The middle ground of the Premier League, while it perhaps lacks the stars that define the top of the table or the ferocity of the relegation battle, remains an intriguing football haven owing much to its competitiveness. There's little to separate these sides, demonstrated by the seven points that separated 8th from 15th last season, although that may very well change heading into the 2012/13 season. For many of these mid table sides, the off season has been characterized by change. Let's dive in after the jump.
Firstly, our neighbours Fulham have been through a process of evolution rather than revolution as Martin Jol continues to develop his side into a more attacking force than the one assembled by Mark Hughes, now of QPR. Fulham seem to be a mainstay of the Premiership who never really seems to be going up or down on the table, but this betrays the progress being made at the Riverside. They've been handed a Category One status under the new EPPP laws, while there is much work being done on the financial side to ensure the club remains profitable, a difficult task for any club in modern football.
The most significant move made by Fulham this summer has been to keep their players at the squad despite interest from elsewhere, most notably from sides in the top four who offer the attraction of Champions League football. It will be a nervous wait until September 1st for Fulham fans who will hope Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembélé are still at the club by then. In terms of transfers into the club Fulham have spent a grand total of £0, preferring to pick up Sascha Reither, Mladen Petric and Hugo Rodallega on Bosman transfers. Reither will provide cover at right back while Petric and Rodallega will look to relieve Dempsey of the goal scoring burden up front, although it remains to be seen whether they have the ability to do so. Fulham's lack of expenditure can perhaps be attributed to who has been heading out as well, with Danny Murphy, Andrew Johnson and Zyton Gera all leaving on a free. The loss of Murphy to Blackburn leaves Fulham understaffed in the centre of the pitch (Josh McEachran loan, anyone?), and perhaps the side as a whole will be lacking in experience after Murphy's departure signified the end of eight years of service at Craven Cottage.
Kevin's second love, West Bromwich Albion, bisected the Premiership table last season by finishing tenth under the stable stewardship of Roy Hodgson. Unfortunately for the Baggies though, England appointed Hodgson to the national team role just weeks before the start of the European Championships. His successor will be extremely familiar to Chelsea fans: Steve Clarke was Jose Mourinho's assistant and has spent much time on the sidelines as a no.2 putting teams through their paces. West Brom represents his big chance to seize a top job, as it is first ever managerial position in twelve years of work. Therefore, it's unclear how successful he will be, although he will be greatly appreciative of the setup at the Hawthorns, which boasts a stability unrivalled in the Premiership. This is thanks to the hierarchy established by Technical Director Dan Ashworth, who controls many of the footballing operations and thus allowing the head coach to focus upon the training ground. This is then perhaps the perfect environment for Clarke.
In terms of transfer ins and outs, West Brom's relative stability off the pitch has translated onto the pitch as well, with only minimal movement during the summer. Chelsea fans will be well aware by now of where Romelu Lukaku will be plying his trade (Stephen and Kevin will be covering all of the big man's action over there), and he'll be doing it in a reconfigured attack featuring Markus Rosenberg, signed from on a free transfer after his contract expired at Werder Bremen. Peter Odemwingie is still around, don't forget, and despite living on the wrong side of thirty he should play a role in West Brom's play going forward. Clarke has also looked to solidify the midfield by loaning in Yassine El Ghanassy and Claudio Yacob. The centre of the park is one of West Brom's real strengths, where Mulumbu and Dorrans play an important role in guarding the back four as well as transitioning the ball into attack via the feet of the talented Chris Brunt. However, the most important piece of expenditure at the Hawthorns has perhaps been the signing of Ben Foster for £4.5 million, after the English keeper spent last season on loan at Albion. Foster remains a tremendously talented (if not sometimes a bit inconsistent) keeper and signing him permanently gives the side supreme protection between the sticks.
One side that hasn't seen many changes is Stoke, as they remain tied to Tony Pulis and his stereotyped long ball approach. It's hard to argue it isn't long ball, however, when the defence often consists of four centre backs and a player often appears in the team simply by virtue of his long throw ins. Stoke made a big splash in the transfer window last summer, spending the most money outside the top eight thanks to the generosity of chairman Peter Coates, but they've been a lot more reserved this time around, only bringing in two players. One transfer that has certainly caught the eye is Jamie Ness, previously of Rangers, who boasts a technical ability that will certainly be out of place on the Stoke training ground. Nevertheless, he can add craft and guile to a midfield that is often missing a player capable of playing a tricky pass, while a pursuit of Michael Owen certainly allays with a belief that Stoke may need to find a Plan B to their infamous long ball tactics. Stoke's second signing was ex-Wolves winger Michael Kightly, whose crossing ability will surely fit right in at the Britannia. Stoke don't look to be changing anytime soon, and they'll remain certainly one of the more difficult sides to face in the Premiership.
Another side culpable to slipping under the radar is Sunderland, who seem to have done absolutely nothing in this transfer window. That's not entirely true: they have been trying to sign Steven Fletcher of Wolves, but the Championship side isn't even budging at their £12 million bid (which is a bit of a laugh, really, because £12 million for Steven Fletcher is about double his real worth). The big storyline in this part of the North East is whether Martin O'Neill can prove the turnaround last season wasn't just a honeymoon period. O'Neill has a history of stagnation and Sunderland won't want to be the next club to validate that theory. Carlos Cueller will be a significant part of that as he replaces the outgoing Michael Turner. Sunderland are still missing a proper left back, but going forward they have an exciting, creative lineup featuring Sessengon, McLean and Larsson, who should be able to link up nicely in the counter attacking style O'Neill prefers. They do need a striker though, having lost Gyan to the UAE and Bendtner back to Arsenal.
The three promoted sides last season all stayed up in a Premiership first, and it was Norwich and Swansea who especially caught the eye. On top of having to avoid the clichéd Second Season Syndrome, both clubs also have to deal with the changeover to new management. Starting with Swansea, they've had the prodigious Brendan Rodgers snatched from under them by Liverpool, leaving them in a position of having to identify a manager that both aligns with their playing ethos as well as being capable enough to resist the traditional slump. In appointing Michael Laudrup the Welsh side has continued their tradition of entrusting young managers with the responsbility of carrying the torch for the possession-based style of play that so characterized the Swans last season.
They face an almighty challenge in maintaining their position in light of the raid that has destabilized their efficacious midfield: Joe Allen has moved to Liverpool while Glyfi Sigurrdson preferred the overtures of White Hart Lane. They've made some smart dealings to cover these departures, however: at £2.5 million Michu could represent the bargain of the season with his eye for goal, seemingly a perfect replacement for Sigurrdson's goal tally. Jonathon de Guzman could also prove to be an astute loan pickup, the Canadian plucked from relegated Villareal as Laudrup's first signing, and looking to resurrect a promising career that stagnated in Spain. Furthermore, Swansea have been pushing hard for Bolton's Mark Davies, as well as tying up the loose ends on the loan of Itay Shechter, who will provide cover at centre forward for Danny Graham. With their changes over the summer, Swansea are many people's candidates for a relegation battle. While that may certainly prove to be true, one would hope the positive foundations laid down by the hierarchy at Swansea will be enough to maintain their position in the top flight.
The reward for doing well in your debut season seems to be having your manager snatched from you, as Norwich does little to buck the trend in losing Paul Lambert to Aston Villa. That's a big blow for the Canaries, who owe much to Lambert's awareness both on and off the pitch in their rise to the top flight. They made a fairly quick appointment, installing Chris Hughton into the role in a fairly logical decision, as Hughton has shown to have the makings of an excellent manager in his time at Newcastle and Birmingham. However, keeping Norwich afloat will be a big challenge, and signs in pre-season indicate that Hughton has placed a renewed focus on keeping things tight at the back, and in that process he'll be assisted by the arrival of Michael Turner who was a mainstay in the Sunderland defence last season, and Steven Whittaker, who is another one of the many ex-Rangers players to jump ship from Scotland.
Norwich still need to do the business in the attacking end, and resigning Grant Holt to a three year contract was thus pivotal. Despite his age (31), Holt's intelligent movement makes him one of the more dangerous strikers outside the top teams of the Premiership, while newly-signed Rodney Snodgrass previously of Leeds will be looking to combine creative forces with Wes Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington. Norwich have the tools to not get sucked into a relegation battle, but a lot depends on how Hughton rises to the challenge at the Canaries.
Norwich's ex-manager, Paul Lambert, has taken over at Aston Villa after the entirely justified dismissal of Alex McLeish, who spent a season subjecting the Villa fans to the horror show that is playing Emile Heskey in midfield. Things are feeling much brighter around Villa Park these days, and while much of this is due to the unrealistic sanguinity surrounding Lambert's arrival. There has been positive movement on the transfer front: Karim El Ahmadi will add steel to the midfield after arriving from Feynenoord, Brett Holman will be hungry to prove his worth in a bigger league after spending ten years in the Dutch league and Ron Vlaar is much, much better than the impostors pretending to be Premier League defenders last season. There's still a lot of work to be done with the squad, with the defence in particular in need of a rebuild (as long as Alan Hutton is anywhere near the club), but there is cause for optimism with Darren Bent returning from injury and the lingering belief that Stephen Ireland, Gabriel Agbonlahor (who is out for the first month of the season) and Marc Albrighton surely can realize their potential under a new manager.
It's quite hard to distinguish between mid-table and relegation battlers in the Premiership, as any of these sides could be drawn into a dogfight in the cellar as easily as they could cement their position in the top flight. From a Chelsea point of view, these sides will continue to treat a point off the European Champions as the Holy Grail, and their tactics will reflect this. Therefore, signing creative talents like Hazard, Oscar and Marin are especially crucial in terms of offering attacking threats all across the pitch and breaking down opposition defences.
Tomorrow we'll wrap up the Premier League preview by taking a look at the three newly promoted sides as well as Queens Park Rangers and Wigan.