Sunday, August 14, 2011

2011-2012 English Premier League Preview - Class Structure

Welcome to my new addiction.

I'm about sick of college football and its politics, corruption and general BS that leads to a mythical national champion almost every season. College basketball's quality has plummeted since the creation of the one-and-done rule and I never check in until conference play begins anyway. I'm beginning to fade from tennis as Federer - the man who brought me in - starts to slip and the women's tour becomes a bigger and bigger joke. But English soccer, and on a wider scope European and international soccer, has become the apple of my eye.

No, the Premier League isn't perfect. Far from it. There are twenty teams in the league. Fourteen of them can forget about the title right off the bat, no questions asked, and it would take a series of small miracles for Tottenham Hotspur to win it so that's fifteen. Arsenal, as currently constructed, have no real hope either (although this could change by the end of August when the transfer window shuts.) So that leaves four out of twenty clubs who have a realistic shot at the championship. Meanwhile, at least double that have a realistic shot at the Championship, as in relegation to the Football League Championship, with my Wolves being firmly entrenched in that group.

But the flip side of that coin leads to things like May 22, 2011 - arguably the most memorable final day in the history of the Premier League. Wolverhampton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic, Birmingham City and Blackpool were within a point of one another as each tried to avoid the final two trap door openings down to the Championship. Blackburn surged to a shocking 3-0 halftime lead at Wolves, securing their safety. Blackpool fell behind at champions Manchester United but a Charlie Adam free kick leveled them at half and Gary Taylor-Fletcher's flick on gave them the lead in the second half. Meanwhile, Wolves got a goal back to make it 3-1, Birmingham fell behind by a goal at Tottenham and Wigan remained goalless at Stoke City. But Manchester United quickly equalized before Blackpool put it in their own net to fall behind. United then added a fourth to seal Blackpool's fate and send them down, leaving the last relegation place up to Birmingham, Wigan and Wolves. Then at around the 80 minute mark, Craig Gardner scorched one in to the net to level Birmingham's game and put Wigan and Wolves in trouble. Immediately after, Hugo Rodallega headed home for Wigan to give them the lead and send them to safety. With ten minutes to go in the season, it was now down to Wolves and Birmingham and it would come down to one goal either way - if Wolves scored, they would tie Birmingham in goal difference (the first tiebreaker between teams with the same amount of points) but pass them in the table because they had more goals scored (second tiebreaker), while of course if Birmingham scored again, Wolves were surely out. But as it happened, Stephen Hunt curled in a goal that will be remembered in Wolverhampton forever to keep the locals up and doom Birmingham City to the Championship, just a couple of months removed from winning the Carling Cup and having qualified for Europa League competition this season.

So yeah. Things like the previous paragraph are why the EPL has become such a big deal to me. But anyhow, it's time to take a look at the upcoming season.

What's the easiest way to break down a big table? Break it down in to smaller tables. There are three "classes" per se in the English Premier League - an upper, middle, and lower class:

Upper Class - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur
Middle Class - Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Fulham, Newcastle United, Stoke City, Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion
Lower Class - Blackburn Rovers, Norwich City, Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City, Wigan Athletic, Wolverhampton Wanderers

The Upper Class is the "big six." Pretty much everyone on the planet who's projecting a Premier League table has first through sixth occupied by those clubs in some order. Even inside the upper class, there's become a clear schism between the two Manchester clubs at the top (United the defending league champions; City the FA Cup holders), the two North London clubs at the bottom (Arsenal slipped from third to fourth and Spurs from fourth to fifth last season) and Chelsea and Liverpool somewhere in the middle depending on how you feel about age, making it rain or both. Any trophy won by a team outside this group - such as Birmingham's Carling Cup - will be seen as a huge shock and these are the only teams in the league who can be counted on for consistent high quality football.

To get religious, let's say the Upper Class is Heaven (the title, European places, etc.) and the Lower Class is Hell (relegation.) The Middle Class is Purgatory. Apart from the Second Season Syndrome from West Brom or Newcastle that struck Birmingham City last year, it would be a major shock if any of the Middle Class were relegated. However, only Everton has a semblance of a prayer to steal a Champions League spot with a finish of 4th (or higher) and even that would be earth-shattering. So these clubs have little to play for other than a potential Europa League spot for whoever finishes 7th (if the FA and Carling Cup finals are contested between top 6 sides) and for overall league placement, with a top half finish being the goal. It's an interesting mix of teams. Everton are the biggest fish in the small pond that is "the bottom 14" and are a model of consistency with the David Moyes era now spanning a full decade. Villa and Bolton are going in completely different directions as the Villans look tattered under Alex McLeish and the Trotters are flying high on the wings of Owen Coyle. Newcastle and Sunderland are hated North East rivals. Fulham and Stoke try to grind you down and have gotten to Europe this way, whereas West Brom will pass the ball all over the pitch fluently as they try to rise in to the top half. In a sense, this group feels like the Island of Misfit Toys but hey, a drab season in 12th will always beat an exciting one in 19th (such as Blackpool's last season.)

And then you've got the Lower Class. As always, the three newly promoted teams are here - Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and Swansea City in the order they finished in last year's Championship. Also here are the three relegation survivors from last season. Wolves are the only of the three to have improved over the summer and are thusly best positioned to break out of this group and in to the Middle Class, a goal that has been set around the club this season. You've got your real minnows in this group. Swansea are the Cinderella story of the season - the first Welsh club to ever play in the Premier League (and against the odds too - Cardiff have lost in the playoffs on basically an annual basis) and their first season in the top flight since 1982-1983. QPR are up for the first time in fifteen years. The two of them are the only two clubs with stadiums that fail to seat at least 21,000 people. Norwich City have only been out of the top flight for five years but they've achieved back-to-back promotion, a sign that they're perhaps punching above their weight. Granted, Wigan's been doing that for six years now and somehow still haven't been knocked out back to League One where most clubs like them play. Wolves too have become David after being Goliath a few decades ago - they're entering just their fourth season of Premier League football. Blackburn crashed out of the Middle Class when it shockingly sacked Sam Allardyce, just one of many puzzling moves by their chicken processing ownership group, who are about the exact opposite of Gus Fring from Breaking Bad in every imaginable way.

Even the oddsmakers seem to agree with my groupings. Here's the odds of winning the Premier League by class, following the same alphabetical order of listing from above:

Upper Class: 9-1; 5-2; 10-1; 7-2; 7-4; 50-1
Middle Class: 400-1; 1,000-1; 300-1; 1,000-1; 1,000-1; 3,000-1; 1,000-1; 1,500-1
Lower Class: 2,500-1; 5,000-1; 3,000-1; 5,000-1; 2,500-1; 2,500-1

With the exception of Stoke, who's remarkably underpriced at 3,000-1 for a team that hasn't finished lower than 13th since coming up in 2008 and reached the FA Cup final last season, the odds fall in line with what's been projected. Tottenham's clearly a Lexus among Bentleys and Maybachs, but they're also clearly ahead of Aston Villa and Everton, the torchbearers for the Middle Class. Bolton, Fulham, Newcastle and Sunderland are all the exact same price and West Brom's not far off. And then you have your three survivors at 2,500-1, QPR at 3,000-1 (they're a London club so more popular for the betting world than an Anglican or Welsh club) and Norwich and Swansea at 5,000-1 top us off.

So will the table predictions fall in line with the "class structure"? We shall see. The table is below.

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