Thursday, August 11, 2011

Know Your Enemies 2011/2: Part 2

The second part of my assessment of our opponents (first part here).


Premier League let's be 'avin' ya! Football just never seems to lose its capacity to astound and astonish, does it? On the first day of the 2009/10 season, Norwich were beaten 7-1 at home by Colchester in League One. Two years later and they're kicking off in the top flight - with the man who masterminded that opening day thrashing the architect of the extraordinary renaissance at Carrow Road. If there's any justice, Paul Lambert will be unsackable - but that doesn't allow for the madness and cruelty of life in this division (see West Brom, below).

The Canaries' bold summer recruitment policy - which has seen them scour the divisions from which they've just escaped - was the subject of comment on this blog last month. Steve Morison, Anthony Pilkington and Elliott Bennett are all intriguing signings, but can they cut it at the highest level? Morison faces a battle just to get into the team, with Grant Holt, Simeon Jackson, Chris Martin and fellow arrival James Vaughan all vying for the striking roles. Elsewhere, Spurs loanee Kyle Naughton will have vice-captain Russell Martin, the "Norfolk Cafu", worrying that he won't repeat last season's feat of playing every single minute. No time for dissent in the ranks, though, if Norwich are to avoid relegation and an epitaph of "Too much too soon".

Recommended blog: Little Norwich


Another shot at the big time for Colin Wanker, whose odds of returning to the top flight looked slim to none following Sheffield Utd's contentious relegation in 2007. No doubt the Marmite of managers will be disappointed not to have the chance to exact revenge on the dastardly Hammers, but, unusually for someone who's just steered his club to a convincing Championship title, he'll be grateful just to have a job at all. Rumour has it that Rangers' billionaire backers came close to replacing the meat-and-spuds Yorkshireman with a marquee manager over the summer - which would certainly explain their extreme reticence to trust him with any funds.

That new faces have finally started to arrive suggests Wanker's position is secure for the time being, at least, and he in turn has placed his faith in a new-look strikeforce. Journeyman Jay Bothroyd has plenty to prove, having made little impression during previous Premier League stints and being desperate to lift the one-cap-wonder millstone off his neck, though DJ Campbell was an unexpected success for Blackpool last season. However, Rangers' hopes rest largely upon the whereabouts of mercurial playmaker Adel Taarabt on 1st September - if his agent gets his way, it won't be west London. Meanwhile, there's little danger of us being put to the sword by QPR's former Toon contingent - Peter Ramage has been sent on loan to Crystal Palace, while the Little Waster has probably already draped a towel of reservation over the physio's couch.

Recommended blog: QPR Report


"Ruggedly uncompromising" would, I think, be a fair description of Stoke's established first-choice central defence: Ryan Shawcross, perhaps the only Premier League central defender not to be linked with Arsenal this summer (for obvious reasons), and Robert Huth, a square-jawed automaton with a knack for getting away with nasty off-the-ball fouls. So what is Tony Pulis up to with the free transfer signings of two of England's most cultured centre-backs, Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Upson? Not that Shawcross and Huth should be too worried - the treatment room staff, however, will be petitioning for a pay rise.

Pulis has no truck with fancy formations, preferring a rigid 4-4-2 in which Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant supply the width and the crosses, and little-and-large combo Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walters contribute the goals. Any acquisitions are expected to fit into the Potters' existing system - which explains why Tuncay left and why Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios are rumoured targets. The latter would certainly help to beef up the losing FA Cup finalists' meagre central midfield, which boasts little more than Rory Delap's prodigious chuck, lethal weapon though it so often is.

Recommended blog: The Rock 'N' Roll Oatcake


What a contrast. Both ourselves and our dearest enemies have recently been the grateful beneficiaries of Liverpool's munificent preoccupation with young English talent, but while the £35m from the sale of Rocky remains largely in Jabba's wallet, the £20m the Mackems were lucky enough to extort for Jordan Henderson has been invested annoyingly wisely in all manner of directions. Two midfielders and former Toon targets have joined from Birmingham, Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson, while £9m teenager Connor Wickham has the task of taking some of the goalscoring heat off Asamoah Gyan. Like Alan Pardew with Gabriel Obertan, Ol' Cauliflower Face has been hoovering up around the fringes of the Man Utd squad, landing Wes Brown and John O'Shea for reasonable fees.

However, the loss of an intelligent probing midfielder in Steed Malbranque will hopefully prove costly, and red card magnet Lee Cattermole will with any justice finish the season wearing an ankle tag to go with his captain's armband. Keiren Westwood joins Simon Mignolet and Craig Gordon in a three-way battle to be the 'keeper who gets to pick the ball out of the Mackems' net five times at St James' on 3rd March. Finishing below the Great Unwashed last season, though not unexpected, still smarts given the manner in which we conceded our superior position, so we're out to restore the natural order.

Recommended blog: Roker Report


Swansea have been the cause of some debate here at Black & White & Read All Over - specifically, are they this season's Blackpool? Paul says yes, pointing to their attractive brand of football, their status as play-off winners and their manager being a Premier League rookie. However, for my money the comparison is too facile and actually well wide of the mark. The Swans may have a commitment to being fluent and easy on the eye, but their footballing philosophy places equal if not more emphasis on firm foundations - a far cry from the Tangerines' Keegan-esque gung-hoism. What's more, Brendan Rodgers is an astute tactician - however you choose to describe Ian Holloway, an astute tactician he most certainly is not.

The combination of a watertight defence and pacy, fluid attack makes Swansea, of the three promoted sides, the best equipped for survival. Spurs loanee Stephen Caulker, a revelation during his stint at Bristol City last season, has joined Ashley Williams, Alan Tate and Garry Monk to help protect new Dutch 'keeper Michel Vorm, his compatriot Dorus de Vries having left for Wolves. The 4-3-3 formation, predicated on lightning-fast and skillful wingers like Scott Sinclair, is ideally suited to Wayne Routledge so he really ought to come good at the seventh attempt. Swansea's problem, though, has been finding the right spearhead - Danny Graham and Leroy Lita the latest to try their luck. Ekeing out entertaining 1-0 wins in the Championship may have become routine, but the Premier League is a lot tougher.

Recommended blog: none (feel free to suggest one)


Building your whole team around one individual - even one as good as Rafael van der Vaart, whom 'Appy 'Arry couldn't possibly turn down at a mere £8m last August - is a high-risk strategy. What if he gets injured? And what if the formation in which he's most effective doesn't suit other star players? Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale have enjoyed marauding down Spurs' flanks, but Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe - the latter arguably England's most instinctive finisher - have both suffered as a result of Redknapp's van-der-Vaart-friendly one-up-top policy.

Given the manager's notoriety as a seasoned wheeler-dealer, the lack of comings and goings at White Hart Lane is extraordinary. Few, I imagine, would have suspected that Spurs' only major signing of the summer so far would be a 40-year-old deferring retirement in favour of vying with Heurelho Gomes and Carlo Cudicini for the goalkeeper's jersey. In addition to transfer frustrations, Redknapp will have been wearied trying to keep pint-sized genius Luka Modric out of Chelsea's clutches (and at what cost to the wantaway Croatian's mindset?) and pondering how to solve his own versions of our mid-90s conundrums: how to fashion brilliant individual defenders into a cohesive, impermeable unit, and how to win games when your side is off-colour. Still, at least he's been granted a few more days to figure it out. Spurs remain a side capable of beating anyone - but things aren't looking quite as rosy now as they did twelve months ago, and the pursuit of a route back into the Champions League looks more hopeful than realistic.

Recommended blog: Dear Mr Levy

West Brom

A word of warning for Paul Lambert: there's little room for sentiment in a division in which patience is a virtue preached by managers but rarely practiced by chairmen. Roberto Di Matteo's managerial stock was high when West Brom boing-boinged back into the Premier League at the first attempt, and higher still when they beat Arsenal at the Emirates and he scooped the Manager of the Month award. So inevitably, with the Baggies in a spot of bother by early February, Jeremy Peace pulled the trigger without compunction and installed Woy Hodgson in Di Matteo's place. Sadly for opponents of the ruthless hire-'em-and-fire-'em strategy, the switch worked and the new manager steered them into mid-table, helping to banish his personal Anfield nightmare.

This term Hodgson will be pinning his hopes on several things: Youssuf Mulumbu and club captain Chris Brunt continuing their excellent form; £8m man Shane Long forging an instant partnership with one of last season's surprise stars, Peter Odemwingie; Ben Foster settling in quickly following his move from Birmingham out into the Black Country to replace fellow England squad 'keeper Scott Carson. We, meanwhile, would be well advised to keep a rather closer eye on winger Somen Tchoyi...

Recommended blog: none (feel free to suggest one)


When your two summer signings are your player of the year from the previous campaign (Ali Al-Habsi, whose loan from Bolton has been made permanent at a cost of £4m) and someone released by Wolves (David Jones), then you know you're in big, big trouble. Creativity and goalscoring power in particular look conspicuous by their absence. Charles N'Somnia supplied both, but he's got his move to Villa, while Tom Cleverley is back to pressing his nose against the glass at Man Utd.

Hugo Rodallega can't be expected to do everything on his own - but Roberto Martinez should try telling that to Franco di Santo, the Argentinian still having the nerve to call himself a striker despite recording one poxy goal in 25 appearances (though it was against the Mackems, at least). Victor Moses will be one player grateful for N'Somnia's departure, but neither he nor his manager will be able to work miracles. If you're setting a quiz any time over the next ten months, I'd recommend taking the opportunity to ask the question "Which club has never been relegated from the top flight of English football?" If the Latics do go down, then don't expect us to shed any tears for bitter old duffer Dave Whelan.

Recommended blog: Jesus Was A Wiganer


Like Wigan, Wolves have shelled out a sizeable fee to acquire a loan star permanently (Jamie O'Hara), but it's another deal which, certainly come May, could be hailed as the transfer coup of the season. Roger Johnson could surely have signed for a significantly bigger club - with Arsenal in the market for a commanding centre-half, for a start - but Wolves acted decisively to get their man early, promptly installing him as skipper. The only slight concern is that at Birmingham he was at his best as part of a double act with Scott Dann - can he go it alone, so to speak?

As might be expected of a gruff Yorkshireman who wouldn't dream of calling a spade a rectangular-bladed digging device, Mick McCarthy favours a robust 4-4-2 with a pair of dangerous wingers, Stephen Hunt and Matt Jarvis, feeding Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher up front. Nenad Milijas remains arguably their most skillful player, but there's rarely room for him alongside cynical ASBO-maimer Karl Henry. With Wolves now established as a Premier League club, complacency might come creeping into the dressing room - though if it does, expect McCarthy to give it a firm clip around the ear.

Recommended blog: Wolves Blog

* * * * *

So that's the competition surveyed. Tomorrow Paul assesses our own prospects - minus Kevin Nolan and Jose Enrique but plus a whole load of French-speakers - and ventures to predict a final league table.

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