The Mambo’s (Indispensable) Premier League Preview (Part 1)

As all the good people know, The Premier League is not the world’s greatest league. It’s not the most exciting and it certainly isn’t the most technical. But we’ve missed it. The European Championships and Olympics may have ensured that the yearning for the season’s start is perhaps less pronounced than in most summers but nonetheless, this weekend will bring with it a particular sense of excitement.

Still, with the campaign’s dawning imminent, several clubs are left with several issues still to address and a fair few enduring transfer sagas are yet to reach their conclusion. Predictably, a few of them involve Tottenham. The deadline for dealings may be a fortnight away and of course, much can rest on the odd tweak here and there but with the lay of the land as it is presently, here is the first part of The Mambo’s indispensable (brief) team-by-team guide to the 2012/13 Premier League season:

Arsenal

Difficult one this. For the second successive season, Arsenal have sold their captain, talisman and best player but unlike last campaign, moves were taken early to address perceived weaknesses and offset potential departures. Van Persie’s move to Manchester constitutes a major blow but in reality, the reported £23m fee was too good to refuse. In his stead come Olivier Giroud, whose 21 goals propelled unfancied Montpellier to the Ligue 1 title last year, Lukas Podolski, who despite being far from a Mambo favourite, offers a wealth of experience whilst his pace and directness should suit his new surroundings and most excitingly, Spanish schemer Santi Cazorla. Such dealings must represent a net gain despite their skipper’s exit and should rumours that Alex Song, a fine enforcer whose game is harmed by delusions of playmaking grandeur, could be off to Barcelona (strange one) with Yann M’Vila or Nuri Sahin (although a very different player) set to replace him prove true, Arsenal will have enjoyed an exceptionally productive summer. Jack Wilshere’s autumn return should also prove very welcome.

Transfer Dealings: 6.5/10 – They’ve improved but losing your star man to your rivals must be factored in.

They’ll finish: Top 4 – The spine of the side is exceptionally strong and provided they can arrest the dreadful run of luck suffered with injuries, a place within the top 3 should be theirs.

Aston Villa

The mere fact that Paul Lambert isn’t Alex Mcleish sees optimism abound around Villa Park. Still, whilst it’s true that the former Norwich boss should preside over a somewhat more progressive brand of the game than the listless dross offered up by his predecessor, such buoyancy is largely baseless. Inheriting a squad short on depth and woefully lacking in quality, Lambert has added only Eredivisie journeymen and a League 1 full-back to the mix. Stephen Ireland and Barry Bannan remain Villa’s most accomplished technicians but the former has lacked the focus that saw him touted amongst the league’s finest midfielders and the latter is yet to enjoy a manager’s full trust. The club’s academy may be amongst the country’s most productive but many recent graduates are yet to establish whether their places are the product of ability or necessity.

Transfer Dealings: 5/10 – Solid, probably improved the squad but nothing worthy of any great enthusiasm.

They’ll Finish:  Lower-mid-table if Lambert is all he is alleged to be but will be in for a relegation scrap if he is merely a good manager. Either way, the pressure on Darren Bent to carry the scoring burden will be huge.

Chelsea

Another tough one to call. The European champions have sought to add some panache to their pragmatism with some eye-catching signings, burgeoning Belgian creator Eden Hazard and cerebral Brazilian playmaker Oscar chief amongst them. The club continue to be linked with vastly over-rated Wigan winger Victor Moses, speculation which does little to dispel the fear that Chelsea’s transfer policy rests on Roman Abramovich getting his cheque book out to secure anyone he’s seen perform a few step-overs on youtube. In concentrating so keenly on expressive talent, the fear is that Chelsea are perhaps short in central midfield and certainly at right-back (although Marseille’s Cesar Azpillicueta is thought to be on-radar) whilst huge faith is being invested in Fernando Torres rediscovering the glorious form shown prior to his switch to Stamford Bridge. Doubts too rest on the shoulders of manager Roberto Di Matteo, whose role as interim coach inescapably grew into something more permanent following his barely plausible Champions’ League success. That said, a repeat of last term’s luck would appear the stuff of fantasy.

Transfer Dealings: 6/10 – Highly ambitious, expensive buys have arrived and whilst few questions will be raised of the new recruits’ quality,  the result does seem to be a somewhat unbalanced squad.

They’ll Finish: Top 4. Just. And possibly only after Di Matteo’s departure.

Everton

Notoriously slow-starters, Everton should however enter the season with justifiable confidence. Having moved early to secure a decent squad option in Steven Naismith and more conspicuously, making Steven Pienaar’s temporary contract permanent, the Merseysiders have also managed to hold onto the likes of Nikica Jelavic, Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini. Admittedly, Jack Rodwell has left, though the England midfielder’s promise has stalled somewhat and Everton’s strong late-season form was achieved with Rodwell out injured. Such a sale suggests that unusually, David Moyes has money to spend and his interest in Olympiakos’ versatile Belgian attacker Kevin Miralles seems typically sensible. This season could also see the breakthrough of hotly-tipped teenage midfielder Ross Barkley.

Transfer Dealings: 7/10 – £12m for Rodwell was excellent business and Evertonians will hope that at least part of that can be invested in furnishing a fine first team with more quality and depth.

They’ll Finish: Somewhere between 5th and 8th, with their ability to address the habitual early-season sluggishness determining how high they can go.

Fulham

The remaining fortnight of the summer transfer market could have a fundamental impact of Fulham’s campaign. Liverpool’s interest in last season’s star Clint Dempsey is well-documented whilst classy Belgian Moussa Dembelé claims Real Madrid are lurking and although the former is perhaps unlikely to repeat his 17 league goals and the latter doesn’t deploy his lavish technical gifts quite as efficiently as he might, both are key performers for Fulham. Free transfers Mladen Petric and Hugo Rodallega may prove inspired forward captures, though neither is likely to perform with the consistency that would elevate Fulham out of mid-table. German international right-back Sascha Reither should prove a reliable addition, though he too is hardly a stellar signing. With the new recruits failing to really capture the imagination, responsibility will fall on languid, sometimes brilliant Costa Rican Bryan Ruiz to establish himself as the club’s chief creator, with Pajtim Kasami perhaps looking to occupy the midfield metronome role previously filled by the departed Danny Murphy. Kasami’s Swiss compatriot Kerim Frei and Swedish winger Alexander Kacaniklic will also be looking to build on last year’s promise.

Transfer Dealings: 5/10 – Pretty uninspiring thus far, though any firm interest in Dempsey could precipitate a flurry of late activity.

They’ll Finish:  Provided the squad stays as it, roughly where they did last season. Comfortable mid-table.

Liverpool

Memories of the ‘big 4’ must seem pretty distant now. The reckless and woefully ill-conceived spending of the Dalglish-Comolli axis has left Liverpool further adrift from the Premier League elite than since the dark days of Graeme Souness’ tenure and prospects of re-entering the lucrative prestige of the Champions’ League this forthcoming season are remote. Nevertheless, Liverpool will kick-off the campaign with cause for cautious optimism. Dalglish’s anachronistic reign has ended to be replaced by the thoroughly modern philosophies of Brendan Rodgers, who so impressed instilling Swansea City with a fluent, patient passing style. His signings may have been a little unimaginative, as former charges Fabio Borini and Joe Allen arrive for a combined fee of around £25m but both should prove shrewd signings. On the other hand, it was perhaps disappointing to see Alberto Aquilani exit so unceremoniously and the trio of Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez and Craig Bellamy could perhaps all have offered something over the course of the season. Still, with Rodgers the emphasis seems very much on youth, so expect greater involvement from midfield all-rounder Jonjo Shelvey and skilful yet terribly raw teenage winger Raheem Sterling. For all their troubles at times last season, in Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Lucas (back from long-term injury), Steven Gerrard and especially, the mercurial Luis Suarez, Liverpool’s squad does boast serious quality.

Transfer Dealings: 6/10 – Borini’s predatory instincts are most welcome alongside the brilliant but sometimes wasteful Suarez whilst Allen ensure a greater control of possession.

They’ll Finish:  Between 5th and 7th, lacking the depth for a serious Champions’ League challenge but the spine is strong and should the squad buy into Rodgers’ ideas, a season of progress should ensue.

Manchester City

Roberto Mancini may garner little sympathy in questioning his club’s lack of transfer activity this summer given the lavish spending of previous pre-seasons but the Italian certainly has a point. Having secured the title in implausibly dramatic circumstances last time out, the expectation was that City would be out to signal their intent of not only retaining their crown but mounting a serious bid for continental supremacy with a couple of considered, headline captures. Thus far however, incoming only has been Everton’s stagnant promise Jack Rodwell, making for a truly underwhelming summer. Inevitably, those surplus to requirements require removing from the wage bill before reinforcements can be added yet even more inevitable is the contemptible Emmanuel Adebayor’s avarice delaying his departure. Wayne Bridge has left on loan but Roque Santa Cruz, along with perhaps Kolo Touré, Adam Johnson, Dedryck Boyata, Edin Dzeko and Nigel de Jong could all be off-loaded and the club’s inability to attract suitors continues to understandably frustrate Mancini. Of course, the Italian’s squad remains formidable and the core of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, David Silva and Sergio Aguero is the league’s strongest. Carlos Tevez’s realisation that one so talented and so lavishly remunerated should maybe show more interest in actually playing football is another major plus, particularly given the understanding he is developing with compatriot Aguero. That partnership looks set to keep the petulant and astonishingly over-hyped Mario Balotelli on the bench. Another plus point.

Transfer Dealings: 0/10, poor show from a club from whom so much more was expected. The arrival of a player unlikely to be missed by Everton is hardly indicative of a happy summer. A top-class, deep-lying midfield creator, a wide forward and a central defender should all in The Mambo’s humble opinion be sought. An inability to alter personnel has been Mancini experiment with a back 3, a formation enjoying something of a resurgence in his native Italy, yet despite the increased variety such changes engender, the fact remains that the club has stalled over the summer.

They’ll Finish: 2nd. A quiet window has surrendered the initiative across Manchester. So far, at least.

Manchester United

Just as Manchester City fans dared dream of dynasties, United immediately seek to dismiss such reverie. Supposedly operating under the restrictions brought about by the enormous debt inflicted by the Glazer family, Sir Alex Ferguson has nonetheless secured the coup of the summer with the shock signature of Arsenal’s Robin van Persie. Prior to the Dutchman’s arrival it had been standard United-under-the-Glazers-fare – freewheeling Japanese attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa was snared from German champions Borussia Dortmund and the football league’s most coveted talent, Nick Powell, arrived from Crewe. Both are young, versatile performers whose profiles perfected suited the club’s vision. Van Persie however is different. 29 years-old with little or no sell-on potential, the Dutchman must be viewed as a signal of intent and an attacking trio of he, talisman Wayne Rooney and Kagawa is indeed a exceptional prospect.

Still, questions must be raised as to whether another forward was a priority for a side already equipped with Rooney, Javier Hernández, Danny Welbeck and for now, Dimitar Berbatov. Although both are now approaching fitness, the injury/illness travails of Darren Fletcher and Anderson should surely have made a dynamic central midfield presence take precedence. Instead, huge and perhaps unrealistic pressure shall be showered upon the inexperienced Tom Cleverley whilst uber-veterans Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are expected to maintain consistent contributions alongside the under-rated, though sometimes ponderous Michael Carrick. Defensively, the return of the inspirational Nemanja Vidic could prove massive although question marks hang over the ageing Rio Ferdinand and the sometimes naïve Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Rafael, giving (perhaps surprisingly) Johnny Evans a potentially key role. In goal, David De Gea’s inauguration into English football was at times tough but the young Spaniard should  emerge a better player this season.

Transfer Dealings: 8/10 – Key areas have once again been neglected but as a statement of intent, van Persie is enormous. Kagawa could well be the signing of the summer. The lack of interest in the brilliant and clearly available Berbatov is depressing, however.

They’ll Finish: As champions. Beaten only on the final day last season, with Vidic back and great quality added in attack, United start (somewhat unsatisfactorily) as The Mambo’s title favourites.

Newcastle United

This time last year, we were keen to extol the virtues of a Newcastle side thought to be in decline following a raft of high-profile sales. Fear not, we explained, their replacements are largely more distinguished footballers. Happily for Newcastle fans, the like of Yohan Cabaye, Papiss Cissé, David Santon and Hatem Ben Arfa remain. Even Demba Ba, he of the infamous £7m release clause remains on Tyneside (albeit as a possible consequence of an equally infamous knee complaint). As such, Newcastle’s summer has been one of fine-turning rather than last season’s revolution, with Dutch utility man Vurnon Anita and Romain Amalfitano, younger brother of France international Morgan, acquired to add class as well as depth to an impressive squad that manager Alan Pardew hopes will contain Lille and France right back Mathieu Debuchy come September 1st. Tim Krul has earned a rightful reputation amongst the league’s top custodians, just as Fabricio Coloccini and Cheikh Tioté have become renowned for their drive and consistency. Burgeoning creative types Haris Vuckic and Mehdi Abeid will hope to add to Newcastle’s competition for places, as will recent arrival from Coventry City, Gael Bigirimana, a teenage midfielder whose style has been likened to that of Michael Essien.

Transfer Dealings: 6/10 – As solid and unspectacular as they needed to be. Newcastle have the basis of a good, settled squad and as the vultures are yet to disrupt that, there is little need from within the club to do so.

They’ll Finish: Like Everton, probably between 5th and 8th. Not quite got the class for anything above that but any thoughts of a crashing return to reality after last season’s 5th place finish should be dismissed.

Norwich City

The esteemed JC, by some distance these pages most prolific and most insightful contributor, insists that Chris Hughton is the finest manager in the history of his beloved Birmingham City. Now at the helm of Norwich City, he’ll need to display all of that nous this coming season. His predecessor, Paul Lambert, did wonderfully well in guiding his hotchpotch of lower-league journeymen to an impressive 12th place finish in their return to the top-flight but such (relatively) dizzy heights may prove unobtainable this time around. Leading marksman Grant Holt may have somewhat tarnished his hero status at Carrow Road in handing in a misguided transfer request in May but despite club and player now reconciled (once it had been made abundantly clear that Lambert would not be taking Holt with him to the Midlands), it will in all likelihood prove too much to expect a repeat of last season’s 15 goal haul. That said, his midfield supply line of Irish duo Wes Hoolahan and the ever-improving Anthony Pilkington has been added to with 2 of The Championship’s most accomplished technicians, in ex-Barnsley playmaker Jacob Butterfield and wonderfully-named winger Robert Snodgrass, formerly of Leeds United.

It is defensively however, where Norwich struggled most under Lambert despite the presence of recent England debutant John Ruddy in goal. The January capture of Ryan Bennett improved matters slightly and Hughton will be hopeful of the England U-21 man forming a solid partnership with new recruit from Sunderland, Michael Turner. Still, even should the defence becomes less porous, the worry of who will ease the scoring burden from 31 year-old Holt remains.

Transfer Policy 5.5/10 – The likes ofButterfield and Snodgrass may have looked the part at a lower level but it is difficult to gauge what impact they can make in the Premier League, especially as neither really possesses the pace often (lamentably) thought a pre-requisite for this level.

They’ll Finish – Certainly lower than they did last season, with a relegation fight almost a certainty and unless the likes of James Vaughan and Steven Morison can provide a few goals, they’re going down.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Honest Preview of the season to come #avfc « Aston Villa News and Views

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