Friday, August 16, 2013

2013/14 Premier League Preview

I'm late to the party on this one having spent the week chasing down a living, writing for other outlets that have *gasp!* deadlines, and trying desperately to divine what exactly is going to happen in the Premier League this season.

Direct deposit hit the bank on Tuesday.

Cottagers Confidential has its posts.

I have absolutely no idea.

Two out of three ain't bad?

To compound my inability to make sense of all the managerial ins and outs, player comings and goings, and run-of-the-mill transfer window intrigues, I recently finished reading a very good, very thorough book by Chris Anderson and David Sally called The Numbers Game. If you haven't read it, definitely pick it up. It's an engaging read and supports, argues, and distills further some of the arguments presented by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Soccernomics. 

It's all regressions and standard deviations and valuations and various other permutations of that mythical language some call "math", but what hit me like a ton of bricks is Anderson and Sally's argument that soccer, even at the highest level, in any given match, is basically 50% chance. They cite something called the Poisson distribution and go on about Prussian horses, all of which is very interesting and informative, but did nothing to re-inflate me after learning that picking a winner in a top flight match is little more than a coin flip. How on earth can anyone pick a champion before any of the 38 matches in a team's season have been played? Before the summer transfer window has closed? Before the winter transfer window has even opened? Before Ryan Shawcross has caused a compound tib/fib fracture of your team's star striker? Before Luis Suarez has bitten someone else, someone who might be playing in another league as we speak because remember that thing I just wrote about the transfer windows and their closing and opening?!

Basically, anyone who predicts with confidence what will happen in the Premier League this season, and anyone who ridicules you for your predictions, is full of shit. That won't stop me from gloating though if I get it right. On to the predictions!

As I've said before, the Premier League is a contest to get into the top four spots and avoid the bottom three. Everything else is just window dressing. You can name your best friends and your worst enemies, but most people you know fall somewhere in between. If you're arguing, for example, whether West Ham will finish 14th or 15th, you're wasting your time. 50% chance is probably the difference between 17th and 5th.

My top four:

1. Chelsea - This is actually a pretty popular pick. Jose Mourinho, the Prodigal Son, has returned to Daddy Roman's loving fold more tempered, savvy, and insightful after years abroad and a little bit of humble pie served up courtesy of Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos. He's new - but not really - and he's inheriting an expensively assembled side of world class soccer players who seem a good mix of young and old.

"To win Premier League second first time of asking would be...fantastic."
My one concern, were I a Chelsea supporter, is who is chosen to lead the line. In the preseason, Mourinho often opted to use a 4-2-3-1 formation with a lone striker making runs to the corners while Victor Moses, Eden Hazard, Oscar, and Juan Mata cut toward the center of the opposition's defense. The "1" in this system is currently a three way competition between Demba Ba, Fernando Torres, and Romelu Lukaku.

Not being sentimental, I think Mourinho would like to throw Lukaku in feet first, but Torres has cost previous managers their jobs and Abramovich may still be clinging to the illusion that he can squeeze some sort of value out of the ludicrous fee he paid for Torres in 2011.

I have to think Roman has learned his lesson and that Mourinho wouldn't be back unless an understanding had been reached between he and the Chelsea owner. With a dominant central striker; the plethora of attacking talent Chelsea has in midfield; strong holding midfielders; a steely back line; and the helmeted hero in goal, I think Chelsea could be poised to bring the trophy back to Stamford Bridge.

2. Manchester City - One of the other tenets of The Numbers Game is that he who spends wins. Sheikh Mansour has certainly spent and with the arrivals of Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho, and Jesus Navas, that trend is clearly continuing apace. I literally cannot fathom having the options Manuel Pellegrini has when writing names on the team sheet and that sort of depth of quality has to produce enough wins for second, doesn't it? Doesn't it?!

Pellegrini is much more low key than Roberto Mancini is and the deflection of attention off the sideline and onto the pitch may actually benefit Manchester City's menagerie of Goldfingers. I put City at second mostly because Pellegrini is new and has admitted he will need to adjust to the Premier League game. Also, I have a visceral reaction to so much expensively assembled talent. Also, also, Human Rights Watch just released a report suggesting that the Sheikh Mansour is using Manchester City's positive brand equity to draw attention away from the human rights abuses his government perpetrates in the United Arab Emirates. So there's that.

3. Manchester United - No one wants to be the guy who follows a legend. You want to be the guy who follows the guy who follows the legend. David Moyes apparently did not get this memo and I can't see anything but a rough season ahead for the Red Devils' new manager.

With the caveat that there are 1 1/4 transfer windows still to go, United have only made one marquee signing in Wilfried Zaha and are, frankly, embarrassing themselves with their continued pursuit of Cesc Fabregas. Moyes appears desperate to sign a creative tux-wearer in midfield and to do so in the sort of flamboyant style that gets the collective Old Trafford heart all aflutter. But his continued failure to do so is raising alarm bells and distracting Moyes from the very real possibility that said creative tux-wearer is already in the side in the form of Shinji Kagawa. C'mon Moyes, act like you've been here before! A little confidence, imperturbability, and je ne sais quoi go a long way.

Additionally, there's the inconvenient fact that Wayne Rooney wants out in the worst way and would seemingly love to find himself in the jersey of one of United's worst rivals. I can't see this situation resolving itself until Rooney has been shown the door. In other words, don't expect much of him in a United jersey at all this campaign. How many of Robin Van Persie's goals came from Rooney directly? Or even indirectly by runs Rooney made to create space? Losing your talisman, even with an heir apparent banging 'em in like it's going out of style, is no small thing.

Anything less than the league trophy is a disappointment for United fans. This isn't the composed we're-taking-Van Persie-from-Arsenal-and-there's-nothing-you-can-do-about-it United of last year's vintage. This is the make-eyes-at-and-get-rejected-by-Fabregas-while-Rooney-throws-a-tantrum-and-Moyes-complains-about-the-fixture-list-because-that's-what-Ferguson-would-have-done-but-it-doesn't-come-off-as-ornery-just-pathetic-because-Moyes-Isn't-Ferguson United.

Jesus, I'm going to have to get used to using the space bar again.

4. Arsenal - I desperately want this to be the year Arsenal finishes outside the top four and everyone finally realizes - and by "everyone" I mean Arsenal supporters - that Arsene Wenger has run his course. However, with the ongoing sagas surrounding Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez and the fact that Arsenal may still pull off one of these huge money deals they finally seem willing to make, I can't quite see them disintegrating and crashing in a glorious puffy coated, referee blaming, pass for passing's sake blaze of glory, although it would be delicious fun to watch. I'd pop popcorn and invite friends over.

Arsenal actually find themselves in arguably the most stable situation of any of the big name sides and there's still the possibility that a game-changing, big money signing may darken the door at the Emirates. Regardless, I see Arsenal going apeshit for 4th once again. God love 'em.

On to the relegation frontrunners!

It seems absurd to list them 18th through 20th because they're all going to wind up in the same place. But so does your food, and I'm not one to mix my beef tenderloin, kale salad, malbec, and chocolate tartufo in a blender and chug it. Let's be civilized, for crying out loud.

18. Hull - I just don't see it happening. Even though Steve Bruce's side have recently signed poor man's Moussa Dembele, Tom Huddelstone and have added the likes of Danny Graham and Maynor Figueroa, I don't think it's going to be enough to keep the Tigers in the Premier League, regardless of whether or not the league eventually relents and allows them to call themselves "The Tigers". Relegated means relegated even if you pronounce it "Tigers". Steve Bruce to be sacked in a panic firing around about the same time Ian Holloway loses his job. And speaking of Ian Holloway...

19. Crystal Palace - Palace rode Wilfried Zaha all the way to the Premier League and they'll ride his absence all the way to the League Championship. In the meantime, Ian Holloway, ladies and gentlemen! Enjoy him while he lasts.

20. Stoke City - As an American, I feel I'm contractually obligated to like Stoke, but as a fan of the Beautiful Game, they make me want to gouge my eyes out Oedipus Rex style.

Mark Hughes: Like this, but instead of gold, imagine poo.
Speaking of mythology, let's talk about Midas's lesser known brother, Mark Hughes. Everything Midas touched turned to gold and he eventually became so miserable, alone, thirsty, and hungry that he begged Dionysus to take the golden touch away. Everything Mark Hughes touches turns into a steaming mound of excrement and he's eventually fired for turning something that was once at least functional into a steaming mound of excrement.

Some would say Stoke City already are that so maybe the Mark Hughes touch will work in reverse. All I've seen so far is a protracted flirtation with Mame Biram Diouf that ended in rejection. Yes, that Mame Biram Diouf.

Dark horse table climber:

Swansea City - Look out for Michael Laudrup's side this season. The Wales club is quietly enjoying an unparalleled succession of managers with essentially the same soccer philosophy and are becoming eponymous with passing, fluid, attractive soccer. Laudrup has enhanced his League Cup winning side with the signings of Jordi Amat, Alejandro Pozuelo, Jonjo Shelvey, and Wilfried Bony. If he can make it through the remaining transfer tomfoolery with Ashley Williams still in all white, Swansea could be in Europe next season.

Dark horse table plunger:  

Until about twenty four hours ago, I had Fulham in this unenviable position. With the signing of Darren Bent and more signings promised (please, please, please make this true). I can't see the Cottagers slipping into a relegation scrap. This leaves me flummoxed and admittedly without a clear answer. If I had to pick, I'd say Norwich because, you know...canaries, but I could also see Cardiff dipping into the bottom three to make it a perfect three for three yoyo act. Or at least a two and Mark Hughes. Could be a good name for a drink?

Breakout Performers:

Kevin Mirallas - The kid was on fire at the end of last season and showed no signs of slowing down in the friendlies leading up to this season. With Roberto Martinez at the helm at Everton, Mirallas could benefit from the sort slick passing and dynamic movement the Spaniard preaches.

Coutinho -  He was very bright last season but was often overshadowed by Luis Suarez's brilliance and Luis Suarez's insanity. He as the technical ability, pace, and creativity to make headlines on Merseyside if he doesn't get too wrapped up in a competition to make the KOP forget about Suarez.

Daniel Sturridge -  See above.

Jozy Altidore - Anyone who's watched the US play recently knows that the kid is playing like a house on fire. He'll be anxious to prove that his time with Hull was the fluke rather than his time with AZ Alkmaar.

There are certainly more, but if you name everyone it's sort of cheating, isn't it? Also, how many words is this now? If you've made it this far, thank you and go buy yourself a beer for which I will pay you back should our paths ever cross.

For now, good night to all and to all a good night! One more sleep until Premier League Day.