Friday, August 16, 2013

Know Your Enemies 2013/4: Part 2

And so to the second part of my assessment of our Premier League opponents (first part here), kicking off with the reigning champions...

Man Utd

He's gone - at last. While Taggart will no doubt find a use for his famous watch-tapping gesture when impatiently waiting at bus stops, free pass in hand, his successor has the unenviable task of carrying on where he left off. In some ways David Moyes made for a bold choice - someone unused to wielding a huge budget or, indeed, winning anything - but it was heartening to see an astute, hard-working manager who has paid his dues and whose side has consistently overachieved get the gig ahead of any of the more celebrated continental alternatives. It's not an appointment Chelsea would ever have made, frankly.

As if Moyes' task wasn't hard enough already, two factors have plagued him this summer. Firstly, there are the ongoing reports of Shrek being unsettled - not helped by the pair's falling out while at Everton or the Scot's public pronouncement that Robin van Persie is his automatic first choice. Secondly, there has been no flagship signing that would be a significant show of faith from the board. Moyes has rightly identified central midfield as an area of relative weakness, despite the availability of England regulars Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, but his dogged pursuit of first-choice target Cesc Fabregas looks to have been futile. Wilfried Zaha, signed from Crystal Palace in January but only now linking up with his parent club, looks an exciting prospect, but it's debatable whether he's the sort of player needed when Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Nani are all still on the books. Third place looks a distinct possibility.


Taking into account the stature of Premier League clubs relative to the calibre of players they've recruited, Norwich have arguably had the best summer of any club in the division. In particular, an all-new front line has been procured - skillful Dutchman Ricky van Wolfswinkel and free-scoring Celtic man Gary Hooper, at a combined cost of £13.5m, replacing outgoing Canaries legend Grant Holt, with Chris Martin and Simeon Jackson also departing. The midfield has been bolstered too, with the addition of Leroy Fer, a player nicknamed the Bouncer whom we were sniffing around three years ago.

Anyone fearing that the Canaries had abandoned their policy of cherry-picking the crop of Championship stars needn't have worried, though, with Nathan Redmond and Martin Olsson snapped up from Birmingham and Blackburn respectively. Chris Hughton's job now is to integrate the new players successfully into a team that has survived two seasons in the top flight on account of its hardworking, egalitarian ethic - no easy task. Van Wolfswinkel sounds like a character from a Brothers Grimm fairytale - time will tell if Norwich's season is a fairytale or just plain grim.


At the time, the sacking of Nigel Adkins in January seemed to sum up everything that's wrong with the modern game. Here was an honest, decent manager given the boot by a short-sighted, over-ambitious chairman, despite having led the club to two successive promotions. Now, seven months on, you perhaps grudgingly have to admit that Nicola Cortese was right - the Saints looked better under the stewardship of Mauricio Pochettino and survived with relative ease.

Southampton could have a tough second season in store, but the Argentine has struck a couple of eyecatching deals over the summer, bringing in midfield enforcer Victor Wanyama and Croatian defender Dejen Lovren, and already has the likes of Gaston Ramirez and highly-rated youngster Luke Shaw to work with. The Saints can also boast a striker who has just scored a Wembley winner against Scotland with his very first touch in international football - a perfect pick-me-up just as the season is about to get underway.


And so to the third major, protracted and thus far uneventful transfer saga of the summer, after Luis Suarez and Shrek. There would have been no prizes for guessing which Spurs player it would involve - scintillating form and spectacular goals (including no fewer than nine winners) meant that Gareth Bale very nearly secured the final Champions League spot for his side single-handedly. If Spurs are able to fend off Real Madrid's advances (and turn a blind eye to the offer of a world-record fee), then fourth is within their grasp courtesy of a trio of excellent acquisitions.

It was baffling that there seemed to be no competition for the signature of Paulinho, a fixture in the Brazilian midfield and substantially cheaper than Man City's Fernandinho, while Spanish striker Roberto Soldado (rumoured to have cost a hefty £26m) and Belgian winger Nacer Chadli also arrived. Clint Dempsey's decision to return to his native USA (and pick up a huge salary) after one solitary season at White Hart Lane surprised few people - likewise Tom Huddlestone's departure for new boys Hull, squeezed out by the likes of Paulinho and Sandro. However, the one major blot on their copybook was the sale of England international central defender Steven Caulker to Cardiff - utterly inexplicable, in light of William Gallas' release. Will it come back to bite them firmly on the derriere, just like the continued failure to identify Benoit Assou-Ekotto as a weak link in need of replacement?


Ever since reaching the Premier League in 2008, Stoke have been much maligned (occasionally unfairly) for their style of play - but only last season did it become genuinely prosaic. Mark Hughes is as good a fit as any for Tony Pulis' replacement, but you do wonder whether this might turn out to be a case comparable to that of Alan Curbishley and Charlton in 2006 - the Potters board and fans felt they were stagnating and were happy for the manager to walk away, but it may be that what has seemed like a plateau is in fact a peak and that the only way is downhill.

Hughes has drafted in some intriguing buys, admittedly - Marc Muniesa from Barcelona (clearly in for quite a culture shock), one-time Newcastle target Erik Pieters and raw young American forward Juan Agudelo - but his side will be overly reliant on the ageing strike partnership of Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters for goals. If they get off to a sticky start, then the three promoted clubs will find themselves with competition for the three relegation positions.


As Newcastle fans, it's tempting to caricature the Mackems' transfer policy as, in essence, throw enough shit at the wall and hope that some of it sticks. However, let's be honest and admit that, in light of our own club's extraordinary inactivity, we're just a teeny bit envious of the Dark Place's crowded arrivals lounge. As with Villa, it appears that a list of targets was compiled from scouting reports and that the board then set about swiftly and determinedly getting their men. Emanuele Giaccherini and Cabral in particular look like very useful additions to the side.

Aside from the numerous purchases, Paulo Di Canio's resolve to stamp his authority on the squad has also been demonstrated by the systematic dismantling of his predecessor's legacy. Martin O'Neill's two January signings, Danny Graham and Alfred N'Diaye, have both been deemed surplus to requirements and shipped out on loan, while James McClean, who initially flourished under the Northern Irishman's guidance, has been flogged off to Wigan. Here's hoping that none of the new signings acclimatise to the rigours of the Premier League, and that Di Canio has a complete meltdown at an inopportune moment - preferably in the aftermath of us exacting sweet revenge for that 3-0 defeat last season...


The easiest-on-the-eye side in the top flight, guided to the first major trophy in their 100-year history and a place in Europe by someone who, as a player, won league titles with Ajax, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus and has been named as his country's greatest ever. Yes, Swansea fans could be forgiven for pinching themselves. Not that the Swans' summer got off to a great start, though. Tensions between Michael Laudrup and chairman Huw Jenkins led to the club severing all ties with the Dane's agent, with the manager implying he might walk out, but somehow it never came to that.

Whether you regard Laudrup's agitating for significant expenditure on new recruits as thoroughly justified in view of his achievements last season and of their forthcoming European campaign (after all, we serve as a useful cautionary tale) or simply as a childish and petulant tantrum, he certainly got his way. A club record £12m was lavished on Mr T's Ivory Coast colleague Wilfried Bony, who will spearhead the attack. This will mean undisputed bargain of the last season Michu will play a little deeper, and while the Spaniard excelled at bursting into the box late to snap up crosses, you do wonder whether Bony's arrival might be to his detriment. Getting Jonathan de Guzman back on loan was a no-brainer, while La Liga was tapped for a further three new additions and no first-teamers have been spirited away. Penny for Scott Sinclair's thoughts...

West Brom

Of all the non-moves this summer, perhaps Peter Odemwingie's has been the most noteworthy. Who knows - he may have been busy frequenting the car parks of rival clubs in the hope of being offered a contract, but at the present moment he remains, most improbably, a West Brom employee. Steve Clarke's biggest headache, though, is how to fill the boots of Romelu Lukaku. The fact that he's signed two strikers - Nicolas Anelka, who has vowed to make the Baggies his sixth and final Premier League club, and Matej Vydra, last season's Championship Player of the Year while on loan at Watford - who are each in a very different mould suggests that he's not even going to try.

Uncompromising veteran centre-back Diego Lugano, Luis Suarez's captain at international level, will shore up a defence in which Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley looked increasingly fallible last year - a key reason why, despite Lukaku's heroics up front, West Brom slumped after a very promising start. If the same happens this year, and the Belgian does indeed prove irreplaceable, then at least Anelka, nicknamed the Incredible Sulk, will have Odemwhingy for company.

West Ham

If one thing's clear from West Ham's summer spending, it's that Fat Sam hasn't had some kind of Damascene conversion and embraced tiki-taka. After some suggestion that he'd be amenable to a return to his hometown club, Rocky signed for the Hammers, followed shortly afterwards by Stewart Downing, another player who had been linked with a move to St James' Park and the man to supply the ammunition. There's no doubt who were the prime beneficiaries of Brendan Rodgers' surplus-to-requirements firesale.

Even with Rocky, they look somewhat short up front, one-time Toon target Modibo Maiga having failed to live up to expectations. In midfield, Mohamed Diame can be an all-action powerhouse, but surely our former captain Kevin Nolan's ageing legs will prevent him from being so deadly in the box this time around? Meanwhile, the arrival of Romanian captain Razvan Rat from Shakhtar Donetsk will have the tabloid hacks rubbing their hands with glee - even if the prospect of watching hoofball at a freezing Upton Park in January doesn't.

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