LFW Season Preview Part Two – The Chasing Pack
Monday, 13th Aug 2012 16:09 by Clive Whittingham
The second instalment of our annual season preview looks at the teams we think will finish between sixth and tenth with the new look Spurs and Liverpool set ups previewed alongside Everton, Sunderland and Villa.
While the top four pretty much picks itself, the chasing pack is rather more uncertain and the disadvantage of writing this preview now, rather than at the end of the transfer window, is there for all to see when you look at the lack of summer signings made by these five teams. Further departures from Everton, big name strikers arriving at Spurs and strikers of any sort arriving at Sunderland will change the picture completely but for now LFW is going with….
In 140 characters or less… In need of a takeover, or a breakthrough in human cloning that will allow them to stockpile David Moyes copies for the next 200 years.
Last Season: Started badly after selling star players, played the January transfer window better than anybody else, finished like an express train, unlucky not to win the FA Cup. Pretty much the story of David Moyes' ten year reign at Goodison Park. When QPR arrived on Merseyside for Everton's first home match of the season Moyes left out Louis Saha and Yakubu, and ended the game with midfielder Marouane Fellaini playing (badly) up front in a 1-0 defeat. They then, as they seem to do most transfer windows, sold their star name, Mikel Arteta on this occasion, for big money at the last minute. By the time they came to Loftus Road and drew 1-1 in March they were accelerating through the FA Cup towards the semi final, had brought in Nickica Jelavic from Rangers and Steven Pienaar on loan from Spurs to great effect, and shown a decent knowledge of the foreign leagues to add Royston Drenthe and Denis Stracqualursi as well. Hell, even Darron Gibson started to look like a player after arriving from Man Utd. They lost ten matches up to January 11 and only three out of 23 thereafter. If Moyes could ever find a way to start the season as Everton finish them they'd be a real force, but given the situation with the club's finances and the necessity to sell players each year it's a miracle they're as secure in the top flight as they seem to be.
Signings: Pienaar is back permanently and is a superb signing, much needed after Tm Cahill’s departure to New York. Jack Rodwell is this summer’s big money departure but wasn’t nearly as important to the team as their previous sales and Moyes has a good record of using the money wisely – he’s also got time to do so which hasn’t always been the case with players leaving at the last minute. Steven Naismith has been picked off from the wreck of Glasgow Rangers for free.
Manager: The question about David Moyes is no longer 'how long can he keep this up?' because it's clear that he can keep this up for a very long time. Nowadays people wonder where he's going next and when. He seems to have long been earmarked as Alex Ferguson's successor at Manchester United although I fancy Jose Mourinho for that post. In any case, it will probably be better to be the man who succeeds the man who succeeds Alex Ferguson rather than the first in, and the same probably applies to Moyes' replacement at Everton. To not only keep Everton in the Premier League but have them pushing for Europe and cup competitions while selling the best players each year is a remarkable achievement, but there will be question marks over Moyes until he proves he can do it at more than one Premiership club. I've seen it suggested that he's suited to the wheeling and dealing, low expectations and high achievements at Everton and given money and pressures to make the Champions League he wouldn't do as well. Certainly Everton are often quite a cautious team, setting out not lose games rather than to win them, which wouldn't work as well at the top teams in the division. Still, I think it's a minor scandal that both Chelsea and Tottenham have spent big money to make Andre Villas Boas their manager on the basis that he might turn out to be a throaty Mourinho while leaving Moyes in post untouched.
Sack Race Odds – 33/1 the longest price with Stan James and William Hill, generally around 25/1
This Season: Perhaps this could be the year where Everton really go well from the off. Once more there's talk of a big money departure, with the leading lights in the division hovering over the head of Leighton Baines at the time of writing, but the loss of a left back, however talented, isn't quite as detrimental to a team's chances as when the central midfielders, defenders and forwards leave as has happened to Everton with great regularity of late – Joleon Lescott, Mikel Arteta, Wayne Rooney, Steven Pienaar, Andy Johnson etc. Steven Pienaar is back permanently, and given his declining form last season the departure of Tim Cahill isn't the disaster, or money maker, it might once have been. I’ve never really bought into the idea that Jack Rodwell is the next great white hope of English football and I fancy Everton have got the better end of that deal. Much depends on how Nickica Jelavic copes with second season syndrome. I wrote him off, as I do any player who moves from the Scottish leagues because it's like buying your meat from Lidl, but he looked superb last season and complemented Everton's style of play beautifully. If he continues that form into a new season and Baines stays put then I think things look like they're falling into place for a seriously good season for Everton. As always, transfer window departures and squad depth are the key threats, but there's a starting 11 capable of the top six in there certainly and exciting youngsters like Ross Barkley are ready to step into the breach.
Odds: The bookies have them finishing eighth, generally between 250/1 and 300/1 for the title.
As a character from Mario Kart… Bowser: Slow as a fully laden articulated truck with three flat tyres off the line and takes six months to get up to full speed but almost unstoppable when they finally do.
Tottenham – 7th
In 140 characters or less… Gleefully leaping over fence at promise of greener grass. Should beware old sayings and inexperienced idiots who can't clear their throat.
Last Season: Fabio Capello, rather cheekily, suggested in the press that England would have done better at the European Championships had he remained in charge. By the same token, I fancy Spurs would be preparing for a Champions League campaign with Harry Redknapp as manager had the Italian remained as national team boss until the end of last season as well. Don’t get me wrong, Redknapp had clearly made mistakes before the whole England-job saga invaded his life. Tottenham’s performance against QPR at White Hart Lane was the best I saw against Rangers in the entire season with Bale, Van Der Vaart, Modric and Parker all absolutely outstanding but the problem with that was they probably could have beaten QPR easily enough had they given two of those four that week off. By Christmas Redknapp had used the fewest number of players in the league of any other manager, and over the second half of the campaign Spurs often looked a tired, spent force. With very decent squad players like Kranjcar knocking around Spurs should have rotated their squad a lot more. But it’s clear to see from their form before Fabio Capello resigned and the press immediately crowned Redknapp as his successor, and their form at the end of the year when it became clear it was going to be Roy Hodgson instead, that the whole saga had a massive effect on the level of team performance. Redknapp denied it at the time of course, but then rather undermined his own argument by trying to wangle a new contract out of Daniel Levy this summer by saying the uncertainty over his future would affect the players. Had Capello stayed I doubt England would have done any better, but I’m sure Spurs would have done.
Transfers: With Ledley King finally giving up the fight against his knee condition and retiring a new defender was needed and Spurs have spent £12m on Belgian utility man Jan Vertonghen from Ajax. In midfield they’ve added intelligently, beating Liverpool and Swansea to the £6.8m signing of Gylfi Sigurdsson. Problems elsewhere though – the squad depth that Harry Redknapp never used has been eroded with Vedran Korluka, Niko Kranjcar and Steven Pienaar on their way to Lokomotiv Moscow, Dynamo Kiev and Everton respectively for a combined income of £11.5m. Louis Saha has been released and Emmanuel Adebayor is still living in financial cuckoo land so his loan deal hasn’t been made permanent. At the moment Jermain Defoe is their only senior striker.
Manager: Andre Villas Boas, from what I’ve heard over the last 12 months, talks a whole lot of nonsense about nothing very much at all through a blocked sinus. He talks a lot about projects and processes and the team and the collective and what have you but looks and sounds like the sort of bullshitter that an overpaid, underworked, badly motivated group of Premiership footballers will pay little attention to. What we do know is he’s very young – because for three months as Chelsea manager there was a feature in a newspaper every day that told us he was very young, and then he was sacked so luckily they didn’t ever need to think of another hook. We also know that in Portugal he carved through the league like some sort of hairy, nasally knife through a pile of soft, warm butter. And that’s it. This has so far been enough for Chelsea to spend an exorbitant amount of money to get him out of Porto, and then another ridiculous amount to sack him, and for Tottenham to get rid of Harry Redknapp and bring him in. Clearly when he does clear his throat and start talking about actual, tangible things he’s impressing the right people at the right time.
Sack Race Odds – shortest price 16s, longest price 25s, around halfway on the list. A good outside bet.
This Season: As is the case with Manchester United, writing a pre-season preview of Tottenham the week before the season starts as opposed to the end of the transfer window isn’t ideal. I look down Tottenham’s squad list as we stand today and find Jermain Defoe as their only senior, out and out striker and if the press is to be believed they’ve spent some time this summer trying to offload him as well. Now one of several things is happening here: Andre Villas Boas is planning some sort of weird Spain-like 4-6-0 set up, youth team graduate Harry Kane is in fact the next Lionel Messi and is about to take the Premier League by storm, or two or three strikers are coming in over the next fortnight or so. I’m almost certain it’s the latter. If it’s the former they’re in trouble because it doesn’t look like Luka Modric is sticking around much longer. Unless the striker signings are absolutely awesome, and Modric stays and plays as he did last season, then I can’t see Tottenham doing as well as they have done over the past three seasons. Whether Villas Boas does well or not there will be a transition period initially and he is so totally different to Harry Redknapp, whose performance over the last six months gave a false impression of the job he did overall at Spurs. I await their signings with interest but at the moment I don’t fancy them to make any impact at the top end of the table this season.
Odds: Fifth favourites. Best price 35/1 with YouWin, otherwise it’s 25/1 and 33/1 elsewhere.
If they were a character in Mario Kart… Princess: Pretty to look at and fast off the line but rarely anywhere to be seen when the chequered flag falls.
Liverpool – 8th
In 140 characters or less… Racist. Have a piece of paper to prove it. Should improve for sacking Dalglish, but slowly and over several years. #negrito
Last Season: Won the League Cup and reached the FA Cup final, so it seems harsh to describe the campaign as a bit of a shambles but by the end that’s certainly what it was. Having hounded Roy Hodgson out of a job he was doing with at least one hand held behind his back by the boardroom situation at the time, the Anfield faithful then said nothing as Kenny Dalglish did a job every bit as bad as his predecessor with ten times the backing from his bosses. He spent £35m on Andy Carroll, £15m on Stewart Downing and, even more ludicrously, £18m on Jordan Henderson working in tandem with director of football Damian Comolli who has, quite rightly, also been booted out this summer. Their one good signing, Luis Suarez, sadly turned out to be a racist, rat faced horrible little cheat as well as a damn fine player and Dalglish proceeded to drag the name of the club through the mud by making increasingly outlandish and pig headed comments to the media in defence of the Uruguayan after his repeated racial abuse of Patrice Evra. They struggled to win home matches – 13 teams left with at least a point – and they lost ten times on the road as well. While Dalglish will always be The King to The Kop, deep down they’d all surely acknowledge with hindsight that his re-appointment as manager was a bloody stupid idea, and a very expensive mistake.
Transfers: Never shy of paying four times what a player is worth to secure his signature, Liverpool have spent £15m on Swansea’s Joe Allen and £10.5m on Roma’s Fabio Borini this summer. Gylfi Sigurdsson – a good signing – went to Spurs for £7m, and I thought it strange that Liverpool allowed that to happen. A previous act of lunacy, Alberto Aquilani, has moved to Fiorentina at a huge loss after three years and just 28 appearances for Liverpool – you don’t get much for your £20m these days. Dirk Kuyt (Fenbahce, £1m), Craig Bellamy (Cardiff, free) and Maxi Rodriguez (Newells OB, undisclosed) have left as their careers wind down but they were three of their better players last season when used and will be missed.
Manager: Brendan Rodgers is one of those trendy new managers who never played the game with any kind of success and started coaching at the age of six by guiding a small Norwegian team to the Champions League semi finals. Or something. His one failure to date was at Reading where he was poached from Watford with the remit of totally rebuilding the Royals after relegation over the course of three years and then sacked after six months. So at least he’ll be used to it if that reasonably likely course of action comes to pass at Anfield. At Watford he took a team destined for relegation and saved it with some style, making Tamas Priskin look like a footballer along the way, and at Swansea he continued the good work of his predecessors by promoting them into the Premier League and then keeping them there last season with something to spare. Rodgers always did favour a steady, patient possession game prior to arriving at the Liberty Stadium but having followed Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa into the job he married his own ideas with their groundwork and took the pattern of play to a whole new level of attractiveness/monotony. It will be interesting to see just how much he tries to change Liverpool’s style of play, how quickly, and how long he is given by the supporters if his ideas don’t work straight away. Not a bad sack race bet if things start badly.
Sack Race Odds – lowest price 16/1, highest price 20/1. Bang in the middle of the list.
This Season: Since Rodgers arrived Liverpool have tried to flog Andy Carroll back to Newcastle, and then tried to loan him out to West Ham. Meanwhile, on the way in is diminutive Italian striker Fabio Borini. You don’t have to be Carole Vorderman to work out what’s going on here do you? What we’re seeing is a complete about face – out with the curmudgeonly old veteran manager and his traditional ways and ideas, and in with the new broom and his modern methods. Where once Dalglish envisaged a big man-little man strike partnership of Suarez and Carroll fed crosses from wide areas by Downing and Henderson with set pieces from Gerrard and Adam now we’re likely to see an attempt at total football with a hard working lone striker backed by a cast of three technically gifted players and backed still further by two deep lying ball players. You’ll be able to count the long balls played by this team on the fingers of one hand come May. But this will all take time. Rodgers is an inexperienced manager, faced with a dressing room full of egos. He has a plethora of midfield players who all cost an absolute fortune and with the exception (possibly) of Gerrard don’t immediately look like ideal fits into his style of play. Bringing in his own players and finding buyers for the failures he has inherited is going to be difficult enough without trying to change the entire playing style and ethos as well. Rodgers needs patience and time, and while Liverpool fans are always at pains to say how they rarely call for the head of a manager they weren’t very sympathetic to the conditions Roy Hodgson had to work under and it won’t take many defeats for the “not a big enough name for a club like Liverpool” merchants dial into 606. Whether they like it or not, this will be a season of transition for the Reds, and I can’t see any way they’ll get close to the top four.
Odds: Sixth favourites for the league, best price 40/1 with BetVictor, despite them finishing the year with QPR at home and therefore sure to win something somewhere. 25/1 and 33/1 available generally.
If they were a character in The Simpsons… Grandpa Simpson: Achieved nothing for years but never shy of talking your ear off about the last time they did.
Sunderland – 9th
In 140 characters or less… One of the league's best managers in charge of one of its worst attacks. Expect their set pieces to be shit hot as a result.
Last Season: Since climbing back into the Premiership under the management of Roy Keane in 2007, Sunderland 's transfer window activity has been extraordinary. Extraordinary in the number of players involved – they've turned over 86 either in or out in five seasons. Extraordinary in the amount of money involved – they've spent £126.2m and recouped £72.7m. And extraordinary in the sheer lack of benefit they've drawn from it all – they kicked off last year still without a left back of any description, and lacking a striker to such an extent they had to borrow Nicklas Bendtner from Arsenal at the last minute. Steve Bruce was by no means solely responsible for all of this – Roy Keane spunked more than his fair share prior to Bruce's arrival – but that failure to replace the departing Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan, and the continuing need to use Kieran Richardson, one of the league's best wingers, as an auxiliary left full back coupled with his Geordie heritage always gave the set up a car crash look. So it proved. Bruce looked like a heart attack waiting to happen with cholesterol oozing from every pore by the time Niall Quinn and Ellis Short performed a long overdue mercy killing after a home defeat by lowly Wigan . Their new manager bounce under Martin O'Neill was impressive – as it would be when you appoint a manager as good as him – but the shortcomings in the squad remained and towards the end of the season results declined. They spurned the chance of a trip to Wembley by losing an FA Cup replay to resurgent Everton on their own patch and won none of their last eight league games after that. In fact their last win of any sort was against QPR on March 24 at the Stadium of Light.
Signings: O’Neill has beefed up the defence by signing Carlos Cuellar for the second time in their careers, on a free from Aston Villa. It’s a matter of when not if for striker Stephen Fletcher who submitted a transfer request after a hefty £12m bid was knocked back by relegated Wolves last week. Michael Turner has left for Norwich and Asamoah Gyan has completed his move to the Middle East. With Bendtner now back at Arsenal they lack strikers, even if Fletcher does arrive.
Manager: I still rate Martin O'Neill as just about the best pound-for-pound manager in the Premier League at the moment - right up there with David Moyes. Apart from a brief spell with Norwich when Robert Chase was running the place into the ground he's never done a bad job at any of his clubs with promotions, cup runs and trophies a plenty for Wycombe, Leicester and Celtic. At Aston Villa he guided them to sixth for three consecutive seasons and was hung for lacking the ability to take them any further – Villa's performances since then under two different bosses show how grateful the Villa Park faithful should have been with what he was doing. At Sunderland he took over a flawed team low on confidence and corrected the latter. The former came back to haunt them at the end of the season and having passed up the opportunity to correct obvious problems with personnel in the January transfer window O'Neill must move for a couple of names in the coming fortnight or risk relying on his renowned motivational skills alone.
Sack Race Odds – Probably the widest range of odds for any manger. Sky Bet have him at 14/1 at the moment and that price is narrowing. Stan James have him at 40/1 which is bettered only by Mancini and Ferguson. You can have pretty much any price in between too with 25s, 28s and 33s all available.
This Season: Well, as yet, all the problems with the team still remain. They're even lighter in attack than they were last season with Bendtner's loan spell up and Asamoah Gyan completing his terrifically ambitious move to the Middle East on a permanent basis. Carlos Cuellar has come in from Aston Villa and may potentially play left back to allow Richardson to push forward, although given that they were happy to allow Michael Turner to go to Norwich it looks like O'Neill sees him in his favoured centre back role. Essentially this is another team I'm placing higher than I should do when you look at them on paper based on who their manager is and who they may sign between now and the end of the window. Stephen Fletcher looks overpriced at £12m but if they do get him he's just the sort of player O'Neill could get the very best out of and his partnership with the excellent Stephane Sessegnon could be dangerous. As we saw last season with Bolton though, and as I’ll say later on this week when speaking about Stoke, a team that finishes the previous season with no wins in ten can be a danger to itself when the season starts again.
Odds: The bookies have them ninth as well. Their title odds are 1000/1 across the board although bizarrely 188Bet has them, and another 12 sides including the three promoted teams, at 200/1 to win the league this year.
As a historical army… The Viet Cong: Attempting to take on the best in the world with no firepower whatsoever.
Aston Villa – 10th
In 140 characters or less… Lucky to escape the usually clinical work of the McRelegator. Could have appointed a dead chimp this summer and improved.
Last Season: Randy Lerner may have the name of a novice porn star, but he was once heralded as the dream football chairman thanks to a winning combination of non-interference and deep pockets. But since Martin O'Neill left in a bit of a huff and the nucleus of his perennially sixth placed team was sold off without adequate replacement things have turned rather sour. Lerner, it transpires, couldn't appoint a good manager if his very life depended on it. It was certainly a tough task to make a worse decision than bringing in walking heart attack Gerrard Houllier the season before but last summer Lerner surpassed himself spectacularly. He failed to prize Roberto Martinez away from Wigan, then seemed to get cold feet with Mark Hughes after the Welshman walked away from Fulham. The supporters threatened an uprising when he went for Steve McLaren and then - suddenly, randomly, terrifyingly – the balding ginger bonse of Alex 'The McRelegator' McLeish loomed large on the Aston Expressway. Pundits who like to have a drink with Alex McLeish said Villa fans were being small minded, opposing the move simply because he was coming from bitter cross-city rivals Birmingham, but they were wrong. Villa fans, who once quite rightly addressed David O’Leary’s dismissal of their opinions with a banner that said “we’re not fickle, we just don’t like you”, opposed the appointment because Alex McLeish couldn't manage Real Madrid to a midtable position in the Evo Stik Southern Premier Division. Having relegated perfectly reasonable Birmingham teams on two separate occasions he set about doing the same to Villa and had Mark Clattenburg and Michael Oliver spotted blatant handballs on the goal line from Alan Hutton in games against West Brom and QPR respectively – leading to defeats rather than draws – then he might have made it a hat trick.
Signings: Like many other Premiership sides this summer, Villa have been quiet in the market. Half hearted attempts by new boss Paul Lambert to raid his old Norwich team for Grant Holt and Jonny Howson have failed so far. Australian international Brett Holman has arrived from Alkmaar – a McLeish signing Lambert has inherited – and Feyenoord duo Karim El Ahmadi and Ron Vlaar for a combined fee of £5.2m. Sheff Utd youngster Matthew Lowton has signed for £3m. Defenders Carlos Cuellar (Sunderland, free) and James Collins (West Ham, £2.5m) have departed. Emile Heskey, tragically, had to be put down at the end of the season.
Manager: Paul Lambert had reached demi-God status with Norwich City by the time he walked away from Carrow Road this summer having promoted them two divisions in consecutive seasons and secured their Premier League status in 2011/12. To do so through sound scouting of the lower leagues which enabled him to make stars out of Anthony Pilkington, Grant Holt, Steve Morrison and others spoke volumes for his football knowledge, motivational ability and man management and he’ll need all three of those to turn around an ailing Villa side with the chairman tightening the purse strings in recent times. Lambert would appear to be ideal managerial material with an excellent playing career that included a Champions League win with Dortmund as well as the usual clutch of trophies that come with playing for the Old Firm north of the border. But beware thinking that all is right in the Villa Park world again simply because he's arrived. He's a massive improvement on McLeish certainly, but Lambert struggled at Livingston in his first job, failed to get Wycombe promoted in two attempts while admittedly tearing the cup competitions apart and walked out on Colchester in double quick time to join Norwich where he found a club with one of the biggest supports and turnovers outside the Premier League. Things will be tougher at Villa, a club where the fans' ambitions and expectations far outstrip any achievements on the field in the last 20 years.
Sack Race Odds – 25s generally, 28/1 with Stan James the longest price – 13 other managers more likely to go first than him according to the bookies, including Chris Hughton who replaced him at Norwich.
This Season: West Brom , as we'll reflect on later in this preview, don't believe in the English model of the football manager. Under the intelligent guidance of director of football Dan Ashworth the Baggies have been able to sustain success and maintain financial security for the best part of a decade now with managers as diverse as Gary Megson, Roberto Di Matteo and Roy Hodgson. Under their model it's not the personality in charge, it's the process he fits into that is the most important thing. If they're right, then Villa are going to struggle again this season because they've hardly added anything to a squad that played very poorly throughout last season. However, while I admire West Brom and believe that most managers apart from a select few at either end of the spectrum are probably much of a muchness, I think Alex McLeish is so truly, terribly, embarrassingly awful that Villa will improve by six or seven places this season with exactly the same team simply by not having him pick it. Darren Bent, if fit, guarantees goals and every player in this squad is a better footballer than he showed last season when managed by that chump. With a couple of signings surely still to come I foresee a very comfortable season of improvement and a midtable finish.
Odds: Tenth according to the bookies with title odds ranging from 1000/1 to 2000/1 once you discount 188Bet’s ludicrous 200/1 offering.
As a make of car… Alfa Romeo: Potentially the best car in the world but prone to frequent break downs.
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