Season preview

Stuck in the middle with you

August 14, 2012
By James Tyler

In Part 2 of our four-part EPL season preview, we look at the teams -- including Norwich, Aston Villa and Sunderland -- that should be comfortably safe in mid-table.

This is Part 2 of a four-part series breaking down all 20 teams ahead of the new English Premier League season. For Part 1, click here.

Yesterday saw coverage of the bottom five, but only a handful of points further up the ladder -- a lucky last-minute win here, a couple of robust draws there -- we find the "mid-tablers," those teams that are safe enough from relegation fears yet not powerful enough to contest at the upper end.

Norwich City

Last Season: 12th (47 points)

Key Signings: DF Michael Turner (Sunderland), MF Robert Snodgrass (Leeds United), DF Steven Whittaker (Rangers), MF Jacob Butterfield (Barnsley), Javier Garrido (Lazio, loan)

Key Departures: DF Zak Whitbread (Leicester City), MF Aaron Wilbraham (Crystal Palace), DF Adam Drury (Leeds United)

Core Story: All set to build on last season's breakthrough, the Canaries were forced to reset when Paul Lambert left for Aston Villa. He nearly took Holt along for the ride, but incoming boss Chris Hughton -- formerly responsible for getting Newcastle back into the EPL and taking Birmingham to the promotion playoffs -- appears to have steadied a listing ship.

Only fringe players have moved on -- 11-year stalwart Adam Drury's departure was particularly bittersweet -- leaving Hughton with the same malleable, motivated squad from which Lambert coaxed wonders.

And therein lies the big question: Just what can Hughton do with Wes Hoolahan & Co.? For starters, he might not tinker and tweak as much as his predecessor did (not to mention being wary of Lambert's preferred diamond midfield), but the stability and organization of a traditional 4-4-2 is his stock and trade. (Note that the uber-popular 4-2-3-1 has been his preseason fling.) And he has, on paper, a settled XI: Hoolahan in attacking midfield, Holt with hard-nosed Steve Morison up front and a back four that played a combined 101 league games last season.

Goals were spread between 13 different players with Anthony Pilkington contributing eight from the left side of midfield -- Norwich scored more than Everton, Liverpool and Fulham last term -- but the Prem's fifth leakiest backline (66 goals conceded) must improve. Whether new signings Turner and Whittaker can fix the problem remains to be seen. If that fails, Norwich can just keep raiding Leeds United for its best players; central midfielder Snodgrass is the Canaries' third major steal in a year.

Fans will be happy that: Holt is still a Canary. The striker flirted with leaving this summer amid a dramatic flurry of wage demands and courtship from other Prem clubs, though his acquiescence will help Chris Hughton while he settles in as manager.

Fans will be sad that: Lambert is gone. No use crying over it now, but if Norwich does falter in its sophomore season, the absence of Lambert's innovative formations and tactical flexibility from week to week will be keenly felt.

Star to savor: Hoolahan acquitted himself well as the driving force from midfield, his pint-sized stature disguising his skill and inventiveness.

Intangibles: Can Holt count on the likes of Morison (nine goals, four assists in 2011-12) and Pilkington be as productive this season? Norwich (and, to be fair, Swansea) and its bargain squad arguably punched above its weight last season. Replicating it is no easy feat.

Prediction: Pending on the start the Canaries get (they face Spurs, Newcastle, Chelsea and Arsenal in the first eight games), anywhere from 15th to ninth is feasible. The new manager swing cuts both ways.

Taking over for stubborn Alex McLeish, Paul Lambert inherits a rough-hewn but battle-hardened team.

Aston Villa

Last Season: 16th (38 points)

Key Signings: DF Ron Vlaar (Feyenoord), MF Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), MF Brett Holman (AZ Alkmaar)

Key Departures: DF Carlos Cuellar (Sunderland)

Core Story: To borrow a line from a dreadful song, things can only get better. 2011-12 was Villa's indisputable nadir: 38 points from 38 games (new club record), just seven wins (new club record) and 19 points at home (another record-setting mark). No surprise that Alex McLeish was mercifully put out of his managerial misery barely 24 hours after the season ended.

There was also the sadness of captain Stiliyan Petrov's leukemia diagnosis in midseason, but with a recent statement confirming that he's in remission and hell-bent on coming back to the team, you sense that Villa Park is a more optimistic place than it was three months ago.

For starters, Paul Lambert is the new boss, bringing with him a warmth, enthusiasm and game-planning acumen that Villa has lacked since the comparably halcyon days of Martin O'Neill. Furthermore, Lambert inherits a rough-hewn but battle-hardened team: An experienced spine in Shay Given, Richard Dunn and Darren Bent has been augmented with the likes of Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan, Eric Lichaj, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Chris Herd. (That Agbonlahor and Dunne will miss the first month with injuries will be Lambert's baptism of fire.)

The biggest worries come in midfield. Without Petrov, neither loanee Jermaine Jenas nor wasted signing Stephen Ireland could fill his boots. Nor could Fabian Delph, who is still too young to run a Premier League midfield with confidence.

Yet at least there is hope under Lambert. With owner Randy Lerner eager to cut spending (the Villans lost 53.9 million pounds, according to 2010-11's financial report) and invest sensibly in the club's future, it appears that the right men are in place to push the club back up the table. If only it were that simple.

Fans will be happy that: there's a much better manager in charge. McLeish was as stubborn as he was uninspired and unable to transcend his stodgy demeanor. Lambert is arguably the best replacement the club could have hoped for. Everything McLeish was not.

Fans will be sad that: the big signings are hard to come by. The Villans' notable drop into the Prem mire has taken with it much of the club's luster, leaving a long road back for a club once used to competing for places in Europe. Raiding the Eredivisie -- where transfer market forces tend to be sensible and inflation-free -- for center back Vlaar, winger Holman and holding midfielder El Ahmadi was sensible business.

Star to savor: Darren Bent. Nine league goals was his lowest season mark since 2007-08, but he will be expected to lead by example in 2012.

Intangibles: How quickly can Villa settle? The summer has been smooth enough, and a gentle first 10 games to start the season -- the only real test is a trip to Spurs in October -- should prove a good barometer of where things stand. Also, getting more out of Charles N'Zogbia would be good -- two goals and four assists in 30 appearances last season was subpar by the 9.5 million-pound summer signing.

Prediction: On the rebound, but it will take time. Should have little trouble avoiding the relegation zone under Lambert, but finishing much better than 12th would be pushing it.

Sunderland

Last Season: 13th (45 points)

Key Signings: DF Carlos Cuellar (Aston Villa)

Key Departures: DF Marcos Angeleri (Estudiantes La Plata), FW Asamoah Gyan (Al-Ain), DF Michael Turner (Norwich City)

Core Story: The harder you look at Sunderland, the more confusing its struggles become. Perhaps the scientists who formally discovered the Higgs boson could relocate their lab equipment to the Stadium of Light in a bid to help out.

The pieces are there: a good, experienced manager in Martin O'Neill, strong talent such as Stephane Sessegnon and Sebastian Larsson supplemented by emerging stars such as James McClean, Connor Wickham and Jack Colback. Yet the end product has been a mess. Starting the season under the jovial, clueless Steve Bruce yielded 11 points from 13 games, and though O'Neill enjoyed the "new boss bounce" (seven wins in 11 games over the winter), that confidence didn't last.

That, and the Mackems are lacking a striker. The team-leading eight goals from Nicklas Bendtner have vanished with him back to Arsenal, the promising Asamoah Gyan transferred to the United Arab Emirates in midseason, while Sessegnon and Larsson (seven each last season) are clearly suited to the midfield. The three true frontmen left on the squad -- Dong-Won Ji, Frazier Campbell and Wickham -- managed four combined goals in 47 league appearances.

James McClean's pace, persistence and work rate quickly made him a Stadium of Light favorite last season.

Expect more of the same baffling play this time around from a side as hapless enough to lose 4-0 to West Bromwich Albion as it is capable of beating Liverpool and Manchester City, all of which happened under O'Neill in 2012.

Fans will be happy that: there's a solid base to build from. Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner were passable in central midfield, providing a platform for McClean, Sessegnon and Larsson to thrive in a 4-5-1. The defense was also reasonable -- sixth-tightest in the Prem -- though Turner's move to Norwich creates a void.

Fans will be sad that: a striker has yet to be lured in. O'Neill admitted that the transfer market has been frustrating thus far. A 10 million-pound bid for Wolverhampton's poacher Steven Fletcher was rebuffed last week, and you can bet other clubs will be as loath to help the Mackems' cause.

Star to savor: McClean was a highly touted discover under Bruce yet never featured until O'Neill arrived. No matter. The Irish left winger's pace, persistence and work rate quickly made him a Stadium of Light favorite.

Intangibles: Late goals were godsends for the Mackems last season -- scoring inside the final 10 minutes yielded 13 precious points -- but O'Neill would be well served in keeping his side motivated and industrious for the full 90.

Prediction: Last season, Sunderland swung wildly from eighth to 17th over the 38 games, eventually settling just above the fray in 13th. This term will be more of the same.

West Ham United

Last Season: Third in nPower Championship (promoted via play-off)

Key Signings: DF James Collins (Aston Villa), FW Modibo Maiga (Sochaux), DF George McCartney (Sunderland), GK Jussi Jaaskelainen (Bolton Wanderers), MF Mohamed Diame (Wigan Athletic)

Key Departures: GK Robert Green (Queens Park Rangers), MF Frank Nouble (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

Core Story: Having been sunk by Avram Grant and just two points from the final nine games in 2010, the Hammers are back with the big boys.

For that, thank Big Sam Allardyce. The big-talking, brash boss is a bit of a relic, but his experience proved invaluable. He's a throwback to the days when the long ball ruled English soccer and cutting diagonal passes reaped maximum rewards. But for all his detractors, the plan worked at Upton Park: 81 goals was second-best in the nPower Championship.

And Allardyce believed in his plan from the start. Within days of being hired, he was blunt: "We want to go up automatically, and if we don't quite achieve that goal, then we are going to be left in the playoffs ... unless I become the worst manager ever overnight and the players become the worst there has ever been." For anyone pining for the days of a Harry Redknapp sound bite, fear not. Big Sam will have you covered.

Not only did West Ham make the fraught nature of the playoffs seem simple -- a 5-0 aggregate win over Cardiff presaged a 2-1 win over Blackpool in the so-called "richest game in soccer" -- but the league was largely conquered with a brand-new squad. Fifteen players left last summer, including a few key ones (Demba Ba, Matthew Upton and Scott Parker) for whom a stint in the second tier was too much to bear.

Co-owner David Sullivan reckoned that the club's losses were about 17 million pounds due to relegation on top of existing debts of about 80 million, but many motivated freebies (center back Faye, midfielder Diop) and inspired loanees (defender George McCartney and Arsenal midfielder Henri Lansbury) were enlisted to execute Big Sam's plan.

The key signing was Kevin Nolan, who confused many in leaving behind upwardly mobile Newcastle to run the Hammers' midfield. Yet he excelled, scoring 12 times and setting up five goals.

Further inspiration came from fellow central midfielder Mark Noble (eight goals, nine assists), left-sided Matthew Taylor (10 assists) and the strike pairing of Ricardo Vaz Te and Carlton Cole (27 goals combined), all of which sets the iconic East London side up for a decent Prem return.

Fans will be happy that: After a year in the wilderness, the Hammers are back in the Prem. Nolan, Noble and Cole know the top tier well, while adding Maiga, Diame and Jaaskelainen could also prove inspired. Rumors of Marseille midfielder Alou Diarra joining the cause will also have fans pleased.

Fans will be sad that: Comical attempoints to lure Andy Carroll -- a prototypical West Ham striker given his brute force, fearsome size and love of the nightclubs -- have thus far proven unsuccessful. Losing Faye is also a blow to a wobbly defense.

Star to savor: Mark Noble is the conduit through which everything flows.

Intangibles: The danger of owners Sullivan and David Gold is that they've been known in the past for trying to run before walking is mastered. The Hammers are just three years removed from the Icelandic economic collapse that had the previous owners grappling with bankruptcy; the prudence with which Gold, Sullivan and Allardyce got the club promoted must continue.

Prediction: Of all the promoted sides, I'd expect the Hammers to climb highest.

Stoke City

Last Season: 14th (45 points)

Key Signings: DF Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), MF Michael Kightly (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

Key Departures: DF Jonathan Woodgate (Middlesbrough)

Core Story: The art of Tony Pulis-ball is that there is no art. But when a club can comfortably holds its own amid the rabble on a restricted budget, who dares complain? Certainly not to the Potters' faces, anyway. Such is the power of their murderous defense and equally gruesome midfield.

Stoke is derided a club for the anti-aesthete -- no flourish or flair, just admirable hard work -- and while Pulis' approach is often castigated by the media (and Arsene Wenger), it's effective. Built around a stout back four of Andy Wilkinson, Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth and Marc Wilson, the industriousness of Matthew Etherington in midfield and relentless work of Jon Walters up front, Stoke is what it is: unflinching pragmatism on a 38-game scale.

Not to say the Potters haven't tried to show some extra ambition this past season -- 20 million pounds brought in Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios and Cameron Jerome on Aug. 31 -- but ironically, the big names translated to the club's worst Prem finish since getting to the top flight.

What will that mean for 2012? Assuming Huth makes a full recovery from meningitis and returns to being the bedrock at the back, Pulis and Stoke are here to stay. Just pray they don't injure your star player when they come to town.

Fans will be happy that: the club continues to prove critics wrong. Let the pundits mock; Stoke has figured out how to stick in the Prem.

Fans will be sad that: the offense looks as anemic as ever. A league-low mark of 36 goals must be improved upon. Crouch tried gamely with 10 (including that wonder volley versus Manchester City), but beyond him and Walters, there was little help. Kenwyne Jones in particular (one goal in 21 appearances) is lagging.

Star to savor: Walter is a prototypical Pulis player: selfless, tireless and combative.

Intangibles: The Potters love to boast of "Fortress Britannia," yet the intimidation factor away from home just wasn't there -- 16 points from 57 won't do.

Prediction: Same as usual. 12th or so.

James Tyler is an editor for ESPN Soccer. He can be found on Twitter at @JamesTylerESPN.