Thursday, March 17, 2011

English Premier League: Up for Grabs

It's funny that the English Premier League, oft called the world's greatest, is currently developing into a duel between two sides who seem to be perpetually on the verge of being christened crisis clubs.

Manchester United's every defeat or stumble allows people to point forensically to their weaknesses while ignoring the counter evidence that they sit atop the league, have a cup semi final to look forward to and remain in the Champion's League. At the moment it looks a winning kind of weakness.

And chasing them are Arsenal. With their pretty as a picture aesthetics too often rendering neutrals as blind to their soft, crumbly core as their manager seems to be.

Makes for no little drama though.

Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham are fighting it out for the two remaining Champion's League spots with Liverpool, despite the increasingly balming presence of Kenny Dalglish, looking like they might miss out on Europe altogether.

Uncertainty at the bottom as well. Wigan currently sit bottom of the pile. But only ten points separate them from Sunderland in eighth. There's still time for some established teams to be pulled into a dogfight they really don't want.

It's certainly compelling. And a perfect time to welcome back Mark Briggs to give us his thoughts on what's been going down, down south:

So if anyone wants an English Premier League title there is currently one up for grabs.

Chelsea were the first casualties of the laissez faire attitude to winning this year’s trophy. The first months of the season saw them blitzkrieg their way through the opposition with an orgy of goals, speed and skill, then December hit and they slipped into free fall.

Manchester United, despite people suggesting they weren’t all that good, made it into the new year unbeaten, building up a healthy lead, then lost some very high profile games this month, drawing everyone’s eyes to their midfield or lack thereof.

The team trailing (seemingly perpetually), Arsenal, conspire to drop points every time United do, meaning that they currently sit second. They could have, and should have, overtaken the Red Devils. But results that entail giving up a four goal lead tend to hold you back.

Arsenal also could have, and perhaps should have, beaten Birmingham in the League Cup.

Congratulations to the Blues who have had to hang on since the 1950s without any meaningful silverware, but the trophy should have been the removal of a mental barrier for Arsene Wenger and his team.

This summer (I know the season hasn’t finished yet) both Arsenal and Manchester United need some midfield reinforcement. Arsenal need some natural width, so they can push Nasri into the middle (especially if Fabregas departs). Diaby and Rosicky have appeared mere passengers in the last few games. However Jack Wilshere continues to impress.

Manchester United also need some new blood in the middle of midfield, Giggs and Scholes will not last forever.

Who's out there? I'm not entirely sure. Jack Rodwell seems to be a natural choice, but hasn’t enjoyed the same form as last year, although he has been held back by injuries and Everton’s general bad form.

Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham. Two of these will head into the Champion's League with Arsenal and Manchester United. One will go into the Europa League, one will miss out entirely on European Football. Nervous times heading into the spring fixtures.

A couple of years ago Alan Hansen proclaimed “you need to be a great team to win the Premiership.” This is no longer the case. All the teams have some serious flaws, but the league is still so exciting because Wolves can take points off all of the teams chasing Europe and still find themselves in the relegation zone.

Birmingham have a trophy and European football guaranteed next season, but will they be in the top flight?

West Ham are semi resurgent and look set to run head long into West Brom and Blackpool who are heading the other way.

To this end West Brom have appointed Roy Hodgson as their new manager. After what he did at Liverpool, this doesn’t look a great call, but after what he did with Fulham there is surely hope for the Baggies.

Hodgson likes his teams to work hard and plan ahead. His Liverpool team lacked the passion Anfield craves and which Kenny Dalglish is helping to restore. But his tactics made the Fulham players better. The team also became more than the sum of their improved parts. Even this took time however, so will he have enough left to save West Brom?

A run either way can really help. One team will no doubt go on a good run and pull away before it gets to squeaky bum and ‘where have my fingernails gone?’ time. My bet for the team to do this is Birmingham. Once they get over the hangover of winning a trophy they have a good enough defence that they will be hard to beat.

Watch out for West Ham though, they have an unpredictability up front that will infuriate but could also steal them some crucial points.