Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Know Your Enemies 2012/3: Part 1

Yes, it's that time of year again when I foolishly record for posterity my appraisals of our Premier League opponents - you know, writing off sides who end up surviving comfortably and serving up puff pieces for players who spectacularly fail to live up to their billing (Roger Johnson at Wolves being last season's classic example)...


If you ever find yourself round Arsene Wenger's house for tea, it's a pretty safe bet that you won't find meat and potatoes on the menu. No, it'll be tapas - continental, tasty, lots of spice and zest, a bit insubstantial. The Professor has once again spunked his pocket money on European flair and firepower - Spanish winger Santi Cazorla and strikers Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud - rather than addressing the long-standing soft-centredness that has meant that Arsenal have been the Vincibles and not won silverware of any description since 2005.

In fairness to Wenger, he's probably hoping that one of Abou Diaby, Alex Song or Emmanuel Frimpong steps up and develops into the Vieira-esque midfield enforcer the Gunners have been so sorely lacking, and the return of Jack Wilshere can't come soon enough. Meanwhile there were signs last season that Laurent Koscielny was starting to come good and that sub-editor's nightmare Wojciech Szczesny has the potential to become the top-quality 'keeper they've been without for so long. Though Wenger may maintain otherwise, Giroud and Podolski were obviously recruited to replace contract rebel Robin van Persie - but, with the Dutchman still at the Emirates for the time being, Arsenal have a formidable array of forwards to choose from. One thing's for certain - whether van Persie stays or goes, the Gunners will need to become much less Robin-reliant.

Aston Villa

I'm not sure Villa fans do joy (or indeed anything other than dour, glum and gallows humour), but even they must be feeling close to cheerily chipper at the summer's events. First of all - and most critically - despised former Bluenose Alex McLeish was given the boot, having seen his mission to relegate both Birmingham clubs in successive seasons foiled at the death. Then came his replacement, Paul Lambert, an upwardly mobile and increasingly well-respected young manager with a hunger for success and a passion for hard work. And then there are the new signings, and in particular an intriguing trio of arrivals from the Eredivisie: Moroccan midfielder Karim El Ahmadi, Australian winger Brett Holman and (after some protracted transfer shenanigans) uncompromising Dutch international defender Ron Vlaar.

Lambert has cleared out some of the old guard, selling Carlos Cuellar and James Collins, perhaps out of recognition that the club is blessed with a promising clutch of youngsters: Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan, Ciaran Clark, Gary Gardner and potential hotshot Andreas Weimann. Add to that the fact that Darren Bent - one of the league's deadliest finishers - is back to full fitness, Charles N'Somnia must surely improve on his first season in claret and blue, and his ex-Toon colleague Shay Given has retired from international football to concentrate on his day job, and there are plenty of reasons for the perma-grumbling long-suffering Villa faithful to at least try mustering a smile.


Someone at Stamford Bridge seems to have decided that Arsene Wenger's transfer strategy would be worth pursuing for Chelsea too - namely, scouring the globe and hoovering up the best forwards available. The Blues can consider themselves fortunate to have landed arguably the most wanted man in Europe this summer, Belgian flying machine Eden Hazard, and have also shelled out the best part of a further £30m on Marko Marin and Oscar, one of the stars of Brazil's losing Olympic finalists. As statements of intent go, it's quite clear - they're not happy at finishing below us upstarts, and are capable of flexing their financial muscles to chilling effect.

Andre Villas-Boas' undoing was attempting to phase out some of the more senior members of the squad (John Terry and Frank Lampard, basically) too quickly, a challenge which remains for his successor. Roberto di Matteo has the cushion of a heroic salvage operation behind him (the Champions League and FA Cup - not a bad double to win), but Roman Abramovich has shown on several occasions that he's not swayed by sentiment, unprepared to allow managers to trade on former glories and ruthless at the slightest hint of trouble. Responsibility for the Italian's longevity rests at least in part with Fernando Torres, very much the main man he wanted to be now that Didier Drogba has trotted off to stud in China.


Forever the bridesmaids, Everton missed out on European football by a whisker last season, the delight at finishing above Liverpool in seventh tempered by their Merseyside rivals' qualification for the Europa League by virtue of winning the League Cup. Had they not suffered a sluggish start to the campaign and been able to get Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar on board sooner, they may well have placed higher. In the Croatian, David Moyes seems to have found a figurehead for their attack, while the permanent return of prodigal son Pienaar to Goodison Park from the wilderness at Spurs has now been sealed.

The Toffees will need the South African's guile and energy, now that mercurial loanee Royston Drenthe has left, though Leon Osman has quietly established himself as one of the league's most underrated performers. Defensively Moyes' men are sound, Phil Jagielka and Johnny Heitinga providing a solid platform and Leighton Baines- still at the club despite persistent rumours of interest from Man Utd - an additional attacking threat down the left. However, the moneymen's millions have spirited away Jack Rodwell and, while Goodison Park's corner flags may be breathing a sigh of relief at no longer being used as punchbags, Evertonians will also be mourning the departure of long-term servant of the club Tim Cahill.


Poor Fulham. Not only have they suffered the indignity of having two key members of their strikeforce, Bobby Zamora and now Andrew Johnson, poached by their former manager Mark Hughes, now in charge of their nouveau riche west London neighbours QPR; they also looked on in dismay as Pavel Pogrebnyak, an undisputed hit on loan at Craven Cottage last campaign, spurned their advances in favour of cosying up with Premier League new boys Reading. And it could get worse, with Fantasy Football fans' favourite Clint Dempsey (listed as a midfielder, plays up front) allegedly coveted by a host of clubs including Liverpool. That would have left just long-haired layabout Bryan Ruiz, if it wasn't for the fact that Martin Jol managed to pick up Mladen Petric following his release by Hamburg.

In midfield, Danny Murphy has departed, bizarrely choosing to join the circus at Blackburn rather than bow out gracefully, but the Cottagers still boast the muscle of Mahamadou Diarra, once upon a time a 26m euro signing for Real Madrid, and craft in wide areas from Moussa Dembele and Damien Duff. Much depends on the fitness of defensive lynchpin Brede Hangeland, though a breakthrough season for exciting youngster Kerim Frei would also help.


As was widely anticipated, lifting the League Cup wasn't enough to save King Kenny from being deposed following a miserable Premier League campaign which saw the Reds lose as many games as they won and finish a full 13 points below us in eighth. Few beyond Merseyside felt any sympathy for Dalglish or the club, though, their campaign having been blighted by the shameful Luis Suarez v Patrice Evra affair, which was as ugly as the now-departed Dirk Kuyt. Forward-thinking football philosopher Brendan Rodgers is the new man at the helm (a sharp contrast to his surly, old-school predecessor), but the clear lesson of the recent past - namely, avoid splurging obscene amounts in the domestic transfer market - doesn't seem to have been heeded. Rocky and Jordan Henderson should stand as cautionary examples, and yet £15m has still been lavished on Joe Allen, a promising enough talent but surely overpriced given that we picked up Mr T and Dreamboat for a combined total of around £8m.

The price tag that Rocky was burdened with wasn't his fault, though, and while his partnership with Suarez hasn't worked out thus far, there were signs towards the end of last season, and particularly in the FA Cup Final, that he may yet have a future at Anfield - if he can fend off the challenge of new signing Fabio Borini, that is. Also unsettled is Daniel Agger, the subject of interest from Man City - though personally I rate his central defensive partner Martin Skrtel more highly. Should the Dane leave, Rodgers is reported to be eyeing up Ashley Williams as a replacement, which would mean breaching his gentleman's agreement with former employers Swansea for a second time. Crucial to the Scousers' chances of improvement is both Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva staying fit.

Man City

What do you get for the man who has everything? Well, until recently - and much to the frustration of that man, Roberto Mancini - it seemed as though the answer was nothing. The Italian had refused to allow himself to get caught up in the euphoria of City's first top-tier title win since 1968, instead looking to strengthen the squad. And what a squad it already is: a superb goalkeeper (Joe Hart), the division's best defender (skipper Vincent Kompany), midfield power and finesse (Yaya Toure) and electrifying skill (David Silva, Samir Nasri, Adam Johnson) and awesome firepower (Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, back-in-the-fold Carlos Tevez, lunatic genius Mario Balotelli). It's telling that fat-salaried strikers Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz, plus John Guidetti, the Swedish forward who racked up 20 goals in 23 appearances on loan at Feyenoord last season, are nowhere near the first XI.

In the wake of Mancini's public plea for expenditure, owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan finally reached down the back of the sofa and found £12m in loose change to secure the benchwarming services of Everton's Jack Rodwell. It's hard to see where else reinforcements are required - central defence appears to have been identified as one area of concern, in light of the approach for Liverpool's Agger - but Mancini will be conscious of the fact that last season's title race was far more closely contested than it should have been.

Man Utd

Quite how Man Utd were within seconds of lifting the trophy remains a mystery. Multi-million-pound signing David De Gea's Old Trafford career got off to a decidedly shaky start, though he did grow in confidence once restored to the team following Anders Lindegaard's absence through injury; with Nemanja Vidic laid up long-term, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and the previously imperious Rio Ferdinand all looked fallible; and they were so bereft of central midfield options in January that Taggart had to coax 37-year-old Paul Scholes away from a life of tea, biscuits and Bargain Hunt in front of the fire. Though that move smacked of desperation (and certainly spoke volumes for the quality of the squad), it was completely vindicated as the midfield maestro came close to inspiring the Red Devils to glory once again.

That Man Utd squandered a nine-point lead at the top would have left them smarting enough; that it was their "noisy neighbours" who pipped them to the prize, and in such excruciating circumstances, having already humiliated them 6-1 on their own turf, will be all the inspiration they need to gain revenge in the forthcoming campaign. Taggart's response has been to sign goalscoring midfielders Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund and young prospect Nick Powell from Crewe, and to make aggressive moves for Robin van Persie. If he's able to pair the Dutchman with Wayne Rooney, then Roberto Mancini - and the rest of us - will be justifiably worried.


There might be someone new in the Canaries' manager's office, but the club's transfer policy apparently remains the same: gradually and stealthily sign up the entire Leeds midfield. Skillful playmaker Robert Snodgrass finds himself reunited with Jonny Howson and Bradley Johnson at Carrow Road, while one-time £9m defender Michael Turner has arrived from Sunderland and midfielder Jacob Butterfield from Barnsley. Their new gaffer is Chris Hughton, who we're delighted to see getting another opportunity to manage in the top flight following his decidedly unfortunate experience on Tyneside.

This time last summer many - myself included - were speculating whether two successive promotions would mean that the Premier League was too much too soon for Norwich, but their overwhelmingly British squad exhibited stereotypically British qualities - fight, grit, determination - and no little ability to prove the sceptics wrong. No one epitomised the "Let's be 'avin' you!" spirit more than Grant Holt, the journeyman striker hitting 17 goals and claiming the club's Player of the Year award for the third consecutive season. Contractual wrangles have been ironed out, confirming that his future lies at Carrow Road, and the Canaries' fate once again rests firmly on his broad shoulders.

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Part 2 will follow tomorrow.

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