In the 2nd part of my 2012/13 Premier League Preview I examine the likely relegation candidates and make my predictions for the upcoming season
Can McDermott Keep a Smile on this Royals' Face?
In this the second part of our 2012/12 Barclays Premier League preview (check out Part 1), I’ll take a look at the teams likely to be involved in the relegation dogfight come the end of the season and which team may be the surprise package. The article will conclude with a list of predictions, from which teams will make the Champions’ League spots to which player will complete the most passes during the upcoming season.
When looking at who may be relegated from the Premier League in any season, it is always sensible to begin with the clubs who have just emerged from the Championship. This year, those three clubs are Reading, Southampton and West Ham.
Reading won the Championship title last year with a haul of 89 points from 46 games, narrowly edging out, long time leaders, Southampton who finished the campaign just one point behind the Royals. Manager Brian McDermott took over from Brendan Rodgers in 2009 and prior to that spent eight years at the club in a scouting capacity, so he knows the club and his players well.
Having been defeated by Rodgers’ Swansea 4-2 in the 10/11 play-off final, McDermott and his side were at an all-time low, it took a while for the hangover to clear and things to start picking up again. After a poor start to the 11/12 campaign, the Royals got back on track in December with four straight wins and after Christmas they embarked on a run which would see them lose just once in their last 17 games; a sequence which would carry them to ultimate glory.
The signing of Jason Roberts from Blackburn in January was an inspired move as the veteran, journeyman striker played a pivotal role in Reading’s revival, embodying the spirit of his new boss on the pitch. The key to the Royal’s success in the first half of this year was their mean back four which allowed them to win many matches 1-0 and, although their away form wasn’t bad, it was the Royals’ form at the Madejski that made their push to the top of the league possible.
So far this summer, Reading have added six new faces. Danny Guthrie, Adrian Mariappa, Chris Gunter, Pavel Pogrebnyak, Garath McCleary have all come in, with left-back Nicky Shorey returning to his former stamping ground. Reinforcements have arrived but are they good enough to keep Reading in with the big boys for more than one season?
Pogrebnyak is a goal-scorer. He showed that in his brief spell at Fulham, however, his career before arriving in London had tailed off and it is unclear whether the big Russian has the quality to be a consistent Premier League performer. Jason Roberts is a handful and was exactly the type of player Reading needed when they signed him, however, many would say that his Premier League days are behind him. McCleary is interesting, the winger having scored nine goals for Forest last season, but again, there must be huge question-marks over his readiness for the top-level. The others are solid at lower-levels but are all relatively untested in the Premier League, with the exception of Danny Guthrie who did well for Newcastle last year when called upon to play.
In my opinion, Reading will struggle. The reason I’m saying this is because the Royals recorded fewer goals than any other Championship top six side last season, with the exception of Cardiff in sixth. As I mentioned above, they relied on home form and in particular on 1-0 wins, these are not as easy to come by in the Premier League. As it stands, I can’t see them scoring enough goals and I don’t believe that they’ll be able to rely on their defence in the same way as last year. The team spirit at Reading is tremendous by all accounts as the core of the team has been through a lot together, however, they will need more than that if they’re going to survive. Personally I think it’ll be a bridge too far.
Southampton will be making a long overdue return to the Premier League this season after gaining automatic promotion from the Championship, finishing second behind Reading on 88 points. After seven seasons away from the big-time, the Saints are back but can they survive?
When the Saints Go Marchin' In!
Saints had a fantastic Championship campaign last term, remaining in the top two in the league for the entire season. At St. Mary’s Southampton were irresistible, winning sixteen and losing just three of their 23 home fixtures, scoring 49 goals in the process. Whilst their away form wasn’t too shabby, it was their home form that made them so strong.
Overall, Saints banged in 85 goals in 46 matches, that’s fifteen more than Reading and more than any other club in the division. Crucial to securing that tally was the contribution of Ricky Lambert, the robust striker has never played in the top tier, but a haul of 27 goals and 14 assists from 42 games, would appear to suggest that he is ready to make the step up.
Saints young manager Nigel Adkins has added Jay Rodriguez to his attacking ranks for the upcoming season, forking out a club record £7m for the 23 year old hotshot who scored 21 goals in all competitions for Burnley last season. Adam Lallana is a gifted, creative midfielder who Adkins has done well to keep at St. Mary’s amidst interest from several more established Premier League clubs. Saints have also completed the signing of England U-21 defender Nathaniel Clyne from Crystal Palace and Stephen Davis from Rangers, although there are complications surrounding the latter’s move.
It’s good to see Southampton back in the top division. Before 2004/5, the club maintained top tier status for 27 seasons and during that time we saw the likes of Alan Shearer and Marian Pahars ply their trade on the South coast, as well as the uniquely gifted Matt le Tissier, Southampton’s number one adopted son. The exciting, attacking brand of football favoured by Adkins, combined with plenty of fire-power and some shrewd signings could well be enough to see Saints safe this term, hopefully it will be.
The third club to gain promotion was West Ham and they did so via the play-offs. West Ham were the favourites for automatic promotion, especially with Sam Allardyce at the helm and Premier League veterans such as Rob Green and Kevin Nolan amongst their ranks. However, too many drawn games, especially at home, hampered their progress. They came through the play-offs convincingly enough though and are probably the most likely of the three new-boys to maintain their top flight status for next year.
The Hammers scored 81 goals in their run to the play-offs and lost only eight games all season. Sam Allardyce has assembled a strong squad and has added to it further since the end of last term. Allardyce knows all too well how to survive in the Premier League, having kept Bolton afloat in the big time for the lion’s share of his eight year tenure at the club, and he has sought to strengthen in key positions.
French international midfielder Alou Diarra has come in from Marseille for a fee of £2million, whilst Aston Villa’s James Collins has been brought in to shore up the centre of defence, having arrived for a fee of £2.5m. Malian striker Maiga has been brought in to supplement Ricardo VazTe in attack. The forward, who can also play wide, will provide added pace to West Ham’s strike force and carries a decent goal threat, having scored 24 league goals in 59 games for struggling Ligue 1 outfit Sochaux.
West Ham will probably have enough to avoid the drop. They have a larger budget than either of the other two promoted clubS and with Big Sam’s pragmatic approach to playing the game, the experience which they possess within their ranks and the fact that they are widely thought to have underachieved last season will all work in their favour.
Turning our attention to teams already in the Premier League who may struggle this season and we’ll begin with Swansea. Taking a brief look at the Swans, they had a fantastic debut season in the E.P.L. last year. Brendan Rodgers guided them to an 11th place finish and all looked set to be rosy long into the future at the Liberty.
Fast forward twelve weeks and Brendan Rodgers has gone, taking Joe Allen with him. Rodgers was a key inspirational figure as manager of Swansea and most of their short-passing game was built around Allen. Scott Sinclair is a reported target for Man. City and new boss Michael Laudrup will be praying that he doesn’t leave too.
Rodgers had Swansea overachieving, there’s no doubt about that. Whilst the system had been in place at the Liberty for a while, it was the advent of the hard pressing high-up the pitch, introduced by Rodgers, which really revolutionised the Swans. Laudrup is a good manager but he could have trouble kindling a similar rapport with players who obviously gave everything for their former boss. Without Allen, Swansea will find it harder to dominate possession and without control over football matches, they will find it very hard to emulate the successes of last season.
Norwich City also had a stellar Premier League season after gaining promotion from the Championship in 2011. Under former coach Paul Lambert, the Canaries achieved back to back promotions to reach the Premier League and, once there, they took to the big stage like a duck to water. Lambert forged a team in his own image, hard-working, committed and by no means intimidated by the “big boys”.
Unfortunately for the Norfolk outfit, they too lost their talismanic manager to a bigger club who had fallen on hard times, in the shape of Aston Villa. Chris Hughton has since taken over the reins at Carrow road and, like Laudrup at Swansea, he may find it very difficult to get the best out of a squad who clearly played over and above themselves for the previous boss.
Second season syndrome, as it has become known, is a very real problem for clubs seeking to establish themselves as Premier League mainstays and Hughton must make sure that everybody is as committed as they were last season or the Canaries could be in trouble. Holding onto Grant Holt was a major coup for Hughton as the striker had expressed his wish to leave Carrow Road. Provided he can repeat his goal-scoring exploits this term then Norwich may have enough to beat the drop, if not, they could well be back in the Championship come next May.
West Bromwich Albion face a really tough season ahead. Having lost manager Roy Hodgson to the England job, the Baggies moved quickly to replace him with former Liverpool and Chelsea coach Steve Clarke, offering him his first managerial post. Although Clarke has vast experience in football, he has never had the top job and there must be a question mark over whether he will adapt to being in the limelight.
Odemwengie Must Fire if Baggies are to Survive!
West Brom. did well under Hodgson, whose rigid tactic- two banks of four, hard work and nothing fancy-bedded in quickly last season. Steve Clarke, however, faces the task of trying to change that philosophy, which won’t be easy. Clarke worked with Mourinho at Chelsea for a long period and more recently under Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool, both managers and clubs who like to play attractive football so it will be interesting to see just what approach Clarke takes with the Baggies in the forthcoming season.
Home form was a real problem for West Brom last term with the Baggies struggling to hit the back of the net with any degree of regularity in front of their own fans. Having moved Simon Cox onto Forest, it is looking increasingly like Clarke will have to rely on Shane Long and Peter Odemwengie to get the goals. Whilst both are certainly capable of scoring goals at the top level, I’m hard pushed to think of a more erratic Premier League strike partnership.
There are, of course, other teams who may get dragged into the mire come the end of the season. Many have touted Wigan to finally lose their place at the top table, however, Roberto Martinez’s side are used to the scrap by now and even if Moses signs for Chelsea, the Latics have repeatedly sold their prize assets during Martinez’s tenure yet the Spaniard continually comes up with the goods to keep Dave Whelan’s side up. Villa are another side that some feel will struggle, particularly after their annis horriblis under Alex McCleish, however, whilst they are unlikely to set the world on fire, they are surely bound to improve with Lambert at the helm.
There is always at least one surprise package in each Premier League season. Last year Newcastle were the big shock, qualifying for a European place after having sold what were ostensibly all of their best players. Swansea and Norwich put in great performances all season too, comfortably ensuring their survival. This year, look out for Sunderland who I think could sneak into seventh or eighth under Martin O’Neill, ahead of local rivals Newcastle who I think will struggle. I have a feeling that Fulham could be in for a tough year. There have been a lot of departures from Craven Cottage and very few new recruits, if Dempsey goes, practically all of their attacking options from last year will have left, with Johnson, Zamora and Pogrebnyak already out the door.
However, I think the real shock team will be Southampton. Utilising their magnificent home support and the fabulous team spirit fostered under Nigel Adkins (something which winning two promotions back to back can give you), Southampton can do well and can perhaps hope to follow the example laid down by Swansea and Norwich last year. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Lallana, Lambert and Jay Rodriguez make the step up to the Premier League, potentially they are a very exciting attacking trio.
So to the predictions then (here goes nothing) and I may as well begin at the bottom. Bottom Three: West Brom, Reading and Norwich (not necessarily in that order). Top Six: City, United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton ( in order). Top 3 scorers Jelavic, Aguero, Suarez (any order). Most Clean Sheets: Joe Hart. Most Successful Tackles: Lucas Leiva. Most Successful Passes: Joe Allen. Most Assists: Antonio Valencia.
That concludes our Barclays Premier League preview and predictions for the 2012/13 season. All that remains is for us to sit back, watch the drama unfold and see if any of these predictions bear any resemblance at all to what actually transpires over the course of the campaign. The action gets underway in less than 48 hrs, I’m sure your looking forward to it as much as I am so I’ll leave you with four little words that we all love to hear. The football is BACK!
Read Part 1 of the Barclays Premier League preview
McDermott image by Pyro's Pictures 2011 aka Pyro Rock Monster Petty. Southamptonimage by Markhig aka Mark Higgins. Odemwengie image by Beacon Radio