English Premier League Preview 2011-2012

Before we jump in here, let me welcome any new EPL fans driven here by curiosity, lack of NBA, or anything else. I think you will find it to be as entertaining as anyone could dare dream and will come out of this year a changed fan. However, it is extremely hard to project the standings going into the year because so few points usually separate 9th and 16th and because so many changes are made to the squad in January. Hell, even as I write this, rosters are not final and players like Cesc Fabregas, Carlos Tevez and other big names may still change clubs. For that reason we will just do a brief little profile of each team and project the top 4 (Champions League spots), 5-7th (Europa League spots), and relegation teams (18-20th).

Also, click the links. I made sure they were good so you have no excuse not to.

Arsenal
Key additions: Gervinho
Key losses: Possibly Nasri, Fabregas,
Key Player for their season:  Theo Walcott

This looks to be an incredibly interesting season for the Gunners. Going into last year many picked them to win the league with their star-studded lineup and (usually) aesthetically pleasing football. However, their classic goalie issues and inability to close teams out (Newcastle 4-4 stands out) knocked them off Manchester United’s pace. This year, they come into the year having been plundered and having to listen to Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri rumors all summer. They did well in adding Gervinho up top, but with so much uncertainty in the midfield (where their strength is), I have listed Theo Walcott as their key guy this year. He is not the best player on the team (Robin Van Persie), nor the most consistent (he is probably near the bottom of that list), but Arsenal needs him this year. With Fabregas and Nasri thinking of moves, and Arshaving being a super-sub at best (most of the time), Walcott needs to be that force in the spark that English fans have hoped he would be for so long. Jack Wilshere will keep getting better and keep growing, but Arsenal will need the spark Walcott can provide. He has the skills, but if he doesn’t put it together fully, Arsenal may find themselves out of a Champions League spot. I do not think Walcott is at that level yet, I think Nasri leaves and I think Fabregas continues his pouting and less-than-great play since the Barcelona rumors started. That spells some trouble for the Gunners. They are still one of the top clubs in England, but there is work to be done here if they want to climb to the heights they expect. Arsene Wenger has his work cut out for him.

Aston Villa
Key additions: Shay Given, Charles N’Zogbia
Key losses: Ashley Young, Stewart Downing
Key Player for their season: Darren Bent

Gareth “Overrated because he is English” Barry is gone. So is James Milner. So is Ashley Young. At one point, we thought Aston Villa could be one of the clubs to break into the top 4 hegemony. Now they look like they could be threatened by relegation. However, they have one thing that most relegation-threatened clubs struggle with, and that is a proven striker. Darren Bent can be a pain in the butt, but the dude scores and that is something that is often sorely lacking in lower-salary clubs. One way soccer differs from other sports (such as basketball) is that scoring is not overrated in soccer. You get an NBA player who fills is up and plays no defense and a lot of teams want him less. In soccer/football, it is really hard to find a guy who can score and when you can get one, you get one. Aston Villa got one in Darren Bent and he should be able to keep them alive as long as he doesn’t decide he wants to move mid-season (which is somewhat likely). The loss of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing will decimate this midfield and even the additions of Michael Bradley, Jean Makoun, Charles N’Zogbia, and others within the last 6 months may not be able to save them. I like their chances to be a scrappy team that sticks around and wins some games but doesn’t make anyone too nervous. That is enough to survive but Villa fans should expect a rough go of it this year.

Blackburn
Key additions: Mariano Pavone
Key losses: None
Key Player for their season: Morten Gamst Pedersen

This is my least favorite team in the EPL because they are utterly nondescript. When you think of the stereotypical English team, they are tough, boot it long quite a bit, score a little and lose on penalties (joking, joking on that last one). At least during the Allardyce years they brought in interesting players and plaayed a more open style. Now they are just… ugh. Many are picking them to be relegated and I am all for it, but we will see.

Bolton
Key additions: None
Key losses: a loaned Daniel Sturridge, Johan Elmander
Key Player for their season: Stu Holden/Striker X

Last year, Bolton looked to be graduating from Middleman to Europa contender. Johan Elmander, for the first time in a while, looked like a real striker, the loaned Daniel Sturridge tore it up, and the team clicked. Elmander left on a free transfer, Sturridge went back to Chelsea, and now Kevin Davies, a supporting-striker type is left to man the front lines. Chung-Yong Lee is probably the team’s best player, but if they are to be successful this year, they need American Stu Holden to step up and be the distributor, creator and playmaker for a club whose cupboard is suddenly a bit bare. Striker X is whatever striker that steps up and makes the leap to a legitimate scorer. If they get someone to do that, they can re-create a good deal of what happened last year and push for Europa. If not, they will be fighting for their lives.

Chelsea
Key additions: Andre Vilas-Boas, Romelu Lukaku,
Key losses: None
Key player for their season: Fernando Torres

Chelseaa finished second last year, so they fired their manager. You know, because it was his fault Fernando Torres sucked, Nicolas Anelka got old fast and Didier Drogba was still recovering from malaria. Last year’s “problem”, if you can even call it that, was letting too many close games slip away, often from 1-0 leads to 1-1 draws. A full season of David Luiz in the back with a healthy Alex, and others should help keep more clean sheets, and one would think that the front line would pick it up. Torres was in a funk so deep George Clinton couldn’t see the bottom of it, but he has to, and will, break out of it in the early parts of this year. I actually would love to see a Drogba-Torres-Sturridge front 3 for the Blues but I doubt that is their first choice three until late in the year. The squad depth is there for the most part, though they could have used Luka Modric to be their creative midfield force, and the only way they miss the Champions League is if Torres starts to crash and burn and Abramovic somehow doesn’t swoop in with the money. They will be fine this year but they should start looking at replacements for Anelka, Essien, Drogba, and Terry, all of whom are aging. I am not going to go as far as to say this is the last year of the Drogba-Terry Chelsea, but it wouldn’t shock me either. Missing the top 4 would be a surprise for the Blues this year, but so would a league title.

Oh, and one more thing. Gael Kakuta shows it off this year and eventually replaces Essien in the starting lineup. Calling it.

Everton
Key additions: None
Key losses: None
Key Player for their season: Mikel Arteta/Finances

Oh to be broke and talented. Imagine for a second if the New York Mets, suddenly desperate for money, decided they wanted to share Yankee Stadium with the Yankees. Can you imagine the embarrassment of Mets fans if it happened? Well, Everton is in such financial trouble in the long term they have looked into moving into local rival Liverpool’s new stadium and sharing it. Now it should make more sense why a team in desperate need of a striker and some depth did not make any kind of splash in the transfer market. I am overstating the financial problem a bit, but the lack of squad depth has killed them in the past and it will again. Same goes for their striker issues. Jermaine Beckford is fine but he is not getting the job done in an adequate way for a team with top 7 potential.  With that being said, they do have tons of quality in the side and, when healthy, they are an extremely formidable side. I waffled a bit on their key player, but went with Arteta because when he is pulling the strings they are a side capable of going deep in the Europa League. He also seems to get injured less than Felliani, Cahill, or anyone else. Plenty of quality there, but I can’t see them finishing any higher than 7th even if they stay healthy the entire season (which will not happen). A top 7 team that may lurk in the bottom half for good portions of the years.

Fulham
Key additions: Pajtim Kasami
Key losses: Zoltan Gera
Key Player for their season:  Clint Dempsey/Mark Schwarzer

Fulham seems to be the same side every year. They lack a striker but usually score a decent number of goals, get a ton of draws, and play a lot of white guys. However, this year they will be banking on American forward (who is forced to play the wing) Clint Dempsey. He led the team in scoring last campaign and helped bolster a team that was otherwise a bit toothless up front. As always, Mark Schwarzer was one of the better keepers in the Premiership when healthy and had a solid defense in front of him with Hangeland, Hughes, Baird, and Salcido forming one of the better back fours around. Fulham always strikes me as being more erratic than they should be, but that is just what happens when you rely on Dempsey to be your main scoring threat and generally just lack something the rest of the London clubs have. However, what they lack in flair they make up for in results and I would be surprised to see them finish outside the top half.

Oh, and Pajtim Kasami is very promising, but he will not break out this year.

Liverpool
Key additions: Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson
Key Losses: None
Key player for their season: Steven Gerrard

For the first half of last year, the once mighty Liverpool looked very vulnerable. When the January window rolled around, all that changed. They went out and added Luis Suarez for 22m (great move) and Andy Carroll for 35m (no thank you) and they, as well as a healthier side and a transformed Raul Meireles, charged up the table, including some very impressive wins. The spending continued with the additions of, in particular, Charlie Adam from Blackpool and Stewart Downing from Aston Villa to give them a midfield that is truly loaded. Adam, Downing, Maxi, and Meireles are all very good, and Lucas was good last year, but Liverpool’s success this season depends on Steven Gerrard’s health and abilities. Just two years ago he was considered one of the best players in the EPL, but now he is regarded as being a bit creaky with all his injuries and having lost a step. If he is the player he was two years ago, their squad rivals anyone’s, and with Suarez up top (who is truly one of the must-watch players in the league) with Carroll and/or Kuyt, Liverpool can absolutely contend. Of course, if Gerrard isn’t what he used to be, Liverpool can climb far up the table but will lack the pop to get into the title race. Liverpool fans (and my are there a lot of them) have a lot to look forward to this year.

Manchester City
Key additions: Clichy, Kun Aguero, Nasri (?), Anyone they want
Key Losses: Carlos Tevez (?)
Key player for their season: SergioKun” Aguero

Once upon a time,everyone hated Chelsea for being a soulless, richer-than-God club. That team is now Manchester City, whose spending, just in its gross volume, make even the wealthiest pricks we know cringe. Manchester City spent 61m euros this summer, but Roberto Mancini still was frustrated by the club’s reduced spending. This article was admittedly written before the Aguero signing was final, but with the club still in on Samir Nasri, and still having not sold Carlos Tevez, they have a true embarrassment of riches. No rumor is too ridiculous for this club, except maybe the one where Givaldinho Hulk’s agent said Porto turned down an 80m euro bid for the solid, but not spectacular striker. Anyway, City is going to be really, really good this year, if for no other reason than they can buy any talented player they would like. David Silva is set to make a serious jump forward and should establish himself in a big way. However, with the expected departure of Carlos Tevez, I am going with Aguero as the key player this season. Tevez did an incredible amount of the scoring and creating for City last year and they need someone to replace that. Fortunately for them, they are rich enough to go get Aguero, who is a phenomenon in his own right and will step into the EPL with relative ease. This is a top 4 club again this year and will challenge for the title if the combined team-killing-ness of Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez does not sink them.

It is easy to get carried away in the City hating with all their cash, but let’s not forget how much cash Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and other big clubs generally spend. Don’t hate the player and not the game, so to speak. Oh, and a comment on the Balotelli video I linked above: I really do not mind his attempt to have fun with what was, a pretty dull affair, but if you miss it with a teammate right next to you, and then throw a fit when you get pulled, you have some maturing to do on the pitch.

Manchester United
Key additions: Ashley Young, David De Gea, Phil Jones
Key Losses: Edwin Van Der Sar, Paul Scholes
Key player for their season: Nani

They are the Champs, and will of course return to the title hunt again. They were/are getting a bit old, but the addition of Ashley Young and the continued grown of Chicharito should help any worries among the Manc faithful that the team will need a nursing home on the road rather than a hotel. The addition of Phil Jones should also bolster a back line that looked a bit thin at times, but Nani is the key to the Red Devils’ title run. Last year he broke out in a big way from being a hyper-talented headcase flopper to a hyper-talented headcase flopper with a track record for eviscerating anyone in his way. If he can do what he did last year, Manchester United will be right in the thick of things again. It seems Ashley Young will man the other wing, but I kinda like him in another role. With Javier Hernandez getting a rest at the beginning of the year after his Gold Cup and Copa America play, I like playing him right behind Wayne Rooney and being his feeder somewhat like he did at the end of last year for Darren Bent. I vote Sir Alex lets Anotion Valencia man the other wing with Young in the middle until Chicharito returns. Oh, and the kids at United are pretty damn good too, so there should be no doubt about their future.

All that, and I still haven’t gotten to the addition of David De Gea, who for my money was every bit as good as Iker Casillas (RM) or Victor Valdes (BAR) in La Liga last year. He is young, extremely good and a bargain considering he could be United’s keeper for the next 20ish years. He is an irrefutable upgrade over Edwin Van Der Sar on the pitch, and while the Red Devils may miss VDS’ leadership, they will not miss it on the field while they are giving up fewer goals than last year. United should be considered the favorites for the League title.

BONUS VIDEO: My favorite Nani moment.

Newcastle United
Key additions: Sylvain Marveaux, Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye, Mehdi Abeid
Key losses: Joey Barton (?)
Key Player for their season: Joey Barton

Joey Barton is Newcastle United’s best player. He is also kinda nuts, and is currently throwing a fit. If he decides he likes soccer more than he dislikes Mike Ashley (who is admittedly easy to dislike) Newcastle COULD compete for a Europa spot. If not, Newcastle will find itself in the lower half and struggling quite a bit. After the sale of Andy Carroll, the club did well to add Demba Ba from West Ham, and he should be very helpful, but it is unclear if Ba can be a beast over an entire season rather than just every once in a while. Along with Ba, Newcastle added a bunch of French players, causing Arsene Wenger to both get a chubby and be resentful that Arsenal did not buy the players, just for the hell of it. No, I promise that happened. I frankly do not know much about the french players involved but they should help a Newcastle midfield that was very hit or miss last year along with hopefully helping keep possession to a point their defense is not as stressed as it was at times last year. If Barton bitches and moans, the team will struggle. If Barton plays at the level he can, they could soar for stretches and do quite well.

Norwich City
Key additions: Quantity over quality
Key losses: None
Key Player for their season: Grant Holt

I know next to nothing about Norwich and will be upfront about it. I know that Grant Holt was a great scorer for them last year and that his success will be vital to any survival efforst mustered by Norwich. Honestly, I am a little bummed Nottingham Forest (who fell off the second half last year) did not get their spot because that is a much cooler club name. They did not have any notable summer signings or anything so it appears they will be dancing with who brought them, so to speak. I am completely unhelpful here but so be it. Actually, the only thing I have to say about this team is…

STEVE HOLT!

Queen’s Park Rangers

Not the most flattering look...


Key additions: DJ Campbell
Key Losses: None
Key Player for their season: Adel Taarabt

This club reminds me a bit of Newcastle last year. They were a team that came into the Premier League and already looked to be free of the relegation zone due to the talent on their roster. However, there is a little doubt still looming over the future of their playmaker and star Adel Taarabt who has been begging for a move to France all summer. If they hold onto him (and it looks like they will) they can be a very solid team in the league. The addition of mercenary striker DJ Campbell should bolster their cause as well as a team that expects to play well, not just avoid relegation. Without a doubt the strongest of the new clubs on paper.

Stoke City
Key additions: Jonathan Woodgate
Key losses: Kieran Richardson
Key Player for their season:  Jermaine Pennant

Stoke has always been a physical and tough team with good goalkeeping that has hung around the Premier League as a result. It is almost not even surprising that a team like that has a player (Rory Delap) who specializes in long throw ins. Of all the talents to have… Anyway, Stoke has been a solid and unspectacular EPL club for what feels like a long time and that will not change this year. However, they could make a push if Permaine Pennant can make big strides in his game and give the club a genuine offensive threat. If you do tune into one of their games, you may think it is a rugby match but they are an excellent example of how tough teams have a much better chance of survival in Egnalnd over, say, Italy or Spain where skill and finesse are the only way of life accepted. That is not a shot at England, just a commentary on some of the differences between the leagues. There is not much else to say about Stoke. Not even a bad pun about being “stoked”.

Sunderland
Key additions: Sebastian Larsson, 9 others
Key losses: None
Key Player for their season: Asamoah Gyan

Sunderland has decided it wants to jump into that group of the top 6 clubs who seem to permanently occupy those top spots. They went out and spent 26m (which is a lot for most clubs) and brought in 10 brand new players, many of whom are going to replace their incumbent starters. Sebastian Larsson is probably the best among the newcomers with Connor Wickham being perhaps the most promising, but neither of them are the biggest key to the season. That belongs to Asamoah Gyan who needs to start earning his transfer fee if the Sunderland faithful are going to love him, He has been just fine so far in his career, but if Sunderland wants to cement a place higher up in the table he had better bring the noise.  I like Sessegnon’s chances at having an impact as well if they can find some playing time for him. If he can step up with his new midfield and join what was a superb defense last year, Sunderland and its new spending ways could find success.

Swansea City
Key additions: Quantity over quality
Key losses: Fabio Borini
Key Player for their season: Manager Brendan Rodgers

Remember Blackpool from last year? Attack until you can’t see straight, and then attack some more? That Blackpool? Well this is 2011-2012’s version of Blackpool. They play very attractive football with an emphasis on passing and finesse and sometimes that costs them defensively. If you watched the League Championship Playoff Final, you may remember Swansea being up 3-0 before letting Reading crash back into the match. This year, Swansea will probably not have many 3 goal leads, but when they do, I urge them to close up shop a bit more than Blackpool did last year. However, Swansea is missing a big part that helped them make it here. Fabio Borini went on loan from Chelsea last year and helped boost Swansea over the top, but he went back to Stamford Bridge this summer and has left a bit of a hold in Swansea’s team, They still have plenty of exciting attacking options in Bodde, Sinclair, Dobbie and others, but their survival will depend on their ability to defend above all else. That is why their manager is their key player this year, because after seeing Ian Holloway’s admirable but flawed plans on constant attack, Swansea will only survive if they can close up shop late, and a larger bit of that than you’d think falls at the manager’s feet when it comes time to make substitutes. Swansea is not likely to survive but they will be fun to watch, and that is enough of a reason to root for them.

Swansea is technically a Welsh club as well, which is interesting in the “English” Premier League. That has little to no bearing on the football itself but is interesting nonetheless as it does not happen much. HERE is a link to the highlights to how they were promoted. Riveting.

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham's best player is as intimidating as a "puntable" dog.


Key additions: Kyle Walker, Not losing Luka Modric of Gareth Bale
Key losses: None
Key Player for their season:  The Striker they didn’t buy

Tottenham is a very good squad that is just missing something. They did very well to hang onto standouts Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, but completely failed to bring in the big striker they needed. Jermain Defoe’s from just crumbled last year and Peter Crouch just does not work as a main striking threat. Oh, and Pavlyuchenko just has no consistency to his game and especially if you are counting on him as your top striker. They have wonderful pieces like Bale, Modric, Van der Vaart, Aaron Lennon, and many others, but until they get a striker they will not be able to get back to Champions League football. They took a run at Falcao of Porto, looked at Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao, Giuseppe Rossi of Villarreal (all of whom would have been awesome) and flirted with a dozen others, but at the end of the day, they came up empty. Now that does not have to be a bad thing if the club FINALLY turns Giovani Dos Santos loose but ‘Arry Redknapp seems to have something against him. Any U.S. soccer fan can tell you Dos Santos is a potential star but ‘Arry seems hell-bent on keeping him away from White Hart Lane via loan. I would like to see them give him a chance but I doubt it happens. The key to Tottenham’s season, unless they fix it in January, will be their lack of a striker.

West Bromwich Albion
Key additions: Zoltan Gera, Ben Foster
Key losses: None
Key Player for their season: Ben Foster

WBA is not as lost as you would think. They have a good manager in Roy Hodgson (whose style never did fit Liverpool and prefers building a foundation to putting the finishing touches on a team), added a very good keeper, which was much needed, have a stud striker in Peter Odemwingie (great name) and some other pieces that can help them stick in the Premier League again. They will not destroy anyone, will not be any higher on the table than 9th in the best possible scenario, and have a lame nickname (the Baggies) but this club could actually start to really own a spot in the Premier League as supposed to renting like it has been. There is still work to do but they can do it. Ben Foster’s play in goal should be a big boost even without a sterling defense.

Wigan Athletic
Key additions: Ali Al-Habsi
Key losses: Charles N’Zogbia
Key Player for their season: Ali Al-Habsi

Well, it is never exciting when your big add was just signing over the guy you had on loan last year, but it was a necessary measure for Wigan, who benefitted greatly from Ali Al-Habsi’s emergence as an excellent keeper last year. Still, the squad is pretty thin on quantity and apart from 3 or so guys, there is a lack of quality as well. Once again, they will be right in the relegation fight, but will probably, like the last few years, somehow survive. Hugo Rodallega, a former Chelsea castoff, is still their best player, but the defense has got to stand firm if they are going to secure another year in the Premier League. I wouldn’t say I am betting against their survival, but I would be somewhat stunned if they were safe from relegation with two weeks remaining.

Wolves
Key additions: Roger Johnson, Jamie O’Hara
Key losses: None
Key Player for their season: Jarvis-O’Hara-Milijas

For a ream that is constantly threatened with relegation, Wolves are actually pretty interesting this year. They have forged a pretty good midfield with Matt Jarvis, Jamie O’Hara and Nenad Milijas, and bolstered their defense with Birmingham’s Roger Johnson. Those are not moves of a team trying to move laterally on the table, those are moves aimed at moving up and making a place in the Premier League. I think Wolves can do what Bolton did last year in streaking up the table early and sticking around in the top half long enough to be almost-convincing as a club. They are still far from perfect, but they have some very nice pieces in place going forward. Oh, and this is a great video in tribute to the club’s manager, Mick McCarthy. If you somehow went to this sentence without clicking the link, 1) BOOOO and 2) Careless Whisper by George Michael is involved so get your ass back and click it. Anyway, they will probably finish 14th or something, which is far from impressive but they should at least be watchable and, at times, exciting this year.

PREDICTIONS

Top 4 (in order): Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea
Europa League: Arsenal, Tottenham, (and if they get another spot this year-> Sunderland)
Just missed it: Fulham
Relegation: Blackburn, Norwich, Swansea
FA Cup: Liverpool
Carling Cup: Chelsea
Europa League Champs: No one cares
Champions League: Real Madrid
PFA Player of the Year: Luis Suarez
PFA Young Player of the Year:  Gael Kakuta

And just because I am on a roll…

VILLARREAL CF PREVIEW

This is my club, a Spanish side from the Valencia area, that will be in the Champions League this season. They are headlined by stars such as Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar up top, and the resourceful and impeccable Borja Valero in midfield. Prior to this year, I would include Spanish International Santi Cazorla (the one who scored twice vs USA) in this group but he was snatched up by the new money of Malaga. Same goes for the old talisman, Spanish International Joan Capdevila. However, the Yellow Submarine, as they are known for their all-Yellow kit, should be alright without them as they played a good deal of the year without Capdevila last year and found their replacement for the talented Cazorla in Wakaso Mubarak. Mubarak is extremely fast and relentless and should add some pace that, at times, lacks in the Villarreal squad. Ruben Cani is te veteran on the other wing who, despite his inconsistency is a solid player capable of the spectacular on occasion. Villarreal got a good chunk of cash from the Cazorla and Capdevila sales but have yet to reinvest in in the squad thus far ahead of a taxing Champions League schedule. More worrisome still is that squad depth was among the main concerns of the club last year in the Europa League (where they lost in the Semis to eventual Champions Porto) as the sheer volume of the matches took its toll in domestic play.

Not only are they a young team without much cash doing it the right way, they play incredibly attractive football and rarely partake in any flopping. This is a pretty brief summary that would leave most Villarreal fans wanting more, but for the lay man, it will do. Keep an eye out for them in the Champions League and drop some knowledge on your friends when you see the men in yellow.

Thanks for reading (assuming you did) and I will do my absolute best to get a weekly soccer post going to help you stay caught up in the world of European Soccer, errr I mean football. Do me one more favor. Say the last line in a thick English accent.

Cheers!

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