Premier League preview: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Fulham
Published: 14.08.12 / Written by: David Gold
Arsenal have had a better pre-season than last time around but then that is hardly saying much.
Particularly when Robin van Persie is angling for a move, having just finished the top scorer for Arsene Wenger's team last season.
Yet van Persie or no van Persie, Arsenal can look forward to this season with more optimism than last time around with good reason. The defence, at times last season, looked something approaching organised and resilient. Wojciech Sczczesny is a reassuring presence in goal for the first time since Jens Lehmann left, and Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny have forged a good partnership. Koscielny was one of the best defenders in the league last year, though Vermaelen can get caught out when trying to play offside.
Arsenal will hope Steve Bould becoming assistant manager can help tackle that weakness. But Arsenal defended more collectively in the second half of last season, Mikel Arteta bringing a more determined approach to that side of the game. Jack Wilshere too, when he returns, offers a hard working presence, and the signings of Olivier Giroud and Lukasz Podolski show that Wenger has added experience and work rate to the often heralded technical qualities he always craves. Adding those two qualities should help Arsenal enjoy at least Champions League qualification again this year.
Paul Lambert arrives at Aston Villa already heralded, if only for not being Alex McLeish. McLeish's appointment as manager last season was a disaster of epic proportions from beginning to end, almost taking Villa in the same direction he did Birmingham (twice). Villa are the latest team to decide they want a young manager playing attractive football, and Lambert will seek to implement that type of play at Villa Park in the coming campaign.
There have been few signings of note, though Ron Vlaar will be useful and Darren Bent's return from injury can only help Lambert. But there is much work to be done strengthening a lacklustre squad, and it is just as well that Lambert is able to get the best out of a team and get them to play good football. He should at least be able to replicate his achievements with Norwich last season.
Chelsea are perhaps the most difficult team in the league to predict. Not least as they still appear to want a forward and right back, and Roberto di Matteo seems intent on bringing in more width to their play. With that in mind it must be questioned how he hopes to incorporate Marko Marin, Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata into his first team. Two could miss out, but all like to play centrally, not out wide. Given that the only top class striker at the club, Fernando Torres, struggles when he is starved of space, the lack of width in Chelsea's team brings a real problem for di Matteo. And how does he get the defence to reproduce the form it did at the end of last season when playing a high line? And if he does not play a high line, then how does he get the best out of his attacking talents?
It adds up to quite a conundrum for Di Matteo, who showed the tactical nous required last season to be able to challenge for a Champions League place, but the uncertain state of affairs at Stamford Bridge means nothing is guaranteed for them this season.
For Everton they have been able to avoid losing a big name so far this summer, though Leighton Baines could be lured away still. They finished last season strongly, but starting the campaign is always their weakness. But with Nikica Jelavic providing goals and former Rangers team mate Steven Naismith joining him at Goodison Park, as well as the return of Steven Pienaar, Everton could get out of the starting blocks a little quicker than usual this time. The top half should be theirs, and an outside challenge for Europe cannot be discounted.
Fulham showed at times last year how good they can be, and have always been a team able to pass the ball well and create. High energy, skilful with passing players, they are able to dominate against even the top teams in the league and Martin Jol has been busy strengthening. With the talents of Bryan Ruiz and Moussa Dembele, and the signing of Mladen Petric, they will be a threat for any team going forward and it should be another good top half finish for the Cottagers.