Friday, 12 August 2011

The 2011/12 Premier League Preview

By Shane Thomas

Prognostication is always a thankless task where sport is concerned. More often that not you're setting yourself up for a fall. Check my prediction for last season's Premier League table if you don't believe me.

So first, a disclaimer. My prediction for the upcoming season are based mainly on the current personnel at the 20 Premier League clubs. However, there are still three weeks of the transfer window remaining, and certain players arriving at clubs, or leaving them, could completely change the potential picture of English football's top division.

So, tentatively... here's how I expect the league table to look come May 13th 2012.


After a gargantuan disintegration - even by their standards - at the end of last season, Arsenal have problems. By the time you read this Cesc Fabregas should be a Barcelona player, and Samir Nasri is also expected to leave Arsenal before September.

There is still plenty of talent at The Emirates, and reinforcements are expected to arrive. But at the time of writing, this squad looks fragile, and has been unable to cope when key players are absent with injury. Robin Van Persie proved his goalscoring potency last season, but can he play more than 30 games? And there is a gloomy atmosphere around the club which looks to be self-defeating. Liverpool were in a similar position this time last season, and it killed their chances of success. Arsenal look set to repeat this. They haven't been helped by some difficult games to start their campaign, exacerbated by a tough Champions League qualifier against Udinese. Losing that match, and making a bad start domestically, will be disastrous. Another hurdle is the African Cup of Nations that takes place in January, meaning that they will be without Alex Song & Gervinho for about a month. This could be a season of ignominy & frustration in the red half of North London.

Key Player: Robin Van Persie - With Fabregas & Nasri set to leave, Van Persie is one of the few men of character left at the club. If he stays fit, he'll score 20+ goals, and could get Arsenal into the top 4. The problem is that he's been at the club for seven seasons and has failed to stay fit for the duration of any of them.

Prediction - 5th


Last season was a real mixed bag for Villa. Towards the end of the campaign, they looked to have the makings of a dangerous side, with Darren Bent, Ashley Young & Stewart Downing looking like one of English football's best front threes. However, Young & Downing have moved on, and you get the feeling that Villa are starting from scratch again. Alex McLiesh is a solid appointment as manager, but he has a job winning over the fans & tends to produce teams that play quite prosaic football. If key names come to the fore, then Villa should be safe, and will also be a potential threat in the cups. But if not, it could be a nervy season for the Second City's biggest club.

Key Player: Darren Bent - With Downing & Young gone, he'll find goals harder to come by. But he seems to able to score wherever he is. And he'll need to find the net often enough to keep Villa away from the threat of relegation.

Prediction - 10th


A tough season awaits Blackburn. Once Premier League champions, Blackburn look a rudderless ship. The sacking of Sam Allardyce - which still seems nonsensical - sent the club from a mid-table team into one spiralling down the table, only staying up on the season's final day. Ignore pundits who make juvenile & reductive jibes about how the club's owners have made their fortune, especially as there are so many genuine criticisms to make about them. Manager Steve Kean still looks like a novice, and the spirit at the club - once one of their greatest strengths - seems to be emaciated. Worst of all, there seems to be no kind of footballing philosophy, no specific plan of how the team should play. Blackburn look like a ship that's hit an iceberg.

Key Player: Paul Robinson - With Christopher Samba likely to leave, Robinson will be one of the Premier League's busiest goalkeepers. He had one of his best seasons for years last time around, and we'll need to do so again. Blackburn's top flight survival will probably depend on it.

Prediction - 19th


What looked to be a good season came off the rails after getting a beating from Stoke in the FA Cup semi-final. Also, the financial state of the club is fragile. Johan Elmander has gone, and Gary Cahill could soon join him in departing the Reebok Stadium. Added to this, Bolton's pre-season preparations were badly disrupted by not only Tyrone Mears, but star wide-man Choung-Yung Lee both suffering broken legs.

But it's not all doom & gloom. Owen Coyle may have walked under some ladders over the past few weeks, but he remains one of the best managerial talents in Britain. His ability to maximise his resources should be able to keep the Trotters heads above water.

Key Player: Kevin Davies - The captain is the heart of his team. He showed that he has class & well as brawn, and will be needed as a talisman, on & off the pitch. He won't be a massive source of goals, but Davies gives Bolton an intangible spirit that could be the difference between being relegation fodder & ending in mid-table.

Prediction - 14th


A tough one to call. They had a spell during last season when their level of performance was embarrassing. Roman Abramovich's stewardship of the club has been beneficial in some respects, but he has a capricious nature which often makes the manager's job more difficult than it has to be. New man Andre Villas-Boas has a stellar reputation, but has been thrown into the deep end. He has an increasingly aging squad, and they look short of devil in their midfield. Anything but instant success will not be accepted by Abramovich. Journalist Martin Lipton has said that the only reason to manage Chelsea is for the lucrative pay-off upon being sacked. For Villas-Boas's sake, let's hope he can find a way to avoid the sharp axe of the Russian oligarch.

Key Player: Fernando Torres - It saddens me that we have probably seen the best days of the Spaniard, as in full flight he is a wondrous player. But orders from high have decreed that Torres is to be the key attacker in this team. And as such, any potential success for Chelsea depends on Torres regaining his form circa 2008.

Prediction - 3rd


Many Everton fans are as restless as their counterparts at Arsenal, railing against the lack of investment in the squad. However, unlike the North Londoners, Everton simply don't have the funds to improve a hardworking, but limited group of players. David Moyes has no choice to work with what he has, which is good enough to finish in the top half, but has too many deficiencies to make the top six. With lack of goals a constant problem, Everton's only real chance of glory this season is in the cup competitions.

Key Player: Tim Cahill - Maybe the league's most underrated player. Similar to Kevin Davies at Bolton, Cahill is not a regular goalscorer, but his ability to score at crucial times has proven invaluable. Like his manager, you wonder how long he can continue to pull up trees. Once again, Everton will rely heavily on the Australian.

Prediction - 8th


It seemed that Mark Hughes thought Fulham was beneath him after resigning in the summer. Well, he remains unemployed while Martin Jol has taken over the reins. Fulham had an early start to the season in the Europa League qualifiers, and while they're unlikely to repeat their exploits of two seasons ago, no side would look forward to facing them. Similar to West London neighbours Chelsea, Fulham have a reliable but aging spine. Jol will have to juggle his resources wisely to keep the club away from relegation trouble. If he can do that, and improve the side's appalling away form, it'll be another season of prosperity at Craven Cottage.

Key Player: Bobby Zamora - Was badly missed last season after breaking his leg. Had he been fit, Fulham could easily have finished in the top seven. Now he's back, Fulham have a potent goal threat again. With Emile Heskey having seen better days, he's arguably the division's best target man.

Prediction - 12th


With Kenny Dalglish in charge, and a raft of new - if overpriced - players arriving, optimism is rife at Anfield. Some of this optimism is misplaced, as the odd fan thinks that Liverpool can win the title. That will not happen, but I'd expect them to improve on last season's finish of 6th. They have the personnel to do some real damage in the FA or Carling Cup, especially if Luis Suarez can strike up a good understanding with Andy Carroll.

The main worry is the defence. Jamie Carragher has been on the slide for two years, while Daniel Agger is a class act, but injury prone. Whoever defends better between Liverpool or Arsenal over the course of the season should get the coveted fourth spot in the table. If Liverpool fail to make the Champions League, Dalglish's position could be under threat. He's deified by the fans, but given that the owners firmly have backed him in the transfer market, they expect to see a tangible return on their investment.

Key Player: Luis Suarez - The little Uruguayan surprised many by settling into English football with ease. The only sticking point is his participation in helping Uruguay win this summer's Copa America (his performance in the final was magnificent). However, if he can ward off potential fatigue, he is a star in the making. It could be worth putting £10 on him to be Footballer of The Year.

Prediction - 4th


The potential inherent in City's financial muscle has begun to be unlocked. The trophy drought is over, they're in the Champions League, and have the strongest squad of players in the division. It's simply a matter of Roberto Mancini making the whole equal to the sum of their parts. All the pieces are in place to make City the country's top side, but money can't buy a winning mentality. And it's mentality that will probably decide which club in Manchester end the season as champions.

Key Player: Vincent Kompany - For me, he was the league's best player last season. While City are brimming with attacking options, they look a good centre-half short. This means that Kompany will have a massive workload, both domestically & in Europe. If he can replicate last season's performance, winning the title isn't out of the question.

Prediction - 2nd


In years to come it'll be forgotten, but Sir Alex Ferguson produced one of his finest seasons last time out. Winning the league with a game to spare, as well as reaching the Champions League final was an excellent achievement. Ferguson has a much stronger squad to work with now, but it still looks short on the midfield solidity & craft needed to reach Europe's summit. But that doesn't mean that they can't remain the kings of England. They have an unremitting hunger for silverware, and have a refreshed Wayne Rooney to lead the attack. You can expect this title race to be a close run thing, but you can also expect United to be favourites.

Key Player: Wayne Rooney - His game was in tatters 12 months ago. But he played himself back into form by March, and looks like a greyhound, itching to get out of the traps for this season. Seems settled on the pitch again, which is good news for both England & United, as he remains the lynchpin for both sides. He may not hit the goalscoring heights of two seasons ago, but the safe money for Footballer of The Year would have to go with Rooney.

Prediction - 1st


Another club with a potentially mutinous atmosphere. The fans revile the owners, barely tolerate the manager, and the club's better players have been sold. There have been some good signings in Yohan Cabaye & Demba Ba, but the squad looks threadbare, and it's heart seems to have dissipated, with the club making headlines for all the wrong reasons again. If swift improvements are not added, then Newcastle could be heading back to the Championship.

Key Player: Yohan Cabaye - Newcastle's recruitment of players is open to much criticism, but could be offset by the arrival of the Frenchman. He was a pivotal part of the Lille side that won the French Championship last season, and in interviews, looks to be more than a highly paid foreign mercenary. If - and it's only if - but if he settles quickly, he could take the Premier League by storm.

Prediction - 15th


Manager Paul Lambert has worked wonders in East Anglia, garnering two promotions in as many seasons and getting Norwich back in the top flight for the first time in six seasons. He has shown great organisational skills, as well as getting players to perform above themselves. While some fans may expect Norwich to be embroiled in a relegation fight, as long as they continue to play the enterprising football that has served them so well, I can see Norwich being one of the league's pleasant surprises.

Key Player: Grant Holt - Has been the scoring machine that's taken Norwich from League 1 to the promised land. Will need to continue in this vein, as it's tough to see where goals will come from if he fails to adapt to the top division.

Prediction - 16th


The flouting of Football League regulations aside, QPR stormed the Championship last season to gain promotion. Inspired by the mercurial Adel Tarrabt, they are back in the Premier League after an absence of 15 years. However, Tarrabt's importance to the team may be a problem, as the tactics are built to get the best out of him. Which means that all opposition teams have to do is to stop the Moroccan, and QPR's attacking threat is nullified. Unless manager Neil Warnock figures out an alternative, QPR may not last long at this level.

Key Player: DJ Campbell - His goals came close to keeping Blackpool up last season. He should have no problems settling in, and if he gets enough service, should make some more hay at QPR. He will need quality service however, or he'll be a liability on the pitch.

Prediction - 18th


There are many ways in which Stoke are a throwback to a previous era of the game. The most positive one being how they spend within their means, make the best of what they have, working on steady improvement rather than reckless spending. It's not that Stoke aren't reaching for the stars, but they know it can take a while to get there. European football will be a new test, and they look a striker light, but they remain a team that no side looks forward to playing.

Key Player: Ryan Shawcross - His enthusiasm is energising to his teammates, and sometimes dangerous for opponents. But Stoke's defence is the key aspect of their side, and Shawcross is the leader of said defence. With an increasing amount of fixtures, it'll be tested like never before.

Prediction - 9th


A talented but flaky group of players were maddeningly inconsistent last season. But the signs indicate that Steve Bruce has learnt from his previous mistakes, going all the way to how he monitors the physical conditioning of the players. And they've worked the transfer market well; Craig Garder, Seb Larsson, and the ex-Man Utd pair of Wes Brown & John O'Shea are strong additions which should add a thicker resilience to the side. Sunderland should be a much tougher nut to crack this season.

Key Player: Craig Gardner - Last season was a breakthrough one for the Brummie. He shone in a dismal Birmingham side, and should be allowed to drive forward from midfield in Wearside now. His goal threat will take a lot off of the pressure of Asamoah Gyan.

Prediction - 7th


Wales's first contribution to the Premier League is a welcome one. Particularly for a side as aesthetically pleasing as Swansea. But they are without last season's top scorer, Fabio Borini, and their defence looks well short of the resilience needed at this level. Unless Brendan Rogers works the transfer market cleverly, Swansea may find the rarefied air of the Premier League too thin for them.

Key Player: Scott Sinclair - Has the talent to be a star at this level. But has he the temperament? Rodgers will give Sinclair full licence to unlock defences, and given that Swansea are unlikely to play defensively, they will have to make the most of their attacking threat. Which means that Sinclair must realise his potential this season.

Prediction - 20th


With the fun & frolics of last season over, reality has hit for Spurs. They have no Champions League to look forward to, Luka Modric wants to leave, and many expect this to be Harry Redknapp's last campaign in charge. Tottenham still have a good squad of players, but the character of some of them is questionable, particularly their strikers. If one of Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch or Roman Pavlyuchenko can find the net regularly, then a top four place is achievable. You just wonder how badly some of these players want to succeed for Spurs, or do they just see the club as a stepping stone to bigger things?

Key Player: Jermain Defoe - Picked up an injury playing for England, and was dreadful upon his return. But he is the most natural goalscorer at the club, and if he can shake off the flakiness that has stunted his career, Spurs will have the end product that cost them dear last season.

Prediction - 6th


What did I say about nice guys finishing last this time last year? Sometimes it feels really good to be wrong. A responsibly run club, coached by a likable & competent manager, playing expansive football with a warm & unassuming fanbase. How lovely English football would be if more clubs were like West Brom. Similar to Stoke, expect incremental improvement rather than rapid progression.

Key Player: Peter Odemwingie - The best value signing of the last campaign. As long as he doesn't allow his exploits of last season to go to his head, then expect his cult status at The Hawthorns to grow.

Prediction - 11th


I don't know how they're still in the Premier League, but they are. And yet again, Wigan are having to fight a losing battle to stay afloat. Key player Charles N'Zogbia has departed for Aston Villa. Their defence remains porous, and they look blunt in attack. A lot of pressure will be on the skill of their midfield. Sooner or later, Wigan will be relegated, I just don't think it'll be this season. But I wouldn't put any money on that.

Key Player: Hugo Rodallega - James McCarthy aside, the last class player still remaining at the club. Scored the goal that kept them up last season. If Wigan are to beat the drop zone again, expect Rodallega to play a significant part.

Prediction - 17th


They're lucky to still be in this division, but I'm glad that they are. I have a fondness for the club, and their sardonic manager, Mick McCarthy. It looks as if they are making a concerted effort to move away from the roughhouse football that blighted the team at times. And Roger Johnson & Jamie O'Hara are two fine additions to the squad. Wolves should be good enough to avoid the drop zone this time.

Key Player: Jamie O'Hara - Has impressed me ever since he made his debut in the North London derby as a teenager. It looks as if he'll get a long overdue shot at being the midfield general at this level. Has technical competence allied with strong tenacity, and should be a proficient link between Wolves's midfield and attack.

Prediction - 13th

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