Impact Of Foreign Players In European Leagues–EPL

Football has truly become a global game. With its spread across the world—never so prominent than in this millennium—every major European league is able to attract hidden talent from every corner of the planet. This has subsequently changed the demographics of the best leagues in terms of its first XI as well as the full squad. Debojyoti Chakraborty brings to you a whole new series on these foreign imports. Sit back, relax, and let Goalden Times take you on an incredible trip. The fifth and final instalment of this series features EPL.

Prologue

They say save the best for the last. While no one in his/ her right sense of mind would call the English Premier League, the top professional football league in the English football league system, the best in the world, no one can deny its universal appeal. Five EPL clubs find themselves in the top eight of the Forbes’ Richest Football Clubs list in 2015. The top 20 list features eight English clubs, whereas Spain and Germany barely manage to have three representatives each. This is when Manchester United, the top English club in the list, could not make it to the Champions League, Liverpool has appeared in the top continental competition only once in this decade, and poor performances of other giants of English football are about to cost them a spot in the Champions League!

Still, these clubs remain among the most decorated clubs in modern football. A huge following worldwide, especially in the Asian market, has resulted in an incredible TV deal worth $ 2.56 billion (2014–15 figure) for this tournament. The figure for the nearest rival (Serie A) is not even 40% of this, and the combined total for other top four leagues in Italy, Spain, Germany, and France barely manages to surpass this number. Things will get more lopsided from 2016 when a new TV deal is expected to increase the earnings for English clubs by more than 70%! Coupled with this, the investments made by billionaires at the top as well as middle and lowly clubs in England have meant that they are able to attract and offer incredible packages to star players from all around the world. However, is that proving to be beneficial to the clubs? Does an influx of talent from every corner of the globe guarantee success?

Let us try to see how the game has changed in EPL under the influence of foreign signings and how the top teams have performed. For our calculations, we have taken the top five clubs in the league since the 2010–11 season.

Tottenham Hotspur

The Spurs recently achieved the distinction of offering the most number of players to Three Lions in the last three years. While it is an honour,lack of ambition and a questionable seller attitude have left the club in a state of stagnation. Over the past few years they have been constantly revamping their squad—buying greenhorns and little-known youngsters and trying to see if they can be made to fit into the existing setup. This is not exactly an environment that can vouch for stability. Players like Rafael van der Vaart, Sadro, Clint Dempsey, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Paulinho, Roberto Soldado, Vlad Chiriches, and Étienne Capoue have all been in and out through the revolving door. Some might argue that this major overhaul was a direct consequence of the departure of their star player Gareth Bale to Real Madrid in 2013–14. However,the Spurs were already aware of the consequences when they sold him (for a bounty, at that). They have not really done justice to their kitty in the four to five transfer windows that have come around since then.  As a result, they find themselves stagnated just outside the top four berth, agonisingly losing out on the lucrative Champions League spot. The Lilywhiteshave been dismal in cup competitions—both domestically and in Europe—even after steadily increasing the quota of foreign players in their squad. While Bale was around, the North London club had beat both the Milan clubs in the 2010–11 Champions League and reached the semis of the FA Cup the following year. However, nothing has been won since then! It’s a classic case of quantity over quality for the Spurs, and it has not worked so far.

Number of foreign players has increased over the years, but the Spurs have surely stagnated and need to show more ambition.

Arsenal FC

Many Europeans consider Arsenal to be the ideal representative of English football.  They have an abundance of mediocrity, something that today’s EPL is known for. They have not threatened the top spot for a while, but have always managed to hang on to the last couple of places for a Champions League spot. And there, they have never been shambolic enough to crash out of the group stages, but yet not too greedy to venture past the next round. Manager Arsene Wenger ended the agony of trophy drought by winning back-to-back FA cups recently. However, die-hard Arsenal fans would want to see more of their team, arguably the best to watch on field in the country. The club has never been too shy to acquire foreign talents— Wenger created history by fielding the first ever foreign team (including the ones on the bench) on Valentine’s Day in 2005 in a league match. However, compelled by the home-grown player regulation in the league, Arsenal had no choice but to slowly cut down on their foreign adventures. Still,the club has consistently maintained the highest percentage of foreign players in the top English clubs over the years. Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud, Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez still form the backbone of the team. On the other hand, selling star players like Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri, Gaël Clichy, and Robin van Persie to rival teams did little good to their unwanted tag of “selling club”.However, like their London rivals, the Gunners too seem to miss that zeal or thrust to push the envelope and go for more.

Arse

Chelsea FC

Chelsea revolutionised English football at the start of the millennium, through its billionaire owner Roman Abramovic. Attracting world-class talent and offering them whopping wages became the norm of the day. Success followed, and since then, Chelsea has emerged as the biggest club in London. The club has surely but steadily became the lone flag bearer for the country in Europe. They have also been spot-on in prioritizing their goals—amidst a lacklustre league campaign in 2011–12, they sacrificed the EPL to achieve an unprecedented domestic and European cup (their sole Champions League honour) double win. They followed it up with another continental glory, the Europa League, the following year. Chelsea finally ended their EPL drought by winning it last season after a hiatus of five years. In this period, Chelsea has increased their dependence on eye-catching foreign talents—Thibaut Courtois, Kurt Zouma, César Azpilicueta, Ramires, Cesc Fàbregas, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian, Diego Costa—. English players, though just a few, have found it difficult at Stamford Bridge. Club veterans and icons like Frank Lampard have been shown the door, John Terry sees his days being numbered, and even the youth products like Josh McEachran and Ryan Bertrand had to leave to look for regular playing times elsewhere. The Blues have got continued success with their talent acquisition model, and there seems to be no reason why they should change it. At least for the time being.

Chel

Manchester United FC

Manchester United is arguably the most decorated of English clubs. Currently, they are in a state of transition.They became the most successful club in England, winning the league for a record 20th time, and then their legendary manager called it a day after more than quarter of a century at the helm. That was followed by an unthinkable turmoil and spending big to buy a champion team—all of these in the space of last five years. But they have to now dig deep into the pool of local talent – even if that costs more – to maintain their tag of “English club”, something they have been very proud of. Rio Ferdinand has been replaced by Chris Smalling, John O’shea by Phil Jones, Ji-Sung Park by Ashley Young, Alexander Büttner by Luke Shaw, and so on. That is why, even after uncharacteristically spending and raising every eyebrow in the transfer market, Manchester United’s foreign player percentage last year (42.02%) was almost the same as it was in 2012–13 (40.00%), its last season with Sir Alex Ferguson in charge. In this period of transition, naturally, their form has plateaued.From title contenders, they have now been reduced to vying for the coveted Champions League spot. The European battle has certainly taken a back seat. The next couple of seasons are expected to tell us if the club can be back on track or not.

United

Manchester City FC

Last but not the least, let’s talk about Manchester City.It is the club that has leapfrogged over many of its established counterparts to become the number one club in England in recent years. Buoyed by their billionaire owner, they just outdid Chelsea in their own game. An FA Cup, two EPL crowns, and two runner-up finishes just sum it for them in the last half a decade. It is true that they have been dismal in the Champions League. However, sample this—they had two eventual semi finalists in their group once, and were twice knocked out by Barcelona, possibly the team that will go down as one of the best in the history of club football. Manchester City today attracts the biggest of names from all around the world. Be it Yaya Touré, David Silva or Sergio Agüero—the Citizens have not been deprived of star signings in recent years. They have boosted their bench strengths with quality signings as well. Even fringe players in this club are better than the playing team of many. All of this has come at the cost of local talent—people like Adam Johnson, Scott Sinclair, Gareth Barry, Micah Richards, Jack Rodwell have all been dropped to make way for more lucrative names. The results are there for everyone to see.

City

Conclusion

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Manchester United are in transition and it explains the frequent ups and downs in their graph. Arsenal, out of the financial burden of their new stadium, are now looking to acquire global talents to augment their already affluent stock of local youngsters. However, overall, the trend is alarming.

The top five clubs examined in this article are guilty of using the fewest number of UK players.English players today account for less than a third of playing time, as compared to 69% of playing time two decades back.

There has been a growing concern over the lack of English/ UK players in the English top flight. More alarmingly, the top five clubs examined in this article are guilty of using the fewest number of UK players.English players today account for less than a third of playing time, as compared to 69% of playing time two decades back. Amdist this alarming situation, FA chairman Greg Dyke’s commission came up with an“ambitious but realistic” target of increasing the number of English players in the Premier League to 45% by 2022. This is still substantially less than the figure we see in Spain or Germany (which generally hovers around the 60% mark).

Nevertheless, it is a positive outlook. However, when was the last time English top flight saw that figure of 45%? In the year 2000!

Foreign Consignment at Chelsea
Foreign Consignment at Chelsea

English national football has paid the price for such cosmopolitan nature of the league. They have given little or no chance to their young players in order for them to be groomed for the big stage.As a result, they got knocked out of the group stages of the World Cup in 2014. And this is not accident.They have never made it to the last four of a World Cup since 1990. In the Euros, their last semi final appearance was way back in 1996.  So the debate continues—do fans want a league where English players are given more chances to prosper at the top clubs and help the national team? Or does the fan want to enjoy watching some of the best players in the world?

Dyke also wants to convince the Premier League clubs to increase the number of home grown players in their 25-man squads from 8 to 12. Moreover, he wants to have the criteria of homegrown even stricter, so that players need to be registered for three years prior to turning 18, rather than (the current regulation of) 21.

Naturally, Dyke is facing a lot of criticism from the top-flight clubs. Arsene Wenger has hit out at him, citing the poor performance of the national team at various age group levels. If there is talent, it will find its way—just like Raheem Sterling or Hary Kane. However, how many Kanes are going unnoticed due to lack of playing time? Nobody knows.

The arguments will continue. But one thing is for sure—the English Premier League is set to rule the charts at least for a few more years to come. If not the best league in the world, it definitely is the best amalgamation of world-class players across the globe.

This brings us to the conclusion of the series—Impact of Foreign Players In European Leagues. You can read the previous instalments here. . Keep watching this space!

Sources:

England Out again!! And again!!

English Premier League, the most popular football league in the world, takes pride in flaunting the most expensive players from different corners of the world. But has it done any good to English Football? Apoorv Upadhye digs deeper for some answers.

Disappointed English fans
Disappointed English fans
What is the most ironic thing in life? Being one of the earliest inventors of a game, setting up its modern rules and then failing in the same game again and again!
 

That, in a nutshell, is England for you. It has almost been 50 years since they reached the zenith of football. Way back in 1966 they won their first World Cup – their only triumph till date – under the leadership of Sir Bobby Charlton. Today, the English Premier League, also known as Barclays Premier League, is considered the most popular football league in the world. It is growing in terms of money, but not in human capital and that makes its future look rather bleak.  
This point becomes clearer when you look at its other European counterparts — Spain, Germany and, most recently, Belgium are producing young talented footballers. We all know that Germany won the FIFA World Cup while Spain, the defending champions couldn’t make it even to the Round of 16. However, neither the win nor the loss has put them on their backfeet in terms of nurturing talent. Isco, Koke, Jesé Rodríguez, Álvaro Morata are some of the Spanish youngsters who show promise to bring back the Cup to spain some
Four years ago, Belgium were ranked 57, and now, they are one of the significant contenders for Euro 2016. Given the competition all around, England needs to pull its socks up and find a quick and sure mode of survival. Will the German and Spanish model work? Or will England have a tough task to follow?

World Cup Woes

From the recently concluded World Cup 2014, we saw that England was bundled out by Italy and Uruguay. Unfortunately they got the group of death. Everyone accepted the fact that England were unlucky to get such a tough group and it would be very difficult for them to cross the group stage. But this talented team had the guts to bench high profile players and give chance to the newbies with huge potential like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, Luke Shaw and many others.
 
The first match England played was against the Italians who were known as a good defensive unit relying heavily on counter attacking punches. Though a score line of 2-1 defeat shows a close match, a brilliant performance by Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio had totally bamboozled the England team. None of the English players rose up to the occasion. After the loss they had to face Uruguay (shaken already and charged up by the 1-3 defeat to Costa Rica) with a half-fit Luis Suarez, who rose to fame in EPL scoring the highest number of goals in Europe in 2013-14 and winning the European Golden Shoe. In the match Wayne Rooney missed a couple of sitters but Suarez got two opportunities and banged both the shots at the back of the net to send England out of the World Cup.

Suarez firing a bullet to crush English dreams
Suarez firing a bullet to crush English dreams

The basic necessity for England was to at least qualify for the top 16. They could have done so by even drawing against both the tougher opponents – Italy and Uruguay – provided they were able to clinch a victory against a relatively easier Costa Rica. But that was not to be. Also as nobody believed that they were going to Brazil with one of England’s most impressive teams, it was baffling to listen to the “realists” predicting exit in the quarter-finals. How were they supposed to get even that far?

What’s ailing the English team?

The question as a fallout of the shameful results was : “Is EPL the biggest problem for England football team?” There are strong arguments that EPL prevents nurturing of the local talent and leaves the selectors to choose from only a handful of players.
 
If we look at building the Golden Generation we observe that the strength of the system lies in its base. Take Germany as an example. The core of Germany’s World Cup 2014 winning squad came through the different age groups playing as a unit. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer; defenders Benedikt Howedes,Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels; mid-fielders Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil all started in the 2009 Under-21 European Championship final, in which they annihilated England. All but the injured Khedira were in the starting XI against Argentina.
 
Compare that with England – only survivor from that 2009 final to make it to the 23-man England squad in World Cup 2014 was James Milner. It is not only about playing as a group together, it is also about opportunities at the age group levels. The likes of Shaw, Lallana, Sterling and Barkley had not played in a major tournament at under-21 level. In contrast, the six players to feature for Germany in that 2009 final all made at least 15 appearances before progressing to the senior side.
 
Ex-England manager and currently in charge of relegation-threatened Queens Parks Rangers, Harry Redknapp once lamented on the problems at the youth level saying the best youth teams in England are flooded with foreign kids. This is a serious derailment from the ’70s or ’80s where the youth team was full of more local kids and not just English kids. So, definitely, English youth is deprived of opportunity and there is no point cursing the lack of young talented English players.
 
Even the England analysts appear more patriotic than logical. They tend to judge their player performances based on flashes of excitement. If Sterling or Barkley creates an eye-catching run into space which does not include a lot of skill, that is instantly hailed as a brilliant performance and the player’s value rockets up. That is not how performances should be evaluated. One needs to look at what the player actually does with that space, his decision making in interacting with other players, or how effective the move eventually is to envision a real opportunity.

The next generation
The next generation

If you recall Michael Owen’s brilliant goal in the famous match against Argentina in World Cup 1998 held in France, you will remember how England were praised for their passion and empirical approach to that game. Yet, they lost. In nearly all their World Cup games, England have come out as the second best.
 
English supporters are by now used to the refrain “Lost the match but won our hearts”. This year the manager blamed ‘luck’ to get drawn in the group of death but did they really analyse the strengths of the underdog team Costa Rica which qualified from the same group? In 2010, they blamed the wrong decision given against them – yes, they were correct – but never accepted that they were awful against Germany.
 
England does have talent, though not in the same league as Spain and germany, but the problem lies elsewhere.

Is the League System blemished?

If we take the top three leagues in Europe – La Liga, Bundesliga and EPL – we will see a huge amount of alteration. English Premier League is meant to be the building block for young English players so that they can showcase their talent. How many times have we seen articles quoting XYZ is the next Xavi, or the next Messi? Neither media nor the EPL system help the U21 grow to their potential. If we look beyond, we find that during the dominant Spanish era, most of their players came from the ranks of La Masia or La Fábrica and most of them played for Barcelona and Real Madrid. It is usually the same story in Germany, where their players play for Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.

League Players playing in the league
English Premier League 32%
Serie A 47%
Bundesliga 1 and 2 55%
La liga 77%

These statistics clearly demonstrate that less than one-third local players are getting to play in the top tier, way below the expected level. And, the Football Association, couldn’t really care less about these numbers.
 
Based on the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League records, let us have a look at the number of players in the starting Xl from their country of birth.

Clubs Involved No of Players from the home Country
Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City 8
Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid,Real Socieded 22
Juventus, Milan, Napoli 10
Marseille, Paris Saint Germain 7

Manchester City’s EPL winning 2013-2014 season had only two regular English internationals to feature consistently in the club’s starting XI – goalkeeper Joe Hart and midfielder James Milner. To draw a parallel, in the only successful World Cup campaign of England (1966), the core of the team was formed around players from a single club – West Ham.
 
The Premier League finds itself in a plight whereby the top teams have very few English players actually competing with the rest of Europe’s elite. Clubs such as Southampton and Everton are perfect for a greenhorn to excel, but sadly these clubs are not in the top bracket in England, forget about Europe. Naturally, these clubs are just too below par in terms of the opportunities and facilities offered. When pitted against the mighty Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the young English counterparts fade in comparison.

Forward Ho!

EPL is nothing but a money churning machine and the clubs are continually ignoring the challenge to develop English players. They are taking the easy route of foreign exports and it is seriously harming any chance of England becoming a dominant footballing nation. Change is needed and needed fast. It is all but over for the current crop of players but it is not too late for the younger lot.
 
The gap in class cannot be more apparent from the fact that Tom Cleverly makes it to the World Cup 2014 squad, but a much superior Isco cannot get a sniff in at the Spanish team. Sometimes harsh decisions might be the call of the hour – yes, it might be pretty tough but it has to start from somewhere.
 
England have the talent and can produce superstars but the transition between being a talented player and becoming a superstar seems a gap too far to bridge. So, whom should England follow? Neither Spain, nor Germany, at this stage. But England can surely take a few leaves out of Belgium’s book in the way they have come out from nowhere to become a contender among the superpowers in the world of football. The next four years will hopefully etch England’s footballing future!

 
 

Looking Ahead – English Premier League Season Preview 2014-15

 

As another Premier League season draws near, Goalden Times looks at the potential movers and shakers with Saumyajit Ray and Naman Mehra.

After a three-month hiatus, a brand new season of English Premier League is all set to kick off this weekend. While the World Cup in Brazil provided us enough excitement throughout the summer, the tournament also disrupted preparations for the new EPL season. It cut short the pre-season schedule of all the teams, especially the big guns. As a result, the start of the season is expected to be interesting. We can definitely look forward to some surprising results as the big clubs get their key players match fit and integrate the new signings into the team during the first couple of weeks of the campaign. The last season was a humdinger, with four clubs in the running for the prize till late in the campaign, even as Manchester United, the most successful club in the Premier League era, dropped out of contention as early as the beginning of 2014. As fans all around the world get ready for their weekly fix of football, we try to analyse each team’s prospects for the coming season.

The Title Contenders

As last year, it looks like fierce competition at the top. We start off with Manchester United. Only one man is the talk of the town right now—Louis van Gaal—successful wherever he has managed and, arguably, occupying the biggest post in English club football currently. The experiment with David Moyes failed last season, as United finished seventh, without any major silverware in theirs kitty. Subsequently, the club have no European football to look forward to this year. This might, however, be a blessing in disguise with fresher players during the run-in and clearer targets. Van Gaal has suggested United may try 3-5-2 or its variations (mostly 3-4-1-2) this season, and it will be interesting to see how it fares against the traditional formations of 4-2-3-1 employed by many EPL sides. On the transfer front, the board has realized that they need reinforcements—especially in the absence of a certain Sir Alex Ferguson. So, quite contrary to their transfer market strategy last year, they have not been shy of spending huge sums, even if that means signing a teenage left-back like Luke Shaw for a whopping fee of £33 million. The team has also been bolstered by the long awaited arrival of Ander Herrera to cover the central midfield position—an area where they have been lacking for a few seasons. However, further defensive reinforcements still remain a priority, following the departures of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and Nemanja Vidic. After last season’s disappointment, the encouraging pre-season results are sure to bolster expectations this year. Realistically, though, a Champions League spot is probably the most they can achieve, unless the likes of Arturo Vidal are added to the mix or van Gaal has a blinder of a season as manager.

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Arsenal finished last season on a high—ending their 9-year trophy drought by winning the FA Cup. That sense of euphoria has carried into the transfer window as well, with the inclusion of 25-year-old Chilean Alexis Sanchez in the team. Adept at playing with both feet and able to play on the left, right, through the middle or up top, Sanchez has the potential to bring out the best in Mesut Ozil. French right-back Mathieu Debuchy seems to have adequately replaced his national team substitute Bacary Sagna (on paper at least), and signings of Calum Chambers and David Ospina have strengthened the bench. Joel Campbell, too, should be able to provide the team with more options when the fixtures start piling up. Arsenal’s biggest star could well turn out to be Shad Forsyth, the highly rated fitness and conditioning expert brought in from the German national set up. Injuries have derailed many a season for Arsenal, and it will be interesting to see if his new methods have a positive effect. However, it cannot be denied that the defence looks rather weak, with the departure of Thomas Vermaelen, and the ageing Mikel Arteta showing signs of vulnerability in the big matches last season.  Plugging these gaps in the squad might be the difference between finishing as champions and coming up a few places short.

Chelsea had a Spanish Revolution over the summer.  The side, known for their defensive prowess, have signed on Atletico de Madrid star striker Diego Costa and former Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona. They have also brought back Thibaut Courtois from his Atletico loan spell and he seems set to usurp fan favourite Petr Cech in goal. These attacking additions particularly that of Cesc, might denote a change in tactics from Jose Mourinho, especially against weaker oppositions. Ashley Cole has been replaced by Brazilian Filipe Luis in another raid on Atletico, while the legendary Didier Drogba has also returned to his favourite club. However, at his advanced age, the latter may only be able to contribute marginally to the team’s fortune. The squad looks good enough to win the title, and expectations will be high. Mourinho is also under a lot of pressure after an uncharacteristic barren season last year. If he can get the best out of Costa there might well be blue ribbons around the trophy in May. If not, they may just come to rue their decision to let go of both Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku in the summer.

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Liverpool is expected to be reeling from the loss of their star Luis Suarez, who almost single-handedly carried them within a hair’s breadth of the title last season. The club has invested the money from this huge deal to good use though. There have been six signings in the summer, including the Southampton captain Adam Lallana and compatriots Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert, highly rated Emre Can from Bayer Leverkusen, and Lazar Markovic from Benfica. There’s possibly more to come. If Daniel Sturridge steps up and finds his rhythm with the experienced Steven Gerrard, Liverpool might just be the dark horse in the race once again. A lot, though, will depend on how they can handle the rigours of the European campaign. At this moment, it does seem like an outside chance, and the club may do well to retain their Champions League status and make a push for the title again next year.

Defending champions Manchester City had a quiet summer because of the punishment related to their breaching the FFP guidelines. Still, they have added the experienced Sagna as a backup to Pablo Zabaleta, midfielder Fernando from Porto, and Willy Caballero from Malaga as competition to Joe Hart and Frank Lampard- the latter on loan from the MLS. However, their most important signing could be Eliaquim Mangala from Porto, who is expected to straightaway get into the first team with Vincent Kompany, leaving behind the ageing Martin Demichelis and the inexperienced Matija Nastasic. However, the 3-0 defeat at the hands of Arsenal in the Community Shield should serve as a wake up call to the team. Their bench strength maybe not as strong as strong as one expect from a EPL winning side. However, with a side that didn’t need much change, there is no reason why they can’t be champions two years in a row. This, though, may also depend on Sergio Aguero remaining fit and in form throughout the season.

Fighting for Europe

Having gotten rid of Tim Sherwood after a slightly disappointing campaign, Tottenham Hotspur will be expecting Mauricio Pochettino to do as well as he did with Southampton last season. Spurs underachieved last season, not able to properly utilise the money from Gareth Bale’s transfer even though they bought almost an entire first team with it. Summer has been quiet for the team, with Michel Vorm and Ben Davies from Swansea, and 20-year-old Eric Dier from Sporting CP the only signings so far. The team still looks incapable of mounting a serious title challenge. However, Erik Lamela has been impressive in his pre-season performance, and it’ll be interesting to see how he is utilized by Pochettino. With last season’s top four teams further strengthening their line-up, and a resurgent Manchester United on the horizon, a Europa League spot may well be the height of their realistic ambitions this time.

Last year, Everton amassed their highest ever tally in the Premier League. The club has done really well in the summer window. They have signed permanent deals with the highly rated Romelu Lukaku and the experienced Gareth Barry, after hugely successful loan spells last time with them. They have also added defensive midfielder Muhamed Besic from Ferencvaros to their ranks. With no major exits, the squad seems settled, and should bear the fruits of stability and familiarity. However, with European fixtures to contend with, Everton might think about adding a bit more depth to their ranks. Once that’s done, it should be ready to pounce on a top-four spot if a couple of major sides slip up. Even otherwise, the team is odds on favourites over other contenders for a spot in the top seven, and a potential requalification to Europe.

APTOPIX Britain Soccer Premier League

Changes.  Huge changes. That’s the way to sum up what Southampton’s actions during the window. Ronald Koeman has taken over as the manager and six first-teamers have left the club. However, till now, major reinforcements haven’t been made. They have picked up Graziano Pellè and Dusan Tadic from the Dutch league to replace Lallana and Lambert. They have also picked up Fraser Forster, one of the best shot-stoppers in Europe, from Celtic in order to strengthen their goalkeeping area. Ryan Bertrand has been brought from Chelsea on loan to replace Shaw. However, let’s not forget that Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers have not yet been replaced, making the team look weak in their defence. As things stand, it will be difficult for Southampton to match their decent form from last season, where they ultimately finished 8th. However, if Morgan Schneiderlin is retained, the balance from the £105 million collected from transfers used wisely, and additional reinforcements are obtained in the remainder of the window, the club may yet stake a claim for a Europa spot. It will undoubtedly be tough to do that though, as new players brought in from now will take their time to integrate into the team.

French Revolution continues at St. James Park, and with the arrivals of Remy Cabella and Emmanuel Rivière, the number of French players in the Newcastle squad is now 9. The team’s attacking force has also been bolstered significantly, with the addition of Facundo Ferreyra, Siem de Jong, and Ayoze Perez. The only major loss has been that of Debuchy to Arsena. However, he has been replaced adequately by Daryl Janmaat. Hence Alan Pardew’s men should at least be expected to hold on to their top half status this season, but with a decent squad, the team does have the credentials to land a Europa spot. Anything less than that is bound to be a disappointment for the passionate fan base. It’s also worthy to note that keeping Ben Arfa fit and interested may play a huge role in how the season pans out.

The Also-rans

Stoke City had a very impressive season last time, achieving their best ever Premier League finish of  9th, as well as their highest ever points total of 50. Under Mark Hughes, the team has added flair to its customary strong physical game. It now looks a better-rounded team. The style revolution continues this season as well, with impressive captures in the form of La Masia graduate Bojan Krkic and Mame Biram Diouf from Hannover 96. Steve Sidwell, brought in from relegated Fulham, is expected to provide the added depth to the midfield. Given Stoke City probably overachieved last season, any improvement should see them retaining their top half position. If a couple of more favourites slip up (especially Southampton or Newcastle), the Potters might get a chance to get back into the Europa League once again after their 2011-12 campaign. However, it may be a bridge too far for this season, realistically.

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QPR have come straight back from the Championship after going down. However, the team should really have no problems in staying up this season. They have retained a core group of very high quality players in Julio Cesar, Loic Remy, Adel Taarabt, and Junior Hoilett, as well as seasoned English campaigners like Karl Henry, Richard Dunne, Joey Barton, and Bobby Zamora. The capture of Rio Ferdinand, Mauricio Isla, and Steven Caulker should ideally see the team return to a comfortable mid-table position. Securing a European spot, though, will most likely be beyond this squad.

Sunderland flirted dangerously with relegation last term. However, one always had a feeling that the squad didn’t do justice to its potential and was helped in no way by Paolo di Canio’s eccentric and disruptive ways. The club has made impressive captures in the form of Jack Rodwell, Costel Pantilimon, Jordi Gomez, and Patrick van Aanholt in the summer. The club also has Gus Poyet, one of the most talented and modern managers, at its helm. He should be able to steer the team well clear of relegation this time.

Crystal Palace was one of the stories of the season last time. After seemingly being down in the dumps following a horrid start, they recovered strongly under new manager Tony Pulis and ended the season comfortably outside the relegation places. But with the sudden departure of Pulis, it will be challenge for them to keep up the good work done by him, but the momentum gathered through last few seasons might just work in their favour. While Fraizer Campbell and Brede Hangeland are the only major additions this summer, the club has managed to retain the core of its last season’s squad. However, if the managerial appointment goes wrong, they might even end up grappling with the relegation.

West Ham have made impressive captures in Carl Jenkinson (loan), Enner Valencia, Mauro Zarate, and Cheikhou Kouyate. Much like Pulis, Sam Allardyce is another veteran who knows the English game like the back of his hand. The Hammers will be looking to break into the top half this season. Even if they don’t, it is hard to see the team doing any worse than their 13th position last season. Fans can expect West Ham to survive comfortably, but if you are a neutral, making other plans for the evening is advisable if they are playing.

Swansea City had a disappointing campaign last time. After making it to Europe and being lauded as the hipsters’ Premier League team playing an attractive continental brand of football, achieving the 12th spot, with an outside relegation threat for most of the season, was the last thing the fans expected.  This time the club hasn’t added too much to its squad. Lukasz Fabianski should be an adequate replacement for the departing Vorm, and Gylfi Sigurdsson should be welcomed back from Tottenham. Jefferson Montero will also undoubtedly improve the team’s attack. The club still needs to replace Jonathan de Guzman in the centre of the park and Ben Davies at left-back. Chico Flores, Pablo Hernandez, and Michu have also all gone to new pastures. However, even with the departure of Michu, the team is not expected to lack in goals. With Bafetimbi Gomis and Marvin Emnes joining the impressive Wilfried Bony, Swansea City should have enough firepower to remain well clear of relegation. Beating back late interest from the likes of Tottenham for Bony may be crucial Swansea.

The Relegation Dogfight

Last season, the relegation battle was as interesting as the fight for the title, with no less than nine teams in danger of slipping down quite late into the season. This season too is set to be as exciting, with very little separating some of the teams at the bottom of the table from each other.

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The newly promoted clubs Burnley and Leicester City should expect a tough welcome. With no real standout talent in their teams and no significant additions in the summer, they will most likely find it hard to survive. Their best hope of survival will eventually be Aston Villa, Hull, and West Brom doing as badly as last time. That situation, though, is not entirely out of question as none of these clubs have done anything significant during the window to suggest otherwise. The fans of these clubs should brace themselves for a nerve-wracking season although there’s still time for things to change in the last three weeks of the transfer window.

Authors’ Picks

  • Champion – Chelsea
  • Champions League spots – Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United
  • Europa League spots (Based on League position) – Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham
  • Relegation – Leicester, Burnley, Hull
  • FA Cup – Manchester United
  • Capital One Cup – Arsenal
  • Signing of the season – Alexis Sanchez
  • Flop of the season – Fernando
  • Pointless signing of the season – Frank Lampard
  • Bargain of the season – Bafetimbi Gomis
  • Player of the season – Aaron Ramsey
  • Top scorer – Sergio Aguero
  • Manager of the season – Jose Mourinho
  • First to get the sack – Alan Irvine

Premier League 2013-14: Mid-Season Review

We have come halfway through the English top division football. As always, there has been drama, controversies, allegations and thrills. And off course, some enthralling football. Sometimes nail-biting, sometimes sensational, sometimes drab but more often than not entertaining. Naysayers’ most publicized league has definitely been the most competitive one in ages. Tighten your seat belts as Debojyoti Chakraborty takes you in a recap journey of the league so far.

After the 2013-14 English Premier League season preview, here comes the mid-season review. By and large teams playing top-flight football in England have played as per the predictions. But Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool have surpassed my expectations. On the other hand, Manchester United’s woe seems to find a new low with every week. Let us look back how the season has gone and what we can look forward to.
EPL 2014 - Mid Season Table

Arsenal

Arsenal sit at the top of the table as this article is written. The league table is congested but Arsenal have been there for majority of the season. And they are there for a reason. Professor’s young and nurtured midfield is coming of age with Aaron Ramsey leading the pack. With the strong statement made by the signing of Mesut Ozil, the Gunners are right on track for claiming the crown after a decade long wait. They look defensively astute as well with Per Mertesacker marshalling the backline to most number (9) of clean sheets. If they can keep Olivier Giroud fit for the remainder of the season or find a suitable back-up for him in the transfer window, their wait could be over.

Manchester City

They are touted as the team of the season and possible champions. They would have been miles ahead of the pack had it not been for their awful away form. Yet to drop a point at home, Manchester City have been miserable, to say the least, on their travels – only one draw and one win out of their first six away fixtures. Why it is so, well, have been discussed in detail in my earlier article. But there are signs of improvement. Return of club captain Vincent Kompany and midfield maestro David Silva from injury has turned their fortunes. They are at their best while attacking, with most number (57) of goals scored in the league and 11 times netting three or more goals in a match. And as Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has put it “…the title is Manchester City’s to lose”.

Alvaro Negredo scores the second goal for Manchester City against Arsenal in the Premier League
Goal as usual for Manchester City

Chelsea

Drama was expected with the return of the Special (Happy) One and Jose Mourinho has not disappointed. His post-match interviews are as interesting – or more – as any match. As always, Mourinho has made his team look compact on the pitch. With the plethora of attacking talent at his disposal in the midfield area, Chelsea is more soothing to the eye this season. But lack of clinical strikers upfront may just cost them the title.

Liverpool

Liverpool were on top of the table on X-mas day and it ignited a spur among their loyal fans – who have been long overdue – with jokes flooding social networking sites (“Where is my scarf mama? “It is on top of the table”). Next game results saw them dropped to 4th. This is just a true reflection of the league this year – competitive. Liverpool are playing a good brand of football, Brendan Rodgers has inflicted some steel to the team and the owners have been patient with him. But it is not incorrect to say that Liverpool are carried on his shoulders by one person – Luis Suarez. After being suspended for the first five matches for biting Branislav Ivanovic last season, Suarez has netted 20 goals in 15 matches. He has failed to score in five matches and not surprisingly Liverpool has managed to get a total of one point out of those matches. In matches where he has scored, Liverpool have dropped only two points. But their thin squad may pull them back towards the final run and if they again miss out on Champions League football, it could be doomsday for them.

Everton

With the departure of long serving manager David Moyes in the summer, Roberto Martinez took over at the Goodison Park. While he had done wonders in the cup matches, many were sceptical about his capabilities in a league running over nine months. Well, he has silenced all his critics. Even with club captain and the best left-back in the country Leighton Baines sidelined by injury for nearly one-third of the campaign, Everton have the best defensive record in the league – second least number of goals conceded and least number of matches lost (only 2 out of 20). Martinez deserves more credit for changing the style of Toffees’ play – rather than direct, he has brought in silky but effective passing in their game. Ross Barkely certainly has been the young player of the league and he is showing no signs of stopping. Things are looking good for a European spot next season.

Tottenham Hotspur

What happened to Spurs? As the pun pointed out, sum of a number of moderate things put together need not necessarily compensate for one world-class performer. With as many as 7 new players coming in at the expense of Gareth Bale’s world record setting transfer to Real Madrid, it was always going to be difficult how Andres Vilas Boas can galvanize the team. But AVB’s never ending tweaking with formations, tactics and starting XI, his unimaginative style of play and his inexplicable high line coupled with lethargic tempo to the game brought his own downfall. Subsequently coach Tim Sherwood, a former player and captain of the Blackburn Rovers’ Premiership winning side in 1995, has taken over. He is not doing too bad either with only two points dropped in the first four matches in charge. But his inexperience may prove to be critical and Tottenham do not look to go beyond Europa League spots.

Manchester United

Things were meant to be different. Things were meant to be tough and Sir Alex Ferguson asked for patience from the fans in his farewell speech. In hindsight, he might have known that he is not handing over a good, leave alone great, side to David Moyes. Then came the transfer window debacle where United failed to capture their targets and their rivals got stronger. And with the air of invincibility gone, many a team have registered their first ever win or win after ages at the Old Trafford. With FA Cup exit and a top-four finish fast eluding the Red Devils, Moyes needs to start thinking for the next season as early as January. How things have changed at Manchester!!!

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Things are not too Rosy everywhere in Manchester

Newcastle United

After a horrendous Premier League campaign last season, partly due to the torturous Europa League schedule, Newcastle United are back on track. They have created a decent gap with teams below them and look poised to continue their good work. Alan Pardew is currently the second longest serving Premier League manager behind Arsene Wenger. And his experience showed when he shifted to 4-3-3 from 4-4-2 at the expense of charismatic and fan-favourite Hatim Ben Arfa. A decent top half of the table finish is on the cards.

Southampton

Less than a year with the club, manager Mauricio Pochettino shocked everyone when he announced his ambitions of finishing in the top 4. To his credit, he managed to keep Southampton there till the start of November. But a sudden dip in form has seen the Saints collecting only five points from a possible 27. But it cannot be denied they are playing one of the most free-flowing football in the league. This is a good advert for the league. Pochettino though has to realign his ambitions and cling on to a top half finish.

Hull City

Hull City have been in the news over the controversy of their owners trying to force a name change to Hull Tigers drawing the wrath of supporters. But in the field, the Steve Bruce managed side has been making the right moves. Working with a shoestring budget, Bruce has brought in Tottenham duo of Tom Huddlestone and (on loan) Jake Livermore, which has proven to be a masterstroke. Having already scalped Liverpool, Hull would look for similar sort of results to hang on to a top half finish in their comeback season in Premier League.

Aston Villa

Aston Villa started the season on grand style by beating Arsenal. But they have been hit hard by the injury of front man Christian Benteke. Even though they have triumphed Manchester City en route but goals in general have eluded them. A lower half finish is achievable if their defence can hold fort.

Stoke City

After the appointment of Mark Hughes, Stoke city is slowly going through a transition. Even with the likes of Peter Crouch in their ranks, Stoke is keener to pass the ball around and build up play rather than try long balls. They have scrapped some good results at the Britannia Stadium like draw against Manchester City, Everton and win against Chelsea. But they would do well not to be drawn into the relegation dogfight.

Swansea City

Like Newcastle last year, Swansea is this year’s victim of taxing Europa League fixtures. With games coming thick and fast, and injury list growing by each game, it has been a nightmare for Michael Laudrup. Swans have looked exhausted, more mentally than physically, and have faltered in critical moments. They have conceded crucial goals and missed golden opportunities and they are 16 points and seven places behind Tottenham – even if both the teams have scored (26 and 24) and conceded (28 and 25) similar number of goals. Beating Manchester United in the FA Cup might give them the push to surge ahead. And with talismanic striker Michu expected to come back from injury soon, don’t rule out the Swans for a shot at top half finish.

West Bromwich Albion

Apart from beating Manchester United away after a gap of 36 years, the Baggies could manage only 3 more wins. A usual mid-table team, that too now without a manager, they would be dragged into relegation battle sometime or the other; but they might just survive.

Norwich City

After couple of strong seasons back into the top flight of English football, the Canaries are feeling the heat this time. Life would be even tougher in the later stages of the league as teams get desperate for every point.

Fulham

Another mediocre side staying up for too long in the top flight of English football. Their fixtures produce results – only one of their matches has been drawn – but more often than not, the Cottagers find themselves on the wrong end of it. With the worst defensive record in the league (42 goals conceded), this might be relegation time for them.

Cardiff City

Controversies have dominated Cardiff City’s season so far. First, jersey colour change by the owner, billionaire Malaysian Vincent Tan, has seen the Bluebirds appear in red attire in home matches. Then their tough campaign became even tougher with the sacking of fan-favourite manager Malky Mackay. Apart from winning the Welsh derby against Swansea and stunning Manchester City in a 3-2 thriller, Cardiff have no memorable moment so far. And it does not look likely that newly appointed manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can add to that.

Cardiff_City
Who owns the club: Off course, the FANS

Crystal Palace

Having scored the least number (13) of times so far in the league, Crystal Palace’s problem area is clear – up front. Their defence is not too bad but failing to find the net have meant they have lost more often than taking something home. New manager Tony Pulis has initiated a mini revival by collecting four wins and 13 points from nine matches. But he knows that he has a tough job at hand.

West Ham United

Life back in the top flight has not been smooth sailing for Sam Allardyce, the Big Sam. Hampered by the absence of front man Andy Carrol, Hammers are on a downhill slide taking only two points out of seven matches since December. They can thank shot-stopper Jussi Jääskeläinen – baring his heroics West Ham would have been in deeper trouble. Another manger seems to be on firing line but even that may not be enough for survival.

Sunderland

There seems to be no light at the Stadium of Light. Black Cats are languishing at the bottom of the table and even a change in manager did not do much to ignite any hope. But this season the league is tight, a couple of wins can pull them up above the drop zone. Even then, survival would be tough come the end of season.
To cap it all, the league is still wide open. Only two points separate the top three. I shall put my neck out and say it will be either Chelsea or Arsenal. Manuel Pellegrini might just lose out in the final lap to his counterparts, only two managers with Premier League title to show for in their CV.

And it is not only at the top, the league is tight throughout – 9th place Southampton is only 10 points above safety. So brace yourself as (truly) the most competitive league in Europe enters its business end. We at Goalden Times will be with you through out this journey.
Match of the seasonMerseyside derby: Everton 3 – Liverpool 3

Best Team of the season – 1. Liverpool 2. Everton 3. Arsenal
No. of managers sacked during the league – 6 (Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Fulham, West Bromwich Albion, Tottenham Hotspur, Cardiff City)
Drama of the seasonPaolo Di Canio, former Sunderland manager, asking the fans to keep their chin high after losing 3-0 to West Bromwich Albion

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Barclays Premier League
Hit me here!!!

Controversy of the season – AVB continuing with Lloris after a head injury sustained during the match against Everton. He was forced to rest Lloris in the next game on the advice of Spurs medical team. AVB kept on defending himself saying all the decisions were taken by the medical staff.

Fantasy Team of the season:
Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal); Seamus Coleman (Everton), Per Mertesacker (Arsenal), John Terry (Chelsea), Leighton Baines (Everton); Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), Yaya Touré (Manchester City), Mesut Özil (Arsenal); Luis Suárez (Liverpool), Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)

Substitues – Jussi Jääskeläinen (West Ham United); Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur), Martin Skrtel (Liverpool); Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) Adam Lallana (Southampton); Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Romelu Lukaku (Everton)

English Premier League 2013-14: Season Preview

EPL 2013-14 season is all set to roll. The top three clubs from last season are starting with a new coach. Debojyoti Chakraborty takes a sneak peek and explores the possibilities

Any EPL preview this season would bring David Moyes in the limelight. Essentially for two reasons: the man he is replacing and that his future will pave the way to determining how young and aspiring British managers are to be promoted in the coming years.

Not everyone is expecting him to deliver right away and the cynics would be boosted by his lacklustre performance (statements) during the ongoing transfer window. Moyes has a couple of problems already with the ongoing Wayne Rooney saga and lack of quality wingers leading the chart. He has a six-year contract and one would assume the men in charge in The Red Devils‘ camp would give him a fair go. It would be interesting to see whether Moyes retains United’s wing play in a 4-4-2 style or uses his own more direct attack-through-outlets style of 4-4-1-1. That said, the Old Trafford faithful would still like to see another success. But they might have to settle for a podium finish, in more realistic terms.

 

The Special One returns as The Happy One. He has a settled squad, with a plethora of talent at his disposal, especially in the attacking midfield option. The man credited with the advancement of the 4-2-3-1 system, will however have to decide whether to start with the misfiring Fernando Torres or the misfit Demba Ba, or groom Romelu Lukaku should he fail to bring in any marquee striker before the transfer window closes. This season could be the most competitive of them all at the top of the table, and José Mourinho’s been-there-done-that experience might just win him the race.

Manuel Pellegrini is the latest occupant of the revolving chair of hot seats at Manchester City. He is not as collaborated as his predecessor – but for a season at the Santiago Bernabéu – but brings with him a brand of football that made Malaga a European darling last year. A tactical genius; be rest assured to see him experiment a lot with tinkering formations, even through the course of a match. Pellegrini would dearly like to take a dig at his old friend who replaced him at Real Madrid.

Gareth Bale’s supposed valuation of £100 mn has irked quite a few, pointing out how it has made a mockery of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play. Things can go down to the wire and it seems more and more likely that Bale would be staying at White Hart Lane. With the added steel of Paulinho in the midfield and a clinical finisher in the form of Roberto Soldado, André Villas-Boas would have every reason to believe Tottenham Hotspurs can definitely finish in the top four.

The old story continues at the Emirates. Arsene Wenger does not feel the price tags associated with his potential targets are justified. While clubs finishing above and below Arsenal have been strengthened, Arsenal have been in a state of self-denial. The likes of Gonzalo Higuaín are captured by Napoli and others amidst The Gunners’ speculation. It is very much likely that the pride or self-satisfaction of finishing in the top four will no longer be there, come end of the season.

The Swans are flying high and there seems to be no stopping them. With the acquisition of a proven frontman, Wilfried Bony from Eredivisie and retaining all their core players, Swansea look set for another fine season. Michael Laudrup has added depth to the squad considering they would have extra games to take care of in Europe. And their European participation seems set to continue.

Newcastle’s fifth-place finish in the year before raised the expectations last season and that is why their lowly standing surprised many. People will be wrong again to bank on their past showing and underestimate them. While they did remarkably well in the Europa League – taking out Guus Hiddink’s expensive Anzhi Makhachkala en route – the extra games cost Newcastle dearly. Lesser games this time and a mouth-watering strike force up front in the form of Papiss Cisse, Loic Remy and Bafetimbi Gomis could propel them to another European crack.

The European aspirations can take a back seat as The Toffees look to enter a new era under Roberto Martínez. Martínez likes to experiment with tactics and strategy and we may see quite a few new things tried out at Everton with 3-4-3 being the obvious. A very capable custodian, he should aim for a top half finish as opposed to the survival scrap he was so used to at Wigan.

Liverpool could not have expected a worse start to their campaign. And they are yet to play their first competitive game this season. Want-away striker Luiz Suarez seems their only hope of climbing up the chart, and this is not a good omen for them. A mid-table finish looms large, but a bottom-half standing would be a disaster.

Southampton are perhaps the best team in the league to deploy a 4-2-3-1 counter-attacking system in place with perfection. They would like to consolidate their grand entry to the Premier League last season and hang on to a top 10 finish.

Norwich City will also push hard for a top of the table finish after acquiring two new strikers – Gary Hooper from Celtic and Ricky van Wolfswinkel from Sporting Lisbon. With an already solid defence, they might just upset a few bigger clubs this time round. But if they do well, Norwich might actually lose at least one of the new strikers in the winter transfer window.

West Ham, Fulham and West Bromwich Albion are perfect mediocre sides. They never look like relegation candidates; no one has ever accused them of hunting like champions. They appear to be content at the relaxing mid-table life.

Aston Villa are too much dependent on Christian Benteke. They would do well to avoid a lower mid-table finish.

Sunderland and Stoke are running a risk this season and may find themselves again in the relegation dogfight.

Cardiff City marks their debut in the Premier League after a 51-year absence from the topflight of English football. They should enjoy whilst it lasts.

Crystal Palace is yet to survive a season in the topflight. That too after having a record 49 points in a season (1992-93) and having three teams below them in another (1994-95), when the top division was trimmed down to 20 clubs. Not something to draw inspiration from.

Hull City will fight for sure, after all they are a Steve Bruce side. But that may not be enough.

Among other things, this will be a landmark season in English football as Hawk-Eye will be used as goal-line technology. Let us hope it helps in better decision-making without slowing down the beautiful game too much.

Before I depart, a few words about a true romantic hero who has lived the ragged-to-riches story on the footballing ground. Rickie Lambert neither had the glamour of a Michael Owen, nor was he earmarked for great success like that of a Wayne Rooney. But boy, has he put in the hard hours! Rising through the ranks of lower division football leagues for 12 years, sometimes playing in front of empty stands (if there were any), he netted 15 goals in EPL last season to become the top-scoring Englishman. To round off his Cinderellesque story, earlier this month Lambert got called into Roy Hodgson’s squad, interestingly on the same day his wife gave birth to their third child, and went on to mark his England debut with a winning goal in a thrilling 3-2 victory over Scotland at Wembley. Upon being asked what the goal meant to him, Lambert said: “That’s what I’ve been dreaming of probably all my life. It means so much.” We, at Goalden Times, salute his sheer will to succeed. May he continue to rise to the occasion and do football proud.

EPL Season Review

A look back at the 2011-12 season of the EPL where drama found a new home. Debojyoti Chakraborty relives the season with the top flight teams’ performances

 

So, we have witnessed yet another dramatic season of English Premier League. Is it the best ever? Pundits will keep on arguing but surely this edition will feature right up amongst the top contenders in terms of drama, excitement and performances. From the abysmal start of the campaign by Arsenal to their third spot finish, from enthralling performances of Premier League newbies Swansea and Norwich to the usual scramble of a bunch of teams to fight out relegation, from Liverpool’s wooden love to Manchester City’s last kick of the match sealing the title in the extremes of Fergie Times – this season had it all. Goalden Times would like to bask in the spirit of this glorious past nine months and review each team’s performance.

Arsenal

The season started with a humiliating 8-2 loss by bitter rivals Manchester United. Everyone feared for one of the worst seasons following the summer sale of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy. There were very few in and around the Emirates who were not asking for the head of Arsene Wenger. Yet, The Professor managed to march on with a very young squad and achieved a remarkable third spot ensuring a direct entry to Champions League next season.

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He scores whenever he wants to

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One of the unsung heroes for Arsenal this season has been Mikel Arteta. The ex-Tuffey man arrived in summer and quickly established himself as the lynchpin in midfield. But his contributions have been overshadowed by the talismanic Dutchman Robin van Persie. Top scorer with 30 goals, he found the net against seventeen different teams during the campaign. Only a close offside call and a couple of shots striking the woodwork prevented him from scoring against Manchester City while a last gasp goal line clearance against Fulham denied him an entry in the score sheet. There have been other strong performances throughout the season with the likes of Alex duo – Song and Oxlade-Chamberlain – and Theo Walcott making good progress, but none have been able to match their influential skipper.

Aston Villa

Alex McLeish joined the Midlands club from rival club Birmingham City in summer. Fans were sceptical and the man at the helm had not done any favours to himself. A poor run of form towards the end of the campaign saw Aston Villa languishing at the bottom, only twopoints clear of relegation. The team lacked ideas going forward and lapses in concentration cost them dearly at the back. Seven wins – better than only the bottom placed Wolves – in the league should see a new manager for the forthcoming season.

Darren Bent is their only prized possession. A busy summer seems on the cards mainly in the form of some young and fresh talents. A complete overhaul may just change their fortunes. One also hopes that their stalwart captain Stiliyan Petrov, who was diagnosed with leukaemia during this disappointing season, comes out victorious through this turbulent time.

Blackburn Rovers

It is really strange – and inexplicable – that Steve Kean has survived the season even after the ever growing wrath of the club faithful. Blackburn did not have such luck and they were relegated eventually, a fate many predicted within barely a few weeks of the campaign. They spent most of the torrid campaign in the relegation zone. The sale of Phil Jones in the summer and Christopher Samba in January, following his differences with the management, have hit them hard as they succumbed to defeat a record 23 times this term.

There were very few bright spots in the form of striker Junior Hoilett giving an impressive string of performances while Yakubu showed some sparks reminiscent of his past. With the former’s contract expiring this summer and Blackburn no more in the top flight, it is time for him to move on.

Bolton Wanderers

It was surprising to see the usual tenacity missing from a Bolton side. Throughout the campaign they seemed lost for ideas and eventually they succumbed on the final day of the season. TheTrotters lacked the quality to remain afloat in the top division and it will be a good opportunity for Owen Coyle to harness a new team in the Championships. They might have to do away with a lot of their most valuable players but fresh faces would be more than welcome.

Bolton’s highlight of the season was rather a tragic as well as inspirational one. They were stunned by the on-field collapse of Fabrice Muamba due to cardiac arrest in March. Prompt medical attention ensured he somehow survived after being medically dead for minutes.

Chelsea

The first casualty occurred in the form of much-hyped Andre Villas-Boas – AVB, as he is popularly known – when he was sacked ruthlessly by the billionaire owner Roman Abramovich barely months into the job. A dramatic turnaround under the supervision of interim caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo saw them competing for the top four finish but they eventually ensured a Champions League entry next season through their Cup winning heroics. Chelsea should feel more than satisfied after their seemingly dismal campaign ended with another Cup glory as they lifted the FA Cup at Wembley.

There has been growing debate over the influence of senior players in the Chelsea dressing room. It is going to be an acid test for the newly appointed manager Roberto Di Matteoin his first season in the permanent role. Nonetheless a string of summer exits looks inevitable – with the likes of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Jose Bosingwa topping the list – in the wake of a dismal league campaign.

Everton

It has been long argued that David Moyes is the best manager in England as he has managed to deliver within a shoe-string budget. This time they finished seventhinthe table, even above their bitter Merseyside rivals. Following a poor start to the season, David Moyes and his troops have turned things round since January to mark his first decade in premiership with yet another top half finish.

The turn of events was sparked by the arrival of Serbian Nikica Jelavic in January who has shown a good knack for scoring goals.If he continues to shine this time round, Everton can surely hope for finishing higher in the table.

Fulham

Fulham finished strongly with a top half  finish, level on points with Liverpool. They have played some good football throughout the year and their form especially at Craven Cottage was exceptional. Martin Jol would love to build on after an impressive season in 2012.

Much of Fulham’s good showing is due the USA international star Clint Dempsey. After an excellent season where he topped the club’s goal-scoring chart with 17 goals and openly admitted his desire to play in Champions League, Dempsey is all set to leave. It will be interesting to see how much Fulham can get out of the sale of their star performer and how wisely they can use the cash.

Liverpool

Miserable. The one word to describe The Reds’ season. A lowly eighthplace finish, a defeat in the final of the FA Cup and a (Carling) Cup win which failed to make any kind of headlines – Liverpool is certainly happy that the season has finally ended. Kenny Dalglish brought in some really average players who have failed to deliver and as a result have upset a settled side which was trying hard to climb up.

Matters worsenedwith an eight-match ban on Luis Suarez due to his alleged racial scandal. Liverpool was the unluckiest side as they hit the woodwork a record 33 times during the campaign but this cannot be counted as even a consolation. With the appointment of Brendan Rodgers, the Kops would like to see an attacking flair of football which would propel them to Champions League once again.

Manchester City

It took the last kick of the match to seal the title for them. Goalden Times, however, had long back predicted the silverware for them in the midseason review. Their first title since 1968 would surely inspire them for bigger things in the next season. And yes, they could do with a little less footage of Sunderlanddue to their off-the-field problems.

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The New Champions

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Roberto Mancini has successfully marshalled a troop which has looked invincible at times. They should have won the league rather convincingly but there is no denying the fact they were by far the best team in England. A star-studded line-up featuring Joe Hart, David Silva and Sergio Aguero was ably led by Vincent Kompany. No one will be surprised to see a few more big names joining them next season.

Manchester United

With aneight-point lead in April, everyone thought it was United’s title to lose. And lose they did. Squandering a two-goal advantage twice at home against Everton proved to be decisive as they had to see drama on the final day of the season taking the Cup to the Blue side of Manchester, albeit on goal difference. Sir Alex Ferguson must be credited for fighting it out till the very last with a below par squad, but the shrewd tactician knew deep inside that he had blown it off this time.

A midfield featuring Ryan Giggs and coming-out-of-retirement Paul Scholes with a combined age of 77 would be too much to fathom next season. The Red Devils badly need some creative spark in the midfield and it remains to be seen whether they splash the cash to do so.

.

.

The veteran red devils


Newcastle United

For many pundits, not the team of the season. Nor was it for us at Goalden Times at the start of the season, but we had forecast a strong finish for them and they did oblige. At the start of the season no one had predicted a fifthplace finish and they did push for a Champions League spot for a considerable time in the campaign. Alan Pardew should be lauded for his vision. He has not hesitated to iron out trouble between star players and has struck some good bargains to build a really strong squad.

A settled team, the Magpies were led by Demba Ba in the first half of the campaign. It speaks volumes for his teamsmanship when he sacrificed his striking role to the January signing fellow countryman PapissCisse. The Senegalese star went on to become the new sensation in the league with 13 goals in fourteenappearances.

Norwich City

Promoted to the top flight, Norwich never looked out of place. A mid-table finish gives them great hope for the next season and what is the most exciting factor is that they rarely relied on a single or couple of players to deliver the goods. Their work ethic and team game has been applauded by all.

Paul Lambert presented the viewers with some excellent football and they were never really in danger of going back to the Championships. It is a blow for the Canaries to lose him to Aston Villa but they should hold on to their star striker Grant Holt and influential Anthony Pilkington if they are to catch the eyes once more next season.

Queens Park Rangers

In spite of breaking the hearts of the millions of Red Devils’ fans, Mark Hughes’s side just about held on to the top flight. But it is not ideal when one has to wait for other results to go their way to guarantee survival on the last day of the season. They have looked vulnerable during their away trips and major reinforcements are needed for next term’s survival.

QPR has looked better under the astute Mark Hughes. But their summer recruits – Bobby Zamora, DjibrilCisse – have all been tested and tried in English football and may not have much more to offer. With a temperamental and self-destructing Joey Barton leading the troop, the Hoops should count themselves fortunate to be still in the top flight.

Stoke City

Stoke City had an average season. They were quite physical, they dug in and remained in the comfort of mid-table for the entire campaign – nothing exceptional about their journey. They had the privilege of playing in Europe but that could have cost them couple of places in the league table.

Peter Crouch has had a decent season at the Britannia stadium but his lack of goals proved critical to his omission in the Euro 2012 squad. Dead ball specialist Jonathan Walters did show some spark at times but nothing much to write home about.

Sunderland

A poor start to the season saw Steve Bruce being replaced by Martin O’Neill who did a commendable job especially in organizing a tight defensive unit. They did have their good days during this campaign but the bad days far outweighed them.

Only bright point for them was the arrival of StephaneSessegnon. He sparkled in his first full season for the Black Cats with the most number of assists (9) and a decent number of goals (7). O’Neill may look to strengthen his defence this summer by stamping his authority over the club.

Swansea City

The surprise package. Unlike any other newly promoted team, Brendan Rodgers opted for a refreshingly attacking brand of football. Naturally their fan base increased many a fold worldwide. It does not mean that they were vulnerable at the back as their shot-stopper Michel Vorm kept an impressive 14 clean sheets.

TheSwans played a high tempo open passing game, that spoke well of the excellent team they are, but one player stood out tall amidst them all – loan signee from Hoffenheim, Gylfi Sigurdsson. Arriving in the January transfer window, the playmaker produced an incredible five goals and 7 assists. Swansea will be disappointed that they have been unable to make him permanent and they have to bid adieu to their star manager too.

Tottenham Hotspur

It was a heartbreaking season for the Spurs. For the large part before Christmas they looked like the only team to realistically challenge the Manchester sides for the title. Then came January and Harry Redknapp’s distraction for the national team. Spurs slipped out of the title race but looked certain to hang on to the thirdspot for an automatic Champions League place. Then came a series of disastrous results in February which ensured they could only get a fourthplace. Then a certain RDM masterminded Blues’ victory in the Champions League final to leave Tottenham lamenting outside the top tier competition in Europe.

Redknapp has been sacked and the search for a new manager is underway with the likes of David Moyes tipped heavily to take over. Whoever it is, without the prospect of Champions League, it will be very hard to hold on to their star performers like Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. And with Chelsea, Newcastle, Liverpool and others looking to get stronger, a top fourfinish will be an even bigger challenge.

.

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A dejected spurs journey

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West Bromwich Albion

Roy Hodgson has been in an ideal club with no pressure of winning day in and day out. This is also proved by the fact that they have fared far better on their away matches this season. With a comfortable top 10 finish, Hodgson has shown that he knows how to get the most out of limited resources and this quality has landed him England’s top post.

The Hawthorns club has made some good progress for the last few seasons and it will be a challenge for them to carry on in the similar fashion. They need to find a manager first and then some solidity at the back. Also the services of Peter Odemwingie, the star performer amongst a bunch of enthusiastic and young players, must be ensured before he is snatched away by some other club.

Wigan Athletic

Critics and pundits had written them off but the Latics rose like a Phoenix and Roberto Martinez should be applauded for how he turned the fortunes of a club that looked certain for relegation. Scalping for the likes of Manchester United, Newcastle United and Arsenal, they have finished at a respectable 15th place against all odds.

Shane Long has had an injury-prone season but he rose to the occasion when it mattered the most by scoring against the big boys. Victor Moses is another player who made good progress this season. Their strategy will be simple – look for some cheap buys and fight again against the odds.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Their fate was sealed way back in April. After the sacking of Mick McCarthy, they failed to win a single league match and they might find even the Championships too hot to handle. The squad looked down and out, dispirited for the major part of the season which saw only five wins for them.

It will be no surprise to see the better players – Steven Fletcher, Kevin Doyle – leaving very soon and a rebuilding phase start for the Molineux outfit. Stale Solbakken, the new manager will have a tough season ahead and it may take them some time to get back into the top flight once again.

Team of the Season

Michel Vorm

Kyle Walker        Vincent Kompany            FabricioColoccini               Leighton Banes

Antonio Valencia              YayaToure           Clinton Dempsey             David Silva

Robin van Persie              Sergio Auguero

The Conjugated Twins

Separated at birth; united by fate. Debojyoti Chakraborty chronicles the conversation of the conjoined twins of English Football who were destined to come across each other at a pub on a cold Manchester evening

It was a freezing New Year’s Eve in a suburb in Manchester – a perfect occasion to head out to a bar and nurse a pint of beer to embrace the New Year.

And so our two central characters walk into a pub. One of them, a Latino, evident from his strong accent, was looking for something non-alcoholic, much to the amusement of the people around. After struggling for a while, he somehow managed to get hold of a drink which appeared (and smelt) like orange juice. But the pub was jam-packed by that time. So he had to share the table with a lanky East European.
 
Enjoy your drink, Sir, you are both riding on the same boat now” said the waitress with a perky smile and disappeared.

At the crossroads

Hi mate, take a seat” greeted the lanky figure, with a strong Bulgarian accent, “Good to see you again!

The Latin American dropped his hood, smiled and took a seat. Not sure how much he understood, not sure if he was greeted or abused as the scar running through his neck was more expressive than his facial muscles.

Little wonder that we are both here today, isn’t it?” the Bulgarian continued. “After all, neither of us feature in our club’s first XI. But hey, I didn’t call you, in fact, don’t even have your number!” he said with an impish grin.

I wanna play,” was the Latino’s short and curt reply.

Hey, don’t you recognize me? We were there at the annual awards ceremony last year, holding the Golden Boot together!” He looks a tad perplexed.

Ya, ya…I wanna play,” is all he could mutter, reminiscing his glory days.

Strange mate, isn’t it?” he is now starting to lose it, “I banged in a score last season, yet I don’t fit into the gaffer’s plans. Don’t you think I deserve to play?

Yup, play football,” he confirmed before ordering his favourite grilled beef.

It’s all fate, my dear, who would have thought that both of us would struggle to get a game last season?

The scar-face was not amused at all, especially since his beef too was out of stock.

I think I should make a move now, maybe next season I’ll be heading towards Italy.”

Ya, ya, Italia!” exclaimed the enthusiastic Latino.

The East European was under the cosh, but his humility was still intact, “I think I see what the manager wants.  I no longer feature in his plans, not even as the third best striker. He might even let me go. What do you think?

One word that struck him was “Go”. He started feeling nostalgic about his two daughters and started to leave.

Hey, you leaving so early?” he mocked. “Or are you not used to warming the seats nowadays? Ha ha ha!!

The curly-haired Latino was all but gone by then. The tall East European sipped his red wine and was lost in his own thoughts. Maybe they will bump into each other someday again. In some other city, some other country. Maybe, just maybe.

P.S.: Things have changed slightly after this piece was written. The scar-face has been summoned from his (self-imposed) suspension amidst a mini crisis in his club. His lanky friend (really?) is pondering over a similar scheme – how about an accidental food poisoning in the squad which would leave the gaffer with no other option? Or, a few match bans handed over to the star strikers in the team? That would help. May the poor guy dream in peace.

The Nowhere Man

Carlos Tevez was the name on everyone’s lips for the entire January winter transfer window. Here Gino de Blasio takes the slide rule to the issue to find out what the hoopla is all about. Catch Gino on twitter @ginodb

All dressed up, nowhere to go

Remember high school? The social awkwardness, the struggle to make friends, the isolation that can encapsulate your dreams being burnt like a second year science class before a bunsen burner? Just like the ugly child who no one wants to take to the end of year dance, Carlos Tevez must have been feeling the same, come January 31st.

So how did one of football’s greatest talents get himself into the social exclusion award of the year category, and will he ever make it out in time for his career to fully shine?

Munich – 27th September 2011

Tevez Ignored Mancini

It was a cold autumn night and Manchester City were playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League group stage. Away from home and under the spotlight of Europe’s footballing elite, Carlos Tevez was going to commit a cardinal football sin – disobey the manager.

In a sideline dispute with City boss Roberto Mancini, Tevez refused to enter the pitch for a substitution prompting an expletive-charged tantrum for the world to see. The Tevez camp had later claimed that it was all due to some miscommunication – Tevez’s English speaking skills apparently to blame for the fiasco, however, that did not stand a chance. The cold Munich night lay witness to a calm Tevez while Mancini gesticulated wilder than any Italian since Nero saw Rome burning.

Tevez sat calmly as Mancini gesticulated wilder than any Italian since Nero saw Rome burning

Tevez didn’t get up. Mancini sat down.

The team talk, the flight home, the interviews with the press – all of these constitute modern day football, a tasteful reminder that not only the player has some explaining to do, but the coach too. But it was to be a sombre Mancini, a man who looked destroyed by the whole episode; the stress taking its toll on his verbal capacity to talk, he nonetheless exclaimed, “Tevez will never play for this club again”. To which a nonchalant Tevez expressed his desire to leave anyway as he is not happy to stay away from his family.

Like all great crimes since 1974, this became known as “Tevez-Gate”.

A two-week ban, loss of wages, exclusion from followed by forced inclusion into training. Carlitos needed a new home; Manchester City had made it as much clear.

And so Began the Rat Race…

Who was going to take in “the Apache”? More known for his petulance than a history teacher’s velvet elbow padding and more disliked by his manager than the school snitch, Tevez’s saving grace is that when he plays, you forget all of the above.

His work rate is exceptional, his physical diminutiveness compensated by the terrier-like aggression he uses to win and protect the ball; blessed with a hawk-esque vision he can pick out passes from all over the pitch. Any club would find a position for him, even if it meant selling their prized possession to have him.

A Tale of One City, Two Clubs

Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport ran the story of how Tevez was a step away from Milan

Like an after-school detention featuring the misfortune of sitting and watching your teacher’s marks, Tevez was totally powerless. It was to be the red and black half of Milan to make the first move, a proposition that would give Milan arguably the best attack in the world and bolster their domestic efforts by resting Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Champions League appearances. Milan agreed on personal terms with the player and the move seemed imminent, till City put the brakes on it by not allowing a free move on loan, preferring an outright sale.

When Milan failed on their first proposal to capture the Argentinian ace, it was set to start an inadvertent bidding war with local rivals Inter Milan. A move seen by many as one-upmanship due to the technical abilities which Tevez would bring, rather than the cure to the cold Inter had acquired; Tevez was a solution for Milan, not for Inter.

This was all taking place the week of the Milan derby; no longer was Tevez the ugly duckling, he was the one everyone wanted to take to the ball.

Cometh the Sacrificial Lamb

When Milan’s original proposal was rebuked by Manchester City, they knew the only thing that could win over the North West club was going to be an offer that they couldn’t turn their nose at. Adriano Galliani played out a move worthy of “hell hath no fury like a Brazilian scorned”. Using the media, and relations with the new Paris Saint-Germain coach (former Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti) and sporting director (former Milan scout and manager Leonardo), a series of open contacts were made to Milan regarding the sale of

Alexander Pato to PSG, a move that would bring in the capital required to purchase Tevez outright.

This seemed like the gamble of a century – selling the young, talented but injury-prone Brazilian for an older, temperamental and non-tested-in-Serie A Argentine. Add to that, Tevez hadn’t played since September – whatever form he was in, it wasn’t going to be match-ready.

Young, Injury-prone, Loyal, Promising or Mature, Proven, Disharmonious; which one to pick?

It wasn’t to be.

Pato’s sale was blocked at the last moment making Galliani come out of negotiations with Manchester City surrounding Tevez. So neither did Milan sell their star Brazilian nor did they buy the sidelined Argentinian. Nothing had changed, much to the dismay of the Twitter audiences around the globe proclaiming the sale of one, the purchase of another. Tevez was stranded. He was, yet again, the one the cool kids didn’t want in their group.

And Then…

There were flutters, both from PSG and Inter (again) but nothing concrete. The media circle that had encapsulated the story and run wild across Europe never came to fruition. Milan were without their preferred striker from the market (a last ditch effort to get Maxi Lopez from Catania did happen), Inter and PSG re-enforced and sold in different departments.

The sad truth is, however, Tevez only has himself to blame for the debacle. And who knows if time will teach him a lesson in player-manager protocol; he won’t be joining the diplomatic mission, that’s a certainty.

EPL Mid-Season Review

Last August, we had presented a season preview. Come New Year, Debojyoti Chakraborty is back to review his predictions and update the prophecies

Prelude

Happy New Year! English football enters a new year with the hope of establishing itself as the football powerhouse of Europe, especially after the lackluster performance in the 2011-2012 UEFA Champions League. At the start of the competition, the clubs from Manchester looked like strong bids – one for their (recent) history, and another for their new found cash injection. Surprisingly, they have to trade their horses with the poor-man’s-Continental-Cup – the Europa League. Back home though, they have not disappointed the books and are tied at the top spot to set up a fascinating second half for the 2011-2012 Barclays Premier League. Earlier in the season, we had come up with a season preview and now look to review our own stance – how far have we got it right and where our predictions have gone awry.

League Table

POS

CLUB

P

W

D

L

GF

GA

GD

PTS

1

Manchester City

19

14

3

2

53

16

37

45

2

Manchester United

19

14

3

2

49

17

32

45

3

Tottenham Hotspur

19

13

3

3

37

20

17

42

4

Arsenal

19

11

3

5

35

26

9

36

5

Chelsea

19

10

4

5

37

24

13

34

6

Liverpool

19

9

7

3

24

15

9

34

7

Newcastle United

19

8

6

5

26

25

1

30

8

Stoke City

19

7

5

7

20

30

-10

26

9

Everton

19

7

3

9

19

22

-3

24

10

Aston Villa

19

5

8

6

22

24

-2

23

11

Norwich City

19

5

7

7

28

34

-6

22

12

West Bromwich Albion

19

6

4

9

19

27

-8

22

13

Sunderland

19

5

6

8

23

22

1

21

14

Fulham

19

4

8

7

20

25

-5

20

15

Swansea City

19

4

8

7

18

23

-5

20

16

Wolverhampton Wanderers

19

4

5

10

21

34

-13

17

17

Queens Park Rangers

19

4

5

10

18

33

-15

17

18

Wigan Athletic

19

3

6

10

17

37

-20

15

19

Blackburn Rovers

19

3

5

11

28

41

-13

14

20

Bolton Wanderers

19

4

1

14

23

42

-19

13


Arsenal FC

The season started in the worst possible manner for Arsene Wenger. He could not hold on to his star players; there were no big signings to assure fans; one hell of an injury crisis – particularly in the defensive ranks – culminating in a brutal assault by one of their arch rivals. But things have changed for the better since then. Arsenal changed their recruitment policy and brought in some established players rather than looking for greenhorns. Thomas Vermaelen came back from injury and provided some much needed solidity to the otherwise fragile defence. Mikel Arteta grabbed his last chance of playing for one of the elites of modern European clubs and orchestrated a till-now-shaky midfield. He was ably supported by Alex Song, who rose to the occasion in the absence of long-term injured Jack Wilshere. The enthusiasm of new recruit Gervinho helped matters too. To top it all, a certain Robin van Persie thought that it was not a bad time to surpass the club record of Thierry Henry by scoring the maximum number of goals in a calendar year. Still, Wenger is not in a good mood, come this new year. Over-reliance on RVP, especially considering his injury-prone history, and imminent departure of players for African Cup of Nations, are worth a concern.  Calling back an ageing Henry as a cover is showing signs of panic in management. It remains to be seen how Arsenal deal with these issues while the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool breathe down their necks. I am sticking to the pre-season prediction of missing out on a Champions League place (and may be, RVP!).

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 5th

Final Prediction: 5th

Aston Villa 

After the summer exodus of a lot of regular first team players, Villa was sure to get a rocky start to the season. But Gabriel Agbonlahor has struck gold this season as a senior member in the team. Not only is he the highest scorer for the Villans, he has played a perfect ten to his striking partner Darren Bent. Along with Stiliyan Petrov, he looks set for his best season for the club this time round. But lack of experience in the midfield has limited penetration in the attacking third. Mediocrity has embraced the club and the same is expected to prevail in May.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 10th

Final Prediction: 10th

Blackburn Rovers 

A change of ownership; fans demanding the head of the current manager and even carrying banners to get the former incumbent back in charge, team rooted to relegation throughout the season – this has been a forgettable league campaign for the Rovers. The only highlight has been the star forward, Yakubu Ayegbeni with 12 goals in the campaign – he is among the top five goal scorers this season. Christopher Samba seems the sole warrior in a fragile defence that has leaked more than two goals per game. It is not clear why Steve Kean is still at the helm of things, but it seems Blackburn can only survive if teams above them encounter a freefall. Tough times ahead!

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 15th

Final Prediction: 18th

Bolton Wanderers

Manager Owen Coyle changed the way Bolton used to play last season. The results were encouraging, with Bolton fighting for the European spots last season this time. But they have hurtled on a downhill journey since, without any road blocker. Things could get even worse with the imminent departure of defence stalwart, Garry Cahill in the transfer window. For a team with the worst defensive record in the league, this will be a massive blow. When going forward, they have been much better though. The midfield trio of Chris Eagles, Nigel Reo-Coker and Martin Petrov are doing quite well for themselves but not so much for the team – they seldom give out a collective performance. Up front, Kevin Davies has been the target man as usual, with strike partner Ivan Klasnic, enjoying his best season for the club. But Bolton needs to have something extra to survive in the top flight. January would be a crucial time for them with some loan signings in the form of Romelu Lukaku and Josh McEachran expected to join in. I am betting on Owen Coyle to make Bolton stay on in the Premier League.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 16th

Final Prediction: 16th

Chelsea

It is a rocky time. Star players are ageing, and they have warmed the bench this season with high profile signings proving a major flop. It is a new side with a new manager in charge, but time is running out fast. Consistently inconsistent – this should sum up the season for Chelsea. Petr Cech is underperforming regularly and some costly howlers this season has meant he has kept only four clean sheets thus far – not enough for a top class goalkeeper. Chelsea have played six matches last month and have kept a clean sheet only once, conceding seven in the process. This vulnerability may be somewhat explained by the new high pressing style adopted by Andre Villas Boas, but not the individual mistakes by the defenders, like Terry slipping against Arsenal!

A new look midfield has performed well for Chelsea though AVB has, at times, been indecisive on where to deploy Juan Mata, their most creative player. A free roaming role like that of David Silva of Manchester City seems to suit him well rather than a wide forward in a three-man attack. Daniel Sturridge has been superb in that role and Chelsea would have done well had they found a central striker, netting goals regularly. Yet, seeing the form and depth in squad of Liverpool and Arsenal respectively, Chelsea should get a Champions League berth.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 2nd

Final Prediction: 4th

Everton

David Moyes has done wonders for Everton working on a shoe-string budget. This season is no different. Nothing spectacular about them – they have secured points where everyone expected, and dropped points where no eyebrows were raised. Leighton Baines has been excellent in a well drilled unit, which has one of the best defensive records in the league. They have had to struggle going forward though. Lack of creativity in the midfield and regular injuries to star striker Louis Saha have seen them creating very few chances and converting even fewer. Earlier, we had predicted a seventh spot finish for the Toffees, but then the midfield lynchpin Mikel Arteta left for Arsenal. So we are modifying our predictions and now see them just holding onto a top-half finish.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 7th

Final Prediction: 9th

Fulham

Fulham has underperformed thus far. Defenders have failed to maintain a clean sheet, forwards have failed to find the net. Midfield has been the only bright spot with the duo of Clint Dempsey and Danny Murphy pulling the strings. Dempsey is the highest scorer for the team with six goals. Apart from a 6-0 drubbing of Queens Park Rangers, they have failed to score more than two goals in any of their remaining 18 matches. Bobby Zamora has failed to deliver time and again. The defence is not doing its job properly. The experienced pair of John Arne Riise and Brede Hangeland has failed to pull its weight into the team. The team still has enough experience and it would be unwise to predict that their poor run will continue for the rest of the season. So, I am going with a mid-table finish.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 11th

Final Prediction: 13th

Liverpool

Cagy! A word that describes Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish. They are a fine team playing against stronger teams as they can sit back, wait for opportunities to come by and exploit them in the counter attack. But against less ambitious teams, where the Reds are expected to drive home the advantage, they fail to do so adopting the same approach. Hence, in spite of conceding the least number of goals this season, they have a high percentage of draws. This shows the lack of influence their midfielders have on the game. In spite of big summer signings, absence of lion-hearted captain Steven Gerrard, Charlie Adams, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing have resulted in a lacklustre performance. Besides, Dirk Kyut and Lucas Leiva – the main players to orchestrate Liverpool’s comeback last season – have got limited playing time in a crowded midfield and thus have hampered their rhythm. Add to that the ban on Luis Suarez and we don’t see them improving much in the later stages of the league unless any new signing strikes gold. I am predicting a seventh place for the Reds, i.e. no European spot next season.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 3rd

Final Prediction: 7th

Manchester City

With the squad they have, Manchester City may have got more Google hits this season than the cumulative hits of the last decade. And with the historic 6-1 mauling of Manchester United, Roberto Mancini showed that they have surely arrived. Joe Hart has cemented his place as the best goalkeeper in England with eight clean sheets; the defence looks solid under Vincent Kompany, Micah Richards and company. David Silva has masterminded the midfield with some skilful and towering work force around. The forward line is led by a certain Sergio Agüero, and in case he has a bad day in office, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli have ensured that a certain Carlos Tevez remains in oblivion. So what does that leave us with? Most number of goals, most number of clean sheets and second best defensive record, maximum number of assists made by any player in the league – what more can one ask for? On a cautious note, in recent encounters they have failed to score against West Bromwich Albion for the first time in the season and have been handed their first defeat of the season in the hands of Sunderland. Yet, they look good money to win the league and create history.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 4th

Final Prediction: 1st

Manchester United

By his own admission, this has been the most difficult time Sir Alex Ferguson has faced in Manchester United for a long time. With the departure of Edwin Van der Sar, a void was created under the bar, which is yet to be attended to. The once dominant pair of Rio Ferdinand-Nemanja Vidic is now weary and not getting two games in a row. Injuries have taken their toll throughout the squad. But the biggest problem has been lack of creativity in the central midfield area. All their goal mouth actions have originated from the flanks supplied by Antonio Valencia and Nani. Tom Cleverley had shown glimpses of genius but it remains to be seen how many games he can play at a stretch without getting injured. Phil Jones has used his adaptability well to be slotted across the pitch with Wayne Rooney leading the charge up front. This might not be enough though, to retain their crown.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 1st

Final Prediction: 2nd

Newcastle United

Alan Pardew should be hailed both by the club management and the fans. He has kept a healthy book and has been producing fair results from his limited options on the pitch. With the departure of Andy Carroll, it became difficult to figure out where the goals would come from. In comes Demba Ba who manages to hog the limelight with one of the leading scores of the league, thus far. Similarly, Yohan Cabaye has filled the boots of Kevin Nolan and added a breath of fresh air in the central midfield. Newcastle have a well organized defence. Tim Krul has kept seven clean sheets and is in the running for being Dutch number one in Euro 2012. Ryan Taylor has excelled at the right back position and added a much needed composure in the back line. They are a good side and I am predicting them to leapfrog Liverpool with Suarez being unavailable.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 13th

Final Prediction: 6th

Norwich City 

They were cautioned for engaging in a dogfight but they have taken our breath away with their attacking flair. Their transition from championship football has been rather smooth and rarely have they looked out of place. Norwich have failed to keep a clean sheet throughout the first half of the league but they have been competitive in most of the matches they have played in – only in the hands of Manchester City have they suffered a defeat in excess of a two-goal margin. Not too bad with the going forward either – only thrice have they failed to enter the score sheet. They lie in the sixth spot in goals scored this season. Anthony Pilkington has done well in the right side of midfield, specifically from free kicks. But a bit more consistency would do a world of good for him and his team. Up front, Grant Holt and Steven Morison have been good and Norwich should be enjoying more goals in the rest of the season. They find themselves just outside the top half of the table this time. They should finish around mid-table if they maintain their composure for the rest of the season.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 19th

Final Prediction: 14th

Queens Park Rangers

With only four wins to their name, QPR find themselves just above the drop zone. Start to the season looked promising for the Hoops as they found themselves in the top half of the table after 12 games. That was it though as QPR had notched up all of their four wins during this period. Thereafter, they have been able to get only two points out of a possible twenty-one. QPR have certainly lacked goals and their defending has not helped them at all this season, especially during the barren spell, as they have conceded 35 goals and scored just 19. Only Wigan have scored fewer goals (18) than them. Heider Helguson leads the pack with seven goals but all of them have come in a cluster of 10 matches. It means lack of supply from the midfield on a regular basis. Joey Barton is their most creative player and the most unpredictable too. Adel Taarabt seems to have been mentally disturbed by Barton’s arrival and imminent handing over of captaincy – he is a shadow of his last season’s form. Shaun Wright-Phillips is on a downhill slope and may be past his prime. QPR’s defence has been their strength but Neil Warnock has found it difficult to cope with the high standards of EPL. It will be a rough ride from here.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 14th

Final Prediction: 19th

Stoke City

Stoke had a very successful season last year, and there was speculation on whether they would be able to improve on that. They surely have. Stoke have not got a very good goal difference, and their defence is not leak-proof either. But they have managed to obtain results, which matter. They have been hammered a few times, particularly away from home, but have managed to hold on to their one goal advantage, quite a few times. Ryan Shawcross has been a true leader and a stalwart in defence, with six clean sheets. Much of the attacking threats for Stoke came from the midfield in the forms of Jonathon Walters and Matthew Etherington – together they have notched up seven goals and nineteen assists out of a team total of twenty. Up front, Peter Crouch has been isolated too often and that remains a worry for Tony Pulis. Nevertheless, fellow mid-table dwellers, like Everton and Aston Villa, among others look to be struggling and Stoke City can make a fortune out of their misery.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 12th

Final Prediction: 11th

Sunderland

Steve Bruce has become the first managerial casualty of the season. This was not on the cards at the start of the season, but an outcome of two wins in the first thirteen matches was too much to take for the club. Things did get complicated for Sunderland as they were playing with virtually a new set of team members; it took a while, may be a bit more, to set the right combinations and an understanding among the players. Under Martin O’Neill, they have been on a comeback trail, picking up ten points in the following six matches, and in the process becoming the first team to beat Manchester City in the league this season. Defence has been a worry for Sunderland throughout, with some of the big club rejects forming the core of it. But Sebastian Larsson and Stephane Sessegnon have formed a solid midfield foundation, ably supported by Kieran Richardson. With reportedly some transfer kitty being made available to O’Neill, Sunderland can surely hope to get their good form going and climb up the ladder through a crowded mid-table. A strong finish is on the cards.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 6th

Final Prediction: 8th

Swansea City

Led by a strong showing under the bars by Michel Vorm – which saw him become the best goalkeeper in the league – Swansea City have performed exceedingly well in the first half of the league. Only Chelsea and Manchester City, both at home, have been able to beat the Swans by a margin of three goals or higher. They have some solid foundation at the back while a rejuvenated Scott Sinclair leads the hard working midfield. Only if they can get some goals from the January transfer window, can they make a very respectable mid-table finish. For the time being, I am considering a high mid-table finish.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 18th

Final Prediction: 15th

Tottenham Hotspurs

Team of the season till now! Spurs started the season with the Luka Modric saga, and looked set to get distracted by these off-the-pitch affairs but kudos to Harry Redknapp for getting us to witness some true spirited performance from its players. They had two back-to-back losses at the start of the season against the Manchester clubs but have lost only once since then. Brad Friedel has been a stalwart under the bar and has kept seven clean sheets. Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto have been dominant as fullbacks, both in defence and as an attacking threat. Gareth Bale has continued his last season’s form as a tormentor down the left flank. Rafael Van der Vaart has been superb too, playing as an ideal number 10. Bale and VDV have netted 14 times over and above having 10 assists to their credit. Another midfield marshal has been Scott Parker, the summer signing from West Ham, who has been instrumental in providing the much needed stability to the side. Up front, another summer recruit, Emmanuel Adebayor has been striking gold with nine goals and seven assists to his name. Things look good and a return to Champions League seems imminent.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 9th

Final Prediction: 3rd

West Bromwich Albanion

Summer recruit Shane Long started the season brightly as he scored against both Manchester United and Chelsea in the opening two games of the season. But the Baggies lost their first three games and this has been a stop-start season for them. Keeping a clean sheet against Manchester City has been a high point for their otherwise fragile defence. Their midfield and attack have both been quite unimaginative and have thus resulted in one of the worst returns in the Premier League. Without any good summer signing, they will struggle for the rest of the season but Roy Hodgson may just see them through.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 8th

Final Prediction: 12th

Wigan Athletic

We predicted a wooden spoon for the Latics and are not surprised by their position mid-way through the season. They are poor in defence, midfield and attack – they are poor all over the pitch. They have the least number of goals scored in the season and have won the least number of matches. Any team would fancy their chances against this Roberto Martinez side. It is time to bid adieu to Premier League.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 20th

Final Prediction: 20th

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Like Wigan, there is nothing much to write about Wolves. Traditionally, 40 points have been thought as an entry to safe zone. This time round, 35 points seem good enough. With their poor defence, lacklustre attack and no real leader in the field, even getting to that point will be a tough task. Mick McCarthy has to dig deep to find some crucial points in the second leg of the season. Just as he has done before, McCarthy, the shrewd tactician, might target some specific matches to get maximum points and field weaker sides against teams contesting for the European spots. Knowing his prudence makes me give them an outside chance of survival.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 17th

Final Prediction: 17th


Most Competitive League in Europe

Competition (re)defined

Competition is a contest between individuals, groups, animals, etc. for territory, a niche, or a location of resources. It arises whenever two or more parties strive for a goal which cannot be shared.” Wikipedia defines competition this way. However, it is not so easy to define I guess. How do we classify competitiveness of a European football league? Surely, the most popular football league in the world need not necessarily be the most competitive one. Neither the Galacticos nor supposedly the best ever club team playing in the same league can ensure that.

                                                         

English Premier League                             Spanish La Liga                                     Italian Serie A

                           

German Bundesliga                           French Ligue 1                                           Dutch Eredivisie

Some may feel that the number of winners over the past few years is the best parameter to judge the ruthlessness of any league. But here’s a question. How many of us have heard of the Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio? Not many, in my opinion. It is the football league operated in San Marino. Since its inception in 1985, it has seen 10 different winners – 5 in the last decade. This league is ranked 53rd in Europe by UEFA. The Swedish Allsvenskan, top division football league in Sweden has seen the trophy taking a tour of as many as 7 different club locker rooms during the same period. There can be several leagues in Europe which do not feature highly in the UEFA league rankings, or are not watched by billions, but they are certainly competitive by this parameter. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that EPL or La Liga is the most predictable league in Europe. There are other contenders. Last time the Scottish League was won by a club other than Celtic or Rangers, was way back in 1984/85 – the club was Aberdeen, managed by a certain (not Sir yet) Alex Ferguson. So, let’s not complicate things – just get on with some hard core facts and statistics.

Methodology

In this research, we have made certain assumptions and here is a quick snapshot to start off.

Select Leagues from Europe

For this analysis, top 3 leagues from Europe have been shortlisted – English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga. For the German Bundesliga, French League 1, Dutch Eredivisie fans, I seek an apology. The 3 leagues chosen had the maximum number (4) of clubs appearing in the UEFA Champions League for the past few years. Germany has overtaken Italy this year and will be having 4 teams in the Champions League season 2012-13, but for the time period considered – more on that later – Italy used to have more participants than Germany. Under the parameters considered, the French or German League could have come up with the honours if included, but we have taken into consideration the pedigree of the league also.

Finalize Parameters

Certain parameters have been shortlisted to take the analysis forward. They are:

  • No. of drawn games
  • No. of matches won with a victory margin of 3+
  • Difference in points across the league table
  • Point gap between the 1st and 5th placed teams
  • No. of Goals scored
  • No. of different  winners
  • No. of different Teams featuring in the top 4
  • Points dropped by the top 4 teams against the Mid table opponents
  • Points dropped by the top 4 teams against the Bottom 5 teams

Data Collection

For the analysis, 5 years of recent data has been collected from the respective league’s official website. There is no need for normalization as the league structure is the same for all the 3 leagues – 20 teams play in the home and away basis, at the end of which 3 teams get relegated. So number of teams, matches played, and the number of survivors in the league – are well synchronized to help our analysis. For the analysis, point deductions or any penalties imposed (most notably in Serie A 2006-07 season for the match fixing fiasco) have been ignored. Subsequently, the league standings have also been altered and updated. For example, Fiorentina was deducted 15 points at the start of the season and hence finished 6th in the League. Had they not been penalized, they would have finished 3rd and that is the place they have been put in for this piece’s analysis. We are dissecting the competitiveness in the field, so any off-the-field implications are best kept away with.

Analysis

It is very difficult to rank the parameters or to decide which factor is to be given how much weightage. So, let us just assess the parameters individually as far as possible and see if we reach a coherent conclusion from there.

1.      Number of Drawn Games

A drawn game, more often than not, depicts the inability to win of either sides playing. Putting it in the colloquial lingo, “they have cancelled each other out… it’s a stalemate.”

La Liga has a lower number of drawn games historically and that too at a downward trend. EPL and Serie A seem to lock horns with each other with the former taking over the mantle from the latter in recent years. This is due to the fact that EPL has an upward trend in number of drawn games, whereas Serie A is quite the opposite. Overall the number of drawn games in these 3 leagues hover around the 25% mark, take one or two percent here and there. So, it means effectively 9-10 drawn games for each team in a season on an average basis. That is pretty high, show-casing the high level of competition in each of the leagues.

2.      Number. of Matches with Winning Margin 3+ 

These score lines have been few and far between in EPL & Serie A

Fiercely competitive teams, when playing against each other, will have a very narrow winning margin. As a thumb rule, a margin of anything over 2-0 or 3-1 or likewise can be termed as a stroll in the park. Agreed, results can be misleading; but in a wide horizon, these anomalies are likely to be ironed out. So, let us see how many thrashing we have witnessed in the recent past.

As expected, Serie A teams have lived up to their reputation of having a tight defence and thus have had fewer experiences of these thrashings. The teams from Italy on an average experience this kind of humiliation only once in the entire season. For the other 2 leagues, the number almost doubles. The number of such matches has, more or less, remained constant over the years for each individual league. La Liga & EPL are neck and neck, although the former is slightly ahead.

3.       Difference in points across the League

Let us now see by how much have the table toppers leapfrogged the last boys? To do that, we have categorized the 20 teams in any league under 3 broad subheads:

  • Top 4 teams – they are the Top teams as they go on to participate in the top tier of European Club Football, the Champions League.
  • Bottom 5 teams –3 of these teams were relegated eventually, whereas the rest are assumed to be involved in a dogfight for survival for the majority of the season. Hence, it makes perfect sense to categorize them in the same bracket.
  • The Mid tablers – rest 11 teams in the league.

Now average points earned by each of these 3 groups have been taken up for calculating standard deviation – a statistical parameter, to measure the proximity of variables under consideration – of points in the league. This gives us a fair idea of how closely the teams, or rather cluster of teams, are finishing the league.

EPL is showing steady decrease in this, meaning the teams are getting ever closer. The figures are more or less constant for Serie A, although with a decreasing trend. La Liga is just the opposite in this regard – the teams are finishing with some considerable point gap among them. This was the scenario in EPL a few years back, but they have become quite competitive over the years. The case of La Liga is simply opposite.

4.      Point Gap between 1st & 5th placed teams

The team to finish 5th in these leagues are given a pat at the back with consolation. They nearly miss out to an elusive Champions League Football spot. So, let us see how the gap between the Champion and this unfortunate side has evolved over the years.

In sync with the previous stat, the gap seems to get more and more widened in La Liga. This is expected, as their champion team is a certain Barcelona. Also, the spread between the 2nd and the 3rd placed teams are widening quite alarmingly – 5, 10, 8, 21 and 25 points over the last 5 years. Just to put it into perspective, the 21 or 25 points gap is by far the biggest gap between any two consecutive placed teams for these 3 leagues over the last 5 years. In fact 25 point gap encompassed all the teams baring the top 5 in year 2010-11 in EPL. People do not call this league a 2-horse race just for fun. For Serie A and EPL, there is a downward trend in this regard. So it shows there is an increasing competition towards the business end of the league.

Udinese edging out Lazio for the last Champions League spot by goal difference in 2010-11

5.         Points dropped by the Top 4 against Mid-tablers

Depth of any league is measured by the skill, tactics and determination applied on the field by the mid-tablers – teams finishing 6th to 15th in the final standing. More often than not, they fancy their chances against the big boys, especially playing at home, and are capable of getting a point, sometimes even 3. Teams like Sunderland, Mallorca and Palermo have often played a significant part in deciding the fate of the league winner. Stronger these teams, more cut-throat is guaranteed in the league.

In La Liga, the mid-tablers are losing the ground steadily to the front runners – there is a steady decline in the points dropped. EPL demonstrates just the reverse trend, the mid-table toddlers are going from strength to strength. However, Serie A has been the leader by far in this respect over the years. EPL, though, has a sharper trend and may overtake Serie A if the pattern continues. Overall, the top teams drop one-third of points against the mid-table opponents across these 3 leagues. This is quite a hefty proportion – 1 draw every 2 matches.

Mid Table teams look to set the scores straight

6.      Points dropped by the Top 4 against Bottom 5 Teams

The relegation contenders often play a spoil sport. The top teams are expected to win against them, that too handsomely. However, they can sometime cause an upset to the joy of other title contenders. A Fulham can upset Arsenal’s plans of automatic qualification to the Champions League. A Livorno can snatch away the title from Roma. So, let us see how the stats stack up over the years.

Like the previous section, La Liga table toppers are improving year after year against the minnows. On the other hand, the other two leagues are finding it more and more difficult to walk away with the honours against the bottom clubs. EPL though, in spite of this trend, has a lower average points dropped – there the top 4 teams are doing fairly well against the less fancied opponents. Serie A teams have been the front runner in this stat – they are way ahead of the competition and are steadily increasing the gap. Overall, the top 4 teams are performing well enough against the lower clubs – they concede only 10% points in these encounters. However, the position of the league table, the time of the season when they are dropping points – these factors are more important. Like the bottom most team in the league table, Wolves were the first team in the EPL 2010-11 season to beat the eventual champions Manchester United. The defeat set the Red Devils on a poor run of form and Chelsea had the opportunity to cash in.

David v/s Goliath is not always a foregone conclusion

Conclusion

So many statistics and analysis! So where are we now? Can we reach any conclusion? Let us try to recapitulate the results in a nutshell.

In the above analysis, the most competitive league based on each parameter has been given rank 1. The arrow’s direction represents the trend, whereas its colour depicts the competitiveness – green for more cut-throat, red for the opposite and yellow for middle-of-the-road competitiveness. For example, a green downward arrow means that the league has a downward trend as far as the parameter (say, Point gap between the 1st & the 5th placed Teams) is concerned, and that fact (the arrow being green) will make the league more competitive in the coming years.

It is quite evident from our analysis that Serie A is by far the most competitive League. EPL may be just edging out La Liga for the period under consideration. So, what about the hue and cry about EPL being the most competitive league in Europe? What does their dominance in the Champions League (i.e. number of teams featuring in quarters or semis) mean?

One thing going in favour of EPL is the number of goals scored. Serie A, being a defence dominated league, logically has less number of goals. EPL, though not as competitive as Serie A, scores over in this aspect.

A definitive answer lies in the trend analysis of our findings. While La Liga is finding it difficult to remain competitive as per the parameters provided here, EPL is fast catching up with the Serie A. In recent 2-3 years, they have surely leapfrogged Serie A in every aspect of competitiveness. Moreover, number of goals scored in Seria A is shrinking. EPL is quite the opposite – far more goals are scored there and the rate is even better than La Liga. It is not surprising, since the top English clubs are now massive sports franchises which can lure the top players to the Premier league. So, EPL apart from being quite competitive is a fairly entertaining league (after all, a goal is what every football lover wants to see, isn’t it!). If the trend continues for the coming years, EPL fans’ claim will be hard to turn down.

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Debojyoti Chakraborty is a hardcore Manchester United and East Bengal (India) fan. He can be reached at debojyoti.chakraborty@gmail.com

Maximus Tacticus – Chelsea

Induction

Chelsea are fast changing. Even by the fast paced standards set by Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of the London club, there is a buzz around that things are changing fast at Chelsea. There is a new coach at the helm of things, Andre Villas-Boas(AVB). AVB, is only a year or two older than the old custodians like John Terry or Frank Lampard, but that has not intimidated AVB from stamping his authority at Stamford Bridge. Here is a look at how things are shaping up at Chelsea on the field.

History Beckons

Jose Mourinho, as the boss of Chelsea did two noteworthy things – he led them to their first league title for over 50 years; and he did not bother to change his boring but effective ways of winning 1-0. The famous 4-3-3 formation had 3 spines in the form of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Times have changed. Old war-horses are no more spring chickens. Many a famous manager has come and gone after the “Special One” but have failed to replicate the same level of success. However, it seems like history is repeating itself as another Portuguese has won 4 titles with Porto and was promptly snapped up by Roman for the managerial post of Chelsea, although he lacks exoerience and is only 33! Incidently he was the understudy to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and then at Inter Milan – and hold on – the 4-3-3 is back.

Each coach has his own interpretation of the system and AVB is no exception. His mentor, Mourinho, used a 4-3-3 formation with classic wingers and asked the wide players to track back forming more of a 4-5-1 without the ball. Villas-Boas is more inclined to use modern-day wingers, or wide forwards, who would drift inside as a major goal scoring threat, themselves. Defensively, Chelsea are set for a more pressing game this season. They have bought in new players, who are younger, and they have the energy to press higher up the pitch. AVB has openly expressed his admiration for Pep Guardiola and it is not strange that he has strong influence of his pressing game, but under this new system, John Terry, the centre half, has been too vulnerable for his own good – the slip leading to Robin van Persie’s 2nd goal during the 3-5 defeat to Chelsea can have a paramount impact on Chelsea’ title claims. Hence, Alex and Ivanovic have a chance to step up and lay claim for that spot. It will be nice selection dilemma for the coach. The pivotal point in attack remains Fernando Torres. Many believe the old system did not suit him as Torres cherishes through balls played along the ground in front of him (a certain Steven Gerrard will second that). Torres thinks it is the lack of pace in Chelsea’s passing that has augmented his poor form.  To counter this problem, AVB has Raul Meireles and Ramires holding the central midfield together along with the ageing (and sloth, some may say) Frank Lampard. Meireles is preferred to guard the ship sitting back, Ramires is seen as the engine of the team bursting forward on every opportunity, while Lampard tries to have telling contribution playing between these two younger players. It is a fluid midfield where anyone can stay back and the other two can advance forward. In the wing, AVB has bought in fresh players – Juan Mata from Valencia (transfer) and Daniel Sturridge from Bolton, after having finished his successful loan stint there. Ashley Cole from the left and Jose Bosingwa from the right flank would burst forward to drag away the opposition full backs. Combine all of these in a short, quick triangle of passes in the final third of the pitch and Everton will validate their ruthlessness in their recent 3-1 defeat.

Good Old Days of 4-3-3

I Have a Plan B

The above system has its fair share of blemishes. Without an able holding midfielder – Michael Essien is on injury list for a while and he is not getting any younger, John Obi Mikel is good at playing square passes only and thus slowing down the pace of the game, Josh McEachran is too young to pitch in a solid performance week in week out – at his disposal, AVB has deployed Meireles at a deeper role. The recruit from Liverpool likes a more advanced role which is occupied by Lampard. Can he be eased out by the new kid, err boss? Early signs suggest that yes, he can. Lampard can be seen more of an impact player, come the business end of the season. FlorentMalouda can be swapped with the young Sturridge if  need be. Didier Drogba – yes, he still is registered with Chelsea – or Nicolas Anelka, can be seen in a fringe role in what seems to be their swansong season. Also, Chelsea traditionally like to play a high defensive line when in possession. With ageing stalwart Terry at the back, it can backfire against teams having a pacy counter attacking option.

Hybrid 3 Forward

That is where AVB would look to reshuffle the pack, as he had done at times in the Champions league game against Valencia. He has a wealth of strikers at his disposal and none better than Drogba to partner Torres up front if Chelsea go with two up front. The midfield will shape up like a standard diamond with the wide players providing the width. The striking feature with this attacking diamond formation is that, both Drogba and Torres can start upfront. A defensive shield is provided in the form of Mikel in front of the defensive duo. AVB likes to play a short, quick and central passing game near the penalty area of opposition box,hence he will be tempted to feature all of Mata, Meireles and Ramires in the first team, even at the cost of earning the wrath of the Lampard faithfuls. Both the “wide” players would look to drift in and cause problem for their markers. The fullbacks will overlap and draw the opposition fullbacks away, thus creating the space. One of Torres and Drogba will time and again sway like a pendulum, drawing one of the centrehalfs towards the sideline while the other will act as the focal point of attack. To break away from shackles, Chelsea can change to a hybrid three man forward line with the likes of Mata, or Sturridge pushing up considerably.

Man to Watch (1) – Juan Mata

Juan Mata, summer recruit from Valencia, is a typical new breed attacking midfield player. He starts on the left hand side of the midfield as suggested in the team sheet, but rarely chalks down the sideline like traditional wingers. He is more prudent in dropping to the “hole”, shifting position with the overlapping sideback, switching to the other flank seamlessly. He is a perfect replacement for the ageing FrankLampard, though they are as similar players as chalk and cheese!Lampard made his mark as a box-to-box industrious midfield player who can contribute 20 goals a season. More importantly, he turned up in almost every game of the season. Mata is more of a creative force, and like every other creative player, is not so eager in tracking back. He loves to create goals and AVB’s short-n-slick passing game perfectly suits this Spanish playmaker. It is like a breath of fresh air – the creativity which Chelsea lacked so dearly for the last 2 seasons.

Mata Settling into England quickly

Man to Watch (2) – David Luiz

David Luiz, 24 year old Brazilian centre half who arrived at Chelsea in the summer of 2011 from Benfica. Assured with the ball at his feet, he is a very good passer of the ball. Besides, he reads the game very well and is an ideal ballplayer at the back to kick-start any attack. Often he is instrumental in making bursting runs through the middle and can provide an additional attacking edge. Hailed as the future Chelsea captain, he is slowly but surely taking it over from the old war-horse John Terry. What has been impressive is his link up play. Andre Villas-Boas prefers a short passing game, but Luiz brings in a bit of variety to the attack. Just look at the graphic below – how often he has tried to play a traditional English long ball to the overlapping fullback. Although he has a very poor success rate at that but don’t forget it is his first season and it is a newish set up at Chelsea. With time, he is bound to improve. He has already shown his mettle with the assist to Daniel Sturridge against Bolton. Another glaring feature is that barring these long balls, he has not put a foot wrong – almost 100% accuracy in passing is awesome for a centre half.

David Luiz trying for perfection in Long Balls

Blue Line – Successful Pass

Red Line – Unsuccessful Pass

White Line – Assist

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Debojyoti Chakraborty is a follower of English Premier League and European football. You can reach him at debojyoti.chakraborty@gmail.com

Year of Reckoning – Manchester United & Chelsea

Manchester United and Chelsea have been winning the Barclays Premier League between them for last half decade. This season too they are expected to challenge each other for the title right down to the wire. Both clubs have made significant changes to their set up in terms of players or coaching personnel. What do the fans of these clubs think their prospects this season? We find out.

Manchester United – Looking Forward

So here we are, barely 2 months after the mauling in the Champions League final by Barcelona, Manchester United is barely a week away from starting another season at the Hawthorns against West Bromwich Albion (WBA). The wheel never stops turning; yesterday’s success and failures are quickly forgotten and there are new challenges to meet in the future. The nine point difference with
which United won the title is a thing of the past.
The atrocious away record and the jaw-dropping home record are seen as history. In the most of cynical of industries, yesterday’s

failures and glories are cast aside. The painful episode of Wayne Rooney’s October Revolution is quickly forgotten and the terraces are again singing his songs.
The new season, in contrast, brings innocent hope and aspirations that culminates in the kick-off at Hawthorns against WBA, and hopefully for Sir Alex, one of the many away victories in the coming season.

The Squad: A Fresh Look

The new season is also marked by a youthful feeling to United’s squad. In the summer, Sir Alex has spent more heavily than recent years and overseen a huge turnover in the squad, more than any other season under the old fox’s watch. The new look United squad is partly due to retirements of Edwin Van Der Sar, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes and the release of Owen Hargreaves (after 3 years of false hope).
Out go long-serving United players, John O’Shea and Wes Brown. Both became surplus to requirements after the emergence of the Da Silva twins, Chris Smalling and the addition of Phil Jones sealed their fate.
Goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak, now also surplus with Anders Lindegaard being fit and Darron Gibson are certain to be sold before the transfer window shuts. Mame Biram Diouf will also be sold if the club finds a suitable buyer for the Senegalese striker who has failed to impress in his stay in English Football.
Interestingly, the sale of six senior pros has released around 20 Million Pounds of wages/a year from the Old Trafford. This, more than the raw cash in the banks from the Christiano

Manchester United

Chelsea
Ronaldo sale and payment received from the AON shirt sponsorship deal, has enabled Sir Alex to spend heavily this summer.
In have come three players with age in their side; typical Glazeronomics (Infuriating for some fans, it means players with a good resale value), the cynics will say.
specialist and Young brings in the promise of good deliveries in the box from corners and free-kicks. But it is difficult to see him as anything but a back-up to Nani and Antonio Valencia. There is a concern that Young offers nothing new but another wing option and improves the quality of the squad rather than the first team. Meanwhile returning from loans Danny Welback,
In David De Gea, Sir Alex has bought a ‘keeper who has genuine promise of becoming the best in the position. But the Spanish Stopper is not there yet. He is young
and talented but there will be mistakes and the United management should be patient with the shot-stopper. It is a very bold acquisition nonetheless. In Phil Jones, Sir Alex has signed a future England star, team leader and a flexible defensive option. There is little doubt that Sir Alex would have liked to wait one more season with this signing, but as before with Rooney and Smalling, United was forced into action with interests from other clubs. Finding enough playing time for the 16 Million Pound acquisition will be one of Sir Alex’s key concerns in the coming season. Then, there is the acquisition of Ashely Young. This signing has divided opinion within fans and pundits alike. No doubt Young offers flexibility in attack in various positions. In the 7 years since David Beckham’s departure, United has lacked a good dead ball Tom Cleverley and Federico Macheda adds a youthful vigor to United’s squad. Each has enjoyed some amount of success in United’s pre-season tour to the US.
Two key areas in United’s squad haven’t been addressed, till now. United lack a genuine creative midfielder and a midfield destroyer who carries the team through difficult phases of a match. The failure to land any of the one from Luca Modric, Wesley Sneijder or Samir Nasri or for that matter any creative midfielder is a concern with the United squad.
Then there is the inexplicable failure to replace Owen Hargreaves, leaving Michael Carrick to do the defensive duties in the center of the park, which he clearly doesn’t relish. With Darren Fletcher’s fitness problems, Sir Alex’s scouting network will be on a high alert for any options opening up.
Manchester United

Chelsea

The 2011-12 Season: Looking Forward

Premier League

Domestically United’s pre-eminence was sealed in a superbly professional fashion at the end of the campaign. The nine point gap did not really tell the whole story of the campaign but arguably United were worthy winners at the end. Changes have taken place in the summer that alters the dynamics of the coming season but United are still in a strong position to defend their domestic crown.
The main challengers to United for the title this season are Chelsea, City and Arsenal. Chelsea has appointed a new manager, again, in 33 year old Andre Villas Boas. He might be a bit inexperienced at the top level but last season he has overseen a treble wining campaign at Porto so he has enjoyed success. Chelsea’s chances will depend a lot on how quickly Villas Boas can impose his style of management on the ageing Chelsea squad, can he make Fernando Torres rediscover his form and make the Drogba-Torres partnership work? These are questions to ponder about.
Roberto Mancini has assembled a fantastic squad, at Manchester City, that can seriously challenge for the title and in Sergio Aguero they have added some star dust to the City squad. Whether Tevez stays or not, City has some frightening attacking options in Aguero, Balotelli, David Silva, Edin Dzeko and Adam Johnson.
Arsenal’s pre-season has been dogged by the annual Barca-Fabregas saga and to add to that

Samir Nasri’s contractual problems. A lot will depend on what squad Arsenal will finally end up with after 31st August. They need a quality central defender and have been linked with Christopher Samba and Phil Jagielka.
As discussed earlier, United has assembled a good but a relatively young squad for the season that seems good enough to defend the Premier League Title. The back-lined and the strike-force were United’s strength and it will remain that way for this season too. At the back Van Der Sar (VDS), Neviile, Brown and O’Shea have left the club but in Jones, Smalling, Evans and the Da Silva twins, United have good young defenders to call upon in addition to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand’s experience. In the goalkeeping department de Gea has been signed to fill the boots of VDS. He is young but very good prospect for the future. A lot will depend on how quickly he can build the understanding between the defenders.
The strike-force of United comprises Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Dimitar Berbatove, Michael Owen, Danny Welback and Kiko Macheda. A good mix of experience and youth in the department will allow United to rotate according to the needs. Hernandez had a stellar debut season, scoring 20 goals in all competitions last season. He and Rooney formed a deadly partnership in front of goal at the fag-end of last season. Rooney on the other hand had a topsy-turvy season. He had a horrendous start to the season, where he looked lost and out of form and touch; then occured the ‘October Revolution’ and the events that followed. In the last 2-3 months of
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the season he found his form back and formed that deadly partnership with Hernanded and started influencing games by playing in the ‘hole’ between the striker and the midfield. Rooney has looked very sharp in the pre-season and looks all set to have a big season for United both as a scorer and creator .Dimitar Berbatove had an unusual season. He carried the team during Rooney’s bad patch and was the joint top scorer in the Premier League with 21 goals. But his form and place to Hernandez in the lst 3 months of the season and couldn’t really influence games in where he started. The crushing blow came when he was not in the playing squad for the Champions League final and in his place Michael Owen was picked. That brings us the Owen, who made enough appearances to win his first Premier League medal but rarely played too many minutes to have any kind of influence. Danny Welback is coming back from a successful loan stint from Sunderland and hopes to make his mark at United and Macheda had a horrendous loan experience at Sampdoria where he a scored a solitary goal and the team was relegated from Serie A.
With Hernadez out for 2-3 weeks with an injury Rooney and Welback might form the partnership upfront with support from Berbatov and Owen. How Welback can get into the groove early in the season and form a reasonable partnership with Rooney, will be something to watch out for. Berbatov has lost his place in the starting 11 but how he reacts to the whole situation will be something that will intrigue some of his fans. Can he force his way back to the starting berth??

Champions League:

The real test of United’s progress or otherwise this summer will come in Europe. The humiliation at Barca’s hand, last May, is not forgotten easily and the intention-as stated by Sir Alex- is to match the Catalans. In reality United has done nothing in the summer to close the gap on Pep Guardiola’s brilliant side. This despite United friendly win against the under-cooked Catalans at Washington in the pre-season tour. Barca on the other hand has added the brilliant Alexis Sanchez and may add Cesc Fabregas by the end of the transfer window. In fact they have already added quality to an already brilliant side.
There is no guarantee United might emulate last season final run, let alone winning trophy. Real Madrid has done smart business with the addition of Nuri Sahin, a deep lying creative force, Raphale Varane, a youthful defensive addition, Fabio Coentrao will solved Madrid’s problem at left back and Hamid Altintop will provide experience in the middle of the park.
Inter’s probable retention of Sneijder, and possible recruitment of Tevez, will boost the Italians’ hopes. Gian Piero Gasperini’s old-fashioned looking 3-4-3 formation will certainly take some opposition by surprise over the next few months.
Meanwhile, 2010 finalists Bayern may well be dark-horses for a decent run in the competition following turmoil at the Allianz Arena last season. Gone is confrontational Dutchman Luis van Gaal, replaced by veteran coach Jupp Heynckes along with sensible summer

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recruitment in Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng.

Cup Competitions:

Domestic cup competitions will again be used by Ferguson to blood youngsters and ensure fringe squad members gain minutes on the pitch. Smalling, Jones, Cleverley, Macheda and Welbeck should all feature heavily. Many supporters will also look out for members of the FA Youth Cup winning squad – notably Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison – each of whom should play some part in United’s Carling Cup campaign.
In fact youth may be the theme of United’s

season, with the average age of Ferguson’s squad somewhat lower than a year ago. With it comes vibrancy but also the potential for error. How much United has lost with experienced departures may only be felt in the closing weeks of the coming season. The progression of younger players in lieu of genuine world stars – especially in central midfield – may be the key to United’s success or failure in the coming months.
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Krishnendu Sanyal is a Manchester United fan and worships Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane. Krish is a management grad by education and an accidental entrepreneur by occupation. He can be reached on twitter @kriacked
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Chelsea – Challenging the Champions

“YOU ARE FIRED”-the last words that Carlo Ancelotti would get to hear from the Chelsea boss, Roman Abramovich, after an unsuccessful attempt to either retain the Premier League crown or bring European glory to Stamford Bridge. He was the fifth manager since 2003 to be shown the door by the most impatient club owner ever known to English Football. It’s been over two months since the 2010-11 Premier League season ended, but the Stamford Bridge faithful is still finding it very difficult to cope with the disappointment of a trophy-less season. The 2011-12 soccer calendar is due to kick off in a few days and everyone around Chelsea is once again eager and desperate to win all that’s available and shout at the top of their voice, “We are the Champions”.

Flashback: What went amiss?

The defending champions of the 2010-11 EPL campaign started their title defense with style. They were mauling their opponents with ease

off a possible thirty with an impressive score of 27 goals, conceding only 3. Chelsea opened a healthy convincing lead and was breaking away from its challengers. What happened from November to the first week of January was really baffling. During this period, Chelsea played 11 times and managed only 2 wins with 5 losses and 4 draws. They scored 9 times and let in 16 goals. Injuries to key players during these two months proved disastrous and exposed a serious lack of bench strength. Ancelotti could not find able replacements for injury stricken Lampard, Essian, Drogba, Terry, Alex, Zhirkov, Benayoun and Ivanovic.
When football is played at the highest level, injuries cannot be accepted as a reason for failure. The failure of Ancelotti to nurture young players as well as providing sufficient match time to other players in the squad was quite apparent. Playing the same 15-16 players day after day risks injuries to these players and also affects the player morale of the remaining players in the squad. As a result, when the manager needed these players to deliver him the result during Nov-Dec-Jan, they simply were not able to respond. This phase in the
through attractive and effective football. Chelsea was looking like a well oiled, lethal winning machine, steam rolling anyone on their way and scoring at their will. The first ten encounters saw them winning eight games with only a draw and a loss. 25 points were scored Championship run simply cost Chelsea the title and Ancelotti his job. Interestingly the departure of Ray Wilkins, the first team coach, at the start of November coincided with the beginning of the great Chelsea slide. The controversial departure of a much respected
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coaching staff from the Chelsea ranks may have unsettled the team as well. Trying to bring back Chelsea to its winning ways, a desperate Abramovich opened the coffers and bought David Luiz and forced a deal for Fernando Torres, breaking the club transfer record in the January transfer window. From January onwards Chelsea made a strong comeback with most of the injured players back in the squad, but it was too little too late. David Luiz immediately made a mark with his good performances throughout the latter half of the season. Fernando Torres though, was the biggest disappointment. Ancelotti failed to make Torres and Drogba come to terms with each other. Torres lacked the sharpness in front of the goal and could finally score after 10 games.

Throughout the season the performance of the team against the top six clubs was also disappointing. They could only manage four wins, two draws and six losses against the top half teams of (1) Manchester United, (3) Manchester City, (4) Arsenal, (5) Tottenham, (6) Liverpool and (7) Everton. The away record was even more dismal with out a single win. The team defending the championship could only salvage 7 wins, 5 draws and 7 losses from away fixtures. The Champions League Quarter Final
loss against Manchester United and the FA Cup exit against Everton were the final nails in the coffin.

The New Era: Andre Villas Boas comes to Chelsea


The unprecedented success achieved by Andre Villas Boas at such a young age with FC Porto brought him to everyone’s attention. The stunning European and domestic performance of Porto was unanimously attributed to the ruthless but measured attacking style of football masterminded by Andre Villas Boas. He was delivering the result with attractive football and won almost everything possible. The vacant top job at Stamford Bridge was up for grabs, and finally Roman Abramovich made his move with a record breaking £13.3 million offer. On June 22, Andre Villas Boas was presented as the Manager of Chelsea. In his first press-conference he made it absolutely clear that he was not going to make any hasty decisions. He was not going to storm the transfer market and make unwanted purchases without understanding the current squad. He reiterated

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that managing Chelsea is not a one-man job and stressed that he always relied on his back room staff. He called himself “The Group One”, confidently shrugging off the comparisons made with his mentor, Jose Mourinho and refused the title “The Special One V2”. The Chelsea fans could finally sense stability and calmness in the days ahead. His previous stint in Chelsea as a deputy to the Special One, Jose Mourinho, and his fluency in English was a big advantage. Villas Boas seemed the perfect person to manage Chelsea. His infectious love for the game and the ability to make each and every member of the squad feel needed and important was felt by everyone. Villas Boas’ strength is his ability to study each and every opposition player to the minutest details and decide on match strategies likewise.
The Portuguese League is not the strongest of the Football Leagues. The 15 team League is a two horse race with Benfica, the traditional challenger. One can argue that his total of two years experience in professional coaching and management is a concern. His philosophy of playing attacking football irrespective of any match situation is truly unique and brave. But in a highly competitive league like the EPL with four or five teams breathing down the neck, this strategy may backfire. Sometimes he may have to preserve a lead against strong teams and play deep.
However the Europa League performance of FC Porto gives the Chelsea fans a lot of hope. The performance of FC Porto during this tournament showed his maturity and adaptability during a match. The stunning revival against Villarreal, after conceding early goals and the
measured approach against Braga’s solid midfield in the Europa League Final shows a lot of character.

The 2011-12 Premier League Season: Charging ahead

Andre Villas Boas started the Chelsea calendar with a few warm-up Pre-Season matches. The first few matches against Wycombe Wanderers, Portsmouth and Malaysia XI were not impressive at all. They were jittery throughout the match, failed to create proper chances in front of the goal and the shooting in front of the goal lacked sharpness. This was not the kind of start Villas Boas was looking for. Finally in the later matches against Thailand XI, Kitchee and Aston Villa in the promotional Barclays Asia Trophy, Chelsea could make a mark. The team was beginning to take shape. In the final pre-season friendly against Rangers, Chelsea had appeared to be in shape.
The reluctance shown by Chelsea in the transfer market to buy established players confirmed what Andre Villas Boas was saying all along. He was counting on the existing squad to deliver him the results. The presence of a lot of 16-18-20 year olds in the pre-season friendlies made it clear that he is keen to nurture young talents and bring young legs to the already ageing squad. He wants to build a squad for the future. The only summer transfer purchase was of Romelu Lukaku (FW), Thibaut Courtois (GK), Oriol Romeu (MF) and Lucas Piazon (MF). On the other hand, he sold out Yuri Zhirkov and Michael Mancienne, amongst a host of other players.

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In almost all the pre-season matches, Villas Boas stuck to a classical 4-3-3 formation with a holding defensive midfielder staying a little deep and providing the link between the defense and the midfield. He heavily relied on Joshua McEachran for this position. The 18 year old was impressive during the matches. The calmness and composure shown by him at this position is truly remarkable. John Obi Mikel, the other contender for this position will face some stiff competition for a first team place from this 18 yr old kid. The central defensive line was formed by John Terry, Ivanovic and Alex since David Luiz was injured during these friendlies. The left wing belongs to its rightful owner, Ashley Cole who is extremely reliable in his defensive positions and quite potent
in overlapping during an offensive move. For the right back position, Paulo Ferriera is a better defender but Jose Bosingwa is much more effective during an attacking move. A fit David Luiz will have the defence in a better organized and effective formation with Ivanovic taking the right back position with John Terry and David Luiz controlling the central defence. Frank Lampard is the playmaker in the Central Midfield. The injury to Essien at the beginning of the season has more or less confirmed Ramires as the player alongside Lampard in the midfield. Ramires’ ability to provide a sudden accelerating and penetrating run in the opposing defense with Frank Lampard following behind with his stealthy late run-in the box can be menacing for the defending team. The final three positions look promising. The kind of players available with Villas Boas gives him the freedom to try out different formations. The pre-season matches saw Fernando Torres team up with Solomon Kalou on the left and Sturridge on the right. Sturridge was the stand out performer providing support to Torres and also making defense splitting runs to trouble the markers. Fernando Torres is still a big let down and a worry for the team. His off-the-ball movement, swift turns and first touch is still very good, but he lacks that final shot on the goal. Didier Drogba is still the player to vouch for. His physical presence ahead of the formation creates opportunities for the other two attacking players as well. His ability to play swift passes with the wingers creates more chances in front of the goal, and the goalkeepers still find his snap-shooting difficult to block. When Drogba is on the field, Villas Boas can also look for Anelka, Malouda or Kalou
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on either side of him. The match against Rangers saw how effective the formation Sturridge-Drogba-Kalou can be. While defending, Chelsea prefers a 1-4-1-4 formation. The two attacking players from the wings join the two midfielders to make the middle line with the defensive midfielder dropping between the back four and the midfield. The middle pressing starts with Ramires leading the charge with Lampard following close behind from the left and Kalou from the right. McEachran / Mikel generally stay deep and provide support and fills in the free spaces when attacked round the wings. They are also in a position to support the central defenders when overwhelmed by a strong attacking combination.

The 2011-12 Premier League title challenge begins

Chelsea’s challenge for the 2011-12 Premier League totle begins with an away fixture at Stoke on 14th August. Andre Villas Boas has already managed to put together a team capable of challenging the defending champions, Manchester United. The stability that he has brought to this club with his measured approach will be put to test against other big teams of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City through out the championship race. A combination of young legs and experience is available to Andre Villas Boas to bring Chelsea success with style. Beware; Chelsea will be back with a vengeance.
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Tamal Kanti Santra loves Spanish football and is a die-hard Brazil fan. He is an amateur writer taking keen interest on the technical aspect of the game. You can follow Tamal on twitter @Tamal_Santra

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