“The further off from England, the nearer is to France. Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance”
It’s difficult to call Joe Cole’s career thus far a failure.
His medal cabinet proudly boasts three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two League Cups, and they sit alongside 56 England caps, a very respectable haul for a man yet to reach 30.
And Cole has provided us with the occasional champagne moment. There was the dipping volley against Sweden in 2006 (when he was arguably England’s best player of the tournament) and the powerful solo goal which showcased all of his close control ability against Manchester United just a few months earlier.
But whilst the highlight reel and the YouTube compilations will provide Lille fans with evidence that their new man is a player of genuine talent, the overriding impression of Cole is his is a career that has been unfulfilled.
Those tipped for the top before they’re even out of school rarely hit the high notes (Freddy Adu being a case in point) and whilst Cole may have chimed one or two resonate chords, there’s always been the lingering impression that his talent has been somewhat wasted.
Part of that is down to injuries and part of it is motivated by tactics. Can anyone really pinpoint Joe Cole’s best position?
Has he been marooned on the left-wing through suitability or convenience? His skill-set should have leant itself to that of a playmaker, the irrepressible number 10 and the fulcrum from which teams were built around. But any hopes of him assuming that role when he was most in-form were dashed under José Mourinho at Chelsea. Accommodating Cole in such a berth would be a luxury that the Portuguese manager rarely affords within his line-up.
Cole’s career was one which instantly sprung to the mind of Pat Nevin when he was interviewed for the Guardian’s excellent series ‘Small Talk’ recently.
“If you ask his coaches when he was younger, they would have argued that he was the most skilful player they’d worked with but at Chelsea he was out on the wing because José Mourinho played a 4-3-3. Instead of producing these players, it would be, ‘Oh he’s not doing it every week, stick him out on the wing’.”
Nevin also reflected on his own career, stating:
“Having played the game myself, it would have been a position I would have seen myself in when I came into the game, but I was quite quickly stuck out on the wing.”
That could be just as applicable to Cole.
The notion which Nevin sort of alluded to was that playmakers are less valued in England, that the type of ‘boom or bust’ philosophy which they live by is simply not risked. It accounts for a derth in creative minds on these shores.
How different Joe Cole’s career could have been had he gone abroad. Unbeknown to Nevin at the time that’s exactly what he’s done since by joining French champions Lille. And what a refreshing move it is.
When the news came through on deadline day that Aston Villa had an interest in Joe Cole, there was a sense that he’d opt to stay in England and play at a lesser level. Too few English players test their abilities abroad and it’s disheartening to see. Villa boss Alex McLeish is an astute manager but his record with creative types is less than stellar as Jean Beausejour and Alexander Hleb will attest to.
Yet Cole made the move to France and it’s a move which could finally see him realise his potential as the wand-waving genius he was meant to be. He’ll slot into Lille’s 4-3-3, possibly out-wide or possible in a central position but he should be freed from the tactical restraints which shackled him in England.
“This offer excited me,” he told the BBC.
“It looks a great club. They did the double last season and I wanted this experience to test myself in the French league.
“Ever since I was a young lad, I wanted the opportunity to play abroad.
Good luck, Joe. Here’s hoping you blaze a trail for some other potential English young playmakers too.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
(You can view last year’s predictions here)
In comparison with previous years, many of the upper echelon have readily felt the need to reach for the chequebook. Manchester City can now use Champions League football to entice players and the signing of Sergio Agüero is the biggest indication yet that they may about to embark on a serious pursuit for the title. But Manchester United have taken another step in their evolution and last week’s Community Shield proved that they are once again the side to beat.
Champions – Manchester United
The team that recorded its 19th league title wasn’t particularly spectacular and in comparison with previous years, the only fireworks were saved for the title’s presentation. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were unflappable, churning out victories without the cavaliering style of previous title-winning squads. The winning mentality which has defined Ferguson’s reign was crucial and the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar had the nous to see them over the line. Javier Hernández proved to be the signing of the season and Nani’s emergence as a world-class star did inject some excitement.
But Ferguson knew that to stay ahead of the pack, particularly ahead of City, he’d need to reinvest, to rejuvenate. Scholes and van der Sar hung up their respective boots and gloves and squad players Wes Brown and John O’Shea were moved on. In came the fresh talent, Ashley Young, David de Gea and Phil Jones. Furthermore, academy products Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley have flown home to roost. All are young, promising individuals keen to be moulded by Ferguson, a man who is in his element working with youth.
The voids left by Scholes and van der Sar are concerns. De Gea will be compensation for the loss of the latter and his progress will be one of the season’s talking points. Scholes’ departure may prove an all-together different proposition. Replacing a player with such technical traits is virtually impossible. So United will look to the energetic Anderson to replicate Nani’s breakout season last term and the pre-season promise that Cleverley has displayed will provide further hope.
Few would ever bet against Ferguson and he appears to have the right blend of experience, energy and excitement to stay in-front once more.
Top Four – Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool
Little has been written about Chelsea this term and perhaps that is a good thing. André Villas-Boas is an intelligent man with an incredible football brain but he must be given time and space to work his magic at this elite level. The Portuguese manager built an extraordinary team at Porto but has made few alternations since arriving at Stamford Bridge. However the biggest difference which must occur is internal. They must change their mentality and Villas-Boas seems like the right man to do so. He will be able to call upon title-winning experience and that is the reason why they will be United’s biggest challengers. Like United they will be keen to develop tomorrow’s generation today and Daniel Sturridge, Josh McEachran and the incoming Romelu Lukaku are exciting protégées.
Manchester City will feel that they have a chance to win the league this season but those aspirations may be 12 months premature. The alluring nature of Champions League football will capture plenty of their attention and look at how that deterred Spurs from their domestic campaign. Then there is the small matter of Carlos Tévez. The Argentine forward was incredibly valuable to City’s success last year and should he depart, they must find inspiration elsewhere. Sergio Agüero is a magnificent coup but Tévez’s boots are sizeable things to expect him to instantly fill. There are also lots of City players who are aggrieved at not getting a first-team chance. Those simmering tensions remain under the lid when City are winning but expectation is higher this year and Roberto Mancini may have a revolt on his hands if he doesn’t bring in more silverware.
When Kenny Dalglish rolled up at Anfield once more last January, the club were in disarray. The King managed to completely transform that and they finished the season looking stronger than almost any other side in the league. They have been one of the most active teams in this transfer window and have made some good if not spectacular moves. Their policy of buying English may cause them to pay over the odds but it is an ideology which proved so fruitful for Dalglish at Blackburn. They also have Luis Suárez who, in my view, is one of the best strikers in the game and may just finish this season as the Premier League’s top scorer.
Many people are predicting Arsène Wenger’s savvy nature will ensure Arsenal don’t drop out of the top four but I’ve seen little evidence that they’ve progressed. Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri could well depart and they are still crying out for an authoritative centre-back, powerful midfielder and experienced goalkeeper. A sadly familiar story is becoming tiresome and Wenger is going to have to fight hard to convince his players, the fans and the media that his philosophy will bring glory to The Emirates.
As for Tottenham, this could be a really difficult season at White Hart Lane. In many ways the Luka Modrić saga is a lose-lose situation. If the Croatian stays, they have a disgruntled player in their ranks. If he departs, Spurs will fall further behind whilst simultaneously strengthening one of their rivals. Then there is Harry Redknapp whose demeanour has become increasingly strange over the past 12 months. He has publically criticised Spurs fans in the media on more than one occasion and appears to have lost a certain zest when it comes to managing the team. Fabio Capello’s heir apparent is probably less than a year away from the England job and it could be difficult for him to maintain focus on events at Tottenham.
Surprise Package – Aston Villa
This summer has been far from a haven for Aston Villa. Chairman Randy Lerner, a man who had previously been heralded for his stewardship, bumbled through the process of hiring a new manager before deciding on Alex McLeish. The former Birmingham boss managed to create a unique sense of togetherness between the second-city rivals in the form of shared hatred of the Scot. McLeish did take Birmingham to relegation last year and any concerns about the new season were further enhanced when Brad Friedel, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing jumped board.
But there are plenty of rays of sunshine emanating from the doom mongering over the Holte End. Firstly, McLeish IS a good manager. He captured the Carling Cup last season and built a solid unit which was difficult to break down at St Andrew’s. A lack of investment proved their downfall but he has already been allowed access to Lerner’s wallet in his new position. Shay Given is a top-quality goalkeeper who is reliable and consistent. His assured performances should bolster a defence which went from solid to porous within 12 months. The absence of Young and Downing will allow Marc Albrighton to continue to blossom and Charles N’Zogbia has the potential to win matches virtually single-handedly as he did countless times at Wigan. Throw in the ever dependable Darren Bent and you have the crux of a decent side.
Villa’s initial run of fixtures is even more heart-warming. They face only one side who finished in the top six last year in their first 11 games and that doesn’t come until October. McLeish’s baptism of fire may prove to be little more than the flickering of a candle.
Relegation – QPR, Swansea, Blackburn
These three will be expecting a dogfight, elsewhere, West Brom have made some clever signings, Bolton should have enough class and Wolves’ squad looks strong enough to remain above the pit. Of the three promoted sides, Norwich could spring some surprises. Carrow Road will be rammed full of partisan crowds every other weekend and Paul Lambert’s squad know nothing other than winning under him following back-to-back promotions. They will be handed thrashings on occasion but should pick up enough points at home to ensure survival. Wigan continue to astound given their tiny stature but Roberto Martínez deserves plenty of plaudits for the side he has built. The loss of Charles N’Zogbia will be felt but there is an infectious excitement about Victor Moses and he should repeat N’Zogbia’s match-winning performances from the left wing.
QPR were magnificent in their Championship winning season but the emotion involved in that triumph may have sapped them. Neil Warnock appears an exasperated man this off-season and hasn’t been backed with the type of funds his owners could quite easily part with. Old-timers Shaun Derry and Clint Hill were stalwarts in the second tier but surely the step up will prove too much. Adel Taarabt and Alejandro Faurlín are wonderful ball-players and in D.J. Campbell and Jay Bothroyd, goals shouldn’t be hard to come by. But will it be enough?
Swansea finished last season in-form and their Premier League status will probably hinge on Scott Sinclair’s performances. Sinclair set the Championship alight but he has struggled when faced with Premier League defences before. There is still time for Swansea to make some moves in the transfer market but they know they will face an uphill task regardless.
Blackburn are quickly growing into the Premier League’s punch line (see this Venky’s advert for further evidence). They clung on by the skin of their teeth last May and will be grasping for enamel once more. Phil Jones wisely jumped board and there are enough suitors for Christopher Samba to believe that Rovers will need a whole new centre-back pairing. With changes at the back they will need a steady stream of goals and none of the current crop looks good enough to keep them from sinking.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
“Where there’s a carcass, there will be vultures”
The story is one you’ll recognise. An upstart team with some promising players makes an impression and quickly becomes ravaged by the circling behemoths. If you don’t have money, if you don’t have power, if you don’t have prestige, it’s only a matter of time before Europe’s elite ruthlessly come knocking. If you can’t beat them, buy everything they possess.
The impression that F.C. Porto made last year was always likely to pique the interests of the vultures. They secured a treble and went unbeaten in the league, smashing multiple records in the process. They had a young, bright manager, a talented squad and a real chance of winning next year’s Champions League. Then Chelsea came knocking and the door predictably opened.
Porto know the price of success all too well. They were the last major surprise winners of the Champions League when in 2004, José Mourinho team’s dispatched Monaco with consummate ease. His starting line up had ten Portuguese players and although most were acquired, it was a reflection of the country’s strength at the time. But Roman Abramovich and Chelsea’s millions soon plucked Porto’s ripest elements, starting with Mourinho himself.
Of Porto’s line up that evening, Paulo Ferreira, Pedro Mendes, Deco and Ricardo Carvalho soon followed Mourinho out of the door. Maniche and Costinha lasted 12 more months, Derlei slightly less, Carlos Alberto slightly longer. It was a similar story for Monaco. Fernando Morientes, Jérôme Rothen, Ludovic Giuly, Édouard Cissé, Hugo Ibarra and Dado Pršo all played that night and didn’t return for the next season.
The Valencia squad which reached back-to-back Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 was also picked apart, bit by bit. After reaching the first, promising midfielders Javier Farinós and Gerard went to Inter and Barcelona respectively. They were also unable to keep hold of Claudio López, the Argentine moving to, at the time, big spending Lazio. After the next final two more important cogs were displaced. Manager Héctor Cúper was snapped up by Inter and the much sought after Gaizka Mendieta joined Lazio.
Valencia’s financial problems have been well documented but they managed to win the next two La Ligas and the 2004 UEFA Cup under Rafa Benítez. Had Valencia kept that squad together, the landscape of La Liga may look very different today.
Other back-to-back finalists Ajax suffered a similar dissection. The squad which won in 1995 immediately lost Michael Reiziger to Milan and Clarence Seedorf to Sampdoria to add to Frank Rijkaard’s retirement. But it took another 12 months for them to lose the core of that side.
After the 1996 final, when Ajax were beaten by Juventus on penalties, Winston Bogarde, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Nwankwo Kanu swapped Amsterdam for Milan, Kanu to Inter, the others to A.C. Milan. Finidi George opted for Spain and Real Betis and Marc Overmars, who missed the final through injury, showed up at Arsenal. Manager Louis van Gaal went to Barcelona just 12 months later. Three years after the final, none of 1996’s starting line-up, including Edwin van der Sar, the de Boers and Jari Litmanen, remained.
Ajax’s golden generation flew from the nest and they’ve never returned to the heights of that period in the mid-90s. Europe was surely theirs for the taking had that generation stayed together.
As Porto are about to prove, it’s not just Champions League finalists who are vulnerable to the bigger vultures. The excitement around the Zenit St. Petersburg team who lit up the 2008 UEFA Cup was soon curbed after key figures Andrei Arshavin, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Pavel Pogrebnyak left Russia within 12 months.
To a lesser extent Marseille, who reached the 2004 final, lost their impetus when Mathieu Flamini and Didier Drogba came to the Premier League. Alaves, who enthralled us all with a magnificent final against Liverpool back in 2001, soon lost their lynchpins Javi Moreno and Cosmin Contra to Milan.
The Parma side that won the 1999 UEFA Cup would surely have gone on to compete for major honours for many years had they remained together. Playing for them that night were Gianluigi Buffon, Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro, Roberto Sensini, Juan Sebastián Verón, Enrico Chiesa and Hernán Crespo. Sensini, Chiesa and Verón then all left and Crespo followed them the following summer, all four joining other Italian clubs. Buffon and Thuram went in 2001 before Fabio Cannavaro departed in 2003, again staying within Serie A. Unlike those involved in the Zenit and Ajax exoduses, these were not prompted by players wishing to join more established footballing leagues. Parma competed in the Champions League in 2000 so for those who initially fled, it can’t have been motivated by wanting to play at a higher level either.
For this Porto squad, who towards the end of last year looked every bit as good as every other European side, the horse bolted when Villas-Boas wound up in West London last week.
Had this Porto side stuck together, Villas-Boas, backroom staff and all, who is to say they wouldn’t have replicated Mourinho’s achievements in 2004 and followed up a UEFA Cup (now Europa League) title with club football’s grandest prize? As it is, Villas-Boas’ exit is likely to scupper any hopes of that.
The 33-year-old has his knife out and is feasting away at the Porto carcass. He’s already picked off the grisly bits, acquiring backroom staff members and now the meatier sections of Radamel Falcao, João Moutinho and Hulk are primed to be ripped off.
So instead Porto will be forced to rebuild, albeit with the coffers substantially boosted, and we will be robbed off seeing a new, exciting force try to smash the Champions League monopoly which has seen the same final repeated in the last three years. It’s all rather depressing really.
“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it”
Wisdom, it is suggested, comes with age. It is therefore not surprising that next year the average age of a Premier League manager will be 51. The newest addition has dragged that average down significantly. Chelsea’s new boss André Villas-Boas is just 33 years old. When he entered this world, the Premier League’s eldest statesman Sir Alex Ferguson was managing St Mirren at 35.
Wisdom may come with age but more importantly it comes with experience and Villas-Boas already has 16 years experience in this managerial game. He took his first UEFA coaching badge at 17. This isn’t an ex player dipping a tentative toe in one of club management’s biggest pools. This is a confident, assured man who possesses a football brain that bellies his tender years.
So Villas-Boas’ age shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, if you look at this Chelsea team, it may even be beneficial.
Whilst Carlo Ancelotti and Guus Hiddink enjoyed success, other experienced hands, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Avram Grant, struggled to control a difficult group of players with enormous egos. The last man who truly knew how to get the best out of this group of Chelsea players was a certain José Mourinho and one of the reasons for this was that he understood them. Comparisons between Mourinho and Villas-Boas are somewhat inevitable if not lazy and tedious. Their approaches to the game vastly differ but the important thing to note is that both were young when they made the move from Porto to Chelsea.
Portuguese agent Jorge Mendes said Mourinho’s age was paramount to his success as it “means he speaks the same language as the players”. He was just 41 when he joined Chelsea but players enjoy playing for him and as a result they give their all every time he sends them out to play. It was under Mourinho that we saw the best of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. They are now Chelsea’s oldest outfield players and are the same age as Villas-Boas.
Some may think Villas-Boas’ age will work against him. They will point to Lampard and Drogba and they will question whether he can command their respect. But it’s a short-sighted view which completely overlooks the fact that his age makes him more likely to understand his group of players. The trimmings of modern football continue to perplex most but like his players, it is all Villas-Boas has known.
The NFL provides a couple of interesting examples of younger head coaches. The first, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl when he triumphed in 2009, aged just 36.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s what you know. To me, it’s like he’s been a head coach for 20 years,” said tackle Flozell Adams.
And if Villas-Boas is looking for advice, he should consider these words from Hines Ward on Tomlin’s induction:
“They don’t give you a book to show you how to be a head coach. When he first got here, there were some veteran guys that challenged his authority, and they’re no longer here.”
Raheem Morris, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is the league’s youngest coach at 34 and he began coaching at 22. Morris is intriguing because his team currently ranks as the second youngest in the league. Last year, with a team littered full of rookies, he narrowly missed out on the play-offs.
Hiring youthful minds is a trend that the league moved towards after Tomlin’s Super Bowl victory but it has since moved away from it. In recent years the departures of Josh McDaniels, Mike Singletary, Tom Cable, Jim Mora, Eric Mangini and Romeo Crennel have raised the average age.
That figure now stands at 50, surprisingly close to that of the Premier League.
But age is primarily just a number. Villas-Boas has the experience; he has the credentials to succeed at Chelsea. He has the chance to relate to players in the same way Mourinho did before him and the same way Mike Tomlin did in Pittsburgh. Don’t be deterred by his age.
“I love playing football but I think I am like everyone else, I hate losing and love winning. And if the time comes when I am not disappointed when things are not going right, that’s when people should worry”
The fallout from last night’s pulsating clash between Chelsea and Manchester United centred on the actions of David Luiz, Chris Smalling and Yuri Zhirkov. But it was the manner of the brash and bold performance of Wayne Rooney which really stood out.
Rooney had been the subject of considerable debate before the game after his callous elbow against Wigan went unpunished. He could consider himself very fortunate to be playing against Chelsea but his performance, particularly in the first period didn’t disappoint.
Rooney looked sharp and hungry. He drove at defenders with the ball, he brought others into play and with Javier Hernandez playing further ahead of him he dropped into some excellent positions. But it was Rooney’s attitude which was even more encouraging.
The passion and the fire were clearly evident. Remonstrating with referees, harrying defenders and becoming exasperated at colleagues, this was the Rooney of old.
If one moment summarised exactly that it was during the second half when he over-hit a crucial pass to Hernandez. Two or three months ago Rooney would have turned around, shoulders slumped and disappeared. But this time the frustration was visible, Sir Alex Ferguson himself probably afforded himself a wry smile.
It’s been a difficult year for Rooney and he has ultimately contributed to his own downfall but Ferguson’s decision to stick by his striker shows how important he remains.
Strikers can dip in and out of form more than most players due to a heavy reliance on goals. But Rooney’s always had more in his locker than just hitting the back of the net. That’s what made his slump in form all the more alarming.
Take Fernando Torres another striker suffering a difficult time. He currently plays with a demeanor which suggests the world is weighing him down. But even he’s at his electrifying best, Torres can drift in and out of games showing little in the way of emotion. He doesn’t radiate the same passion that characterises Rooney’s game.
Many thought the magnificent strike against Manchester City would mark the turning point in Rooney’s fortunes and certainly his form seems to have picked up as a result.
The goals may be slowly returning but it’s the fire inside of him which will really determine if Rooney is getting out of this lengthy rut. Amid all the disappointment and finger pointing which United will no doubt indulge in, Rooney’s performance could be a shining light. A reinvigorated Rooney will be pivotal to United’s final push this season. And next up for the fired up scouser, it’s Liverpool.
“A new year is unfolding – like a blossom with petals curled tightly concealing the beauty within”
There were plenty of men who burst through onto the Premier League landscape in 2010. It was the year when we all got rather excited about Gareth Bale, the year when Nani and Samir Nasri stepped out of Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fàbregas’ commanding shadows and the year when Andy Carroll jumped into Alan Shearer’s intimidating shoes.
Next year promises yet more riveting storylines. Will the fledglings at Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United rise to prominence? Will the youthful core keep Aston Villa competitive? And will Manchester City hang on to their talented products?
This is who I think will burst through in 2011.
Wojciech Szczęsny (Arsenal)
He’s already causing bloggers, journalists and spelling perfectionists everywhere nightmares. Yet the man who fears vowels could soon establish himself as one of the league’s top keepers at the tender age of 20.
Arsène Wenger has already stated that he thinks Szczęsny will go on to be Arsenal’s No 1 one day and with doubts over those supposedly ahead of him in the pecking order, that day may come sooner rather than later. He was assured enough when thrown in at the deep end at Old Trafford recently and certainly has the confidence to play for a big team.
Some of Arsenal’s talented band of youngsters always seem to blossom each year and Szczęsny’s maturation could be imminent. The goalkeeper position remains Wenger’s Achilles heel and Szczęsny may be the answer to his woes.
Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal)
There was a time when you thought that with Gaël Clichy for company, Kieran Gibbs was going to have to move elsewhere to kick-start his career. Yet increasingly these days, Clichy looks like a weak link in the Arsenal back line. Gibbs now looks a better all-round and more consistent option for Arsenal and Clichy should be concerned about his starting place next year.
Gibbs is undoubtedly talented but his early forays into the Arsenal team have been hampered by injuries. His development will depend largely on his ability to stay fit.
Sadly he may find it harder to dislodge Ashley Cole in the England team and Leighton Baines’ recent resurgence means Gibbs will have to shine if he’s to even get another call up for the national team.
Nedum Onuoha (Sunderland/Manchester City)
Nedum Onuoha has all the physical attributes of Micah Richards yet with the football brain which should take him further.
Whilst he may not possess the cavalier instincts of a Dani Alves or Glen Johnson, the mazy run which led to his goal against Chelsea proved he is adept in advanced positions.
His time at Sunderland has proved that he will shine in this league even if it is not with Manchester City’s instant-gratification project. Vincent Kompany has had a stellar season thus far and City have a plethora of options at both full-back and centre half. But I fully expect Onuoha to be in Fabio Capello’s plans for the coming year wherever he may end up.
Kyle Walker (QPR/Tottenham Hotspur)
Perhaps I have cheated here by including three players who could essentially be considered as “right-backs” but the long-term injury suffered by Blackburn Rovers’ Phil Jones made this a more difficult decision. I believe Johan Djourou will shine too but Wenger will remain cautious as he returns from injury. Kyle Walker has also featured in a more central position for QPR and he has been an inspirational loan signing for them. Their rock solid defence has been the main reason for their lofty position and Walker must take some credit for that.
He looks like a commanding figure who is comfortable on the ball but not afraid to put a foot in when it is required. Walker is the only player in this 11 currently playing outside of the Premier League but his bright performances for QPR should allow him to break into the Tottenham team when he returns.
Rafael Da Silva (Manchester United)
Rafael has so far been plagued by the naivety of youth. His sending off against Bayern Munich last season was a prime example of how, in the heat of battle, he would often do something rash.
He still has a tendency to dive in rather than stand up and hold back but his defensive capabilities are improving.
Excellent performances against Tottenham and Arsenal and the fact he was rested for the big derby against Manchester City prove that Sir Alex Ferguson believes he can trust the Brazilian. With Wes Brown seemingly out of favour, Gary Neville nearing the end and John O’Shea still very much the utility man, Rafael is currently the fore runner for the right back berth.
Alongside the experienced heads of Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidić, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, Rafael can be the final component of United’s rear-guard this coming year.
Gaël Kakuta (Chelsea)
His name will be familiar with many fans even if his appearances for Chelsea’s team have so far been sparse. The controversy surrounding his signing should tell you that Chelsea were simply desperate to sign Gaël Kakuta.
His limited number of first team appearances have been received warmly and he was a key cog in the French under-19 team that won the European Championships last summer.
Chelsea rarely dip their sizeable hands into the transfer market these days and with an aging squad, the emphasis is clearly on youth. Few have broken through since Roman Abramovich’s arrival but Kakuta is heading a talented group of players who may well finally buck that trend.
Anderson (Manchester United)
It’s not been easy for Anderson at Manchester United. He has struggled to define his role, there have been question marks about his attitude and on top of that, an injury somewhat derailed his progress.
In the past few weeks though, Anderson seems to be finally realising what he needs to do to make himself into a top class footballer. He offers United something which nobody else in that midfield group can. He is a bustling box to box midfielder with the energy, stamina and strength to drive the heart of that midfield. If he can start scoring on a regular basis, he will be invaluable to United’s title aspirations.
This time last year teammate Nani embarked on a turnaround and now Anderson has the chance to tread a similar path. Anderson has been rewarded with a new contract and an extended run in the first team. The stage is most certainly set for him to finally blossom in 2011.
Stuart Holden (Bolton Wanderers)
At 25, Stuart Holden is the oldest man in this group but in terms of his time in England, his football career is still very much in its infancy.
Initially at Sunderland before heading to America, Holden has only been with Bolton for 12 months but in that time he has been the catalyst for their Owen Coyle-inspired turnaround.
Holden’s poise and calmness on the ball make him an instantly likeable player. He is proficient with both feet and is excellent at keeping possession. Coyle’s Bolton have utilised a 4-4-2 formation and their recent success has owed much to Holden’s marvellous midfield play.
Whilst he has received some praise I fully expect Holden to soon be recognised as one of the league’s best midfielders and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end up with a bigger club in the summer.
Marc Albrighton (Aston Villa)
Marc Albrighton has spent the last few months of 2010 forming a burgeoning reputation in the game as one of the country’s more exciting prospects. He was desperately unlucky to miss out on the last England squad but his time is fast approaching.
Unlike compatriots Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips, the main weapon in Albrighton’s artillery is his final delivery. His whipped crosses are akin to something the magical right boot of David Beckham might conjure up. Albrighton has the pace and the trickery, but his nous for providing exquisite crosses set him apart. He has also weighed in with plenty of goals.
His attitude too is mightily refreshing as pointed out in a recent Sunday Times feature.
I fully expect Albrighton to nail down England’s right midfield position by next year and that can only be good news for England’s frustrated strikers.
Danny Welbeck (Sunderland/Manchester United)
Sir Alex Ferguson had suggested the summer before last season that Danny Welbeck would be included in England’s World Cup squad. But Welbeck endured a difficult season, ending it on loan at Preston North End. Marginalised in wider roles and still needing to bulk up, Ferguson’s premonition looked rather foolish.
Yet in the past few weeks, he has been inspired at Sunderland. He has scored goals with his feet and his head, performed the role of poacher and creator and been both quick and strong. There now seems little doubt that Welbeck will end up back at Old Trafford next year and he certainly has the fans rooting for him. United haven’t brought through many strikers in recent years and Welbeck now has an excellent opportunity to fill that void.
Nathan Delfouneso (Aston Villa)
Delfouneso’s inclusion is a gamble based on the fact that he has rarely featured thus far for Villa. It would have been easier to pack the midfield and opt for Barry Bannan, Jack Rodwell or Josh McEachran. Yet Delfouneso could feature prominently for Villa next year and has all the attributes to be 2011’s Andy Carroll.
With Villa’s brash spending days firmly behind them, Gérard Houllier has to look at what he already has. John Carew’s temperament and Emile Heskey’s injuries could propel Delfouneso into the spotlight. He is quick and has a robust figure which should allow him to cope with the physical demands of the league.
“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”
On the eve of the forthcoming Premier League season I have, like many others, foolishly left myself open to mockery and abuse by predicting this season’s big winners and losers. Still given the dominance of the ‘Big Four’ and the belief that it’ll be the usual names in the usual places, it should be easy, right? Maybe I should have used this quote to open instead:
“The groundhog is like most prophets; it delivers its prediction then disappears”
If you don’t hear from me come May you’ll know why…
CHAMPIONS = CHELSEA
Last time around the pitfalls appeared greater. January’s African Cup of Nations was supposed to upset the applecart and if that didn’t Michael Essien’s injury looked set to. But they soldiered on and when the title race really got going, Carlo Ancelotti’s men found the extra gear first. Their form at the end of the season was sublime and it bodes well for this season too. Ricardo Carvalho’s loss won’t be felt particularly hard with the excellent Branislav Ivanović a more than adequate replacement. Essien’s return only strengthens the league’s best midfield which won’t lose its aura even with Joe Cole and Michael Ballack’s departures. Ballack’s performances were steadily declining and Ancelotti has never taken a shine to Cole. Ramires will surely be an upgrade on Jon Obi Mikel and look for Daniel Strurridge to push on this year too; he has all the raw attributes to be a great player.The interesting situation will arise at right back. Ancelotti’s diamond formation does hinge on the production of his two full backs and José Bosingwa’s return from a serious injury will be something to monitor. Question marks remain about his defensive capabilties but Ivanović has proved adept in that slot too should Bosingwa fail to make an impression.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PLACES = MANCHESTER UNITED, ARSENAL, MANCHESTER CITY
Chelsea’s challengers remain strong but are still half a step behind. It is United who look likely to be their closest threat once more. For all their positives they did look frail and toothless when Wayne Rooney was out of the side last year. The hype around Chicarito is intoxicating but Dimitar Berbatov needs to finally justify his hefty price tag. Sir Alex Ferguson has done little to strength the midfield which may be their downfall. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes cannot play every week and Owen Hargreaves’ continued absence meant Ferguson really needed to purchase an attacking midfielder and/or a strong anchorman. I expect Nani to really excel this year and some predictions indicating that they will fall outside of the top four are wide of the mark.
Arsène Wenger has addressed a glaring weakness by getting Marouane Chamakh and IF Robin van Persie can stay fit, they could be Chelsea’s biggest contenders. However I still have question marks about their ability to beat the big sides. They can’t win games ugly, they are susceptible to counter-attacking football and the naivety which has haunted them in the past shows no signs of leaving just yet. United, Chelsea and Barcelona all tore them to shreds last year. They remain a young, inexperienced team and even though they have kept hold of Cesc Fàbregas they still lack the leadership and know-how of Wenger’s previous title winning teams. The purists would love them to be crowned champions but they lack a steely resolve to beat the very best.
Preseason predictions and Premier League discussions never seem to veer far away from Manchester City. Few seem to be tipping them for the title but there are plenty predicting they can break into the top four and cause serious problems for the very best. I am among the believers. They have surpassed Aston Villa and Everton (taking some of their best players in the process) and now they have bigger fish to fry. City simply have too much money and too much talent to miss out on the Champions League again. After missing out on Kaka, Roberto Mancini has rightly targeted the next tier of quality players. Jérôme Boateng, Mario Balotelli and Aleksandar Kolarov are all young talents with blossoming reputations. Yaya Touré and David Silva, along with Balotelli, have been around extremely successful teams and know what it takes to win trophies. Time will be the biggest obstacle in Mancini’s path because it is a luxury he isn’t afforded. The owners have proved they are willing to pull the trigger quickly and Mancini needs to make sure he’s in prime position by Christmas or he could endure the same fate as Mark Hughes.
EUROPA LEAGUE = LIVERPOOL, TOTTENHAM, EVERTON
Liverpool will be better under Roy Hodgson but this may be more of a rebuilding year as Hodgson clears the deadwood. Spurs have done little to improve on last year’s team and you have to think City will overtake them particularly with Tottenham enjoying Champions League football and all its trimmings. Everton could do even better than 7th with Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka back this year. Goals may be a problem though, Louis Saha has persistent injury problems, Yakubu blows hot and cold and I’m not sure Jermaine Beckford is Premier League quality. The uncertainty of both player personnel and the next managerial appointment at Aston Villa should result in a drop in performance.
SURPRISE PACKAGE = BOLTON WANDERERS
Bolton are always a tricky team to beat and they have a good nucleus. Jussi Jääskeläinen, Gary Cahill, Fabrice Muamba and Kevin Davies represent a strong core and manager Owen Coyle looks destined for big things. Matthew Taylor had a superb season last year and the free signing of Martin Petrov adds some real creativity and an attacking threat. There’s little chance Bolton can achieve European qualification but a top half finish looks very achievable. Of the group of those who dodged relegation last season they look most likely to make the next step up. Coyle is certainly a shrewd operator and I believe Petrov could well go on to be the best bit of business a Premier League side did this summer.
RELEGATION = BLACKPOOL, WEST BROM, WIGAN
The critics are unanimous in their belief that Blackpool are merely on a sight-seeing tour of the top tier. Some sides, like Hull and Wigan, have stayed up and defied the odds but Blackpool’s squad possesses no Premier League experience (excluding Jason Euell) and their manager is a novice here too. Ian Holloway will ensure they are plucky and fight in each game but I don’t expect them to spring any surprises.
Playing great football and earning all the plaudits, West Brom will lure us all into a sense of déjà vu as they head straight back down again. Roberto Di Matteo’s squad is packed full of players who look like world beaters in the Championship but fail to make the step up. It would be nice to see them buck the trend but they are still miles behind West Ham, Fulham and Birmingham and Mick McCarthy has enough knowledge of relegation dog fights to ensure Wolves don’t get dragged under again this time around. Once again West Brom will live up to their yo-yo tag and cash in those all too familiar parachute payments. Of course they’ll be back in 12 months with the same crop of players, the same style and the same results.
Wigan really look like relegation fodder this time around. I stated last year that I believed they would be one of the more fascinating teams to watch due to Roberto Martínez’s arrival. Wigan over-performed under Steve Bruce and without Amr Zaki, Antonio Valencia, Emily Heskey and Wilson Palacios; I thought Martínez faced an uphill struggle. He did well to keep the team up but they were wildly unpredictable. They lost 9-1 to Spurs, 8-0 to Chelsea and 5-0 to United despite beating Arsenal and Chelsea at home. They also had the worst defensive record of a team ever to stay up in the Premier League. Had it not been for Portsmouth’s financial issues they may well have joined Burnley and Hull City in the Championship this year. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have more foreigners in their squad than Wigan right now, an issue they must resolve before September swings around. Titus Bramble and Paul Scharner, both regulars last term, are gone. Meanwhile Charles N’Zogbia has applied the stamp and is licking the envelope which contains his transfer request. Even if they manage to keep hold of Hugo Rodallega and Maynor Figueroa, they look likely to drop out of the league.
So there you have it, my tips for the top, the bottom and the surprising package in-between. It’s always interesting to see just how wrong you are when May comes around and these predictions make you look rather foolish. So I’m off to put money on Wigan sneaking a Europa League place and Bolton imploding on their way to the Championship. There’s nothing quite like hedging your bets.