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English Premier League Preview Part 4 - The Relegation Candidates
The Relegation Dog Fight
Part 4 of my series looks at those sides who might get dragged into the relegation dog fight. Much of this will depend on how quickly the promoted sides adapt to the Premier League.
(Note - thanks to premierleague.com for transfer information throughout article).
Players In (major only): Scott Sinclair & Micah Richard (Man City), Idrissa Gueye (Lille), Jordan Amavi (Nice), Jordan Ayew (Lorient), Jose Angel Crespo (Cordoba), Rudy Gestede (Blackburn Rovers), Jordan Veretout (Nantes), Adama Traore (Barecelona)
Players Out (major only): Andrea Weimann (Derby), Antonio Luna (SD Eibar), Shay Given (Stoke), Fabian Delph (Man City), Christian Benteke (Liverpool)
Manager Tim Sherwood did a great job last season in dragging Villa away from the relegation precipice and to the cup final there can be no doubting that. Aston Villa are something of a sleeping giant in some regards and this season will be a real test of Sherwood's managerial credentials. He has lost key players in Delph and Benteke with defender Ron Vlaar having left as a free agent. Tom Cleverley also choose a move to Everton ahead of staying at Villa Park. Sherwood has made key acquisitions in signing Micah Richards, who he has made captain, and Scott Sinclair who if he can rediscover his form of old can be be an effective player. He has also tried to replace the goals of Benteke with Jordan Ayew and Rudy Gestede. He added winger Adama Traore from Barcelona and he could bring a bit of pace and unknown to Villa.
The key will be if Gestede can repeat the goalscoring he showed at Blackburn Rovers. The french born striker scored 32 goals in 60 games for in the championship and already scored in his first game for Villa against Bournemouth coming off the bench to head the winner. The striker, who plays international football for Benin, is a big aerial threat who has scored 20 headed league goals since August 2013 which is the most headed goals of anyone in the top 4 divisions. Sherwood chose to leave Gestede on the bench against Man Utd but I think he will need to utilize him quickly and also sign perhaps and additional forward. Emmanuel Adebayor is someone who keeps getting linked with Villa and Sherwood had good luck with him whilst at Tottenham. Whether Villa will be willing to take a chance with the sometimes controversial and often flamboyant Togolese striker, remains to be seen. It is also time for Agbonlahor to finally fulfill his potential and step up his game and put on his big boy pants. The England international seems to flit in and out of games and Sherwood will need him to rediscover his form and also find more goal scoring form. The reality is that he should have been the one ready and able to don the captains armband not newcomer Richards. I hope that Sherwood develops a team that is able to generate enough consistency and form to stay up but the way they capitulated in the FA Cup Final last season in a 4-0 defeat is worrying particularly as Villa were a stronger side then. Much will depend on if Villa can get some confidence and form in the early weeks of the season. Amongst their next games are matches against Sunderland and Leicester and these are two games that they must take points from if they are to avoid a season of struggles.
Players In (major only) - Sebastien Coates (Liverpool), Adam Matthews (Celtic), Jermain Lens (Dynamo Kyiv), Younes Kaboul (Tottenham Hotspur), Yann M'Vila (Rubin Kazan - loan)
Players Out (major only) - Connor Wickham (Crystal Palace)
Three games in and it is fair to say that things are not looking good for Dick Advocaat’s side with just 1 point. Advoccat elected to stay with the Wearsiders and they also retained the services of Jermaine Defoe though lost Connor Wickham. Dutch international Jeremy Lens will be expected to provide the goals in addition to Defoe but Lens is hardly prolific and it remains to be seen if Defoe can rediscover his form of old. The worrying thing for Sunderland is that they conceded 8 goals in their first 3 games and were beaten by two sides who I expect themselves will be fighting to avoid the dreaded drop, Leicester and Norwich, and they were dispatched with ease. The pattern for Sunderland in recent years has been to start badly then make a resurgence, typically under a new manager, brought in to avoid relegation. Whether they can do it for another season remains to be seen and I would not be surprised to see a Sam Allardyce, Neil Warnock or Harry Redknapp showing up around November time with the task of saving them once again. Their progress could well depend on what Advocaat is able to do between now and the end of the transfer window on Tuesday evening. Recent press articles have suggested that Advocaat is not happy with the lack of spending on the players but this really is a flawed argument. Sunderland have the 8th highest wage bill in the Premier League and really questions have to be asked about the players that they signed some of who were not the fault of Advocaat. Advocaat is a vastly experienced manager with Holland, PSV and Rangers being just 3 of the 19 managerial jobs he has had. He rarely stays in one position more then 2 years and I don't think this role will be different.
Quite where the goals are going to come from is hard to see. Conor Wickham was never really prolific and the likes of Danny Graham (1 goal from 26) and Steve Fletcher (20 goals in 79 games) will be expected to support Defoe. Defoe has had a prolific career but his Sunderland career has not been impressive with just 6 goals in 20 games, 3 of which came in the match on the 25th August against Exeter City in the League Cup. Defoe does have an impressive record of scoring in 15 Premier League seasons but at this stage of his career it is doubtful that he can regain his goal touch of old that. Sunderland have a decent squad on paper with the likes of Sebastien Larsson, Wes Brown, Jack Rodwell and John O'Shea and really they should not find themselves in the predicament they are in. They have two good goalkeepers in Pantilimon and Mannone and the squad should have enough experience to avoid the drop. However, I think they will struggle and it may need a survivalist manager (see earlier list) to help them find some self belief and get themselves back to an established Premier League side as opposed to one that flirts with relegation each season. Their fans deserve better and their have been suggestions that they might be able to bring in Adnan Januzaj on loan from Manchester United which seems a ridiculous idea. Their destiny is in their own hands but if they survive I do not expect Advocaat will be the one who earns the plaudits.
Sunderland Manager Dick Advocaat
Players In (major only) - Christian Fuchs (Schalke), Robert Huth (Stoke City), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz), N'Gole Kante (Caen), Yohan Benalouane (Atlanta), Gokhan Inler (Napoli)
Players Out (major only) - Paul Konchesky (QPR), Matthew Upson (released), Esteban Cambiasso (Free), David Nugent (Middlesborough), Chris Wood (Leeds Utd)
Many Leicester fans raised their eyebrows when former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri was named as the new manager at Leicester. Ranieri replaced Nigel Pearson who did a fantastic job helping the Foxes avoid the drop last season. A series of controversial incidents culminating with an incident involving his players on tour appears to have been the end for Pearson and led to the appointment of the Italian. Ranieri has been managing for 20 years but has never won a league title though has won 5 cups managing some great clubs in the process. Leicester will be Ranieri's 16th but he has said he understands Leicester City's history and he, together with the owners, wants to build something. He has vowed to make the team attractive but accepts it will take time. His signings have been good too with Okazaki, Fuchs and Swiss captain Inler being the most impressive. The 31 year old midfielder Inler, played 248 games scoring 14 goals in a 8 year spell in Italy with Udinese and Napoli. I expect he will be a direct replacement for Cambiasso who choose to move on in the summer.
Up front Okazaki could be a real find. He has 43 goals in 93 games for the Japanese national team and 80 goals in 251 games at club level. Partnered by the energetic Vardy and ever improving Mahrez, Leicester's ability to get goals should not be in doubt. They even have Ulloa coming of the bench. At the back they have an excellent goalkeeper in Kaspar Schmeichel and Huth and captain Wes Morgan will marshal the defense. They have made a good start beating potential strugglers Sunderland and West Ham and holding Tottenham to a draw. Their survival will depend on them avoiding serious injuries as then their squad depth could be called into question. They also started well last season beating Manchester United 5-3 but it was only a late run of form that kept them up in the end so they must be careful not to let the same thing happen again. Ranieri has assembled a squad full of experience and energy and they will be hard to play against particularly at home. They have a game with Bournemouth on Saturday, Villa follow and Norwich soon after. Those are the games they need to win, even at this early stage, in order to avoid being sucked in to the relegation battle. I think Ranieri will prove to be a good appointment as he has the ability to attract players perhaps Pearson couldn't. He has experience of the English game and the early signs are definitely promising.
West Ham Utd
Players In (major only) - Pedro Obiang (Sampdoria), Dimitri Payet (Marseille), Angelo Ogbonna (Juventus), Carl Jenkinson (Arsenal - Loan), Manuel Lanzini (Al-Jazira - Loan)
Players Out (major only) - Kevin Nolan, Carlton Cole, Guy Demel, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Nene - all released, Stuart Downing (Middlesborough)
It is a crucial season for the Hammers with them due to move into the Olympic Stadium, their new ground next season. Having dispensed with the services of manager Sam Allardyce in the summer they replaced him with former player Slaven Bilic. There is no doubt that Bilic is a legend to the West Ham fans having made 48 appearances for the club as a player and he has had a reasonably successful time as a manager with the Croatian National team. However, whether he is able to combat the challenges of the Premier League remains to be seen. His last two club jobs were at Besiktas (2013 to 2015) and Lokomotiv Moscow (2012 to 2013). West Ham have been playing this season since early July as they had to play the qualifying rounds of the Europa League which they won by virtue of coming top of the Fair play league last season. It is somewhat ironic therefore that so far this season they have picked up 5 red cards (3 in the Europa Leaue and 2 in the Premier League) which implies ill discipline in the side.
In the Premier league they started well with a surprise 2-0 win at Arsenal but subsequent matches have ended in 2-1 defeats to Leicester and a 4-3 home defeat to newly promoted Bournemouth. Both of these defeats have been at the hands of sides who are expected to struggle themselves which is a worry. Bilic elected to let Stuart Downing leave which was a little bizarre given the great season he had last year and more recently Kevin Nolan has left by mutual consent. His efforts also to let Andy Carroll leave suggests that Bilic wants to put his own mark on the team. This is not necessarily surprising but his signings do not look like players who will help the Hammers compete on a consistent basis and sufficiently replace those who have departed. Nolan and Carroll, when fit, are too fully committed players and my fear for West Ham is that they are starting to lose the fight that made them such a hard side to play against under Allardyce. They have lost Enner Valencia to injury until around October time so if Carroll was to leave they are another side who could struggle for goals. Any side with the likes of Mark Noble, Winston Reid and James Collins will be tough opponents but it is the depth to their squad that is a concern along with more players of this ilk which you need for a Premier League relegation battle. Allardyce made them hard to beat and play against and whether Bilic can do this is seriously open to question. Additions are needed before the transfer window closes otherwise the new Olympic Stadium could be hosting Championship football next season which would be a disaster for the Hammers.
The Olympic Stadium
What do you think?
Which of these sides is most likely to be dragged into a relegation fight?
Of the four features sides I think that Aston Villa and Leicester have the best chance of staying out of the relegation mire. However, I think West Ham and Sunderland will struggle. How ironic would it be if Sam Allardyce was the Sunderland manager who keeps Sunderland up at West Ham's expense? Don't back against it.