Monday, August 4, 2008

Premiership Preview--13. Sunderland

Backed by the loudest supporters in the Premier League last season, measured at average peak volume at 129.2 decibels, almost as loud as a jet, Sunderland will look to improve on last season's respectable 15th-place finish. The Black Cats were the only newly-promoted team to survive in the Premiership, an accomplishment in itself, but manager Roy Keane has made it clear through his summer signings that he wants more from his club.

Keane, the youngest manager in England's top division, has added six players so far, four of whom figure to play right away in some capacity or another, including the trio acquired from Tottenham. Pascal Chimbonda will be the first-choice right back and bring stability to a position in which Keane started six different players last season, four at least eight times. Steed Malbranque can play virtually anywhere in midfield, but will likely feature on the left flank for Sunderland as Ross Wallace was loaned out to Preston North End. Teemu Tainio is another versatile player, capable of playing both full back positions or on either wing, and could be used as quality cover in case of injury. El-Hadji Diouf was signed from Bolton and will play either as Kenwyne Jones' partner up front or on the right wing opposite Malbranque.

Sunderland lost no one of importance; Andy Cole was the biggest name to leave the Stadium of Light, but he started only three games up front and was no higher than fourth on the depth chart at that position. Greg Halford started eight games at right back last season, but was deemed expendable when Chimbonda signed on.

Adding Malbranque, Tainio, and Diouf reinforced Sunderland's strongest asset -- their midfield. Aside from those three, who were just discussed, Carlos Edwards and Kieran Richardson are speedy, capable wide players when healthy, Grant Leadbitter can play any midfield position and is Sunderland through and through, Dwight Yorke brings much-needed leadership and experience to the otherwise-young roster from his central role, Dickson Etuhu is the club's holding player above the back four, and the captain, Dean Whitehead, will play anywhere he's asked to play but is naturally a center midfielder.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Craig Gordon

RB: Chimbonda
CB: Nyron Nosworthy
CB: Danny Higginbotham
LB: Danny Collins

*RMF: Edwards
DMF: Etuhu
CMF: Whitehead (captain)
LMF: Malbranque

*ST: Diouf
ST: Michael Chopra

*This is pending the results of Kenwyne Jones' knee operation. When Jones is healthy, he'll start with Chopra and push Diouf to right wing in place of Edwards.

As we saw last year, this formation isn't rigid and Keane really swaps players in and out of the starting lineup based on their form, especially in the midfield. The four I listed there will change regularly, probably more so than any team I've previewed so far, because the club is deepest in that area. Yorke will play his share of games, especially against the league's better teams, Richardson will get his chances, as will Leadbitter. Keane also employs a 4-5-1 from time to time, in which instance Jones is the lone striker.

Sunderland has their hands full to start the season with three consecutive games against European participants -- home to Liverpool (Champions League), at Tottenham (UEFA Cup), and home against Manchester City (UEFA Cup). After that, they'll see Wigan, host Middlesbrough in the first Tees-Wear Derby of the season, travel to Aston Villa, and welcome Arsenal to the Stadium of Light. Those are seven difficult matches, to say the least, so anything more than seven points would have to be considered a bonus.

Late November and early December brings a stretch of four winnable games in five: Bolton, West Brom, @Hull City, and Blackburn. Those games are interrupted only by Roy Keane's second return to Old Trafford as a manager, which should be entertaining.

January could be a pivotal month for the Black Cats. They'll play two local derbies -- @Middlesbrough to start the month, @Newcastle to end it in the Tyne-Wear fixture -- and host Aston Villa and Fulham in between. All bets are off in those rivalry games, but they really need to win of those and it'd be nice from a Sunderland point of view to win those two matches at home.

They close out the year with home games against Everton and Chelsea, sandwiched around trips to Bolton and Portsmouth. The run-in is another tough month for Keane's scrappy bunch, though they should be safe in the table by then.

Bottom Line: Keane showed me a lot last season, his first as a Premiership manager, and he's only going to get better as the years progress. The club has spent money and added some nice pieces to the roster, which is now significantly deeper than it had been. A lot hinges on the health of Jones; he's their main scoring threat and if he's out for any considerable length of time, they may be in trouble. Playing in front of that boisterous crowd is a huge advantage -- 9 home wins was 8th-most in the league last year -- but they have to improve on the road. With the experience Keane has brought in, I think they will.

We'll move closer to the top half of the table tomorrow as the countdown continues with places 12 and 11.

Premiership Preview--14. Middlesbrough

According to the BBC in an online article published in December of last year, Middlesbrough's youth academy has produced the most graduates (9) eligible to represent England at international level and start in at least five senior games for the club since the 2002-2003 season, including Stewart Downing, Lee Cattermole (now at Wigan), David Wheater, Stuart Parnaby (now at Birmingham City), Andrew Taylor, and Adam Johnson. Lesser-known but still young players like Jonathan Grounds, Josh Walker, and Seb Hines also came from the academy, and they too seem to have a future with The Boro.

Despite this success at youth level, where they also lost in the 2003 FA Youth Cup final and then won the competition the next year, Middlesbrough's first team has struggled to get out of the bottom half of the Premiership -- they've done so only twice in the last 10 seasons, with a 7th-place finish their highest in England's top flight since 1974-75. Boro lost to Juande Ramos' Sevilla side in the 2005-2006 UEFA Cup final and appeared in the Round of 16 the season before, but those are the two bright spots in a decade of mediocrity.

Gareth Southgate is entering his third season as manager after spending the previous five seasons as a player at the Riverside. He's led the club to 12th and 13th place in his first two seasons, respectively, and compiled an overall record of 27-29-36 during that time. All-in-all, the second-youngest manager in the Premiership at 37 years of age has done a decent job, but he understands that Middlesbrough fans want to see their club make a jump up into the top ten within the next couple years.

To that end, Southgate has brought in two solid signings -- Didier Digard, a young French midfielder, from PSG, and Marvin Emnes, a pacey 20-year-old winger/striker who was the 2007-08 Fans' Player of the Year at Sparta Rotterdam. Emnes may play right away on the right flank opposite Downing, and Digard should replace George Boateng, who left for Hull City, in the holding role.

Southgate has made it clear that he wants to rebuild at Middlesbrough and usher in a youth movement. He wants to bring more energy and exuberance into the club, which you'll see with Digard and Emnes. He let Boateng go as the player doesn't fit this mold, allowed Boro's long-time goalkeeper, 37-year-old Mark Schwarzer, to leave for Fulham on a free transfer, and released Fábio Rochemback. I'm not sure if he wanted to sell Cattermole, who Southgate handed the captain's armband to for a game when Cattermole was only 19, but may have felt the offer from Wigan was too good to pass up. He essentially just swapped Cattermole for Digard, a great tackler, and only paid a net cost of $1 million to do so.

The interesting thing about Boro is, unlike any of the teams I've previewed so far, they don't have one group (goalie/defense, midfield, forwards) that stands out visibly above the other two or is obviously weaker than the other two -- all three are consistent.

The back four is sturdy with Emanuel Pogatetz and David Wheater as the anchors in the middle, though Pogatetz is a natural left back and Robert Huth can play alongside Wheater if preferred. The midfield is good with Downing, Digard, Julio Arca, and either Gary O'Neil, Enmes, or even Jérémie Aliadière, who would rather play up top, wide right. The combination of Afonso Alves and Tuncay up front blossomed at the end of the season. Aliadière is a viable strike option as well, and Mido isn't bad off the bench.

Many players on the roster can play multiple positions, so Southgate can mix and match until he settles on some combination he really likes. He's not locked into playing the same formation with the same players on a weekly basis, which is a huge advantage for a manager.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
*GK: Brad Jones

**RB: Luke Young
CB: Wheater
CB: Pogatetz
LB: Taylor

RMF: O'Neil
DMF: Digard
CMF: Arca
LMF: Downing

ST: Tuncay
ST: Alves

*Schwarzer's departure has left the starting keeper's job wide open, with some speculating that Jones, last year's backup, will go between the sticks, and others saying Southgate will go out and buy a proven number one. Because Jones is currently the best option, he's my projected starter, but I wouldn't be surprised if Southgate did acquire another keeper.

**With Young's move to Aston Villa today, Middlesbrough doesn't have anyone on their first team roster at present who started a league game at right back last season. It's unclear, then, who would start, but it obviously won't be Young.

Middlesbrough should get off to a decent start, with winnable home games against Tottenham, Stoke, and West Brom amongst their opening six matches. The first of two Tees-Wear derbies comes at Sunderland on September 20. Nine total goals were scored in the corresponding games last season, so that should be a good one to watch.

November brings home games against West Ham, Bolton, and Newcastle in a Tyne-Tees derby affair. Middlesbrough would love nine points from those fixtures as their other two that month come at Aston Villa and at Everton, where Boro certainly won't be favored.

Arsenal comes to the Riverside on December 13 and in the same game last year, Boro pulled off a thrilling 2-1 victory. A potentially difficult month with that match, a visit to Old Trafford, and a home game against Everton could be made better with road victories at Hull City and Fulham.

Southgate's club finishes the season in style as they'll see Arsenal, Manchester United, and Newcastle in three consecutive weeks, followed a home game with Villa and a trip to East London to play West Ham to end the campaign. Remember, Middlesbrough is usually simply playing out the string in March or April -- they seem to be condemned to another middling finish by then and have little motivation or anything to play for -- but that won't be the case this year with that kind of opposition awaiting them.

Bottom Line: This team is being built for the future, and success usually comes only through growing pains. That's what this season probably will be for Middlesbrough fans, because while they're decent in all facets of the game, they haven't broken through to being very good in any. It takes time and experience to do that, things that many of Boro's players don't have at the Premiership level. They have obvious upside and could definitely be a team to watch going forward, but for this year, it'll be another bottom-half finish.