It’s that time of year again. The sun has made its annual appearance and is now on the wane, we’re being wowed by blockbusters at the cinema, and most sane people are away on holiday soaking up the rays. Meanwhile, as the Olympic dreams begin to fade, green shoots of optimism are beginning to take hold in the minds of sports fans up and down the country. The time for talking (and thankfully, rumours) is almost over. The football season is about to begin in earnest.
It seems that before ‘The Big Kick-Off’, every season is hyped roughly 25% more than the previous one. The glory of sport is that in this case, we all convince ourselves that it will be different this time round, that new stories will be written. Which is scant consolation come February when your detested rivals win yet another game with an own goal off of a hapless defender’s arse, and extend their lead at the top to 14 points. But for now, we can dream.
To slightly contradict the last paragraph, it’s actually been a bloody weird last couple of years for the Premier League. The seemingly untouchable ’Top 4′ is a thing of the past, succeeded by a much less certain looking Top 6, plus a surprise package or two (here’s looking at you, Newcastle) As such, predicting the final finishing position of each side is (or at least, seems) a much more tricky proposition than it has been in previous seasons. Nevertheless, it’s a challenge I like to undertake each and every season in the form of a Predictions League with friends. I originally meants to keep my predictions brief this year, however they grew and grew from humble mogwai-like beginnings to the mschevious gremlins you see below you.
So, I decided to share them with you, dear reader (I’m assuming that there will only be one, probably myself), because I’m ‘nice’ like that. Think of it this way, when Swansea win the Premier League in May 2013, you can revisit these predos and point and laugh. So without further ado, let’s dive right in:
1) Manchester United- This prediction defies logic I agree. At present, although there is still time to tick over in the transfer window, United do not appear to have significantly strengthened this close season, and there are large question marks over the heads of several players at Old Trafford (not literally, that would be a bit weird). Still, Mr Ferguson appears to be able to hold his side together with the footballing equivalent of spit and Sellotape, winning games almost on muscle memory alone. This team appears much more ‘British’ than its previous incarnation when Carlos Queiroz was at the club, and I would be less sure about them progressing significantly in Europe, but losing the title on the last day to city rivals could be just the motivation they need to sneak the title. Sadly.
2) Manchester City- Again, illogical, considering City have the strongest squad in the League on paper, but I wonder if the pressure of defending their crown, coupled with what will surely be a more significant assault on the Champions League, will take its toll. A fairly quiet summer so far by their standards, although there are flickers of life coming into the transfer machine with the (slightly baffling considering the strength of their midfield) signing of Jack Rodwell and the (understandable) pursuit of Daniel Agger (don’t go Danny!) . As usual, the Tevez and Balotelli sideshows may impact on them as well and the club wants rid of Edin Dzeko, which should see a new face come in upfront. I think we’ll see an improvement in Europe and a second-placed finish by a point or two.
3) Arsenal-Oh, how we all laughed as Arsenal started last season so dismally. Come the end of February, it seemed certain they would finish outside the top four for the first time since Arsene Wenger’s arrival at the club. And yet, once again, they pulled themselves out of the fire and qualified for the top four comfortably. Whilst the RVP saga does point to possible unrest behind the scenes at the club, on the pitch they remain admirably consistent in their top 4 qualification and have made some decent looking signings this summer. As with Nasri, Fabregas and Henry, I think they have enough to cope without a slightly injury-prone 29 year old, if he does go. A trophy is the other elephant in the room. I still think they have a chance in the Champions League but how far they get may well depend on their league form, as they don’t have the ubersquads of City and Chelsea.
4) Chelsea- a fair amount of arrivals and a seemingly brazen disregard for the FFP rules have characterised their summer. Of course a couple of the older faces who served them so well have gone, although naturally John Terry and Frank Lampard remain in situ. Chelsea are a great unknown this year. With the talent they have signed, it could well be possible for them to push the top two all the way. Equally, after the euphoria of last term, Di Matteo may struggle. The defensive tactics he used in last years’ Champions League to great effect would appear to be suitable for short tournaments, but it seems much less likely that they could be made to work over the course of a season, so we may see a return to the aesthetically pleasing style of his West Brom side. Their league form under Bobby D last season was also worse than that under AVB, although that’s understandable to an extent as the two cup competitions provided huge distractions. I think they are capable of finishing 2nd, but equally they could finish 6th, so 4th seems a happy medium in between these two.
5) Spurs- Last seasons’ unluckiest team (in the sense of finishing 4th and being deprived of the Champions League) are about to begin a new cycle. The sacking of Harry Redknapp actually appeared to make a lot of sense- whether his fault or not, it was simply too hard to see him remaining at White Hart Lane after the England manager ‘saga’. AVB has a lot to prove, but I do believe he is a good coach. The impact of the dressing-room egos at Chelsea shouldn’t be underestimated, and he shouldn’t have as much of a problem in that regard here. They have made two very decent signings so far, although they still need to add bodies upfront and the Modric issue needs to be resolved, but after the transfer window closes I am sure the picture will look a lot healthier. I think they will have another decent season, but may just get edged out by Chelsea for the Top 4. Which will no doubt help the relationship between the two clubs.
6) Liverpool-Yes, a rather more sober prediction from me this year, although it would actually be an improvement on last season. Looking back on last year it’s hard to pinpoint one thing which was the root cause of the underachievement, there was a myriad of contributing factors, which for my own sanity it’s best not to go into right now. But hopefully there will be a few less woodwork hits than last season (which shouldn’t be difficult) and a few more goals. To that end, Fabio Borini looks a promising signing with a good goals-to-games ratio, and like fellow new signing Joe Allen, he has already worked with the boss. Brendan Rodgers has cut an impressive figure so far, and talks a very good game. I think for that reason the Anfield crowd will be more patient with him than some might expect, and imagine we will see some comings and goings yet before the window closes. It also wouldn’t surprise me if he manages to up the game of one or two of last years’ ‘failed’ crop of signings, whilst perhaps shifting some others. Whether we can challenge for top 4 remains to be seen, though if Rodgers can get Reina, Agger (please!), Lucas, Suarez and Gerrard to start more games together then hopefully we’ll be able to be in the Champions League shake-up come the latter part of the season. I’d settle for playing a decent style of football and progressing this as the season goes on.
7) Newcastle- Another impossible to predict side. I’ve seen some stats that rather suggest last season could have been an outlier of sorts. Of course, this doesn’t mean they didn’t deserve their high placing, but if the statistics are similar this season I’d be surprised to see them finish as high. A lot may depend on January, when they will see their two star strikers depart for African Cup Of Nations. They may have a reserve courtesy of Liverpool by then, but if not they might struggle. It will also be interesting to see how seriously they take Europe. Bearing in mind they were a couple of points off a Champions League spot last season (and discounting what I said in the opening sentence) they might choose to sideline it in favour of league progress but then again having not won a trophy since the 1960s (and Arsenal fans think they’ve had it bad!) they might decide it represents their best shot. If Pardew can avoid the same tricky second-season syndrome he had at West Ham, they will remain a tough prospect.
8) Everton- No money, best players leaving, a probable slow start- every summer is Groundhog Season at Goodison. Expect them to struggle initially, but pick up in time for the Merseyside derby. Probably a decent decision to let Tim Cahill go, as his best years were firmly behind him and my theory is that he actually hinders Everton’s ability to function as a team a little. Even minus Rodwell, who I think is decent but overrated, the midfield looks decent enough to give the top sides some wobbles, particularly on Merseyside. The £15m from his sale could also buy a couple of decent squad players (which David Moyes is very adept at signing) and against the odds it looks like they might just keep hold of Leighton Baines. Another good cup run is more than possible.
9) Stoke City- Bit of a wobble after last season’s European exploits, which came to an end when Valencia finally proved that a Spanish team could do it on a cold Thursday night at the Britannia. I expect them to improve this season, once again home form will be vital, as well as players coming in who can understand and adept to the ‘system.’ As usual, the top sides will not enjoy the away trip and expect them to ruffle a few feathers.
10) Sunderland- Another red and white striped side. If they complete Steven Fletcher’s signing, they will have got themselves a pretty shrewd deal. Last season he was one of the leading ‘clear cut chance’ converters in the league. Unlike last season, it appears so far they have not lost anyone of note either. O’Neill’s style is not for everyone, but it seems to pay off (particularly away from home) Expect them to push Everton and Stoke for the upper midtable slots.
11) Fulham- A quietly impressive first season for Martin Jol last campaign, and I expect a similar return this time round. Much will depend on whether or not they can keep Clint Dempsey, and if not, who they can get in to replace him. A comfortable midtable finish seems likely.
12) Aston Villa- Again a difficult side to predict, a new manager having come in.Paul Lambert appears to have the pedigree and gravitas that Alex McLeish was never likely to offer, and as such feels like much less of a short-term option. Nevertheless things have been quiet on the transfer front and I’m guessing his first goal will be stability, trying to reverse the dramatic slide Villa have endured over the last three years. I think a mid table finish would be the first step in doing this and is achievable.
13) QPR- This is where it beings to get tricky, as I could really see any team from here downwards (and even one or two above the line) possibly being relegated. It’s hard to call, but I think QPR’s experience of last year, the slightly older head of the manager, and their financial clout might see them improve on last year. Park seems a good signing for a team of this calibre, too.
14) West Ham- Perhaps controversial, but going on the big-faced Big Sam’s Premier League experience, he definitely has form in ‘surviving in the Premier League.’ His Bolton not only survived but flourished, and Blackburn’s mid season sacking of the man continues to look increasingly short sighted as each day passes. And I don’t even like the bloke. They have made one or two decent signings, and if they did manage to lure Andy Carroll to Upton Park, they could be a surprise package of sorts. A ‘lump it up forward and fight for the second ball’ surprise package. Brrrr.
15) West Brom- Another complete unknown. Hodgey had them well drilled before he buzzed off to represent the hopes of a nation (ha ha!) and a solid mid table side. From what I know of Steve Clarke, he will have them similarly organised defensively, and he already has a couple of decent strikers in Odemwingie and Long. It just remains to be seen how he handles to rest of the job-media pressures, signing players etc. I wish him well, but it’s fairly difficult to judge at the moment. I think his experience at West Ham might just keep them up.
16) Reading- They’ve made a good signing in Danny Guthrie, and I reckon affable Gregg Wallace look a like Brian McDermott might just have the organisational skills to keep the Royals up. It might be hard going at first following that great run last season, but if they can get some decent results at home, I think they could be good for another season.
17) Wigan- This is probably the most predictable place in the division! Seriously, I think Wigan’s time has to end sooner or later, and wonder if Martinez may even have stayed there too long (though to be fair it is only his fourth season, and no one other than Liverpool came calling in the end) Such a remarkable turnaround at the back end of last season when he completely changed his strategy, but can they maintain that sort of form and surprise again? Very much like the United prediction, I’ve gone with them to beat the drop just because they’ve done it so many times before.
18) Swansea- Again, they could completely surprise me, but after their fantastic performance in the division last time round, I fear for the Jacks a bit this season. Lost their manager, lost arguably their best player, and brought in a guy whom, whilst a legendary player, is not proven as a manger. He has been busy in the market, bringing in some Spanish players, and provided they continue to adhere to their playing philosophy, the Swans definitely have a chance, but I worry that second season syndrome could prove fatal here.
19) Southampton- As with Swansea, it’s with a heavy heart that I predict Saints for the drop. Again they’ve made some new signings and have a manager who appears to be a thoroughly nice chap. I think one of the promoted sides will drop, and looking at them they don’t appear to have Reading’s grit or West Ham’s experience. I would absolutely love them to prove me wrong.
20) Norwich-That makes 3 sides that I don’t want to go down. A similar tale to Swansea in losing their manager, though at the time of writing they have retained their best player. They haven’t really brought in many players of note though, and I always feel that just to stay in the Premier League you need to keep adding quality. I rate Chris Hughton, but worry again that after the initial euphoria of last year, this season will prove much more difficult.
So there are my predictions. I’d like to say they all took a long time to write, but the shameful truth is that I appear to know much more about the Top 6 sides than the rest in the division. I’ll place the blame for that one firmly at the media’s door, thank you very much. As for the rest of the English leagues, I do retain an interest in these, but sadly am certainly not knowledgeable enough to even attempt predictions, so will leave those to the experts, not that I’m one on the Premier League, rather someone with the twin weapons of a passion about football and far too much time on his hands. I’m sure I’ll revisit these in May and have a good old laugh, but after all, what are predictions for? Being right? That’s overrated.