09 August 2011

Fifth Annual League Table Guessing Game

Last season's 'prediction' wasn't a complete failure – at least in the top seven. I had Chelsea pipping United to the title (which looked possible until the Blues bought that misfiring traitorous foreigner), City and Arsenal in third and fourth, and Liverpool ahead of Tottenham – insane in retrospect, but still would have happened had Liverpool won its final two matches. All in all, three positions spot on (the aforementioned City and Arsenal, as well as Everton in seventh), and one of the three relegated sides right (Blackpool, a tremendously difficult guess). Which is good enough to continue this yearly charade.

1) Manchester United
2) Manchester City
3) Chelsea
4) Liverpool
5) Arsenal
6) Tottenham
7) Sunderland
8) Everton
9) Fulham
10) Stoke
11) Aston Villa
12) West Brom
13) Bolton
14) Wolves
15) QPR
16) Blackburn
17) Norwich
18) Newcastle
19) Wigan
20) Swansea

And it's basically the same prediction everyone else is making. Money talks. This is an arms race, and the guy with the biggest gun is probably going to walk away with the gong. The long-standing Big Four narrative is dead, long live the Super Six. Admittedly, the name needs work.

It increasingly looks like a two-division Premiership: a top six ostensibly fighting for the title (but really fighting for the Champions League places, with the two Mancs and Chelski seemingly a step above) and everyone else.

There are few, if any, contenders to break into that elite group – only teams who could drop out of it should they fail to keep up with the pack. Sunderland's coped with the loss of Bent and Henderson by adding Wickham, Craig Gardner, Seb Larsson, and David Vaughan, but there's little star power and a history of spring collapses. Stoke's slow, continual progress will probably be tempered (if not restrained) by European competition. Villa lost both Young and Downing – although Albrighton and N'Zogbia are decent replacements – and fans will be quick to turn on McLeish at the first sign of trouble. Everton came the closest last season, finishing four points behind their city rivals, but the Blues' financial situation is even more perilous than usual; unable to sign new players, at least they've held onto what they have. Otherwise, the gap between Liverpool in sixth and Fulham in eighth was nine points – the same as the gap between Fulham and 17th-placed Wolves.

As much as I'd love to be overwhelmingly optimistic in regards to Liverpool, jumping into the top four is a big ask no matter Dalglish's renaissance or this summer's business. I'll have a Liverpool-specific preview up tomorrow or Thursday, but the short version is I'm trying not to get carried away with the complete sea change we've seen over the last 12 months. Whether Liverpool can take Arsenal's fourth place is up to Arsenal as much as Liverpool.

It's inane and insane to overvalue in a single match, let alone a curtain-raising de facto friendly, but I've a sneaking suspicion that Sunday's Community Shield was the upcoming title race in brief. Parvenu Manchester City has the strongest side by some distance, but United has that eminently detestable, wholly implausible je ne sais quoi which sees them come back from two down to win in the last minute of added time every single time. Neither Mancini nor his mercenaries can be trusted to maintain any semblance of stability, especially since they'll also be competing in the Champions League for the first time.

Adding Phil Jones, Ashley Young, and David de Gea to a title-winning side frightens – the most the Glaziers' have spent in a single window – but questions remain. Will de Gea, he of the two Wembley howlers, adapt to England? Who's the first choice right back? And can a central midfield of Carrick, Fletcher, Gibson, Anderson, and Giggs really win the title? But every other squad provokes more questions: City's maddening inconsistency, Chelsea's aging legs and new manager, Arsenal's suicidal tendencies on the pitch and in the transfer market, etc.

At the other end of the table, I suspect playoff winners Swansea don't have enough lawyers, guns, or money to stay in the division – similar to Blackpool last year and Burnley, Derby, Watford, etc in previous. Norwich is in a similar, slightly sturdier boat, but parsimony from Wigan and insanity from Blackburn and Newcastle's owners could give them enough of a chance to stay up. QPR's thicker wallet, stronger squad, Colin Wanker's (hint: anagram) experience give them the best chance of survival of the promoted three. As with last season, I expect the difference between mid-table and relegation to be minimal and a season-long battle of attrition for 8-12 teams.


ndc said...

Pretty reasonable post, except that adding De Gea doesn't frighten one bit. He looks frail and inexperienced. If they had added a new Van der Sar, for example Jussi Jääskeläinen, that would have been awful. This new keeper looks bad enough to offer a ray of hope to other teams.

drew said...

De Gea will be a great keeper but will take time to grow into it, and if he is dodgy early on it may get into his head. It does surprise me though from all reports and even just from looking at him that he's not near as tall as was first reported, more 6'0 than 6'4, which would go some way to explaining the weakness to long-range blasts.

I really, really want to see this as the year United finally come apart. Not convinced by Jones or Young, nor even that Sneijder, should they get him, would provide the answers they're looking for (think it would be devastating though if they got Modric). But as you say, it's hard to believe any of the other main competitors can hold up for 38 matches, or have anything like whatever Satanic magic keeps Ferguson's kidneys together and United flush in extra-time goals. Already sick of the circlejerk over this Cleverley kid, cannot wait for some of ours to come good and give theirs a proper kicking.

Having real trouble understanding why Arsenal are about to sell Fabregas and Nasri a day before season kick-off. Wenger is asking an awful lot of that squad already.

I think Man City will wilt under the demands of a CL campaign. If a challenge is going to come it's most likely from Chelsea; Villas Boas is a badass and they still have a very solid squad top to bottom.

That is, of course, unless we can put up a proper fight...

As for the other end, I've got no clue, just hope some of the sides play football worth watching. I'm starved for some and as I'm already half-resigned to United taking another title, I'm really eager to see some decent action from midtable down.