(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.
“Success has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It’s what you do for others”
So far this season, Tottenham are enjoying somewhat of a reputation as the darlings of English football.
The nation seems to have united behind their swashbuckling attacking style. The love-in began when they gate-crashed the Big Four’s Champions League soirée back in May and barred the rather flashy Manchester City in the meantime. Then it was Spurs’ guarantee of goals (at both ends), particularly after the turgid World Cup, which ignited such unity in the most partisan of all sports.
Now Spurs look set to add the golden boy of English football, David Beckham. It’s enough to make any Arsenal fan violently queasy.
But Beckham’s arrival may have more of an impact away from the pitch. For starters, he doesn’t really fit the Spurs blueprint.
This season, they have been lauded for their quick, incisive counter attacking football with Gareth Bale at the heart of almost everything. Rafael van der Vaart’s breakaway goal at Aston Villa recently was a perfect example of this. Aaron Lennon looks well equipped to provide a similar injection of pace on the opposing flank from Bale since his return from injury. Beckham is certainly a different type of winger to both Bale and Lennon. His strengths lie elsewhere. It is his range of passing, his whipped crosses and his work rate which have defined him. Indeed as his career has progressed, Beckham has been stationed in more central berths. But creativity from the middle of midfield has not been a problem for Spurs either. In van der Vaart and Luka Modrić they have two of the best technicians in the league.
Then there is the issue of Beckham’s advancing years. Age may just be a number, particularly for a player with such vintage qualities as Beckham has, but he is coming off another full season with LA Galaxy. He’s spent the past two MLS off-seasons with AC Milan and his globe trotting canoodling with FIFA’s top delegates whilst ultimately fruitless will also have had an effect on the 35-year-old’s body.
The frantic speed of the Premier League offers a different proposition to the pedestrian pace Beckham and the rest of his mature AC Milan teammates enjoyed in Serie A too.
But Beckham’s influence extends far beyond the white lines at the Lane and perhaps this is more important. A player with his experience, stature and his status alone can only benefit a young, hungry Spurs side hoping to progress.
Spurs are in unknown territory in the latter stages of the Champions League and few can match Beckham’s experience when it comes to European club football’s grandest stage. Beckham has appeared in over 100 Champions League games and along with other more experienced statesmen like van der Vaart and William Gallas, Beckham’s nous could prove pivotal.
Beckham is also highly respected among his fellow professionals. The passion, drive and hunger which epitomised his Manchester United days are still vividly evident now. To many at Spurs he will be seen as an idol. They will be keen to listen and keen to learn, something which doesn’t always come easy for modern day footballers.
His arrival could be most influential for Lennon and Bale. Both are young, raw wingers with a blooming enthusiasm in need of a further guidance. Theo Walcott, who also matches that description, had nothing but praise for Beckham when he trained with Arsenal.
So in a PR sense, something Beckham knows all too well, the move adds up as his mentoring abilities will be a vital tool in nurturing Tottenham’s bright talents.
But on the field, Beckham has very little to offer Spurs. There is a chance that LA Galaxy will refuse the loan and Beckham will only train with Tottenham. Some may see this as a pointless exercise but ultimately it may prove just as productive for the club.
“A perfect method for adding drama to life is to wait until the deadline looms large”
Another year, another deadline passes. In previous seasons the deadline day comings and goings of Ashley Cole, Wiliam Gallas, Robinho and Dimitar Berbatov have kept us all enthralled. But if one player summed up the rather tepid nature of yesterday’s deadline day it was Salif Diao.
On any other day, news of his return to Stoke City would be relegated to the lower depths of Premier League news. However, on deadline day the news was worthy of the eye-catching bright yellow ticker-tape and an exclusive interview.
For even if there is no action, the media contrived façade that is deadline day must try to live up to the hype. One of the bigger moves was Eidur Gudjohnsen’s arrival at Stoke City. The sight of Eidur Gudjohnsen and Tony Pulis together was apparently “absolutely extraordinary”. Gudjohnsen’s signing was a coup but lest we forget he spent time in the Championship with Bolton when he first arrived in this country. Yes he has played for two European giants but like Jenny from the block, he’s not forgotten where he came from. Elsewhere the rather excitable Sky Sports presenter Jim White was seen completely combusting when Franco Di Santo made another inevitable loan move back up north.
The truth is deadline day is failing to encapsulate the drama that it originally conjured up. We were all hooked when Dimitar Berbatov was held hostage by Fergie, when delirium kicked in at Eastlands and when Mark Hughes pretended that he was abreast of developments regarding Robinho. Since then, Benjani’s missed flight and Ryan Babel’s helicopter escapades aside, it’s all become rather dull and dreary despite the media’s best efforts.
There are plenty of reasons why deadline day is failing to live up to its hype. The season is already three weeks old, squads take time to blend and managers want to bed in new faces early. The 25 man squad rule has left managers needing to have a good idea of how their personnel will shape up. Clubs need to be astute rather than simply chopping and changing on deadline day (not including Harry “I’m not a wheeler-dealer” Redknapp). Prolonged pursuits like Berbatov’s can be cut short with a strong dose of petulance, as showed by Javier Mascherano. Then consider how many clubs seem to be less willing to part with money. Only Sunderland resorted to spending big to ensure a deal was made before the deadline. With their hand possibly being forced by the side-lined Frazier Campbell, they acquired Asamoah Gyan for a club record £13 million.
So it appears clubs have wised up when it comes to transfer windows. Leaving it to the last minute drives up prices as desperation kicks in. Deadline day is loaded with uncertainty for players too.
It is usually hard to feel too much pity for footballers. Doing what you love for a living and getting paid to do it creates little sympathy for the most part. But Rohan Ricketts’ tale of the uncertainity of deadline day is the other side of the coin as players face being jettisoned at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile hype and hysteria will continue to grip White and his colleagues twice a year. But in truth clubs have failed to yield to the drama and excitement, in fact the last few have been rather mundane.