Club By Club Premier League Preview: The Midtable

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Who will challenge for a top 6 finish? Who will avoid relegation? Today we continue our club by club Premier League season previews as Michael Cox looks at the Premier League midtable.

Stoke City Stadium

Stoke

The 20 Premier League sides can be broken up obviously into two groups – seven sides chasing Champions League places, and 13 trying to avoid relegation. It’s difficult to work out which side is least likely to achieve European football or be relegated to the Championship, but Stoke might be the best contender, as one of the division’s few proper midtable sides.

Mark Hughes did a very impressive job last season, managing to improve Stoke’s style of football while also taking them to a top-half finish, and this campaign is obviously about building upon that promising start. The arrivals have been eye-catching – Bojan Krkic was once one of Europe’s most exciting young talents, and while his career has unquestionably stalled, it’s a statement of intent from Stoke, both in terms of the calibre and style of their latest forward. Mame Biram Diouf, meanwhile, had an excellent Bundesliga goalscoring record and is a more refined centre-forward than Stoke are accustomed to.

The shape of the side remains to be seen. Diouf and Bojan will expect to start, as will Marko Arnautovic and Peter Odemwingie. But a 4-2-3-1 with that quartet appears very attacking, and it’s questionable whether this will provide the necessary defensive structure, and whether there’ll be enough link between midfield and attack. Last season, Stephen Ireland or Charlie Adam played that role at the head of the triangle – it could happen again, but who is left out upfront?

Bojan might not find Stoke to his liking – he seems very much a 4-3-3 player and it’s difficult to imagine him enjoying playing wide in a midfield four, getting back and protecting his full-backs, and he doesn’t have the guile for a number 10 role.

The defence, however, remains highly dependable, and while they might be tested more this season in a more attacking side, they should hold strong.

Last Word

A genuine midtable side. Stoke must improve upon their away form, but they remain difficult to beat at home, and their starting XI looks good on paper.

Stoke City Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Top 6 EPL Finish 21.0  4.8% Bet at Ladbrokes
Top 10 EPL Finish 2.75  36.4% Bet at Betway
Relegation 11.0  9.1% Bet at bet365
FA Cup 41.0  2.4% Bet at bet365
League Cup 51.0  2.0% Bet at William Hill

 

Newcastle

Newcastle’s 2013/14 campaign was rather bizarre – they lost 15 of their final 21 matches, and yet finished just seven points behind Southampton, who received nothing but plaudits from the media throughout the campaign. The reason, of course, is that Newcastle started the season excellently, and fell away dramatically after the blow of losing Yohan Cabaye to PSG, with their win rate halving in his absence.

They’ve been forced to cope with the loss of two more French internationals, with both Loic Remy and Mathieu Debuchy leaving the club, and it feels like the replacements are downgrades. Daryl Janmaat looked competent for the Netherlands at the World Cup, but no more, while Alan Pardew has been forced to put his faith in a variety of newcomers to English football. Remy Cabella looks very exciting and Siem de Jong has great talent, but with Emmanuel Riviere and Facundo Ferreyra also likely to suffer from a period of adjustment, there’s hardly going to be much cohesion in the final third.

Questions remain about Newcastle’s back four, although they do possess great quality in midfield. It remains to be seen whether Pardew can find the right format for Cheick Tiote, Moussa Sissoko and Vurnon Anita to all excel in the same side – Sissoko wasn’t entirely convincing when trying to replace Cabaye – but this is the strongest part of the side, and Newcastle should be capable of dominating matches.

A handicap, though, is the obvious dissent towards Pardew from the supporters. On its day, St James’ Park provides one of the most exhilarating atmospheres in English football, but it can also be incredibly hostile towards under-performers. Pardew is hated, as is Mike Ashley, but the poisonous atmosphere at home games could affect the players, too.

Last Word

Newcastle won’t be as good as the first half of last season, but not as bad as the second half of last season. For such a dramatic club, this might be a rare boring season spent in the middle of the table.

Newcastle Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Top 6 EPL Finish 13.0  7.7% Bet at Ladbrokes
Top 10 EPL Finish 2.50  40.0% Bet at Bwin
Relegation 11.0  9.1% Bet at Skybet
FA Cup 51.0  2.0% Bet at Stan James
League Cup 34.0  2.9% Bet at William Hill

 

West Ham

Sam Allardyce is the bookmakers’ favourite to be the first manager sacked, but as things stand there’s no obvious reason why he should be dismissed. He got West Ham promoted at the first time of asking, led the club to 10th and 13th in his first two seasons back in the Premier League, and has never been relegated from the top flight in his career. He appears the perfect manager for a club of West Ham’s stature.

Concerns remain about the style of play, however. Whereas Allardyce’s Bolton combined long ball football with genuine flair in the final third, and his Blackburn side were at least entertaining with their thumped balls downfield to a big striker, West Ham were genuinely ugly last season. The long balls were only part of the problem – more of an issue was the complete dependence upon getting the ball wide and crossing, with Matt Jarvis and Stewart Downing responsible for all the creativity in the final third. With Andy Carroll, Carlton Cole and Modobo Maiga misfiring, and Kevin Nolan increasingly limited in his support striker role, it’s understandable the fans became bored.

Things are looking up, though. Enner Valencia has arrived to lead the attack, perhaps a sign Carroll is already viewed as an expensive mistake, while Mauro Zarate will run around a lot and try to cause problems. Deeper in midfield, Diego Poyet looks a genuine talent although Allardyce might use him sparingly, especially with ultra-physical midfielder Chiekhou Kouyate likely to partner fan favourite Mark Noble.

Both full-backs have been replaced, although neither Carl Jenkinson or Aaron Cresswell appear more than standard bottom-half quality. If Winston Reid can enjoy an injury-free season, though, the defence won’t be an issue.

Last Word

Allardyce won’t get West Ham relegated, though the apparent demand for him to play more adventurous football might cause problems – he’s simply not accustomed to that. Still, West Ham should finish a long way clear of relegation.

West Ham Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Top 6 EPL Finish 26.0  3.8% Bet at bet365
Top 10 EPL Finish 3.60  2.8% Bet at Coral
Relegation 6.50  15.4% Bet at Skybet
FA Cup 51.0  2.0% Bet at Stan James
League Cup 41.0  2.4% Bet at William Hill

 

Southampton

It’s been sad to see Southampton’s successful side from last season being ripped apart over the summer – Mauricio Pochettino created a genuinely exciting side, and the departures have been so severe that Southampton will start this season as a completely different team.

There’s no need for absolute panic, even if you can forgive the supporters for being extremely worried. The club still has a wealth of talented young players, and more intriguingly, plenty of money in the bank to purchase replacements – if Katharina Liebherr wants to. The transfer window closing after the start of the campaign is eternally frustrating, and especially so in Southampton’s case – as many as three or four of their first-team regulars this season are not yet at the club, so their campaign remains unpredictable.

Ronald Koeman is a talented coach, however, and he likes working with young players, which is useful given Southampton’s production line is now the envy of the rest of the country. His purchases have been underwhelming, though – neither Graziano Pelle nor Duan Tadic are guaranteed successes, and many players struggle with the switch from the Eredivisie to the Premier League. With Jay Rodriguez not back for a couple of months, and likely to take time to reach 100% fitness, there’s a real worry about the lack of attacking spark.

The starting XI isn’t entirely disappointing, even accounting for the departures and the fact Morgan Schneiderlin is surely next out of the door. There are some promising youngsters like James Ward-Prowse and Nathaniel Clyne, while Ryan Bertrand and Jack Cork are both solid performers. More quality in both penalty areas is desperately needed, though – there’s a danger Southampton will play pretty football without collecting results, and a slide down the table is surely on the cards.

Last Word

Perhaps the most unpredictable Premier League side, simply because we don’t yet know their likely side. They could finish anywhere between 8th and 20th depending upon their remaining purchases, but they should have enough to avoid relegation.

Southampton Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Top 6 EPL Finish 17.0  5.9% Bet at Ladbrokes
Top 10 EPL Finish 2.75  36.4% Bet at Coral
Relegation 6.50  15.4% Bet at Coral
FA Cup 34.0  2.9% Bet at bet365
League Cup 34.0  2.9% Bet at bet365

 

Sunderland

It’s often difficult to keep up with Sunderland – they change managers every year, and sign a plethora of players each summer. Whereas a couple of seasons ago they had bright young things set to become top-class players, like Jordan Henderson and Simon Mignolet, now they have a collection of players that have been deemed not good enough for other clubs, or standard bottom-half players.

Gustavo Poyet eventually found a winning formula last season, and his system is set to remain intact. Newcomers should strengthen the side, although it’s tough to get excited about Jordi Gomez, Patrick van Aanholt and Billy Jones – all three rather confirm Sunderland’s position as bottom-half scrappers, rather than suggest they’re set to surge up the table.

Jack Rodwell could go either way. Clearly talented, the midfielder has completed just four Premier League matches in the last three seasons because of continual injuries, particularly to his hamstrings. There’s a danger that he could become something of an Andy Carroll figure – promoted beyond his ability because of his physicality, unsuited to a top club, and then permanently injured when dropping down the league. Sunderland have paid a huge amount of money for a player that isn’t much of an upgrade on Ki Sung-Yeung, who played a solid role last season.

Going forward, there’s a lot of unpredictability. Emmanuel Giaccherini can be brilliant but often finds himself out of the side, while Adam Johnson had one superb month amongst a rather indifferent season overall. Connor Wickham, Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher can all be good on their day, but they can all be hopeless too, while at the back it remains to be seen how much longer John O’Shea and West Brown can keep going – although again, both are capable of fine performances.

Last Word

The phrase ‘also-ran’ comes to mind. Sunderland haven’t improved significantly from last season, but nor have they regressed. Poyet has potential to work with, but it’s a 6/10 side across the board.

Sunderland Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Top 6 EPL Finish 34.0  2.9% Bet at Ladbrokes
Top 10 EPL Finish 4.50  22.2% Bet at Bwin
Relegation 6.0  16.7% Bet at William Hill
FA Cup 51.0  2.0% Bet at William Hill
League Cup 41.0  2.4% Bet at bet365

 

Swansea

Quietly, Swansea have had a rather eventful summer. Garry Monk was confirmed as their permanent boss in May, which was by no means a certainty when he expectedly took over from Michael Laudrup midway through last season, and they’ve also announced the arrivals of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Bafetimbi Gomis and Jefferson Montero, three international attackers who respectively offer midfield guile, a penalty box presence, and tricky wing play.

However, Swansea are one of a number of clubs who might discover their season lacks real excitement – unlike last year there’s no European football, and it’s difficult to see any club breaking into the top 7. With Swansea unlikely to be relegated, therefore, this is probably a season of Premier League consolidation – although had you offered Swansea that five years ago, they would have bitten your hand off.

The major question mark is about Monk’s managerial ability – he knows the club inside-out, but has no managerial experience aside from his caretaker spell last season. He will continue with the club’s philosophy of playing possession-orientated, attacking football, underlined by the identity of the new arrivals, but what are his man-management skills like? Is he a good tactician? Will the new signings get on board with his ideas from an early stage? Realistically, we don’t know.

Still, Monk can count upon a solid defence that is largely unchanged for the third season running – Neil Taylor will re-take his left-back slot from Ben Davies – while Lukasz Fabianski is a good arrival in goal, assuming he steers clear of injuries. There’s a concern that the midfield could be less structured if Jonjo Shelvey generally plays in a deeper role than last season, but this is a starting XI that looks genuinely exciting on paper.

Last Word

Barring further departures – Wilfried Bony leaving would be a blow – Swansea look solid midtable material.

Swansea Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Top 6 EPL Finish 34.0  2.9% Bet at bet365
Top 10 EPL Finish 3.75  26.7% Bet at bet365
Relegation 6.0  16.7% Bet at William Hill
FA Cup 51.0  2.0% Bet at bet365
League Cup 51.0  2.0% Bet at William Hill

 

Crystal Palace

Tony Pulis’ transformative job at Crystal Palace was extraordinary when you remember what an indisciplined rabble they were under Ian Holloway, and his Premier League Manager of the Season award was quite an honour for a manager of Pulis’ relatively lowly standing in the game – it usually goes to the title-winning boss.

Pulis’ performance was also so impressive because the turnaround occurred even before the January transfer window, with the former Stoke manager working miracles with an unspectacular squad before he could add his own signings. Scott Dann and Joe Ledley had an instant impact and improved the side further, while Wayne Hennessey could become Pulis’ number one this season.

Pulis will no doubt be disappointed by the lack of big-money signings so far, especially when you consider the sums being spent by clubs who finished lower in the table – but, in truth, Pulis often spent poorly at Stoke and was better at getting the best out of committed, reliable journeymen pros. The Palace board might be wondering why they should change a winning formula.

You can’t stand still in the Premier League, though, and expect Palace to make some more moves before the transfer window closes – another winger would be nice, with Wilfried Zaha returning on loan a real possibility, although he’ll have to become more disciplined to play in Pulis’ system.

Indeed, discipline is the key. Crystal Palace’s defence will remain very narrow, and the midfield works hard to form a solid barrier in the centre of the pitch, showing the opposition wide and tempting them to cross the ball, which the centre-backs will deal with comfortably. A rare new signing, Brede Hangeland, has lost any trace of pace, but can still perform in a deep defence.

Last Word

Palace will probably slip back a little this season, simply because they overachieved so dramatically last season. But Pulis, a little like Sam Allardyce, always has enough to avoid the drop, and Palace will be one of the most difficult sides to break down.

Crystal Palace Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Top 6 EPL Finish 67.0  14.9% Bet at Ladbrokes
Top 10 EPL Finish 5.50  18.2% Bet at Coral
Relegation 4.0  25.0% Bet at bet365
FA Cup 81.0  12.3% Bet at William Hill
League Cup 67.0  14.9% Bet at Bwin

 

 

Read part 1 of Michael's Premier League club previews - The Contenders.
Read part 3 of Michael's Premier League club previews - Relegation Candidates.

 

 

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And read more of his work at ZonalMarking.net

A firm believer in traditional shirt numbers. I also write for ESPN, The Guardian, FourFourTwo & others.