LFW Season Preview Part One – The Top Five
Monday, 13th Aug 2012 14:08 by Clive Whittingham
A four part preview of the new Premier League season begins with a look at the five teams we believe will be leading the way in the title race this season.
Roberto Mancini has expressed frustration at his club’s lack of transfer activity this summer as director of football Brian Marwood struggles to juggle the forthcoming demands of the financial fair play legislation with his club’s desire to buy every half decent footballer in the world. They’re lacking cover at centre half but nevertheless still have the best team in the league in my view. Chelsea have improved their squad with big money acquisitions but are relying on Fernando Torres now Didier Drogba has gone and are only ever one wrong team change away from a dressing room rebellion. Man Utd have stood still, but will become title favourites if Robin Van Persie signs. Arsenal have finally spent some money on players who are over 17 and aren’t tippy tappy attacking midfielders but this looks like an exercise in locking an empty stable to me, unless Van Persie stays in which case they could threaten. I see no reason for Newcastle not to continue where they left off, especially given the upheaval at near rivals Spurs and Liverpool.
Man City – 1st
In 140 characters or less… Combustible squad of egos held together just long enough to secure first title since last ice age. Considerably richer than you. #cat #cream
Last Season: Even throwing a billion quid in transfer fees, signing on fees, agent fees and weekly wages at the very best players in the world doesn’t guarantee you success; you can’t take Manchester City out of the team, no matter how hard you try or how much you spend. Through the years City have rejoiced in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory - they signed Rodney Marsh from our good selves in March 1972 when four points clear at the top of the league and ended up finishing fourth, for example. Another player with a QPR connection, Steve Lomas, kept the ball in the corner to waste time believing a 2-2 draw on the final day was good enough to keep them in the Premiership in 1996 – it wasn’t. They love it. So it was no real surprise to see them turn what looked at one stage - when they won 6-1 at Old Trafford against Manchester United -like it was going to be a procession into a very large train crash with March defeats to Swansea and Arsenal and draws with Stoke and Sunderland. It was no great shock either that when Manchester United let them back in with some uncharacteristic late season slips of their own, City then contrived to go 2-1 behind against ten man Queens Park Rangers who hadn’t won in ten away fixtures on the final day of the season. Edin Dzeko’s equaliser and Sergio Aguero’s winner, which both came deep in injury time, made it the most dramatic end to an English league season since Michael Thomas’ last gasp title snatcher at Liverpool all those years ago. Typical City in the end, but with a happy ending for a change.
Transfers: Everton’s Jack Rodwell is the only acquisition so far for a hefty £12m rising to £17m. Several fringe players have been released including Owen Hargreaves and Wayne Bridge has gone to Brighton on loan.
Manager: Roberto Mancini is the poacher turned gamekeeper of the managerial world. As a player he was a maverick forward who averaged a goal every three games at a time when Serie A was unrivalled by any other league, but he was also something of a wild child and once picked up a six match ban for leaving the field and refusing to play on after a referee failed to award him a penalty. Now he’s a boss his tactics, in Europe and occasionally away from home, are often quite negative and he is now the man dealing with personalities like Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli in a hardline way. He didn’t strike me as managerial material as a player, and to be honest on occasions he still doesn’t now, but his record is already formidable – three Serie A titles, four Italian cups with three different teams, the Premier League and the FA Cup. Testy comments to the press about director of football Brian Marwood and the lack of arrivals this summer hints that all is perhaps not completely rosy, but he’s in a better position than most.
Sack Race Odds – 33/1 shortest price, 50/1 the longest. Only Alex Ferguson has longer odds.
This Season: Well City have the same awesome group of players that won the league for them last year and they’re all a year older, a year wiser and with that bedrock of confidence that comes with getting the first title as a team under their belts. They also have Carlos Tevez presumably intending to play for the entire season this time and, however unpalatable it may be to admit it, he made a difference when he returned at the end of the last campaign. But, they’re there to be shot at and chased which comes with its own pressure. City will always score goals – they cannot fail to with Aguero, Tevez, Silva and Balotelli to call upon – but their potential weakness lays further back. Their two key players, in my opinion, are Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany. We saw in both fixtures with QPR last season – Kompany was absent at Loftus Road and Toure injured in the first half on the last day – that City are not nearly as good without those two and despite the money spent lack sufficient cover for them. Kompany is backed by Stefan Savic who was roasted by Jay Bothroyd at Loftus Road, and Toure seems pretty irreplaceable by anybody. Those two need to stay fit, and Mancini needs to keep hold of a volatile dressing room. If both things transpire, they’ll win the league again.
Odds: Title favourites. Best priced 17/13 with 32Red but mostly 5/4 and 6/5 across the board.
If they were a character in The Simpsons… Mr Burns: Succeeding in life through being richer than everybody else. Prone to releasing hound look-a-like Tevez when the going gets tough.
Chelsea – 2nd
In 140 characters or less… Not racist. Have a piece of paper to prove it. Can sort illegal drugs in pub toilets, or stolen Tesco goods though. #captain #leader #legend
Last Season: Sensibly recognised that the first team isn’t getting any younger, and constantly hiring and firing managers wasn’t going much to improve the situation so a longer term plan was needed. Stupidly decided that Andre Villas Boas was the man to lead that change based on his record at Porto where Jose Mourinho did well and because he’s from Portgual where Jose Mourinho is from. Boas sensibly realised that the likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Alex weren’t going to be around forever, but stupidly thought he could faze them out all at once. From that point you can pretty much copy and paste what’s been written in previous summers: Frank, John and the boys realise they’re not going to start every week; Frank, John and the boys don’t like that much; Frank, John and the boys sulk around and undermine the manager; the manager gets the sack. Chelsea, on the cusp of a Champions League exit to Napoli, turned to former player Roberto Di Matteo to be the caretaker boss and it’s that position, as caretaker, rather than Di Matteo’s ability as a manager that worked so well for the Blues thereafter. As a caretaker, Di Matteo didn’t have to worry about Frank, John and the boys being too old in years to come as long as they were fit to play at the weekend. Which, lo and behold, they suddenly were – Terry cutting short a diagnosed three month absence to return straight to the starting 11 in Di Matteo’s first game in charge. Funny that. And they won the European Cup. And looked very pleased with themselves. As well they might, on a number of levels.
Transfers: Finished outside the top four last season and have signalled their intention not to do so again by beating most of Europe to Lille’s Eden Hazard (£32m), spending a further £25m on Brazilian attacker Oscar and splashing £7m on Marko Marin from Werder Bremen. Salomon Kalou was released at the end of last season, Drogba has followed Anelka to China and Romelu Lukaku has been loaned to West Brom.
Manager: Di Matteo did enough to win the job full time so returns for a crack at the Premier League and European Cup on a permanent basis this season. His only previous managerial experience is a one year spell at MK Dons and 18 months with West Brom, which all in all included a play off semi final defeat to Scunthorpe and a promotion into the Premier League. To be fair, having won the European Cup by beating first Barcelona and then Bayern Munich they could hardly have given it to anybody else even if Di Matteo’s only previous experience was managing the local Tesco Metro. What happens now will be interesting. There is a school of thought that Di Matteo is merely keeping the seat warm for a year while Pep Guardiola gathers his thoughts. In that case expect Chelsea to carry on where they left off last season because there will again be no incentive for him to look to the long term and start to move the older players out of the team and short term they’re still plenty good enough to compete at the highest end of the game. If Di Matteo believes he’s here for the foreseeable future then the Swiss born former Italian international will have to show better man management skills and a lighter touch when replacing the old guard than his predecessor or he’ll be the latest in a growing list of managers to fall victim to the Premiership’s most notoriously difficult dressing room.
Sack Race Odds – shortest price nines, longest price twelves. Fifth favourite.
This Season: While Robin Van Persie remains in situ at the Emirates, the most exciting signing of the summer is undoubtedly Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard swapping Lille for Stamford Bridge. Any club in Europe would have taken him, but Chelsea’s European Cup win seemed to swing it their way at the last minute. Teaming Hazard up with the excellent Juan Mata behind Fernando Torres who looked revitalised at the end of last season and then dreadful again at the European Championships would be intimidating enough had they not also gone out and spent huge money on Brazilian Oscar. Concerns about change of lifestyle, change of leagues, problems adapting to the Premier League and cold Tuesday nights in Stoke not withstanding that looks a formidable forward line and Chelsea were good enough to win the top prize in Europe last season without this summer’s signings and despite all the turmoil they endured. If Di Matteo can keep the dressing room content I think they’ll go very close.
Odds: Third favourites. 9/2 and 5/1 available generally for the title, best priced 11/2 with Bodog.
If they were a monarch from history… King James II: Ruled for three years, constantly undermined be rebellion.
Man Utd – 3rd
In 140 characters or less… Have people outside the ground at home games selling an "Official United song book - all the lyrics to all the chants" for £2. #knobs
Last Season: Everything looked to be progressing as normal in mid March as United cheated their way to monotonous home wins against first QPR and then Aston Villa at the Cathedral of Commercialism while previous league leaders Manchester City started drawing 3-3 at home to Sunderland and losing at Swansea. All that was really needed was for Mancini to have his “I’d love it” Keegan meltdown, “Giggsy” to put his brother’s wife down long enough to collect the trophy and all would be well in the world again. Instead a very strange thing happened: just at the point when United usually get really good, they fell apart. They were dreadful in a 1-0 defeat at lowly Wigan and quickly followed it up with a defensive apocalypse and 4-4 draw at home to Everton. The door was ajar, and City needed no second invitation to beat United at Eastlands and move back ahead with two games to play. There were problems – relatively speaking of course – for Ferguson all the way through the season with Paul Scholes invited out of retirement midway through the campaign through a shortage of quality and numbers, the imperious Vidic permanently troubled by injury and the previous big game go-to men like Ferdinand, Park and Fletcher struggling for form and fitness. This didn’t look like it was going to matter in the Premier League until the end, but they were shown up in Europe where they didn’t even make it out of their Champions League group and then in the Europa League where they were totally outclassed by Athletic Bilbao.
Transfers: Shinji Kagawa has signed from Dortmund for £12m, but Van Persie is the prime target with two weeks of the window still to go. Ji Sung Park has gone to QPR for a discount £2m, promising younger Paul Pogba has completed his protracted move to Juventus and long serving number two goalkeeper Thomsz Kuszczak has gone to Championship side Brighton on a free. Michael Owen has been released. Nick Powell, the latest gem to come from the Crewe academy, has arrived for £4m.
Manager: Alex Ferguson: Glasgow, docks, hard man, hairdryer treatment, doesn’t suffer fools gladly etc etc etc. We get it. But just lately, every now and again, this all conquering goliath just looks like he’s having his position and reputation eroded slightly by the ills of the modern game. It used to be the case that players who left Old Trafford did so only when Ferguson wanted them to, and rarely did any of them go onto better things elsewhere but Cristiano Ronaldo brought an end to all of that. And I cannot imagine the Ferguson of a decade ago, even allowing for his indulgence of Eric Cantona, allowing the club to be played by Wayne Rooney for a massive new contract the way it clearly was 18 months ago. Most perplexing though is Ferguson’s steadfast and often stated support for the Glazer family which clearly, to an outsider looking in, seem to be slowly undermining Manchester United on the field to me. Even if they’re not, their takeover means hundreds of millions that come into Old Trafford go out elsewhere into the pockets of banks and lenders rather than into the team. Even accepting that if Ferguson openly slagged them off he’d be fired, to go so far the other way seems off to me. Still, never write him or his team off. I wouldn’t put it past both of them to come roaring back with a double or treble this year, because that’s the sort of thing they’ve always done.
This Season: The disadvantage of writing this preview before the start of the season and not after the end of the summer transfer window is that next week United could go out and sign Robin Van Persie from Arsenal. Suddenly, having already brought in Kagawa from Dortmund and with Valencia and Cleverley fit again alongside Nani and behind a front two of Rooney and Van Persie you’d have to assume it’s going to be glory, glory Man U-fucking-nited again come May. But, as we stand, United have added only Kagawa and young Nick Powell to a squad that came up short on a number of levels last season. The concern about fitness of Vidic and Ferdinand, and the lack of quality cover for them, remain and have not been addressed. Man City will be better and more confident for having the title winning experience, Chelsea and Arsenal have improved their squads with big money purchases – what United do over the next fortnight will determine whether the Glazer-nomics are finally going to take their toll.
Odds: Second favourites. 9/4 and 5/2 the most popular prices for the title with some offering 5/2 and others 12/5. Best price 13/5 with BetVictor, Blue Square, 888Sport and Ladbrokes.
If they were a monarch from history… King Henry VIII: Winning. When not winning, ignoring the rules to enable more winning.
Arsenal – 4th
In 140 characters or less… Finally spending money on proven players in their prime, locking the stable door securely behind a long bolted horse. #wenger #professor
Last Season: A midtable team, propelled up the league by one player. Robin Van Persie was so good last season he didn’t seem human at times. He’s always had that ability, but seeing the results of him actually making it through a campaign without suffering one of the three month injury absences that have blighted his career to date really was quite something. Sadly, his shoulders must have been pretty sore by May having carried the rest of the team around on his back all season. Having spent all summer negotiating (playing silly buggers) over the transfer of Cesc Fabregas they left themselves short of time to spend the takings from the inevitable sale and embarked on a recruitment mission more befitting a newly promoted side – Gervinho, Per Mertesacker, Yossi Benayoun, Santos and Park Chu-Young were all dreadful, as was Theo Walcott who hasn’t progressed as a player for three years and is actually now going backwards, and Aaron Ramsey who threatens to do the same. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain must beware or he too may hit the Arsenal wall in the coming months. Ended the season with no trophies, as usual, but did squeak into the Champions League places owing to Tottenham’s annual collapse.
Transfers: Santi Cazorla fulfils the tiny midfield acquisition quote for this transfer window, costing £15m from Malaga, but he’s impressed in La Liga and looks a shrewd buy. Olivier Giroud (Montpellier, £13m) and Lukas Podolski (Cologne, £11m) are exactly the sort of signings Arsenal needed two years ago, and still need at centre back. Denilson has joined Sao Paulo on loan, leading the departures.
Manager: It’s obligatory when discussing the merits of Arsene Wenger’s performance as Arsenal manager to state a few things in advance. So let me begin by saying that I accept all the stuff about the complete transformation of Arsenal as a club, the stadium, the training ground, the effect on the English game, the revolution in players’ diets, the fitness and everything else that the Frenchman has brought to this country over the past decade and more. I also accept that it’s rather difficult to criticise Wenger too heavily when he consistently qualifies for the Champions League while selling his star men, refusing to pay the exorbitant transfer fees for other team’s mediocre players and investing in youth before and above all else. However, surely somewhere along the line there has to be flexibility? For the past three seasons Arsenal have been crying out for a quality spine to their team – a commanding centre back, a domineering central midfield player, and a physical presence in their attack. To instead go out and buy one tiny attacking midfielder after another – almost all of them too slight to play in the middle and not quick enough to play on the wing – and then get yourself into a position where, when you do spend money, it’s done in a panic on Per Merteracker makes a mockery of Wenger’s “professor” nickname. This summer, in attack at least, Wenger has finally done what he should have done a long time ago. Arsenal should have been winning trophies regularly over the last few years because of the position Wenger has moved the club into, but they’ve failed to do so because of the failings of Wenger’s management in recent times.
This Season: My God they’ve spent money: money on players who are older than 17 and taller than 5ft 3ins tall; money on players who aren’t tippy, tappy attacking midfielders. A shame really that the likes of Samir Nasri, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Cesc Fabregas and now possibly Robin Van Persie all got bored of waiting for this day in the meantime and went elsewhere otherwise they have a team capable of challenging for the title. They still might – Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski look like exciting signings in just the position Arsenal need to strengthen and if Van Persie does stick around then that’s an attack capable of big things. Santi Cazorla satisfies Wenger’s midget fettish for this transfer window, but good things have been said and written about the Malaga midfielder and he could also prove to be an excellent acquisition. I can’t help but think they’ve made these signings 18 months too late though, and their defence still looks like a disaster waiting to happen.
Odds: Fourth favourites. Tens, elevens and twelves available generally. Best title price 27/2 with Pinnacle.
If they were a character in The Simpsons… Sideshow Bob: convinced of their own superiority with little tangible evidence of late to back it up.
Newcastle – 5th
In 140 characters or less… Surprise package with well scouted, intelligently assembled team. Likely to do well again, if only because of Liverpool and Spurs failings.
Last Season: Proof, if ever it were needed, that the predictions made by the LFW Season Preview, and in general, are absolute nonsense most of the time. That’s right, I tipped Newcastle as an outside bet for relegation and they turned out to be Champions League contenders. This time last year Newcastle were allowing the players who’d done so well for them after promotion – Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton – to leave and replacing them, seemingly on the cheap, with foreign imports. But when Newcastle import from abroad, they do it with the league’s best scouting set up rather than through favoured agents pushing clients with grainy video tapes. Thus they have completed a remarkable three year turn around in which they climbed a division and qualified for Europe while reducing their wage bill and making a profit in the transfer market. From beer swilling buffoon, Mike Ashley is now seen as a successful hard-nosed football chairman, sticking to his guns through a hail of abuse and protest to build a younger, better, more successful, more attractive team. Alan Pardew has gone from arrogant idiot appointed only because he used to bet in the same casino as CEO Derek Llambias to a potential future England manager. Demba Ba is no longer the knock-kneed crock who failed a medical at Stoke, and is now one of the league’s best strikers. Graham Carr is no longer nknown as dad of comedian Alan and former non-league manager with a penchant for long ball football, but the best scout in the British game. Who would have thought it? Not me, that’s for sure.
Transfers: So far the Magpies have spent £1m on Coventry youngster Gael Bigirimana – to the player’s surprise as much as anybody – signed Romain Amalfitano on a free from Reims and added young Australian defender Curtis Good for an undisclosed fee. Danny Guthrie has gone to Reading, Alan Smith to MK Dons, Peter Lovenkrands to Birmingham and Leon Best to Blackburn for £3m which no doubt cut a sizeable chunk off the age bill with no negative effect on the first team. Fraser Forster has finally made his move to Celtic permanent after a succession of loan deals.
Manager: I’ve always thought of Alan Pardew as a bit of an arrogant idiot to be quite honest with you, there’s just something about him that I’ve never liked without ever being able to put my finger on it. I’m not alone either because when he was on his way north to take the Newcastle job he said the abuse he was receiving on radio phone ins almost made him turn his car around and go home again. But he got Reading moving out of the third tier when others had tried and failed, he got West Ham into the Premier League and an FA Cup final, and he did a reasonable job at Southampton considering their points deduction at the time the other side of a poor do all round at Charlton. That arrogance that puts me off him proved to be a blessing at Newcastle where he broke up an established dressing room clique with no discernible negative impact in on field performances (take note Andre Villas Boas; slipped seamlessly into the job of a popular previous incumbent who was liked by fans and players with dignity and success; and has Newcastle playing good, attractive, winning, attacking football. Pardew’s struggles have always come when results turn slightly – he falls out with people quickly – so let’s see what happens when the inevitable tough spell comes along.
Sack Race Odds – 25/1 shortest price, but generally available at 40/1 and rated the fifth least likely boss to go first this season.
This Season: A lot of the potential problems for Newcastle this season are based around this all being a little bit too good to be true. Alan Pardew falls out with players when things go awry – we’ve seen it at West Ham, Charlton and Southampton – and he hasn’t had a dip in form at Newcastle where that may happen yet. Graham Carr is not some all seeing, all knowing God and he will eventually pick a bad player or two. Players like Ba, Papiss Cisse and Yohann Cabaye have to tackle that ‘difficult second season’ syndrome and then, if they do it successfully, ignore the inevitable transfer speculation that comes their way. Newcastle may also find selling clubs less willing to part with players cheaply once they learn Carr and Pardew want them, and other clubs with deeper pockets trying to steal a march on them – they’ve already missed out on targets this summer. And it’s worth saying they were tremendously fortunate with injuries last season and kept their key men out on the field most weeks which isn’t likely to happen again. However, on the positive side Newcastle have improved year on year for three seasons now, the signing of Cisse in January showed that their summer acquisitions were no fluke, and two of their biggest threats for that last Champions League and first Europa League spot – Spurs and Liverpool – are both in massive transition and upheaval themselves. I see no reason why they can’t go just as well again this year.
Odds: Seventh favourites for the title with prices generally ranging from 100/1 to 175/1. Best price is a rather bizarre 193/1 with BetDaq.
If they were a character in The Simpsons… Barney Gumble: Impressive when sober and behaving properly, but prone to quickly descending into crisis and self despair. Good at downing pints.
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