Fighting for survival
Previewing all 20 English Premier League teams is a labor of love, mainly because some of these teams make it so hard to love them. Where some clubs perennially frustrate rabid fan bases with baffling underachievement (here's looking at you, Liverpool), others can't possibly think about playing tiki-taka, given that their top-flight lives hang in the balance every weekend. And so it's here we begin this journey through the murky, moneyed Prem: the quintet of teams fighting not to finish in the bottom three.
Last Season: 15th (43 points)
Previewing all 20 English Premier League teams is a labor of love, mainly because some of these teams make it so hard to love them. Where some clubs perennially frustrate rabid fan bases with baffling underachievement (here's looking at you, Liverpool), others can't possibly think about playing tiki-taka, given that their top-flight lives hang in the balance every weekend.
And so it's here we begin this journey through the murky, moneyed Prem: the quintet of teams fighting not to finish in the bottom three.
Key Signings: DF Ivan Ramis (Mallorca), MF Fraser Fyvie (Aberdeen), FW Mauro Boselli (Estudiantes La Plata)
Key Departures: FW Hugo Rodallega (Fulham), GK Chris Kirkland (Sheffield Wednesday), MF Mohamed Diame (West Ham United)
Core Story: Watching the Latics is like staring into the banal chaos of Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. From week to week, Wigan either concedes three or more goals (it happened 10 times in the Latics' first 23 league games) or rattles off improbable wins over Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal (all in the span of three weeks). The latter happened during the club's latest "Great Escape" -- just as relegation became a foregone conclusion, Roberto Martinez's side earned 28 points from a possible 42 to finish comfortably in mid-table. In 2010-11, Wigan took 11 points from its final six games to seal 17th. In short, there are few teams you'd rather bet on when those late-season chips are down.
But that breathless survivalist streak comes at a price; every time you pull it off, it becomes that much tougher to do it again, and as in any decent gangster film the wise guys with the most memorable lines never live to see the closing credits. Will this plucky posse pull it off for a third straight year?
Fans will be happy that: Martinez is still reporting for duty at DW Stadium. Despite being courted by Liverpool before Euro 2012, the Spanish genius will once again aim to keep the Latics in the English top flight. His tactics are as bold and dangerous as Icarus' wings, but his ability to inspire belief in his team cannot be overlooked. You could see it last season. While Blackburn's legs grew heavier and less confident of avoiding the drop, Wigan kept sprinting down the stretch.
Fans will be sad that: Victor Moses looks set to leave. Just when the speedy winger/wide forward appeared to be hitting stride, it seems Chelsea will snare him and give him a more comfortable Premier League future.
Star to savor: The midfield pair of Scot James McArthur and Irishman James McCarthy forms the Latics' pugnacious driving force. Their capacity to win possession and find forwards upfield is rarely dull.
Intangibles: Figuring out who can capably lead the line is a major concern. Last season, Wigan was 18th in Prem scoring with 1.11 goals per game, and if Moses does depart, only Franco di Santo and Jordi Gomez cracked five or more goals last season (the lithe di Santo led the team with seven).
Prediction: Another year of treading water lies ahead for Martinez. Yet by virtue of the question marks surrounding the promoted trio, 16th or 17th seems reasonable.
Queens Park Rangers
Last Season: 17th (37 points)
Key Signings: MF Junior Hoilett (Blackburn Rovers), MF Park Ji-Sung (Manchester United), DF Fabio (Manchester United, loan), MF Samba Diakite (AS Nancy), FW Andrew Johnson (Fulham), GK Robert Green (West Ham United), DF Ryan Nelsen (Tottenham Hotspur)
Key Departures: FW Heidar Helguson (Cardiff City), DF Fitz Hall (Watford), GK Paddy Kenny (Leeds United)
Core Story: Rangers' first Prem season since the mid-1990s was a confused medley of new faces, new ideas and new owners. Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone sold their majority stake to Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes before the end of last August, prompting a minor spending spree for tortured, talented off-cuts such as Joey Barton, Luke Young, Armand Traore, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Anton Ferdinand (who would later be the recipient of the John Terry storm).
Not that the outlay helped the club fit into its new surroundings; just four wins before New Year's Day resulted in the sacking of Neil Warnock and the hiring of Mark Hughes. And yes, more spending on more misfits -- such as Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora -- occurred with hours left in the January transfer window.
Yet all the expenditure and excitement translated into a relegation dogfight, which didn't end until Bolton failed to beat Stoke on the final day of the season to seal QPR's berth for another year. That Barton & Co. nearly denied Hughes' former club, Manchester City, the Prem title that day is but a footnote in a difficult return to England's top flight.
Fans will be happy that: QPR is still in the Prem, as many pundits felt it was ultimately a lucky escape.
Fans will be sad that: The transfer market continues to be such a puzzle. Hughes did bring some semblance of form (five wins in the last 10 games, including success against Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs) to the job, but until there is some cohesion and stability in the squad -- seven new signings already this summer as surplus veterans such as Hall and Kenny are shipped out -- this will continue to be a work in progress.
Star to savor: Junior Hoilett was beloved for his effort at Blackburn, as his pace and eye for goal made him a bright spot in a miserable season. Hoops fans will soon grow to love him.
Intangibles: The combative Hughes is a headstrong manager who got a raw deal at Manchester City and clearly still wears that bitterness several years on. But now that he has gotten his sea legs in London, what can he do with yet another hodgepodge of a squad? Can he get Park Ji-Sung back to his Old Trafford best? Can he help loanee Fabio develop into a competent defender? Who from Jay Bothroyd, DJ Campbell, Cisse, Zamora, Andy Johnson and even Hoilett can be trusted to regularly lead the line? And what of Adel Taarabt, the tempestuous midfielder who struggled to convert his lower-league dominance to the EPL last season?
Prediction: Survival. But only just.
Last Season: Second in nPower Championship; promoted (88 points)
Key Signings: DF Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace), MF Steven Davis (Rangers)
Key Departures: none
Core Story: Under the charismatic, upbeat gaze of Nigel Adkins, the Saints emulated Norwich City's back-to-back promotions to rejoin the EPL after a seven-year spell in exile.
How did he do it? With an exuberant, attack-minded core that served 30-year-old Rickie Lambert, whose 27 goals and 13 assists for the league's highest-scoring team earned him a spot on the PFA Championship Team of the Year last season. To compare again to Norwich, Lambert is the Saints' Grant Holt, a seasoned, no-nonsense gem plucked from the lower leagues and capable of greatness around goal. His size and fearlessness will intrigue Prem defenses in 2012-13.
Lambert was joined in the 2011-12 Best XI by goalkeeper Kelvin Davis (conceded less than a goal a game) and setup man Adam Lallana (11 goals and 10 assists). There were other standouts: defender Jos Hooiveld anchored the third-stingiest defense, young midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork played nearly every game, while Danny Fox notched 11 assists from left back, a spot once occupied by Gareth Bale.
With new summer signings Clyne (a highly rated young defender) and Davis (a gritty central midfielder forged in Rangers' SPL fire), this team will show no fear on opening day.
Fans will be happy that: Few players have flown the coop since the club made it back to the Premier League. The lure of bigger clubs looking to pad their squads for a busy schedule is hard to ignore, yet Adkins has been able to retain and build.
Fans will be sad that: The squad carries a notable lack of depth. Ten players started or appeared in more than 30 league games last season, and while this reliability contributed to the Saints' consistency (Southampton didn't drop out of the top two all season) any injuries will have a major impact in the Prem.
Star to savor: It's all about the burly Lambert, upon whom the bulk of the scoring burden will fall. He coasted through the nPower Championship but will find the Prem a bigger test.
Intangibles: Will Lambert be as successful against better defenses? Can Adkins keep his thin (but talented) team motivated? More intriguingly, will he stick with the tactics that got his team to the promised land?
Prediction: Relegation, but like swashbuckling Blackpool a couple seasons ago, the Saints will put on a good show.
Last Season: Won nPower Championship; automatic promotion (89 points)
Key Signings: DF Adrian Mariappa (Watford), DF Nicky Shorey (West Bromwich Albion), FW Pavel Pogrebnyak (VfB Stuttgart), MF Danny Guthrie (Newcastle United)
Key Departures: none
Core Story: In many respects, Reading is the little engine that could. Following a two-season Prem stint and humbling relegation in 2007-08, the club has since rallied around a plan built by owner John Madejski and the unflinching belief of manager Brian McDermott.
McDermott was made manager in 2009, promoted from heading the club's youth academy and instantly tasked with building a confident, no-fear squad from those talents he previously had overseen. Core players such as goalkeeper Adam Federici, rock-solid defender Alex Pearce (last season's arguable MVP), midfielder Jem Karacan and striker Alex Church all graduated through the ranks and form the backbone of a side that won the league last season.
His additions have been astute as well: cheap pickups such as Kaspar Gorkss and Adam le Fondre blossomed last season; the latter anchored the backline alongside Pearce, while the former scored 12 goals to lead the team. Even Blackburn castoff Jason Roberts found his feet with six goals and five assists after joining in January. Then there's Jimmy Kebe, a talented, hit-or-miss winger who repaid McDermott with 10 assists.
Moving back into the Prem won't faze McDermott, his squad or new owner Anton Zingarevich. But it'll take more than self-confidence to stick around.
Fans will be happy that: The club's spending this summer fits with its ambitions. Mariappa is a strong, composed center back, Guthrie will bring depth to the midfield and Pogrebnyak showed he can handle the Prem by way of his loan spell at Fulham.
Fans will be sad that: If Reading is in relegation danger by March, the end-of-season run is far from kind: trips to United and Arsenal in mid-March and a visit from Manchester City on the penultimate weekend.
Star to savor: Kebe. He's much like Theo Walcott in that you know the talent is there even when it struggles to shine through. Yet McDermott's persistence has made him a dazzling player.
Intangibles: McDermott. It's all fine and fair to dominate the lower tiers with a stringent youth policy, but the Prem generally demands a deep checkbook and something more than just good ideas.
Prediction: That final day trip to another promoted side, West Ham, might be your clichéd survival six-pointer.
West Bromwich Albion
Last Season: 10th (47 points)
Key Signings: MF Claudio Yacob (Racing Club), MF Yassine El Ghanassy (KAA Gent, loan), FW Markus Rosenberg (Werder Bremen)
Key Departures: DF Nicky Shorey (Reading), MF Keith Andrews (Bolton Wanderers)
Core Story: Is 10th place as good as it gets? The Baggies fumbled and fought through a reasonable season, dumped from both cup competitions early enough that full focus could be on the league by late-January. And it showed. Wins over Chelsea at home and Liverpool away proved that Roy Hodgson's function-over-form approach could be successful.
Yet Hodgson's departure has thrown doubt over where things go from here. Having tried and failed to lure Chris Hughton into the job -- he joined Norwich City instead -- Albion settled on Liverpool and Chelsea assistant Steve Clarke. It's his first full-time managerial gig and by no means an easy feat, such is the volatility of the lower end of the table: just 11 points separated 10th from 18th in 2011-12.
The Baggies have talent in Peter Odemwingie and James Morrison (18 goals between them last term) up front, with Swedish striker Markus Rosenberg (10 goals and five assists for Werder Bremen last season) set to bring his prodigious aerial abilities to the side.
However, it's on defense that Clarke needs the most help. Beyond the quartet of Jonas Olsson, Gareth McAuley, Steven Reid and the departed Nicky Shorey is little to encourage fans at the Hawthorns when it comes to improving an all-or-nothing record: 17 league defeats is bad enough, but that nine of those losses came from winning positions or goals in the last 15 minutes is unacceptable.
Fans will be happy that: There are plenty of teams in arguably worse shape heading into the new season.
Fans will be sad that: Hodgson moved up to become England's latest curmudgeonly coach. Though the dour disciplinarian lacked vibrancy on the sidelines, he was a reliable, stabilizing force under whom life looks more stable.
Star to savor: Peter Odemwingie is still a Baggie -- for now at least -- and his energy and potency around goal are infectious.
Intangibles: Clarke has been a right-hand man for his entire post-playing career; how well he handles being the main driving force will determine the Baggies' progress.
Prediction: Firmly ensconced in the middle again, though that shaky rearguard will drop West Brom far closer to the relegation zone than fans would like.
James Tyler is an editor for ESPN Soccer. He can be found on Twitter at @JamesTylerESPN.