Here is the start of a four part article on how The Duke sees the Premier League unfolding with views on how each team, including Wigan Athletic, will cope this season. Here is part one, with Arsenal, Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool. Don’t forget to visit the message board to let us know your views.

Last Season:

2009/10 was yet another season without silverware for Arsene and his men, despite being outsiders for the title and pushing Chelsea and Man United almost all the way. The Gunners’ main achievement was finishing in the top four, meaning that the only one of the ‘Big Four’ to drop out of the Champions League places were Liverpool.

It was ‘same old Arsenal’ in a way, providing beautiful football to please the purists, meanwhile the realists are far more sceptical and they didn’t always produce the results. They didn’t struggle to score however, despite not possessing a 20 goals a season striker they managed 83 goals overall, the third highest total in the League.

Many players chipped in with the goals, as displayed by the 5 different scorers in their 6-1 opening day demolishing of Everton at Goodison. Arsenal fans were very hopeful at that stage, however the overlapping injuries of Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas proved decisive as the Gunners finished 11 points short of Chelsea and were knocked out of the Chanpions’ League almost single handedly by a little lad called Lionel.

Comings and Goings:
The targets for Arsenal in terms of positions were clear for all to see, after losing Gallas, Silvestre, Senderos and Campbell, Wenger had a top class centre half at the top of his shopping list. He managed to bag Frenchman Laurent Koscielny for a cool £10 million from Lorient, who will partner Thomas Vermaelan in the centre of the Gunners’ defence.

However with Johan Djourou then only other centre half in the squad, Wenger will be concerned about the lack of depth in that area and will be aiming to buy another centre half before the end of August. Long term target Marouane Chamakh was bagged on a free from Bordeaux, who might be the man to finally score anywhere near the amount of goals Thierry Henry did in red and white, however after losing Eduardo to Shakhtar Donetsk, Arsenal have the same numbers in the attacking area.

Wenger will be delighted at having beaten Chelsea to the signing of Feyenoord starlet Kyle Ebecilio on a free, big things are expected of the 17 year old midfielder, and he could be the man to finally replace Fabregas in the long term. The only other signing of their summer so far was Phillip Roberts on a free from Championship new boys Norwich.

Wenger will also be looking for a goalkeeper, after many argue that he still hasn’t replaced ‘Safe Hands’ David Seaman, Mark Schwarzer is the reported target, but German Timo Hildebrand’s desire to play in England may draw Wenger’s attention, and tempt him to bring the free agent to the Emirates.

Wenger may feel that his squad isn’t strong enough for a title challenge until he has brought in at least one more defender, a top quality keeper and a ball winning midfield player. Despite being considered as many people’s outsiders, funds must still be tight, especially after spending £10 million on Koscielny.

Arsenal have been linked with Per Mertesacker, but the German has denied any speculation, Lyon have warned Arsenal off Brazilian Michel Bastos who impressed at left back in South Africa. Meanwhile Bacary Sagna has urged Wenger to sign Montpellier defender Emir Spahic, so the Gunners do look active in the transfer market, it’s just a matter of whether they can pull of the transfers.

The current squad has a class and flamboyancy that many other teams lack, they look set to line up with the ever popular 4-2-3-1 set up. They have many options in midfield, with Fabregas, Denilson, Song, Wilshere and Diaby battling for the 2 central midfield spots, phew.

All of those listed are great ball players, but are any of them capable of playing the ‘Patrick Vieira’ role that is necessary in this system? Many would argue not, and having missed out on Yaya Toure, it looks like Wenger may go another season without Vieira’s successor.

The 3 that will play in front of them will be exciting to watch whoever Wenger chooses to play. With Walcott, Arshavin, Van Persie, Rosicky, Nasri and Vela all capable of playing on the wings, the Emirates will definitely be the place to see a great variety of wing play. Walcott is the only direct winger, who will bomb down the line and whip a cross in, his confidence may be low after a World Cup-less summer, and question marks over his crossing ability leaves his Arsenal spot in jeopardy.

Nasri, Arshavin and Rosicky are craftier, they like to cut inside and join in with play, they have great footwork and love to weave in and out of defenders, like a modern day Johan Cruyff. While Van Persie and Vela provide a goal threat and each a magic wand of a left foot, with Fabregas’ creativity likely to claim him the ‘Jordi Gomez’ position, Wenger is likely to only choose two of those listed above, which gives him a rather attractive selection headache. If Chamakh can bang the goals in, the sky’s the limit for Arsenal, if not, they may be pipped to third spot by City, Liverpool or even arch rivals Spurs.

The Duke’s Prediction: 3rd
Key Man: Cesc Fabregas
Best Signing: Marouane Chamakh
Biggest Loss: William Gallas
Goal Grabber: Marouane Chamakh


Aston Villa
Last Season:
Despite falling to an open day loss at the hands of the (occasionally) mighty Latics, Martin O’Neill led Villa to an impressive sixth place finish. Praised for possessing and playing exciting English talent such as Milner, Agbonlahor, Young and Downing, O’Neill’s attractive style attracted many plaudits aswell as some great results, such as their 1-0 win at Old Trafford, and 2-1 defeat of Chelsea at Villa Park.

Despite their entertaining way of getting results, Villa only managed 52 goals, by far the lowest in the top 6, however, their tight defence only shipped 39 goals, the fourth least in the whole League. This was partly because of O’Neill’s shrewd acquisition of out of favour Man City defender Richard Dunne, who looked solid all season, and struck up a great understanding with former Hammer James Collins.

Their partnership paired with Brad Freidel’s consistently top class performances between the sticks, and the great contribution to attack and defence by full-backs Warnock and Cuellar meant that Villa’s defence was a highlight of their season, even if the likes of Young and Milner took most of the plaudits.

Comings and Goings:
It was a very quiet summer at Villa Park, with nobody coming in and just Bouma, Harewood and Marshall on their way out. The biggest loss no doubt will be the shock resignation of manager Martin O’Neill. He’s been instrumental in Villa establishing themselves in the top 6, and turning them from an average mid table team into an ambitious, exciting team full of talent.

Someone at Villa needs to be given a strong word over why he was forced to quit, because I can pretty much guarantee that his replacement will be nowhere near as good as Martin, and won’t take the club any further.

On the other hand, it’s debatable if O’Neill himself could have taken them further. With a very strong squad he finished sixth, and you can’t really see how Villa could sign any others that could take the team to the next level, because they’d all be at Champions League clubs and necessitate big fees, of which Villa obviously didn’t have.

Another who may be on his way out is James Milner. Man City’s long pursuit of the midfielder looks to have been a contributor to O’Neill’s departure, which suggests that possibly the owners will make transfer decision for the club, which is when problems occur.

However, if Villa can get Stephen Ireland plus £20 million in return for Milner, then that would be great for them, as Ireland is a great ball player with an eye for goal, the perfect replacement for Milner. Money talks, and the £20 million plus transfer budget will be a good way to attract top managers, whether they get the right man or not we remain to find out.

Villa will be hopeful of another top 6 finish, however if they don’t get a new manager in quickly; then they won’t be able to bring in new players; the team won’t have long to adapt to the new manager’s methods and they may lose out on points in their opening games as a result.

The fixture list sees them face West Ham, Newcastle and then Everton, with two games in the Europa League against Rapid Vienna sandwiched inbetween, that’s five games in 15 days. That must take a toll on the players. And a bad start to the season could mean they’re playing catch up for the rest of the season, remember Everton’s scenario last season?

Realistically, if they can install the right manager quickly, then they might have no trouble. Bob Bradley, Sven Goran Eriksson and Martin Jol have been linked with the post, meanwhile there’s been optimistic shouts for Mark Hughes and David Moyes. If I was Randy Lerner, I’d look at Alan Curbishley. He’s been out of the job for a while and will be ready for a challenge, he knows the importance of bringing through young British talent, and will continue where O’Neill left off. He can sustain stability to Villa Park, and can be handy in the transfer market.

My biggest concern for Villa is up front. They have Heskey, Agbonlahor, Carew and Delfounseo. I think the latter is a great prospect and will be one of England’s finest, but he isn’t ready just yet. I think Agbonlahor is over rated. He is very quick, but technically I think he’s average, not a brilliant finisher, doesn’t have a trick up his sleeve, and is reliant on others to play well more than most.

John Carew is good, but I think he’s peaked, and whether he can bring more than 10 goals a season is debatable, and need I say anything about Emile? Although I loved him at Wigan, I feel he’s not what Villa need and is never going to score alot. Unfortunately, I just can’t see Villa sustaining their position in the top 6 when those around them have improved in the summer, while they, if anything have gone backwards.

The Duke’s Prediction: 8th
Key Man: Ashley Young
Best Signing: Nobody
Biggest Loss: Martin O’Neill
Goal Grabber: Emile Heskey


Birmingham City
Last Season:
Alex McLeish will have been delighted with the Blues’ 9th place finish following promotion from the Championship. Many fancied them to stay up, but their organisation, particularly in defence, showed that a rigid 4-4-2 can be successful, and surprised many people.

Not least on their 15 game unbeaten run, in which they kept the same starting eleven which is remarkable considering modern day football’s obsession with rotation policies. Their achievement was made even more remarkable by their lack of firepower, they averaged just 1 goal a game, and although Cameron Jerome and Christian Benitez can’t be faulted for effort, veteran substitute Kevin Phillips had a more impressive strike-rate.

Birmingham based their game plans of hard work, and team ethic, with defensive full-backs Steven Carr and Liam Ridgewell, plus orthodox wide midfielders Seb Larsson and James McFadden, Birmingham were hard to break down.

Through their spine, Joe Hart was excellent, Roger Johnson and Scott Dann made the step up to the Premier League and formed an impressive partnership, Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson proved hard to break down, and effective ball retainers. It was a recipe for survival, and McLeish will be hoping for the same again this time around.

Comings and Goings:
There’s been more out than in at St. Andrews this summer, with fringe players McSheffrey, Vignal, Wilson, Carsley, Krysiak and Queudrue all on their way out, Christian Benitez was sent back to Santos Laguna at the end of his loan spell after producing just 3 League goals. Wisely, Birmingham got rid of who they considered to be useless, and brought in those who can improve the squad.

£6 million was spent to bring Ben Foster in from Old Trafford to fill the void left by Joe Hart’s return to Man City, McLeish showed he wasn’t afraid to splash the cash when he swooped for 6ft 7in striker Nicola Zigic from Valencia for another £6 million. With the kitty seemingly empty, the only other arrival was free transfer Enric Valles from NAC Breda, who could turn out to be a crummy player (gettit?)

The Blues have been linked with an ambitious moves for veteran playmakers Mauro Camoranesi and Roman Riquelme, although nothing has materialised yet, it would be interesting to see how they would fit into McLeish’s set up. It would appear that they still need strengthening in the summer, as Wigan proved, a top half finish in your first Premier League season doesn’t guarantee the same the second time around.

Birmingham, just like half of the whole League, will be first looking for survival, they overachieved last year, with their hard work making up for their lack of attacking flair and goals. The signing of Nicola Zigic indicates a long ball system, as he will win almost every header he can, which will cause people problems.

The problem for Birmingham is a partner, Cameron Jerome proved he’s no goal machine last season, and a target man usually needs a lightning fast poacher alongside them, which Jerome isn’t. McLeish doesn’t have a striker of that description at his disposal, and as a result may struggle to score goals again, and with a veteran midfield supply may be at a premium.

There are also question marks over both full-backs. Stephen Carr is aging, and isn’t going to catch the likes of Ashley Young and Aaron Lennon as they burn past him, Liam Ridgewell is really a centre-half, which means his positioning and contribution to the attack suffers. They don’t really have any cover in that area, and may struggle if injuries occur, and the midfield may endure the same problem.

As a result, I think Birmingham may struggle, as a team, they overachieved, and many individuals overachieved too, such as Bowyer, Carr and Ferguson… You can’t keep overachieving year after year, and I don’t think McLeish has improved his squad enough to keep up with those around them; they simply can’t afford to spend such a huge chunk of their budget on a goalkeeper. For these reasons I think they’ll struggle, but they’re organisation should be enough to keep them afloat, but only just.

The Duke’s Prediction: 17th
Key Man: James McFadden
Best Signing: Nicola Zigic
Biggest Loss: Joe Hart
Goal Grabber: Nicola Zig


Blackburn Rovers
Last Season:
Big Sam will be delighted that his Rovers side managed at top 10 finish last time out, surprising a few people along the way too. Allardyce played his way to victory in the same fashion as he has done in the past, with his rigid 4-5-1 system, and long balls pumped up towards a lone striker.

Steven N’Zonzi proved to be a superb bit of business by Rovers, as he shone and his box to box style of play added an extra dimension to Rovers’ midfield. Blackburn still managed to concede 55 goals however, the highest in the top half. At the other end, following the departure of hitman Roque Santa Cruz to Man City, Big Sam’s men only managed to score 41 goals.

It was clear that Blackburn only won their games by the odd goal, but lost games by quite alot, as shown by their 6-2 thrashing at Arsenal, their 5-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge and 4-1 loss to Man City. However, it’s results that do the talking and Blackburn managed to get enough of them to stabilise themselves, and ease off any relegation fears.

Comings and Goings:
It was a quiet summer at Ewood Park, which is uncharacteristic for Allardyce considering his reputation as a wheeler and dealer, at the Reebok he was famous for grabbing free transfers and bargain deals to fill his squad.

The only permanent signing was youngster Hugo Fernandez, on a free from Union Deportiva Cornella. He is seen as a hot prospect, and after meeting Sam Allardyce and Spaniard Michel Salgardo, Fernandez chose Blackburn over a number of Spanish clubs. Allardyce also persuaded 22 year old Man United striker Mame Diouf to join on a season long loan after failing to secure the services of Chelsea striker Franco Di Santo for another season.

The only departures were Steven Reid, who left on a free to West Brom, and Yildiray Basturk, who was released. It would seem that Big Sam is satisfied with his squad and is hopeful of the same as last campaign. Another reported departure is striker Jason Roberts, who has reportedly been made available for just £1 million after being deemed surplus to requirements.

He has been linked with a move back to Wigan, but it remains to be seen whether Mr Martinez sees him in his plans for the following season. If not, he may end up at Blackpool.

Allardyce seems satisfied with another season like the last, they base their play on keeping it tight at the back, with the athletic Chris Samba partnering the experienced Ryan Nelsen in centre defence. Despite losing Stephen Warnock to Aston Villa, Gael Givet was very impressive at full back, and was a cheap yet effective replacement.

Latics’ villain Pascal Chimbonda is also on the books at Ewood Park, yet he seems to be second choice to former Real Madrid full back Michel Salgado. If Big Sam can keep his defence tight then their midfield is strong enough to retain possession and prevent counter attacks.

N’Zonzi is the driving force of the midfield, partnered by ferocious ball winner Keith Andrews, they have a solid partnership, and David Dunn provides the creative spark just in front of them. Brett Emerton and Gamst Pedersen patrol the wings, and provide a great contribution to defence and attack.

The only thing the midfield lacks is goals, which puts pressure on lone centre forward Nikola Kalinic to produce the goods. The Croatian only bagged 2 League goals despite his £6 million fee, and took until January to score his first, against; you guessed it, Wigan Athletic.

Despite not being the most attractive side, what Blackburn will do is grind out results, and I predict them to do well, simply because the teams around them don’t provide much of a threat to their mid table position. If they can get off to a good start, there’s no reason why they can’t surprise a few people like last season. They’re just a quality striker away from being real top 10 material.

The Duke’s Prediction: 11th
Key Man: Steven N’Zonzi
Best Signing: Mame Diouf
Biggest Loss: Nobody
Goal Grabber: Nikola Kalinic


Last Season:
Ian Holloway proved what a tactical genius he is by remarkably guiding relegation favourites Blackpool to a 6th place finish and promotion via the play offs. Holloway consistently kept faith in his 4-3-3 formation, with three out and out strikers playing ahead of three work horses in midfield.

The star performer was undoubtedly £500k record signing Charlie Adam, who was signed from Rangers. The midfielder scored a remarkable 18 League goals, including a wonderful free kick in at Wembley to seal promotion. He finished as the Tangerine’s top scorer, with closest rival and former Latics’ loanee Brett Ormerod way behind on eleven.

Blackpool lost just once in their eight game run in at the end of the season, beating Swansea 5-1 and shocking Forest by beating them 3-1. They later faced Forest in the Play Offs, beating them 2-1 at home and then 4-3 away to seal a 6-4 aggregate win, with DJ Campbell bagging his first career hat trick in the second leg. They went into the final as underdogs against Cardiff and the rest is history. Noticed how I’ve purposely glossed over their Carling Cup campaign for fear of embarrassment.

Comings and Goings:
Despite the obvious need to strengthen throughout the summer, Holloway faced the obvious problem of nobody wanting to join them. It was up until the middle of August before they actually signed anyone. That was part of a quadruple deal following Holloway’s threat to resign if the board didn’t back him financially.

Holloway brought in Craig Cathcart, Ludovic Sylvestre, Elliot Grandin and Malaury Martin. None are household names, but they were a starting point. These moves were followed up by signing Marlon Harewood following his release from Aston Villa, despite nearly being beaten to his signature by League One Huddersfield.

Holloway now has his sights set on Bolton defender Chris Basham, who clearly isn’t a world beater, but Blackpool haven’t even aimed for Premier League experienced players and still missed out. Holloway has been found frustrated by the failure to sign the targeted DJ Campbell, Angel Rangel, Rob Hulse, Nathan Tyson, Marcus Tudgay and Robert Koren, all of which are at Championship clubs, besides Tudgay who’s at League One outfit Sheffield Wednesday, and Robert Koren is a free agent. It’s clear to see that this summer has been a struggle for Blackpool, and it’ll be a mad rush to try and improve their squad after their first Premier League beatings arrive in the following weeks.

All the neutrals are rooting for Blackpool this season, but all the Premier League survival hopers are delighted at their promotion, as they see it as one relegation place already taken up. I think everyone’s put them down for relegation, which reminds me of when Wigan came up.

Everyone wrote us off, nobody wanted to join us, and we became everyone’s second favourite team. The difference with Blackpool is I look at their squad and some of them I struggle to see cutting it in the Championship.

The likes of Danny Coid, Jason Euell, Ishmael Demontagnac and Gary Taylor-Fletcher are very average and just not good enough for the Premier League. Of all their players, only Charlie Adam looks capable of actually cutting it at this level. Their defence looks shaky, their midfield lacks spark, and their strikers lack goals.

It’s debatable if even the players they’ve been aiming to sign are Premier League quality. It’s all set up for a fairytale story, but it looks like it’ll go sour. Enjoy it while it lasts Blackpool fans.

The Duke’s Prediction: 20th
Key Man: Charlie Adam
Best Signing: Marlon Harewood
Biggest Loss: Nobody
Goal Grabber: Marlon Harewood with 3 penalties will probably top score

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