Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Premiership Preview--9. Everton

As much as Everton fans may not want to admit it, their club will always operate under arch-nemesis and cross-town rival Liverpool. There's no way around it; Liverpool is statistically the most successful team in English history, having won more league titles (18), Carling Cups (7), and European Cups/Champions League trophies (5) than any other club in the country. They're tied for the most UEFA Cup triumphs with three. The Reds won the Champions League again recently, just four seasons ago, reached the '06-'07 final in Athens, and won their 7th FA Cup one year prior. Everton can't stack up with that, so fair or not, they're the city of Liverpool's second club.

However, Everton is coming off their best season in just over two decades. The 1986-1987 campaign will never be forgotten by Evertonians; it was the year in which the Toffees won the old First Division, shared the Charity Shield (albeit with Liverpool), and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Carling Cup. They've had some good seasons since then but nothing that would top last year's 5th-place finish, semifinal appearance in the Carling Cup, and trip to the UEFA Cup Round of 16, where they eliminated in heartbreaking fashion on PK's by Fiorentina.

With that success in mind, those fans have to be disappointed with the summer their club has had so far. Manager David Moyes hasn't brought in any new players, although he did make an effort to sign talented 21-year-old attacking midfielder João Moutinho from Sporting Lisbon. Everton's $23.6 million offer was rejected by the Portuguese side, but it's been made clear that Everton won't give up in their pursuit of the player. Manuel Fernandes returned to Valencia from his second loan spell with Everton, though Moyes has said he'd love to have Fernandes back on loan or permanently if a satisfactory deal could be reached.

An improved offer for Moutinho could be financed by the pending sale of Andy Johnson, Everton's leading scorer in all competitions two seasons ago, to Fulham. If Johnson goes, he'll join Lee Carsley, Stefan Wessels, Bjarni Vidarsson, and Patrick Boyle out the doors of Goodison Park, though of those four, only Carsley's departure could hurt Everton as he started 33 games in the center of midfield last year. Johnson's 9-12 goals a season would be missed as well, and it seems like Moyes is counting on young striker Victor Anichebe to develop on the fly next year.

Everton is strongest in their midfield already, so the additions of Moutinho and Fernandes would only make them even more dangerous. Diminutive right winger Mikel Arteta has returned to Earth with a single goal and 7 assists to his name in the Premiership a season after he broke out with 9 goals and 13 assists, but the Spaniard is still a quality player. Opposite him is another player who is slight of stature, Steven Pienaar.

Pienaar and Arteta are very effective running down the flanks, but someone has to get the ball to them first and without Carsley, you'll see a dearth of players in the middle. When the versatile Phil Neville isn't starting at right back, you'll likely find him in the holding midfield role. Phil Jagielka will probably get more time in that position this year as well with the fully-healthy Leighton Baines at left back, shifting Joleon Lescott back inside. Leon Osman can play anywhere in the midfield four; he started 10 league games in the center and on the right wing last year and also went out left for another six. The most clutch player in the Premiership, Tim Cahill, occupies the area right behind the strikers but may miss the start of the season due to recovery from surgery to fix a recurring metatarsal problem. Cahill is a sure starter when healthy -- unfortunately, he can't seem to stay fit for any long stretch of time.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Tim Howard

RB: Tony Hibbert
CB: Joseph Yobo
CB: Lescott
LB: Baines

RMF: Arteta
DMF: Neville
DMF: Jagielka
LMF: Pienaar

ST: Yakubu
*ST: Anichebe

*Anichebe's inclusion depends on the fitness of Cahill. If the Australian is ready to start the season, Anichebe will probably be relegated to the bench and Cahill would be inserted into the AMF role, altering the formation slightly to a 4-4-1-1.

Everton could see exactly where they stand as a club after their first 10 games. They'll play teams from all areas of the table -- perennial top four sides Liverpool (home), Arsenal (away), and Manchester United (home), UEFA Cup contenders Blackburn and Portsmouth, both at home, and bottom-feeders West Brom, Stoke City, Hull City, and Bolton, all away. Those opponents provide an accurate cross-section of the league, so where Everton lies in the table after those games should provide a good idea as to where they'll end up.

November brings five manageable (my favorite word these days!) fixtures -- Fulham, @West Ham, Middlesbrough, @Wigan, and @Tottenham. Anything around 10 points in those games would be a solid month for the Toffees. That game against Tottenham is the start of four consecutive difficult matches, as Everton will travel to Manchester City in between home games with Aston Villa and Chelsea.

January has trouble written all over it; Everton plays three games in a row against "Big Four" opposition, starting with the second Merseyside Derby, this one at Anfield, followed by a home date with Arsenal and a visit to Old Trafford to play the two-time defending league champions. Before that mini-stretch is a must-win home game against Hull.

Late March and early April brings the last tough run of matches for Moyes and his men. They'll play four tricky matches in five -- @Portsmouth, Wigan, @Aston Villa, Chelsea, and Manchester City at Goodison Park to finish it up. These games will probably determine whether or not Everton makes into the UEFA Cup again.

Bottom Line: Moyes hasn’t done nearly enough to strengthen this squad in my opinion. They have, in all likelihood, another grueling UEFA Cup run to deal with, and the teams around them (Portsmouth, Villa, Spurs, and Man City) have all improved considerably either through new player acquisition, holdover player development, or a combination of both. I’m not sure who is going to replace Johnson’s goals, and if Cahill isn’t healthy, there’s not much firepower and explosiveness on the team aside from Yakubu. There also isn’t much team speed, and the first team roster is too small. Bringing Moutinho in would be a big help, though, and I think you’ll see Fernandes back at Goodison Park at some point in the year. Even so, I can’t see Everton repeating last year’s finish.

Tomorrow is our first venture into the last European places, 8th and 7th. The countdown to the top continues here, so check it out in the morning.

Premiership Preview--10. West Ham

I think it would come as a surprise to many to know that West Ham, not Middlesbrough, not Aston Villa, not any of the promoted clubs, had the highest average of English players in their starting lineups (6.61/11) in the 2007-2008 Premiership season. That surprise symbolizes a commonly-held feeling towards West Ham from outside those associated with the club in one form or another: apathy.

West Ham is the fourth club in London, behind Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham, and ahead of the likes of Fulham, Crystal Palace, Millwall, Charlton Athletic, and QPR. Their status behind those bigger teams means they’re often overlooked by the masses, and the fact that they haven’t won anything lately like those three have only makes matters worse. West Ham flies under the radar; they’re good for an upset or two every season like we saw last year with Manchester United and Liverpool and the year before with United on the final day of the season, but the fact of the matter is they’re a middling Premiership club in a city with tons of other entertainment options, sporting and non-sporting.

This ignorance is a shame, too, because West Ham has fantastic supporters and, at least in my opinion, one of the best, most charming stadiums in the country. The club fights a constant battle to escape the broad shadows left by their North London rivals and Chelsea in the western part of town. The only thing that will get them more exposure outside of East London is success. Until then, interesting statistics like the one I led this preview with aren’t going to be associated with West Ham, simply because the team itself isn’t one of the first that comes to mind when you’re talking about soccer in England.

West Ham finished 10th last year and had an outside shot at qualifying for the UEFA Cup until the final two months of the season, when they essentially packed it in because there was just no way they could vault the four or five teams necessary to make it into Europe.

Manager Alan Curbishley acquired Swiss international Valon Behrami from Lazio in the Hammers’ only big move so far this summer. I dedicated a post to this signing the day it occurred (July 23) so you can check the archives for more detailed analysis of it, but in brief, bringing the young, versatile winger in was a good move for West Ham. He adds Champions League experience to a club that has tasted nothing positive in European competition in a long while, can play either flank and right back if necessary, and stands out from the plethora of wide midfielders already employed by the team.

A few spare parts have left Upton Park; Nolberto Solano was released by Curbishley as he was excess to requirements after Behrami was signed, Bobby Zamora was likely going to be fourth on the striker’s depth chart with the return from injury of Craig Bellamy, and despite John Paintsil’s quality play at the international level for Ghana, he couldn’t break into the starting lineup at right back for West Ham with Lucas Neill on the roster.

Curbishley lost some depth players and really only added Behrami, but this is one of the deepest first team rosters in the Premiership already, so not much tooling around was necessary. The main issue with West Ham, and it's been a huge problem for the past couple of seasons, is the number of injuries suffered by key players. Bellamy missed most of last year with nagging problems in multiple areas. Kieron Dyer’s right leg was broken in two places in only his second competitive game with the club. Julien Faubert’s ruptured Achilles tendon prevented him from making his first appearance until January 12, and he also was plagued by nagging injuries even after that game. A knee injury to Scott Parker cost him two months in the winter (Dec. 29 - Feb. 23). Freddie Ljungberg missed two weeks in January with a hamstring problem, and the list goes on and on.

When everyone is healthy, which is no guarantee with the players on this team, West Ham’s strongest area is midfield. If you’ll notice, all of the injured players I just mentioned are midfielders, aside from Bellamy, and yet capable replacements like Luis Boa Morte, Lee Bowyer, and Matthew Etherington filled in nicely. Mark Noble and Hayden Mullins are steady in the center of the pitch, and those two should again feature in the middle. Parker is a nice asset to have there as well. There’s never been any question of his ability, it’s just been a matter of staying healthy. Faubert and Dyer are capable on the flanks, though it’ll be interesting to see how much (if at all) their injuries from last season will slow them down in the future.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Robert Green

RB: Neill (captain)
CB: Matthew Upson
CB: Anton Ferdinand
LB: George McCartney

RMF: Behrami
CMF: Mullins
CMF: Noble
LMF: Boa Morte

ST: Dean Ashton
*ST: Bellamy

West Ham opens the season in ridiculously easy fashion with an eight-game stretch that could launch the Hammers near the top of the table if they take care of business like they should. They’ll welcome Wigan, Blackburn, Newcastle, and Bolton to Upton Park while traveling to Manchester City, West Brom, Fulham, and Hull City. Six wins in these games is realistic, and even seven isn’t too daunting given the opponents. This is probably the easiest run of fixtures any Premiership team will see all season — no exaggeration.

The schedule balances out, of course, and West Ham will play Arsenal (home) and Manchester United (away) in a two-day span in late October. Starting in early November and lasting all the way to the turn of the new year, the Hammers will face six clubs competing in Europe this season in a nine-game stretch, including Portsmouth twice, with a game at Sunderland and another against Stoke City in East London over that period as well.

That game with Stoke is the first of four in a row that should be pretty straightforward for West Ham. Three of the four are at home — Stoke, Fulham, Hull — and the other is at Newcastle.

Curbishley’s side then closes out the season with five tough games in six overall, with dates at Tottenham, Aston Villa, and Everton going along with home games against Chelsea and Liverpool.

Remember, West Ham has developed a tendency to play very well against big-name, high-profile opposition and follow up those great performances with absolute duds in games they should win. That long run of matches to begin the season will tell me a lot about this team. If they do well, maybe 5-2-1, 6-2-0, 7-0-1, something like that, I’ll begin to take West Ham much more seriously.

Bottom Line: I just said it — West Ham will set the tone for their whole season with the way they start. If they bottle it in those games, any potential upset over a top team is meaningless to me because it’s just a flash in the pan. The Hammers need to show some consistency, and that starts with staying healthy, the other key to their season. Unfortunately, a lot of the players on this team are prone to getting hurt — Parker and Bellamy chief among them. They have enough quality on the roster to make a push towards Europe, but anything like last year’s injury woes will set them back too far.

Update (08/06): Freddie Ljungberg and West Ham agreed to mutual termination of the player’s contract today, so obviously he won’t be in the starting lineup like I’d originally projected when I wrote this article last night. In his place, I’m moving Behrami over to the right and inserting Luis Boa Morte.

*Update (08/07): Bellamy has just picked up yet another injury and will miss the first few weeks of the season. Insert Carlton Cole into Bellamy’s spot alongside Ashton.