My 2014/15 Premier League predictions

After a stunning domestic season and an extraordinary World Cup, the new 2014/15 Premier League season begins tomorrow – just 34 days after the final in Rio. 

Aligning with unwritten tradition, there has been the usual transfer frenzy as clubs await the return of World Cup players from their holidays.

In last season’s Premier League predictions blog, my choices of Arsenal (4th) and Spurs (6th) proved to be the only perfect predictions – but this season looks even more difficult to predict!

Nevertheless, here are my shouts for the 2014/15 Premier League season.

20. Burnley (2013/14: 2nd in Championship); Relegation odds: 8/13 favourites

The Tykes are the clear candidates to be relegated this season, but in manager Sean Dyche they have one of England’s outstanding young managers. It is a shame then, that Dyche has lacked funds in the transfer market to strengthen his squad.

Despite that, some astute cheap signings have been made, with the likes of Lukas Jutkiewicz, Matt Taylor, Michael Kightly and Marvin Sordell coming in for a combined £3.5m. Meanwhile, Danny Ings, Burnley’s top scorer last season with 22 league goals, could be crucial to their slim hopes of survival.

19. Leicester City (2013/14: Championship winners); Relegation odds: 13/5

Perhaps a surprising choice, given that The Foxes won the Championship last season, Leicester are my second pick to go down.

Boss Nigel Pearson has also found transfers hard to come by in the summer, and the over-inflated £8m paid to Brighton for striker Leonardo Ulloa might prove to be a fruitless gamble.

Pearson’s best business looks to be the free transfer of Marc Albrighton from Aston Villa, who has been in rejuvenated form during pre-season, but a lack of strength in depth could down the East Midlanders this season.

18. West Brom (2013/14: 17th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 13/5

New manager Alan Irvine has his hands full in his first season in charge of the Baggies, not least because of a light strike force. The club’s only two recognised forwards Saido Berahino and Victor Anichebe are joined by record signing Brown Ideye, who cost £10m from Dynamo Kiev.

Much will depend on Ideye’s transition to Premier League football and, if he doesn’t fire, the Baggies will be in serious trouble.

Despite that, Irvine has reinforced a strong midfield with Craig Gardner, while centre-back Joleon Lescott will look to resurrect his career after a frustrating spell at Manchester City.

Ultimately, it may be a lack of goals and a shaky defence that will relegate West Brom.

17. QPR (2013/14: 4th & Championship play-off winners); Relegation odds: 2/1

Harry Redknapp has long been a manager to sign big-name players, despite their age, and this season is no different having tempted Rio Ferdinand to Loftus Road.

QPR’s experienced midfield will be vital this season, and it has been strengthened by the arrival of Jordan Mutch from Cardiff for £6m, who will provide extra impetus going forward.

But it is in defence where Redknapp has improved QPR most, perhaps learning from Tony Pulis’ exploits at Crystal Palace, as Steven Caulker and Mauricio Isla join forces with Ferdinand.

The Hoops will survive the drop, but only just.

16. Aston Villa (2013/14: 15th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 3/1

Villa’s off-field plight has dominated their summer as owner Randy Lerner struggles to find a buyer for the club.

As a result, transfer funds have been almost non-existent to Paul Lambert and new assistant Roy Keane but the manager has opted to bring in experience to compliment a youthful team as Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson join alongside £2m left-back Aly Cissokho.

With Christian Benteke set to return from a nasty Achilles injury in September, Villa should stay up despite the uncertainty over their future ownership.

15. Crystal Palace (2013/14: 11th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 3/1

Crystal Palace had their Premier League future thrown into jeopardy on Thursday as Tony Pulis, widely acclaimed for the brilliant job he did in helping the Eagles to survival last season, left the club by mutual consent.

No replacement had been made at the time of writing, but during the summer Pulis had made two cute signings in striker Fraizer Campbell and centre-back Brede Hangeland, who bring Premier League experience for a combined £900k.

Palace will also depend upon Jason Puncheon, whose goals helped elevate them to eleventh last season, but in the main they look solid once again as they look to consolidate their Premier League status.

14. Hull City (2013/14: 16th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 7/2

This season Hull step into the unknown world of Europa League football, and are just two legs away from the main draw.

If they manage to overcome Lokeren they will face the difficult task of juggling European football with their Premier League campaign – a factor which almost relegated Stoke three seasons ago.

Hull have lost Shane Long to Southampton for a super-inflated £12m fee, but will need to replace him before the deadline shuts if they are to succeed domestically and in Europe.

Tigers boss Steve Bruce has spent heavily on Jake Livermore (£8m) and Robert Snodgrass (£7m) and will look to avoid another late-season dip in form which saw Hull slip to 16th, just above the relegation precipice.

13. West Ham (2013/14: 13th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 11/2

Manager Sam Allardyce dragged his side from an alarming position in the winter to comfortably survive, and has looked to address the problems he faced with some impressive signings.

£12m striker Enner Valencia brings a bagful of goals from ex-club Pachuca and seems set to be one of the best buys of the summer, while Cheikhou Kouyate (£7m) and Aaron Cresswell (£3.75m) are intriguing signings.

The Hammers should easily survive but the upper reaches of the bottom ten teams should be their ceiling position come May.

12. Sunderland (2013/14: 14th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 5/1

Sunderland manager Gus Poyet ensured the Black Cats stayed up, to his own disbelief, last season and will hope to build upon that success story with a strong following season.

The signing of Jack Rodwell (£10m) will add extra bite to their midfield if he avoids injury, and the club are working on a £14m deal for Fabio Borini. If Poyet can’t close that protracted move then Connor Wickham will inherit the goalscoring pressure after his spell of five goals in nine games steered the club to safety.

Sunderland will be fine if they can sign another defender, while in Vito Mannone they have one of the outstanding young goalkeepers in the league.

11. Southampton (2013/14: 8th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 11/2

A mass exodus to end mass exoduses destabilised Southampton this summer as captain Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers all left the club after Mauricio Pochettino headed for Spurs.

New boss Ronald Koeman has used the huge revenue of those deals to sign free-scoring Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic from the Dutch Eredivisie, while Celtic and England goalkeeper Fraser Forster will compete with the flimsy Artur Boruc for the number one jersey.

However, Koeman still needs to find a suitable replacement for Lovren, but has been scuppered as targets Stefan de Vrij and Marcos Rojo have turned down moves.

Much could depend on the Saints’ defence and whether Morgan Schneiderlin is allowed to join Pochettino at Spurs, but Koeman has restored some balance at the club after a worrying June and July and they should enjoy an unspectacular mid-table finish.

10. Stoke City (2013/14: 9th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 13/8

Another finish in mid-table obscurity would suit Stoke this season, but they will fancy their chances of creeping into the top ten after a healthy summer of transfers.

Misfiring Barcelona reject Bojan Krkic will try his luck in the Premier League, while the trio of Mame Diouf, Steve Sidwell and Phil Bardsley were all clever free transfers as boss Mark Hughes strengthens his squad significantly.

Hughes will hope that Sidwell’s goals from midfield will remedy a long-term problem for the Potters, while much will be expected of the maverick Marko Arnautovic, who enjoyed a fabulous opening season with the club.

9. Swansea City (2013/14: 12th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 5/2

Swansea have become synonymous with a silky possession-hogging style of play in recent seasons and they will be a top ten fixture throughout this campaign.

The promising signings of Jefferson Montero and Bafetimbi Gomis are Garry Monk’s key transfers, but the loss of Michel Vorm and Ben Davies to Spurs was tempered by the resulting return of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who will occupy an exciting midfield alongside Jonjo Shelvey after Michu’s departure.

The Swans still have far too much about them to get relegated and, reliant on the goals of Wilfried Bony, they will be eyeing up a top ten finish with room to spare.

8. Newcastle United (2013/14: 10th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 6/4

Magpies manager Alan Pardew has continued his French revolution during the summer with the exciting arrivals of Emmanuel Riviere and Remy Cabella.

Another wise signing is Daryl Janmaat, who impressed for Holland at the World Cup, as he replaces Arsenal recruit Mathieu Debuchy at right-back.

The ever-expectant Newcastle fans will demand a European spot but that may prove too far beyond them, while Pardew will be out to make sure a slip similar to that of last season when their survival and lack of European football was guaranteed, won’t happen again.

7. Spurs (2013/14: 6th in Premier League); Title odds: 66/1

There is a breeze of optimism at White Hart Lane following Mauricio Pochettino’s appointment as manager.

Safe in the knowledge that his midfield is considerably stronger than anywhere else, Pochettino has focused on the defence, bringing in Ben Davies and Michel Vorm (£13.5m), Eric Dier (£4m) and DeAndre Yedlin (£2.5m).

Pochettino will have to sort through the mass of defensive midfielders at his disposal in search of his best team, but should have an expansive attacking unit at his disposal with Emmanuel Adebayor, Aaron Lennon and Christian Eriksen all impressing last season.

A key early task will be playing Roberto Soldado into form, and it is hoped that Pochettino’s style of play will suit the Spaniard, who could become akin to a new signing if he improves upon last season.

6. Everton (2013/14: 5th in Premier League); Title odds: 150/1

The Toffees have made a statement in the transfer market by turning Romelu Lukaku’s loan move into a permanent one, paying Chelsea £28m for his services.

Meanwhile, Everton boss Roberto Martinez will have a headache in choosing a centre-back partnership with the emergence of John Stones and the combined age (67) of regular pairing Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka a cause for concern.

In the exciting Ross Barkley, Everton have a young star but he may not be preferred to the unsung Kevin Mirallas, who quietly impressed amidst the bluster surrounding Barkley last season.

Everton will strive for a Champions League place but will probably come up short, making a Europa League spot a realistic end-of-season target.

5. Manchester United (2013/14: 7th in Premier League); Title odds: 5/1

The despair and disbelief of the David Moyes era has been replaced with renewed faith under Louis van Gaal as the Red Devils enjoyed a 100% record in pre-season, beating both European champions Real Madrid and rivals Liverpool 3-1.

There are still major flaws in the side, with defence looking particularly vulnerable, and their midfield still requires rebuilding, even after the £28m arrival of Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao.

New captain Wayne Rooney will partner Robin van Persie in a fluid 3-4-1-2 system and, with Juan Mata occupying the number ten role behind them, United look extremely dangerous in attack.

However, the jitters in defence still remain and United’s lack of reliable defensive options following the losses of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra may see them get picked off by their title rivals.

4. Arsenal (2013/14: 4th in Premier League); Title odds: 13/2

Arsene Wenger has again moved quickly to offset any worries over their financial clout by signing Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona for £35m.

Defenders Mathieu Debuchy (£12m) and Calum Chambers (£16m) will bolster a defensive line which crumbled in the biggest games, the worst being a 6-0 drubbing against Chelsea, while captain Thomas Vermaelen has left for Barcelona in a £15m deal.

Arsenal are irresistible going forward but, in tighter games they can be overpowered in midfield and that could prove a significant factor this season too.

An impressive 3-0 victory over an under-strength Manchester City in the Community Shield was a healthy confidence-boost, but they are too reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and will look towards Sanchez for help.

3. Liverpool (2013/14: 2nd in Premier League); Title odds: 12/1

Dominating Liverpool’s summer has been the £75m transfer of Luis Suarez after his appalling bite of Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.

Barcelona were the only takers for the disgraced but super-talented Uruguayan, and Liverpool will keenly feel his absence after replacing him in bulk rather than world-class talent.

Eight summer signings have been made by boss Brendan Rodgers, with no out-and-out replacement for Suarez having arrived.

With £75m to spend, Liverpool appear to have bought unwisely, with some critics musing that a move for a proven world-class striker such as Edinson Cavani would have been a better option than to reinforce his strike-force with Rickie Lambert alone.

Liverpool will still be a huge threat this season, but they already miss the craft and guile of Suarez and will lose out on the title once more.

2. Chelsea (2013/14: 3rd in Premier League); Title odds: 2/1 favourites

Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have made huge strides in the transfer market as their search for a world-class striker concluded with £32m man Diego Costa.

Costa endured an awful World Cup, but his form last season for Atletico Madrid attracted Mourinho and a good pre-season has served to alleviate any doubts about the Spaniard.

Cesc Fabregas (£30m) has also arrived after Frank Lampard’s departure to add to a diamond-encrusted midfield, but it is in defence where Chelsea will come up short in the title race.

Their defensive line of new signing Filipe Luis, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Gary Cahill appears solid, but at times last season the latter three were exposed by a lack of pace and inexplicable losses to lesser teams.

Mourinho, despite being the winner that he is, may have to settle for second this time out.

1. Manchester City (2013/14: 1st in Premier League); Title odds: 13/5

Rarely has a side in the Premier League built a squad capable of destroying teams as readily as Manchester City.

The strength in depth available to manager Manuel Pellegrini is luxurious, and the wily Chilean has moved this summer to improve City in their most vulnerable areas.

The £32m signing of Eliaquim Mangala from Porto partners him with Vincent Kompany in what looks to be the strongest centre-back pairing in the world, while Fernando (£12m), Bacary Sagna and Frank Lampard are exceptional additions to a scarily-strong team.

City are the outstanding team in the league, but anything less than a title retention will be a massive failure for Pellegrini.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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The Manchester United conundrum

It seems that some people think solving the Manchester United conundrum is as easy as flying an anti-David Moyes banner over Old Trafford.

Others believe it to be a task that will require more than a £100m splurge in the summer transfer window to complete.

Whichever way Manchester United’s current plight is observed, you can’t help but wonder where it all went so wrong.

Perhaps the most startling difference between the 2012/13 title-winning side and the current 2013/14 squad is the defence.

Nothing has changed in terms of personnel yet it looks completely dysfunctional.

Having watched several Manchester United games this season from the comfort of a local pub, it has even appeared to be frightened, almost paralysed with fear.

This was so devastatingly demonstrated by Manchester City’s bludgeoning of their arch-rivals in the very first minute at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

City swarmed forward and fizzed around the United defenders as if their legs had been soaked in a concrete bath. They were motionless, scared and lacked aggression.

David Silva danced around two United defenders with embarrassing ease, before Samir Nasri’s simple shuffle and shot hit the post and fell straight to Edin Dzeko who tucked the ball away with the sort of unchallenged freedom strikers can only dream about.

Who would replace this ailing defensive unit, then?

Unfortunately for David Moyes, summer signings will be hard to come by.

Not only is the World Cup a traditional obstacle in transfer dealings, but the cunning Old Trafford executives have arranged a pre-season tour of the United States just weeks after the final in Rio.

This means that not only will world-class players be recuperating on holiday and therefore be unavailable to negotiate with, but any prospective signing would not have the chance to integrate with the squad.

Manchester United’s troubles don’t end there.

In midfield they lack energy, creation and combativity. Marouane Fellaini has so far proved to be a dazzlingly questionable signing, while Juan Mata has failed to make an indelible impact since his £37m January move from Chelsea.

Tellingly, both new signings have failed to score since their arrival at the club.

Moyes has been very active on scouting missions throughout the winter and has reportedly had Sporting Lisbon’s holding midfielder William Carvalho scouted 12 times.

Carvalho would be an ideal fit at United but the English champions are not his only suitors – and there Moyes faces another problem.

It is becoming harder and harder to believe that world-class players and those of similar potential would choose United as their next club over another one such as Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Moyes could do much worse than blooding the promising Nick Powell if his pursuit of Toni Kroos is fruitless, but it would be a blow similar to the failed chases of Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas if Carvalho decided against a move to Old Trafford.

Would Manchester United’s under-fire manager then be forced to panic buy as he has apparently done with Fellaini and Mata?

All the current criticism of Moyes is not only misinformed, it is premature.

The Scot has barely had a chance to construct his own side, allowing the new recruits to gel and then getting them to play in the manner he wants.

Therefore he should be judged midway into the 2015/16 season, when it will become clear if his forthcoming transfer strategies have worked or not.

If he is to succeed he can afford no repeat of his previous transfer dealings. That said, the World Cup barricade might prove to be his maker.

Then there is the spectre of European football.

Before the home game against Aston Villa, a five-point gap separates United in seventh and Spurs in sixth. The final Europa League place is awarded to sixth place with a Champions League spot all but mathematically beyond United.

If United do miss out on European football they could struggle to attract the biggest names to the club – and that is a focusing chastisement of their deficiencies this season.

Given all his current challenges, and the ones that inevitably lie ahead, Moyes will be hoping that he is afforded the time he needs to reconstruct a side so alarmingly in decline – and with a six-year contract in hand it is logical for him to be given it.

Man City see off disappointing Chelsea in FA Cup clash

Goals in each half from Stevan Jovetic and Samir Nasri gave Manchester City a simple win over a lacklustre Chelsea in their FA Cup fifth-round clash at the Etihad Stadium.

Jovetic had already clipped the bar with a chip before he placed an effort beyond Petr Cech after 16 minutes.

Despite the introduction of Mohamed Salah and Fernando Torres, Chelsea lacked spark throughout with the threat of Eden Hazard particularly nullified by a hungry City defence.

But it was a City substitution that finished the game off, with Nasri exchanging passes with an offside David Silva before slotting home to earn City a place in the quarter-final draw.

Before the highest-profile fifth round tie there was an impeccably-observed silence for Sir Tom Finney, the England and Preston legend, and the home side made a timid start amidst an understandably subdued atmosphere.

When City eventually settled, the opening goal was not far behind. Yaya Toure was the catalyst when his fierce shot was fumbled by Petr Cech, presenting Stevan Jovetic with a chance to score but his delicate chip grazed the crossbar.

City’s Montenegrin striker would not have to wait long for a goal though, and when Edin Dzeko found him on the right flank he finished off a quick passing move with a superbly-placed shot to Cech’s right which found the net via the post.

The goal confirmed City’s growing confidence but that was undermined by a shaky Costel Pantilimon, who ignited a goalmouth scramble with a flap at Branislav Ivanovic’s cross but, luckily for the 6ft 8in Romanian, his alert defence saw off the danger.

At the other end the hosts quickly resumed their silky attacking play and after 24 minutes another flowing attack culminated in Dzeko working Cech with a low shot from outside the box.

Chelsea’s disappointing start to the game was reflected by Eden Hazard’s anonymity, with the Belgian kept quiet by the City defence until some smart footwork drew a foul from compatriot Vincent Kompany who was booked by referee Phil Dowd.

Dowd was in action again just before the break, eventually booking David Luiz for a mis-timed challenge on Jovetic, but from the resultant advantage James Milner wasted a good opportunity when his heavy cross proved too strong for Dzeko to reach six yards from goal.

Jose Mourinho, who had been playing mind games all week with his title-hungry adversaries, reacted to a passive opening half by replacing Samuel Eto’o with new signing Mohamed Salah.

Salah replaced Eto’o up front in a move which continued Mourinho’s apparent lack of faith in Fernando Torres.

Mourinho would also have been keen to see his side establish themselves in the second half, but City continued to dominate without coaxing Cech into serious action.

Manuel Pellegrini, meanwhile, would have been angry when Jovetic proceeded to blemish what had been a diligent display with an embarrassing dive – prompting Dowd to brandish a yellow card.

It was to be Jovetic’s last action of the game, but he was replaced by the returning Samir Nasri on the hour with Mourinho giving Torres the chance to impose himself on his future plans at the expense of the quiet Ramires.

Nasri’s introduction would emerge as the crucial substitution when the Frenchman doubled City’s lead with a wonderful move after 67 minutes.

The attack began with Kompany, an imposing figure throughout, drilling a low ball to Nasri who fed David Silva before collecting the Spaniard’s square pass to calmly place the ball into a vacant net.

Television replays suggested that Silva was marginally offside when he received Nasri’s pass, but the officials went some way to redeeming themselves when correctly disallowing a Joleon Lescott tap-in from an offside position.

Chelsea could only muster a brief spell of pressure late on and duly failed to test Pantilimon in what was a microcosm for the whole match.

By then it was far too little far too late as City ran out comfortable winners to avenge their league defeat just 12 days previous and advance into the quarter-finals with ease.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Who are the best and worst Premier League chairmen and owners?

As Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, once said, “It is in men as in soils where sometimes there is a vein of gold which the owner knows not.”

Worryingly, this quote could apply to several Premier League chairmen this season after a series of controversial and seemingly unwarranted sackings.

Latest of them all is the fiasco at Cardiff City, where manager Malky Mackay was finally put out of his misery by the oblivious Vincent Tan.

However, Tan is just one of a number of Premier League club owners to have shown little remorse in pursuit of good results and ‘better’ performances.

How long will it be before the Premier League’s managerial environment mirrors the Latin American one?

Only this year, Mexico employed four different managers in six weeks to get them to the World Cup finals.

Supporters of that cut-throat strategy will argue that it worked as Mexico made it to Brazil this summer, but opponents to it will point towards an apparent culture of ‘short-term’ gains where good results coincide with spiked player performances – brought about by a need to impress the new manager and therefore gain a regular starting slot.

Either way it’s clear that long-term stability, reputation building and familiarity are the best recipes for club growth – certainly in English football. With that in mind, who makes the top five best and worst Premier League chairmen/owners?

I’ll hit you with the good first:

5. John W. Henry, Liverpool owner and chairman

Liverpool fans across the country rejoiced when Henry made a bid for Liverpool in 2010. He was eventually successful and replaced the embittered and faltering Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. as owner shortly afterwards. A billionaire businessman, Henry built up a rapport with Reds fans when appointing club stalwart Kenny Dalglish in 2011. He then backed Dalglish by granting the £57.8m spent on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll after Fernando Torres’ £56m sale. The Suarez transfer is undoubtedly the best of his reign so far, and plans to renovate Anfield rather than move to Stanley Park are also proving popular. It seems he has no intention of enjoying the headlines and has the club’s best interests to mind – which is perhaps the ultimate sign of a good owner.

4. Sheikh Mansour, Manchester City owner

Love him or despise him, Sheikh Mansour’s billions have overseen a huge change in fortunes for the club historically seen as the second-biggest in Manchester. Rival fans have offered jibes of ‘can’t buy class’ and ‘Man-cash-ter City’ but the transformation of the club has been so comprehensive that they have usurped United as the giants of Manchester on current form. Mansour has also funded an investment in young talent and a symmetry with Barcelona’s youth academies which will benefit them in decades to come. Overall, it’s hard to see how else City could have reached their current level if Mansour had not delved into his pockets.

3. Bill Kenwright, Everton chairman

Kenwright has gradually increased his involvement with Everton, which peaked in 2004 when he became the club’s majority shareholder. He has been on the board since 1989 and supported the Goodison Park club as a boy. He is also an astute and loyal chairman in terms of managerial appointments, having enjoyed an 11-year stint with David Moyes at the helm and replacing him with Roberto Martinez, himself a loyal and passionate boss having stayed with Wigan through good and bad spells. Everton have not always had the budget to spend on transfers, but that is not a concern when wise purchasing and faith in young talent are among Kenwright’s beliefs.

2. Huw Jenkins, Swansea City chairman

Swansea are in safe hands with Jenkins as chairman, not least because of his tight purse strings. This summer he admitted that the idea of spending £12m on one player – Wilfried Bony – made him uncomfortable, but a recent history of transfers suggests he likes to pay little for more. Michu for £2m and Pablo Hernandez for £5.5m are cases in point, while manager Michael Laudrup could also be included on that list having done a superb job since taking over last summer. But Jenkins should be credited with saving the club from failure in the Football League, having cleaned up the club’s finances. Swansea now boast multi-million pound profits and also won the league cup last season under Jenkins’ guidance.

1. Peter Coates, Stoke City owner and chairman

It’s not often that a Premier League chairman has two bites at the cherry, but in the case of Peter Coates that much is true. A lifelong fan of the club, even having trials with them as a player, Coates will always have their best intentions at heart. His first tenure as owner lasted eight years until 1997, when he stepped down after protests from fans. However, Coates then set up bet365.com in 2000 and took ownership of the club again in 2005, showing loyalty and support to Tony Pulis who managed the team for seven years – a rare tenurial stint. Coates clearly knows how to run a big operation and his preference for British managers must also be welcomed in the modern game. His absence in the headlines is also good news for the club and, taking everything into consideration, Coates has done an extremely good job.

Now the bad:

5. Malcolm Glazer, Manchester United owner

Possibly the least-popular man in the red side of Manchester, Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of the club piled hundreds of millions of pounds worth of debt into the Old Trafford outfit. In his defence he has always committed the necessary funds for big transfers, but that is largely due to the club’s ever-expanding sponsorship portfolio. Fans continue to worry over the rumours that the Glazer family is withdrawing funds from the club. The bottom line is that Glazer’s incumbency has been a shady one and fans are reluctant to trust him.

4. Ellis Short, Sunderland owner and chairman

One of the motifs of bad ownership is the regularity with which managers come and go. In Ellis Short’s case, since he assumed full control of the club in 2009 he has sacked three managers which is a healthy – or unhealthy – ratio. In particular, the appointment of Paolo di Canio caused a stir given the Italian’s constant flirtation with controversy, but in Gus Poyet he seems to have finally made a decent change. Short has also been criticised for his handling of Martin O’Neill, who was widely considered to be a success at Sunderland having saved them from relegation in his first season in charge. It is that type of impatience which earns Short a place on the bad side of this blog.

3. Assem Allam, Hull City owner

Another hugely controversial owner, Allam has done little to enamour himself amongst Hull’s home support. His proposal to Americanize the club’s “common” name of Hull City to Hull City Tigers has been met with widespread anger in the footballing community but Allam is showing little sign of relenting. It is effectively a marketing tool, but Hull’s hardcore support continue to resist by singing ‘City til we die’. Allam, in typical mood, suggested that they could “die as soon as they want.” Has there been a more charming owner?

2. Mike Ashley, Newcastle United owner and chairman

Ever since downing a pint in amongst Toon fans during a trip to the Emirates, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has been a figure of fun in the footballing world. His popularity was initially high after appointing Kevin Keegan as manager, but his decisions ever since have proved extremely unpopular. Notably, his friendship with Joe Kinnear – who later became manager – and Dennis Wise, who worked closely with Keegan, were negatively received. After Keegan resigned, he put the club up for sale but never enticed a buyer. Other recent controversies include changing the name of St. James’ Park and reappointing Kinnear in a director of football role. Ashley’s tenure is a fine example of how not to run a football club.

1. Vincent Tan, Cardiff City owner

The king of the worst Premier League owners, Tan’s every action has been divisive and infuriating for Cardiff fans. Changing the club crest and kit colour was viewed as heresy by Bluebirds fans, but Tan’s ill-advised moves have not stopped there. He removed the respected head of recruitment Iain Moody and hired Alisher Apsalyamov – a friend of Tan’s son who, embarrassingly, had no previous footballing experience and worse still, was placed on work experience with the club at the time. Up until today Malky Mackay was in charge but, after a tumultuous public row, he was sacked. Mackay’s sacking was the end of a two-week conflict which came about after an email sent by Tan ordering Mackay to ‘resign or be sacked’ was leaked to the media. Despite great support from colleagues and supporters, a 3-0 loss to Southampton spelled the end for the affable Scot. Cardiff fans will be wondering when Tan’s spell at the club will end, too.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Who are the best and worst Premier League referees?

One of the most asked questions in football is, “Who’d want to be a referee?” – only someone capable of ignoring volleys of abuse hurled at them from all parts of the pitch, and a good amount from the stands. And the dug-outs. And those perched in front of a TV.

Newcomers to football might wonder why these referees, who give up their Saturday afternoons to officiate in the biggest games, actually put up with all the insults.

It could be because they get a great deal of protection from the sport’s governing bodies.

For instance, five years ago the FA started a ‘Respect’ campaign which was broadened by UEFA and FIFA, but which, like so many other schemes, has done little to mollify those who shout at officials with Neanderthal-like ferocity.

UEFA and FIFA have even refrained from publishing referee statistics, i.e. the number of yellow and red cards they have awarded in a given season, to further protect them from the bitterness that they so often encounter.

However, it is also said that the mark of a good referee is to go through a game virtually unseen. So who are the best and worst referees that Premier League fans have the pleasure of watching?

The good ones are up first:

5. Martin Atkinson (26 yellows, 1 red in 2013/14)

Fans can readily expect a good level of consistency from Atkinson, which is a quality so often desired by commentators around the country. His calm demeanour and the fact that he is also one of the more experienced referees currently officiating in the Premier League means he is a safe bet for the more explosive matches.

4. Mark Clattenburg (34 yellows, 0 reds)

A couple of years ago, Clattenburg would not have made the good list. His former tendencies to be erratic and inconsistent in big matches were key pieces of evidence on that front. However, after serving an eight-month ban for breach of contract he has enjoyed a renaissance. Now seen in high-profile games and aided by stronger and more accurate officiating, Clattenburg is one of the country’s top referees.

3. Howard Webb (29 yellows, 0 reds)

Up until the 2010 World Cup final, Howard Webb might have been recognised as the best referee in the world. However, the feisty nature of that match coupled with his decision not to send Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong off for a ‘kung-fu’ challenge on Spain’s Xabi Alonso has tarnished his reputation somewhat. As a result, the FA has shared around the highest-profile matches more recently, despite Webb maintaining a level of respect from players that is rarely enjoyed. Is that because he’s a policeman?

2. Chris Foy (23 yellows, 1 red)

Steadfast and commanding, Foy finds himself high up on this list. Although recently developing a reputation for shyness in awarding penalties, Foy is a very capable referee who rarely makes glaring errors. Foy, 51, is currently in his eighteenth season as a professional referee and has worked his way up from the Football League to the top flight.

1. Andre Marriner (40 yellows, 4 reds)

Although card happy this season, Marriner has improved his officiating and is now considered to be one of the top referees in the FIFA family. The pinnacle of his career to date was the 2013 FA Cup final, where he became one of the few referees to show a red card in the final, after dismissing Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta for a reckless lunge. That he was chosen to officiate that match is evidence of the quality of his refereeing and could be in with a chance of travelling to Brazil next summer.

Now the bad…

5. Anthony Taylor (32 yellows, 2 reds)

One of the youngest referees in the Premier League, Taylor visibly lacks the experience required in big games. Unfortunately for him, he fails to assert his authority in matches, and players are often seen howling at his decisions. That he is rarely picked for games involving the top-flight’s largest teams suggests the FA lack confidence in him at this stage of his career.

4. Mike Dean (34 yellows, 2 reds)

Guilty of awarding soft penalties and often too card happy, Dean is also notorious for his inability to let games flow and is perhaps fond of the sound of his whistle. Despite his shortcomings, Dean is an experienced official and regularly oversees derby matches and other high-profile fixtures.

3. Phil Dowd (43 yellows, 0 reds)

In the past, Dowd was a figure of fun for his bulging waistline, but must attract praise for lifestyle changes that have helped him lose weight. Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the leading critics of his fitness, once remarking that Dowd was often found too far behind play to make key decisions. Dowd’s style also irritates, especially his snarling approach to on-field conversations and a whistle-happy tendency.

2. Jonathan Moss (33 yellows, 2 reds)

Moss, much like Taylor, has a lack of experience at the top level and consequently is prone to making decisions which are often inconsistent. He has twice been the specific subject of criticism on Match of the Day this season, and was guilty of a nightmare display in Crystal Palace’s trip to Old Trafford where several highly contentious decisions went against the Eagles – notably the dismissal of Kagisho Dikgacoi after Ashley Young’s dive.

1. Michael Oliver (44 yellows, 1 red)

To coin a popular phrase, Oliver is a ‘bottler’. A measure of a referee is their ability to withstand the heated atmosphere and pressured environment of top-flight football and, on many occasions, Oliver has quivered in the face of such requirements. He is, nevertheless, highly-regarded by the FA and has overseen his fair share of big matches. In mitigation, he is very young and will only improve with more experience, but has perhaps been promoted too soon into his career – and that is sorely evident.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Have Arsenal had an easy start to the Premier League season?

Arsenal are flying, or so most people believe.

Top of the Premier League with a four-point gap to Chelsea and currently sitting in first place in their Champions League group with a game to play, they could not have asked for much more going into the busy Christmas schedule.

However, there is a cold reality which lies stealthily beneath the hullabaloo of their superb beginning to the new season – they have had an easy start.

Gunners fans may scoff in disgust at that statement, but looking at the thirteen games Arsenal have played so far, they have come up against limited opposition.

Since the opening day, when they lost 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, Arsene Wenger’s side have played Manchester United, Liverpool and rivals Spurs, losing 1-0 away to United and beating Liverpool and Spurs at the Emirates.

Compared to the two Manchester clubs, for example, Arsenal have played just three ‘big’ sides, whereas City and United have each played Chelsea, Spurs and each other.

United have additionally played Liverpool and Arsenal, meaning that they’ve already faced the five teams that are realistically expected to challenge with them for the title.

Looking more closely at Arsenal’s results reveals another clue as to why their start should be considered an easy one.

Of the 13 matches played so far they have played against 9 teams currently in the bottom half, including those in each of the lowest five places, meaning their start has been vastly overrated.

The form of Aaron Ramsey and his fellow midfielders has largely helped to gloss over these informative statistics, together with an encouraging performance in the Champions League.

Arsenal have also been heavily reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and, added to Ramsey, the pair have been responsible for 15 of the 27 Premier League goals the North Londoners have scored to date.

Despite all the criticism of their start, Arsenal must be praised for improving their side in several areas.

Ramsey’s emergence as a goalscoring midfielder has been coupled with the arrival of Mesut Özil, who has created six goals and scored twice since his £42.5m move from Real Madrid in the summer.

The signing of Özil may have been widely heralded as one which has transformed the Gunners, but it is actually in defence where they have improved the most.

Mathieu Flamini’s return to the club has enabled attacking-minded midfielders such as Ramsey, Özil and Jack Wilshere to forge forward, knowing that Flamini will unselfishly sit deep and protect the back four in their absence.

Arsenal’s shaky defence, a key reason for their vulnerability and profligacy last season, has suddenly become watertight – they have kept five clean sheets this term.

To underline their advancement, on December 3 in the 2012/13 season Arsenal were languishing in tenth place with 21 points, and trailed leaders Manchester United by 15 points after just 15 games.

This season, exactly one year on, they sit on 31 points having played two games less with a gap to United of nine points. What a difference a season makes.

Perhaps the biggest asset to Arsenal’s displays so far has been the ability to claim maximum points against teams from the bottom half.

In seasons past Arsenal had become renowned for dropping points against teams who they would ordinarily have expected to beat, and were mocked for doing so.

This season, they are being praised for the fluidity and quality of their football (as they always have been), but now they have the defensive foundation to fall back on, enabling them to beat ‘lesser’ sides.

Their centre-back partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, once considered maladroit and unreliable, has kept Thomas Vermaelen out of the side with a series of imposing displays, while goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has benefitted from a more mature attitude, dropping the casual arrogance he once paraded.

So, while it is easy to be fooled by Arsenal’s excellent recent performances, do not forget that they have made smooth progress during an easy start.

Three of their next four games are against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton.

If they are still top of the league after a Christmas fixture list bearing obstacles as testing as those, they will have every right to receive the flattering acclaim they are garnering now.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

The lowdown on BT Sport’s free weekend

As battles go, this was as one-sided as they come.

BT Sport certainly picked a good weekend to open up their channels to everyone in what they billed as their ‘free weekend’.

By comparison, their archrivals Sky Sports, the other protagonists in this war of the sport broadcasters, had a meek splattering of goods on offer for their customers – who at £60 per month are being stripped of £720 per year. That sum would be sufficient to buy a season ticket at most Premier League grounds.

Even so, for at least a decade Sky have held the throne as the Kings of all things sport in the UK, but this season the tide looks to be turning.

BT Sport have them worried, and why not?

They’re offering free viewing to all customers with BT Broadband and, for those without the broadband deal, a fee of just £12 per month to view 38 first-pick Premier League games, an array of top Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 matches, plus comprehensive coverage of the Aviva Premiership.

That’s just for starters. If you’re a self-confessed sport addict then BT Sport could prove to be the perfect place for you.

Allied to the sport mentioned above, there’s football action from the MLS, A-League and Brazilian top flight plus other bits and bobs such as tennis, UFC, Major League Baseball and a generous helping of some innovative, interactive and engaging panel shows – the best of which is fronted by Tim Lovejoy and Matt Dawson on a Saturday morning.

On Saturday, BT Sport trumped Sky with their coverage of Crystal Palace against Arsenal. They also delighted in showing Inter Milan’s entertaining 4-2 win over Verona, while there was also a very watchable 3-0 victory for Wolfsburg against Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.

If Sky can’t match the variety of BT Sport, then they can certainly pack a big punch of their own with the most anticipated fixture in La Liga – El Clasico.

It was rather unfortunate for Sky then, that the match was under-par by El Clasico standards – a 2-1 win for Barcelona failed, judging by various social media outbursts, to get the pulse racing.

Gareth Bale was largely anonymous and Lionel Messi was overshadowed by Neymar. That said, the goals scored by Barcelona were of high quality, particularly Neymar’s opener in which he embarrassed two Real Madrid defenders before finding the net.

The fact that the match disappointed wasn’t Sky’s fault, but what is evident is that if you put all your eggs in one basket – as Sky have done with their lack of variety – then the occasional anti-climax will inevitably happen.

But Sky’s tonic to that frustration is their Formula One coverage, which this weekend encompassed Sebastian Vettel’s title-clinching victory in the Indian Grand Prix.

Sky also screened the fifth one day international between India vs. Australia – or would have done had play not been abandoned because of rain.

Aside from that, Sky had very little to offer last weekend. Various repeats were screened and events like the CIMB Classic golf tournament from Kuala Lumpur did little to wrestle the attention away from BT Sport.

Sunday was slightly better for Sky, with the Tyne and Wear derby preceding the clash between Chelsea and Manchester City – once again their ability to show the top football matches in the Premier League proved the main draw to their coverage.

The second NFL London game between the Jaguars and the 49ers was also available to Sky customers, but they lost out on millions of spectators as it was also on offer to terrestrial viewers over on Channel 4, who have maintained their growing grasp on the sport in this country.

It was, at this point on Sunday teatime, as if BT Sport had their opponents on the ropes. It wasn’t long before they delivered a final blow.

France’s two cash-rich clubs, Monaco and PSG, kicked off one after the other – enabling viewers to gorge themselves on Ligue 1 action that is quickly being elevated to a higher level thanks to players such as Monaco’s Radamel Falcao and PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If that wasn’t enough, then a brilliant panel show featuring top football journalists from France, Italy and Germany, presented by the insuperable James Richardson, gave viewers a comprehensive and informative round-up of the best Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 action.

In critical terms, Sky’s service to sport fans has been bettered by BT Sport – and by some way.

The diehard Premier League fans will always flock to Sky, but BT Sport are slowly cranking up the pressure in that department as they bid to show more and more games per season.

Then there is the issue of costing. Would you pay £60 per month for Sky or £12 per month for BT Sport? True, Sky will have autumn international rugby Tests and the Ashes coming up soon, but when they’re all done and the viewers are sat down in February, what else is there to watch?

BT Sport will always be there with a good variety of sport, and it’s a strategy which is intrinsic to their quest to surpass Sky as the country’s leading sports broadcaster.

On the evidence of the last weekend at least, BT Sport have won the battle. Give them a few more years and they may well have won the broadcasting war.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89