Stats Zone season preview: Arsenal shake it up, Chelsea counter, Spurs get possessive

With six Premier League clubs heading into the 2012/13 season with new managers, there are plenty of intriguing changes to look forward to when the campaign kicks off on Saturday. Alex Keble, editor of tactics website TheChalkboard.org.uk, considers the key tactical points for each team, asking: who will be relegated? Who will qualify for Europe? And who will win the Premier League title?

Arsenal
The old cliché - 'Arsenal try and pass the ball into the net' - may finally become a tag they can discard. Their ability to shake things up next season could be as be as big a departure from recent tradition as their summer transfer policy. The magnificent Santi Cazorla averaged a high 7.4 long passes last season, as well as 1.6 accurate crosses. More significantly, Olivier Giroud won 3.7 aerial duels per match, making him the best player in the air in France. Last season Arsenal scored only eight times from set-pieces, and saw 73% of their goals scored from extended periods of open play. Could their new direct dimension earn them those gritty wins and boost their title credentials?

The crossing and heading abilities of their new signings should make Arsenal's lack of penetration a rarer sight next season, although it remains to be seen how well they can cope without the dominant presence of RVP.

Predicted finish: 3rd

 

Aston Villa
Lambert is known for an efficient German-influenced style, that aims to squeeze the most out of players and create well-drilled sides that maximise their chances of success. Laziness or coasting will not be tolerated. As such, the biggest thing to watch out for at Villa is how he is able to handle the likes of Charlies N'Zogbia, Stephen Ireland, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Shay Given and Richard Dunne, all of whom are quality players that have lost their way. Get them back to their best, and Villa could do surprisingly well.

After a season with a distinct lack of creativity, Villa will be hoping Lambert can instil some vibrancy at Villa Park.

Predicted finish: 9th

 

Chelsea
The Blues lack the physicality that has characterised them since the Mourinho days (winning 8.3 aerial duels per match last season was one of the lowest in the division), with Di Matteo set to favour a more fluid, flair based system with a direct attacking edge. Now playing a 4-2-3-1, the most popular formation in Europe, Chelsea's biggest concern will be getting their technically gifted youngsters to gel. They will need another big year from Mata, to help out the inexperienced Oscar and Hazard.

Note the high frequency of short ground passes, coupled with a sudden propensity to move the ball more directly once approaching the penalty box. Chelsea will not be afraid to use their pace to counter-attack.

Predicted finish: 5th

 

Everton
Everton are currently on a nine-match unbeaten run in the league, and there is no reason why they can't continue this run into the new campaign. Their top two performers last season – Steven Pienaar and Nikica Jelavic – only joined in January; they will be ready to lead the team from the beginning this time round, as Everton hope to avoid another bad start. They amassed only 16 points from their first 14 games in 2011/12: if their form in the first half of the season had matched their second half, Everton would have finished just three points behind Spurs.

Pienaar's tireless work in midfield is crucial, as is the lethal touch of Jelavic, who scored nine goals in 12 matches.

Predicted finish: 8th

 

Fulham
Martin Jol's biggest concern is the lack of width and pace in his Fulham side; it could be the difference between a top ten finish and a top six finish. 38% of Fulham's attacks came through the middle (the highest in the division), while only 27% of their attacks came down the left (the lowest in the division). Only Blackburn made fewer crosses per match. If they can get another great season out of Dempsey, then they have a good chance of finishing top ten.

Fulham frequently move the ball into the centre, quite possibly due to the overwhelming influence Clint Dempsey has on the game.

Predicted finish: 10th

 

Liverpool
Brendan Rodgers' tiki-taka philosophy suits Liverpool's ball-playing centre backs, and with the addition of Allen to a central midfield with Lucas and Gerrard, he has the perfect midfield trio for the system. Lucas is the most important member of this squad; the success Rodgers has with implementing his style onto Liverpool depends on Lucas having a central role. His 53.7 passes per game with an 84.2% percentage completion is highest at the club, while his 5.4 tackles and 2.8 interceptions per game also cannot be matched. Returning from a long-term injury this summer, Lucas will be looking to remind us all of why he is one of the Premier League's best players.

Liverpool will be expected to play a ruthless short-passing game, with Lucas taking on a central role, both in attack and defence.

Predicted finish: 6th

 

Manchester City
City's inability to offload the over-paid, under-played deadwood explains their lack of transfer activity, as UEFA's Fair Play initiative clutches the Premier League by the throat. In all honesty though, Mancini will just be asking for more of the same. An almost perfect season was only hampered by the inconsistency of their centre forwards, leading to the tiresome pursuit of Robin van Persie. City struggled to come back from behind, with one obvious exception, so a striker that could provide a flash of brilliance when they go a goal down would sort them out.

City's strikers gave the ball away too often for Mancini's short passing style (Balotelli's pass completion was 77.5%, Dzeko's was 68.8%).

Predicted finish: 1st

 

Manchester United
An ageing central midfield needs freshening, with some direct attacking verve being added in the form of Shinji Kagawa. Sir Alex Ferguson will hope the return of Tom Cleverly bolsters the midfield, and take some pressure off the wings (United's wingers made a combined 30 assists). Expect the same grit and determination from United, despite the lack of significant improvements having been made this summer. The potential arrival of Robin van Persie would ease the pressure on Wayne Rooney to create, but it would still be a huge ask for them to keep up with their Manchester rivals.

United still rely on  Giggs and Scholes feeding their wingers all too often. When teams work this out, like Wigan did with their use of full-backs, United struggle to create chances through the middle.

Predicted finish: 2nd

 

Newcastle United
Living up to last season's heights will be difficult, although Papiss Cisse's presence from the beginning will be helpful. Using the pace of Hatem Ben Arfa and Jonas Gutierrez to stretch the play, Newcastle rely on Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye to dominate the centre. Watch out for Cabaye, who may suffer ‘second season syndrome’ now teams will be targeting him as the primary attacking threat. 1.6 key passes per game is the best in the squad, whilst Tiote and Cabaye together average 100 passes a match.

Those two will be expected to boss the midfield next season once again for Pardew's team.

Predicted finish: 7th

 

Norwich City
Chris Hughton is extremely well respected, creating friendly, calm environments in the dressing room. Hard working, with an acute attention to detail, he quickly boosted the morale of relegated Birmingham City. Robert Snodgrass and Steven Whittaker are both good signings, but Norwich will rely on strong second seasons from main creator Wes Hoolahan and goalscorer Grant Holt.

When Hoolahan plays well, so do Norwich; the midfielder has the best passing stats in the team, with an 86.1% completion rate, amassing 7 assists and 1.6 key passes per game.

Predicted finish: 17th

 

QPR
Mark Hughes made a forceful promise after the City game in May: QPR will not find themselves in a relegation battle again. The fierce look he gave when delivering this message speaks volumes about his managerial style; Rangers will most certainly be whipped into shape. The dogged grit and physicality of Hughes' sides make the capture of Ji-Sung Park particularly important. Junior Hoilett's dribbling skills and Andrew Johnson's natural finishing will add the attacking threat they lacked last season (amassing a measly 43 goals).

Park's hard work, tenacity, and desire, will provide a much needed solidity and composure to an unpredictable QPR side. He could be one of the signings of the season.

Predicted finish: 11th

 

Reading
Despite winning the Championship, Reading appear the most ill-prepared for life in the top flight. They did superbly to run up such a long stretch of good form (15 wins out of 17 between January and April), but their ability to keep this momentum in the Premier League is up for question. An inexperienced manager will lead a side that scored only 69 goals last season. With very few signings of note, they could have a very difficult time indeed.

Predicted finish: 20th

 

Southampton
There is absolutely no reason why Saints cannot emulate what Norwich and Swansea achieved last season. On the back of two successive promotions, Southampton play with the kind of togetherness, confidence and fluidity that, if brave enough, allows newly promoted team to hit the ground running. There is a lot of talent in their ranks, but the goals and assists of Rickie Lambert (27 & 14 last season) will be crucial to their survival. Steven Davis and Jay Rodriguez are encouraging signings too, and represent exactly the kind of quality and calibre promoted teams should be investing in.

Predicted finish: 16th

 

Stoke City
Entering their fifth season in the Premier League, Stoke remain consistent to their tag of being a physical side. They had less possession (39.9%) than any other team, completed fewer passes (69.5%) and won more aerial duels (15.3). Sixteen of their goals came from set pieces – 44% of their total tally. Stoke are looking to slightly readdress that balance with right winger Michael Kightly, who may be expected to spearhead their attacks (42% of their play went down the right flank last season).

As well as taking players on and creating chances, these screen grabs show Kightly's propensity for playing longer, direct passes in the Stoke mould.

Predicted finish: 13th

 

Sunderland
Martin O'Neill is doing what he does best – motivating his players to perform above themselves, as shown by victories last season over Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool. His style of management is in the classic British mould, relying on pacey wingers, a big forward complimenting a smaller one, and fast, direct attacking football. They will be well organised and perform above themselves, but perhaps lack the cutting edge required to get into Europe.

Direct football with mixed-range passing to the wings defines O'Neill sides, but they lack the creative edge in the final third.

Predicted finish: 12th

 

Swansea
Laudrup will look to continue the tiki-taka style developed over the past few years at Swansea – 57.6% possession with an 85.7% pass completion rate is extremely high for a side that finished 11th. They may struggle in their second season now teams no longer underestimate their philosophy,  a problem exacerbated by the ruthless persistence of their strategy come-what-may, and the loss of influential midfielder Joe Allen.

These screen shots show the patience and persistence of their style, as Swansea hit 90% of their passes in this game against Blackburn. The absence of Allen however, could dramatically affect their ability to pass so elegantly.

Predicted finish: 14th

 

Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs are extremely well suited to the short passing, high pressing style of AVB, who failed to implement this on a rigidly Mourinho-esque Chelsea side.  The most important area of this side is the central midfield triumvirate, consisting of an attacking play-maker, a box-to-box player and a defensive midfielder. At Spurs, Van der Vaart, Modric (or a replacement – Moutinho?) and Sandro (or Parker) will slot perfectly into these roles. Watch out for their midfield dominance next season.

Spurs will suit AVB's use of possession dominance and short passing, but will struggle to replace Modric, whose composed football – as he continually stretches the play with cross-field passing – is vital to a system that requires the full width of the pitch

Predicted finish: 4th

 

West Brom
West Brom's main concern is scoring goals; they created 14 chances per match last season – not bad at all – but scored only 45 goals. That makes 1 goal every 12 shots, a stat reflected in the fact that their highest goalscorer was Peter Odemwingie, with 10. Lukaku joins the club on loan from Chelsea, but it is Shane Long who they will be hoping can step up in his second season at The Hawthorns.

The 0-0 vs Villa is a great example of the Baggies' inability to convert chances – this is an area Steve Clarke will have to focus on.

Predicted finish: 18th

 

West Ham
Sam Allardyce's brand of football is well known to all, and the attempted acquisition of Andy Carroll from Liverpool shows us that he is looking to force his philosophy onto the team more heavily this season. Watch out for the return of James Collins, who will add experience and strength to the West Ham back four; he made an impressive 9.4 clearances per match and won 2.6 aerial duels.

Collins' is clearly dominant in the air, but is at times unreliable; there has been a notable decline in his mobility and consistency in the last couple of years.

Predicted finish: 19th

 

Wigan
Having not lost any defensive players over the summer for the first time in years, Martinez can avoid their traditional last minute revival, and figure out his tactics from day one. The switch to a 3-5-2 in the latter stages of last season worked miracles; can their clever use of wing-backs and extra men in defence finally cause a breakthrough for Wigan?

Playing three in defence allows Wigan to build slowly from the back and retain possession, as Martinez demands. The use of wing backs – causing confused opposition wingers to become stuck between defence and attack – makes teams narrow and ineffective out wide.

Predicted finish: 15th

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