Premiership Preview (Part IV)

On Friday we looked at the league and defending champions Manchester United. On Monday, I put you all through my long discussion of Liverpool’s title hopes (frustrations reigns again). Yesterday, we focused on Chelsea and Arsenal. Tomorrow, its big spending upstarts Manchester City and Tottenham. Today, we focus on Everton and Aston Villa.

Everton

2008-09 Finish: Fifth

Major Transactions: Ins: Jo (Man City), Johny Heitinga (Atletico Madrid), Sylvain Distin (Portsmouth), Diniyar Bilyaletdinov (Locomotiv Moscow); Outs: Joleon Lescott (Man City)

Save for a rough start to the 2005-06 season that resulted in an 11th place finish, Everton finished no worse than sixth since their surprising 2003-04 relegation scrap. Manager David Moyes has built a consistent winner without anything like the budgets available to the top clubs by repeatedly picking solid performers from the bargain transfer market. The return on investment has been good for Everton and two straight fifth place finishes coupled with their 04-05 campaign when they pipped Liverpool for the last Champion’s League place have earned the Toffees the respect of the league (even from this Liverpool fan). But now that the Big Four look more vulnerable then ever, will they be able to break through and supplant one of the top teams?

The additions of Heitinga and Distin should compensate for the loss of Lescott, and the resumption of Jo’s loan deal will certainly help Everton in attack. But any real hope of Everton taking that next step up will depend on the rapid return to form of Mikel Arteta—expected back in action in October after being out since February with knee surgery—and the prospect that Marouane Fellaini will blossom into a world class midfielder.

No manager in the league has been able to wring more out of his club than Moyes, but it does look as if Everton’s squad has peaked and that it is now more likely to be passed from behind than it is to move up the table. Everton haven’t gone backward but it does look like they are standing still—this year it seems that doing so could be costly. With onrushing Manchester City and Tottenham looking like making a real challenge for a top four place, its hard to see Everton keeping pace.

2009-10 Prediction: Seventh

Aston Villa

2008-09 Finish: Sixth

Major Transactions: Ins: Stewart Downing (Middlesborough), Richard Dunne (Man City), Stephen Warnock (Blackburn), Fabian Delph (Leeds), Habib Beye (Newcastle), James Collins (West Ham); Outs: Garreth Barry (Man City), Stuart Taylor (Man City), Martin Laursen (Retired), Zat Knight (Bolton)

For a season that promised so much, Villa’s second consecutive sixth place finish was a great disappointment. They turned the calendar to 2009 in fourth place with some very strong performances and rising stars Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor had more than just Villa fans dreaming of a Champion’s League place. But Villa were done in by the same problem that has plagued them for years—a small squad size. A season—and ultimately career—ending knee injury felled captain and defensive stalwart Martin Laursen in December. The young attacking players Agbonlahor and Young faded, Jon Carew also went down with injury, and even the transfer window purchase of Emile Heskey from Wigan couldn’t stop the slide. Villa won four of five games to start the New Year but collapsed in the league’s final third and took only 11 points from their last 13 games.

Reinforcements were required if Villa was to avoid a repeat of their late season struggles, a task made more difficult by Laursen’s retirement and Barry’s departure to big spending Manchester City. Deadline day deals brought in Dunne and Collins, and while the additions of Warnock and Beye will add some depth along the back line, but there is real question about whether Dunne can replace Laursen’s consistent presence in the back.

Yet by far the most puzzling move was Manager Martin O’Neal’s biggest buy, the £12 million purchase of Stewart Downing. Villa already have one of the most promising young left-sided players in the league in Ashley Young. Even though he has been consistently touted as “England’s answer on the left,” Downing has never fulfilled his potential despite being included in the 2006 World Cup squad. Its puzzling why O’Neal would spend so much money on a player unlikely to make it into his first XI without unsettling his best player. Downing won’t be fit after foot surgery until December anyway, but for a team that needed to replace such influential players as Barry and Laursen, spending so much on Downing is a mystery.

Villa stumbled right out of the gate with a loss to Wigan, but quickly regained their footing and whipped Liverpool at Anfield—the Reds first loss at home in the league since 2007 and a dramatic reversal of the 5-0 thrashing the Villans suffered there in April. I’ve always admired O’Neal as a manager, and he has one of my favorite players, the perennially underrated Brad Friedel, in goal. But this looks like a year of slipping back for Villa and American owner Randy Lerner.

Prediction: Eighth

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