Standing Still Means Going Backwards
English Premier League season preview Part II
£13 million for a 33-year-old would likely be considered a gamble, even by teams with billionaire bankrollers to rival Roman Abramovich. And the West Londoners’ premier summer signing is going to be spending the season in - or, more often than not, crouched next to - the dugout. New Chelsea coach Andre Villas-Boas is expected to bring a new approach to reinvigorate an aging set of players who might be forever haunted by the memory of European failure. The same core of players who won the club’s first title in 50 years back in 2005, who made World Cup-winner Luiz Felipe Scolari look like a rookie, and appeared for worryingly large chunks of last season as strangers struggling to understand how they had once excelled. Yet, as they proved in forcing their way back into contention, the Chelsea dressing room is nothing if not proud, full of footballing character.
The new Portuguese coach has been hesitant in the transfer market, but look more closely at the pool of players who will line up in blue this year and there are fresh faces there. Daniel Sturridge is ready after blossoming on loan at Bolton; Yossi Benayoun is fit; Fernando Torres must get better. There’s increasing attention on Josh McEachran, a slight adolescent midfielder whose understated passing brings the best out of those around him. Of course, that’s mainly the task that falls upon Villas-Boas, and - he knows his age would be no excuse - it’d be a surprise if Chelsea are not the side who stand up to be the standard-bearers for the south by next May.
Arsenal & Spurs
As for North London rivals Arsenal and Spurs, some mutual sympathy might just have been shared over the summer break. Both have been on the back foot, their attention occupied by trying to hold on to their miniature midfield maestros: Luka Modric, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. Tottenham now have arguably the Premier League’s most reliable goalkeeper, in Brad Friedel, but will struggle to recreate the excitement of last year, either at home or on the continent, in the final season before Harry Redknapp goes to manage England. As for Arsenal, the whispers of dissent that have fluttered around coach Arsene Wenger for the last few years are now growing towards a chorus.
They say that if you want to quickly get to know a country you’ve arrived in, talk to a taxi driver and listen to a radio phone-in. For British football culture, BBC Radio 5 Live’s 606 is unrivalled and, this last weekend - before a competitive ball had even been kicked - Arsenal fans’ frustrations were clear to hear. The question was asked: ‘why would a top player want to go to Arsenal now?’ With ambitions slipping ever backward, it prompted me to think: ‘when will Jack Wilshere no longer think Arsenal is the place for him to be?’
It’s a very different vibe in the red part of Merseyside, and Kenny Daglish’s Liverpool will surely provide a challenge for that fourth Champions League qualifying spot again. More than £50million was spent on the strike force in January, and the midfield - now looking bloated with the additions of Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing - was improved next. They’ve paid over-the-odds for British players, but Daglish will think they’re worth it. He’s doing it the same way he did 20 years ago, and it worked then.
Everton & Aston Villa & Sunderland
Another summer with no big arrivals at Everton, and they - like Aston Villa, who have gained one great attacking talent but lost two others - are in real danger of falling back. Sunderland are showing the way, look to have spent with ambition and wisdom over the summer, and will be targeting a sustained place in the top eight. The underrated David Vaughan was the battery in Blackpool’s watch last year, and will provide stability in a midfield too often shorn of card-prone captain Lee Cattermole. Wes Brown and John O’Shea bring a winning mentality, young Conor Wickham should help ease the goalscoring burden felt by Asamoah Gyan, but it’s the attacking impetus provided by Craig Gardner, the midfield man bought from Birmingham, that I’m most looking forward to seeing.
Newcastle, Fulham & Stoke
Newcastle will rely on a set of new French midfielders to fill the void left by departed captain Kevin Nolan and alienated Joey Barton, and are desperately seeking a striker. Owen Coyle must be sharing those worries at Bolton, having done very little to find replacements for the loss of his two top scorers - Sturridge and Johan Elmander. Everybody’s second favourite manager Martin Jol is back, at Fulham, who also welcome John Arne Riise, but will mostly praying for a fit Bobby Zamora if they are to find another top ten finish. The Europa League is the next step in Stoke’s inexorable rise, but a small squad needs reinforcements if it is to challenge on two fronts. Signing Jonathan Woodgate could be a masterstroke, or he could just get injured again. Tony Pulis normally does most of his shopping in the late sales, so - with two days to go until the start of the season - it’s too early still to judge his squad.
Wise old Roy Hodgson waited until this week to make West Brom's headline signing of the summer, Shane Long arriving from Reading in a deal that could be worth up to £6.5 million. The Irish striker runs tirelessly, but also has a touch worthy of the Premier League, and will be a worthy accomplice for last season's revelation up front, Peter Odemwingie. Loanee goalkeeper Ben Foster will go straight in between the sticks, while the hugely popular Zoltan Gera returns to the club at the back end of his career. Hodgson's arrival spurred the Baggies on to an 11th-place finish in May, and his replenished squad looks ready to kick on and settle comfortably in mid-table.
Midlands neighbours Wolves have similar ambitions, after guaranteeing top-flight survival on the last day of the season. Jamie O'Hara is staying around on a permanent deal after a successful loan period, and Roger Johnson - not cheap and not an easy choice, considering he came from rivals Birmingham City - should shore up the defence.
Wigan & Blackburn
For the other two sides who kept their Premier League starting spots on the final day of the season, upward movement looks less likely. Roberto Martinez's footballing ethos must be applauded at Wigan, but his side have lost Charles N'Zogbia and Tom Cleverley, and gained very little in return. Blackburn slipped ever close to the drop after the already much-maligned Steve Kean took over in December, and that downward momentum will be hard to overcome. After ambitious transfer talk from the Lancashire club's Indian owners, the Venky's, David Goodwillie is not what fans had in mind.
QPR, Norwich & Swansea
The new boys promoted from the Championship are always obvious choices to return there. But QPR, Norwich and Swansea have held on to their key men and spent prudently, without feeling the need to make big-name statement signings. They all promise to do things their own way, and shouldn't fear anyone.
In a busy summer for Premier League cheque books, the teams that have added to and improved their squads will be likely to progress. Of course, making the most out of what you've got - as the likes of David Moyes and Owen Coyle are so good at doing - is worthy of recognition. Consistency and understanding is important, but those who have stood still this summer will find it hard not to slip backwards.
As I write, two days before the scheduled start of the season, only Spurs v Everton has been called off due to the riots and looting which has hit London and other UK cities. Let's hope there's no further trouble to distract us from the kick-off to an intriguingly comptitive Premier League season.
Premier League season preview Part I - Manchester United Raising the Bar
Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: email@example.com