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The Reducer: Premier League Preview

Introducing our weekly soccer column

Welcome to The Reducer, Grantland’s weekly soccer column focusing on the English Premier League.

A Reducer is a particularly nasty sliding tackle, one often aimed at something other than the ball (like, say, the knee or thigh). To pick one of hundreds over the years as an example, please watch Manchester United’s Paul Scholes commit midair assault with a deadly Puma boot on Barcelona’s (not particularly lovable, himself) Sergio Busquets in the 2009 Champions League final.

While naming a column after an act in which one man uses a cleated foot to maim another just seems like sound editorial policy, this column will have a less violent, more service-oriented purpose: to “reduce” (fist bump) all the action, on and off the pitch, into one digestible, weekly package.

There will be Merseyside, Manchester, and North London derbies. There will be Cinderella runs made by giant-killers. There will be nauseating injuries and silent-film-style play-acting. There will be players seeing red cards and celebrating goals against Wigan as if they just won the World Cup. There will be missed sitters and absolute screamers. There will be defending, both courageous and shocking. There will be injury-time equalizers. There will be Fergie Time. There will be blood. And there will probably be lots of Mario Balotelli.

To kick everything off, The Reducer has put together this Premier League season preview to get you acquainted or reacquainted with England’s top-flight teams. We’d like this column to be as interactive as possible, so feel free to take your questions, comments, declarations of bias, and battle cries to our Facebook page.

The teams are listed in order of how The Reducer thinks they’ll finish. Also, a common question from those new to the Premier League is “Which team should I support?” so The Reducer has included a handy “Recommended If You Like” section for each side, though the best way of finding a team to support is simply to watch a lot of Premier League and let that team find you.

Over the next 8½ months we’ll watch what (fingers crossed, Hail Marys whispered, salt thrown over the shoulder, Hopi Indian prayer sung to the Great Spirit) could be one of the most wide-open title races in years. Take a deep breath. It’s up for grabs now.

The Contenders

These six teams will be vying for not only the Premier League title, but also for the four coveted (and lucrative) Champions League places.

1. Manchester City
In 2008, Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi Group1 purchased Manchester City. Since then, they’ve invested untold millions in players and infrastructure in an effort to turn what was once a lovable, underachieving side playing in the shadow of Old Trafford into a global footballing power.

Not to sound like, “I, for one, welcome this not-so-new era of financial doping in the Premier League,” but I really don’t see any way around it. City is the team to beat.

Sure, it has questions. Will City boss Roberto Mancini’s “my way or the highway”2 act wear thin on his collection of superstars? Will the presence (or absence) of Carlos Tevez, who wants out of rainy Manchester and its lack of suitable eateries, be a distraction? Will its personnel policy, which seems to be largely informed by the message found within YC’s “Racks”, backfire? How will young, gifted, and eccentric Italian forward Mario Balotelli respond to having his Maserati ruined by teammates leaving a bag of fish in it for a week?

Despite these questions (and, really, kipper smell is impossible to get out of upholstery) The Reducer is predicting that City will lift the trophy and jump up and down on a stage next May. It has the best spine (keeper Joe Hart, defenders Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott, midfielders Nigel de Jong and Yaya Toure) in the league, it’s cagey and pragmatic in its style of play, and, with its new addition Sergio “Kun” Aguero, it has one of the most talented strikers in Europe.

RIYL: Unironically quoting Boiler Room, thinking about haters, YC’s “Racks”

2. Manchester United
In all of Europe, only Barcelona rivals United’s attacking talent. It has three of the Premier League’s best strikers in Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, and Dimitar Berbatov. And it has the league’s best crop of wingers in Ryan Giggs, Nani, Antonio Valencia, and new signing Ashley Young. But as you move towards midfield and into defense, eyebrows start to rise.

The Reducer isn’t sure whether Dr. Gregory House has finally cured Darren Fletcher of the pesky virus3 that held him out of the second half of last season. With that in mind, United’s midfield will depend, largely, on the continued improvement of starlets like Anderson and Tom Cleverley (who has impressed this preseason). On defense, manager Alex Ferguson will hope that captain Rio Ferdinand can stay healthy. He and his center-half partner, Nemanja Vidic, will have to help shepherd United’s new, young keeper, David De Gea, through his first Premier League campaign.

RIYL: mind games, overflowing trophy cabinets, not having lupus

3. Chelsea
This Chelsea team, in essence (Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba), is the same one that’s been challenging for (or winning) Premier League titles for almost a decade. Rather than going through a (long promised) roster overhaul, owner Roman Abramovich is counting on new manager Andre Villas-Boas to figure out how to keep the forward line of Drogba, the catatonic Fernando Torres, and the moody Nicolas Anelka happy, turn an aging Lampard, John Obi Mikel, and Ramires into a fluid midfield, and somehow make John Terry not have the back of crippled 19th century miner.

The Blues may yet sign their big transfer target, Tottenham’s Luka Modric, but for now, reinforcements come in the form of younger talents like Josh McEachran and new signing Romelu Lukaku.

RIYL: New money becoming old money, Downton Abbey, Edward Gibbon’s Rise And Fall Of The Roman Empire The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

4. Liverpool
This summer, manager and club legend Kenny Dalglish spent some of John Henry’s pink-Red Sox-hat money. He went on a shopping spree — and he bought local. Brits Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson, along with Scot free-kick specialist and yellow-card collector Charlie Adam, join January signing Andy Carroll to form Liverpool’s new, largely United Kingdom-bred team. But the key to Reds’ revival might lie with the side’s greatest import.

Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez, on form,4 can tear opposing teams to shreds. Ask Paraguay. It’s his dogged determination and Dalglish’s ability to figure out what to do with his surplus of midfielders (including club figurehead and chronic-groin-problem-haver Steven Gerrard) that will determine whether Liverpool can return to the Premier League’s big four.

RIYL: the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein, a tradition unlike any other, pulling absolute rabbits from hats

5. Arsenal

Manager Arsene Wenger’s dedication to young players playing good football is admirable. So is Steve Albini’s dedication to recording bands exclusively to analog tape. That doesn’t mean Jesus Lizard was ever going to win a Grammy, and it sure doesn’t look like the Gunners are going to win the Premier League trophy. At least not as presently constituted.

The problem with prognosticating for the North London club is we really don’t know how Arsenal is going to look this season. Barcelona is on the phone, and it wants Arsenal captain/midfield dynamo Cesc Fabregas. On the other line Manchester City is sniffing at soon-to-be-out-of-contract Frenchman Samir Nasri. While fending off all this interest in his two best players, Wegner has added only the talented Ivorian forward Gervinho (legendary hairline, him) and some kids (Carl Jenkinson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain).

The next few weeks could see an exodus from Arsenal that could drag it out of the Champions League places. However a quick response and splash in the transfer market (not unlike Liverpool’s outlay after selling Fernando Torres to Chelsea) could revitalize a still very dangerous team, one that would be led by midfield wunderkind Jack Wilshere.

RIYL: coming-of-age stories with bittersweet endings, George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia, nagging hamstring injuries

6. Tottenham
Tottenham Hotspur are an example of the financial demands and financial realities that some find off-putting about European football. They have an exciting team with wildly entertaining players like the aforementioned Modric, Rafael Van der Vaart, and Gareth Bale. And yet, rather than trying to build on what they accomplished in last season, they are clinging desperately to keep their side together.

After making it into the Champions League two seasons ago and having a really nice run to the quarterfinals (a run marked by Bale’s writing Maicon’s obit in a match against Inter Milan), everything should be looking up for Tottenham. Instead, it is trying to keep hold of its best players and prevent them from being wooed by Euro superpowers.

In the meantime, Spurs have done very little to improve their side. Which is kind of shocking since they are managed by a character from Sexy Beast (just don’t call Harry Redknapp a wheeler-dealer).

They still have a problematic forward line (problematic in that Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, and Roman Pavlyuchenko need to score more) and an injury-prone defense (center-half Ledley King is the team captain and has the knees of Tio from Breaking Bad). It’s not right, but it’s OK: Tottenham might not reach the heights of the past two seasons, but it’ll be competitive.

RIYL: Jan Brady, wheeling and dealing

Stuck In The Middle

These sides are in no real danger of being relegated and are no real threat to challenge for the title. The best they can hope for is a FA Cup or Carling Cup run.

7. Everton
New season, same story. If Everton can stay healthy, it will be find itself standing solidly in mid-table. If it could add one single striker, with all his fingers and toes and no chronic back problems, to help Jermaine Beckford score goals, it might make more noise than that. Unfortunately, in this age of oil money and Red Sox money, having a theatre impresario (as Bill Kenwright was) as your owner is about as useful as having your movie released straight to Laser Disc.

So, with that in mind, Everton’s fortunes depend on the continued growth of midfielder Jack Rodwell and the hope that Mikel Arteta does not blow out his knee. Again.

The Reducer thinks that Everton boss David Moyes could have raised at least enough for a journeyman goal-poacher by leasing out his absolutely pants-shittingly scary stare for people to use against their enemies. But nobody asked The Reducer.

RIYL: The Grapes Of Wrath, hating Liverpool, staring contests

8. Stoke
Over the past few years the Premier League has become far more concerned with producing an entertaining product, protecting its most valuable, technically gifted players, and encouraging a more offensive, goal-crazy style of play. To which Stoke boss Tony Pulis has responded, in his best ogre voice, “NERRRRRRRRRDS!”

To Pulis, this discourages the gritty, determined, “it’s just a flesh wound” kind of lionhearted Brit bravery that made the game what it was. Football is about leaving it all out on the field and then going back out on the field and throwing your face in front of a free kick just to remind yourself that you left it all out there in the first place.

Or so conventional wisdom goes.

Yes, Stoke has become the villain of the league, replacing the likes of Sam Allardyce’s Bolton and Blackburn. But in truth, this team does try to play some football, and it gets results the best way it knows how. While you might not respect Pulis’ players for doling out compound fractures on people such as Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, you must respect what they’ve done with far more limited than most sides.

RIYL: The Expendables, Kyuss, freezing rain

9. Fulham
10. West Brom
In 2010, after leading Fulham on the kind of Europa League championship run that warrants a Randy Newman soundtrack, manager Roy Hodgson left the Cottagers for Liverpool. He was fired in January of 2011 and promptly joined West Brom, keeping the classic yo-yo team5 comfortably in the Premier League. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to easily repeat the trick, provided West Brom can keep its dynamite striker, Peter Odemwingie.

New Fulham manager Martin Jol has a tougher job. He has to match the success not only of Hodgson, but also of last season’s boss, Mark Hughes (who left because he thought he was going to get a better job but is now staring at his garden somewhere in Cheshire). Fulham has a fantastic defense led by one-time Arsenal target Brede Hangeland. But getting back into Europe may be a bridge too far.

Fulham RIYL:: Michael Jackson statues, Clint Dempsey glaring at people
West Brom RIYL: One-word soccer chants

11. Bolton
Bolton is one of the feel-good stories of the Premier League. Owen Coyle has taken this team, playing in the suburbs of Manchester, and turned it from long-ball merchant into a really attractive, fun-to-cheer-for team. Too bad its best players keep breaking their legs or leaving. Bolton will really miss the creativity of Lee Chung-yong (leg) and the goal-scoring of Johan Elmander (booked it for Turkey).

RIYL: East Dillon over West Dillon, ER marathons

12. Aston Villa
Randy Lerner took over Aston Villa a few years back, hired manager Martin O’Neil, and splashed out for some talented, young players like James Milner and Ashley Young. Now O’Neil is gone, Milner and Young have decamped to Manchester (City and United, respectively), and Lerner’s new toy is starting to resemble the other sports franchise he owns, the Cleveland Browns.

New boss Alex McLeish, formerly manager of archrival Birmingham (this would have been like the Browns hiring Sam Wyche as head coach in 1988), will try to steady a sinking ship, relying on the ingenuity of Marc Albrighton and Darren Bent’s nose for goal.

RIYL: sleeping giants, Bernie Kosar

Relegation Blues

These teams will have to fight all year to stay out of the dreaded bottom three if they want to extend their Premier League membership.

13. Wolves
The Reducer likes manager Mick McCarthy and his Skynet-like proclamations about Twitter and loves midfielder Jamie O’Hara, one of the more underrated midfielders in the league. Wolves have struggled to stay in the Premier League over the past few seasons, but there should be some light at the end of the tunnel for this West Midlands side, assuming it can keep striker Kevin Doyle and winger Matt Jarvis.

RIYL: Western Union’s telegraph system, actual wolves

14. Sunderland
Sunderland might get through this season based on the sheer fact that the teams below it are just so much worse. Manager Steve Bruce — whose face makes him look like the guy who invented mixed martial arts — has spent a lot of money putting together and blowing up this Sunderland team. The Black Cats will stay in the Premier League, assuming they can keep hold of their fabulous forward Asamoah Gyan and the gaggle of ex-Manchester United recruits (John O’Shea, Wes Brown) can shore up their defense.

RIYL: hating Newcastle, setting money on fire

15. Norwich
Paul Lambert has led the Canaries to successive promotions, leaping from League One to the Premier League in two seasons. They seem to be hedging their bets a bit. They haven’t spent a ton on seasoned Premier League veterans, opting instead for diamonds in the lower-league rough like former Leeds defender Bradley Johnson. But that doesn’t mean they’re automatically relegation material. Lambert is one of the best young managers in English football, and, a former Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmound, he won’t let his side be intimidated with the talent it faces.

RIYL: Cinderella stories, owners who like to rock furs and get blitzed

16. Newcastle
Run with the grace and foresight of a drunken cave troll playing foosball after last call, Newcastle, owned by sporting goods magnate Mike Ashley, is clinging to its Premier League life and flushing the remnants of its fans’ support down the toilet at the same time. It has sold off its best players and its changing room leaders and brought nothing of note back in return. Meanwhile, its starting midfielder, Joey Barton, is trying to tweet his way out of town, quoting Morrissey and Nietzsche in the process.

Basically, Hatem Ben Arfa (who looked awesome last season before nearly having his leg amputated by Nigel de Jong) has to be really, really good for this to end at all well.

RIYL: the end of The Wild Bunch, the end of A Perfect Storm, not wearing a shirt

17. Swansea
It will be interesting to watch Wales’ first Premier League team negotiate its desire to keep the ball on the grass, build play from the back, and play pass-and-move football while trying to accumulate enough points to stay in the league. If Manager Brendan Rodgers is having his players launch long balls and defend in numbers by January, then we’ll have our answer. Until then Rodgers will rely on winger Scott Sinclair and young hitman Danny Graham to lend a finishing touch to all their pretty passing.

RIYL: Led Zeppelin’s II, the films of Rhys Ifans

18. Wigan
Everything ends. For years, Wigan has been living the dream. A rather sparsely attended dream, taking place on a divot-filled rugby field, but the dream just the same. It has stayed in the Premier League by finding undiscovered South and Central American talent, selling them off at a profit, and reloading. Despite low attendances, a limited budget, and a habit of getting their asses handed to them once or twice a season (they lost to Tottenham 9-1 in 2009 and were suplexed by Chelsea 8-0 in 2010), the Latics have managed to keep afloat. This summer they sold their best player, Charles N’Zogbia, but haven’t brought in anyone of note to replace him.

RIYL: Cow pastures, having a team all to yourself

19. Blackburn
Last season, Blackburn turned into a Mike Judge film. The team, which won the Premier League in the ’94-95 season, was taken over by Venkys, an Indian company that specializes in poultry products and pharmaceuticals. It has set unrealistic expectations and provided little money to improve the team. Manager Steve Kean seems to always have a facial expression best described as “Lt. Gorman in Aliens when his platoon gets decimated and Ripley is screaming at him.”

RIYL: Poultry, pharmaceuticals

20. QPR
The runaway winners of the npower Championship, led by a seasoned manager and featuring one of the most exciting new players in the Premier League. So why will boss Neil Warnock and creative midfielder Adel Taarabt’s stay in the top flight be short-lived? Because QPR’s owners have barley spent a single cent on improving the team. Which is funny because QPR’s owners are rich enough to buy and sell you and me three times over.

This club is about to be buried by internal instability, as some very, very rich men (F1 moguls Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore) tussle with an even richer man (Indian steel titan Lakshmi Mittal) for control of the club. It’s a sad story with no happy ending in sight. Taarabt will probably be playing for PSG or anywhere else by the end of the calendar year, Warnock will likely be fired for insubordination (he’s good at that), and QPR will sink back to the Championship.

RIYL: Trading Places, lawsuits

Chris Ryan is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Chris Ryan:
Anthony Gonzalez Has Something To Say About HGH and Limitless
The Neverending Story OR How Brett Almost Got His Groove Back
The Peyton Whisperer
Carolina Panthers Fix Themselves

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