EPL Season Preview – Part 3
by Thomas Hejduk
The third installment of the season preview takes a look at one well-established EPL mainstay and three others that are trying to further dig their heels into the unstable Premiership turf and secure their positions as mid-table clubs. Each team seems to have a unique formula for success as they try to secure their grip on the top division. Across the four clubs fantasy owners can find the best defender in the game and plenty of quality value options and sleepers to fill in rosters across the board.
A Premiership mainstay coming off yet another successful season that saw them finish 7th in the league, it looks like business as usual for “the people’s club” of the city of Liverpool. The club boasts a solid roster and somehow manages to hold on to their players a little better than other second-tier teams. That usually gives them the edge in the standings when the dust clears. David Moyes has a growing reputation as one of the game’s better managers, but one has to wonder if the club is starting to tread on thin ice given the increasing difficulties of the financial landscape.
One of the most storied clubs in the Premiership, Everton has played a record 108 seasons of top flight football and has won the league nine times. Everton may play in Liverpool’s shadow today, but it was the Toffees who enjoyed greater success in the early years of English football. In fact, Liverpool owes its existence to former Everton members who broke away to form the club. In spite of their historical success, Everton hasn’t won any major trophies since the 1995 FA Cup and haven’t really threatened for the league title since the 80s. American soccer fans take some additional interest in this team because USMNT keeper Tim Howard mans the goal. This is also the club where Landon Donovan spent a successful stint while on loan from the L.A. Galaxy.
Players to Target
Louis Saha (FWD), Tim Cahill (MF), Mikel Arteta (MF), Phil Jagielka (DF), Leighton Baines (DF)
The undisputed king of fantasy defenders, Baines takes set pieces, penalty kicks, and generally does everything statistically that a star midfielder would do in addition to getting credit for clean sheets. He is the most expensive defender in fantasy games, but he’s worth the price. Jagielka is also a great option at a more reasonable price but is constantly being linked to Arsenal in transfer rumors. (His value would probably increase if that transfer materialized.) Cahill, Arteta, and Saha are much shakier options. All are capable of productive outbursts, but Saha is injury-prone and Cahill and Arteta seem to be on the decline, if only slightly. Seamus Coleman and Jack Rodwell are excellent up-and-coming players but Coleman’s value is diminished by his reclassification as a midfielder in fantasy games and Rodwell can’t seem to crack the starting XI as a regular.
A lot of pundits will tab Everton to finish 7th and recent history would suggest that’s more than fair. The club is well run and returns a lot of players so chemistry shouldn’t be an issue, but the financial realities of top flight football make it harder to tread water just below the big clubs with each passing year.
After spending a good deal of the 90s and the early part of the 2000s bouncing between the top division and the Championship, the last couple of years have seen relative stability with an increasing awareness of how to manage a mid-table team. Much like Aston Villa, they spent the offseason cashing in some valuable assets and making financially prudent moves to find economical but quality replacements. The club is in no position to win the league, but they have built a team that should be competitive and safe from relegation.
Fierce rivals with Newcastle and Middlesbrough, the latter of which is currently in the Championship division, the Black Cats stay otherwise relatively secluded on the northeast coast of England. They play in an intriguing venue called the “Stadium of Light” and their isolation from the Manchester/Liverpool and London soccer hotbeds keep them somewhat equally isolated from hype, media coverage, and controversy. In recent years, the team seems to be forming a sort of pipeline with Manchester United where they purchase players who aren’t quite at the level SAF needs but still plenty good enough to keep a mid-table team stable and afloat. There are worse team management strategies. The team has taken necessary steps towards stability, but in the early 2000s this club was gaining a reputation for flaming out of the Premiership in spectacular fashion. In 2003 the club was relegated with a then-record 19 points, only to outdo themselves with a new record-low 15 point season total in 2005 after again gaining promotion in 2004. (The dubious record has since been broken by Derby County, who finished the 2007-08 season with 11 points.)
Players to Target
Asamoah Gyan (FWD), Stephane Sessegnon (MF), John O’Shea (DF), Phil Bardsley (DF)
There may not be a dominant fantasy player here but there are plenty of options nonetheless. Gyan is the safest one. Having sold Darren Bent to Aston Villa, Gyan should be the penalty taker and primary striker. Sessegnon is listed as a midfielder but may be an out-of-position fantasy value as he has been playing forward and racking up goals throughout the summer. He is a top sleeper heading into the season. Craig Gardner and Sebastian Larsson provide other reasonable options at midfield. Lee Catermole is a good bet for a senseless red card or two but he also has a ton of potential in the midfield. Phil Bardsley and Manchester United transfer John O’Shea provide appealing options at defense. When a keeper battle sorts itself out, the winner could be a good value too but until a clear first-team starter emerges from the collection of Keiren Westwood, Simon Mignolet, and injured Craig Gordon, this is a position to avoid.
A repeat of last year’s 10th place finish seems about right. The club secured the position in spite of a terrible mid-season slump and if the new players gel and quickly find chemistry this is a team that could compete for a Europa League spot.
Stoke hasn’t been in the Premiership long but they’ve made the most of their stay, routinely finishing solidly mid-table. Last season the club finished in 13th place but was never in danger of relegation and made it all the way to the FA Cup Final where they lost to Manchester City 1-0. The appearance secured them a spot in the Europa League, which is a mixed bag. On the one hand it is great for the fans and a feather in the cap. On the other hand, the extra matches put a burden on the team and extra injuries and travel can take a toll on a mid-table team that doesn’t have the depth of the big clubs.
Stoke is the oldest club in the Premiership but doesn’t exactly have a rich history of success. (Notts County is the only English football club recognized as older.) The team earned promotion in 2008 but prior to that hadn’t been in the top division since the 1980s. Manager Tony Pulis is oft-criticized for playing “ugly” football. Stoke’s physical defensive tactics, can stifle some of the game’s finesse players and some feel it detracts from the beauty of the English game and borders on dirty play. Pulis takes and “end justifies the means” approach and the results have kept the club safely afloat for a few years so it is hard to criticize the tactics. Midfielder Rory Delap is a player to watch because he has the most dangerous throw-ins in the game. His throws are so strong and accurate that he has effectively turned what is normally a harmless play into the equivalent of a corner kick.
Players to Target
Matthew Etherington (MF), Jermaine Pennant (MF), Ryan Shawcross (DF), Robert Huth (DF)
This team offers a pair of solid options at midfield and defense. At this point Etherington is well established as one of the best midfield values in fantasy games. Pennant might prove to be an even better value. He has a knack for finding the aforementioned Delap miracle throw-in and putting it in the net. Huth is coming off a dominant fantasy season while Shawcross was one of the game’s top defenders in the 2009-10 season. The former is a prototypical stud defender and the better bet to repeat as a fantasy force, but both should be under consideration. Monitor the keeper position as well, where Asmir Begovic or Thomas Sorenson should provide excellent fantasy value. Stop short of targeting Kenwyne Jones but the striker isn’t out of the question depending on match-up.
The aesthetics of their game can be debated, but it is hard to argue with the results. Pulis took a team that seemed destined for relegation and turned it into a solid mid-table club. Stoke hasn’t done much to improve this offseason, but they haven’t done much to diminish their squad either. With their now proven formula for success, an 11th place finish, well clear of the drop zone, seems reasonable.
Wolves were extremely lucky to survive to see another season at the top level. In fact, their survival was very much in question until the final minutes of the season when they managed to score two late goals against Blackburn to keep their goal differential one better than Birmingham and Blackpool. With all that in mind, the team very much looked like it belonged. Their resume included wins over Liverpool, Chelsea, and both Manchester clubs but they still managed to lose a league-worst 20 matches thanks to a leaky defensive and an inability to score away from home. Wolves allowed 66 goals and managed to score only 16 away from home all year. Those numbers needs to improve if they expect to again avoid relegation.
The club has played a scattered but extremely important role in English football history. Wolves were dominant in the 1950s, fielding an English league dynasty and during that era they played an influential role in establishing the European competition that has evolved into the Champions League. The club enjoyed some more success in the 1970s and finally returned to the top division in 2009 where they have managed to just barely stay afloat the past two seasons. The club sports some fairly stylin’ gold and black uniforms and plays in Molineux Stadium, which is one of the more intimidating venues in the league.
Players to Target
Kevin Doyle (FWD), Jamie O’Hara (MF), Roger Johnson (DF)
There isn’t a lot of depth for fantasy owners, but the team has something to offer at every position except keeper. Kevin Doyle is a rather anonymous but relatively productive goal-scorer for his price. Jamie O’Hara joined Wolves on transfer in January and could really hit his stride this year. He scored only three goals in 14 appearances last season, but he is expected to be a cornerstone of the team. Roger Johnson was added on transfer from Birmingham City to give the club some much-needed defensive credibility and has in fact been named team captain. He was a rock solid fantasy player for Birmingham and if he can help Wolves shore up the defense he will continue to have value in fantasy games.
The prediction might be a little optimistic, but consider it a karmic adjustment. This club played well for much of the 2010-11 campaign and it didn’t seem entirely just that they were entangled in a relegation battle until the final minutes of the season. The Roger Johnson signing sends the necessary message that the organization is addressing their weaknesses and taking this staying in the Premiership thing seriously.