The Big Four - Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool
It will be held against me if it doesn't come to pass, but my surprise pick for the title is Arsenal. Arsene Wenger has spent the past couple of years blooding the most impressive bunch of youngsters in recent memory. However the crucial addition didn't happen this transfer window, but instead was the capture of Zenit St. Petersburg's Andrei Arshavin this past January. Kolo Toure was quoted earlier in the month that Arsenal lack leaders and he was right these past few seasons. But not any more. The Russian forward is going to lead by example and become a true icon of the Gunners. Notwithstanding Fabio Capello's fairly idiotic statement that Jack Wilshere could go to the World Cup, England have more than enough midfielders it is the striking options that should be of concern, the Arsenal youngster should have a breakout season. Experience plus addition by subtraction and the loses of their challengers equals an opportunity.
If it was anyone other than Carlo Ancelotti I'd consider dropping Chelsea lower than 2nd on my list. But success with an ageing team was the Italian's strength at AC Milan and this Blues team has one more run in them before they need to seriously reload. The strength of the team remains its centre spine with John Terry and, the Chelsea player City should have signed, Ricardo Carvalho in the middle of the defense backed up by an improving Alex. Frank Lampard reigns supreme once more in midfield while Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka are if anything an under appreciated pair. The ultimate return of Joe Cole will add the dimension that Chelsea missed last year. Michael Ballack remains a thug and the club would do well to offload the German in the January transfer window. Quite capable of winning the league or finishing fifth I instead peg them in second.
If any team can take the hit of losing Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez it is the squad that Ferguson has built at United. Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia are very good pick ups and the youngsters coming through are exceptional. Nani and to a lesser extent Anderson may not have been the pick ups that the team expected, but this is a team built to campaign for four trophies every year. However that little extra piece of quality that you need to win the Premier League is gone at least for now.
I suspect that United will be back to the top next year, but this year a post Ronaldo dip seems inevitable. Curiously I see them more likely to win the Champions League than the Premier League if Owen Hargreaves returns healthy in December.
After last year Liverpool were and still are in some corners, the trendy pick to win it all. Not so fast. Xabi Alonso has left, proof if any was required that the ego of Benitez out strips his ability and there's no cover if Fernando Torres is injured. Add an unsettled Javier Mascherano and this is a recipe for disaster. I wonder who Rafa will blame this time for his failures? That Glen Johnson is the England Right Back speaks more about the paucity of the position and how much Micah Rchards has regressed rather than the former Pompey man's ability. Throw in a still injured Alberto Aquilani for Alonso and it is Liverpool not Arsenal who are the prime candidate to fall out of the top four.
Not bad. Arsenal are four points behind, but with a game in hand against Bolton. It's Ramsey rather than Wilshere who appears poised for the breakthrough season at the Emirates however the basic premise seems sound. Chelsea will live and die with the next few weeks while Drogba is away at the African Nations Cup. It's hard for me to say this but this season may be one of the most impressive for Old Purple Nose. The injuries have been staggering and to be in second place at this point really is quite shocking. Meanwhile as anticipated Liverpool have struggled mightily. I can only imagine all of the "experts" who picked them to win were wanting anyone to beat United rather than looking at the race objectively. That being said with the right signings in January, Liverpool could still close the gap and challenge for fourth.
The Second Four - Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Everton, Aston Villa
It's now happened multiple years in a row. Spurs struggle terribly at the beginning of the year only to storm back by the end of the year. If Tottenham ever get their act together in the first 3 months of the season they could be seriously dangerous. Harry Redknapp has been quoted as saying he is after 4th this year, I think 'Arry gets it right this year and it is Spurs that City are chasing for 5th not Villa or Everton. Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe, both of whom should be going to South Africa for the World Cup, are reunited and if Redknapp can figure out how to also play Robbie Keane that's a fairly lethal forward line. Defense always remains an issue and it is the constant injuries that will hamper any Spurs challenge for the top four.
Sixth the Chairman said and sixth seems a pretty good place to me. I've seen the pundits talk about Champions League football for next year and it just seems silly. While each of Big Four have their weaknesses this year, winning is something that is learnt as a team. City are a year away from challenging for anything in the league and the best that can be hoped for is a good Cup run. The club has added excellent talent. We can quibble here and there, but the squad is being built. The lack of European football is in fact a benefit for the team although hopefully we'll never have to say that again.
Everton and Aston Villa
Fans of Everton and Villa will think I'm on something but I see both clubs struggling this year. A relative term as I expect them to finish in 7th and 8th, but at some point Everton's small squad has to catch up with David Moyes and the poaching of Gareth Barry is going to give Villa a one year hang over. Both will be back the following season when you could realistically have nine clubs in an all mighty tussle.
Martin O'Neill has built a very nice squad. It lacks the pure quality of Manchester United but the depth is good. Watch the January transfer window carefully. If O'Neill can snag a couple of high quality players, such as Bolton's Fabrice Muamba, then Villa may be the surprise of 2010-11.
I still stand by what I said about City. Despite Liverpool's struggles and the changing of the goals for the season anything higher than sixth would be a tremendous performance for a rebuilt side. In Mancini we have a manager with a tremendous record in cup competition and I'm hoping that continues for City. Spurs have fulfilled my expectations however it is at Aston Villa that I am surprised. I really thought the lose of Gareth Barry would significantly impact Martin O'Neill's squad for one year. Instead Barry's departure has allowed James Milner to blossom into one of the better midfielders in the league. Meanwhile at Everton as indicated Moyes has been unable to work his annual miracle although the Toffees continue to climb slowly back up the table. Maybe not as high as eighth, but they should be within shouting distance.
Plus One - West Ham
Gianfranco Zola is building a quality set up at Upton Park. Give him another year or so and I can see the Hammers starting to nibble at the heels of the top 5 and certainly be in the Europe mix. Probably the biggest surprise is the lack of an influx of Italians into the squad although Zola used those contacts to bring in Chilean international Luis Jimenez in on loan and the midfielder strikes me as one of the most astute pick ups of this transfer window. If anyone crashes the top 8 this year it's West Ham.
Every year there is one team that unexpectedly falls into a relegation struggle. This year it's West Ham and my ninth place prediction looks, well, silly! If you dig a little deeper the Hammers have the best goal difference of those around them significantly better than all except Bolton, and as such I still expect Zola's squad to move up the table. That being said if finances force the club to sell in January it may well be a struggle.
The Surprise Package - Sunderland
If the acquisition of Gareth Barry is the most important pick up of the transfer window then Lorik Cana the former Marseilles captain is number two and no surprise that new Sunderland boss Steve Bruce has installed the Albanian national captain as the Black Cats team leader. With Cana leading the team from midfield it will be fellow new signee Paulo da Silva who will lead the defense. The Paraguayan would also have been a candidate to lead the team. Up front Frazier Campbell and Darren Bent join the previous incumbents Kenwyne Jones and David Healy. Lee Cattermole also joins and in Kieran Richardson Sunderland have a high quality player. The team is probably one more defender away from completion, but this is a very under rated squad and has the strong potential to surprise.
Steve Bruce added that defender, Matthew Turner, and Sunderland got off to an excellent start until they were derailed by the injury to Lee Cattermole. Shows what a fine line there can be between success and failure for a mid table team when the loss of one key player impacts so greatly. Tenth still seems like the correct spot for Sunderland and additional squad depth will be required to maintain that.
Who Knows - Fulham, Blackburn, Bolton, Stoke
Fulham boss Roy Hodgson, my manager of the year last season, has a thin squad that seriously over achieved last year. Add in the extra European fixtures and that's a recipe for a struggle at best and relegation at worst. Those at the Cottage should pray for a quick cup of tea in Europe with their exit allowing the team to focus on the league. US national player Clint Dempsey may well have been the player in the Premier League who most improved from the previous season but is played out of position in midfield. Dempsey plays forward for the US team and was a big part of their surprising summer success.
Big Sam has a job to do at Blackburn. He's made some strange decision, the offloading of Derbyshire in particular caught my attention and I keep expecting City to snag Christopher Samba at some point, possibly in the January transfer window, That being said Allardyce has excellent connections and an ability to unearth talent. Croatian striker Nikola Kalinic, who according to reports will miss the opener against City, looks particularly useful.
Bolton and Stoke
Bolton has Gary Megson which really should be all you need to know. The arrival of South Korean Lee Chung-Yong is of particular interest and strikes me as a bargain more in keeping with the Allardyce era in Horwich. Along with Stoke, Bolton has the most chance to fall back into a relegation battle. Tony Pulis performed miracles in the potteries last year. Alas there's a history of a newly promoted team doing well one year and then struggling the second year and Stoke fits that mold not least because of the lack of serious reinforcements in the transfer window. Stoke will benefit from a full season of striker James Beattie, however I believe it unlikely that Stoke will finish as high as last year.
I know most Manager of the Year accolades are going to be sent the way of Birmingham's Alex McLeish but to me the job Roy Hodgson is doing at Fulham is quite amazing. To be in the top ten at the half way point and the last 32 of the Europa League is unbelievable when you look at the squad that the Cottagers have. Over at Stoke Tony Pulis continues to defy expectations and has his club in the same spot that they finished last year.
Blackburn have been poor this year and I'm surprised at how little Big Sam has been able to influence the team so far. They may be thirteenth but it's a slippery slope back to the relegation zone. At Bolton no surprise to see the back of Gary Megson, really the only question was how long he would last before the change had to be made.
The New Boys - Birmingham, Wolves, Burnley
Wolves and Birmingham
Could this be the second time in Premier League history that all three promoted teams stay up? Wolves and Birmingham are making concerted moves in the transfer market; Red Star Belgrade's Nenad Milijas a goal scoring midfielder and Reading's Kevin Doyle are welcome additions at Molineux while the arrival of Ecuadorian striker Christian Benitez gives Brum manager Alex McLeish the chance to show that he's as good as Steve Bruce in finding South American gems. However the arrival of Scot Barry Ferguson from Rangers may turn out to be the most crucial move of the year.
Owen Coyle the Burnley manager is one of the up and comers. Can he pull a Reading, Wigan or Stoke and somehow keep The Clarets in the top flight their first season? Former Newcastle defender David Edgar was a smart piece of business as is the pick up of former Manchester United youngster Richard Eckersley. We've seen good young managers come up with poor teams and ultimately lose there jobs and there is more than a whiff of that scenario associated with the team from Turf Moor.
It would take a miracle for all three to stay up, but this season maybe miracles are the name of the game.
Every year it seems one of the promoted clubs does much better than expected. But really, Birmingham? That is a surprise. Joe Hart has played his way into the World Cup squad for South Africa and Roger Johnson and Scott Dann in the heart of the Birmingham defense have been a revelation coming over from Cardiff and Coventry respectively. Wolves have struggled more than I thought they would and I see them dragged into the relegation battle for the rest of year.
Burnley got off to a great start and have been sliding down the table ever since. At this point for the season Owen Coyle's team average 1 point from 1 game which is normally enough to keep a club up but after that fast start the club now has 8 points in their last 10 games and that is relegation form.
The Relegation Contenders - Portsmouth, Hull, Wigan
Hull are toast. A stone cold certainty to go down. Phil Brown can ruminate all he wants but the infamous Eastlands on pitch rant lost his team based on the complete collapse of the team from that moment on and it would also appear the interest of many professionals that could have become available. I was very surprised that Stephen Hunt left Reading for Hull City and the arrival of Jozy Altidore on loan from Villarreal seems a bit of a stretch. If as anticipated Everton come in for Michael Turner then I'm pretty confident that Hull will prop up the League for the entire year.
Over at Wigan Roberto Martinez is potentially a good coach, but when the Chairman says when you sign that you are the coach even if the club goes down then the writing is on the wall before the season starts. Now that being said, Martinez is not surprisingly mining his Spanish connections and the club is starting to be connected with interesting prospects. If the right players arrive either before the end of August or in the January transfer window, then I can see Wigan just pulling off an escape.
Lastly at Portsmouth the ownership saga continues. The club would appear to potentially in the pipeline have some money but it's been one way traffic with their best players leaving. I'm surprised that one of the other clubs that are realistically in the bottom half of the table, Stoke for example, hasn't targeted David James with a big money move. Removing James from Portsmouth would hasten the inevitable demise of the club into the Championship
Despite what I've said about Bolton, Wolves and Burnley above I still tend towards these three as the relegation candidates. Portsmouth are a mess, Wigan keep getting thumped and Hull had turned the corner until Jimmy Bullard was injured again. If Phil Brown lost the dressing room after the game against City in 2008, Bullard's celebration one year on convinced me that the players had moved on. If Bullard returns to full fitness quickly then Hull have a chance otherwise it's the Championship for them.
And there's my Season Preview. I don't believe the Big Four change this year but it becomes a much tighter race at the top and between fourth and the chasing pack. When it comes to the rest of the division positions eleventh through seventeenth are the hardest to figure. You can throw enough data and hypothesis regarding any of those clubs to "prove" why they should be in the relegation zone.
Broadly speaking at the half way point it looks like a decent pre season preview. West Ham, obviously, is the most glaring mistake. Now it gets interesting. The January transfer window and additional FA Cup fixtures can impact significantly the form of the teams. Most signings in the next month will impact their clubs much more next season, something that is rarely taken into account when the summer signings are reviewed, but there is always an occasional January signing that works immediately. Tottenham, City, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Birmingham are within 5 points of each other for the 4th Champions League spot and it is realistic to expect that the battle will go down to the final week of the season. Spurs are away at Burnley, City at West Ham, Liverpool travel to Hull and Birmingham are at Bolton. Only Villa are at home entertaining Blackburn. Something to keep in mind.
At the foot of the table there are just 9 points between Sunderland in 10th and Portsmouth at the foot of the table. Eleven clubs none of whom can afford a bad run of form. I'm not sure we are going to end up with the same scenario as the "Great Escape" season where West Brom, Crystal Palace, Southampton and Norwich went into the final game of the season all with a chance to stay up, or go down, but if you said two relegation spots from five clubs on the last day of the season I wouldn't argue.