a very deep team, especially up front (they still have Santa Cruz and Adebayor on their books as well), and should have no trouble scoring again this year.  The great play of Silva and Kompany may not be replicated this year, but so much young talent is still improving (Balotelli, Aguero, Dzeko).  City has the horses and depth to not only win England, but if they show focus and maturity, all of Europe.

Man United finished with 89 points last year – the highest second place point total ever. But the key word is second.  I am sure coach Sir Alex spent the first day of the off-season plotting United’s return to the top of the table.  However, questions at the back remain, with Ferdinand doing some soul searching and Vidic recovering from injuries. For those who watched the German Cup Final, I am sure you were impressed with new United acquisition Kagawa. He will be groomed as the next Scholes, which are huge shoes to fill.

Ready for the EPL?

Chelsea got their hands on some of the most desired off-season talents in Hazard and Oscar, bringing depth and talent to the middle of the pitch. Drogba leaves a hole up front – but Torres is coming-off a good Euro Cup and this talent can only lay dormant in the Premiership for so long.  Centre back Terry, also had a great Euro and will be counted on to lead the back four again. Ultimately, the question is whether we will be treated to the Chelsea team that won the European title, or the team that stumbled all too often in the Premiership. Chelsea is unpredictable, but has leaps of talent.  Could finish anywhere from 1st to 8th.

Arsenal had an atrocious start last year, but came around as a slew of new players to the club learned the system and began to play the way coach Wegner demands them to. All eyes this year are still on Van Persie and whether he will still be with the team for the season kick-off.  The most recent rumours have him moving to Manchester United. However, unlike last season the club looks as if it has actually prepared for the start of this season with new signings (Podolski and Cazorla) in camp preparing for the upcoming season. Hopefully Jack Wilshere gets back in the lineup – though he hasn’t yet started training.

Tottenham claimed world-class tactician Villas Boas (former Chelsea bench boss) during the off-season, but it is hard to expect his presence to dramatically alter the side.  The lost of Adebayor, unless he can be claimed by the end of the transfer window, will hurt a thin striking contingent too reliant on a streaky Defoe. Attention is also being paid to whether the club can retain their midfield pivot, Modric. If Modric is bought and a world-class striker does not arrive at Tottenham, any talk of being title contenders is futile.

Liverpool has had a couple tough years. English dollars spent on English talent was a disaster.  The new coach may bring freshness to the club, as may Italian signing Borini.  They need to score more often than last year (regulated side Blackburn scored more often), but workhorse striker Kuyt has departed.  Borini is a natural goal-scorer, but consistent goal scoring is what is needed.

QPR is an improved side. Despite only returning to England’s top flight last season, they still beat Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. New signing Nelson brings defense qualities and steady character. Canadian Hoilett is a new threat. Nelson, along with former Man United man Park, bring a different level of work ethic and character to complement the likes of Cisse, Zamora, and Wright-Philips.

Aston Villa grabbed inspirational Norwich coach Paul Lambert. Villa players will not coast this year, and may have the talent to compete for European spots with Agbonlahor, Albrighton, and Bent.

Sunderland loss Gyan in the off-season, but he never really performed as expected.  Martin O’Neill may be the league’s best coach and gets his players fired up for all matches. Sunderland needs to play by committee, but have the character to ensure this will happen.

Newcastle over-achieved last year. Added pressure of playing more games on bigger stages will influence the quality of their play especially in later stages of the season.  Can Ba carry on his remarkable play from last year when being tightly marked by the opposition’s best defenders? Newcastle was a bold team that played with confidence which may have surprised some teams last year, but no one will be caught off guard by Newcastle this year.

And now, my thoughts on the teams expected to finish in the bottom ten:

Stoke has been quite – luring an MLS veteran (Geoff Cameron) is not breaking news. Stoke succeeds because of their home record and the daunting 12th player – the Britannia Stadium crowd.  Etherington is a talent, Crouch can occasionally do something amazing, but it will be long-throws and spot kicks that determine the success of this club.

West Brom was the epitome of a mid-table team last year – consistently inconsistent.  Few changes to this side and they will hope to finish in the same area of the standings this year.  West Brom was able to sign exciting Chelsea prospect Lukaku to a season loan, giving us viewers our first real glimpse at the 19 year old.

Lukaku joins West Brom. Sounds like a Game of Thrones plot line.

Fulham is rebuilding. Nathan Dempsey may be on his way out and replacing his goals will be difficult.  The Craven Cottage side showed spurts of great play last year but if they lose Dempsey and Danny Murphy, this proverbial mid-table team may slide.

Swansea played a quality game and proved their worth in the top flight last season. But, the summer has been tough on the Welsh side having lost passing machine Allen to Liverpool. Swansea made the league’s most astute signing last year in goaltender Vorm – he will need to be spectacular again this year. It will be interesting to see the progress of talented youngster Sinclair.

Norwich did well last year. The team’s collections of lower league players showed the will to stay up in the Premiership. This team battles, but lacks talent. Concerns that battle fatigue and a diminishing level of desire are the result of a coaching change needed to replace Aston Villa bound Lambert.

Everton can’t keep losing talent and maintain a mid-table ranking (Tim Cahill and Jack Rodwell the most recent talents to depart the side).  This team starts poorly every year, but will they warm up like previous years?

West Ham will likely be the primary tenant at London’s new Olympic Stadium.  The Hammers made a few notable signing in the off-season, including Marseille defensive midfielder Diarra.  The team will compete to retain a Premiership spot for 2013-2014.

Reading may be heading back down. Although they were the championship winners, they finished 15th in goals for in their league – will they score this year?

Southhampton, newly promoted, shows all the signs of being sent back down – but hey, we figured that about Norwich last year.

Wigan stayed in the top league thanks to Martinez’s managerial fairy dust last year. No one can quite explain how they did it. Maybe it was because the team retained a few talented players such as Rodallega or Diame, who have both departed during the off-season.

There you have it. The top and the bottom of the EPL. I can’t wait to see how it will all shake out.

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