Monday, August 13, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: August 14, 8:48 AM UK
Fighting for survival
Ahead of the 2012-13 Premier League campaign, ESPN takes a look at six sides - excluding the three newly-promoted clubs - that could be in danger of being sucked into a relegation dogfight.
That Alex McLeish was kicked out of the exit door will have turned frowns upside down at Villa Park after his achingly negative football only saved their Premier League bacon by two points. Supporters of the Midlands club viewed the Scot's departure as long overdue after they had witnessed just seven league triumphs all season. A new era is here under another Scot, Paul Lambert, a man whose stock is rising following his securing of back-to-back promotions with Norwich City.
The Canaries' performances in the top flight last term pricked up the ears of those at Villa after Lambert's effective style of football assured Norwich's survival with relative ease - a team built on an economical budget ended up four places higher than the coach's new club. So there are reasons to be optimistic in the Midlands but - and one is loath to drag down buoyancy - the task ahead for Lambert is tough, and long-term too. Hence, for this campaign at least, he could face a battle to keep the Villains' heads above water.
Why? Well, the crop of players he has to work with is not the strongest. Compared with the likes of Queens Park Rangers, who might well have made this list had they not already shown their hand strongly in the transfer market, Villa's squad is thin, which causes concern. Furthermore, they were rickety in defence, even in spite of McLeish's reluctance to attack. Now, under a boss who is not afraid to loosen the shackles, Shay Given could be more exposed, although the addition of Netherlands centre-back Ron Vlaar may prove to be shrewd business. Up front, meanwhile, where the goals will come from should Darren Bent sustain another injury is up for debate. Lambert also faces the challenge of getting the best out of Stephen Ireland and Charles N'Zogbia, a pair who have been underwhelming since their arrivals at Villa Park. New boy Karim El Ahmadi has, however, looked promising in pre-season.
So the reward for progression through the divisions is to have your manager pinched. Let that be a lesson to thee. As touched upon when looking at Villa's new manager, his work at Carrow Road was laudable - but the man who piloted City's surge has pulled the ejector seat lever and headed to the Midlands. Norwich's response was to cast their net in that same territory, luring Chris Hughton from Birmingham. Hughton, once of Newcastle and who began his coaching career at Tottenham, had guided Blues to the Championship play-offs in 2011-12.
He is a likeable manager, and one who could thrive in a new environment. But there are concerns. This is a group of players that has worked under the same head coach - and a meticulous one at that - for three years. Having had the 'Lambert way' drummed into them, it will be intriguing to see how they respond to a change in ethos, no matter how minimal. Hughton, though, has made a habit of gelling players swiftly. Considering this strength, he might well be advised to begin from the back. Norwich shipped 66 goals last season, and such charitable defending is unlikely to be excused this time around.
Stoke avoided the drop by nine points last season - an adequate, if not overly comfortable, margin. With the Potters, there are two sides of the fence on which to sit. Side one: that they are now an established Premier League side, capable of staving off relegation with relative ease thanks to the experience gained since their promotion in 2008. Side two, primarily made up of football purists: that the wheels could come off at any moment, with the fact that last season was their lowest finish since promotion supplied as evidence. Yet it is worth nudging the haters in the ribs and reminding them that Stoke did also compete in Europe in 2011-12.
Last summer, the outlay was lavish by Stoke's standards. Jonathan Woodgate (free), Matthew Upson (free), Cameron Jerome (£4m), Peter Crouch (£10m) and Wilson Palacios (£8m) were all brought in. The investment was arguably not rewarded, and that begs the question of whether chairman Peter Coates will again demonstrate such deep pockets. Last season, a paucity of goals was a cause for concern: Stoke were bottom of the list as they averaged less than a goal a game. Michael Owen has been mooted as the man to solve this problem, and could perhaps strike up an effective partnership with Crouch. The solution could also be a tinkering with tactics for Pulis: Plan Aerial assault, and Plan Ball on the deck.
Yet more disincentive for a newly-promoted club to perform well with an up-and-coming manager - just copy and paste the introduction to Norwich but replace Lambert with Rodgers and Canaries with Swans. Brendan Rodgers, the football purists' best friend, is now tucked up in bed with Liverpool after making a big impression during Swansea's debut season in the Premier League as they finished 11th and offered viewers a slice of Spain with their passing football. To fill Rodgers' shoes, Swansea have looked to Europe, where Danish coach Michael Laudrup's last job was with Mallorca in La Liga.
The legendary midfielder has carved a reputation for instilling an attacking approach at the sides he has managed, so he appears a good fit as Rodgers' successor. The two-year contract he has signed in Wales arguably does not demonstrate a huge dose of faith but is sensible from a business point of view. Laudrup could do with a prolonged spell in a role, having flitted about since his successful stewardship of Brondby. Eyeing matters on the pitch, the Swans' questionable away form needs addressing, while the potential departure of tidy midfielder Joe Allen threatens to undo what has been developing at the Liberty Stadium.
West Bromwich Albion
Under Roy Hodgson, West Brom ended up slap bang in the middle of the table, in a pipe and slippers position of tenth. Hodgson, though, left at the end of the season to manage England. In the 64-year-old, West Brom had a coach of extensive experience. In their new leader, however, they have the opposite: Steve Clarke has previously been a manager in one competitive match. That came when he was in caretaker charge of Newcastle United in 1999, and ended in a 5-1 defeat to Manchester United.
Clarke, 48, has since spent time as an assistant manager and his spells as a No. 2 have, by and large, been successful. Trophies were won at Chelsea, when he worked under Jose Mourinho, although a spell at West Ham was a struggle. His next step, at Liverpool, saw Clarke initially hailed for his work as the Reds' form was turned around but, despite a League Cup win, the Scot's spell at Anfield ended sourly.
He will now have to deal with being the face of a club and the finger-pointing that comes with that. He has a clutch of talented players at his disposal but, beyond the key performers, there are question marks over squad depth. It is brave of the Baggies to take a chance on Clarke, and sometimes a roll of the dice can pay dividends. But, amid the pressures that come with ensuring that a side remains in the big time, how things work out for him will be a story to keep an eye on.
It would be remiss to leave Wigan off this shortlist of the potentially doomed - they are tipped for the drop come every season's start. It is tradition to write off the Latics despite the size of the chestnuts exhibited by Roberto Martinez and his boys at times of danger. Last season, Wigan dangled over the trapdoor but dodged the fall at the last, and who would bet against them doing the same again? However, it is a surprise that Martinez has not flown the coop for this season as the squad has dwindled, so their time might be now.
The promising Victor Moses looks destined to leave the DW Stadium amid interest from Chelsea, while the powerful Mohamed Diame has already left for West Ham, weakening Wigan's spine. Up front, Hugo Rodallega has joined Fulham, meaning they face the alarming prospect of Franco Di Santo leading the line - their return of 42 goals in the league last season was almost their undoing. But, even in the face of these setbacks, Martinez could still secure survival. The remainder of the transfer window, though, is undoubtedly key for him and his team.
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