EPL Clubs Set to Take Major Steps Back in 2013-14

Sean ButtersFeatured ColumnistJuly 29, 2013

EPL Clubs Set to Take Major Steps Back in 2013-14

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    Every team goes into the new season full of hope, anticipation and eager to improve on the previous year’s showing. By the end of it, some will have bettered their expectations and played through as a cohesive unit, while others will resemble a routed battalion in the Napoleonic War. Looking at 2012-13, Manchester United and QPR are good examples of both ends of the spectrum.

    This list picks the teams that are most likely to finish below either the standards they set last year, or what is widely expected of them in general.

    Naturally it’s difficult to make too many predictions until the transfer window is over, as, especially during the summer, situations can change faster than the English weather. So, obviously we’ve had to take this into account, and on some slides the prediction is based on the chances of an integral player—e.g. Suarez at Liverpool—leaving the club or not.

    All stats are courtesy of Transfermarkt unless linked otherwise.


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    Liverpool have been on the fence for a few years now, with one garden occupied by the roses of English football, and the other containing Dad’s abandoned greenhouse project. In other words, for every season that they teeter on the precipice of sixth and seventh, the closer they are to slipping into the canyon of also-rans.

    And once a team falls down there, it can be very difficult to negotiate a way out.

    Unfortunately for Brendan Rodgers, much of the club’s hope of attracting the players necessary to claw their way back past Everton and Tottenham Hotspur—and perhaps a few others—rests on whether or not they can hold onto Luis Suarez.

    Despite his lesser points, the Uruguayan is rightfully the star of the show; a world-class talent with all the flair and trickery needed to stand out nowadays, with whom anyone would be glad to line up as part of the same 11.

    Of course, there are several other players with considerable potential; Raheem Sterling, Coutinho and Joe Allen to name a few. Thankfully the team have proven that there is life after Luis, turning in some rather good performances during his numerous bans.

    But losing Suarez would pull Liverpool closer to being known as a “selling club,” which may in turn see young talents leaving for pastures new just as they come of age, rather than committing to club. It is not the same Liverpool as the one that Steven Gerrard chose over Manchester United in the late 90s.

    It’s a shame that the future of a distinguished club like Liverpool can rest so heavily on the whims of one player, albeit a rather special one, but that is the reality of it. And while Brendan Rodgers takes every available opportunity to tell the circling sharks that Luis will not be thrown into the water, if someone exceeds the £40 million buy-out clause and can offer Champions League football, Liverpool will be hard-pressed to keep the 26-year-old.

    Arsenal match that bill, as does their cheeky bid of £40,000,001, but the fact that Liverpool see them as league rivals drives a wedge through their chances of a sensational coup. However, there are plenty of other clubs who wouldn’t mind having Suarez in their pocket, and Liverpool’s resolve could be sorely tested over the next month.

    Liverpool are on a slippery slope, and the best thing to do is hold Suarez to his contract and use that show of strength to bring in a bit more quality before September 2nd. Fail in doing that, and fans may start to wonder if the Europa League really is such an unattractive prospect.


Tottenham Hotspur

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    Another club whose future depends largely on one player, Spurs will not be comfortable with the prospect of losing Gareth Bale.

    While Liverpool at least showed some resilience in Suarez’s absence, Spurs relied on Bale just to finish last season in fifth place, with the Welshman scoring almost a third of the club’s league goals. Spurs have a good talent-pool to select from but Bale is clearly the stand-out player, with the team looking decidedly toothless without him last season, particularly in Europe.

    In Andre Villas-Boas the club have a young manager who has already achieved a lot, and has the potential to go on to greatness, which they can use to attract quality players. However, “potential” is the key word; in today’s transfer market, in which emerging and established talents are usually fought over like vultures over carrion, it is hard to gauge the drawing power that managers with “potential” really have. Especially for a perceived yo-yo club like Spurs, and especially with Jose Mourinho back in town.

    It’s the same as the Liverpool problem: Hold onto their star player, and others will come. Succumb to the advances of the big boys and you might as well admit that you just aren’t one of them.

    For all of Daniel Levy’s reputation for being a tough negotiator, Real Madrid have the riches that could turn even the most Marxist of heads (we’re definitely not saying that Levy is a Marxist, it’s just a nice turn of phrase). A bid of £81 million has been reported by Spanish paper Marca, while last week it was claimed in The Times that Bale may have submitted a formal transfer request in order to force a move to the Bernabau. Another report by The Times today suggested that Bale is unhappy with Levy for reneging on a “gentleman’s agreement” to allow the player to move to Real if a bid of at least £80 million materialised.

    Of course it could all turn out alright, as AVB is an astute enough manager to maintain Bale’s faith, and failing that, to bring in a suitable replacement. He also has the advantage, when comparing it to the Liverpool/Suarez situation, of Spurs being a club on the way up, as opposed to Liverpool being a club on the way down. Momentum and desire could help Spurs more than they think, but where Bale ends up could play a huge part in it.

Newcastle United

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    No list of potential foul-ups would be complete without mentioning a board member or two, and here we have the media’s favourite circus of summer 2013: Newcastle United and the wisdom of Joe Kinnear.

    Mike Ashley’s tenure as the owner of Newcastle has been rife with ups and downs; while having plowed a lot of money into the club, saving it from financial meltdown in the process, he is also often at loggerheads with the fans. Incidents such as the sacking of Chris Hughton in 2010, and temporarily renaming St. James’ Park as the Sports Direct Arena are among the more controversial of his decisions.

    When Ashley appointed Joe Kinnear as manager in August 2008 it appeared that it would be the high-point of the silliness. Admittedly Kinnear did fairly well while managing Wimbledon, but to see him as the man for a club like Newcastle is not one of Ashley’s better judgments.

    Kinnear spent his time there disillusioning players, with claims that the midfield lacked depth and also drove a wedge between himself and Charles N’Zogbia, after which the player announced that he would not play again with Kinnear as manager, and the team endured a run of bad results. The press fared no better than the players, with one reporter, the Daily Mirror’s Simon Bird, dubbed a “c***” during an interview, and other media members having various proclamations made about them. It feels morbid to say, but Tyneside must have breathed a sigh of relief when heart problems put Kinnear out of action the following February.

    And now he’s back, but in a “Director of Football” capacity.

    The reason that we gave you Kinnear’s background is that it feels increasingly likely that he will once again be Newcastle United manager in the near future, at least, unofficially. The club are already in mini-crisis mode after dropping 11 places between 2011-12 and 2012-13, and while many already felt that Kinnear’s appointment would undermine Alan Pardew, the manager’s recent comments about the England national team job implies that his attention is wandering.

    What the board were clearly trying to implement when they gave Pardew an eight-year contract was some stability, but they have undone all of that by bringing such a divisive figure as Kinnear back into the picture. Think about it; a former manager, whose tenure was cut short by forces beyond anyone’s control, comes back into position where he has authority over the current manager. The bookies should be taking bets not on whether Pardew will leave, but how long he will put up with Kinnear’s inevitable back-seat driving.


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    One of the main qualities that Alex Ferguson must have looked for when viewing potential replacements will have been the ability to get more from the end than the means allow. David Moyes at Everton is a prime example of this: In his 11 years as Everton boss, he brought the club from meandering around the relegation zone to finishing in the top eight places on nine out of 11 efforts, all with the lowest net-spend of any of the Premier League clubs. Quite extraordinary.

    A short drive east at Wigan Athletic, Roberto Martinez was also operating on a shoestring budget, but with less laudable results. Granted, the widespread surprise with which Wigan’s relegation this year was greeted, is a testament to Martinez’s ability, but you have to bear in mind that it is not exactly an achievement to be scrapping every year, particularly in comparison to Moyes’ exploits.

    So with Moyes now at Manchester United, Everton chairman Bill Kenwright will be hoping that Martinez can pull off the same spiel of low-spending and high-placing. However, while Martinez’s achievements do make him appear to be the right man for the job, the reality is far more complicated.

    There are two major differences: The first is that the expectations are naturally much higher at Everton than they are at Wigan—the accounts say differently, but their fans and reputation are what count. If Martinez guides Everton to a 15th place finish, going by the way that the Premier League operates—money wins trophies, apart from a few exceptions—he will have done an excellent job. The fans, used to Moyes’ practical miracle working—Everton finished above Liverpool last season despite the Anfield outfit spending £61.1 million overall on players compared to their rival’s £6 million profit—will most likely see things differently. Down at Wigan, avoiding relegation was seen as the be-all and end-all; this year’s FA Cup triumph must have been absolute dream.

    The second is a question of motivation.

    The great escapes that Wigan pulled off in previous seasons were not borne out of quality or tactics—obviously both helped, though were not the overriding factor—but motivation. The pattern shows that Wigan would go through the season notching up a majority of bad results, but come March or April, they were practically a different set of players. This is not down to Martinez being tactically astute, but because of the players’ newfound desire to go out and win matches.

    Their motivation? Dropping out of the most-watched league in the world, which could besmirch their reputations and therefore scupper their chances of playing for the top teams. Martinez used the same style of tactics throughout the season; it’s just that by April the players had realised that they had the prospect of relegation hanging over them—all Martinez had to do was remind them of that fact. It will be a lot harder to convince the Everton players that sixth place is far better than seventh.

    This isn’t saying that Martinez isn’t a good manager and won’t be able to handle moving to a “bigger” club; just that he may need to adjust a little.


Manchester United

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    It must be fun to be David Moyes. You’re sitting at home, preoccupied with trying to make sure the final weeks of the season go as smoothly as possible, when Alex Ferguson knocks on the door. By the time he leaves, you are, in no uncertain terms, the next Manchester United manager, with all the pressures that go with succeeding the most decorated manager of modern times.

    As Fergie said in his farewell speech to Old Trafford, it is time to stand by “our new manager,” something that United fans will probably have to take to heart.

    The summer began fairly optimistically for those associated with United. Sure, they might have lost the man who built the club as it is today and whose desire to win has helped them pretty much dominate the Premier League era, but things were looking up. Moyes is a good manager and will have time to adjust, while the new chief executive, Ed Woodward, had demonstrated his intent by making £100 million available for transfers.

    And now, with just over a month left in the window—enough time to get some deals sorted, but they will have to be done quickly—the only import has been a right-back who will most likely serve as a backup player for the time being. Moyes’ recent assertion that the squad is already “really good” is undermined by the very public pursuits of Thiago Alcantara, who eventually signed for Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, and Cesc Fabregas, a player who Barcelona repeatedly insist is not for sale, but whose future is in reality no clearer than the Hudson River.

    Of course there is always the possibility that Moyes will get at least one of the players he wants, but that is not the complete picture. The re-appointment of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, and also the arrival of new Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, are bound to pose problems during the Glaswegian’s first season in charge, especially if Mourinho’s wish of signing Wayne Rooney is granted. Both of Moyes’ main rivals are very good managers, and also have the coffers to build squads in their vision, something that Pellegrini has already done in spades.

    But if United do allow their rivals to get ahead this season, it won’t last long—the Old Trafford institution itself is too strong. There could be a one or two seasons where a drop to third or perhaps even fourth must be taken in their stride, but it is highly unlikely that they will ever have a “Liverpool moment.”

Stoke City

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    When Tony Pulis arrived at Stoke City in 2006 he straight away identified where the team’s strongpoint was.

    Seven years later, and Stoke are now infamous for playing what is widely considered as some of the most rudimentary and unimpressive football the top-flight has seen since, oh, I don’t know, Wimbledon. But the point that everyone seems to miss when they start laying into Tony Pulis, is that his tactics, while they were hardly revolutionary, actually worked.

    The club was able to maintain itself as a mid-table team while spending relatively little money on players who simply weren’t that great, usually with one or two marquee signings to score the goals. This was Pulis’ strength as a manager; persuading his charges that while they may not have the step-overs and flicks that the opposition might, they could still put up a good fight, aided by some hefty challenges.

    It was a policy that has served Stoke well for a while, but, unfortunately, Pulis’ ambition got the better of him, and he was sacked this summer, seemingly for spending more money than the board would have liked. Oh, how they will regret that decision.

    By appointing Mark Hughes, they have practically signed their own death warrant.

    The only thing that enabled Stoke to stay up was Pulis’ ability to harness his team’s limited attributes—an inevitable result of the board not wanting to splash out—and draw performances from them that very few other managers could have. Even the master of motivation, Sir Alex Ferguson, would have struggled, as his teams were based on quick counter-attacking and accomplished passing and movement. Pulis recorded victories against some of the most talented squads in the world using the “punt and run” method.

    Hughes, on the other hand, has been given plenty of funds to assemble teams of very good players yet was unable to get them playing together. His time with Manchester City and QPR are two glaring examples, while at Fulham he repeatedly shot himself in the foot and continued to do so after he left.

    No one can say that Hughes is a bad manager; his time with Wales earned him plaudits, while he guided Blackburn Rovers to sixth and seventh place finishes and took them to three semifinals. It’s just that at Stoke, with the squad he has inherited and the jarring of his ethos with that of the board, it simply will not work.