EPL Season Preview: 3 Weeks Late, But Right On Time

"Hey Arsene, think of me in your next 0-0 draw!"

"But HOD," I hear you saying, "the EPL season kicked off a few weeks ago. Could you not get your act together to get your preview up before the first match?" Well, kemo sabe, I'm of the opinion that things really don't get started until the transfer window shuts on August 31. We're now into an international break as well, giving many teams a couple of weeks on the training pitches (minus their internationals, of course) to further solidify things.

The closing of the transfer window can often bring significant changes to a team. For instance, look at Liverpool, who shipped out Andy Carroll just before it closed, but was unable to secure a replacement for him, leaving them very thin up front. Likewise, Spurs lost Luka Modric, but grabbed a new goalkeeper and two of Fulham's best players. Things are pretty different for many teams than they were three weeks ago.

All that said and out of the way, there are some key questions for this season's competition:

  • Will the title stay in Manchester, perhaps just switching sides?
  • Will last season's promotion survivors (QPR, Norwich and Swansea) hold on for a second season?
  • Will the two north London teams -- Spurs and Arsenal -- live up to their lofty goals?
  • Who will fill out the top 4?

I tend to see the teams settling out into a handful of groups:

  • The Top
  • Just Off the Pace
  • The Trailing Pack
  • Mid-Table Mediocrity
  • Those Who Should Be Worried

The Top: Manchester City and Manchester United
City are an interesting side: they looked unbeatable at times last season, but took the title on the slimmest of margins. They've shuffled their squad a bit, but it remains a bloated mass of superstars that will test Roberto Mancini's man-management abilities, and a Mourinho-style meltdown doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility. Mancini also needs to be careful not to meddle too much; his cutesy attempt to play 3 at the back against Liverpool nearly backfired. Over at United, the purchase of Robin van Persie will bring goals by the bucketful, but between him and another new signing, Shenji Kagawa, fitting in a fit Wayne Rooney might be hard. Kagawa needs a partner in the center of the park, though (Tom Cleverley shows promise here), and United is still weak on the flanks of defense. Still, United always seems to find a way to win, so the title should be tight between the two Manchester teams again this year.

Just Off The Pace: Arsenal and Chelsea
Chelsea's Champions League title was a bit of a flattering deception; that competition has had several winners who couldn't match their achievements in their domestic leagues. Ambramovich responded to the trophy by throwing 80 million pounds at transfers, primarily on the Belgian Eden Hazard (from Lille) and Brazilian youngster Oscar, two attacking players. But Chelsea's central defense remains an issue, and there's a lot of pressure on Fernando Torres to start scoring regularly this season -- but the main question hanging over the club is whether Roberto di Matteo is really up for the manager's job. It's the same story as the last few seasons over at Arsenal: will the new signings be able to fill in for the stars the club let go? Last year, it was replacing the offense of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas; this year it's Robin van Persie's 37 goals. Santi Cazorla will be one of the best buys of the season, but Oliver Giroud can't be another French-league transplant who struggles.

The Trailing Pack: Spurs, Newcastle, Liverpool
Spurs have a good squad, and made some great buys bringing in Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey from Fulham. Losing Modric and Rafael van der Vaart will hurt a bit, but the real challenge will be if Andre Villas Boas can successfully implement his ideas and methods into the squad (as he was unable to do at Chelsea). The strong squad should see Spurs be one of the league's better teams, but they will retain a capacity to self-destruct. Things are going to be tough for Newcastle this year as teams will have begun to figure them out, and few changes to their squad means they'll be nearly identical last year. The main challenge for Alan Pardew will be to have a strong first half of the season so Newcastle's owner won't decide to cash in on players like Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye and Chieck Tiote in January. Liverpool are probably worth a post on their own; the story of the off-season really looks to have been to cut the wage bill and bring in some young players. That happened, but Brendan Rogers' squad is pretty thin, and his new tactics and methods will take time to bed in. A Europa League spot is all the team can honestly hope for this season, and that may be out of reach.

Mid-Table and Mediocrity (In no particular order):
Aston Villa
- Paul Lambert's got his work cut out for him to turn a squad of overpaid underachievers into something more than relegation outsiders.
Everton - They've already claimed the scalp of Manchester United this season, but Everton always manage a few results like that. David Moyes will look to maintain his usual MO: selling promising young players, replacing them with guys you've never heard of, then getting them to overachieve. He'll do this, and get pretty much the same result.
Fulham - I've got a friend who's a big Fulham fan, who told me that the team had the best transfer dealings of any team. I really can't see that, nor how gaining Dimitar Berbatov, Kieran Richardson and Hugo Rodallega will make up for losing Dembele, Dempsey and Pavel Pogrebnyak.
QPR - With a rich owner on board, money doesn't appear to be an issue (just in case you're wondering how Esteban Granero decided to trade Madrid for Shepherd's Bush). This should be familiar to manager Mark Hughes, who was in charge at Manchester City when its current owners swooped in with their petrodollars. He finished 10th in their first season, and he didn't make it through the next -- watch this space for a repeat.
Stoke - You know exactly what you're going to get from Stoke when they play, and you know exactly how it's all going to end up for them: since they were promoted to the Premier League, they've finished 12th, 11th, 13th and 14th. They've consolidated their position in the league, and some signings will ensure they won't go down, but they won't make much noise, either. Also, Michael Owen ha ha ha ha ha.
Sunderland - In Martin O'Neill, Sunderland finally have a decent manager to go with their squad, but their problem starts up front, where they've never really replaced Darren Bent. Steven Fletcher was brought in from Wolves for 15 million pounds, and will be under pressure to score the goals to take the team up the table.
Swansea - Losing Brendan Rogers was a big blow, but Michael Laudrup is no slouch. Bringing in the top-scoring midfielder from La Liga, Michu, will help, but losing Joe Allen and Scott Sinclair from last year's surprise package will hurt. Swansea will remain easy on the eye and safe in the Premier League, but they've got to add some clinical killing-off of teams to their slick passing football to get up the table.
West Brom - West Brom have chugged along quietly the last couple of years, and Steve Clarke (former assistant to Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool) has stepped into his first managerial job looking to maintain the course. He's been known for his skill at organizing defenses, which is never a bad thing at mid- to lower-table sides.

Be Worried:
Norwich - Paul Lambert was their special sauce, and as much as I like Chris Hughton, he's going to have a very tough time recreating last season's success.
Reading - If Reading are in a decent position at Christmas, and then if they can strengthen in the January window, they can stay up... but those are some big ifs.
Southampton - They'll hope to be this season's Swansea, but they'll have to tighten up at the back to be safe. The January window will be big for them as well, when they could lose the likes of high-scoring Rickie Lambert.
West Ham - Sam Allardyce's pragmatic approach doesn't make friends, but it's built to keep the Hammers safe from harm. The lower leagues can be swayed by physicality with a bit of skill mixed in, but the best that approach can get you in the Premier League is Stoke.
Wigan - Roberto Martinez always manages to do just enough to keep Wigan up, and his style of play wins fans, if not matches. The team will life live on the edge again, and should Martinez get poached as a mid-season replacement by a bigger team, things will be very hard.

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