Here we are at the opening of another Premier League off-season filled with intrigue. The FA Cup, the Champions League title and some domestic leagues still have to be decided before we can declare the 2013-14 club season officially over but for all intents and purposes, the Premier League is done for the year. Manchester City won the title which is pretty much what everyone predicted but that, and Cardiff going down, are about the only things that went to script.
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Rather than rehashing what went right and what went wrong up and down the league, this feature is going to immediately start looking ahead in an attempt to start the conversation about who, if anyone, might be next season’s big risers like Liverpool (good team taking a huge leap forward into title contention) and Southampton (an also ran that becomes a threat to any and all teams it plays). Next week we’ll look at those with the biggest potential to drop off in the same vein as Manchester United (big club taking a significant fall) or Fulham (A Premier League regular that gets relegated) this past season.
So, what will lead us to declare a club as a potential “next” riser or faller? In all cases the question is whether there are easily achievable ways that the club’s goal differential can be significantly different next season than it was last season. The obvious ways for this to happen are:
- Health – Did the club (or specific key players) have outlier years in terms of exceptional health or poor health that is likely to revert to the mean next season?
- Current Squad Evolution – Does the squad have young players capable of taking a leap forward and changing the club’s fortunes without dipping in the transfer market or, conversely, are there players that could be realistically expected to start declining and/or being injured more frequently?
- Transfer Prospects – Are there glaring holes that the club can realistically expect to be filled in the transfer market or glaring holes that are widely expected to be created by players leaving the club?
- Management – Is there reason to expect that the manager will be more (or less) effective next season as opposed to this one?
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The Next Liverpool
Finances dictate that the list of candidates here is pretty limited. There are only so many clubs that have the financial firepower and current roster to move from the higher end of mid-table to the Champions League. Of the clubs on that list – Spurs, Manchester United, Everton, Southampton – I’d say that only two have even a chance. I’m going to dismiss Everton and Southampton and get to them later in the column when we discuss teams that could face a reversal of fortunes. Here are the cases for Spurs to jump into the top four next season and for United to reclaim what they believe to be their birthright:
Health – Spurs had a fairly normal season here. They had some minor to middling injuries to some of their key players but none would be considered tragic or incredibly unusual to the point where you’d think that next season would be much different.
Current Squad Evolution – For my money, Spurs are the hardest club in the Premier League to judge in this category at this point in their history. They purchased SO many players last summer and then promoted additional young players to significantly more responsible roles over the course of this past season that it’s hard to know exactly what they have. Throw in the fact that two very different managers were around to try to figure out how to put the puzzle together and you have some major unknowns. There is certainly the potential for a lot of things to go better for Spurs – Erik Lamela could be healthier and adapt to the Prem and live up to his purchase price, Roberto Soldado could improve dramatically with a different style of play, and Andros Townsend could certainly evolve more diversity and end product all of which could lead to a significant improvement at the attacking end.
Transfer Prospects – The issue with the Spurs squad is that it is generally fairly good across the board. There aren’t gaping holes where one or two key transfers are going to fill a massive void and change the club’s prospects and help bridge the gap of 10 points in the table and 23 goals of differential between them and Arsenal in fourth. With no Champions League football to offer and only declining assets from last summer’s buying spree to raise funds, Spurs will have to hit big with some less splashy buys if they want the transfer market to help them significantly.
Management – Here is where Spurs great hope could lie. Between Andres Villas Boas and Tim Sherwood, the management at Spurs wasn’t great last season. What is less clear is whether the management was actively hurting the club or just embarrassing to supporters and players because of the manager’s (mostly Sherwood but AVB to a lesser extent) inability to handle the media in a way that gave them any benefit of the doubt with players and management.
Verdict – Possible but the probability is very low, say, 10%. A lot of things have to go right and as we found out with Arsenal this past season when lots of things started going right (Ramsey, Giroud, Wilshere improving and Flamini being far better than expected) it is hard to sustain the “everything has to go perfectly” model for an entire season.
Health – Manchester United didn’t have a great year from a health point of view so there is some reason for optimism here. I don’t think it is likely that Robin van Persie will ever be the player of 2011-12 at Arsenal or 2012-13 at United again but it isn’t a stretch to believe that the returning defenders – Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Rafael, and Chris Smalling – could be significantly healthier in 2014-15.
Current Squad Evolution – This is really the big strike against Manchester United making the leap back to the Champions League places. The current squad is a pretty big mess. With the exception of Adnan Januzaj there really isn’t a player likely to take a big step forward. Before the Danny Welbeck fan club tells me he could take a big step forward, I’d agree with the following caveat. The only way Welbeck takes a big step forward is if someone else – Wayne Rooney or RvP – takes a big step back due to injury or decline. Welbeck’s improvement would be replacing lost production not bringing net new production to the table. At the same time there are few candidates for improvement, there are some potential candidates for decline including Carrick (it has already started), RvP (age/injury are not his friends, especially after an extra-taxing World Cup summer), Rooney (he’s not going to age well kids), Ashley Young (it’s already happened really), and Antonio Valencia (29 when the season starts and without an obvious position). Big prospects like Wilfried Zaha and Tom Cleverley make the picture even less appealing after seemingly stalling when given chances to show their stuff.
Transfer Prospects – In addition to the existing players declining faster than they are improving, there have also been some exits in the form of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, and Patrice Evra in addition to the possibility that any of Young, Valencia, Hernandez, Cleverley, Kagawa, Zaha and even RvP could be sold. Now, Manchester United is a serious destination and with the presumptive arrival of Louis van Gaal will be even more so. There is also money to spend. What you have to decide when determining whether United can make a big leap back up the table in one season is whether they can be successful enough this summer to make up for a couple of seasons of transfer neglect and an entirely lost summer in 2013. That’s a lot of talent to target, buy, and integrate into a high functioning team to make up a minimum of 15 points in the standings.
Manager – We’re going with the presumption that Louis van Gaal is the man. He will be an improvement on David Moyes but his history isn’t one of making great teams out of mediocre squads like Sir Alex did in his final season. For van Gaal to have a chance at overcoming the 15 point gap between United and Arsenal to even get to fourth the transfer window will be key. If they don’t get the right players then it is just as easy to see the dictatorial and credit-loving van Gaal losing the locker room just as quickly as Moyes did.
Verdict – More likely than Spurs but no better than 50% chance unless their summer buying is perfectly planned and executed.
Other Potential Risers
Sunderland – Once they got the stink of Paulo di Canio off of them they were a pretty good team down the stretch. It isn’t hard to see a Pochettino-like improvement from Poyet with a full off-season of training and a transfer window to put his program in place. Feels like a jump to 8th or 9th is within their reach although I'm not sure they're going to have a repeat of the run of results against the best teams in the league like they did over City, Chelsea, and United in the closing weeks of the season.
Hull City – There are some solid parts in place and they’ll have an entire season with competent Premier League forwards at their disposal. One or two key acquisitions that are within their reach could see them in the mix for a top half spot next season. Better health from some of their attacking midfielders, especially Robby Brady, should also help.
We'll be back early next week to look at teams that are at risk of dropping back either from inside the Champions League to outside or from the top half into a potential relegation scrap.