Premier League in Preview: Mid Table Mediocrity

11 August 2008

I think the name sells itself. The teams that won't be fighting for relegation come the start of April, but won't be in the fight for those European places. I have a feeling some of the table placements may surprise you here.

Number 13: Sunderland

Biggest Ins: Steed Malbranque (capable down the left and can play the right if needed), Pascal Chimbonda (competent utility man on the back line).
Biggest Out: Ross Wallace (was okay, nothing spectacular and ended up surplus requirements with this year's crop of transfers).

Toughest Month
: August. Start off the season hosting Liverpool before going to Tottenham and ending the month hosting Manchester City. Getting three points in one of those is going to come at a premium.
Easiest Month: September. The first two should be three points as they travel to Wigan and then host Middlesbrough. The end the month away to Aston Villa.

Five Questions I Have With Sunderland
1) Can Roy Keane find a season long starter at right back or is Chimbonda going to be that answer?
2) Will relying on surplus requirements at Tottenham be too much of a high risk, little reward proposition?
3) Will picks up the slack in Kenwyne Jones early season absence?
4) Will Craig Gordon have to continue keeping this team in more games than should be required because of a shaky back four?
5) Who will emerge as a natural leader on the park this season?

My Ultimate Reality
: Roy Keane has at least shown to me that he can do the business as a manager. From taking a side that had every right to be relegated two seasons ago, the fact he survived in his first season in the top flight is a remarkable. The back four isn't exactly the best in the world, but Chimbonda should be able to steady them out. The midfield is a workman like group not exactly of the same quality Roy Keane was back in his heyday, but they can do the business. However the biggest concern if you are a Sunderland fan that I would have is where are the goals going too come from up front. I'm not fond of El-Hadji Diouf as he is too much of a trouble maker when things don't go his way and I see him not happy with the touches of the ball he'll get. But when it's all said and done, Keane will guide this team to the lower end of safety to where they'll never be a threat for relegation.

Number 12: Blackburn Rovers
Biggest Ins: Paul Robinson (needed a replacement for Brad Friedel with no keeper on roster with first team experience), Danny Simpson (surplus for Sir Alex and will get more time to play at right back).
Biggest Outs: Brad Friedel (he served the club well in his years behind the post and was ready for a new challenge), David Bentley (their most dynamic midfielder who did the lions share of link play between the midfield and forwards).

Toughest Month: May 2009. Travel to Manchester City before hosting Portsmouth. Their season ends going to Stamford Bridge before hosting West Brom in what could be a relegation decider for West Brom.
Easiest Month: January 2009. Travel to Fulham before hosting Newcastle United and Bolton Wanderers. They end the month away to Middlesbrough but this is a month I could see them ending with at least 9 points, possibly 10.

Five Questions I Have With Blackburn Rovers
1) Who becomes the link player in the midfield to replace David Bentley?
2) Can Roque Santa Cruz continue is goal form in his second season in the Premier League? We've all heard of the second season slump and if he does find a slump, can Benny McCarthy or Matt Derbyshire pick up some of the slack?
3) Can Paul Robinson step in at the same level of Brad Friedel the last few seasons?
4) How much does this team's dynamic change under new manager Paul Ince?
5) Can they turn draws into wins? Last season they had thirteen which was a tie for the most along with Liverpool, and Tottenham and is a major reason they are not playing European football this season.

My Ultimate Reality: Paul Ince doesn't even have his coaching badges to coach in the top flight, but in his limited time in management has undertaking some daunting tasks and been successful in them. From keeping Macclesfield Town in the Football League, to guiding Milton Keynes to their first piece of silverware and subsequent promotion to League 1, Ince has shown he can do the business. However stepping up from the lower leagues to the Premier League is a major step and I expect there to be some growing pains as he adjusts his game to that of the Premier League. Losing Bentley and Friedel hurt as there is no one in the midfield who can be the game changer he is. I've never rated Paul Robinson as a keeper and he is going to cost them more points than Brad Friedel would have this season. When it's all said and done, I see this team having a few games of brilliance followed by a few games where you go 'who are these guys'. I don't think they will ever be in trouble of relegation, but they won't ever make a push for Europe. This is in effect a rebuilding year and Paul Ince will have to figure out how to mold a squad that was successful playing in the way Mark Hughes had them playing.

Number 11: West Ham United
Biggest Ins: Valon Behrami (can play on the right side either in midfield or at the back and can create).
Biggest Outs: John Pantsil and Bobby Zamora (ended up surplus requirements for Alan Curbishley).

Toughest Month: December. Six games, starting at Anfield before a derby hosting Tottenham. If that's not enough West Ham have a trip to Stamford Bridge before hosting Villa. Their forty-eight post Christmas bonanza sees them off to Portsmouth before hosting Stoke City, their only winnable game in this stretch.
Easiest Month: January. A good chance for seven points as they travel to Newcastle before home ties with Fulham and Hull City. They end the month at the Emirates, the toughest challenge they face.

Five Questions I Have With West Ham United
1) How will injuries affect their depth this season? If you look at the lineup trends, The only place where there was problems is in the midfield. Can their entire roster stay healthy this season with only minimum injuries?
2) How long does it take for Valon Behrami to adjust to life in the Premier League?
3) While West Ham are decent up front, are they a little too thin?
4) To follow up with number three, how much more does Fred Sears develop this season?
5) How well does West Ham United navigate a tough November and December and will that put them on the front foot or back foot?

My Ultimate Reality: I have never rated Alan Curbishley as a manager. His sides have always had this ability to light up the world for a few games and put you into a false sense of security before having four or five games where you ask yourself if they know how to play football. As I've mentioned in my five questions, I have this bad feeling that West Ham is just a little thin up front and any injuries to Dean Ashton and Carlton Cole will cripple them up front. The back line is what it is, not spectacular but not awful either. This is a side much like Tottenham to me, but further down the pecking order. You know they go on mini-streaks but when it's all said and done won't contend for anything and will be happy to finish somewhere in the mid table.

Number 10: Newcastle United
Biggest Ins: Jonas Gutierrez (a good attacking midfield option), Fabricio Coloccini (adds a good player at center back who can push forward if need be).
Biggest Outs: Emre (could never get over the injury bug), David Rozehnal (he was already out the door in January on loan, so it isn't as big of a loss as it would have been had he left this summer).

Toughest Month: August. Have to travel to Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium in between hosting Bolton.
Easiest Month: February. They don't really have an 'easy' month if you will but February gives them the best option to get nine in nine. They go to West Brom and Bolton sandwiched between a home tie against Everton.

Five Questions I Have With Newcastle United
1) Who on earth starts at keeper the most this season? Shay Given and Steve Harper are about one and the same and neither one separates from the other. I think Shay Given will start but the leash will be a short one.
2) Can they stop leaking goals? Allowing 65 goals was the worst amongst the teams that survived in the Premier League. It will have to get better this year.
3) This squad still has a core from what Sam Allardyce built. Can Kevin Keegan get this team to believe in his system?
4) To follow up with number four, when will this side start to think for the future and not for the now. The core of this team is starting to get up there in age and with the injury
5) How long will it really be before Joey Barton will be able to return to the first team?

My Ultimate Reality: Once Kevin Keegan started adjusting his tactics, he was able to get nominal results to not only guide them out of a relegation dog fight, but surprisingly up the table until twelfth position. I still think it was a mistake to fire Allardyce last season but the past is the past and they seem stuck in the past with Keegan at the helm. Sometimes a little forward thinking isn't a bad idea, but with Keegan's attacking mentality, I don't know if they won't leave the same gaps at the back as they did last season. The question is really going to be can this team stay healthy for a full season? Knowing the history I don't think they will. When it's all said and done though, they'll be playing out games starting in about the middle of January just waiting for the next season to begin.

Number 9: Manchester City
Biggest Ins: Jo (Dynamic forward that can not only play centrally, but on either wing).
Biggest Outs: Andreas Isaksson (they made up their mind to start Joe Hart and he's not going to play second fiddle to anyone), Bernardo Corradi (was too much of a hot head and couldn't work his way into the starting eleven).

Toughest Month: May. Host Blackburn before road trips to Old Trafford and White Hart Lane. The end the season against Bolton in what I think will be a relegation decider.
Easiest Month: December. After traveling to Fulham, they host Everton. A trip to West Brom follows a home match with Hull City before 48 hours later going to Ewood Park. A good chance to end the month with possibly 10-11 points.

Five Questions I Have With Manchester City
1) How surprising is it that Roland Bianchi is back at the club after the quotes he said about England? I thought he wasn't going to to be back but somehow Mark Hughes has convinced him to come back.
2) Will this side be able to adjust to life in the UEFA Cup in the sense of the fixture congestion?
3) Will Mark Hughes have more success with a bigger club, or will this be Sam Allardyce at Newcastle all over again?
4) Will the players revolt from Hughes strict regime after the life of luxury Sven seemed to give them even though it led to their late season collapse?
5) How will Jo and Benjani partner up front for City once Jo comes back from the Olympics?

My Ultimate Reality: I think Mark Hughes is one of the more underrated managers in the Premier League. However one problem he had with Blackburn last season was seeing so many games end in draws. I don't think the UEFA Cup fits well for them as with a new manager it's going to take a full season I feel for this side to get use to his style of play. The back four is a bit of a concern for me as they allowed the most goals of any side in the top half of the table last season (okay I understand the last game of last season they allowed 8, still shouldn't have happened. It's going to be an interesting season for this side to see how they gel together as Hughes has a little more to work with, but with the fixture congestion they will have early in the season, I don't know how they will hold up late in the season. It really all boils down to how well the back four play.

The next two days will see these previews conclude. I hope you have enjoyed reading these unique looks as much as I have. Check back over at the CSRN's The Third Half Blog page tomorrow not only for the teams I see making the push for Europe, but for a new page to appear that will not only have all these previews in one convient location, but also links to Michael James previews as well. Until then, these are my thoughts, what are yours?

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Johnathan Starling, the self proclaimed 'most brutally honest man on the net, dishes out his own unique brand of opinions, and analysis on the Premier League, Bundesliga, and all things US Soccer.

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