Prime Roast on Wonder Bread and Other Metaphors: SSB’s 2014-15 Barclays Premier League Season Preview – PART 1

The bullet’s merciful passage through the Emirates Cup and similar friendly match competitions marks yet another transition to the unofficial arrival of late summer. Accompanying the ominous return of shortening days and premiere of countless television shows doomed to fail, fortunately, is the advent of a new Premier League season.

Particularly in the context of American sports landscape, Premier League club aspirations seldom fail to transcend the realities of economic mobility: the privileged and bandwagoners alike dream of top four finishes and league titles, several more visualize the hand of fate that reveals a top-10 table finish, and the remainder simply hope for survival in the 1% cavalcade of Premier League television deals.

Will the embarrassment of riches, shared among those wanting hardware (Arsenal, Manchester Blue/Red, Chelsea) to those hardly wanting (newly promoted sides, teams that begin with “West”) lead to a vague return of parity not seen since the late 1980s/early 1990s? Probably not. While FFP has finally flexed its might (albeit with the unrelenting force of a thick rubber band), club prestige, ability of top clubs to consistently secure satisfactory ROIs, and the intrinsic pulls of corporate sponsorship appears to scrawl out a league plutocracy for the foreseeable future.

Upstream and Downstream in the Mid-Major Channel

The greatest hope for the return of club equality rests in the continued ability of mid-major clubs to loosen the clasps on league control through superb player development, resource allocation, and management. Everton and Southampton, despite the latter’s unceremonious fade in the season’s second half, projected this formula in the 2013-14 season.

Despite its furious accumulation of capital through sale of top players at or above market value, Southampton has gone from the club equivalent of a 3d printer to a floored venture capital project. While the team’s (at the time) current talent level only accounted for an 8th place finish in the league last year, the Saints – as recently as two months ago – was flush with young talent. Flush.

First blood was marked by Coach Mauricio Pochettino’s agreement to sign with Tottenham. A few days later, Ricky Lambert’s £4 million transfer to Liverpool was finalized. Even at that early stage, there was no real harm done. But then…

Luke Shaw. £30 million plus to Manchester United. Gone.

Adam Lallana. £25 million to Liverpool. Gone.

Dejan Lovren. £20 million to Liverpool.Gone.

Calum Chambers. £16 million to Arsenal. Gone.

The remaining club photographs of the former Saints growing up through the various youth teams, promotional posters, leftover bobbleheads, etc. that were scattered throughout the St. Mary’s clubhouse and stadium? Liverpool took those too. They’re Brendan Rodgers’s memories now.

On the other hand, you see Everton rising like a phoenix from Tottenham’s 5th place ashes and preparing for another strong campaign. And why not? Securing Romelu Lukaku’s services for the foreseeable future, locking up Gareth Barry and Seamus Coleman, signing Muhamed Besic to join Barry and James McCarthy at the pit of midfield, and welcoming back Darren Gibson and Arouna Kone* from long-term injury spells are all what us football pundits like to call “good things.”

*If Kone stays healthy and returns to 100% fitness, he will provide much improved cover for Romelu Lukaku over the likes of Nikica Jelavic and Lacine Traoré. he scored 13 goals for Wigan in all competitions during the 2012-13 season, (missed all of last year). He could be an X factor in Everton’s upcoming hunt for Champions League football.

The only semi-significant loss is Gerard Deulofeu, who Martinez will certainly look to replace with at least one loan signing as the team prepares for the persisting maelstrom that is the Europa League. Between Tuesday evening matches sprawled all across the European continent, modest revenue streams, statistically wrecks havoc on a team’s Premier League success, the Europa League offers no favors for its participants. While progressing to the quarterfinals, semifinals, or final would surely bolster team morale and club reputation, an early exit may be a blessing in disguise for league hopes.

This team has unrecognizable measures of depth from two seasons ago in a progressive sense, counter to Southampton’s sputtering on-field regression. With a full season of experience for Lukaku, Ross Barkley, and Roberto Martinez under their respective belts, even with higher expectations and a daunting challenge ahead, how can Toffee fans not help but feel optimistic?

The Mid-Major Middle Child

Chairman Daniel Levy operates the Tottenham Hotspurs’ transfer policy like a veteran FIFA user in Manager Mode: sell stars well above market value and diversify investments. Tottenham has had a very middling return on investment success in recent seasons and this was never more evident than last season, when only Christian Eriksen arguably projected Champions League worthy talent on a weekly basis.

When six or seven players arrived into White Hart Lane as the platoon replacement of Gareth Bale’s services last summer, nary anyone had much of an idea how they would fit together or adjust to the Premier League. Apparently, neither did Andre Villas Boas, who continually tinkered with the line-up until his due sacking halfway through the past season.

Lewis Holtby, Paulinho, Erik Lamela, Eriksen, Nacer Chadli, Moussa Dembele, Sandro, Andros Townsend, Aaron Lennon, Nabil Bentaleb, and Etienne Capoue. These are the heavy hitters in the Tottenham midfield. In FIFA, an ensemble of good talent is very good to have. Yes, any 14-year old can tell you that such depth prevents fatigue.

In real life, a Wu Tang Clan-sized panel of good players in the middle of the pitch does not catapult a team into elite territory. It allows you to beat up on bad teams en masse, which has overwhelmingly been the Spurs’ lone forte in the past several years. You know, apparently besides West Ham.

The team’s lone star – Hugo Lloris – stands between the posts and the defensive unit, which was already susceptible to massacres by the hand of any of the elite teams and West Ham, reportedly faces an exodus.

As it stands, the team desperately needs an upgrade over Kyle Naughton and Danny Rose at left fullback and another center back to join Jan Vertoghen. Younés Kaboul was a primary culprit in several of Tottenham’s periodic collapses, like against West Ham. Chiriches could be a worthy partner after a decent first season, but is rumored to be on the move again.

If Morgan Schneiderlin becomes the newest Spurs player and latest Saints exile (although recent rumors dispute the ongoing development), it simply stands as another good, but not great, player set to join the midfield ranks. A proper challenge for a top four spot in the league necessitates star players, which Tottenham – despite its flurried waves of personnel moves – remains in severely short supply.

With all that said, however, the arrival of Pochettino connotes a carte blanche. It has to, right? There must be some cause for optimism for a team that consistently finishes in the top six, right? Anyone?

Anyway…

If Tottenham’s major shortcomings – at least in the middle and attacking thirds of the pitch – originate in schematic error, rather than inferior talent, and Pochettino finds a way to inspire the squad’s two highly paid strikers – Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor – to prolonged goal-scoring form, then there is certainly cause for hope.

It is essential that Pochettino finds a rotation of 15 or so players and stick with it. Weekly squad instability ultimately beleaguered AVB and Tim Sherwood last season.

If the Argentine manager brings the 4-4-1-1 line-up to London, I think Holtby and Bentaleb/Dembele should form the central midfield, with Lennon and Lamela on the wings, and Eriksen behind Soldado.

A 4-3-3 with three central midfielders seems to cater to Tottenham’s current roster, in which case Holtby/Paulinho, Eriksen, and Dembele/Sandro would appear to be the most worthy candidates of early playing time in midfield to start the season.

Whichever way the team eventually lines out, the fact remains that Lamela and Soldado were brought to London last year to be the stars. Even if the team’s current defensive frailties and uncertainty (not to mention staunch league opposition) makes a Champions League berth almost impossible, marked improvement by the two beleaguered attackers may be enough to keep Spurs in the hunt for much of the season.

 

Prime Roast on Wonder Bread and Other Metaphors: SSB’s 2014-15 Barclays Premier League Season Preview – PART 2

Who Will Deliver the Red Devils from Purgatory?

Perhaps drawn from the team’s unparalleled polarizing quality, but expectations for United’s upcoming season appear to alternative sharply between the perception that there will be an unrelenting return to top four prominence in the wake of the Moyes fiasco and the belief that last season simply signaled the team’s deep-lying roster problems, for which there will not be an immediate turnaround.

While Phil Jones could develop into one of the league’s better center half backs within the next few seasons, Chris Smalling has shown few signs of similar potential and shaded closer to (Kolo) Toure than Terry last season. The center back position has not improved, nor has the situation directly in front of the defense. Signing Fellaini to supplant Fletcher and Carrick in center midfield was like spending $10 on a $5 scratch-off, multiplied by 3 million or so.

For the time being, any combination of Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, and Darren Fletcher will probably cover the three man center midfield of Van Gaal’s preferred 3-5-2 formation, but the squad still needs a No.6 to protect the defense from the countless charges through the middle that opposing teams enjoyed all last season.

The additions of Herrera and Luke Shaw will certainly help the skeletal structure of Manchester’s roster to the extent that gauze remedies a severed limb. Now that Ferdinand and Vidic have limbed away into the sunset, the need for defensive reinforcements is particularly urgent.

Signing the likes of Vidal and Thomas Vermaelen would automatically make United a odds on favorite to return to the Champions League after next season, but a failure to sign at least one will place an immense amount of pressure on United to finish among the top three in goals scored next season

…which shouldn’t be a problem. Even if Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson do not take a step forth in their development this season, the team has no lack of scoring options, so long as the Moyes favorite – Operation: Deepcrossapalooza – is disregarded as a viable attacking strategy. Mata and Herrera project as a furious duo at the head of midfield; Rooney and Welback should score around 30-35 goals combined (across all competitions).

With that said, Robin van Persie’s health following the lengthy post-World Cup layoff will be key in dictating the manner of United’s return from 7th place indignity. Two seasons ago, RvP accounted for 18 points when only considering the goals he scored that either brought United level or ahead in league matches. Last year, he missed long stretches of matches, periods which coincided with the worst epochs of Man United’s season.

United will still score plenty of goals if van Persie suffers from further injury episodes, but his ability to consistently tog out at the pinnacle of United’s attack will make the side among the most formidable in the league. In the team’s current state, defensive vulnerability will give the team a Europa League ceiling. With Vidal and another center back signed before the deadline, and only domestic competitions to focus on, 3rd or 4th place becomes a strong possibility.

Two Steps Forward and…

Simply by the loss of Luis Suarez, Liverpool will almost certainly take a step back this season after a rather surprising second place league finish this past May. With all the additions in mind, Daniel Sturridge remains the most equipped player on the roster to fill the massive void created by the Uruguayan’s departure. In a limited sample size, Sturridge was sublime at the focal point of Liverpool’s attack. Stretched to a full season, it’s near impossible to imagine him enjoying a similar rate of success.

Like the Tottenham board, Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool’s chairmen also diversified their transfer targets by design of variety in position and developmental stage. Players like Adam Lallana and Emre Can bolster the midfield considerably. Although mild reaches in terms of price for the pair, the former fits a need as one of last season’s best bridges between the midfield and strikers; the latter as a space clogger in front of the defense.

Lazar Markovic, one has to imagine, was a player that Brendan Rodgers had his eye on for a while. As a primary right winger, he will push Raheem Sterling for playing time, set up on the opposite side of Philippe Coutinho or Sterling, or even play directly behind Sturridge or Ricky Lambert on occasion.

These new options, however, will still quake in the face of the immediate challenge to replace Suarez’s 31 goals and 12 assists. While Can provides improved protection for the defense, it is difficult to determine how Liverpool’s defense significantly improved. Dejan Lovren (who was probably acquired for closer to market value than Adam Lallana) will strengthen the heart of Liverpool’s defense, but the defensive unit as a whole has likely not improved enough to offset the imminent offensive regression.

Rodgers is an excellent coach and, in turn, will maintain the passing philosophy that has served his side so well in his first two seasons in command. His ability to build the team’s depth, particularly in midfield, will prove to be a necessity for Liverpool as it deals with the rigors of Champions League football. The added dimension that it brings, however, combined with the loss of Suarez will make a return to the top four extremely difficult as Everton and Manchester United bang on the door. The time to deliver is now for Sturridge.

The Two Rich Blue Teams

Two of the favorites. Manchester City, the reigning champions, improved one of its strongest position – right fullback – by signing Bacary Sagna. Chelsea signed Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, essentially in place of Ba/Lukaku and Frank Lampard. It also acquired Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid and brought Didier Drogba back after his two year pilgrimage in China and Turkey (not a religious statement).

Which team improved more?

The loss of David Luiz should hardly be felt with Matic and Mikel providing cover in front of the defense. The biggest worry for both teams is a common one: an over-reliance on the health of each team’s respective captain: Vincent Kompany for City and John Terry for Chelsea.  Looking beyond the two center backs, Chelsea has better depth at most positions, save for right fullback, striker, and center midfield.

If there was another place to look, it has to be at the goalkeeper position. Chelsea arguably has two of the best ten goalkeepers in the world under contract and City has Manuel Almun…I mean Joe Hart.

City will almost certainly remain in the top four simply by virtue of its formidable attacking force and the central players directly behind (David Silva, Yaya Toure, and Fernandinho), but I do not expect Etihad F.C. to repeat. 2nd or 3rd will be the probable final place. If they do, it will be thanks to another great and injury-free season for Sergio Aguero; 30 goals scored between Stevan Jovetic, Negredo, and Edin Dzeko in the league; good health for Kompany, Martín Demichelis, Fernandinho and Toure; a return to top form for Joe Hart.

As for Chelsea, I consider it to be the favorite to win the league this upcoming season. Even if Diego Costa/undead Didier do not adequately remedy Chelsea’s underachievement at the striker position, Andre Schurrle, Willian, Eden Hazard, and Oscar will supply service and goals. If Costa nets at least 15-18 goals in the league, it should be enough to sufficiently complement the other scoring sources on the roster and possibly even appease Mourinho’s expectations.

Prime Roast on Wonder Bread and Other Metaphors: SSB’s 2014-15 Barclays Premier League Season Preview – PART 3

The Title Track

Mathieu Debuchy, Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers. A direct replacement, another step, and a wild card, respctively. For a team that has hung on to 3rd and 4th place in the league for most of the past decade, these moves don’t quite feel like emergents past a threshold. At this premature stage, Arsenal only knows that it has added a star player in Sanchez and hopes that it might have unearthed another in Chambers, in whatever position he eventually settles.

Sanchez is another player who, in all likelihood, will (or at least should) predominantly play in a more or less central role; near the top, specifically, as a second striker to Olivier Giroud or Yaya Sanogo. When I accounted for Calum Chambers starting both games for Arsenal in the Emirates Cup at center half back, I made the uncomfortable realization that the team structure vaguely resembles prime roast on Wonder Bread.

This is not comparing the roster’s wing players to the processed and bleached delight of Wonder Bread. Rather, Arsenal has crept to the point in which it has an excess of players who optimally function in a central role and few who fit similarly well as wing players.

Wenger has stated that he views Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a future central midfielder (although he looked overwhelmed at times and made critical errors in other times when at the position last season). Theo Walcott, still in recovery from a knee injury, has made no secret of his preference to line up as a central forward. While both of these players will continue to play on the wing for the immediate future, they will hardly assume primarily peripheral roles in the following years.

A common personnel move employed by Wenger last season was to push Santi Cazorla out to the wing, usually on the left side. Coincidentally, the team often struggled when the short Spaniard played in this role. On an individual level, Cazorla lacks the pace and agility that typically suits the modern winger. On a macro level, Cazorla did not provide much as a defender, occasionally exposing Gibbs or Monreal behind him. Going forward, his aforementioned lack of pace mitigates his off-ball prowess in counter-attacks. A central attacking role, in which ability to protect and move the ball in tight spaces has premium value, suits his game infinitely better.

The attacking central role for Arsenal, which Santi enjoyed during much of his first season with Arsenal, is commandeered primarily by Mesut Özil since his arrival from Real Madrid last summer. When Tomas Rosicky played in place of Özil last season, Cazorla and Rosicky alternatively pushed out to the wing, neither with great aplomb.

The predicament grows deeper (in both senses) in the center of the team’s formation. Last season, Mikel Arteta led Arsenal in tackles and completed passes per game, as well as passing accuracy by a midfielder, all by slight margins. Despite these statistical niceties, Arteta does not serve as the central defensive player that is necessary for a title winning team, especially for a squad that has an abundance of skilled passing maestros and has not yet successfully shaken the ‘soft’ label in the Emirates Stadium era.

When Arsenal suffered its worst losses to top teams last season, a common issue was the capitulation of the space between midfield and the top of the 18 yard box.  Arteta simply lacks the physical ability – in strength or energy – to fill space and slow down counterattacks; Mathieu Flamini, on the other hand, provides necessary energy and tenacity, but – as his advanced stats suggest – he lacks the skill, composure, and consistency to properly serve the side on a weekly basis. While Flamini provided a better complementary skill set for Özil, Wilshere, and Cazorla than Arteta, the team needs an upgrade at the base of midfield.

While Arteta, in particular, will continue to regularly start at CDM this season, the hope has to be that Wilshere or Chambers can permanently supplant the Spaniard in the not-so-distant future. If you’re not convinced by the need to change to a more physical presence over Arteta, consider Chelsea and Manchester City last season. In Chelsea’s late contest against Manchester City late in the campaign, Mourinho deployed Nemanja Matic and David Luiz at dual stoppers in front of the defense to slow down David Silva and Yaya Toure.

The effect was apparent. Chelsea came out victorious in a drudging 1-0 result.

In last year’s contests against Manchester City and Chelsea, in which Arsenal was outscored by a total of 9 goals (13 goals allowed vs four scored), City’s Fernandinho and Chelsea’s Matic/Luiz combination consistently reduced time and space in the middle of the pitch for the likes of Ramsey, Özil, and Rosicky. While the two worst defensive performances could be partially explained by an all-out attacking strategy at the Etihad and a red card in Stamford Bridge (the infamous Gibbs/Chambo mix-up), the common link was Arsenal’s inability to effectively pressure on the break.

The need for a more physical presence in CDM is accentuated by the occasional disappearance of at least one of Arsenal’s fullbacks (watch first goal by Eto’o), usually due to aggressive positioning on attacking set pieces. The effect of a successive breakaway had a usual effect of mismatches and disorganization once enough bodies retreated in time, while other times, the two players back were quickly left stranded and a goal was scored in quick succession.

While Ramsey is a guaranteed starter in any formation, Wilshere – the name on every Arsenal fan’s lips three seasons ago – is in danger of becoming an odd man out within the squad. Yet another player well capable of fulfilling main playmaking duties, Wilshere will likely continue to play deeper in the pitch. If he stays healthy this season, he and Ramsey could end up constructing the central midfield base that every Gooner hoped would come to fruition over the past few years.

The health of Ramsey and Wilshere, on an individual level, holds more weight for Wilshere, who has yet to return to his on-field heights from the 2010-11 season. He showed glimpses, but Wenger must resist the temptation to play him out wide in order for him to optimally develop into the position that is his preferred spot and his likely long-term place on the field.

So who does that leave for the wing spots? Walcott, Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski, Serge Gnabry, and Joel Campbell.

Early in the calendar year, upon his return from injury, Podolski dealt with puzzling cameo appearances with a few minutes left or full game benching from Wenger in league play. While the manager maintained later that these particular personnel choices were made to grant the German amble time to return to full fitness, a preference to play Santi and Ox certainly had a part.

It was only when the team’s injuries compiled most extensively in February that Podolski returned as a regular starter, in which the team’s play improved considerably with the addition of a prototypical winger and additional goal scorer. Against Bayern Munich  in the first knockout stage of the Champions League and against Swansea (H), West Ham (H), and Hull City (A) in the last quarter of last season, Podolski was arguably Arsenal’s most important player.

Joel Campbell, a relatively unknown entity, has done everything in his power – between the start of the World Cup and preseason – to demand playing time before Walcott returns from injury and lays his claim up front on the right. Perhaps Campbell’s placement on the right wing against Benefica foreshadows opportunity at the position once the season commences, but with few other immediate options, Campbell has all of the tools to make an impact at that position – off-ball intelligence, improvement in link-up play, speed, toughness, dribbling skill, considerable finishing prowess – even if more prominent names crowd his own in midfield.

While Wenger has proven the world wrong on countless occasions, he has not missed opportunities to outsmart himself in recent years. Great talent at one position does not necessarily translate to another. While Chambers has the athleticism and molten skill set to potentially fit any outfield position in the defensive half (or even on the wings), playing any of the team’s many central midfielders  – Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere, Rosicky, Özil – out wide undermines the respective player’s skill set and effectively compromises the team’s overall ability.

For Arsenal to make another title push, Wenger needs to recognize what he currently has at wing options and use them out wide instead of pulling central midfielders to the periphery, even if he regards the central midfielder more highly as an overall footballer. His trust in Sanogo may eventually serve as another exemplary sample of his ability to unearth talent and inspire greatness when given a proper opportunity.

Particularly in the case of Arteta at CDM and Podolski and Campbell as starting wing options early in the season, Arsene needs to remain mindful of past lessons for Arsenal to make another step forward. The team does not yet seem ready to overcome its fellow title-contending demons and a title would be (improbably) won in spite of this. As the squad stands, another season will likely pass without a league title, but 2nd place will accurately mark a step in the right direction for a club that is finally matching upside with current production.