Posted by: mdegeorge | August 15, 2011

Preseason Diagnosis: Barclay’s Premier League, Bottom Half

It’s that time of year again: Soccer season is upon us. Now that the summer tournaments and international fundraising showcases are wearing off, it’s time for everyone to get back to business. With the major European leagues slowly springing to life one-by-one, I’ll be previewing each of the big leagues as they open their schedules throughout August. Up next is the big one: The Barclay’s English Premier League. It’s broken into halves, starting with the foot of the table.

40 points is what Wolves needed to survive the drop last season. It was the highest total in almost a decade; not since the 2002-03 season, when it took Bolton 44 points to survive the drop over West Ham (42) had a team needed to do so much to merely earn another season in the Prem.

There’s one glaring difference in those two seasons, however. In the spring of 2003, the other relegation candidates were iron-glad locks by the time the holidays were over. West Brom finished with 26 points and 24 losses, while Sunderland (16 points) was in the midst of what remains one of the most anemic Premier League seasons of all time.

Not so a year ago. Four clubs entered the final weekend of the season with hope of survival. Two clubs with 39 points – Blackpool and Carling Cup winner Birmingham – felt the drop. Even the club occupying the foot of the table, West Ham, went into April harboring hopes of another season in the top flight and finished with 33 points.

Parody reigns over the EPL in this era. For as much as the discussion over a champion is limited to three or four names, the promise of Europe and the threat of relegation is pretty open to just about anyone else. Any league that has seen early leaders like Hull City and Blackpool relegated months later is a testament to the variability that makes the league.

To start the look at the EPL, I’ll go through the finishers at the bottom of the league, starting with number 20 (* denotes loan move).

Norwich's Grant Holt will be one of the new boys in the Premier League. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

20. Swansea

In: Danny Graham, Steven Caulker, Jose Moreira, Leroy Lita, Wayne Routledge, Michel Vorm

Out: Darren Pratley, Dorus de Vries, Scott Donnelly*, Albert Serran, Kerry Morgan

Carrying the flag of Wales, the Swans have elected to pick up some proven talent in Routledge and Lita, guys who have played in the Prem before. But they lose de Vries, who played every minutes in leading them through the playoffs last season and has been an integral part of the squad dating back to League One. They also lose a big offensive piece in Pratley. We’ll see how good Vorm is between the sticks and how young Brendan Rogers handles managing in the Premier League. At least it could be fun to watch Scott Sinclair play at the highest level, one Chelsea always kept him from.

19. Wigan

In: Ali Al-Habsi, David Jones, Nouha Dicko

Out: Charles N’Zogbia, Steven Caldwell, Mauro Boselli*, Antonio Amaya, Lee Nicholls*, Daniel de Ridder

It’s hard to believe that the Latics enter their seventh season in the Premier League; it seems each of those involved some type of Houdini-like escape from the drop. They may need something similar this season. They managed to hold on to Hugo Rodallega but lose co-leading scorer N’Zogbia. The Boselli experiment is put on hold temporarily as the forward returns to his home country of Argentina. It’s just difficult to see where goals come from. Franco DiSanto will have to pick up a major goal-scoring load, while Victor Moses will have to show some of that much-heralded promise. They at least get Al-Habsi full time after the Omani keeper had a strong finish to the season.

18. Norwich City

In: James Vaughan, Steve Morison, Elliott Bennett, Ritchie De Laet*, Bradley Johnson, Anthony Pilkington, Kyle Naughton*

Out: Stephen Hughes*, Luke Daley, Jed Steer*

Manager Paul Lambert has steered the Canaries to two consecutive promotions, so he’s confident with the team he returns. They return the bulk of a talented Championship side. John Ruddy, who conceded 56 goals in 45 matches last season, anchors the defense. Top scorer and captain Grant Holt returns, as do offensive weapons Wesley Hoolahan and Simeon Jackson. Survive or not, Norwich is electing to put its faith in young players. Vaughan has played, albeit limitedly, at the Premier League level thanks to 47 appearances with Everton and holds the honor of being the Premier League’s youngest ever goalscorer. Morison, Pilkington and Bennett have excelled at lower levels, and De Laet has had some successful loan stints. Who knows? Maybe these kids are too young to know they don’t belong.

17. Wolverhampton

In: Jamie O’Hara, Dorus de Vries, Roger Johnson

Out: David Jones, Scott Malone*, Carl Ikeme*, Greg Halford, Nathaniel Mendez-Liang*, Danny Batth*, Steven Mouyokolo*

Wolves were hurt much of last term by unrest in goal, shuffling between Wayne Hennessey and Marcus Hahnemann. After the release of Hahnemann, Hennessey appears to be the unquestioned number one, but de Vries is waiting as an insurance policy should the Welshman slip up. They salvage Johnson from Birmingham and somewhat curiously make him the captain. And they add O’Hara as a midfield playmaker. Still, Wolves may face a struggle to say in the Prem, even with the likes of Steven Fletcher and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake returning.

16. Blackburn

In: Myles Anderson, David Goodwillie, Radosav Petrovic, Bruno Ribeiro

Out: Frankie Fielding, Phil Jones, Zac Aley*, Jason Lowe*, Jake Kean*, Nikola Kalinic, Keith Andrews*, Jason Brown, Aaron Doran, Zurab Khizanishvili

I fail to see where the cash infusion from their new Indian owners is. They bring in some good young players, but they’re a far cry from the team that was linked to such players as Ronaldinho in the last year. They lose their best young player in Jones and are rumored to be close to parting ways with captain and defensive leader Christopher Samba. Combined, the new arrivals likely won’t replace the contributions of the departing trio of Kalinic, Mame Biram Diouf (back to Manchester United) and Jermaine Jones (back to Schalke), who accounted for 13 goals a season ago. The current iteration of this team will be threatened by relegation, though a cash infusion in January should be enough to save them from the drop.

15. Queens Park Rangers

In: Jay Bothroyd, Kieron Dyer, Danny Gabbidon, DJ Campbell, Brian Murphy, Bruno Perone

Out: Angelo Balanta*, Lee Brown, Peter Ramage*, Mikele Leigertwood, Joe Oastler, Josh Parker*, Georgias Tofas

Where the other Premier League newcomers have youth and the reckless abandon that comes when you’re somewhere you feel you shouldn’t be, QPR has a squad of relegation all-stars of years past. Sure, Adel Taarabt remains. But the names are too familiar from middling EPL seasons of yore. Paddy Kenny is in goal, and Hiedar Helguson leads the attack with Rob Hulse. And yet, they add interesting attacking pieces with the capture of Campbell and Bothroyd and veteran presence with Gabbidon and Dyer. It pains me to say, but QPR may well stay up.

14. Bolton

In: Darren Pratley, Nigel Reo-Coker, Chris Eagles, Tyrone Mears, Tuncay Sanli*

Out: Andrew Burns, Johan Elmander, Danny Ward, Sam Sheridan, Matthew Taylor, Ali Al-Habsi, Joey O’Brien, Tamir Cohen, Joey O’Brien,

Bolton was dealt blows by injuries to Mears and Lee Chung-Young in preseason. They already have to replace leading goal-scorer Elmander and second-leading scorer Daniel Sturridge, who returns to Chelsea. Goals must come from Pratley, the mercurial Tuncay, Ivan Klasnic and Martin Petrov. They strengthen the midfield with Eagles, but the big priority for them if they are looking to elude the relegation conversation is to hold onto Gary Cahill, a feat that could be made more daunting in the face of a cash-infused Arsenal.

 

New Newcastle arrival Sylvain Marveaux is among the new faces in the Northeast. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

13. Newcastle

In: Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba, Sylvain Marveaux, Mehdi Abeid, Gabriel Obertan

Out: Kazenga LuaLua*, Michael Richardson*, Ben Tozer, Wayne Routledge, Daniel Leadbitter, Kevin Nolan, Patrick McLaughlin, Xisco*, James Tavernier, Phil Airey*, Jose Enrique

Newcastle’s return to the top flight last season wasn’t an aberration; they’ve made the personnel moves to position themselves, as they were prior to their drop, as a perennial mid-table/European fringe contender. Their moves this offseason indicate that. They’ll struggle to replace Enrique and Nolan, the latter of whom was somewhat curiously let go to relegated West Ham relatively cheap despite being the Magpies’ leading scorer a season ago. That puts a lot of burden on Ba, who put up big numbers with West Ham last year. He gets help in new midfielders from France Cabaye and Marveaux as well as Frenchman Obertan. No matter what language it’s in, they’ll have to communicate and come together to keep Newcastle out of the relegation conversation.

12. Stoke

In: Jonathan Woodgate, Matthew Upson

Out: Andrew Davies*, Matthew Lund*, Carl Dickinson, Abdoulaye Faye, Eidur Gudjohnsen

The Potters have been silent in the transfer market, their only two pickups being cast-off defender. They’ll surely struggle to emerge from the middle of the table and could find themselves in the discussion for relegation. They manage to retain captain Ryan Shawcross and their major offensive protagonists Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walters. Let’s see if the Potters have another move in the offing before the transfer window closes.

11. West Bromwich Albion

In: Gareth McAuley, Billy Jones, Ben Foster*, Zoltan Gera, Martin Fulop, Shane Long

Out: Giles Barnes, Adriano Basso, Boaz Myhill*, Chris Wood*, Scott Carson, Ryan Allsop, Sam Mantom*, Gianni Zuiverloon, Borja Valero

The goalkeeping situation for the West Midlands club is quite perplexing. Carson leaves for Turkish side Bursaspor and Myhill is loaned to Birmingham. Meanwhile, Foster comes in on loan from Brum with Fulop also coming into the picture. Whether or not there’s any improvement in those moves or if it’s just treading water, I’m not really sure. They add some attacking depth with the return of Gera and Long. They also managed to hold onto Peter Odemwingie, one of the Premier League’s top scorers from a year ago. We’ll see how long the Roy Hodgson bump continues for the Baggies.

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