Where next for Arsene(al)? – poll

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Where next for Arsene(al)?

Arsene Wenger is without doubt one of the greatest managers to have been employed in the Premier League since its inception in 1992, bettered only by Sir Alex in my view. His sides are trained on playing football, like Barcelona, in the right way – keeping it on the ground, building attacks through pacey passing and complex interplay. Wenger’s philosophy throughout has been to buy cheap, preferably young, and to cultivate and nurture players according to his own footballing mantra

Yesterday (Sunday 28 August), however, they were utterly outclassed, outplayed and outthought by an equally young Manchester United side, by 8 goals to 2. Wenger’s primary excuse, other than the alleged youth of his side, was the number of injuries and suspensions his side has suffered in recent weeks. This doesn’t sit at all with me as a reason for that kind of defeat, especially as (a) Manchester United were missing their two primary centre-backs and their first-choice right-back and (b) the manager is the man who is responsible for instilling discipline in his side – three red cards in three Premier League matches rather speaks for itself as far as Arsenal are concerned. The fact that, in my view, Manchester United have played better than they did against Arsenal at points this season (that second half at Wembley against Manchester City in particular) only serves further to demonstrate the utter ineptitude of Arsenal’s performance in Manchester.

It is abundantly clear that, as far as the remainder of this season (and indeed at least next season) goes, Wenger is going to have to spend some cash. In my previous blog, previewing the season that’s now begun, I said that Arsenal’s priorities had to be: a goalkeeper, a centre-back and a defensive midfielder. I think I’ll replace goalkeeper with left-back, given that Wojciech Szczesny appears to be on decent form (although he wasn’t at his best on Sunday, but then who was), and that Johan Djorou seems about as useful as a small giraffe at left back.

Therefore, I thought it might be useful to give Arsene some suggestions as to who he can buy (South Korean strikers excepted) from the world we call football in the next 48 hours or so. Purchases will have to be made, otherwise, given the complete lack of squad depth he has at his disposal, and indeed the apparent lack of ambition and understanding among his players, Arsenal might not even get into the Europa League next season…

Left Back

1. The first option for me in this position has to be Leighton Baines. Apparently Everton are not a selling club, though the fact that they appear to have no money to spend on players whatsoever might well change David Moyes’ views on this. Baines provides Wenger with an attacking option down the left, as well as being a sturdy defender. Furthermore, he’s a demon with a set piece, and at 26 (27 in December) is just reaching the peak years of his career.

2. Second option is one Wenger will never go for, because it involves buying a Barcelona player, but for me Maxwell provides something of a solution. He is, however, 30 years old, meaning Arsene will at most want to offer him a one-year contract, but again, he is mobile, perhaps less solid defensively, and is capable of the odd moment of magic. Not a solution for the future I know, but certainly one that will suffice in the shorter term.

Centre-back

It’s entirely apparent that Wenger needs someone to play at the back alongside Thomas Vermaelen, or to organise one or other of Squillaci and Koscielny when he’s not around. The more obvious candidates who’ve been bandied about (Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka) I’ll ignore, and suggest a couple of less likely (but equally good, and potentially less expensive) candidates.

1. He’s just won an international trophy and helped his side to a World Cup semi-final in 2010. For me, Diego Godin has to be one of the finest defenders from South America at the moment. He only signed for Atletico Madrid a year ago, so Arsenal may have to pay a premium for him, but if they are to go for him they will get a natural organiser, an aerial presence and, at 25, a relatively young man at the top of his game. He’s also a quality footballer for a central defender which will no doubt fit in with Wenger’s way of playing the beautiful game.

2. Another trophy winner (those who are used to winning trophies will definitely help too), Neven Subotic  has just had the season of his life for Borussia Dortmund. Although still a young man (only 22) he clearly has the pedigree to perform at a high level, and will provide some steel at the back as well. With 24 Serbian caps earned already, he has experience which the majority of his potential Arsenal team-mates could only dream of – and again as a classy defender he will play the game the way Wenger expects. He can also provide the odd goal from a set-piece (if, god forbid, Arsenal feel like flinging one into the box).

Defensive midfield

The solution for Arsenal is obvious in this regard, yet very difficult all the same – they need a man who can replace Patrick Vieira. Whoever he may be, he has to protect that seemingly fragile back four, while also starting, and occasionally finishing, Arsenal’s attacks with a well-placed pass. Alex Song may provide this in years to come (if he isn’t standing on anyone) but to my mind an experienced head is needed in the interim.

1. First choice for me is a young man (a South American again – my time listening to the World Football Phone-In has clearly clouded my judgement) whose career as gone somewhat awry since his big money move to Spain. Fernando Gago may not be the tallest at 5 foot 9 and a half inches, but what he lacks in height he certainly makes up for in guile in the midfield and robustness where required. He has had very little opportunity in the last few years at Real, particularly since the arrival of Jose Mourinho – the chance for a regular first 11 place for a team in need and a place in the department store window that is the Premier League would surely make this a mutuallay beneficial transfer. Importantly for Wenger, he’s also young enough at 25 years old.

2. He might well have just signed a new 6 and a half year contract, and have consigned Arsenal’s season to the proverbial dustbin in February, but for me Cheik Tiote is one of the great success stories of the last year or so. A rugged midfielder who still has a lot to learn about the game (and therefore meets Arsene’s usual criteria!), Tiote may have to work on his disciplinary issues a little but has already become an integral player at both club and international level. If Wenger can get hold of him, he could provide that tenacity and work ethic in the midfield that will let the more creative players do their thing.

There’s no doubt that Arsenal and Arsene Wenger have to make signings in the next 2 days (other than a South Korean striker). I have a sneaking suspicion that Wenger will only buy one player (I wouldn’t be surprised if it was none), and that player will be a central defender. For me, for Arsenal to have any degree of success in the next year or two they need players in these positions. Without them, those champagne players who currently seem utterly disillusioned (Rosicky and Arshavin, I’m looking at you) will remain so. At least £60m should be available – Sky Sports News will be a very interesting watch until midnight on Wednesday.

***Breaking News*** – it would appear that Arsenal are one of the sides interested in purchasing Yossi Benayoun from Chelsea. Will he ever learn…

EPL Season 2011-2012 Preview

Title kind of gives it away. Using my finely honed footballing mind, I provide my own preview for the latest season of “the greatest league the world has ever known.” There will no doubt be crap refereeing decisions and voluminous self-congratulatory Sky coverage, but the results still matter most. Here’s how I see the Barclays Premier League table looking come 5-ish on 13 May 2012.

1. Manchester United

Not an original choice I know, but it’s very difficult to see past the men in red, white and occasionally black. Fergie has spent the Glazers’ latest wodge of debt very wisely indeed, to once again refresh a side which was looking a wee bit stale at points last season.

De Gea is an obvious successor to Van Der Sar – a penalty box presence and with excellent reflexes to boot. Furthermore, he’s just won an international trophy with Spain’s U-21s.

Phil Jones may allegedly be one for the future, but I think if one or other of Vidic and Ferdinand get injured, he and/or Smalling should step into the fray with ease. Jones’ purchase has clearly been made with the longer term in mind, but for £17m it’s clear Fergie expects him to do a job from the off.

The other big money purchase is I think the wisest of the lot. Ashley Young can add genuine consistent pace and old fashioned wing play for United. Rooney in 09-10 thrived on the good service of Valencia – if Young can provide the same, and he certainly has the ability to do so, he strikes me as a superb purchase.

In all, my view is that Manchester United still harbour the strongest squad in the league. They have quality, pace and strength all over the field, and they will want to push on from last season’s domestic success and European failure. In short, they should be champions.

2. Chelsea

Chelsea will make 2 key signings this summer – the first was Andre Villas Boas; the second is the man he choose to bring in for Michael Essien, which at the moment seems to be a former Barcelona B player, Oriol Romeu.

I for one wish Villas Boas well; his escalation in the world of football management has been nothing short of miraculous, and I wouldn’t begrudge that continuing. Furthermore, he will have to tolerate a lazy English press, who will be as obsessed with comparing him to Mourinho as they are with pretending the only relevant part of Diego Forlan’s career was in Manchester, not Spain.

Chelsea’s transfer activity thus far has been pretty limited, so it may instead be worth focusing on three strikers who will undoubtedly play an important part in their success.

The first is the minor party of the three, but one who may well find himself in the England squad before too long. Daniel Sturridge had an incredibly successful loan spell with Bolton last season and, if Chelsea are keen to hang onto him this season, he has the attributes to make a productive contribution. Pacey (never goes wrong in the Premier League) and with an eye for a deft finish, Sturridge can at the very least be an important impact sub for Chelsea throughout this season. The fact Villas Boas will have come in with a fresh pair of eyes can only help Sturridge.

The other two are of course Messrs Torres and Drogba. Torres patently has much to prove to live up to the £50m price tag dangling precariously round his neck. It’s said that he should benefit from a proper pre-season for the first time since 2007, and I would tend to agree – it will be nothing short of fascinating to see how he fares this season. If he scores less than 15 goals he will be seen as a failure, in my view; less than 10 and Roman Abramovich may be suing him for damages. I would like to see the return of the old Torres, but I think to have a fully functioning Fernando Torres one needs to build the team around him and have him as the focus of the attack, as he and Gerrard were at Liverpool.

The man preventing this from happening, the comparative old warhorse in this comparative exercise, is the irrepressible Didier Drogba. Drogba has hit 33, but has still got “it”. For me he is the epitome of the modern lone, complete forward. He possesses pace, power, the ability to hold the ball up and bring people into play (witness the number of goals sky-pointer Lampard has scored in the last 5 seasons) and above all the ability to finish when he has to, like any world-class striker. It’s said he and Torres can’t play together (a la Lampard and Gerrard for England) – if Villas Boas can find a way to do so, Chelsea could be extremely difficult to defeat this season.

Taking all that into account, and their ever-ageing squad, I see Chelsea falling just short of United come May, given the continued upheaval at the Bridge.

3. Liverpool

The King has returned, so said Rafiki in the Lion King, when Simba had acquired his mane following the overly-jolly input of Timon and Pumbaa. Kenny Dalglish has become the returning King at Anfield, and there were glimpses after he took over (particularly in the ease of their victory at home to Manchester United) that Liverpool could be a force to be reckoned with come the start of the 11-12 season.

Much of the groundwork for this welcome development came, of course, in the January transfer window. The signing of Andy Carroll grabbed the headlines, rightly so given it was the 8th highest transfer fee of all time, and the second or third highest to be paid by an English club (at the time). The major signing for me though, as I say in my review of last season, was undoubtedly Luis Suarez. He may not be an incredibly likeable chap (probably ask any nearby Ghanaian for a view on that), but what a player. His movement off the ball is fantastic, his capacity for finding space in a congested area of the field brilliantly stealthy. And of course he scored goals by the barrowload in the Netherlands – one would expect a slightly diminished, yet similar return in England. He’s certainly going to be more a Van Nistelrooy than a Kezman, anyway.

And what of the summer signings? Liverpool seem to be following something of a set transfer policy, which seems in line with John Henry’s general sporting philosophy – to focus on home grown talent. This policy has of course been somewhat expensive – however promising Jordan Henderson might be, £20m is extremely steep for a young man who had half a good season in what turned out to be a pretty poor Sunderland team.

Meanwhile, £9m for Charlie Adam is a great deal for Blackpool – if (and it’s quite a big if) Liverpool can get the best from him, it could be a great deal for Liverpool, but there is undoubtedly risk in the transaction. To my mind Adam is best employed as a Xabi Alonso-type – the football equivalent of the “quarterback”, particularly given Adam’s passing ability. To do otherwise with him will not lead to a happy time at Anfield, I fancy.

The most sensible of Liverpool’s purchases during the summer for me is Stewart Downing. A proven player at Premier League level, though never spectacular, he does what he does well – almost a less high-profile version of David Beckham -and should provide goals for Carroll, which is clearly the purpose for which he’s been purchased.

Liverpool should push Chelsea and Manchester United for much of the season, but I fancy the odd poor result will catch up with them come the 38th game.

4. Manchester City

Despite the purchases of Sergio “Kun” Aguero and Gael Clichy, I don’t see Manchester City improving on their position last season, despite the many millions they have spent, and the many millions that continue to be at the club’s disposal.

Strangely, given the managers City have already been through since the big takeover, the problem still lies with the manager. Mancini seems to me to be too nice a guy (though to be fair his 30-minute mark substitution of Balotelli might give lie to that view, but work with me here) to handle the variously ridiculously paid egos at City, and is also too tactically cautious in games against the bigger sides to get the best out of his team. What City need in a manager is a Ferguson or a Mourinho, a man whose personality can control those around him. I’m not convinced the handsome scarf-wearing Italian legend is capable of doing so.When you have a squad of the depth and complexity of Manchester City’s, the manager has to be able to keep those individuals, particularly those who don’t start every match, as happy as possible. Again, I don’t see that Mancini is in a position to do so.

The second obstacle to City’s success this season, regardless of Kun’s arrival, is Carlos Tevez. Carlitos has been instrumental in City’s success in recent years – as recent statistical analysis didn’t tire of telling us, he’s the top scorer in the EPL when you combine the two previous seasons’ goals.

What Tevez also seems to live off though, is emotion, be that positive or negative. Now that he has decided once and for all that City is not for him, I’m not convinced his head or his heart will be in it. One only has to look at his insipid performances in the recent Copa America to see how Tevez performs when he feels down or that the odds are against him emotionally.

Given all this, I think fourth is the limit of City’s ambitions this season, but they could again mount a strong challenge for a domestic cup.

5. Arsenal

For my money, 2011-12 could be a bit of a watershed season for Arsenal and Arsene. A hugely promising season, up until February, was blown away in a matter of weeks, with defeats to Barcelona, Birmingham and Manchester United in three cup competitions, and various poor results in the league (all of which started with that 4-4 draw against Newcastle).

It’s perfectly apparent to all, bar, it would seem, Mr Wenger, that Arsenal require at least two of the following: a top-class goalkeeper; a strong centre-back to play alongside Vermaelen and to lead the defence should he become injured again, and a strong defensive central midfielder.

Thus far in this summer transfer window, with 2 weeks remaining till the start of the season, and 4 till the window “slams shut”, Arsenal have purchased Gervinho from Lille, who as a pacey, wily winger-cum-forward will be a great addition to what is already a pretty strong forward line. Wenger seems unerringly reluctant to recruit to those “unglamorous” positions I note above.

This is undoubtedly one point of Arsenal’s line-up which is undoubtedly strong – Robin Van Persie in particular was in world-class form in the run-up to the end of the season (unlike his team mates, unfortunately) but, like Vermaelen, he is prone to injury and no doubt will miss a good chunk of the season.

The other major factor for Arsenal in this upcoming season is of course the seemingly neverending Fabregas to Barcelona saga. He will be short of focus – the seemingly never-ending rent-a-quotes from various Barca players don’t particularly help. I can’t see what role he can play for them (other than perhaps as a long-term replacement for Xavi) but it is hugely apparent that Barca want what they feel is still rightfully theirs.

Ultimately, I see the malaise continuing for Arsenal – a typical Arsenal season it will be, but perhaps slightly worse. I see them starting as they ended last season, perhaps picking up in the middle a bit, and then fallling away dramatically again. Fundamentally, this season will again be one that promises a lot, delivers the occasional blindingly beautiful performance, but ultimately fails to deliver.

6. Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham’s European adventures last season were rather entertaining – Gareth Bale tearing Maicon a new one in both matches against Inter Milan made for particularly glorious viewing.

However, on the back of last season’s 5th place finish, and a general inconsistency, Tottenham find themselves back in the doldrums of the Europa League, and thus scrabbling again for a place in that coveted top four.

Harry “I’m definitely not a wheeler dealer right, you can f**k off” Redknapp’s wheeling and dealing so far this summer has been very limited. The wise purchase of Brad Friedel gives Heurelho Gomes someone else to hand his position to, but is hardly one for the future. Otherwise, `arry’s transfer activity has largely been keeping his current squad satisfied that they’ll be playing Europa League football next season, and trying to keep Chelsea’s filthy lucre away from Luka Modric.

Where Tottenham undoubtedly need to strengthen is in their forward line. They probably have among the strongest midfields in the league – the likes of Modric, Aaron Lennon, big Tom Huddlestone and the effervescent Rafael Van der Vaart will lay goals on a plate for the right kind of striker all season (particularly if Lennon can work on his final ball into the area). Spurs do not have that striker at the moment. Jermaine Defoe had a great 2009-10 season – his 2010-11 season was, by comparison, approaching an unmitigated disaster. Peter Crouch is the perennial plan B for Redknapp (i.e. hump it to his big gangly head), while Pavlyuchenko, for some reason is about as popular as a nursery school closure. A player like Edinson Cavani or Giuseppe Rossi would be ideal to lead the front line; however, both those players have one thing this season that no-one at White Hart Lane will experience this season….Champions League football.

For those reasons, and the shakiness at the back whenever Ledley King is injured (and he will get injured), I think Tottenham are likely to plateau in the coming season.

7. Everton

If I was a filthy rich man, a la an Abramovich or bin Zayed al Nahan, I think I’d quite like to buy Everton Football Club, give David Moyes a contract for life, give him £30m a season to spend and then go and sit on a yacht for a decade, watching the trophies roll in.

Why? Because Everton, as a side, and to a point, almost run themselves, and are consistently the best side in the league outside the “moneyed” top 6. Their manager is, in my view, one of the most talented in the country and is one of the candidates on the shortlist when Sir Alex finally moves back to Govan (or more likely, Cheshire). Their chairman is a ridiculously likeable man, who appreciates himself that he is a bit short on cash for where he wants his club to be. And they have a squad of inexpensively arranged players (by and large) who play their guts out every week for their manager.

Everton’s transfer activity has been even less than that of Spurs’, with no real comings and goings as yet. The main priority, at the time of writing this post, is to keep hold of Phil Jagielka, their stellar centre-back, with Arsenal on the hunt. Everton’s stability is built on the fact that players like Jagielka, Leighton Baines (who played every minute of the 2010-11 season), Arteta and the seemingly re-born Phil Neville put in a hard shift every week. The goals were shared around a little more last season too – no longer hugely reliant on Tim Cahill’s magic bonce, Saha and, particularly toward the end of the season, Jermaine Beckford got in on the act. Everton will keep doing what they do well, under the sound, sensible tutelage of Moyes, and will no doubt consider 7th and a good run in either cup a pretty good return for their season. If only there was a Russian billionaire with a passion for the blue side of Liverpool out there somewhere…

8. Newcastle United

Pardew? Replacing Chris Hughton? After the admirably pragmatic job he’s done? Is Mike Ashley out of his spectacularly tiny mind?

One may have jumped to this particular conclusion in October 2010 (I know I did) when the former West Ham, Charlton and Southampton manager was unceremoniously parachuted in for Hughton, who up until then had overseen (1) a potentially tricky Championship campaign with consummate ease and (2) a decent return to the big league, including a 6-0 whopping of Aston Villa at St James’s.

However, (I think it must be a fluke), Mike Ashley has, to an extent, been proven right. Alan Pardew, even with the hideously inflated £35m departure of Andy Carroll in January, got the very best out of a limited team; that 4-4 draw with Arsenal being the epitome of his team’s fighting spirit and eagerness to succeed (see Leon Best’s two goals in that game).

Pardew has also, rather admirably, decided not to rest on the laurels of comfortable survival and has, at face value, spent some very wise cash over the summer. For me the highlight of those purchases has to be Yohan Cabaye. Cabaye turned down Champions’ League football with Lille to play for Newcastle – as Andy Brassell on the World Football Phone-In is forever saying (largely because he’s entirely correct), the French league is a very good physical grounding for the step up to the Premier League. Cabaye’s combative, box-to-box style will undoubtedly suit the Premier League.

Pardew’s other two major signings have also been remarkably shrewd. Sylvain Marveaux, if he can avoid the injury issues which saw him fail a medical at Liverpool, looks an exciting attacking midfield prospect, while Demba Ba was, perhaps other than Scott Parker, the best player to turn out in a West Ham shirt last season (not that he had an awful lot of competition). The other main transfer-related issue Alan Pardew faces is the fact that clubs continuously appear to be sniffing around Jose Enrique – if he can hold onto his prize left-back, and fill the void left by the never knowingly reasonable Joseph Barton (or persuade him to stay), I see an improvement on last season for the Toon.

9. Sunderland

Sunderland AFC are the Premier League’s great enigma of the last few seasons. Every year, they start strongly and finish playing like the East Fife reserves in a bounce game in Kinross on a wet Tuesday evening in December (I exaggerate slightly).

The main issue last season for Sunderland was, of course, the January departure of Darren Bent in a suspiciously unambitious move to Aston Villa for the suspiciously high price of £24m. The remaining man of international-class they have up front is the creative unpredictability of Asamoah Gyan, definitely one of my favourite players of last season (not least for his wonderful goal against England at Wembley). He has been joined up front by something of a gamble by Steve Bruce – Connor Wickham is undoubtely a talented young lad with a big future ahead of him, but it is asking an awful lot of an 18-year-old, carrying an £8m price tag on his shoulders, to go straight into a Premier League side and start knocking them in. Mind you, stranger things have happened.

Bruce has otherwise spent the rather unexpected £20m windfall from the sale of Jordan Henderson very wisely – on proven, Premier League-class players who should provide his squad with some depth to avoid the injury-depletion issues of last season. Craig Gardner is a proven goalscoring midfielder at this level; John O’Shea and Wes Brown have, by and large, been reliable squad players for Manchester United for a number of years; Seb Larsson can also score from midfield and has an eye for a cracking free-kick, and Keiren Westwood will provide competition for Craig Gordon (who apparently will start this season as third choice. What.) and Simon Mignolet.

In all, some shrewd, classy signings from Bruce, mixed with some sound Premier League experience and a bit of fire in the necessary areas = a decent finish for the Black Cats in 2011-12

10. Bolton Wanderers

At the bottom of the top half, I see Bolton Wanderers. Owen Coyle has them playing a good brand of football (very un-Bolton-like), and he’s a manager undoubtedly on the up and up (see, obviously, his excellent record with Burnley beforehand). Bolton did stutter to a halt a bit at the end of last season once they knew they were safe – Coyle is going to have to get his troops to put the effort in over the 38 games to improve on last season’s final position.

The close-season has seen rather a lot of transfer activity – Johan Elmander, having finally put the effort in his transfer fee demanded, has departed for Turkey on a free; Daniel Sturridge has gone back to Chelsea (as above), and Matt Taylor has hopped down a league to join West Ham United.

Coyle has yet to bring in a replacement striker – what he has done however is bring in some serious guile and craft to his midfield, and stuck to what he knows – the Championship. Darren Pratley has come in from Swansea on a free – from what I saw of the Championship last season he looks an eminently sensible purchase. Chris Eagles was a star for Burnley under Coyle – he’ll be looking for him to step up again – yet my view is that the EPL is definitely Eagles’ level. Tyrone Mears was brought in from Burnley too but he has unfortunately broken his leg and will miss much of the new season. Finally, Nigel Reo-Coker is another pragmatic signing – a decent, Premier League-class player who should do a job for Bolton. Now Coyle needs to find the ideal striker to act either as the fulcrum of the attack, or ideally double as the foil for Kevin Davies’ knockdowns when the mood strikes. He doesn’t have long.

11. Fulham

It’s great to have Martin Jol back in the Premier League, first off. The man who was unceremoniously dumped in favour of Juande Ramos at Spurs is now back and after some revenge. Fulham are (unless you’re a Chelsea/QPR fan) probably every other Premier League supporter’s second team – they still play at a proper football ground, they have that bizarre shared stand arrangement, and, given their exploits in recent years, they can be a properly exciting football team unlike some of the other 19 clubs in the division.

Jol comes in to find a pretty solid, but ageing, squad. There are quality players in there: Schwarzer in goal, Hangeland at the back, Murphy in midfield and Zamora up front, but they are getting on, particularly Schwarzer and Murphy. Jol’s challenge for this season and next, therefore, will be to freshen up the side, and possibly look for a new talisman (Clint Dempsey) to build the side around once Mr Murphy’s knees start to get the better of him.

Fulham’s activity thus far has been reasonably limited, partly because their season started in late June with Europa League qualifiers (thanks UEFA for the Fair Play league…). The major signing has been to bring in John Arne Riise to play alongside his brother, and presumably to provide booming left-footed free kicks and the occasional badly-timed own goal. Pajan Kasami, the young Swiss midfielder, looks an interesting signing from Palermo – he was in the squad as Switzerland’s U-21 team reached in the final in the European Championships in Denmark earlier in the summer. Their other signing is Czech midfielder Marcel Gecov, who remains a bit of an unknown quantity.

The major problem I see for Fulham is tiredness. Come 16 May, they’ll have been playing competitive matches for 11 months – it’s bound to affect the players, and provide more injuries than with other sides. For this reason I see a bit of an end of season slump for Fulham – hopefully another glorious run in the Europa League will see them right.

12. Stoke City

I like Stoke City. I don’t particularly know why – they don’t play pretty football, and their manager thinks baseball caps are a requisite fashion accessory. Their approach just seems to be particularly honest for the Premier League – they absolutely play to their strengths (height and physicality) and make no effort whatsoever to hide the fact that they do so. Add that to the loudest fans in the league in a tight Britannia Stadium, and Rory Delap’s ICBM throw-ins and you have a combination that can certainly unnerve the physically weaker sides in the league (Arsene).

That said, Tony Pulis has clearly been building something in Stoke – their appearance in the FA Cup final was earned entirely on merit. Pulis has got the maximum out of former journeymen like Matthew Etherington, Delap and arguably even Ryan Shawcross (given he’s a Manchester United reject). This season I fancy them to do more of the same; get hard-earned wins at the Britannia, generally wind people up, get in their faces and win games in an honest fashion.

Transfer dealings in the Potteries have been reasonably scarce – thus far the only major signing for City during the summer is getting Jonathan Woodgate in on a free. If he can stay fit for even half of the season, he should provide some top-class cover for Stoke at the back, and hopefully propel them onto another good domestic cup run in the coming season.

13. Queens Park Rangers

There’s something about the footballing noveau riche that seems to wind people up something rotten. “They’ve bought the title; they would be nowhere if it wasn’t for that Russian fella with the big yacht” – we’ve all heard the complaints. First Chelsea, then Manchester City – now come the pretenders to their oligarch throne in the shape of QPR.

Of course, as yet nothing like the money that’s been sunk into Man City or Chelsea has been given to QPR. That said, they have been able to spend their way out of the Championship somewhat (particularly after the acquisition of the “too good for the Championship it’s not really funny any more” talents of Adel Taraabt) – spending their way to a Premier League title, or even a European finish, may have to wait a few years and a few hundred million more from Messrs Briatore/Ecclestone/Mittal* (*delete as applicable).

As it stands, QPR are a well-equipped promoted side, no doubt about it – similar to the Birmingham team that Alex McLeish brought up a few years back, or indeed the Stoke City side which first popped up in the Premier League in 2008. Neil Warnock (an anagram of “Colin Wanker” – fact) last season led them to an utter stroll of a Championship title win – he will no doubt feel he has unfinished business in the Premier League after the Carlos Tevez incident and his experiences with Sheffield United. He has collected a strong-ish group of players together, most of whom have some Premier League experience.

His transfer dealings so far have been at the less spectacular end of the spectrum, but are by and large players who either will or might do a job. DJ Campbell, if he can provide a similar goals tally to that which he provided for Blackpool, is a sage signing, as is unlikely England cap Jay Bothroyd. Other highlights include Kieron Dyer (more at the “might” end of things), who is probably on his last chance to earn a top-flight wage, and another refugee from West Ham, Danny Gabiddon. In all, I think QPR have what it takes to survive, but not an awful lot more. I also doubt Colin will see them all the way through to May, given the trigger-happiness of the Loftus Road board. It’s good to see Rangers back, though, after so long away – it may take them quite some years yet before a return to the early years of “Sir Les” really kicks in.

14. West Bromwich Albion

WBA were a funny one last season. A terrific start, followed by an horrific sag in the middle, followed by an equally terrific finish to the season – a colossal conincidence that the ultimate yo-yo club had the ultimate yo-yo season. They now have a seasoned manager in Roy Hodgson, who seems to have treated his time at Liverpool as a “flashy thing from Men in Black” affair, and got right stuck back into managing a “proper” team. I saw West Brom in the flesh at Old Trafford last season, and then, under Roberto Di Matteo, they played a good brand of football – not afraid to have a go either, as was exemplified in the 2-2 scoreline.

With Hodgson now fully at the helm, and given the chance to mould his side over the summer, I fancy they will turn into a Fulham of sorts – strong at home, less good away, but full of hardworking, honest as the day is long players who are capable of the odd spurt of decent football but not a lot more.

That said, there are some talented players in the West Brom squad – Youssouf Mulumbu and Somen Tchoyi are both sturdy midfielders in the Tiote mould, while Peter Odemwingie was arguably the signing of the season last year. The Baggies’ only major purchase thus far has been to re-sign Zoltan Gera on a free after he left Fulham – he’ll no doubt gee up the fans at the Hawthorns who will be delighted to see a former favourite return. For my money, resolute yet utterly unspectacular should sum up West Brom’s season – though be prepared for the odd surprise scoreline when their creative players click.

15. Wolverhampton Wanderers

Above all of the sides who stayed in the Premier League after “Super Silly Survival Sunday Stuff” or whatever Sky called it, the survivor which pleased me most was the Black Country club. A seriously likeable club managed by a seriously likeable man, and with the odd seriously good player in their ranks, Wolves were probably one of the unluckiest sides in the league last season – often turning in good performances yet coming away with nothing. They also managed to surprise the bigger sides more often than not – they were of course the first team to beat Manchester United in the league last season.

Again, like Fulham above, Wolves have a good player in each “row” of their side. Wayne Hennessy is a quality young keeper who will only improve with age; Roger Johnson is a very wise signing – although he clearly missed Scott Dann last season, he was still an unerringly consistent stand-out in the Birmingham City side; Matt Jarvis is a well-earned England cap who provides goals from the wing for; Steven Fletcher, who scored 10 for Wolves last season, but unfortunately still can’t shake hands with Craig “Mr Rennie” Levein and get back in the Scotland squad.

As for summer purchases, I’ve already touched on Johnson, who McCarthy clearly (and rightly) likes so much he’s already made him club captain. Otherwise, Jamie O’Hara signing a permanent deal is another wise move; he may not be quite good enough for Spurs’ midfield but he is quite patently a Premier League quality player. In all, I see an easier season for Wolves this year – not much easier, but easier – and that will hopefully provide a base camp for 2012-13 and a climb up the table.

16. Aston Villa

Randy Lerner should write a book. The title should be “How to Run A Decent Premier League side Very Well for Several Seasons, and then Screw It Up Majorly in the space of Nine Months.” Bit of a lengthy title, but it sums up the 2010-11 season for Aston Villa in a neat sentence.

First, Martin O’Neill departs days before the start of the campaign, for reasons still largely unknown, though he was clearly ill at ease with the club’s (lack of) ambition. Then the reserve team coach, Kevin Macdonald, was parachuted in for a caretaker period which lasted too long, and included a 6-0 defeat to Newcastle and a hasty European exit to Rapid Vienna (again). Then, Villa go and appoint Gerrard Houllier, who helps them stutter through an inconsequential and at times dire season, before leaving with a well-publicised and well-known health problem, which had caused him to leave Liverpool some years previously.

Then, to add fuel to the fire for some Villa supporters. the club appoints Birmingham City boss Alex McLeish as manager, having knocked back, among others, Steve McClaren (who opts for a berth by the Trent with Notts Forest). In the summer they lose two of their best players, and the two who would have provided the ammunition for £24m (!) man Darren Bent to score the goals which would have lifted Villa into the top half of the table.

In all, the second city giants are in a mess. They have a manager (who is undoubtedly talented, if not perhaps Premier League quality) who half the fans hate and the other half are at best apathetic about, and a squad of players who, by and large, are coming toward the end of their peak years.

McLeish’s best signing, and the one which to my mind will keep them in the Premier League come next May, is undoubtedly Shay Given. Given has been grossly unlucky throughout his career; he stayed at Newcastle too long; he went to Man City too late, and Arsenal for some reason ignored the opportunity to sign him; and now he almost finds himself back where he started – at a mediocre club in a big city. His stellar reflexes and great distribution should, however, keep Villa up. Villa’s other main purchase has been to acquire Charles N’Zogbia from Wigan – an enigmatic guy at the best of times, I wait with some trepidation as to how he will cope again as a small fish in a bigger pond.

Villa’s other hope of salvation lies in their youngsters. Barry Bannan, Ciaran Clark, Marc Albrighton and Nathan Delfouneso all got their chance to shine last year – they will be needed ever more so this season. I fancy the Villa to stay up, but not do an awful lot more.

17. Norwich City

This was the most recent change I made to this table, and one of the more decisive on my part. Again, Norwich are a team I like – I remember their great European adventure in the early 90s, with wonderful players like Jeremy Goss and Bryan Gunn; and more recently Delia Smith’s ridiculous “let’s be `avin you” nonsense last time they were in the Premier League.

This time round, despite their relative paucity of resources, and their Championship-standard team, I fancy Norwich to survive. And that’s down to one man – Paul Lambert. His managerial career has reflected his playing career to some extent – starting as a journeyman, having a few false starts before genuinely earning his shot at the big time. Norwich were an utter revelation in last year’s Championship, off the back of their League One title the previous season. Lambert got the very best out of old warhorses like Grant Holt, relative unknowns like Russell Martin and Wes Hoolahan (straight in the FPL team), and played the loan system well (as every good Championship manager must) bringing in quality guys like Sam Vokes and Henri Lansbury at the appropriate times.

Lambert likes his teams to play football; but he has also instilled in them that sense of steel he had as a player. His signings again have erred on the side of being shrewd rather than spectacular – Kyle Naughton (Spurs) and Richie De Laet (Man United) are two wise loan signings to shore up the defence – both are young men with much to prove to their parent clubs. Steve Morison should also provide Holt with some much needed competition up front.

In all, I think Norwich will stay up – with Lambert a young hungry manager with a group of young-ish hungry players, they should be OK – just.

18. Wigan Athletic

Wigan are a funny club – that a Premier League club survives in a Rugby League town, with 6 other sides within a 20-mile radius (including both Manchester clubs) is impressive. That Wigan has survived so long in the EPL is all the more impressive, but I think, unfortunately, this could be the year they finally escape through the relegation tunnel.

Not that I particularly want them to – I like Roberto Martinez both as a person and a manager. He seems particuarly determined that his sides play football in the correct manner, and his Wigan team is not entirely bereft of creativity, particularly with the likes of James McCarthy (please decide you’re Scottish again) and Hugo Rodallega.

Unfortunately, to my mind it just seems the competition will be too strong for Wigan this season. As is obvious, I see two of the promoted clubs staying up, and someone has to fall away. Given Wigan have been there or thereabouts since pretty much their second season in the Premier League (bar the only full season Steve Bruce had in charge, when Amr Zaki didn’t act like a 10-year-old deprived of an Xbox), it seems a mathematical probability, if not a certainty, that they will go down.

Martinez has, to his credit, made some useful signings in the summer. The capture of Ali Al-Habsi on a permanent deal is a great move given his performances last season, and the fact that Chris Kirkland is a member of the Jonathan Woodgate Injured Players Association. Al-Habsi also joins that elite group of talented Omani players in the Premier League (him). Otherwise, former Man United youngster David Jones has been brought in from Wolves to give another option in midfield, and record signing Mauro Boselli has buggered off back to Argentina on loan (again).

In all, a season to end in failure for Wigan. But it has been, to drift into X Factor parlance, one hell of a journey for them.

19. Swansea City

As much as I like to see the newly promoted sides do well (particularly given the odds against their survival), I think the first Welsh side in the Premier League will fall by the wayside after a year. Swansea are the epitome of the modern Championship side; a club in a good-sized city, playing quality football in a shiny new stadium with a young manager at the helm.

Unfortunately, past experience has proven that Championship sides who play only pretty football (WBA under Mowbray, Blackpool) tend to get found out in the Premier League, particularly because the percentage of scoring chances available tends to decrease dramatically in the top flight. Swansea have one stand-out striker in Scott Sinclair, who should thrive at his chance back in the big time, and they’ve also taken a calculated gamble on last season’s Championship top scorer Danny Graham, from Watford, and a less calculated one on a striker with some EPL experience, Leroy Lita. Swansea should have enough going forward to at least cause some teams problems, but it’ll be down to how often their brand of football can create chances in this league which will be the issue – the old stereotype of being able to do it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke does ring true here.

I think where Swansea will struggle is at the back. So far they have added only Steven Caulker, on loan from Spurs, and at the moment will have to rely on last season’s Championship stalwarts. Players like Alan Tate and Angel Rangel will undoubtedly give their all – unfortunately I think they might just come up short in the games that matter.

Swansea should provide the neutral with some entertainment, and the odd shock scoreline, but I think ultimately they’re destined for a quick return to the land of npower.


20. Blackburn Rovers

Occupying bottom spot in my hypothetical Premier League table are Blackburn Rovers, or as they will now be known, the Men of Chicken. Venky’s have presided over a running joke of Romanov-esque ownership since the took over the club that Jack built; ditching Sam Allardyce when your side is comfortably mediocre and almost getting them relegated is not particularly good form. As likeable a man as Steve Kean comes across when he’s interviewed on TV, I’d be (a) amazed if he survives the season and (b) amazed if he isn’t in hoc to his Indian paymasters to some degree.

One of Blackburn’s key hopes to their salvation is, at least, someone who’s already there. Paul Robinson is still at least the third-best English keeper in circulation at the moment – a man who was hideously undeservedly vilified for that Gary Neville passback against Croatia. He’s a solid, often spectacular goalkeeper who will need to be at his absolute best for the next 9 months.

Otherwise, I think Blackburn may be stuffed (no pun intended, though perhaps it was aon a subconscious level). Their forays into the transfer market have been relatively uninspiring thus far, though I will be hoping that David Goodwillie contributes a good few goals in the season ahead after his move from Dundee United. Otherwise things have been quiet – it’s the players out scenario (particularly if excellent centre-back Christopher Samba departs) which will be worrying Blackburn supporters.

Unfortunately, I see a disastrous season ahead for one of the oldest clubs in the league – the Championship and trips to Doncaster beckon.

And that’s the end. I should acknowledge my two main sources for this – Wikipedia was great for reminding me who’d gone where, and the Four Four Two season preview gave me some good info here and there, though I disagree with some of its league placings. Next blog will be a podcast part 2, followed by an probably occasional review here and there of what’s going on in the footballing world. Roll on the new season!