Looking to 2012/13: What the EPL Teams Need to Look at During the Close Season
As the 2011/12 EPL season comes to a close, we can look forward to 2012/13 to see what issues face the current 20 Premier League teams.
Almost all of the sides have something to address, whether they have outperformed expectations or shocked the fans with their lousy results. Some have decisions to make over players and managers for 2012/13, whilst others have priority areas for strengthening their squad.
We take a team-by-team look here at the issues that each club faces in the coming months.
Arsenal's season has stuttered and stumbled, but still managed to qualify for the Champions League in 12/13.
A huge reason for that has been the goalscoring prowess of Robin Van Persie, and ensuring that he remains with the club for the foreseeable future needs to be Arsene Wenger's biggest priority. We've seen from seasons past that the loss of an important club heartbeat has set back the Gunners time and again, as it has looked like they were developing a strong squad (cf: Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Patrick Vieira). For them to remain constant towards the top of the table, they will, at some point, need to start paying star money to their star players in order to keep them.
Wenger also needs to find another striker because it is exceedingly unlikely that RVP will be able to replicate his feat to this extent. There's every chance of injury, and the team needs to have someone else to turn to for goals.
Finally, Arsenal's defence needs a careful look; they've conceded more goals this season than since Wenger took over. Part of that has been down to injuries, with Kieran Gibbs and various centre Backs all missing significant portions of the season, but there's also been a lack of consistency at the back and of chemistry between the defensive partners.
Aston Villa's demise this season has been linked strongly to the absence of Darren Bent through injury, so it's little surprise that a stronger replacement in his absence is a key theme for 2012/13. Gabby Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey haven't filled the gap at all well, and given the record of both men, it seems unlikely that they will be sufficient to return Villa to a top half finish next season.
The play from the flanks has also been very disappointing at times, and the midfield has been patched up with promising, but sub-elite prospects from the youth ranks. None of these players have been good enough to replace those that have departed in recent years—Gareth Barry, James Milner, Stuart Downing and Ashley Young, among others.
It's easy to see why Martin O'Neill felt that he wasn't being supported by the board when he had to let such talents walk and why he left the club, so it isn't a huge surprise that Alex McLeish has struggled to get the Villians to perform in 2011/12. But he was on a hiding to nothing with the fans from the very start, having previously managed Birmingham City (fairly successfully).
Unless they make a decent investment over the summer, Villa aren't likely to make much progress. They've already taken the step of ditching McLeish, but they need substantial investment for his successor to be able to build a team capable of challenging the top 10.
With Blackburn's relegation to the Championship for 2012/13 confirmed, speculation around the manager's job security is to be expected, but Steve Kean has had that pressure all season long. The fans' discontent at the ownership and manager has been plain for all to hear, so both issues need resolving before any serious progress can be made.
If Rovers can retain the playing staff, they should be heavy favourites for an immediate return to the top flight, but a lot depends on whether they can afford to keep their higher earners and indeed whether they get better offers. The likes of Yakubu, Paul Robinson and Junior Hoillet are highly regarded, and it is likely that all will be the subject of bids from EPL teams over the summer, meaning that Blackburn's squad is likely to be depleted come August.
Blackburn's fate in 2011/12 was sealed by the whole team underperforming. Star names like David Dunn, Gael Givet, Mauro Formica and Morten Gamst Pedersen have either been injured or ineffective, and Kean has had to rely on the Olssen twins to fill in numerous different gaps in the team. The team needs to be much more effective as a unit in 2012/13, and that might just mean a different manager to get better performances out of them.
Despite a constant flirting with relegation throughout 2011/12, Bolton's season is going to be remembered for the collapse of Fabrice Muamba during March's FA Cup Fifth Round tie with Tottenham than for much of the football they've played. Muamba's recovery and appearance at the subsequent league fixture between the two clubs has been one of the most heartwarming moments of the year, but may yet be the highlight of a season that saw Wanderers relegated to the Championship.
Bolton are another team that have underperformed as a whole. Although they have managed to create and score goals from all areas of the team, the lack of a consistent goal threat up-front and the dreadful defensive record have combined to leave them near the foot of the table.
The squad is aging in many areas, and the likes of Kevin Davies, Nigel Reo-Coker and others may be quickly offloaded, as the club try to trim the wage bill and prepare for Championship life.
The biggest area of concern has to be central defense. With the sale of Gary Cahill to Chelsea in midseason, they lost one of their best players, and that single move may possibly have been enough to make the difference between survival and relegation. To make a quick return in 2012/13, they need to make a significant effort to replace Cahill and improve the overall defensive quality.
The AVB experiment to try and freshen the side up was abandoned in March, and despite Roberto diMatteo leading Chelsea to FA Cup glory and the Champions League final, their league form hasn't noticeably improved (they were fifth when Villas-Boas was sacked and finished sixth). That doesn't provide a glowing testimonial for diMatteo to be given the job on a permanent basis, but the intervening period has at least shown that there is more life to the likes of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba than the previous management believed.
Getting at least another year out of Drogba has to be a key priority, along with ensuring that Lampard is kept onside under the new regime. He might no longer play every week, but he is still a key cog in the functioning of the midfield.
The next manager will also need to be able to continue getting the recent signs of resurgence that have been discovered in Fernando Torres. 4-3-3 seems to be the preferred format at the highest levels of European football, so for most games, only one of the two will be able to start. That means ensuring that the two wingers remain of the highest quality, and if questions still remain over the likes of Florent Malouda, Daniel Sturridge and Soloman Kalou, then they needs to be quickly addressed.
Elsewhere, Jose Bosingwa has been a force down the right wing, but rather undependable in defensive situations, and although Bratoslav Ivanovic has proven his worth at both right-back and centre-back, another defender is definitely required.
As a whole, Everton's season has to be considered something of a success. FA Cup semifinalists and with a league record that betters that of Liverpool, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were an outstanding team in 2011/12.
The reality has been somewhat more prosaic. A lack of consistency has meant that for each great win, there has been a disappointing draw or defeat where what "might have been" is a big topic of conversation. Comparisons with Liverpool are perhaps less worthy considering the Anfield giant's fall down the league this season.
However, David Moyes has done another good job with limited resources and will have another top 10 finish for his resume. Nikita Jelavic has proven to be just the spearhead that the attack required, and if the likes of Tim Cahill can remain fit for a whole season, there's hope for next year.
If the purchase of Jelavic has fulfilled the need for a goalscorer, the question over supply must still remain, and the loanees Roysten Drenthe, Steven Pienaar and Denis Stracqualursi will either need to be retained or replaced with players of equal class. The centre of midfield may also need strengthening despite the addition of Daron Gibson during the season, as Osman, Fellaini and Rodwell seem to have gone off the boil, and it is debatable how much longer Phil Neville will be able to continue at the highest level.
Martin Jol was harshly treated by Tottenham after taking them into successive UEFA Cup campaigns, but has done a good job in showing at Fulham what he is capable of. A top-half finish was as good a season as could have been expected for the Cottagers, and the performances of Clint Dempsey and Pavel Pogrebnyak demonstrated verve and flair, especially in the later parts of the year.
If Jol can motivate them to continue to play with the freedom they have and can get another year out of the aging legs of Damien Duff on the wing, as well as continued solidity in defense from Brede Hangeland and John Arne Riise, there's no reason to doubt a repeat performance in 2012/13.
The team needs overall strength in defensive depth rather than being weak in any specific area and intelligent augmentation in attacking areas to complement the existing parts. Some key contracts are set to expire over the next 18 months, so retention or replacement of those parts needs to be high on the priority list.
Despite victory in the League Cup, Liverpool have undergone one of their worst seasons in recent memory. After the sacking of Roy Hodgson part way through 2010/11, the expectation was that Kenny Dalglish would have been able to inspire the Anfield mob to a return to a Champions League place, and he was given key pieces in Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez to replace the mis-firing Fernando Torres in order to achieve that.
In addition, the likes of Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam were brought in to bolster the midfield, and yet disappointment has followed disappointment.
The last few weeks of the season have suggested that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Carroll has started to come into some form and has been able to link up well with Suarez when the two have played together, but there is a lot of work to be done before this team actually resembles a cohesive unit, and it remains to be seen whether King Kenny is prepared to continue the re-building programme.
If Carroll can keep firing and Suarez can stay out of trouble and if Steven Gerrard can stay fit, then the forward unit looks as though it might be well set, but for 2012/13, work also needs to take place on the defence. Too many silly goals were conceded this season, with Pepe Reina inexplicably at fault in some cases.
Jamie Carragher is on his last legs and will need to be replaced by a younger man with pace and aerial ability. Glen Johnson seems to be as badly out-of-place defensively as ever, and Martin Kelly has yet to show the class and composure for Premiership level football.
The centre back pairing of Agger and Skrtle seems sound enough, but there's little depth behind them.
Throughout all the success that Manchester City have achieved in the league this season, there has always been something going on away from the football, which has given them less a reputation as the "noisy" neighbours as the dysfunctional ones.
From Mario Balotelli dropping into a school (to "use the facilities") to Carols Tevez's six-month spell in footballing purgatory, Roberto Mancini's side has constantly seems to be in the spotlight. Their on-field performances ranged from the insipid to the sublime, but when they really played, they played some of the best football in the Premiership.
If there is a criticism to be leveled at Mancini, it is that he doesn't seem to have handled his players well at all. His four strikers have alternated with varying results, and he has played the "tinkerman" more than even Claudio Ranieri, as he has searched for that ever-elusive combination of flair and defensive security.
Pivotal to the success this season have been two men: Yaya Toure has been deployed as both holding midfielder and rampaging runner, with equal effect and ability, showing an eye for a tackle, a pass and a shot that defy most midfielders. Vincent Kompany has been the rock at the heart of the defence, a captain leading by example and a potent threat to score from corners as United recently discovered.
Keeping these two (and keeping them happy) is key to continued success.
Mancini also has to sort out what his is going to do with his strike force. Is Carlos Tevez going to stay? Is it worth persevering with the obvious talents of Balotelli, or is he too much trouble? Can Edin Dzeko demonstrate the sort of consistent goalscoring touch required in the Premier League, or is Sergio Aguero the only reliable front man they have?
United's season has been one of relatively quiet progress, but only when compared with rivals City. The year started off with huge question marks over the ability and composure of new goalkeeper David DeGea, but with the team playing in a stylish and attacking mode, that looked good. Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney looked set to be a dominant force, and Danny Welbeck promised to add zip to the attack alongside Javier Hernandez.
But midway through the season, some other frailties began to emerge. The depth in central midfield suddenly looked frighteningly bad, with Darren Fletcher succumbing to illness and Daron Gibson being sold to Everton. Michael Carrick worked hard all season, but often looked out of his depth. The return of Paul Scholes bolstered that department, but with both he and Ryan Giggs reaching the end of their careers and with Nani failing to live up to his promise, it does seem that some significant reinforcement across the midfield will be needed.
In defense, Nemanja Vidic's injury woes continued, and Rio Ferdinand looked less composed with Johnny Evans alongside him, which suggests that the sale of Wes Brown and John O'Shea to Sunderland last year was either premature or relied heavily on new recruits Chris Smalling and Phil Jones playing starring roles. To his credit, Jones did his best but was deployed in three or four different positions and rarely got a consistent run in the side in one spot.
De Gea looked better as the season progressed and confirmed his place ahead of Anders Lindegaard, whilst Hernandez may not have sparkled as much as the previous year, but his opportunities were limited by the adoption of the 4-3-3 system that is becoming more commonplace.
Newcastle's season more than matched any expectations, with a challenge for the Champions League spots that came from nowhere. But it was prompted by consistently excellent football and the signings of some truly outstanding footballers.
For the first half of the season, Demba Ba looked like the bargain of the century as he rattled in goals for fun. Fabricio Coloccini marshalled the back four well and the Magpies stayed within reach of the top teams. After Christmas, the signing of Papa Cisse merely added a new dimension. Cisse replaced his international colleague Ba as the focal point of the attack and replicated Ba's achievements, culminating in two spectacular goals against Chelsea.
Alan Pardew's main priorities for the summer have to be to ensure that this pair are nailed down to long-term contracts, and that Hatem Ben Arfa, who provided both assists and goals with astounding regularity throughout the season, joins them. On top of that, it would do no harm to strengthen at the back, with the full-back positions perhaps needing some depth and/or competition.
For once, a team coming into money (the £35 million from Andy Carroll's transfer to Liverpool) have spent it well, and if Pardew can supplement the team with equal quality before next season, you can make a good case for Newcastle being a consistent top-four threat.
Surpassing all expectations, Norwich proved to be both entertaining and competitive in 2011/12, with a squad that had come straight from League 1 in consecutive seasons. With few stars and no big signings, Paul Lambert's men played attractive football and took the fight to all and sundry.
Grant Holt and Steve Morison provided the spearhead, but John Ruddy in goal was just as important to their successful season.
The sophomore season will be a big test of Lambert's management skills, though, as following up this year's achievements will not be easy. The biggest task will be investing the TV money in the right players that can come into the squad and improve it without affecting the chemistry they displayed in 2011/12.
The whole squad needs strengthening in the right way, but particularly in defense, and a consistent striker needs to be signed to take some of the load off Holt, who can't be expected to surprise the EPL again.
Queens Park Rangers
QPR's return to the Premier League under Neil Warnock teetered into life, but at the first sign of trouble, Warnock was sacked and replaced by Mark Hughes. Hughes hasn't been able to get the squad to perform much better despite the addition of Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora to head the strikeforce, and their biggest issue has been a porous defence.
If they are to make their EPL stay a long one, a number of defenders are going to have to be upgraded. None of the current back line have shown a particular propensity to keep Paddy Kenny from being one of the busiest goalkeepers in the league, and although a complete overhaul is not good for consistency, at least two new defenders need to be brought in.
Anton Ferdinand has struggled manfully on occasions, but has neither the pace nor awareness of brother Rio. Clint Hill has been the best of the rest, but has lacked support, and despite their extravagant expenditure of strikers in January, the addition of Nedum Onuaha wasn't even the equivalent of the boy putting his finger in the dyke.
The difference between the Championship and Premiership is perhaps best exemplified by Adel Taarabt. A continual goalscoring menace in 2010/11, he has failed to spark QPR to victory in the Premier League and instead has retreated into a sulky, distainful shell, as he has had to cope with playing with the big boys.
Whilst Norwich and Swansea showed that promoted teams don't need to spend a fortune to survive in the EPL, QPR have shown just the opposite: that an unsettled, disrupted side will struggle.
Stoke relied less on the long throws of Rory Delap in 2011/12 than the previous year, which seemed odd when you consider that Peter Crouch was the major addition to the squad. But Crouch and Matty Walters proved that they could score goals from open play as well and, supplemented by the likes of Cameron Jerome, enabled Stoke to challenge for a top-half finish.
To replicate this form in 12/13 is likely to require investment in the defence. Captain Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth and Matthew Upson need competition for places next season, and the midfield may also need strengthening, but at least they won't have the distraction of the Europa League.
Keeping Tony Pulis in the job is also a necessity.
Steve Bruce made plenty of the airtime he received to complain about his treatment by Sunderland, implying that he had done a good job. That is questionable, since he more or less left them where he found them, hovering on the brink of a relegation fight. He also had the indignity of having his first choice strikeforce ripped away from him with the sale of Darren Bent to Aston Villa and Asamoah Gyan's insistence on leaving the club.
Nevertheless, the appointment of Martin O'Neill re-invigorated the Black Cats, and they clawed their way back up the table to finish midway. It is unlikely that they would have recovered under Bruce.
Keeping O'Neill in order to get the best out of the players seems to be the main priority for Sunderland this summer, but they have other needs as well. Lee Cattermole may be an inspirational captain, but he has a nasty tendency for attracting the ire of the referee, which cannot be good. He was a less prominent figure under O'Neill's reign than under Bruce, which suggests he may have tempered his attitude somewhat, but he might also be on the way out over the summer.
John O'Shea and Wes Brown coming from Manchester United last summer was supposed to solidify the defence, but they haven't settled in as well as might have been expected, and although it would be a surprise to see both of them leave before next season, they may not last much longer unless they start to put their mark on games.
The strike force has been low on firepower and looks like it needs a boost. Fortunately, Sunderland's creative midfielders contributed significantly towards the goal tally in 2011/12, but they need a focal point for the attack in 12/13.
Brendan Rodgers' side bucked the old saw that told you that you couldn't survive in the Premier League with a promoted side and play good, attacking, attractive football. Flying in the face of predecessors like West Brom and Blackpool, Swansea approached life in the top tier with refreshing enthusiasm and claimed some big scalps in their first season back.
Goalkeeper Michael Vorm was sensational, and the bunch of no-names and cast-offs that filled the rest of the team all played their part throughout the season.
For 2012/13, the first priority is to strengthen the depth of the squad, particularly in defence, where the Swans were occasionally unbuckled. Other than that, they will need to keep a tight grip on the manager, with vacancies at bigger clubs likely to open up.
With all the furore surrounding Manager Harry Redknapp in 2011/12 (court case, England job), his players did their best to get on with what turned out to be a decent season, but without reaching the heights that were within their reach.
A fourth-place finish was reward for the skill, talent and determination shown throughout the team, with just the hint that third place should have been theirs for the taking.
The key contributors were Luca Modric, Rafael Van der Vaart, Gareth Bale and Emannuel Adebayor, and the retention of the former may be the main challenge over the summer. Spurs fought off a large bid from Chelsea last year and may have to do the same again this offseason, though Modric's desire to leave may have been tempered by the team's performance.
The defence played particularly well, with Kyle Walker suddenly looking like England's best choice at Right back.
The other question for Redknapp before next season revolves around the strikers. Adebayor is only on a loan deal from Manchester City, and Roman Pavlyuchenko has looked like he's on his was out for most of the season.
Meanwhile, Jermain Defoe has complained about the lack of playing time (exacerbated by the midseason acquisition of Luis Saha), which indicates that he too isn't in Harry's best team.
West Bromwich Albion
Roy Hodgson's appointment as England manager was well-deserved on the back of a good season in charge of the Baggies, steering them to a solid mid-table finish that belied their squad. Nobody stood out especially, and one of the first tasks of the new manager will be to identify suitable talent to supplement the existing squad.
With the security of another good season in the Premier League ahead of them, it may be necessary to splash out on some bigger names to progress further, but it will be equally important not to disrupt the cohesiveness that Hodgson brought.
The main issue, though, is to find a manager that can continue Hodgson's good work. The most obvious candidates are employed elsewhere, and picking up recent rejects like Steve Bruce, Mick McCarthy or Alex McLeish might not be the best option for a club in their position, which means that some careful thought needs to be given to the next man in.
With about 10 games left in the season, Wigan manager Roberto Martinez confidently predicted that if his team continued to believe in themselves and continued to play good football, he had no doubt that they would finish clear of the relegation zone.
They did, and they did, turning in some stirring performances along the way that made you question how they had managed to end up so deeply in trouble in the first place.
For 2012/13, they need to retain that self-belief. They also need to retain their manager and keep the squad together that had developed so well. There might be an argument for strengthening the central midfield, but the biggest decision this summer is what to do with Victor Moses.
The young powerhouse has really started to come into his own in recent months, but assuming Wigan can keep him, they need to make a decision about his best position. He lacks the finesse of a goal poacher, and although his strength helps him battle past defenders on the wing, he can get isolated there, which suggests that he needs to play behind the front man, supporting the striker, and be allowed to roam where he chooses.
Wolves' season seemed to stagger from crisis to crisis. The sacking of Mick McCarthy may have been premature, but the search for a replacement appeared farcical, and Terry Connor's brief reign did nothing to enhance his reputation.
Owner Steve Morgan has already acted to replace Morgan with Stale Solbakken, formerly of Copenhagen, and so the focus must now turn to the revamp of the playing squad. The existing squad looks ripe for the picking by larger clubs, with the likes of Michael Kightly, Steven Fletcher and Matt Jarvis all likely to attract attention over the summer, which means that replacing them is a key priority.
Reducing the squad size may also be necessary given the drop in division, and any incoming replacements will have to be carefully selected.
The club has a choice to make in terms of looking at the long or short term. Long-term might see the older heads replaced by promising youth and a tough season in the Championship that bears fruit later. A short-term approach of spending now might give Wolves a chance of an immediate return to the Premier League, but they will find stiff competition even for playoff places.