Change of pace for new EPL trio
QPR's return to the Premier League after a 15-year absence is not without controversy. Only a few hours before playing its last match of the season, with the Championship trophy ready to be presented at the final whistle, QPR still did not know if it would be found guilty of seven FA charges it faced over the signing of Alejandro Faurlin in 2009, and suffer a significant points deduction.
That move appears to go against precedents set at smaller clubs, but it is difficult to argue that QPR has not been the best side in the division, which it has topped for all but two weeks of the season. The Hoops have taken points from 87 percent of their fixtures, winning more than half of them and keeping clean sheets in a staggering 54 percent; seven teams in the division played QPR home and away without beating the defense. The form of goalkeeper Paddy Kenny has been crucial, but QPR's soccer is more attractive than those stats might suggest -- recently drawing compliments from Arsenal's Arsene Wenger.
Though QPR's billionaire owners promised European competition by 2012-13, it's unlikely they really expected that -- or for manager Neil Warnock to take QPR so quickly from also-ran to champion. In addition to former Tottenham midfielder Adel Taraabt, who's been at the heart of a fluid, quick-to-attack QPR lineup with Faurlin, scoring or creating most of the side's goals, Warnock has brought in Wayne Routledge (on loan from Newcastle) and strikers Tommy Smith and Jamie Mackie -- who looked a contender for individual honors before breaking his leg in January.
Rangers may have to attack the Premier League without its trickiest star, however, as Taraabt has been given the summer to assess his options after attracting interest from Europe. Warnock is being linked with moves for Liverpool's Joe Cole, Spurs' Jermaine Jenas and Hull City midfielder Jimmy Bullard, which suggests he already suspects he'll have to do without the Moroccan playmaker and his ability to embarrass defenders.
Of course these could be issues for another man to worry about if Warnock is as vulnerable to the board's mammoth ambitions (recently removed Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti's name has come up more than once) as some believe. A shocking 40 percent hike in season ticket prices for 2011-12 has already prompted the resignation of vice chairman Amit Bhatia. All sounds just about messy enough for life in the Premier League.
Last season started inauspiciously for Norwich, but Paul Lambert's side went from strength to strength after a slightly shambolic opening day defeat to Watford. Beaten only three times after the end of October, the Canaries cemented the second automatic promotion place with a run of four straight wins in April that included a 5-1 thumping of Ipswich. They'd already beaten their East Anglian rivals (tipped for promotion themselves) 4-1 earlier in a very satisfying season.
It wasn't surprising that there were kinks to iron out early on: Norwich was freshly returned to the Championship after a brief drop down to the third tier, and is the first club to leap so quickly from there to the Premier League since Manchester City did it 11 years ago. Lambert (who only signed as manager two years ago, after his Colchester United side had beaten Norwich 7-1), paid for starting six of his seven new signings against Watford, but the new names were crucial to the side's eventual success.
Playing a midfield diamond impressively anchored by David Fox (signed from Colchester), Norwich's soccer duly sparkles, with overlapping fullbacks supporting Andrew Crofts (arrived from Brighton) and the visionary Andrew Surman (bought from Wolves) on the wings and Wes Hoolahan roving behind seasoned striker Grant Holt and another excellent signing, Canada international Simeon Jackson. Lambert has proved willing to alter this system when necessary, but it is one that has kept the crowd at Carrow Road bouncing.
No team outscored Norwich's 83 goals in the Championship last year, with Holt finishing the 46-match season second in the player rankings on 21. Preparations for the Premier League have already begun with the signing of Everton striker James Vaughan, though Lambert has scoffed at links with Germany striker Miroslav Klose. "[Vaughan] is someone who fits in with the group, he's hungry to do well and has great desire. I've always thought he was a threat in and around the box," the manager said, announcing the $2.5 million deal.
Discussing the Klose rumors with BBC Radio Scotland, he said: "The lad's 30-odd now, he's played in front of 80,000 people. He isn't going to come to Norwich and put his shoulder to the wheel." The team's relentless effort has been critical: 22 points were won in the last 10 minutes of games, with eight goals in the 90th minute or later. Trips to Old Trafford could be interesting.
Swansea doesn't often visit the very highest reaches of English soccer, but when it does there's always a tale to tell. On Monday the club won promotion barely eight years after only just avoiding demotion to non-League soccer. Now Swansea will be the first Welsh club to play in the Premier League, and was also the last to reach the top flight, in the early 1980s, when it jumped from the fourth division to the first in four years. Making the leap this time around, in such an unforgiving financial climate, is arguably bigger.
"The gods were with us," said manager Brendan Rodgers, after a thrilling match at Wembley in which Swansea beat Reading 4-2. "They didn't have the money to pay the electricity bill at the Vetch [Swansea's home in 2003, Vetch Field]. Eight years later we've just won a £90 million [$148M] game." It's in the nature of the playoffs that promotion via this route has a hint of the casino about it, but Swansea's elevation in status has been well earned over a long season.
The Swans didn't drop out of the top six after October, and were in with a shout of automatic promotion until late on, bouncing back from a springtime wobble to finish third with three consecutive wins. In that run, Ipswich Town and Sheffield United were both steamrollered at the Liberty Stadium, a part of South Wales to which most visiting sides will arrive total strangers next season.
The team is not without one or two familiar faces, though, including winger Scott Sinclair, who signed for Chelsea at 16 but opted for a permanent switch to Swansea last summer having been loaned out to six different clubs in the previous three years. The move has paid off for club and player: Sinclair's hat-trick at Wembley lifted his goal tally for the season to 27 (more than double the number scored by any teammate).
Sinclair plays on the left of a fluid 4-3-3 system that builds attacks from the back; goalkeeper Dorus de Vries, voted players' player of the year, often starts things off. Rodgers doesn't like the optimistic, half-serious comparisons to Barcelona -- the local press likes to use "Swanselona" -- any more than fans are now enjoying comparisons to Blackpool, whose stay in the Premier League was short and sweet. But there is no doubt that all three share a philosophy, whatever their differences in its execution.
Swansea's commitment to expansive, passing soccer germinated under Roberto Martinez (Ian Holloway's inspiration), and Rodgers has succeeded in adding mettle -- as well as making and completing more passes than any other team, and enjoying the most possession (averaging more than 60 percent), Swansea kept 21 clean sheets last season. For the manager, it's a question of identity, and having been able to show it off at Wembley, it's hard to imagine Swansea changing its ways too much for the Premier League.