Season preview: Queens Park Rangers

If you have the time (and interest) to look into the background of this little club, it’s worth the time. The documentary The Four Year Plan is available to stream from Netflix, and it is fascinating. It brings you up to about three or four years ago in the club’s history. It also gives you some idea of how a club is run (if they happen to be so unlucky as to be owned by Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone). The Rangers are now owned and operated by Tony Fernandes, a Malaysian with an airline, but not of the variety that falls out of the sky. At least not yet.

I think Fernandes is a decent owner. From what I gather, he’s positive and has learned some good (if painful) lessons in his three years at the helm of the West London club. He has spent far, far too much in a short period of time on older (“seasoned”) professionals who were supposed to have the experience to keep the club competitive. Instead, many if not most have proven to be expensive flops. In Harry Redknapp, he has a manager who believes in the seasoned pro. Redknapp is a decent manager, but he’s over it I feel. He’s great for a quote and has done decently in the past (while at Portsmouth and at Tottenham for a bit), but QPR need new ideas and new faces, and I think that ol’ ‘Appy ‘Arry needs to go.

So should most of the first team. Rejuvenate should be the order of the day. With the average age at the club being 28.9 (closer to 32 when you just look at the first team), we are talking about a club functioning as a parking lot for aged professionals seeing out their careers. The recent addition of Rio Ferdinand only feeds that perception.

But perhaps ol’ Tony Fernandes is right to hang in there rockin’ to the oldies for now. Job one is to survive this season, which they should. The squad has a look like a pack of mercenaries who know how to get the job done. Fair enough.

Reality bites in this business and the truth is Fernandes will want need his club to stay up. He’d likely love nothing better than to lure a young and exciting manager to West London, to boost investment in his academy and move into a larger home (Loftus Road is the smallest in the Premier League at just over 18,000). In order or any of this to become a reality, the Hoops need to become an established team in the Premier League and sit on the cash-positive side of things for a season or three. Then the academy can be staffed with great scouts and trainers. Then the ground can be broken on a new, 40,000 seater stadium. Then someone like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can be brought in to oversee the establishment of a new era at the club.

But for now the club needs to stay in the league, and I think they will. QPR to survive, 16th in the log.

Season preview: Newcastle United

Once upon a time, Newcastle were the laughing stock of the Premier League. Owner Mike Ashley has eaten more humble pie than other managers in the League, but credit to him he appears to have learned the lesson. In manager Alan Pardew he has a decent motivator of the troops (if a bit of a sociopath, but whatever). They seem to have a winning transfer policy (even if it is a bit French) and have not been in any real danger of relegation since they came back up into the Premiership following the quick, one-year stint in the Championship in 2009-2010.

His transfer window has seen the departures of Loic Remy (he was a loaner but the Magpies were likely hoping he’d stay on a permanent basis, but he’s gone to Liverpool), but it would appear Pardew has plugged hat hole with an exciting prospect in Emmanuel Riviere. Remy Cabella has come in from Montpellier, ostensibly to fill in that role vacated by Johan Cabaye, who moved to Paris St-Germain during the last January transfer window. Pardew also appears to have addressed matters in defense (as central defensive stalwart and fan favorite Fabricio Coloccini is not getting any younger) with the signature of Daryl Janmaat.

Ashley seems to have his club ticking along rather nicely. Their transfer policy has worked well for a few years now. They appear to be progressing well since their return from the Championship. I sense, though, there is a gulf in class between the top six teams and the rest of the clubs in the Premiership, and it is only a financial one up to a point. Certainly the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City,  Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United are the five wealthiest clubs in the league. Everton, whom I’ve picked to finish sixth, is not wealthier than other clubs in the league, such as Newcastle or Tottenham. The difference is management and club leadership. Ashley seems to have learned some good lessons, so their leadership seems to have leveled out a bit.

The problem in Newcastle’s case is Pardew, who, while having improved year on year as a manager, is still a bit of a “stop the other guys from playing” sort of manager first. That is small club thinking. You enter the pitch with a winning strategy that includes outplaying your opponents, and you have room to grow. If your idea is to defend first and foremost, then you tip your hand as a manager who lacks belief in his players’ abilities. This is the difference between Everton and Newcastle.

And it is why the Geordies will finish seventh.

Season preview: Manchester United

Many people will chalk up last season as a one-off, a flash in the pan, a blip on the screen, a mistake, it won’t happen again, normal service shall soon be restored. Trophies are coming back to Old Trafford, this season, in fact.

Nope. What Sir Alex Ferguson left undone, what the feckless David Moyes inherited, is still not resolved. And judging by the movement in the transfer window so far for this club (or lack thereof), I get the impression the answer is still hanging out there somewhere. Nemanja Vidic has left to go to Inter Milan, and Rio Ferdinand has made the inevitable trek to a smaller club that is willing to allow him to play first team ball, when he ought to join Jamie Caraher in the commentary booth. People point to Phil Jones and swear up and down that he will be a great defender, that he is becoming the best defender in England… I guess I just don’t see it. He’s certainly not crap, but then his current central defensive partner is Johnny Evans, who can’t defend to save his life and is injury prone. Who else is in there? Chris Smalling. It has to be a hard time to be a United fan.

United would do very well indeed to wake up and smell the roses: they don’t have an awe-inspiring striking corps at the moment. Their midfield is a mess. But if they don’t want to be laughed off the park, they better go out and sign two or maybe three proper, world-class defenders. Now. As in now now.

They have secured the services of a manager with thick enough skin to endure a season long of booing. His arrival is also (I believe) a nod toward who the fans and board see as the franchise player, and that is Robin Van Persie. And it should be. Wayne Rooney has turned iffy form into something of a lifestyle choice. Perhaps he should have skipped out on the hair plugs and devoted himself to rediscovering that angry, nasty Scouse punk from Croxteth who used to really frighten his opponents. Now Rooney looks every bit the disinterested pro who is absolutely, positively sure he is just the dog’s bollocks. It’s just that he’s not. Not anymore.

United would be very smart indeed to offload him and just accept that this and next season are about a down-to-studs remodeling job. United need a new identity. Sir Alex Ferguson is a living legend, and it owns Old Trafford. They will need to kill the giant and find themselves a new look, one so radically different from its predecessor as to cause him to disown the club. Because Sir Alex Ferguson, as much of a man monument as he is, is now hurting the club he loves so dearly. And he isn’t even doing anything. That’s how big that shadow of his is.

So Van Gaal is absolutely the right man for this job. He could give two rips about Ferguson, and has no problem angering everyone in the club, so convinced he is of his methods. It is what is required to do this. Whether he can is anyone’s guess.

But right now, today, he needs to get off the bus with the junior players over there in the US and do some scouting and recruiting. Van Gaal led what can be described as a moderately successful World Cup campaign with the Dutch (I still think they could have won it, but hey, I’ve been wrong) which has eaten into half of the transfer window. They have so far brought in Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao and Luke Shaw from Southampton. Both are quality additions, but again, not what is absolutely, desperately needed.  They have been linked with Juve’s Arturo Vidal, who is to me little more than an update on the Juan Sebastian Veron mistake. They ought to go nowhere near that man. There are bargain buys in defense out there such as Brede Hangeland and Stefan De Vrij, although on the latter the club could really use more experience than the young man has. On the flip side, he can now add the World Cup to his resume. Thomas Vermaelen has also been mooted as a possible recruit. A decent player for sure, but perhaps the outlay is bit high for an injury prone defender. More height is needed, also.

While it is possible that Van Gaal can make something happen this season even without much in the way of new recruits, you get the sense the fans have had one season too many out of the top four for their liking. Nevertheless, Red Devil fans will need to accept that the transformation of any club, let alone one of the size, stature and history of United, is a lengthy process. It might take years. This year, if United finish anywhere further up the field than they did last year and show some cohesiveness and aggression out on  the pitch, I’d say chalk it up as a victory. This being United, though, Van Gaal will know that he will have to push his troops aggressively to get as far up as they are realistically able.

Fifth place for United, I say.

Season preview: Manchester City

Once upon a time, the City of Manchester’s other team was a team for the people. It was the team of the working class, the losers, the musicians and dope fiends. It was a rough and tumble crowd, not the prawn sandwich brigade located cross-town at Old Trafford. You were born into the Sky Blues and hung in there because your dad and granddad did, too, singing from the swaying stands on Maine Road.

Well so much for that, no? Manchester City are the ultimate Johnny-Come-Lately. Awash in petrodollars and without any concern for such constraints as budgets, the Sultanate of City have gone out and purchased the brightest and best there is to offer to players who don’t care about playing at a club without history, so long as their bank account is fat. Fans will argue it’s their turn, and folks who complain are just green with envy, etc. It’s true, I am. What wouldn’t I give to see Everton rolling in that kind of dough?

Alas, I digress. So, this year City will have to spend less in the transfer market by quite some degree after UEFA deemed them to – ahem – not be running in an economically viable model. I thought it didn’t matter if you were printing your own money… but whatever. City have nothing to really be worried about though, as even without strengthening their squad they will be at the top end of the league most of the season. I have maintained that this is Chelsea’s year though, and thus City will have to contend with dominance in another competition, perhaps the FA Cup or maybe even getting further into the Champions League. City craves the legitimacy that trophies bring, and we are witnessing the emergence of a global footballing powerhouse with ambitions of long-term success, even of the sustainable variety. So long as the Abu Dhabi Group hang in there, this is all not simply possible, but probable. What is taking place at City is the subject of a post at some point his season, I believe.

There have been some rumors of players they are chasing, but who cares, they’ll get them. Eventually. Hopefully not this season, though. I hate this team. So much. I so so so hate this team.

I see Manchester City coming in second but not by much. They will push Chelsea right up to the final day.

 

 

Season preview: Liverpool

The ‘Pool are swimming in cash after the sale of cannibalistic talisman Luis Suarez to Barcelona. This is good and bad for the club. Good because who couldn’t use a cool $128 million, right? Bad because as one half of the SAS striking duo, Liverpool will have to go back to the drawing board for where they will get their goals. Suarez bagging goals made it possible for the tactical switch that saw Steven Gerrard move into a deeper lying midfield role, with Filipe Coutinho sitting in the hole behind the strikers. Gerrard had previously been relied upon to provide goals from behind the striking line, but Coutinho’s role has been more as the artful provider to Suarez’s lethal finishing. Daniel Sturridge is a quality striker, but he does not have to clinical finishing which is Suarez’s calling card. I do not see him as a reliable fulcrum to the ‘Pool’s striking corps.

However, the Reds are not shy in the attacking department as it stands now. Raheem Sterling emerged last season as a provider and creator of goals. Manager Brendan Rogers has been busy recruiting new faces into the club, with the additions of Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Lazar Markovic. Some have suggested the recruits are not to the level Liverpool need them to be at in order to avoid Tottenham’s mistakes after the sale of Gareth Bale. It’s a worthwhile thing to keep in mind, but I see Liverpool’s slip from second being down to factors outside of their transfer policy.

Suarez will clearly be missed, but ultimately what will bring Liverpool down a peg or two is what I see happening at Chelsea and Arsenal. I don’t see Liverpool dropping out of the top four, but I do not see them beating out Chelsea to the title. City are still a stronger and deeper squad than the ‘Pool, and I have the feeling Arsene Wenger is planning his season carefully to offer a counterpoint to Rogers’s tactics and management. I see Liverpool spending this season adapting to life after Suarez, since so much of last season’s pyrotechnics in the league were down to the rabid Uruguayan’s ability to conjure something out of nothing.

So it’s a top four finish for the ‘Pool, in fourth.