Friday, August 18, 2006

My kingdom for a striker...

With the kick-off of the Premiership season now less than 24 hours away, and following the overview of other clubs posted earlier in the week, here we offer an assessment of our own summer activity and prospects for the year to come.

Paul: A year ago I wrote:

"We can only hope that we manage to bring in some more new faces before the end of August, and that for once we start the season well, thereby easing the pressure on Souness and allowing the team to find a rhythm and style to suit them. However, if we don't sign a decent striker, we could be scratching around for goals, and if we don't score enough our defence is unlikely to help us scrape too many one-nils. It could be a long and not hugely enjoyable season. I just hope I'm proved very very wrong".

To be honest, twelve months on and not much has changed. Souness has thankfully taken his unique brand of man-management elsewhere, and there is far less pressure on Roeder going into this season, given the enormous amount of goodwill he currently enjoys. The fact that we are still in Europe also helps.

However, the need to sign a decent striker (or two) is perhaps even more pressing, with Shola now carrying the burden alone until Owen hopefully recovers sometime in 2007. Our defence also looked reasonably solid towards the end of last season, although appear to have returned to their less watertight ways in our pre-season games and I'd still like to see us pick up some additional cover at left back (at the very least). To that end, our reported interest in Wayne Bridge is definitely a good thing, although the fact that Ashley Cole's move to Chelsea has apparently collapsed suggests that we won't be picking up England's second best left back any time soon.

On the positive side of things, we have signed Damien Duff, a player who should improve the side (despite displacing last season's star performer Charles N'Zogbia). If we can manage to bring in a striker or two before the end of the month (sadly I'm already looking beyond the start of the season, which is when I'd like us to have completed our summer transfer activity) then this could be a good year for us.

The midfield looks strong, with the departures of Bowyer and Faye unlikely to see anyone on Tyneside wipe a tear from their eye, and the return of Nicky Butt (hopefully in the form he started for us, rather than the disgraceful crap he served up in the FA Cup semi final) or possibly the acquisition of Thomas Gravesen, allowing Scott Parker to be even more dynamic. If we could get Kieron Dyer fit as well, we could really dominate games in midfield.

However, without the addition of strikers (and preferably pacy ones) we're still going to struggle to score goals - Shola's looked a much better player under Roeder, but he's still going to need support, and I doubt his hip problem has finally been cured.

Still, Roeder's got my support, and the fixtures list looks to have been kind to us this year so we might just get that elusive good start for once, although if we don't sign a striker before the end of the month the outlook for the season could become immeasurably bleaker.

Ben: Inspired by seeing The Blockheads live last weekend, I’m wondering what our reasons to be cheerful are – and there are a few.

The £5m signing of Damien Duff, for starters – pound for pound the best deal of the summer (though Arsenal’s signing of Tomas Rosicky for £7m runs it close, as do Michael Ballack and Sol Campbell on frees). Even if his arrival might impede the progress of Charles N’Zogbia and signal the end of Albert Luque’s short career on Tyneside, Duff will give us added width and attacking threat down the left, and our midfield now looks stronger than ever.

Secondly, we’ve managed to retain the services of our best players (our retiring skipper the notable but unavoidable exception), with Given signing a new deal particularly significant. Glenn Roeder has also offloaded the useless (Amady Faye) and the unwanted (Lee Bowyer), while allowing the local lads who couldn’t quite make the grade (Michael Chopra, Martin Brittain) to move on.

Thirdly, rather than being panicked into paying over the odds for decent but vastly overpriced players (I’m thinking of Emile Heskey, Andy Johnson, Joleon Lescott and particularly Michael Carrick here), Roeder and Fat Fred have played a prudent and patient game.

But then this is where the unease creeps in. Prudence and patience are all well and good, but our shortage of strikers is a grave concern. What’s the point of having Duff if he’s got no-one to cross to? Roeder and Shepherd have had all summer to bring new faces in, and it hasn’t happened. Even if Michael Owen’s injury couldn’t have been foreseen, Alan Shearer’s retirement should have inspired us to scout for suitable replacements (as far as anyone could be called a “replacement” for the great man) long ago. We seem to be remarkably complacent for a side which failed to score in 16 of our 38 Premiership matches last season.

If we’re not going to score many, then we have to be sure of being able to keep teams out at the back – and, worryingly, our old defensive frailties have once more been exposed in pre-season friendlies, the lessons Roeder taught last season apparently unlearnt. Craig Moore impressed during the World Cup, and all of our centre-backs are capable of good performances on their day (yes, even Jean-Alain Boumsong), but I would feel much happier if we’d brought in someone like Campbell to marshall things and lead by example.

Last but not least, there’s Roeder. I agree with the decision to appoint him manager permanently, but there’s a danger that his heroics last season could have raised expectations too high this term. As fans of other clubs never tire of telling us, Roeder has always done well in his first season in charge elsewhere, and then taken the side down the next. We’re too good for relegation, but there remains a question mark over whether Roeder can sustain the same levels of performance and belief that he achieved in the final few months of the season.


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