Sunday, August 3, 2008

Premiership Preview--15. Wigan Athletic

They play some of the ugliest soccer in the Premiership. Their field surface is undoubtedly the worst in the Premiership and sits in one of the league’s smallest stadiums, which is also shared with a rugby club. They have no star players to speak of, and are run by a 71-year-old chairman with questionable financial savvy, to say the least. With all that said, Wigan Athletic continues to surprise outsiders by surviving in England’s top flight, and will look to do for a fourth consecutive season after finishing 14th last year with 40 points.

Steve Bruce is a very underrated manager who has crafted a nice career for himself in taking, and I mean no offense here, low-profile, low-prestige teams (Sheffield United, Huddersfield Town, Wigan, Crystal Palace, and Birmingham City) and exceeding expectations. He’s had to work for everything he’s achieved, starting in the Championship and eventually working his way up to the Premiership.

Without his rearrival at Wigan after leaving Birmingham late last November, the Latics would’ve been relegated. They were moving in reverse under Chris Hutchings, and Bruce proved to be the master of the 0-0 draw and 1-0 victory. His club went unbeaten in five of their last six games a season ago, and had another unbeaten stretch of four games prior to that.

Because of Wigan’s location — they’re based in suburban Manchester, where they fly under the radar and are overshadowed by United, City, and even Blackburn — and unattractive style of play, Bruce didn’t get a lot of credit for the job he did, but he’s a capable manager and the club is in good hands with him at the helm. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not the type of guy who can win you something, but he’s a survivor and a fighter and his players take on their manager’s approach.

Bruce doesn’t have much of a transfer budget to work with; he’s bought Olivier Kapo, a talented attacking midfielder he had at Birmingham last year, and Lee Cattermole from Middlesbrough, but he’s sold a few spare parts to do so (Andreas Granqvist, Julius Aghahowa, and Andy Webster) and often uses loan deals, as he did with striker Amr Zaky from Egyptian side Zamalek, and free transfers to bring in players. Cattermole and Kapo will both see plenty of playing time in midfield, if not start, while none of the departed players had a role of any real significance. Zaky will replace Marcus Bent as Emile Heskey’s partner up front.

Especially now with those two on board, midfield is Wigan’s strongest asset. Michael Brown is one of the dirtiest players in England but can be a solid central midfielder when his mind is right. Wilson Palacios was one of last summer’s best signings and fellow Spanish-speaker Antonio Valencia can play on either wing and is good on both. Jason Koumas can make plays from the right side and provide a spark off the bench when called upon. Kevin Kilbane played mostly at left back last year as the club struggled to find a replacement for Leighton Baines, but is a natural left-sided midfielder. Antoine Sibierski is still useful as an attacking midfielder and will provide valuable depth behind Kapo. Dutchman Daniël de Ridder, another summer signing, is another versatile player like Valencia. The once-extremely promising career of Ryan Taylor has been curtailed by injury problems, but he’s a terrific set piece taker and can play right wing and right back.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Chris Kirkland

RB: Mario Melchiot (captain)
CB: Emmerson Boyce
CB: Paul Scharner
LB: Kilbane

RMF: Valencia
CMF: Cattermole
AMF: Palacios
LMF: Kapo

ST: Heskey
ST: Zaky

Out of teams 11-20 last year, Wigan had the best defensive record with only 51 goals conceded. They’ll be in every game, home and away, but they need to get over the hump on the road and pick up some more points there to avoid another relegation fight.

January is the toughest month on Wigan’s schedule, with away dates at Manchester City and Aston Villa and home games against Tottenham and Liverpool.

Bruce’s boys will welcome Arsenal and Manchester United to the JJB Stadium in successive weeks in the middle of April before closing the season out with five manageable games, three of which are certainly winnable (Bolton, @ West Brom, @ Stoke).

Aside from January, there is no difficult stretch of any length, but there isn’t an easy patch either. This team likely won’t have much consistency over the course of the year; you’re not going to see any long winning streaks and you also likely won’t see them fail to pick up points in a three or four-game span.

Bottom Line: Steve Bruce is as experienced as they come in leading this type of team. Having been one himself, and a successful one at that with Manchester United, he’s a player’s manager and doesn’t have large egos to tread carefully around. Wigan won’t get blown out too often, and they won’t pound anyone into the ground either. You may not be happy with the brand of soccer Wigan plays under Bruce, but it’s effective, and it will keep you in the Premiership for another year.

Tomorrow we move closer to the middle of the table with places 14 and 13, where the threat of relegation shouldn’t be a problem.

Premiership Preview--16. Fulham

Fulham's "Great Escape" was one of the best stories of the '07-'08 Premiership season. The Cottagers looked down and out so many times, so close to the end of the year, but a shocking 3-2 come-from-behind victory at Manchester City was the first of three consecutive triumphs and the second of four in five games that vaulted Fulham from certain relegation to safety for another year. Master midfield playmaker and set-piece taker extraordinare Jimmy Bullard, American target man Brian McBride, and manager Roy Hodgson worked their magic in West London, and while McBride has come home to Chicago to play in MLS, the other two remain.

No Premiership club has been as active this summer as Fulham. Eight players have come to Craven Cottage so far while 14 others have packed their bags and headed elsewhere, either through release or transfer. The player movement has been overwhelmingly positive for Fulham; they've acquired no fewer than three starters -- goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer from Middlesbrough and striker Bobby Zamora will certainly feature, and either John Paintsil (West Ham) or Fredrik Stoor (Rosenborg) will play right back -- and lost just one in McBride. They've also added some quality midfield depth in Andranik Teymourian from Bolton and Zoltán Gera from West Brom just in case the injury-prone Bullard goes down again. When I say no one of importance or Premiership ability has left (except McBride and perhaps Kasey Keller), I mean no one. Hodgson has gotten rid of the dead weight to make this a more complete, sturdy team.

The midfield group carried Fulham to safety on its collective back. The previously-mentioned Bullard is the team's on and off-field leader, even though center back Brede Hangeland wears the captain's armband, as well as a terrific player right in the center of the pitch. Clint Dempsey has the highest work rate on the team and can run all day from any midfield position or up front, Simon Davies brings much-needed pace and crossing ability to the right wing, and Danny Murphy's high-level experience from his days at Liverpool, cool demeanor, and propensity for clutch play can't be undervalued. There is solid depth here now too; not just Andranik and Gera, but Leon Andreasen and Alexey Smertin when the latter is healthy. The only thing lacking is an out-and-out left winger, and the group as a whole doesn't have much speed.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Schwarzer

RB: Paintsil
CB: Hangeland (captain)
CB: Aaron Hughes
LB: Paul Konchesky

RMF: Davies
CMF: Bullard
CMF: Murphy
LMF: Dempsey

ST: Zamora
ST: Andy Johnson

Last year was a disppointing one for Fulham at home, where they went just 5-5-9 after a 7-7-5 campaign in '06-'07 and an impressive 13-2-4 the year before. Craven Cottage is a more difficult environment to play in for visitors than that 5-5-9 shows, so especially with a better team this go-around, expect Fulham to be closer to somewhere in between those other two records. Even if they don't play well at all on the road, a better mark at home will keep Fulham in the Premiership for another year.

The first month of the season brings back-to-back games against Arsenal and at Manchester United, but before those fixtures lies opening day at Hull City. We saw lowly Derby outplay Portsmouth and be unfortunate to only get a draw when those two squared off at Pride Park to kickoff the '07-'08 season, so Fulham will need to be wary against Hull.

October is a manageable month; the Cottagers should take six points against Sunderland and Wigan at home and possibly steal another victory at West Brom or Portsouth.

November brings the most difficult run of games of the season with Everton, Liverpool, and Aston Villa all away, with Newcastle and Spurs at home after the Everton match.

Christmas and New Year's will be celebrated in style in London as Fulham hosts Chelsea in the West London Derby on December 28, just two days after a trip to North London rivals Tottenham.

To finish out the year, Fulham has four difficult games and would love to have secured safety already. They're not going to get much, if anything, at Chelsea or Newcastle, and it'll be just as tough against Villa and Everton at home.

Bottom Line: It's no secret that Roy Hodgson is not a master tactician or specialist with the X's and O's, but he's a good motivator and the players love working for him. He should be able to coax enough out of this roster, one that he's clearly strengthened this summer, to stay in the Premiership, and it wouldn't surprise me if Fulham was able to sneak up a spot or two in the table. After the way they finished last year, nothing is impossible.