LS Sport’s James Dutton looks at Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Newcastle and Norwich in the second of our four-part Premier League season preview…
What would Liverpool fans give for a quiet season of assured progress? In 2009-10 the club was wracked by the gradual dismantling of Rafa Benitez’s empire; Champions League implosion led to a deterioration in domestic league form which has been seemingly irreversible since. The following season was undermined from the onset by poor decisions in the transfer market, political intrigue in the board-room and even worse leadership from current England boss Roy Hodgson. The return of ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish in January last year brought a short-lived renaissance before the 2011-12 capitulated in the wake of the regrettable controversy between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra.
New manager, Brendan Rodgers, will hope to avoid such seismic instability; but it is in the nature of a sleeping giant to attract headlines. The former Swansea boss has been swiftly embraced by a silverware-hungry fan-base, who are eager to witness the fruits of his tiki-taka philosophy. The shrewd acquisition of Joe Allen bears testament to the Northern-Irishman’s commitment to possession-based football, a return to the so-called ‘Liverpool Way.’
Despite suffering their worst season since relegation in 1954, a glance at the spine of Liverpool’s first eleven suggests that there is enough to at least challenge for a top-four finish, however unrealistic it may seem. The backbone of Reina, Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, Lucas, Gerrard and Suarez is settled and consistent. The return of Lucas Leiva will aid the Reds’ progress significantly; prior to his injury in November last year Liverpool averaged 1.77 points per game, which fell to 1.16 for the rest of the season.
It is imperative that the Merseysiders keep Daniel Agger, whose ball-playing ability will be intrinsic to Rodgers’ philosophy and whose mere presence in the side has raised Martin Skrtel’s performance levels considerably. If Suarez is able to stay free of controversy and Rodgers can provide him with a framework in which he can flourish, the team can transform attacking flair into substantial results.
A rude awakening is in store if the club is to improve on a disappointing 8th place finish in 2011-12 however, with their first three home games coming against Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United.
Now that the Blue Moon has risen and Manchester City have claimed their first league triumph in 44 years, Roberto Mancini will find the pressure at Eastlands increase inexorably this season. To revert from title-challengers to title-holders is an immeasurable psychological transformation that has seen just Manchester United and Chelsea successfully defend their Premier League trophy.
City’s activities in the transfer-market during the close-season have been conspicuously quiet, a stark contrast from their continual forays in recent years, which is symptomatic of the problem – how do you improve on being Premier League champions? Only Jack Rodwell has been added to the Champions’ squad, but Mancini, who has been outspoken in his concerns at a perceived lack of investment, has hinted that there will be more before the end of the transfer window. Talk that the Italian is seeking to improve on his abundance of attacking options – Silva, Aguero, Balotelli, Tevez, Dzeko, Nasri and Yaya Toure – will frighten defences and managers over the country and across the continent.
The base of their title defence, however, will emerge from their defensive solidity, spearheaded by unflappable club captain Vincent Kompany. When Kompany plays City tend not to concede, whilst his influence has allowed Joleon Lescott to perform with such consistency; City are much the poorer when Kompany is sidelined.
Despite winning the title last season, there is considerable room for improvement, particularly a need to translate their impressive form at the Etihad away from home. Last season City became just the third side in Premier League history to claim 55 out of 57 points available at home, whilst their lamentable slump in away form after Christmas (3 goals and 7 points in 3 months) almost scuppered their title challenge.
Yet, City undoubtedly approach the new season as the team to beat. Of the sides who make up the top four they are the most settled, with strength in depth and now possess that priceless winning experience, as evidenced by the 10 goals they scored in stoppage time last season – far exceeding that of any other team.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges were functional without being irresistible last season, yet came within seconds of claiming a 20th league championship. The 70 year-old Ferguson is acutely aware that he is approaching the end of his dynasty at Old Trafford; having knocked Liverpool off their perch, defeated Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles and postponed Roman Abramovich’s empire, the Noisy Neighbours over in Eastlands represent the last challenge.
United’s recent capture of last season’s Player of the Year and Golden Boot winner, Robin van Persie, will placate fans concerned at the lack of marquee signings in recent seasons. The prospect of the 30-goal Dutchman partnering the 27-goal Wayne Rooney in attack, with Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez in reserve is mouth-watering.
Although Ferguson has failed to strengthen United’s under-strength midfield engine-room, he will be significantly buoyed by Tom Cleverley’s return to fitness and Darren Fletcher’s protracted return to professional football after illness. Yet all is not well behind the scenes at Old Trafford; a lack of investment in the transfer market led to Paul Scholes’ mid-season return from retirement, whilst the club’s shares are currently floating on the stock-exchange. With this in mind, it is staggering that Ferguson has splashed out £24million on a 29-year old, injury-prone striker.
The arrival of Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund will provide further competition for places in attack, alongside Ashley Young, Nani and the imperious Antonio Valencia. In defence, the return of talismanic skipper Nemanja Vidic will add some much needed stability to a backline that was continually shifted around in the last campaign – especially in goal where Anders Lindegaard and David de Gea seemed to be in a permanent audition process. Patrice Evra, however, has shown increasing defensive vulnerability whilst Rio Ferdinand’s physical frailty is likely to expose Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones more than Ferguson would perhaps desire.
There is a growing sense that this United side is currently in limbo, waiting for the old guard, Giggs and Scholes, to retire and waiting for the young pretenders to mature, but with the evergreen Ferguson in charge another title challenge is seemingly inevitable.
Last season’s surprise package Newcastle United threatened to upset the odds and achieve Champions League qualification, and will hope for similar extraordinary feats this term. Murmurs that the bubble would burst last season never materialised, but accusations that they punched above their weight have not disappeared. This season the pressure is on Alan Pardew and his well-assembled, multi-national squad. At present, the club is surrounded by optimism rather than scepticism, but the infamously insatiable Toon Army supporters should keep their expectations realistic. Though Newcastle have not made many significant inroads into the transfer market this summer it is believed that the Dutch defensive midfielder Vurnon Anita is close to signing from Ajax.
Pardew has rekindled the attractive, attacking style of football that the Magpies were famed for under Kevin Keegan in the mid 1990s, but has combined this with defensive steel and grit. The flamboyance provided by Hatem Ben Arfa is supported by the industry of Yohan Cabaye and the power of Cheick Tiote.
Undoubtedly their strength lies in attack, where Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse were prolific in the first and second half of the season respectively. Pardew however must discover a formula that can bring the best out of them as a strike force. Ba was often forced out wide in the latter stages of last season to accommodate his Senegalese strike partner, though Cisse proved prolific, notching 13 strikes in just 14 appearances.
The Toon’s most apparent weakness lies in the heart of defence where they enter the season with just 3 recognised central defenders – the injury prone Steven Taylor, the erratic, yet surprisingly consistent during 2011-12, Fabricio Coloccini and the unheralded Mike Williamson. In Tim Krul, however, Newcastle have the league’s fastest improving goalkeeper.
Though Newcastle have not weakened over the close season, their rivals have strengthened – particularly Chelsea and Liverpool. As talented as their first team may be, Pardew’s side lacks sufficient depth to be able to cope with the demands of back-to-back action in the Europa and Premier League.
Another of last season’s surprise stories, Norwich confounded the critics who believed their back-to-back promotions would prove a false dawn by finishing comfortably mid-table and avoiding the dreaded relegation scrap. Canaries supporters, however, will feel rightly miffed that the architect of their success, Paul Lambert, has promptly jumped ship to a stagnant Aston Villa.
In Chris Hughton, though, Norwich have appointed a manager with a degree of pedigree, which is married to an eagerness to prove himself at the highest level, which was cruelly robbed from him by Mike Ashley.
Hughton has made a few forays into the transfer market, bringing in Steven Whittaker from the wreckage of Rangers and Jacob Butterfield from Barnsley. The most important signing, though, will prove to be the re-commitment of skipper Grant Holt on a three-year deal. Not only was the Englishman the club’s top scorer last season with 15 goals, but he proved to have the appetite for the big occasion, scoring against each of the top eight sides.
With a supporting cast of Wes Hoolahan, Anthony Pilkington and Jonny Howson, Norwich will look to consolidate on their emergence as one of the more dynamic and attack-minded mid-table sides. Confidence may be high after their sterling performances under Lambert last season, but the real danger is that Norwich have peaked. It is important that the club does not panic if results are not easily forthcoming in the early stages of the season, or else a douse of second-season syndrome could befall them.
Words: James Dutton