The apocalypse is coming. December 2012. Savor this moment, folks, for it may be the final transfer window of our puny existence (is that such a bad thing?). Or so say the Mayans.
But apocalypse or not, the Premier League season is starting this Saturday, and Fulham will welcome Norwich to the banks of the Thames to help kick it off. It’s been an interesting offseason to say the least. Since that day of insanity when Manchester City scored in the closing minutes against QPR to take the league title, many things have changed. Brendan Rogers took his success from Swansea up to Merseyside, Arsene Wenger actually spent money (what?), and Clint Dempsey story continues to be a 400 page long novel with no ending. If this year’s adventures prove to be as incredibly exciting both from a Fulham fan and a general league fan’s perspective, I’ll be thrilled. To be honest, I fully expect it to be a year with not only excitement, but plenty of surprises. I’m entirely confident that not one of these predictions will be right this year, because this season’s makeup is so far out in the open. There could be any number of teams vying for the top and bottom spots. In fact, I would say there are about 10 different clubs (half the league!) that wouldn’t shock me if they were relegated, that’s how difficult this year will be to predict. It’s certainly not a season I would be spending a lot of money at the bookies on.
So, if the world does in fact carry on and we get the entire English Premier League season in, here’s how I see it shaking up, from the bottom to the top:
This pains me to say, because of all the interaction with new Premier League fans, Southampton fans have to be the most realistic, smart, and all-around knowledgeable fans. However, of all the teams that one would expect to be in a relegation battle this year, this one has done the least to secure their position. They’ve added four players this offseason: Nathaniel Clyne, Steven Davis, Jay Rodriguez, and Paulo Gazzaniga. Three come from the lower divisions, without a single Premier League minute to their name. Davis is a veteran, but even he hasn’t played in the PL since his time with Aston Villa and a brief spell at Fulham. They will rely heavily on the squad that got them to the Premiership, and that doesn’t often work out. Sure, look at Norwich and Swansea last year, but those were great stories because of the simple fact that it’s so rare to see. I wish them luck, but don’t see it happening.
19. Wigan Athletic:
Wigan performed a pretty remarkable escape last season, and they’ve escaped at the end in a few of the past five seasons, but can they build on that performance? It all falls on the shoulders of Victor Moses, I say. Wigan so far is staying strong on their valuation of him despite Chelsea’s advances, but unfortunately I think he’s too good of a young player for Chelsea to resist, and I see them ponying up in the end, not only paying Wigan for his services, but essentially paying Wigan to finish in the bottom 3. They have added Ryo Miyaichi, who will be a valuable young addition to the front, but certainly not enough to make up for the loss of Moses. Another good addition was Frasier Fyvie, a Fulham target of the past, but again, it’s not going to be enough, especially considering the loss of Hugo Rodallega and Mohamed Diame. Some good pieces in, and some decent pieces out. Not enough to keep up.
This relegation spot was the most difficult for me to pick. There are a number of teams who will be fighting to stay out in the final few weeks. After finishing a brilliant 11th last year, the club has basically lost all of their key playmakers on the pitch and the touchline. They lost Brendan Rogers, who not only guided them to the Premier League, but also took them to that amazing finish, exceeding all expectations. They also have been stripped of 22 year old stars Joe Allen (Liverpool) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (Tottenham), who both were key men on the field for the club. Sigurdsson scored 7 goals in just 18 matches for the Swans last season, coming from Hoffenheim in a January transfer. They’ve added Michu for a shrewd £2 million, who scored 15 goals out of nowhere in La Liga, but I don’t see it making up for what they’ve lost. They say the hardest season for a newly promoted team is the first, and while that’s true, it’s sometimes better to move up the ladder slowly, becauseo when you make such an impact like Swansea did last year, everyone notices, and it can be painful to watch all the pieces fall apart. The one piece they managed to keep is Michael Vorm, who was brilliant in goal last year (Fulham fans know that all too well) and he should prove this year that he’s not a one-hit wonder.
Phew, that was a close one! You may hear that out of Reading fans this season. With new ownership taking charge recently, Reading have had an injection of money to help finance their first season in the top flight. They gave Pavel Pogrebnyak a shiny new contract, and they brought in some Premier League experience in Danny Guthrie and Nicky Shorey (blast from the past for Fulham fans). They also brought in Garath McCleary from Nottingham Forest, who reportedly has talent but is raw and needs some guidance. These deals, along with the fact that they’ve lost just about no one, I believe will ensure their survival, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see them stay up. However, I also wouldn’t be surprised to watch them fall back to the Championship, as it’s certainly not a convincing squad.
16. West Ham United:
West Ham United, in their first season back in the Premier League after a year down under, have been an interesting story to follow this offseason. They certainly have seemed to learn their lesson after taking the beating they did their last time up, but in the end it hasn’t amounted to anything. They seem to be the club who’s in for everyone and ends up with no one this transfer window. They had a flirtation with a £9 million bid Andy Carroll before he shot them down, and they even went after Clint Dempsey, although that amounted to a whole lot of nothing. Looking at their moves, it currently looks like a lot of treading water. They lost Robert Green and added Jussi Jaaskelainen, both underrated goalkeepers due to their inexplicable abilities to have a horrible day or two. The good news for West Ham fans is they haven’t really lost anyone else of note. There are two names to keep an eye out for, that I believe in the end will keep them up, and that’s Mohamed Diame and Alou Diarra, who will prove valuable holding down the midfield, a position often lost in the minds of the casual Premier League fan. The area they’re thin on is up front, new addition Modibo Maiga, who’s story is just as interesting for coming to West Ham as it is for not going to Newcastle. His January deal fell apart at the last moment when he failed a physical, paving the way for Papiss Cisse.
Like Swansea, Norwich surprised everyone last year with a 12th place finish in their first season in the top flight. Like Swansea, they started strong and had their sights set on a top-10 finish only to fall into a slight collapse at the end of the season and see it slip from their grasp. Like Swansea, due to their success, the manager who brought them grace has moved on to a side with more Premier League pedigree. Unlike Swansea, however, they managed to keep their most valuable player on the pitch, in Grant Holt, and that, in my opinion, should provide the difference between relegation and saving grace. 15 goals last season was the main reason why Norwich were able to finish where they did, and after signing a new deal, he should be providing plenty of results again. Another key figure to help them stave off relegation is new manager Chris Hughton. He’s incredibly experienced, and already has two other success stories to his resume in Newcastle and Birmingham City. He led Newcastle to promotion from the Championship and would have led them to a successful first season if not for the highly criticized sacking. He’s got little Premier League experience but it shouldn’t be an issue. It won’t be a pretty season, but I see them staying up once again. A lot of their in-season success will be attributed to a successful offseason, not for the players they bought, but for the players they didn’t sell.
14. West Bromwich Albion:
I was really hoping Fulham would get Romelu Lukaku, being the raw talent and massive human being that he is, but ultimately Roberto Di Mateo put in a good word for his former club, and they snatched the Chelsea striker up on loan. A club that, like Fulham, seems to constantly fly under the radar, West Brom will be without last season’s manager Roy Hodgson, and you have to wonder when the managerial merry-go-round will eventually catch up with the players, as inconsistency does no good to a club’s harmony, and they’ve hired a first-time manager in Steve Clarke. However, this is as low as I see West Brom going, as the one thing they definitely have going for them is striker depth, something us Fulham fans are surely envious of. Between Lukaku, Peter Odemwingie, Shane Long, and new addition Markus Rosenberg, they should be solid up front. Before last season, I could have sworn if you looked up “one-hit wonder” in the dictionary, Peter Odemwingie’s picture would pop up. Despite losing 5 goals on his total from the prior season, he proved me wrong with 10 goals and I think he could build on that back to his brilliant form of two seasons ago. I could see them even cracking the top-10 if all goes right, but managerial inconsistencies coupled with a complete lack of a defense will most likely cause them some problems. Chris Brunt will have a lot of work to do in the midfield as well.
There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes hype for Sunderland this year, but unfortunately I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid here. They finished 13th last season despite having the services of Nicklas Bendtner (who, for all the flak he takes, does have his occasional flashes of brilliance) and Asamoah Gyan, which they don’t have the luxury of anymore. This club is the complete opposite of West Brom. They have a beastly midfield, having kept the vultures from Stephane Sessegnon along with Seb Larsson and captain Lee Cattermole along with youngsters Connor Wickham and Craig Gardner. However, as thin as West Brom is at defense, Sunderland are triple that in their lack of goalscoring threats, and the club has don’t just about nothing this transfer window. Their best bet up front is probably youngster Frazier Campbell, who is promising but still has not come close to proving his ability. I would be shocked to see Martin O’Neill not add something to the scoring ranks, but it still might be beyond repair for the near-future. Other small questions exist at certain positions, such as left-back, and I don’t see them collecting much more than 13th.
12. Aston Villa:
Let the healing process begin. After a season that caused angioplasties for just about every supporter, the club has moved on to the stage of realization that there was definitely a problem that will take some time to fix. Villa should be thanking Fulham for, in hindsight, handing them another season in the Premier League with that disasterous (for us) last-second loss at Villa Park giving the home side 3 points (they finished 2 above relegation). They won’t have a battle with relegation again, but it remains to be seen how far they can jump from their most recent 16th place finish. New boss Paul Lambert obviously has tabbed the porous defense as the main issue from last year, adding center back Ron Vlaar and his Feyenoord Rotterdam teammate Karim El Ahmadi, a defensive midfielder. All in all, this year is a season that will be judged on improvement from the previous two, then they’ll go from there.
11. Queens Park Rangers:
After coming ridiculously close to being relegated at the end of last season (although just staving it off thanks to help from other clubs, much to the shagrin of Fulham fans), I believe Mark Hughes (unfortunately) has this team headed in the right direction. It pains me to say anything good about this club, but I have to be honest and unbaised here, and I think that Hughes is a very good manager, despite his…..er….addiction to “ambition.” They’ve completed a number of great purchases this window, the best in my opinion has to be Junior Hoilett. He’s no question one of the better young talents in the League, and it will be exciting to watch him help the club. Other strong moves they’ve made are for Robert Green and Ji-Sung Park, who will both add veteran talent. The one issue with QPR which could drop them further down the table is age. Players like Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora, as Fulham fans well know, probably won’t last the season, and depth could severely be affected by this. QPR will no doubt have a more successful season than last, and will stay up, but I think 11th is about as high as they’ll go.
10. Stoke City:
Another club with the ability to jump higher in the table from the previous season is Stoke. Fulham fans know all too well the tiresome ventures of playing in the Europa League, and Stoke were hit even harder than those at Craven Cottage were. It’s something to admire how a club with a relative lack of funds such as Stoke continue to be consistently in the middle of the table, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them up there around the center of it again. Robert Huth may have meningitis, which is a scary thought, but otherwise few players have come in or left, leaving lots of hope but little cash to work with. Tony Pulis has completed one solid signing in Michael Kightly, who may help massive Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones make more of an impact this season than they have since being paired up.
I’m putting Fulham in the same position as they finished last season, for a number of reasons, the first and foremost being that I honestly have no idea where they will end up. I can see this club ending up as high as 7th, or as low as 14th. The one reason for this: this season depends entirely on the youth. Clint Dempsey will stay or leave, Moussa Dembele has the hype but to this point not the numbers, but it’s becoming increasingly more and more obvious that Martin Jol is putting a lot of his managerial stock in the younger ranks. With the lack of transfer market activity, it seems like there will be first-team spots for players like Alex Kacaniklic, Kerim Frei, Marcello Trotta, and maybe even some who’s faces we have only recently seen this preseason such as Dan Burn and Mesca. Martin Jol has stated in the last few days he wants to add three more players to the squad this window, and that may yet happen. But as of now, this team is marching on with the mentality of “if you’re good enough to play, you’re old enough to play” and obviously Jol thinks these kids are good enough. The Guardian wrote a brilliant preview of Fulham’s season, and I’d like to quote one particularly on-point section:
On the pitch, Martin Jol’s side achieved a first league double over Liverpool and beat third-place Arsenal and fifth-place Newcastle on the banks of the Thames – the latter a 5-2 thumping – and ended up ninth. For a club whose first team are overseen by Jol, such a larger than life and jovial figure, it still feels odd that such progress went so understated, but Fulham would probably not have it any other way. There is nothing mediocre about mid-table these days, and everything to admire about the way this club tends to achieve its targets. After all, they boast a Category One academy under the Premier League’s new Elite Player Performance Plan and, last month, were granted planning permission to redevelop the Riverside stand and increase capacity to 30,000. They feel progressive.
The manager would happ[ily show a willingness to turn towards young players] again, though not before a few more experienced heads have been added to his options. But there is no reason to suppose Fulham are about to veer from their prescribed script. They will remain awkward opponents at Craven Cottage and will ruffle a few feathers among those at the top of the division before the campaign is out. For now, the immediate objective is to strengthen and fend off the vultures circling for their prized assets; achieve that much and a fruitful season surely awaits.
The problem right now obviously is replacing those Fulham lost, which is quite a few. Fans would most likely agree that the strike options Fulham saw exit Craven Cottage in Pogrebnyak and Andy Johnson are replacable. In addition, while no one can emulate what Danny Murphy gave to this club in terms of leadership, his role on the pitch along with that of Dickson Etuhu could be replicated with another transfer buy. A lot of this season is dependent on what happens in the final week or two of the transfer market, and expect to see at least one move in the final day or so. But with the injection of youth and the expectation that free additions Mladen Petric and Hugo Rodallega will both at least improve on last season’s production, there is reason to be optimistic for sure.
It seems every year Everton are a lock for 7th place, and again this season that wouldn’t surprise me. Everton have been surprisingly busy in the transfer market this offseason, however most of the significant moving has been away from Goodison Park. Most notably, the club sold promising young midfielder Jack Rodwell to Manchester City, but they made a great deal of cash on the sale. They used some of that money to bring back Steven Pienaar, and they also added Steven Naismith on a free from troubled Rangers. Keeping Leighton Baines is as much of a transfer victory as any buy as well. I don’t see any reason why Everton would drop any farther, and another 7th is a perfectly attainable scenario, but it will be hard for them to break much higher than that.
As painful as it was to watch them fall out of the Champions League spots in the final few weeks, last year’s smashing success did more for their long-term future than anything. In only their second season since a brief trot through the Championship, Newcastle proved they’re going to be in contention for the 4th spot in the league for many years to come. It’s going to be incredibly hard to replicate what the club was able to do this past year, which is why I see a slight step back. The one somewhat notable loss in the transfer market for Newcastle is Leon Best, but with Cisse and Demba Ba both doing great things last year, the club could afford to make some money on the deal as well as let the now-outcast and aging Peter Lovenkrands leave on a free. They’re still as stacked as when they made their run last year, so expect more solid, if not as surprising, success.
Liverpool is certainly a wild card in this equation. While I could definitely see them faltering even farther, with maybe Everton and Newcastle once again leapfrogging them, I believe a bit of a bounce back is in order. They’re obviously in full-blown rebuild mode, starting with new manager Brendan Rogers. I don’t believe Kenny Dalglish got enough slack with the club in obvious disarray not entirely due to his doing, but either way, Rogers is now tasked with onwards and upwards. Give credit to Rogers for being realistic, he knows what’s ahead, and he knows it might not be pretty:
“The challenge here is immense. Let’s be under no illusion. The club and where it was at over the years – will any club ever do that again? That’s a big question. I certainly think with a club of our status and value to the football world, that we can go again. It’s going to take time and whether it will be in my time, I’m not so sure.”
He’s certainly added quality this summer, with Joe Allen sure to give many good minutes in the midfield, and Fabio Borini, who provides much needed striker depth to go along with Suarez and Carroll. However, those two buys cost a lot, both in transfer money and wages. If they pay off and get Liverpool a boost in the standings, it’s worth it. If not, it certainly could be crippling to a rebuilding team.
5. Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs is an interesting beast to me. I’m not really sure what to expect out of them. They’ve always had a very very strong midfield, and adding Sigurdsson makes it even more powerful. In addition, despite spending almost £20 million on two players (Sigurdsson and Jan Vertonghen) they’ve almost broken even, thanks to a few smaller moves plus the very shrewd sales of Niko Kranjcar and Vedran Corluka each around £6-7 million. Obviously missing out on the Champions League hurts, but it could be a blessing in disguise as now they can concentrate on conutinuing to improve. I expect, while they won’t totally blow it off, the Europa League will come 2nd in AVB’s mind to their league position. We’ll see if they can compete for that elusive Champions League spot this year.
NOTE: I truly believe any of these 4 teams can win the league this year, and have the talent to do so. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the point differential between these four teams get as close as 10 points (last year the top 4 were separated by 20) That’s what’s going to make this season so much fun!
By far last season’s most underachieving squad, Roberto Di Matteo seemed to have found a recipe for success with this team last year. Whatever formula he’s looking to use this year, it’s going to be heavy on the Fernando Torres. He won’t struggle like he did in the beginning of his tenure at Stamford Bridge, but if we haven’t seen the best of him by now, almost a year and a half into his time with Chelsea, I don’t see any reason why it will get any better. I see Torres’s inconsistencies continuing, even if his goal tally will increase slightly, and I think they improve on last year, but unfortunately for this team’s fanbase, they’re not looking for improvement. I will say this though: I watched Eden Hazard play, and I truly believe he has the potential to be the signing of the transfer window. He will bring a work rate and skill on the wing that will turn a lot of heads in the Premier League, and I think he’ll flourish even more in the Champions League.
I honestly had this all set up so that my one big pick of this entire thing was Arsenal to finish 2nd. I really thought they could pull it off with the squad they have, and with the moves Arsene Wenger made this summer. I think Arsenal have won the transfer window, I really do. They’ve made some great moves. However…..having just learned that Robin van Persie will be heading to Manchester United, unless they spend that money on someone else, I don’t believe 2nd is attainable. It’s frustrating for them because they’re honestly so close. Anyways, I digress. Let me talk about why I think Arsenal will at the very least give the Manchesters a great run for their money: because I think Lukas Podolski will challenge Eden Hazard for signing of the year, and he’s getting WAY less attention. Oh, and he cost less than a THIRD of what Hazard cost, another reason why his value goes way up. Selling van Persie to a league rival they’ll be directly competing with hurts, but Wenger got an extra £4 million out of United for just that reason. Let’s also not forget they’ve added Santi Cazorla in his prime, and Olivier Giroud. Well done Wenger. This is still a very, very strong club in my opinion.
2. Manchester City
Everyone is all over this club for how incredibly strong they are. And they’re just that, STRONG. But I feel like people forget they won by goal differential last season, and in this offseason they flat out haven’t kept up with Sir Alex. Sergio Aguero is capable of completely changing the action on the pitch, and boy what a buy he was. But their only spending this transfer window is Jack Rodwell, and I’m not so sure that was a great purchase. They don’t have a single glaring need…but when Manchester United gets better, sometimes their cross-town rivals need to keep up, and so far Manchester City hasn’t done that. That’s why I have them finishing second.
1. Manchester United
Let me throw this out there: I had United winning the league before the RVP news came out. I’m really not sure how Ferguson plans on using van Persie when he already has Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez, and Berbatov, but he’s certainly not someone I’m going to question. Berbatov is almost definitely off, and however much I’d like Fulham to swoop in here, it’s not going to happen. That aside, this team finished second on goal differential, and it’s now a wildly improved side. Those folks at Old Trafford don’t take kindly to losing. I think now that van Persie is there, Kagawa will fly under the radar, and it will make him even more successful. Great buy. It’s going to be incredibly close in the top 4 here, but Manchester United gets back on top.