Late last week we took a look at teams that might be poised to emulate the sort of high flying success enjoyed by Liverpool and Southampton this past season. With Manchester United beating out Spurs as the most likely to break into the Champions League spots and Sunderland and Hull City gathering momentum that they could build on to surprise top half finishes next season. Today, we turn our attention to the teams that are most likely to fall in the way that Manchester United (out of the Champions League) and Fulham (relegated) did this past season.
Just a refresher on how we're breaking teams down as we look for candidates to jump up or drop down:
So, what will lead us to declare a club as a potential next riser or faller? The question is whether there are easily achievable ways that the club’s goal differential can be significantly different next season than it was last season. The obvious ways for this to happen are:
- Health – Did the club (or specific key players) have outlier years in terms of exceptional health or poor health that is likely to revert to the mean next season?
- Current Squad Evolution – Does the squad have young players capable of taking a leap forward and changing the club’s fortunes without dipping in the transfer market or, conversely, are there players that could be realistically expected to start declining and/or being injured more frequently?
- Transfer Prospects – Are there glaring holes that the club can realistically expect to be filled in the transfer market or glaring holes that are widely expected to be created by players leaving the club?
- Management – Is there reason to expect that the manager will be more (or less) effective next season as opposed to this one?
With that reminder in place, let's move on to the analysis.
The Next United
Chelsea and Manchester City have so much money to spend (and so much that they’ve already spent) that they are to some extent immune from the threat of a huge drop. When you’re two deep with very good-to-excellent players in the early stages of the primes of their careers at almost every position there’s very little risk of a big dip in form season-to-season. That really leaves Liverpool and Arsenal as potential candidates to drop out of the top four as United did this season.
Health – Arsenal had a typical Arsenal season in terms of health which wasn’t good, especially for the first four months of 2014, but it is hard to imagine things going much worse for the Gunners next season. The big risk is that they have an injury crisis at a position – CB or forward – where they are paper thin as opposed to in midfield where there is a fair amount of depth. Still, it is hard to predict a big drop in performance for Arsenal next season based on their injury situation being worse than this season.
Current Squad Evolution – Again, not a ton of risk here because most of the Arsenal squad is either firmly in or coming into their prime with more chance of improvement than decline. The notable exceptions here are Mikel Arteta (clearly declining) and Santi Cazorla (at the age where he’s better suited to share a starting spot than be a fulltime starter). Still, overall this is a squad more on the rise than on the decline with Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Serge Gnabry all still capable of big jumps forward with modest improvements not unreasonable from Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Carl Jenkinson, and Kieran Gibbs.
Transfer Prospects – The first key here compared to seasons past is that, other than Bacary Sagna's likely departure, there are no major departures looming for the club to deal with. Starting from that spot, the scenario we're discussing here is what Arsenal have to do to avoid dropping out of the Champions League positions (we'll leave what they have to do to sustain a title challenge for a separate column in the future). Here's the list of things Arsenal need to earn a top four spot for the 18th season running:
- Buy a younger, stonger, more athletic holding midfielder in the Nemanja Matic mold
- Replace the (presumably) departing Bacary Sagna with a right back in or entering his prime
- Add another center back capable of playing significant minutes in the event of an injury crisis at the position
- Pray Manchester United doesn't hit a home run with all of it's activities over the summer
That fourth one is probably Arsenal's biggest risk as a relatively unchanged roster is highly likely to yield a similar number of points to last season which means the big risk is someone coming in and overtaking them rather than them fallling back of their own accord.
Manager – After breaking the title drought, it seems very unlikely that Wenger will be leaving and very unlikely that, at his age and tenure, he will significantly change the way he does what he does. While this doesn’t led much hope for improvement it there is little risk that management will be the cause of a significant dip from this past season to next.
Verdict – Unless someone (and it almost has to be United) has a spectacular summer then Arsenal seem like a pretty safe bet not to drop out of the top four.
Health – Liverpool’s injury record was probably little different than average in terms of the number and severity of injuries sustained. Where they have risk of a dropoff here is who the injuries happened to. Even factoring in Luis Suarez’s suspension, the following Liverpool players were available for more than 29 of the 38 Premier League matches: Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson, Glen Johnson, Martin Skertl, and Simon Mignolet. Compare that to Arsenal where none of Ozil, Ramsey, Walcott, Wilshere, or Gibbs hit that 29 match mark and you can see that there is some risk that things don’t go as well health-wise for Liverpool next season. Factoring in that Liverpool’s reserves in each position are a significant drop (certainly when compared to those of Chelsea or City) then this moves to being a big potential risk.
Squad Evolution – A lot of potential upside was realized this season between Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and John Flanagan. It isn’t unreasonable to think that those three and Philippe Coutinho even have a little more room to grow. The only real concern on the downside, albeit a big one, is Steven Gerrard who will be 34 when next season starts and will have had a stressful season and a World Cup before embarking on a campaign that will add Champions League travel and matches to the agenda. There certainly aren’t a high volume of concerns but Rodgers will need to pick his spots with Gerrard more so than he did this season.
Transfer Prospects – This could go either way in terms of the impact on Liverpool’s fortunes next season. The big question is whether Luis Suarez is staying. If he is then the transfer market combined with Liverpool’s new status as a Champions League club could bring a stronger defense and some much-needed attacking depth. If Suarez leaves then a Spurs-minus-Bale situation could be at hand where Liverpool are forced to buy depth in an attempt to make up for the loss of an exceptional player. That almost never goes well for the club losing the exceptional player. Suarez is saying the right things in the media about staying right now but Real Madrid are very persuasive when they put their mind to it and have the assets to sell off in Benzema, di Maria, and others to make even a mega-deal work under financial fair play.
Manager – Brendan Rodgers did an exceptional job of modifying Liverpool’s style of play and bringing along young players. There seems almost zero risk that the managerial situation will be a negative or cause to think they might perform less well heading into next season.
Verdict – 75% chance they drop if Suarez leaves; 25% chance they drop if Suarez stays but they have worse injury luck and can’t handle the increased toll of Champions League exertions with a thin squad.
Other Potential Drops
Everton – Before they start to think about improving they’ll have to replace Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, and Gerrard Deulofeu who are unlikely to be back on loan for a second season. Throw in some key players who are aging in Tim Howard (35 and will have played World Cup), Leighton Baines (29 + World Cup), Sylvain Distin (36), Leon Osman (33 when the season starts), and Phil Jagielka (32 the day the season starts). The story this past season was all about emerging talents like Lukaku, Deulofeu, Barkley, and Stones but two of them will be gone and there will be a lot of other aging for a team of limited resources to avoid falling off a bit. Oh, and there’s no David Moyes around to overpay for Marouane Fellaini again to help fund a younger squad.
Southampton – The threat of a promising young team being dismantled by bigger clubs coming in for the Saints best players seems incredibly likely if you pay even passing attention to the rumor mill. Adam Lallana is headed to Liverpool. Luke Shaw is headed to Manchester United. Morgan Schneiderlin is headed to Napoli (or somewhere). Mauricio Pochettino is headed to Spurs (and you think he’d take a center back or two with him). It all sounds like things could go very bad very fast on the South Coast. There’s still a lot of young talent on hand but probably not seasoned enough to stay up unless the new manager spends big and well with all the money coming in for the departing players. That rarely seems to work out.
Crystal Palace – I’m not predicting the drop but unless there is a serious talent infusion winning as many 1-0 matches as Palace did doesn’t seem sustainable. It feels even less sustainable when you realize that the core of the defense – Jedinak, Ward, and Delaney – all played 35+ matches. Tony Pulis did an amazing second half job but unless he can guarantee the health of his core defenders or buy some depth then a drop back in the standings seems inevitable.
Newcastle - If you watched Newcastle play over the last four months of the season then a) I'm sorry and b) you have to be wondering how they could possibly fall further. On the second point I agree but, here's the thing, they did well enough over the first half of the season that their second half slump really didn't hurt anything other than their pride and the watchability of their matches. With the losses of Yohan Cabaye and Loic Remy (who will certainly go somewhere other than Newcastle with his next move) Newcastle looked lost and they will have a difficult time finding players capable of replacing that sort of production even if Mike Ashley does agree to invest heavily in the squad. To add to the misery, you have to think Mathieu Debuchy and Tim Krul will have watched those same performances and started talking with their agents about an exit strategy. That (very realistic) worst case scenario would be a lot of talent for a mid-table club to have to replace over one summer.
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