Friday, 23 August 2013

Pretenders to the Throne: Laying claim to Premier League prestige

Our second Premier League snapshot explores the makeup of three teams who might surprise a few this season and storm into top-half contention. All have managers with a clear vision for their side and an abundance of young, exciting talent.


Some will argue that the Swans should already be conisdered top half material. Without the hindrance of the Europa League and its barmy scheduling, maybe, but this is a Swansea side entering unknown and exhaustive territory. For large parts of their last campaign they relied solely on the goalscoring exploits of Michu, who would have been their only recognised forward were it not for the fact he's not even a forward, rather an attacking midfielder pushed further up the pitch. This kind of dependence doesn't lend itself well to a newly congested fixture list, and many have tipped Swansea's league form to fall off in the face of such demands. Michael Laudrup, I'm sure, has other ideas, and has carefully expanded his squad in search of further domestic and perhaps even continental progress.

The start of a devastating partnership?
Most notably, the acquisition of Wilfred Bony has diversified their attacking options. His arrival relieves some of the pressure from main man Michu, allowing him to be rested if required, or eased back into an attacking midfield slot if not. Bony will constantly look to get himself into dangerous areas around the box; he is all power and positioning, and while not the most mobile unit has the strength, skill and quality in the air to occupy most back lines. His ability on the ground shouldn't be overlooked either, and he is very clinical for such a young striker, the type of forward who comes alive in the penalty area. With Bony pinning defences back, more space will open up for Swansea's close-knit midfield to exploit.

Swansea's increasing depth and diversity.
Creating additional space through the middle will be key, as Swansea's tendency to stay too narrow in possession has allowed teams to bully and frustrate them on several occassions. Laudrup's new midfield recruits will not only provide depth but should help to freshen up an engine room that became a little one-dimensional and predictable towards the end of last season. Shelvey's potential impact is covered in more detail here, but his affinity for the long diagonal ball in particular should open up the pitch and will no doubt become a feature of Swansea's buildup play. CaƱas in addition offers a more dynamic alternative to Leon Britton at the base of midfield and is better equipped to drive forward from a deep position and commit opposition players. Having this variety in his squad will serve Laudrup well when balancing the demands of several competitions and will enable Swansea to mix up their play and combat a wider selection of opposing styles. Defence is the one remaining concern, in terms of both quality and depth, but if that can be remedied then the south-Wales outfit stand every chance of improving their league standing and perhaps surprising onlookers on the European stage.

Premier League prediction: 8th

Aston Villa

The seven-time league champions barely emerged from last season with their top flight status intact, following an arduous and inconsistent campaign, so their inclusion as top ten contenders may come as a surprise. Much has been made of the way Lambert blooded his young squad by keeping faith with them through barren and at times torturous results, but the galvanising potential of that experience became evident towards the end of the season as they hauled themselves to safety, and indeed at the start of this term in their defiant opening-day display at the Emirates. In contrast to Swansea they begin the campaign as reliant as ever on striker Christian Benteke, but with reinforcements arriving all over the pitch and only domestic fixtures to contend with, Lambert will be confident of harnessing his team's resolve to climb the league table and perhaps enjoy another run in the cup competitions.

Strength and pace, the cornerstones of
Villa's fluid attacking style.
The Villa boss has augmented his attack with young, versatile forwards who suit his favoured offensive system. Tonev has pace to burn and offers a goal threat from out wide, and Helenius has the physical presence and slick touch to be a danger through the middle, although both can effectively operate anywhere across the front line, or even in behind the striker. They will provide able cover for the attacking triumverate of Agbonlahor, Weimann and Benteke that is so lethal on the counter in Lambert's fast and fluid 4-2-3-1. With Benteke as the focal point, Villa's energetic players are able to swarm up in support on the break and overwhelm unprepared defences, a style made for the Premier League, but forged in Germany. Lambert's time playing for Borussia Dortmund and decision to take his coaching badges through the German FA seems to have had a major influence on the counter-attacking style he employs, while off the pitch there is a clear connection to the Dortmund model of snapping up cheap, promising youngsters from lower leagues to coach into an industrious, effective team.

Weimann adds precision on the break.
So far, the missing link has been defensive solidity, unsurprising when you look at the age of Villa's defenders and consider that experience is often key to success at the back. Vlaar is one of the few leaders in the team and their dominant centre back, so his form and fitness will be crucial in sustaining results. The sitting midfielders will need to improve positionally to better screen the defence too - industry and enthusiasm alone will not be enough. New recruit Okore though has massive potential and could yet prove a masterful signing by Lambert to shore up a callow back line. There is every chance that Villa, should results again begin to slip, will be unable to reproduce last year's heroic drop-defying form, but it's more likely that their dynamism and attacking verve, under Lambert's steadying hand, will carry through into this campaign and, coupled with the squad's growing experience, catapult them into top half contention.

Premier League prediction: 9th


The Saints' stunning performances against the league's big hitters last season mark them out as probably the most dangerous contenders of the three. Their starting eleven on Premier League opening day was the youngest in the division and Pochettino's looks a squad bursting with potential, with players who will only improve as the games go by. The manager's appointment last season quickly lead to an evolution of Southampton's play - the underpinning pass-and-move philosophy already at the club was married to a relentless pressing game and a faster more fluid approach in the final third. Bigger teams were suffocated and remarkable results earned but frailties still remain against physical, direct opposition, a weakness Pochettino has sought to address this summer. If successful, Southampton could prove too deadly for many teams in the coming season.

Lovren adds much-needed quality to
the Saints defence.
In possession, Southampton will build slowly from the back and look to spring attacks once they have penetrated their opponents' half, an approach that lead to some fine attacking play last year and is unlikely to alter much. Rickie Lambert proved an able pivot for the team's buildup to centre around and a reliable finisher, traits that will be replicated by new addition Pablo Osvaldo; the Saints already look much stronger with the option of two distinct focal points in attack. This newly acquired depth extends to the defensive side of the team where new recruits Victor Wanyama and Dejan Lovren will have an even greater impact. Southampton's vulnerabilities are exposed when teams bypass their energetic midfield (and the screening interceptions of Schneiderlin) and hit the striker first time, directly pressuring their back line. Wanyama, whose potential is covered more closely here, will look to dominate the space in front of defence, not only by winning aerial battles and powering players off the ball but also by driving forward in possession and kickstarting the transition to attack. Lovren meanwhile will reinforce the back line itself and provides both a solid aerial presence and fantastic cover, with an armoury of clearances and interceptions in his game.

More victories to follow.
While shoring up the foundations of the team will be crucial to the Saints' league form this season, ensuring the continued development of their youngsters is key to the club's forward progression. In full backs Clyne and Shaw they have future international quality on the flanks. Shaw in particular already possesses a strong all round game and looks the ideal modern fullback - the 18 year-old's potential to dominate Southampton's left side with his athleticism, tackling and ability on the ball could elevate the team beyond expectation. Cork and Ward-Prowse meanwhile are young, ball-playing midfielders that will bring verve and enthusiasm to the high intensity pressing required in the middle of the park. If Pochettino can successfully marry this exuberance with discipline and the solidity in transition he is striving for, as well as maintain the team's threat in possession that made them such dangerous adversaries last year, Southampton will storm into contention this season. The established order may well be looking over their shoulders in the months ahead and perhaps in the years to come, too.

Premier League prediction: 7th

No comments:

Post a Comment