The Mambo’s (Indispensable) Premier League Preview (Part 2)

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 part 2 of The Mambo’s indispensable (brief) team-by-team guide to the 2012/13 Premier League season:

Queens Park Rangers

The Mambo has been none too fond of Mark Hughes’ recent transfer activity yet despite our reasoned, erudite criticism, the Welshman has done little this summer to deflect such doubts. The fanfare which greeted the arrival of ‘global superstar’ Park Ji-Sung was surreal given the South Korean’s advancing years and career built on diligent obedience rather than inspired virtuosity, though QPR have continued to source the over-30s market. Andy Johnson, Robert Green, José Bosingwa, Keiron Dyer and Ryan Nelsen all contribute to the club’s alarmingly high average age although Manchester United loanee Fábio da Silva and Canadian winger Junior Hoilett do their bit to redress the balance. Sadly however, as like Park and Bosingwa, QPR fans may be set to learn with Fábio that attachment to an elite club isn’t necessarily an endorsement of a player’s ability.

Optimism can be found through the return of classy midfield orchestrator Alejandro Faurlín whilst the drive and dynamism of Malian enforcer Samba Diakité was quick to endear him to fans following a January move from Nancy (he’s exactly the type of player The Mambo doesn’t rate but supporters seem to love). Lamentably, Mambo hero Joey Barton appears to have played his last game for the club, with a loan move to Marseille being widely mooted. Further forward, Adel Taarabt maintains his match-winning talent even if the enigmatic Moroccan’s wilfulness sees it rarely exercised with former French international Djibril Cissé offering similar erratic unpredictability, yet his pace and movement should ensure a decent goal-return.

Transfer Dealings: 3.5/10 – Green should prove an upgrade on the country’s most unlikely-looking professional sportsman, Paddy Kenny but the wisdom of Hughes’ other ageing signing is questionable. Hoilett was a rare positive in a wretched Blackburn side last term but doubts of whether his talent was merely relative remain, with his supposedly eye-wateringly exorbitant salary  another concern.

They’ll Finish: Much, much closer to the bottom than the top and relegation shouldn’t be discounted as a distinct possibility, which could prove cataclysmic for a club carrying such a bloated wage-bill. Nonetheless, the midfield partnership of Faurlín and Diakité along with Cissé’s goal may just prove enough…

Reading

In terms of pure talent, Reading have palpably the weakest squad in the division. Quite how much this will concern promising manager Brian McDermott is however debatable, given the improbable run of form which saw roughly the same side overcome stronger opposition to claim the Championship title. Promoted teams have fared reasonably well in recent seasons, though thus far Reading’s only notable squad additions have been target man Pavel Pogrebnyak, defender Adrian Mariappa from Watford and former Newcastle midfielder Danny Guthrie despite the fortune of owner Anton Zingarevich. Pogrebnyak impressed on loan at Fulham last season, displaying an eye for goal thought absent by many who’d judged the Russian a limited trier on the evidence of his Bundesliga performances with Stuttgart and a raft of clubs in his homeland. A repeat of his exploits may prove a tall order, though in Mariappa and the underrated Guthrie, Reading do appear to have strengthened.  Whether that will be enough is unlikely, particularly as inexplicably, the catalyst for last season’s success was the loan signing of Jason Roberts and whilst the Grenadian striker’s move has now been made permanent, his pedigree at this level is far from impressive. More encouraging could be the presence of goalkeeper Adam Federici and winger Jimmy Kebé, who although far from a huge talent, could threaten with his pace. Turkey U-21 Midfield all-rounder Jem Karacan and old-fashioned Latvian centre-half Kaspars Gorkks may also prove themselves worthy of the higher level.

Transfer Dealings: 4/10 – They’ve improved the squad but perhaps not quite enough. Pogrebnyak, on a reported £60k p/w, is something of a gamble.

They’ll Finish:  They’ve tried to approach promotion in the correct manner; staying loyal to those who helped get the club this far and refusing to splurge vast sums on mediocre talent…but it is difficult to see how they can survive. Relegation would seem to beckon.

Southampton

Despite the success of Swansea and Norwich last campaign, newly-promoted Southampton seem widely-touted as certainties for relegation. True, they finished runners-up to Reading but would appear to boast a squad more suited to Premier League football than the Berkshire club. Midfielders Jack Cork, Morgan Schneiderlin and particularly Adam Lallana should have the talent to adapt, along with striker Rickie Lambert. Although now 30 years-old and being what may euphemistically be termed ‘not the most mobile,’ Lambert registered 31 times last season and should take inspiration from Grant Holt’s success in his maiden top-flight campaign. The 2 have enjoyed comparable career trajectories and possess analogous physiques, though it is Lambert who arguably counts on a higher level of technique. Responsibility for finding the back of the net will look to be shared however, with Billy Sharp, a fine football league poacher, looking to prove he is capable of the step-up and Japanese striker Tadanari Lee keen to build on the promising signs of becoming a cult favourite shown before injury curtailed his campaign.

Naturally, Southampton have been active in the transfer market, pouncing to secure Northern Irish midfielder Steven Davis from beleaguered Rangers, as well as manager Nigel Adkins using his knowledge of the lower leagues to sign promising trio Nathaniel Clyne, Jay Rodriguez and Argentine goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga. Rodriguez, at £7m, is perhaps the most eye-catching of the new recruits and will be under pressure to justify such a tag, although his pace and willingness to work the channels should give Southampton a new dimension. Astonishingly, the club also find themselves as surprise front-runners in the race to snare Bologna’s left-winger Gastón Ramírez. An elegant if sometimes infuriating attacker, the Uruguayan is nevertheless blessed with remarkable quality in his left foot and his signature would signal huge ambition whilst representing a significant coup.

Transfer Dealings: 7.5/10 – Every buy signifies progress and improvement, with Davis and Ramírez especially impressive. Interest remains for Vitesse left-back Alexander Buttner (despite the promise of teenager Luke Shaw, the latest talent to emerge from the club’s academy), his arrival and maybe that of a central defender to partner Jos Hooiveld (José Fonte appears a serious weak-link) would cap an exceptional summer in the market.

They’ll Finish: In mid-table. How far up the league they finish may hinge on a couple of defensive re-enforcements but should have the quality elsewhere to ensure safety. Expect some attractive football too.

Stoke City

There are those who claim Stoke City are good for the game. They bring variety, comes the claim. They hark back to those halcyon days when the game was played by Real (British) Men. They embody all of the English game’s traditional virtues. Well, here at The Mambo, we think all that is bollocks, which incidentally is also our opinion of Tony Pulis’ Stoke City. We don’t like them. We don’t like him. In fact, we really don’t like him and would love nothing more than to see Stoke relegated this season, with Pulis consequently sacked from which point he can fuck off to inflict his all-pervading lust for the primitive on St Helens or the Warrington Wolves. Sadly, neither of these scenarios is likely to reach fruition but well, it’s your dreams that keep you free…

Transfer Dealings:  Jamie Ness from Rangers and Wolves winger Michael Kightly are the latest arrivals expected to hit the forwards long and quick.

They’ll Finish:  Unfortunately, probably outside the bottom 3, although sporadic flirtations with the drop should be expected. They’ll most likely be in the bottom-half but just not quite as low as all the kind people hope.

Sunderland

John Terry aside, Martin O’Neill is perhaps the most vilified man in the Mambo’s brief but distinguished history. Typically, his Sunderland squad does not boast outstanding quality, with Benin dribbler Stéphane Sességnon perhaps the only standout individual, in a squad bigger on enervation than inspiration. Thus far, only the underwhelming Carlos Cuellar and Louis Saha have arrived with O’Neill known to habitually leave his transfer activity until the 11th hour, at which point a raft of prosaic, British-based cloggers will inevitably be panicked through the doors. The end of the much-maligned Nicklas Bendtner’s loan spell and the avarice-engineered switch to the Gulf of Asamoah Gyan leaves Sunderland woefully short of attacking options, a position not especially improved by the acquisition of the gifted though injury-plagued Louis Saha.  Much is expected of burgeoning winger James McClean and the Irishman certainly fits the O’Neill template; quick, energetic and eager to get the ball in the box from wide but he remains a very raw talent with subtlety and link-play not (yet) in his arsenal.

Transfer Dealings: 2.5/10 – Vintage O’Neill; with the season starting, Sunderland’s dealings seem incomplete and further movement should be expected. Saha could prove an inspired signing and there is little doubt that when fit, the Frenchman has been a formidable forward but equally, it would surprise no-one should the 34 year-old’s impact be blunted by injury and age.

They’ll Finish: Mired in the bottom-half, with a relegation scrap a very real prospect. The squad lacks quality and a new striker must be seen as essential.

Swansea City

Impartial as ever, following on from a couple of clubs (well managers, really – The Mambo has nothing against Sunderland or Stoke City per se) we’d quite like to see struggle this season, comes one we would dearly love to enjoy marked success. Brendan Rodgers did wonderfully well in implementing a cohesive philosophy at the club but it is the arrival of his successor, the incomparable Dane Michael Laudrup, at the heart of The Mambo’s goodwill. Despite unease stemming from his lack of longevity throughout his managerial career, in reality the Dane’s departures have been aggravated by internal interference, with spells at Getafe and Mallorca particularly promising.

The former Barcelona genius  is unlikely to oversee any radical changes in playing style at the Welsh club, though his plans will undoubtedly be somewhat disrupted by Swansea’s inability to retain on-loan Gylfi Sigurdsson and the loss of rising star Joe Allen to Rodgers’ Liverpool. Nonetheless, the arrivals of Canadian creator Jonathan de Guzman (who enjoyed a fine season with Laudrup at Mallorca) and Michu should go some way to off-setting the deficit. Michu in particular is something of a coup; an intelligent, technical attacking midfielder whose 15 goals for struggling Rayo Vallecano last time out give his £2m fee the look of a remarkable bargain. With the remainder of last season’s spine – impressive goalkeeper Michel Vorm, defender Ashley Williams, midfield metronome Leon Britton and striker Danny Graham, whose burden should be lightened by incoming Israeli Itay Shechter - still in place, Laudrup should be confident of another notable campaign.

Transfer Activity: 6.5/10 – Sigurdsson’s goals and class meant it was always going to be difficult for a club of Swansea’s stature to maintain the Icelander, yet in Michu, a suitable replacement may have been identified. Likewise, although perhaps a more attacking player de Guzman may well be expected to fill Joe Allen’s role although his £15m fee could see Laudrup re-enter the market.

They’ll Finish:  In mid-table. Last season’s 11th place may prove just out-of-reach but Swansea’s neat football should steer them to safety without too many anxious moments.

Tottenham Hotspur

Once again, Spurs start the season harmed by their chairman’s brinksmanship. Daniel Levy’s stoic determination to wring the highest possible fee out of Real Madrid for wantaway playmaker Luka Modric sees the newly-appointed André Villas-Boas, perhaps the league’s most under-pressure boss, entering the season with an incomplete squad. Modric’s on-going transfer saga sees the Croatian magician presumably unavailable, which coupled with Scott Parker’s injury leaves the team struggling in central midfield. Supposed interest in Joao Moutinho, the midfield brain of Villas-Boas’ all-conquering Porto team, will fail to materialise into something more tangible whilst Modric’s future is unresolved but should the Portuguese playmaker arrive, he should prove an able successor to the Croat. Elsewhere, Emmanuel Adebayor’s greed and egotism appears set to have scuppered any hope Spurs had of turning his loan spell into something more lasting which leaves Jermain Defoe, a man who should only be considered a squad option at this level, as the club’s only recognised striker. Internacional’s Brazilian forward Leandro Damiao continues to be linked but with his club having sold Oscar to Chelsea for around £25m, there is no imperative to sell.

On the other hand, those who have arrived at White Hart Lane look exciting captures. Belgian Jan Vertonghen should prove a classy, ball-playing defender more than capable of following retired fans’ darling Ledley King. Further forward, Gylfi Sigurdsson brings with him technique, intelligence, dead ball expertise and goals, although the hope is that his arrival doesn’t marginalise the sublimely-talented Rafael van der Vaart. Sadly however, the Dutchman may not have the mobility to align with Villas-Boas’ preference for intense pressing, a feature which may also harm the prospects of Tom Huddlestone.

Transfer Dealings: 5/10 – Tricky one to gauge as those who have actually arrived look promising. However, the self-defeating reluctance to cede Modric has disrupted Villas-Boas’ plans and at least 1 striker is desperately required.

They’ll Finish:  Tough to call with key personnel movements looking imminent, as they are, a top 6 place may prove the summit of their ambitions.

West Bromwich Albion

Roy Hodgson’s tactical strait-jacket appeared to have the Albion established in the Premier League’s middle-order, with finishes of 10th and 11th in the past 2 seasons testament to their solidity. With Hodgson taking on the game’s most futile role however, the club have trusted Steve Clarke with his 1st taste of life as a head coach. Burnishing his reputation as a talented assistant alongside the malevolent José Mourinho at Chelsea, Clarke will now hope to confirm his credentials as a manager. With highly-rated technical director Dan Ashworth working alongside him at a sensible, well-run club, the conditions appear perfect for Clarke to cut his teeth. In Ben Foster (whose loan has been made permanent), Jonas Olsson, Youssuf Mulumbu, Chris Brunt and Peter Odemwingie, Clarke inherits a side with solid, Premier League-level talent across most positions and the additions of Markus Rosenberg, Yassine El Ghanassy and Claudio Yacob should complement that. Chelsea’s hulking teenage striker Romelu Lukaku is an interesting loan signing, as he will endeavour to exhibit that his reputation is predicated on genuine goalscoring flair rather than precocious physical development.  Playmaker Graham Dorrans, a star in West Brom’s promotion campaign of 2009/10, will be hoping that his Scottish compatriot Clarke will show the faith in him that he never really enjoyed under Hodgson.

Transfer Dealings 6/10 – Foster is a sound buy in goal whilst Argentine midfield all-rounder Yacob, Swedish poacher Rosenberg and fancy-dan winger El-Ghanassy all appear to imbue the squad with something a little different. The Mambo is yet to be convinced by Lukaku’s hype but should that be a miscalculation on our part, he could make a huge impact at the Hawthorns.

They’ll Finish:  Last season’s 10th will most likely not be repeated and with Clarke learning on the job, West Brom could well become embroiled in a relegation battle. Still, they should have enough about them to keep their heads above the water.

West Ham

A pair of duplicitous shysters and a self-serving, staggeringly arrogant fat goon; David Gold and David Sullivan deserve Sam Allardyce just as much as he deserves them. Promoted through the back-door despite the expectation of doing so automatically and with a fanbase growing disenchanted with his uncouth style of play, Allardyce still ultimately achieved his goal of promotion. And for him, that is all that matters. The end justifies the means and an unswerving attachment to direct football shall forever be inherent. Losing goalkeeper Rob Green to QPR was unquestionably a blow, less because Green is particularly gifted than as it forces a reliance on 37 year-old Jussi Jaaskelainen but West Ham preserve some decent footballers. Player of the year Mark Noble along with fellow academy graduate Jack Collison undoubtedly have the class to play at this level, as does Gary O’Neill. Questions however, preside over Carlton Cole and The Mambo does not share Allardyce’s confidence in Ricardo Vaz Te. To that end, West Ham have recruited striker Modibo Maiga. A flaky presence who last year reacted to Sochaux’s reluctance to sell him by going on strike, the Malian nevertheless hit 24 goals in 59 games for his former club. West Ham’s other buys are classic Allardyce; basic defender James Collins re-joins from Aston Villa and physical, tough-tackling midfielders Alou Diarra and Mohamed Diamé have also been added.

Transfer Activity: 4/10 – Nothing to really capture the imagination and the signings of Diarra and Diamé are indicative of the dreary football Allardyce intends to serve up. Maiga is a definite upgrade but worries emanate from his failure to pass a medical which would have sealed a move to Newcastle last January.

They’ll Finish:  Near the bottom. There are worse teams in the league but not too many and they’ll likely spend the season looking anxiously over their shoulders.

Wigan Athletic

Wigan ‘boast’ perhaps the Premier League’s biggest espouser of irritating drivel in chairman Dave Whelan but by the same token, the sportswear tycoon has bankrolled his local club to a level far outside their natural position and engendered an unswerving loyalty from likeable manager Roberto Martinez. The Spaniard has cultivated a squad full of tidy technicians (James McArthur, James McCarthy, Ben Watson, Jordi Gómez, Shuan Maloney) but one lacking in defensive solidity and cutting edge, an environment on which relegation battles thrive. Victor Moses, a winger whose goal and assist output has been average yet a player who looks like he may develop into something more decisive has attracted scouts from Chelsea and should the quoted figure of £10m materialise, he should be sold without a second’s thought. In the other direction, high hopes surround striker Arouna Koné after 15 goals for surprise La Liga package Levante last season but that excitement should be tempered by the Ivorian’s wretched record (1 goal in 40 appearances) following a £10m move to Sevilla. Also new to Wigan are Spanish defender Iván Ramis, teenage Scottish midfielder Fraser Fyvie (who has been likened to Paul Scholes) and perhaps most excitingly, Japanese winger Ryo Miyaichi on a season-long loan from Arsenal.

Transfer Activity: 5/10 – A club of Wigan’s size are never likely to attract major coups and operating within such parameters, Martinez has done reasonably well. Much will hinge on Koné’s impact.

They’ll Finish: This could well prove Wigan’s 8th and final season at this level. Miyaichi and Koné could drive the club to safety but unless those 2 adapt swiftly, the firepower simply isn’t forthcoming in the shape of Franco di Santo or Connor Sammon. Argentine Mauro Boselli, returning from a temporary switch back to his homeland, is a penalty-box operator who thrives on a service unlikely to be provided. Losing midfield battler Mohamed Diamé to West Ham will also put pressure on a defence which looks amongst the league’s weakest.

DC

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