Posted by: mdegeorge | August 15, 2011

Preseason Diagnosis: Barclay’s Premier League, Top 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, concluding with the table’s top half.

I guess I never really appreciated how much insanely hegemonic moguls and their desire to conquer the world 90 minutes at a time livened up my summer.

It seems this summer though, lull in the European zone aside, no one’s in a rush to throw their money at all manner of players as in years past. Maybe it’s a lack of availability. Maybe teams are finally realizing the wage-bill ramifications of their actions, you know, by suffering under them.

Either way, the theme of the summer has been sell to spend for almost everyone (with a select few exceptions). The bright side of an otherwise dull summer is that one move could set off a domino effect that results in the shuffling to bring truth to all the rumors. It’s anyone guess as to who that piece is – Wesley Sneijder, Carlos Tevez, Cesc Fabregas, Luka Modric perhaps. There’s no way to tell for sure, but one of the luxuries of scheduling three rounds of fixtures before the transfer window closes is the ability to see and fix some of the cracks.

Time will tell, but I’d bet on some personnel movement once all is said and done.

Wrapping up the look at the EPL, I’ll give you the top half, starting with number 10 (* denotes loan move).

The fate of this year's Premier League title could rest on Manchester United keeper David De Gea's gloves. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

10. Sunderland

In: Ahmed Elmohamady, Sebastian Larsson, Keiren Westwood, Connor Wickham, Craig Gardner, Ji Dong-Won, Roarie Deacon, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, David Vaughan , James McClean

Out: Liam Noble*, Nathan Luscombe, Cristian Riveros*, Jordan Henderson, Jean-Yves M’voto, Steed Malbranque, Michael Kay, Robbie Weir, George McCartney*

Sunderland’s inability to reinvest the money gleaned from the sale of Darren Bent to Aston Villa last January and subsequent failure to replace his goal-scoring contributions saw them plummet from the top half to relegation threat last spring. They also lose Danny Welbeck back to parent club Manchester United. That puts a big scoring load on club record-signing Asamoah Gyan, as well as new signings Dong-Won, Wickham and Larsson. They add small pieces here and there; Gardner and Vaughan are midfield replacements for Jordan Henderson, while Brown and O’Shea bolster the defense. If they can get consistent goal production, which starts with consistent health by the likes of Gyan and Kieran Richardson, Sunderland could sneak into the European conversation.

9. Aston Villa

In: Shay Given, Charles N’Zogbia

Out: Nigel Reo-Coker, Stewart Downing, Ashley Young, Brad Friedel, John Carew, Isaiah Osbourne

There has been much more efflux than influx at what is already one of the thinnest squads in the EPL. They lose prominent pieces like Downing and Young, and while N’Zogbia may compensate for most of their goal production, there isn’t a replacement for the width and masterful wing play provided by those two young players. In Given, the Villans get a like-for-like replacement for Friedel who might be a slight upgrade. Villa may be able to make up some of the lost offense from a better season from Gabriel Agbonglahor and a full term of Darren Bent, and last year’s mid-table performance was with the caveat of having to weather the health problems of Gerard Houllier after the sudden departure of Martin O’Neill in preseason. But this isn’t a team that will be able to watch the European qualification of seasons past.

8. Fulham

In: Cauley Woodrow, Dan Burn, Csaba Somogyi, John Arne Riise, Marcel Gecov, Pajtim Kasami

Out: Kagisho Dikgacoi, David Stockdale*, Jonathan Greening, John Paintsil, Zoltan Gera, Diomansy Kamara, Eddie Johnson, Pascal Zuberbuhler

There are some questions hanging over the Cottagers, mainly about the somewhat unsettled future of American midfielder Clint Dempsey. That hasn’t stopped them from making moves. They trim the squad by jettisoning out-of-favor players like Kamara, Greening, Paintsil and Gera. The major addition is Riise, who adds some attacking flavor to the back four. They suffered a glut of injuries last season; something tells me they’ll get more than eight combined goals out of Andrew Johnson and Bobby Zamora and not have to rely on 12 from Dempsey to survive. If they stay healthy and can turn some of their draws into wins, they’ll be in the European hunt.

7. Everton

In: Mason Springthorpe, Johan Hammar, Eric Dier

Out: Hope Akpan, Luke Dobie, James Vaughan, Iain Turner, John Nolan, Kieran Agard

Another offseason passes with little stirring on Merseyside. David Moyes knows he needs to sell if he wants to buy, and there’s something to be said for having confidence in the young players you’ve assembled over the years. This team can challenge for a Champions League spot if it stays healthy. They benefit from not having to stretch under the demands of a European slate. There’s no telling what could be done if they get full seasons from Mikel Arteta, Marouane Fellaini, Leon Osman and company. They have the defense behind Leighton Baines and Tim Howard, and they have the attack with Jermaine Beckford in his second Prem season, Louis Saha and Tim Cahill. The Toffees were one of the best teams in the league over the second half of last term after a disastrous start; getting out of the gates clean could go along way toward assuring European participation.

6. Tottenham

In: Brad Friedel, Cristian Ceballos, Souleymane Coulibaly

Out: Nathan Byrne*, Ryan Mason*, Kyle Naughton*, Bongani Khumalo*, Paul-Jose M’Poku, Steven Caulker*, Jamie O’Hara, Jonathan Obika*, Jonathan Woodgate, Oscar Jansson*, Mikro Ranieri*,

It’s been a quiet summer in North London, at least on the football front. Spurs fall squarely in the sell-to-spend category, and the departure of O’Hara hardly is enough to bankroll the caliber of move this club is interested in. They pick up Friedel on a free transfer from Aston Villa, presumably to start over the troublesome Heurelho Gomes and serial understudy Carlo Cudicini. Ceballos and Coulibaly are teens who won’t play a role until down the road. There likely won’t be any moves out of Tottenham unless they find a suitor for the likes of David Bentley or someone like Chelsea is able to meet their price for Luka Modric.

5. Arsenal

In: Hector Bellerin, Jan Toral, Carl Jenkinson, Gervinho, Alex Chamberlain

Out: Mark Randall, James Shea*, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Wellington Silva*, Gael Clichy, Roarie Deacon, Denilson*

It’s been quiet, most would say too quiet, from the Gunners this summer, a necessary consequence of the wait-and-see game being played with Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Until either’s future is decided, the Gunners are hamstrung. In Chamberlain, for whom they overpaid a bit, they have a natural replacement for Nasri’s wing contributions to pair well with Theo Walcott. Gervinho is an interesting talent who may just be too similar to last year’s marquee acquisition Marouane Chamakh. For Fabregas, though, they’ll have to go out and make a move unless they’re ready to hand the reins to the midfield over to the combination of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, while the money accrued by the sale of these players should also go to upgrading the centerback position. Any team that can get a season like Robin van Persie’s last term – 18 goals in 25 matches – can be dangerous. But the inability to strengthen the defense or get a reliable goalkeeper (when just €6 buys a guy like Maarten Stekelenberg) doesn’t bode well for the Gunners’ championship aspirations.

4. Manchester City

In: Denis Suarez, Gael Clichy, Stefan Savic, Sergio Aguero, Costel Pantilimon

Out: Shay Given, David Gonzalez*, Jerome Boateng, Shaleum Logan, Ben Mee*, Kieran Trippier*, Ryan McGivern*, James Poole, Donal McDermott, Jo, Michael Johnson*, Scott Kay, Abdisalam Ibrahim*, Tom Skogsrud, Kim Skogsrud, Andrew Tutte, Mohammed Abu*, Felipe Caicedo

The spending has subsided somewhat at City, with needless wages like those of Jo, Caicedo, Given and Boateng finally cut. They pass that money primarily onto Aguero and Clichy, while also shelling out for the rare cheap young talent buys in Suarez and Savic. The question that still remains is the mindset of Carlos Tevez – an ongoing question even when we’re not talking about his transfer situation – with Inter rumored to be close to a swoop. Without Tevez and with Aguero prepped for a slow start to the season, there’s a lack of creativity in this side, with only David Silva in the midfield rotation providing any spark. They also have to contend with the distraction-waiting-to-happen that is Mario Balotelli. Excelling past the Champions League group stages and into the top four in the Prem appear to be beyond this squad.

3. Chelsea

In: Thibaut Courtois, Oriol Romeu, Lucas Piazon

Out: Yuri Zhirkov, Jan Sebek, Michael Mancienne, Jacopo Sala, Gokhan Tore, Jeffrey Bruma*, Sam Walker*, Danny Philliskirk, Jack Cork, Fabio Borini, Nemanja Matic, Thibaud Courtois*

Talk about sitting on your hands. The Blues get two young players, a goalkeeping prospect that they then loan back out and are near the capture of Romelu Lukaku, but that’s about it. They lack depth in the midfield, exacerbated by the defection of Zhirkov; if they allow Alex to leave to Juventus as is rumored, they’ll need a replacement there, too. This team seems imbalanced. They have five center forwards – Nicolas Anelka, Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba, Daniel Sturridge, and presumably, Lukaku – too few midfielders to support them and only one ball to pass around. It’ll be difficult to keep them all happy, healthy (since so many, including fulcrum Frank Lampard whose injuries held them back a year ago, are over 30) and in form. It just doesn’t seem like a championship blend, no matter how magical new manager Andre Villas-Boas may be.

2. Liverpool

In: Alex O’Hanlon, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, Alexander Doni, Stewart Downing, Jose Enrique

Out: Milan Jovanovic, Gerardo Bruna, Thomas Ince, Martin Hansen*Peter Gulacsi*, Paul Konchesky, Stephen Darby*, Chris Mavinga

Liverpool has been one of the most active players in the transfer market over the last eight months, if you include their January splurges that landed Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez. They revamped the attack with those moves; over the summer, the attention turned to the midfield (and a strengthening of the defense with Enrique). Downing should find ample opportunities as a winger, but Adam and Henderson will find trouble getting on the pitch at the same time, making for at least one very pricey bench player. Adam can play in a deeper-lying position, perhaps pairing with Lucas, but there’s no way all three can be involved with Steven Gerrard plus the two forwards and forward-turned-winger Dirk Kuyt and major contributor Raul Meireles. It may take some time to figure out how all the moving pieces fit, and that delay could be costly in the title hunt.

1. Manchester United

In: Phil Jones, Ashley Young, David De Gea

Out: John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Bebe*, Joe Dudgeon, Corry Evans, Robbie Brady*, Ritchie De Laet*, Sam Johnstone*, Ryan Tunnicliffe*, Nicky Ajose*, Gabriel Obertan

The champions just get stronger, and to a greater extent than any of their competitors. They thin the defensive herd with by letting O’Shea and Brown walk, filling the role with versatile 19-year-old Jones. Obertan, who’s found opportunities scarce, also departs after the arrival of Young to terrorize the flanks opposite Nani. The retirements of Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes lessen the wage bill. Scholes doesn’t have a natural replacement just yet, but with a glut of central midfielders that includes Darron Gibson, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Anderson and the returned-from-loan Tom Cleverly, they’ll manage. Man U are just so deep that they have at least two worthy players at each position. The only concern is how long it will take De Gea to settle into the goalkeeping role; they’ll try and hang onto a somewhat disappointed Tomasz Kuszczak at least until January if the young Spaniard is able to prove himself.

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