Premier League Predictions – Ed's Riposte

So the season’s back, and Sam’s Match Reports is once again writing articles like this one, where Sam made a load of predictions that I didn’t agree with.  So, I went ahead and wrote my own Premier League predictions, and then blackmailed him with videos of him doing the Per Mertesacker dance until he posted it.
So, here is how I think the Premier League will pan out this season, with a few notes about each team:
(NB, I must apologise for not knowing a lot about Leicester and Burnley.  Other than checking in on Watford every so often I really don’t follow Championship football, so I can’t honestly judge how well they’ll do).
1. Chelsea
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Mourinho is a great manager.  While some of his transfer decisions have seemed a little bizarre, such as the sales of Mata and Lukaku, they clearly show that he has a team and a style in mind, and is prepared to cut ruthlessly where players don’t fit with those plans.  His acquisitions over the summer have been fantastic.  Arsenal, City and Chelsea fans may have taken heart from the fact that Costa had a bad World Cup, but he was fantastic in Spain last year and could turn out to be the signing of the season.  Meanwhile it’s also worth remembering that his Atletico Madrid teammate, Thibaut Courtois, is back at Chelsea after some astonishing performances last season.  For my mind, Petr Cech has been up with the greatest goalkeepers in the world for the last few seasons, but for the first time in his Chelsea career he faces a real threat to his position as number one.
2. Manchester City
The champions last year haven’t had an explosively exciting transfer window, which is why I think Chelsea will pip them to the post, but they still have an incredible squad and some superb players.  Arsenal fans are right to celebrate the victory of the Community Shield, but I’m not convinced that City’s form from that game will continue into the Premier League season.  Other than their makeshift defensive lineup, the main reason that City were unable to impose themselves on the game was that Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri gave very poor performances.  Both were outstanding last season, and, cake issues aside, I expect them to be back to their best this season as well.  Up front Jovetic has looked good in pre-season in the absence of Negredo and Aguero.  2nd place, and a cup trophy.
3. Arsenal
I’m betting on Arsenal to come third this year.  If you’re reading this blog you already know what a blinder Wenger has played in the transfer window this summer, and I expect to see another central defender come in before the end of August.  The lack of a defensive midfielder doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and I’m not convinced that the benefits of having someone in that mould (and they are few and far between) would outweigh the advantages of having Arteta’s crisp, precise passing, his cool penalty-taking skills, and his well-timed professional fouls.  Unfortunately, even with the addition of Sanchez, I just don’t think we’ll finish at the top of the table – it’ll be close, but Chelsea and City do still have better teams. Another cup win would be lovely though (League Cup, just to show that we can mix it up a bit).
4. Liverpool
A lot of people I talk to seem to be betting on Liverpool to drop out of the top four this year.  I’m not convinced.  Yes, the loss of Suarez is a blow, but they still have a great team and a really talented manager.  Despite a lot of mockery on Twitter that they’re doing a “Tottenham” with the money gained from Suarez’s sale, it’s actually a very different situation.  Tottenham replaced Bale with nearly an entirely new first team who had never played together before.  Rodgers hasn’t done that.  Instead he’s kept a hold of most of the team that got him to second place last year, and brought in players to improve his squad and put competition on the first team places.  Don’t be surprised if they bring in another striker in the next couple of weeks, either.  Without Suarez they’re not good enough to win the title, but they’ll still get a Champion’s League spot.
5. Manchester United
Yes, Van Gaal is a better manager than Moyes, and there’s no doubt that that will improve United performances, but I can’t be alone in thinking that the weaknesses United displayed last season extended beyond the manager.  Despite their impressive attacking firepower, to my mind they are still lacking in quality midfield players, even with the addition of Herrera.  As for their defence, the loss of Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra has left them short-staffed and lacking both quality and experience, and so far Van Gaal’s first Premier League transfer window hasn’t exactly wowed me.  Give him time and I’m sure he’ll push them back to being title contenders, but this season I don’t see them getting into the top 4.
6. Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs have been relatively quiet this transfer window, but I expect them to be a very dangerous team this season.  Pochettino is a good manager, and the players that were bought in 2013 have now had time to get to know each other and learn to play as a team.  Even under Sherwood Spurs went on an impressive run in the second half of last season, and I expect to see a very exciting three-way scrap between them, United and Everton.
7. Everton
I really like Martinez, I love what he’s doing at Everton and I’m seriously impressed that he’s managed to get Barry and Lukaku on permanent deals.  I know I’m not alone amongst Arsenal fans in seeing him as a possible future replacement for Wenger, when Le Professeur finally retires (on a throne made of melted down trophies, held aloft by broken Chelsea players).  Unfortunately I think Everton are going to be undone by last season’s success.  Europa League games add extra fixtures that I’m not sure Everton have the depth to deal with, and Thursday night games are not ideal for Premier League clubs.  Still, I’ll be satisfied if Arsenal can get a point when we go to Goodison Park in a week’s time – Everton are a very good club, and they’ll finish comfortably 7th.
8. Newcastle
Pardew’s lost Loic Remy and Mathieu Debuchy, but he’s brought in some new talent and I think they’ll have a solid, if unexciting, season, finishing 8th.  Not a lot else to say, because I don’t really care.
9. Stoke
Am I a huge fan of Mark Hughes?  Not particularly.  And, like any Gooner, I can’t stand Ryan Shawcross.  However, Stoke have always been a tough team to beat, and Hughes has got them playing some decent football.  Their transfer window has involved grabbing good players from average teams around them, with Steve Sidwell and Phil Bardsley coming in, and I think they’ll be unlucky to not make the top half of the table.  Also, for some reason I can really see them making a good cup-run.  FA Cup semi-finalists, I reckon.  You heard it here first.
10. Swansea
Swansea make some really strange decisions.  I was never sure why they got rid of Laudrup as manager, and now I’m really not sure why Michu has gone out on loan.  I know he was injured for much of last season, but he was electric the year before, and a loan move seems to help nobody.  Either sell him for ten times what you bought him for, or keep him in the squad.  In any case, in 2013-2014 his goals were picked up by Bony, who I expect to perform again this season.  The loss of Davies,
Vorm and Flores will hurt, but Sigurdsson, Montero and, of course, Fabianksi will soften that blow.  Mid-table.
11. West Ham
I don’t understand people who are critical of Big Sam.  Sure, his philosophy is a little more pragmatic than those of Wenger or Rodgers, but he’s made West Ham a strong team and he’s bought well this window.  Sakho and Valencia are good attacking signings, and I’m sure Arsenal fans everywhere will look forward to seeing Carl Jenkinson tearing up the Hammers’ right flank.  They’ll be fine, easily clear of relegation.
12. Hull City
Up until the loss of Shane Long, I thought Steve Bruce was having a great transfer window.  Even with that exit, Hull are still a good team, although they, like Everton, could suffer from Europa League games.  Bottom half, but no difficulties.
13. Southampton
Southampton have made the papers for the “exodus” of Lambert, Lallana, Chambers, Shaw and Lovren, but stories of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.  If they can keep a hold of Schneiderlin and Rodriguez then they should be fine, although whether Koeman can replicate Pochettino’s quick-pass football remains to be seen.
14. Sunderland
Poyet was incredible last season, keeping an almost certainly doomed Sunderland in top flight football.  He’s gone on to demonstrate his strength as a manager in the transfer window.  Rodwell, Jones, Gomez and Pantilimon are all great signings for a club at this level, and give him some good depth to work with.  They’ll have no difficulty staying up this season.
15. West Bromwich Albion
Some decent, if unspectacular, signings have been augmented by the gamble of Brown Ideye for £10m.  I’ve not seen the man play, so I can’t judge whether this is a good purchase or not.  If it is, West Brom should be fine.  If Ideye turns out to be a flop then West Brom are once again going to be struggling desperately to find any goals.
16. Queens Park Rangers
I watched QPR against Derby in the play-offs at the end of last season in a pub in Derby, and I was struck by the number of rejects from other Premier League clubs that they have on their books.  Derby were the better team that day, but QPR got the goal, much to the chagrin of my fellow drinkers.  Redknapp has added to his number with Cardiff’s two best players and one of England’s best defenders, which is shrewd buying, and I don’t see them getting relegated this season.
17. Crystal Palace
Palace are now my local club, and I had them much higher on this list until today.  Pulis was superb last season, and it will be difficult to replace him.  Furthermore his reasons for leaving – the lack of money available for transfers – have limited the amount of talent they’ve been able to pull in.  They’ll definitely be in the relegation scrap until the end of the season, but with the right manager I think they might just nick it.
18. Aston Villa
Maybe I’m being too harsh on Villa by putting them all the way down here, but I just don’t rate them at all.  Their new signings leave me cold, and Lambert seems to be struggling to replicate the managerial skill he demonstrated at Norwich.  Time’s up, Villa.  You’re going down.
19. Leicester
I don’t know a great deal about Leicester, or most of their players, so this might be a bit unfair.  I do like Kasper Schmeichel as a keeper, but whether they’ll have enough to keep them up, I don’t know.
20. Burnley
No idea.  Always liked Marvin Sordell but he’s now 23 and hasn’t progressed as much as he promised to.  Would be impressed to see them stay up.

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Can Aaron Ramsey save Arsenal's campaign?

It’s difficult to fault Wenger’s reasoning.
At the beginning of the 2011/2012 season, Arsenal suffered a crisis as first Fabregas and then Nasri (and Clichy (and Eboué…)) departed the club.  They wanted to go, and there was very little that could be done to stop them.  Then Wilshere got injured and, with our midfield in tatters, Arsenal’s fortunes rested almost entirely on the abilities of one player: Robin Van Persie.  Everybody – Arsenal fan or not – knew that RVP was the only reason Arsenal were able to make top four, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, during that season, he was competing for the title of best player in the world.  Every time he scored we roared with pride, and every time he was involved in a tackle we suffered myocardial infarctions.
But RVP wanted out.  He had one season left on his contract, and rather than letting him go for free in 2013, Wenger made the decision to sell him at an inflated price to Ferguson (whom, he has since told us, he suspected was preparing to retire) in order to cover the costs of bringing in three less talented but still very capable European players: Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla.  An attempt to start rebuilding the team back to pre-2012 levels, and to spread the goals throughout the team so that a single injury or suspension didn’t leave us high and dry.  And, for the 2012/2013 season, that worked.  Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud, alongside a rapidly improving Walcott, more than covered the loss of Van Persie and kept Arsenal in the Champions League spot.
So far, so good.
We come now to the 2013 transfer window.  Arsene, as he had known all along that he would, now had more funds available as new sponsorship deals were agreed and the costs of the Emirates stadium finally started to wind down.  With a squad evidently capable of making the top four by themselves, he looked to add some real world-class firepower, something to give Arsenal an edge. First he targeted Higuain and then Suarez, before finally nabbing Özil in what was considered a fantastic coup.  Only a year after losing an aging RVP, Arsene had managed to replace him with a younger and equally (or more?) talented player, but this time he had a squad that could carry on and win games even if Özil suffered suspension or injury.
[Note: when I say “replace” I am talking in terms of his role as “world-class player”; obviously Özil was not a positional replacement for Van Persie.]
Now, not every decision Wenger’s made in these years makes sense, and there have been some misfires – Park Chu-Young, for example, and £40,000,001 for Suarez, and not spending this January, and the lack of substitutions at half-time on Sunday – but, in having to rebuild a team almost from the ground up, I really can’t fault the logic of the steps I’ve described.  Logical, calculated, smart, rebuilding a squad in crisis.
So can someone tell me how we’ve ended up back where we started?
Somehow, once again, Arsenal seem to be entirely reliant on one player.  Contrary to expectation it isn’t Mesut Özil or Jack Wilshere (both of whom, I think we can all agree, have underperformed), but a man who, as recently as one year ago, many Arsenal fans were writing off as useless: Aaron Ramsey.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read (or heard) variations on this sentence since Sunday: “Now that Ramsey’s back, [insert player here] will perform better“.  Aaron Ramsey will relieve pressure from Arteta; Aaron Ramsey will make runs for Özil; Aaron Ramsey will create goals for Podolski; Aaron Ramsey will get on the end of crosses from Gibbs and Sagna; Aaron Ramsey will share the burden with Giroud; Aaron Ramsey will liberate Cazorla and Rosicky; Aaron Ramsey will provide cover for Vermaelen and Mertesacker; Aaron Ramsey, Aaron Ramsey, AARON RAMSEY!  Nobody’s making a big deal about it, but everybody’s saying it – somehow, the performance of almost every player in our team (maybe not Szczesny) seems dependent on the availability and talent of Aaron Ramsey.  And now, finally, he’s back.
Here’s my concern: what if he’s not up to it?
Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a great player (in fact I was saying it before all of you were), and his stats for this season are downright impressive: despite having only featured in 19 league games (including two from the bench), Ramsey is Arsenal’s second top scorer.  He has more Man-of-the-Match awards than any other Arsenal player, more tackles per game, and more passes per game.  Only Özil and Giroud have more assists in the Arsenal team, and both have played in more games than Ramsey.  [Stats retrieved from].
But what if these figures aren’t Ramsey’s innate ability coming through?  What if it was just a purple patch of form, such as we saw with Nasri before he left, or Arshavin when he first arrived?  What if we’re about to see the return of the hard-working but often ineffective player that infuriated so many in 2012?  That’s my fear.  What if…what if Aaron Ramsey just isn’t that good?
I hope he is.  I really REALLY do.  But Arsenal are currently struggling to make the Champions League and we have a must-win semi-final against Wigan this weekend, and once again the perception seems to be that we’re entirely dependent on a single player to keep our season afloat.  But this time it’s not a proven Dutch striker with a chocolate foot and over a decade’s experience of top-flight football; this time, it’s a 23-year-old Welshman with a history of injury problems and less than a full season of first-class form.  Will he be up to the challenge?
For Arsenal’s sakes, he’d better be.

Bayern Munich are better than Everton

This isn’t going to be a blog about “what if?”, as in “what if Özil had scored?” or “what if Szczesny hadn’t been sent off?” or even “what if we had kept the score at 0-1?”.  The reason this isn’t going to be about that is that I’m actually pretty happy about that game.
No, really, I am.  Here why: we were never going to win the Champions League anyway.
OK, so maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe we’ll win 2-0 at the Allianz, it will go to extra time, one goal each way, go to penalties at 3-3, we forbid Özil to be anywhere near the spot, and we’re through to the quarter finals; a winning streak follows and Abou Diaby scores a 92nd minute belter from the halfway line in Lisbon on 24th May.  Maybe that’s what will happen.
The realist in me tends to doubt it, however.  Even if we got through this round, we would probably have had to face Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Dortmund, PSG, Chelsea or City in the next, then one of them again in the semis, and then again in the finals, and my gut tells me we would have slipped up somewhere.  For me, this season has never been about the Champions League.  Arsenal feel like they’re at the beginning of a renaissance, but winning the most prestigious club competition in the world comes mid-renaissance, not just as its starting.
No, for me now this season is about competing for the Premier League and making a real stab at the FA Cup.  And the reason I’m pretty happy is this: Arsenal were awesome tonight.
It was, I think, the best we’ve played since Napoli at home.  For the first forty minutes Bayern Munich, the best team in the world and the cup favourites, were made to look no more than mildly talented as Arsenal’s midfield zipped the ball around, kept possession, and created some real chances, with only Manuel Neuer (arguably the world’s best goalkeeper at the moment) keeping them in the game, saving that penalty and denying great efforts from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo.  After Szczesny was sent off Arsenal put in a really valiant effort as Bayern gave a textbook example of how to play against ten men, spreading the play and working Arsenal to their absolute limit, and to only concede two goals in the second half is a real credit to the whole team.
I’m going to talk about Sanogo.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to say he’s our saviour or he’s the new new new new Messi, or anything, but I must confess that I, like everyone else, assumed that this summer purchase was a “one for the future” sort of deal – that Sanogo would play some U21 games (when he wasn’t injured) and then make a nice back-up for a real signing in two years time.  But now Wenger has twice picked him over Bendtner, while Giroud’s personal life messes up his game (I’m sorry, I refuse to believe that this is not why he’s been benched), against first Liverpool and now Munich.  In neither game has he wowed, but he has also not looked at all out of his depth, getting shots on target, showing a real talent for close control, winning the ball in the air and making some smart passes.  If he can stay fit then I think he can make a real contribution to Arsenal’s 13/14 season and will be a key squad member for years to come, and maybe even a first choice striker at some point.  All in all what seemed to be an odd decision is now looking like a good signing, and Wenger deserves credit for that.
But if Sanogo’s performance was good, I thought Wilshere’s was outstanding.  Feel free to disagree with me, but in my opinion this was the best that Jack Wilshere has played for a good few months, probably since the game against Norwich.  Recently Wilshere has been criticised by some of the fan base, mostly, I think, for not being as good as he was in that Barcelona game.  To be honest, he may never have a game like that day again, but today showed why he remains a first-class option for Arsenal, and why Wenger has let him play through his poorer form.  Around him Flamini and Oxlade-Chamberlain also performed admirably, and even Mesut Özil, the only German who can’t score a penalty, didn’t have nearly as bad a game as Gary Neville claimed (although he definitely deteriorated after that missed effort).
So, we didn’t beat Bayern Munich, but you know what?  Who cares.  Our next big game is against Everton, and if we play like we did today, particularly like we did in the first half, then we’ll destroy them, and that puts us in the semi-final, where we’d have a 2/3 chance of drawing one of Hull, Brighton, Sunderland, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday or Charlton Athletic (and the remote possibility of drawing Wigan, should they beat City).  A trophy is, for the first time in many years, a very real possibility.
Meanwhile in the Premier League we sit one point behind Chelsea, with our next three games against Sunderland, Stoke and Swansea.  Again, if we play like we did today then that should be 9 points in the bag, and with Chelsea facing Everton and Tottenham in that time, not to mention a west London derby against a resurgent Fulham, there’s a real chance that we could take back top spot again.  Arteta and Vermaelen will be back in the team, Ramsey should be coming back soon, Källström apparently plays for us, and Gnabry and Zelalem provide us with extra options for the cup if we should need it.
The only thing that really that really concerns me is Gibbs’s injury.  While we’re well covered at left-back – Monreal, Flamini, Sanga and Vermaelen can all play there – Gibbs would always be my first choice, and he was playing well before he pulled up.  Fingers crossed it’s not another long-term injury for him.  There’s a rumour that Ox was taken off because he was carrying a knock, too; I hope that’s not the case, he’s really stepped up in the last couple of weeks and with Walcott unavailable he’s the closest thing we have to an actual winger.
Aside from that, though, I remain optimistic.  I don’t know if we’ll win anything this season.  What I do know is that this is the best Arsenal have looked in years – we have options on the bench, we have great players who are still young enough to become world-class players, we have money to spend in the summer, we have an outstanding set of defenders, and we still have Arsene Wenger.  I am, in short, the happiest I have ever been as an Arsenal fan, and I look forward to seeing the Champions League trophy in the Emirates in three years time.
N.B. I wasn’t at the game tonight – I know Sam was – but based on what I saw/heard on Sky Sports the Arsenal fans were in excellent form and really backed their team in a tough game.  I tip my hat to you, ladies and gentlemen – it’s great to see and long may it continue!