My Premier League predictions for 2013
In anticipation of the new year, SI.com's writers are predicting the stories they think will define the sports landscape in 2013.
1. Manchester United will win the Premier League. I normally detest predictions. You can only look bad. In any case, the joy of sport is that it springs surprises. But surprises are something the Premier League doesn't do. So let's take the plunge.
Manchester United's defense has been a mess. The midfield is filled with pensioners yet is getting the job done. And now the injured are returning, Alex Ferguson has enough good defenders and goalies to put together a back line that will concede fewer goals than the attack scores. That attack, with the addition of Robin van Persie, will score a lot. The club with the biggest income will win its 10th Premier League title in 2013.
Manchester City (currently second, seven points back) and Chelsea (third) offer proof that money doesn't buy happiness. Sulking stars explain some of the awful performances both have given this season. On the other hand, money does buy lots of talent. Both clubs have looked frighteningly powerful at times this season. The two clubs with the richest owners, who are also the only two clubs other than United to have won the league since 2004, will chase United home.
Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton will battle for fourth place. They aren't as wealthy, or as deep as the three clubs ahead of them, but they are wealthier than most of their rivals. They are also three of the four clubs outside the leading trio to have finished in the top four since 2004.
Reading and Queens Park Rangers (19th and 20th) are almost certainly headed for relegation. Reading doesn't have enough talent. QPR doesn't have enough heart. Harry Redknapp is good at building morale, but a team can have a body language, and QPR's against Liverpool last weekend was appalling. Aston Villa (17th) has been playing horribly, and size and wealth are no safeguards against incompetence. But the third relegated team will probably be either Wigan or Southampton.
2. The wealth gap will close. The new Premier League TV deals kick in this summer. They are huge and could change the landscape. There are huge financial inequalities in the Premier League, but they don't stem from the league's TV deals. They are caused by Champions League money, wealthy owners and the fact that some clubs have much bigger stadia and some can charge far more for tickets.
The Premier League makes more money from TV than any other European league. It distributes that money far more equitably. Last season the top TV earner, Manchester City, received only 1.55 times more than the team with the smallest share, Wolves. The entry of another broadcast player, BT, for 2013-16, fueled bidding that ended with a 68 percent jump. International rights are also soaring. In the United States for example, NBC is paying $250 million for three years starting in 2013. That's triple what Fox, with ESPN, paid last time. The international rights and half the domestic rights are shared equally. The rest is paid in prize money and "facilities fees" for clubs that play live on TV. Those are skewed toward the top clubs.
The biggest clubs will make the most money from the new deal. But, and it's a big but, the clubs below them will enjoy the biggest percentage jump. In June, the excellent Swiss Ramble blog calculated what the clubs will earn in the first season of the new deal if they play the same number of televised matches and finish in the same order as last season. The Swiss Ramble assumes a 40 percent jump in international rights, the part that is shared equally. That now looks conservative.
If it finishes second in 2014 as it did in 2012, Manchester United's annual revenue would jump £34.2 million. If other income remains unchanged, that's a rise of just over 10 percent on total revenue of £330 million. Compare that with a couple of non-Champions League teams, one biggish, one small. Everton's share would rise £26.7 million, a jump of 32.5 percent. Wigan's would rise by £22.9 million, a 46 percent rise.
Put it another way: Everton's revenue is now 25 percent of United's. Next year, it will be 30 percent. Wigan's revenue will jump from 15 percent of United's to 20 percent. Everton and Wigan will still make far less money than United, but the gap will close. More importantly, their spending power will also leap in relation to pretty much every club in the world outside the Premier League. Chances are they will spend it the way clubs always spend extra money on players. Next summer's mercato could be interesting.
3. Chelsea will try to face down UEFA. The governing body of European soccer is scared about the level of debt European clubs are carrying and has been phasing in its "Financial Fair Play" rules designed to force clubs to balance their books and reduce their debts. Next summer is when the enforcement of the rules is supposed to get serious.
Since UEFA's only sanction is to ban clubs from its competitions (the Champions League and, as long as it lasts, the Europa League), it can only hurt big clubs. The three clubs who would appear most at risk in England are Manchester United, which is still carrying more than £350 million, $568 million, in debt from the Glazer takeover, and the two big deficit spenders, Chelsea and Manchester City.
Despite the cost of servicing that debt, United still makes a profit and can argue it's heading the right way. City and Chelsea are another matter. In 2010-11, City spent £197 million more than it took in. In 2011-12, City says it trimmed £100 million from that loss. This is chiefly due to an incestuous sponsorship deal with Etihad Airways that was so brazenly out of line with what the market was offering it almost amounted to a spit in UEFA's face. Yet, even allowing for the £36 million rich owners are allowed to eat in the first season, it's difficult to see how City can cross the Fair Play threshold.
Chelsea was doing much better, especially after it scooped up €55 million from UEFA's prize pool for winning last year's Champions League. Then it went berserk and spent £80 million in transfers last summer. Undoubtedly, Chelsea and City are spending not only on pricey players but also on top-end lawyers. Indeed, one of the other clubs that looks like a prime target, Paris Saint-Germain, has hired Laurent Platini as one its lawyers. He is the son of Michel Platini, the president of UEFA. The way Chelsea and PSG have been spending suggests they don't think UEFA will have the guts, or the legal clout, to actually ban a really big club from the Champions League.
4. Diving will continue. Two of 2012's hot topics have been obstruction of set pieces and diving. FIFA does not want to undermine the authority of referees by removing them from the final decision over on-field events. That extends from goal-line technology down to diving. The trouble is referees make mistakes, and those mistakes are picked over by pundits who have the luxury of replays. That undermines respect for referees. The soccer authorities could seize control of that process, take the pressure off referees and improve the game, all at the same time.
Referees err, but that is no excuse to let the constant petty cheating that is souring the game go unpunished. The Football Association should set up a panel that reviews every game looking for dives and shirt tugs that went unpunished and then hand a one-game ban (with accompanying fine) to culprits. Within a few weeks it would find itself with almost nothing to do. The game would be better. Referees could breathe easier.
5. More goals, better soccer. The Premier League is ending a record year for goals. Its teams managed 1,094 goals in 2012, seven more than any season since the division went back to 20 teams. It's a tiny increase, so small that it's not statistically significant, but I see the trend continuing. There are still teams that rely first and foremost on hard work and organization, but the balance between defense and attack in the league does seem to be shifting.
First, there are the teams that put attack first. Manchester United and Newcastle are two obvious examples. Then there is the influence of Barcelona. Arsenal has been trying to play like Barcelona for a decade. Now, Chelsea wants to play like Barcelona. Swansea wants to play like Barcelona. Little Wigan wants to play like Barcelona. Even Everton, which used to be known as The School of Science because it played like Barcelona before Barcelona did, is turning into a sweet passing team again.
I enjoy a bit of traditional English thud and blunder as much as the next global fan, but let's hope that 2013 brings even more goals and more beautiful soccer.
6. Robin van Persie will finish as the top scorer. The league's best scorer is now with the best attacking team. Van Persie (leading England with 14 goals) will stay healthy as Ferguson rotates him and will easily hold off Michu (13), Jermain Defoe (10) and the rest. It's an obvious prediction, but it is worth saying. Watch him now so that you can say you did.
7. Clint Dempsey will find his feet. The American looked lost in the early season at Tottenham. But the signs in recent weeks are that he is beginning to find his teammates' wavelength, which is particularly important given his style of play. Competition for places is much tougher at Tottenham than Fulham, but Dempsey will find a role.
8. Brad Guzan is here to stay. The recent bombardment of the Aston Villa goal has only served to draw attention to the reliability of the long-time backup goalie. When Shay Given was hurt, Guzan seized his chance with both gloved hands. Given is again fit, but Guzan remains the starter and will stay there for the foreseeable future.
9. The Fernando Torres era will end. It may not coincide with the arrival Demba Ba, if he does indeed arrive. The way Chelsea works, it's difficult to see a man who costs only £7.5 million receiving enough respect to replace Torres at the top of the pecking order. But Torres is simply no longer reliable enough in front of goal. The arrival of Ba would not mean Chelsea couldn't go after Falcao in the summer.
10. Three rising stars will catch your eye. Arouna Koné, who arrived at Wigan in the summer, is already an explosive central striker; a few more goals would make him even more exciting viewing. Another summer recruit to an unfashionable club, Gastón Ramírez, is clearly the most skilful and inventive player in a surprisingly skilful and inventive Southampton attack. Vurnon Anita started life as a fullback, then became a defensive midfielder. He joined Newcastle in the summer and, as its midfield was ravaged by injuries, was deployed as an attacking midfielder. He gave a glimpse of unexpected talent as a passer before he, too, got injured. Don't lose sight of this trio.