The Four Five Two EPL Preview, Part 3

It’s here! It’s finally here!

This may or may not be how I approach every season.
(credit: the hilarious, yet sporadically updated Studs Up)

Anyway, here are the ups and downs of FIVE! teams in the Premier League to look out for this season, starting with, you guessed it- Frank Stallone!

No, no, it’s really Villa. My capsules on Villa, Reading, Sunderland, Stoke and Manchester United are after the jump.

Aston Villa:

The bargain of the summer (credit: Aston Villa, via Getty images and the Daily Mail)

I can go on forever about the changes that Aston Villa made this offseason, but I know you’ve come here looking for capsules.  Basically, we’ve gone from tic-tac-toe to Global Thermonuclear Warfare, in the span on one managerial change.  Out goes Alex McLeish and his wrongheaded block of granite (I can’t even call it parking the bus, because the bus actually, y’know, moves) tactics, in comes the inspirational Paul Lambert.

New signing Karim El Ahmadi (2m, Feyenoord) looks likely to be the linchpin of Paul Lambert’s midfield, and early indications are that he might be the 2012 version of Yohan Cabaye (absurdly cheap, fairly young, from the continent, and about to lead a surprise charge up the table).  Center-halves Ron Vlaar (also brought in from Feyenoord) and Ciaran Clark, in stark contract to last year’s starters James Collins (who went back to East LAAANDAAAN to play for the Spammers) and Richard Dunne (who could be off to Stoke), can pass the ball ably, and can actually move around the park pretty well.

Where Villa look weak are in two areas.  Lambert’s tactics, as demonstrated thus far into his tenure, rely heavily on fullbacks to set the width of attack; this could leave Villa open to the counter.  Presumably, though, Lambert will look to counter that through having his midfield press to cut out counters before they start.  The other is depth up front.  Gabby Agbonlahor will miss the opening weeks of the season due to the knee injury he sustained in the Chicago friendly, leaving Villa with only Darren Bent, Nathan Delfouneso and Andreas Weimann as recognized senior strikers.  In a pinch, wingers Brett Holman (signed on a free from AZ Alkmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar) and Charles N’Zogbia can deputize up front, but the forward position is still worryingly thin at the moment.

The bottom line, though, is that Villans are trading their (at best) guarded optimism for the real thing this season.  I think they’ll be in a tight race for the last Europa League spot, ultimately coming in 8th.

Reading:

He’s no Steve Coppell.
(credit: ballsybanter.com)

The Urs have a long history of being one-season wonders after promotion; in fact, the act of going up, staying up for a season and then dropping right back down is called “doing a Reading.”

For their promotion campaign, they’ve completely revamped their backline, adding Adrian Mariappa from Watford along with fullbacks Nicky Shorey and Chris Gunter.  Up front they’ve brought in Pavel Pogrebnyak, who impressed in his initial run of games at Fulham last year before the goal tap mysteriously shut off for him.  And they could be targeting Jermaine Defoe to leap the queue on Jason Roberts and Adam Le Fondre in partnering the Russian ‘Yak. The players to watch, in addition to Pogrebnyak, are winger Jimmy Kebe and keeper Adam Federici.  The latter has been highly regarded for years for his good work in the second tier, and famously held Manchester United to a 1-1 draw in the 2007 FA Cup.

Gaffer Brian McDermott likes to send them out in a 4-4-2 with the central midfielders sitting deep, and most of the attack coming from the wings (so pretty much like Stoke without the kicking people).  It worked well in the Championship, and he’s been with the side long enough to be able to effectively gauge who can hack it in the Premier League, and who was stretching just to get them up in the first place.

I have them staying true to form, and staying up, only just, this season.

Sunderland:

Last year, Martin O’Neill electrified Wearside upon his appointment in December, bringing his “boyhood club” from a relegation scrap to one of the best post-Holiday records in the Premier League, which saw the Mackems safe by March.  O’Neill was able to wring the most out of Black Cats trainee James McClean and washout-under-Steve-Bruce Stephane Sessegnon, who led play for the charge up the table before fizzling to a 13th place finish.

This year, Sunderland are struck by a paucity up front so deep that O’Neill is considering spending upwards of 15 million on Stephen Fletcher of Wolves.  World Cup 2010 hero Asamoah Gyan, who struggled to find the pitch, let alone the goal last season, has bolted for the Middle East, last year’s leading scorer Niklas Bendtner has returned to Arsenal until he finds a forever home, and last year’s surprise find Ji-Dong Won will be expected to do a lot of heavy lifting despite spending all of preseason with the South Korean Olympic Team.

All of that said, you can never really get the full picture of an O’Neill side until the 31st of August- to date, the only signing of the Summer has been center back Carlos Cuellar, who joins on a free from Villa and will pair John O’Shea at the heart of the defense (that is, unless Phil Bardsley’s trip to the OR shunts the Spaniard out to right back).  I’d expect a few more moves to shore up the deficiencies at the back (where O’Neill is also pursuing Stephen Warnock) and up front.  With those deficiencies addressed, I’d expect Sunderland to continue their improvement under O’Neill and climb to 10th.

Stoke City:

Ugh.  Really?  OK.  They’re Stoke.  They’ll continue to kick people, win some matches against the “big four” here and there, and do enough to finish 14th without any danger of going down at all.  They brought in Michael Kightly, who was one of the few bright spots for Wolves last year, and they still have Jermaine Pennant, so they’re set to sit six back and attack with four as they always do.  Also, Shawcross.

Manchester United: 

Last year was, to be sure, not Alex Ferguson’s favorite.  His side watched an eight-point lead over his neighbors dissolve in a matter of weeks, got bounced from Europe first by FC Basel and then by Atletico Madrid, and finally had to watch Chelsea win the Champion’s League.

Normally, you’d think this would mean that Fergie would completely retool, and throw boots at the people he’s flogging off.  Not quite this time.  Park Ji-Sung is gone to QPR, but he was pretty much gassed anyway.  Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund joins to add a bit of creativity in the center of the park, but other than that, changes are only pending, not fully made.  Obviously, United are in the Robin van Persie sweepstakes, but that would crowd a forward line already packed with Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck, and fail to address the frailties that the Red Devils displayed at the back last season after injury had taken Nemanja Vidic and Phil Jones from the side for extended periods, and Rio Ferdinand continued to fall victim to time’s cruel march forward.

And while Vidic’s return from injury should augur well for those concerns, the team is still so worryingly thin there that Fergie has suggested that Michael Carrick might see time in central defense.

With all of those concerns, United still have Young, Nani and Valencia to drive their attack, along with the three strikers I listed previously.  Their chief rivals for the title are always one wrong word from Mancini to a striker away from implosion, especially if rumors that City might add Royston Drenthe continue to mount.  I could see them definitely challenging, but I don’t think they’ve done enough to keep pace.

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