Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Know Your Enemies: Part 1

In which I kick off our season preview posts by running the rule over the sides gearing up to send us straight back down to the Championship...

Arsenal

Blessed with a mouthwatering array of youthful talent, including two of England's newest caps Kieron Gibbs and Jack Wilshere, Arsenal's future looks bright. But that's been the case for years now, and Gunners fans must be wondering why the present never has quite the same lustre. They remain strongest, as ever, in advanced midfield areas, with the likes of Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin capable of posing fiendish riddles to opposition defences, while long-time target Marouane Chamakh has arrived from Bordeaux to replace the outgoing Eduardo and partner Robin Van Persie up front.

But they've haemorrhaged central defenders - William Gallas, Sol Campbell, Philippe Senderos and Mikael Silvestre - and now have only Thomas Vermaelen and new recruit Laurent Koscielny to fill the hole. Once again, that vision of glories to come is likely to be sustenance for another barren season, though there is the added consolation of knowing they've clung onto Cesc Fabregas despite the frankly astonishing efforts of his Spanish teammates to tempt him away to the Nou Camp - for another year, at least.

Aston Villa

Oh dear. Of all the foreign owners in the Premier League, Randy Lerner - surely his porn name? - seemed to be the one who bucked the trend: low-profile, no ludicrous public outbursts, not out to make a fast buck at the expense of the club and the fans, prepared to provide his manager with reasonable funds. But then the Curse of James Milner struck and Martin O'Neill walked out on the eve of the season, Lerner claiming they "no longer shared a common view as to how to move forward". (It's worth pointing out that O'Neill had effectively earned the right to spend the Milner cash, when it comes, having transformed our old boy into the player he now is by playing him behind the strikers rather than on the flanks.)

The American's stubborn refusal to back O'Neill's vision will be costly - does he, or anyone else, seriously think that any other manager will be able to improve on three successive top six finishes (each time with a slightly better final points total) with the current squad - minus Milner, of course? There's quality in there, admittedly, but they lack strength in depth and a striker who will rattle in the goals - Emile Heskey's unlikely to fulfil that particular need - and their general disarray leaves them at risk of dropping out of contention for the European places.

Birmingham

I don't foresee life across the other side of the Second City being too much cheerier. After last season's remarkable 9th place finish - particularly galling to us given the integral roles played by Lee Bowyer and Stephen Carr, both booted out of Toon for being crap - expectations will have risen even among the Blues' notoriously pessimistic followers.

Last year's success was founded on an enviable work ethic and an extraordinarily miserly defence in which Man City loanee Joe Hart and the hitherto unsung Roger Johnson established themselves as two of the signings of the season. Good job, too, as goals weren't exactly a regularity at the other end either. England wannabe Ben Foster will find it tough to pick up Hart's gauntlets, while, with Rat Boy Phillips another year closer to his pension, the burden of responsibility for scoring will fall on the snow-capped shoulders of giant Serbian striker Nikola Zigic - a responsibility all the more onerous if the back line doesn't prove quite so impermeable this time around.

Blackburn

As reassuring as possession of promising youngsters such as Nikola Kalinic and Steven Nzonzi is, I doubt that it'll have assuaged the fears of Rovers fans suspecting, like their Brummie counterparts, that last season's top half placing will be unrepeatable. (Where the two won't agree, incidentally, is on David Dunn - back to being a mercurial string-puller at Ewood Park after a spell as a fat flop at St Andrews.) If Saurin Shah's attempted buyout does take place, then Fat Sam might suddenly find himself leafing through a wadge of folding money rather than jingling loose change in his pockets - but thus far forays into the transfer market have been conspicuous by their absence.

Rovers' strength is the heart of their defence, where Chris Samba has established himself as a formidable man mountain. Accomplice Ryan Nelsen enjoyed a superb World Cup skippering the only side to end the tournament unbeaten, while in reserve they can call upon Phil Jones, a precociously commanding presence who has "future England captain" written all over him. (Not literally, of course.) Here's hoping they're all injured when we face them so we can give Fat Sam a good firm slap on the chops.

Blackpool

Few will be approaching the season with as much trepidation as Blackpool. They sneaked into the Premier League through the play-offs, dazzling their opponents with sparkling, stylish football, but are about to find top flight opponents far less easy to outfox. Ian Holloway will no doubt do and say enough to merit his own weekly slot on Match Of The Day 2, but I can't see him having the calmness, psychological strength and tactical nous needed to succeed at this level.

The Seasiders' chief problem, though, has been on the recruitment front. Numerous targets have spurned their advances (some for lower league sides) - most notably DJ Campbell and Stephen Dobbie, last season's loan heroes both choosing to stay with their parent clubs. This led to speculation over the positions of Holloway and chairman Karl Oyston, whose early summer boasts about financial prudence had been replaced with frustration and embarrassment at the lack of new faces. Today saw them sign no fewer than five players - but of these, three are unfamiliar Frenchmen, one a Man Utd reserve defender last seen turning out on loan for a side relegated to League One and the fifth a striker who we know from personal experience could only intermittently cut it in the Championship. Doh! Still, what have they got to lose? Other than confidence, spirit, dignity, long-term financial stability...

Bolton

While Blackburn have been playing the waiting game, their Lancashire rivals Bolton have gone about quietly making some stealthy and astute acquisitions. Chief among these, of course, is Martin Petrov, a tasty crumb who fell from moneybags Man City's table now that they've upgraded to World Cup winner David Silva. Owen Coyle's capture of the Bulgarian - pacy, crafty and with an eye for goal - for zilch eclipses our own free transfer signings of Campbell and Gosling. He could form part of an all-new left side for the Trotters, if Marcos Alonso - a teenage benchwarmer at Real Madrid - begins to fulfil his potential sooner rather than later. It's long been a source of bafflement to me why Matt Taylor, a surprisingly frequent scorer, doesn't start more games - but these two may ensure his path to a regular first-team place continues to be blocked.

On the other flank South Korean international Lee Chung-Yong has plenty to offer in terms of effort and forward momentum, while the permanent arrival of Ivan Klasnic - a useful striker in his own right - might possibly spur Johan Elmander into doing the job he's thus far been overpaid to do and not done. It's also about who they've clung onto, though - Gary Cahill in particular, though Gretar Steinsson has also proven a valuable asset.

Chelsea

Can Dad's Army do it again? Possibly, but if so then it almost definitely won't involve so many thrashings and neither will it be because they're stronger than last year. Juliano Belletti is no great loss - the Brazilian was never more than a squad player - but the frequently imperious (if imperiously arrogant) Michael Ballack will be missed, Ricardo Carvalho's reunion with Jose Mourinho in Madrid will leave them lighter at the back and the wisdom and logic of effectively swapping Joe Cole plus a load of Roman Abramovich's cash for Yossi Benayoun is bizarre to say the very least.

Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda both enjoyed excellent seasons as the Blues won the domestic double - but les Bleus suffered a markedly different fate at the World Cup, and the pair may still be feeling groggy with the hangover from the French World Cup nightmare. I'd venture that it's surely also questionable whether Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard can continue to perform at the same phenomenally high level now that they're the wrong side (i.e. my side) of 30. The time is ripe for Carlo Ancelotti to try assimilating the likes of Gael Kakuta, Daniel Sturridge, Michael Mancienne and maybe even our former loanee left-back Patrick van Aanholt more fully into the regular first-team squad - if he doesn't, then they will simply leave out of frustration (as Scott Sinclair has done, for Swansea) and, like an inverse Arsenal, Chelsea will have a glorious present but no future.

Everton

Of all the managers in the Premier League, the one I'd probably least like to encounter in an angry confrontation would be David Moyes - there's something about that accent and those bulging eyes that suggest he'd think nothing of ripping out your internal organs, sticking them in a blender and then feeding them back to you as soup. But anger him is exactly what we did this summer, turning him a Fergie-esque shade of puce by nipping in to nick Dan Gosling before he put pen to paper on a new deal. Moyes will now be all the more vigilant that the same thing doesn't happen with star midfielders Steven Pienaar and Mikel Arteta, both of whom are yet to sign contract extensions. The pair are part of the reason Gosling decided to risk Moyes' wrath and walk out - together with Marouane Fellaini, Tim Cahill, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Leon Osman, they form a formidable array of midfield talent.

Not that the Toffees are too shoddy at the back, with Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka proof that taking a punt on Championship players can reap handsome dividends. Up front Louis Saha and Yakubu are talented but far too injury-prone, so much - probably too much - will be expected of Jermaine Beckford. When we were close to signing him in January, we had Leeds fans telling us he wasn't all that - in much the same way that Everton fans have been doing with Gosling...

Fulham

Fulham's passage to Europa Cup final - which, lest we forget, left the likes of Hamburg and Shakhtar Donetsk by the wayside and most famously saw them mug the Old Lady - was one of the most impressive achievements of last season. It was enough to secure Roy Hodgson, the man who had come in in 2007 when the Cottagers were in dire straits domestically and saved their bacon, the LMA Manager Of The Year award - and ultimately the Liverpool job. And yet owner Mohamed Al Fayed had the gall to snipe that his club "put him where he is now". I've nothing against Fulham, but when that odious idiot spouts this sort of drivel, then it's enough to make you wish all kinds of misery and misfortune upon them.

In fact, misfortune has already struck, with the news that new signing Philippe Senderos will be sidelined for six months, meaning that the formation of a partnership with giant Norwegian Brede Hangeland, one of the league's best defenders, has been put on ice. Both domestically and in Europe Aaron Hughes and Damien Duff were virtually unrecognisable from the players who used to turn out for us, but, like Danny Murpy and Clint Dempsey, they'll have a difficult task to maintain last term's form. Bobby Zamora, meanwhile, may have just made an impressive international debut, but he's hardly the goal-every-other-game striker they should be pinning most of their hopes on. Still, Mark Hughes was a sound appointment as Hodgson's successor - he was harshly treated at Man City - and has the necessary nous to keep them in mid-table.

Liverpool

It could all have been so much worse for Liverpool. Firstly, having belatedly waved goodbye to the increasingly eccentric and erratic Rafa Benitez, to whom they'd clung too long out of dewy-eyed sentiment (as well as the compensation clause in his contract), it was imperative that they got the right man in - and Roy Hodgson certainly fits the bill. Secondly, and against the odds, they've managed to retain the services of their talismen Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres - even though Reds fans will be praying both enjoy better seasons than they did World Cups (incidentally, did Torres' pitiful showing up front for a World-Cup-winning side remind anyone of a certain Stephane Guivarch?). Add to that the fact that they were very much on the right end of the Joe Cole deal - though supporters should be wary of hailing him as some kind of messiah - and have managed to ship out fringe players and dissenters like Albert Riera and everything looks rather rosier than might have been expected.

There are a few flies in the ointment, though - not least the likely departure of defensive midfield lynchpin Javier Mascherano, who is apparently so desperate to be reunited with Benitez at Inter Milan that he's been refusing to talk to Hodgson (though the blow will at least be cushioned by the arrival of Christian Poulsen), and the continued status of the terminally rubbish David N'Gog as Torres' stand-in. Reinforcements are needed if they're to worm their way back into the top four - a tougher task in view of the squads "outsiders" Man City and Spurs now boast - but Hodgson has shown he knows how to manage a modest budget and so is likely to invest wisely.

Second half to follow tomorrow night.
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3 Comments:

Blogger Sphinx Hunter said...

This is a bloody magnificent article. It is a pity that not more sports journos are able to be this detailed and insightful, while making reading both easy and entertaining. Thank you and well done.

3:18 am  
Blogger gerschenkron said...

Good post, thanks! But:

Eccentric and erratic he may have become, but dewy-eyed sentiment was not the only reason for Reds' loyalty to Rafa Benitez. His overall record was one of impressive over-achievement and Liverpool fans aren't so quick to dump their heroes (only to find Souness installed as manager ;-))

The "terminally rubbish" Ngog didn't look too bad firing us into the lead against the Arse on Sunday and although he's got a long way to go, you should beware writing him off so soon.

12:08 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Thanks both - always good to know our efforts are appreciated!

Gershenkron: Fair enough, Benitez overachieved in winning the European Cup in 2005 and then taking the team to the final in 2007, but domestically they were never real contenders during his reign and his ludicrous rant during the 2008-9 season is what derailed the club's bid for the title. I was a bit surprised he survived the sack after that.

As for Ngog, he's started the season well, granted, but I'd be equally wary of getting your hopes up. He's one of those strikers who seems to need a lot of chances on a plate before tucking one away and has been guilty of some pretty hopeless misses in the past (including on Sunday).

1:23 pm  

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