The bullet’s merciful passage through the Emirates Cup and similar friendly match competitions marks yet another transition to the unofficial arrival of late summer. Accompanying the ominous return of shortening days and premiere of countless television shows doomed to fail, fortunately, is the advent of a new Premier League season.
Particularly in the context of American sports landscape, Premier League club aspirations seldom fail to transcend the realities of economic mobility: the privileged and bandwagoners alike dream of top four finishes and league titles, several more visualize the hand of fate that reveals a top-10 table finish, and the remainder simply hope for survival in the 1% cavalcade of Premier League television deals.
Will the embarrassment of riches, shared among those wanting hardware (Arsenal, Manchester Blue/Red, Chelsea) to those hardly wanting (newly promoted sides, teams that begin with “West”) lead to a vague return of parity not seen since the late 1980s/early 1990s? Probably not. While FFP has finally flexed its might (albeit with the unrelenting force of a thick rubber band), club prestige, ability of top clubs to consistently secure satisfactory ROIs, and the intrinsic pulls of corporate sponsorship appears to scrawl out a league plutocracy for the foreseeable future.
Upstream and Downstream in the Mid-Major Channel
The greatest hope for the return of club equality rests in the continued ability of mid-major clubs to loosen the clasps on league control through superb player development, resource allocation, and management. Everton and Southampton, despite the latter’s unceremonious fade in the season’s second half, projected this formula in the 2013-14 season.
Despite its furious accumulation of capital through sale of top players at or above market value, Southampton has gone from the club equivalent of a 3d printer to a floored venture capital project. While the team’s (at the time) current talent level only accounted for an 8th place finish in the league last year, the Saints – as recently as two months ago – was flush with young talent. Flush.
First blood was marked by Coach Mauricio Pochettino’s agreement to sign with Tottenham. A few days later, Ricky Lambert’s £4 million transfer to Liverpool was finalized. Even at that early stage, there was no real harm done. But then…
Luke Shaw. £30 million plus to Manchester United. Gone.
Adam Lallana. £25 million to Liverpool. Gone.
Dejan Lovren. £20 million to Liverpool.Gone.
Calum Chambers. £16 million to Arsenal. Gone.
The remaining club photographs of the former Saints growing up through the various youth teams, promotional posters, leftover bobbleheads, etc. that were scattered throughout the St. Mary’s clubhouse and stadium? Liverpool took those too. They’re Brendan Rodgers’s memories now.
On the other hand, you see Everton rising like a phoenix from Tottenham’s 5th place ashes and preparing for another strong campaign. And why not? Securing Romelu Lukaku’s services for the foreseeable future, locking up Gareth Barry and Seamus Coleman, signing Muhamed Besic to join Barry and James McCarthy at the pit of midfield, and welcoming back Darren Gibson and Arouna Kone* from long-term injury spells are all what us football pundits like to call “good things.”
*If Kone stays healthy and returns to 100% fitness, he will provide much improved cover for Romelu Lukaku over the likes of Nikica Jelavic and Lacine Traoré. he scored 13 goals for Wigan in all competitions during the 2012-13 season, (missed all of last year). He could be an X factor in Everton’s upcoming hunt for Champions League football.
The only semi-significant loss is Gerard Deulofeu, who Martinez will certainly look to replace with at least one loan signing as the team prepares for the persisting maelstrom that is the Europa League. Between Tuesday evening matches sprawled all across the European continent, modest revenue streams, statistically wrecks havoc on a team’s Premier League success, the Europa League offers no favors for its participants. While progressing to the quarterfinals, semifinals, or final would surely bolster team morale and club reputation, an early exit may be a blessing in disguise for league hopes.
This team has unrecognizable measures of depth from two seasons ago in a progressive sense, counter to Southampton’s sputtering on-field regression. With a full season of experience for Lukaku, Ross Barkley, and Roberto Martinez under their respective belts, even with higher expectations and a daunting challenge ahead, how can Toffee fans not help but feel optimistic?
The Mid-Major Middle Child
Chairman Daniel Levy operates the Tottenham Hotspurs’ transfer policy like a veteran FIFA user in Manager Mode: sell stars well above market value and diversify investments. Tottenham has had a very middling return on investment success in recent seasons and this was never more evident than last season, when only Christian Eriksen arguably projected Champions League worthy talent on a weekly basis.
When six or seven players arrived into White Hart Lane as the platoon replacement of Gareth Bale’s services last summer, nary anyone had much of an idea how they would fit together or adjust to the Premier League. Apparently, neither did Andre Villas Boas, who continually tinkered with the line-up until his due sacking halfway through the past season.
Lewis Holtby, Paulinho, Erik Lamela, Eriksen, Nacer Chadli, Moussa Dembele, Sandro, Andros Townsend, Aaron Lennon, Nabil Bentaleb, and Etienne Capoue. These are the heavy hitters in the Tottenham midfield. In FIFA, an ensemble of good talent is very good to have. Yes, any 14-year old can tell you that such depth prevents fatigue.
In real life, a Wu Tang Clan-sized panel of good players in the middle of the pitch does not catapult a team into elite territory. It allows you to beat up on bad teams en masse, which has overwhelmingly been the Spurs’ lone forte in the past several years. You know, apparently besides West Ham.
The team’s lone star – Hugo Lloris – stands between the posts and the defensive unit, which was already susceptible to massacres by the hand of any of the elite teams and West Ham, reportedly faces an exodus.
As it stands, the team desperately needs an upgrade over Kyle Naughton and Danny Rose at left fullback and another center back to join Jan Vertoghen. Younés Kaboul was a primary culprit in several of Tottenham’s periodic collapses, like against West Ham. Chiriches could be a worthy partner after a decent first season, but is rumored to be on the move again.
If Morgan Schneiderlin becomes the newest Spurs player and latest Saints exile (although recent rumors dispute the ongoing development), it simply stands as another good, but not great, player set to join the midfield ranks. A proper challenge for a top four spot in the league necessitates star players, which Tottenham – despite its flurried waves of personnel moves – remains in severely short supply.
With all that said, however, the arrival of Pochettino connotes a carte blanche. It has to, right? There must be some cause for optimism for a team that consistently finishes in the top six, right? Anyone?
If Tottenham’s major shortcomings – at least in the middle and attacking thirds of the pitch – originate in schematic error, rather than inferior talent, and Pochettino finds a way to inspire the squad’s two highly paid strikers – Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor – to prolonged goal-scoring form, then there is certainly cause for hope.
It is essential that Pochettino finds a rotation of 15 or so players and stick with it. Weekly squad instability ultimately beleaguered AVB and Tim Sherwood last season.
If the Argentine manager brings the 4-4-1-1 line-up to London, I think Holtby and Bentaleb/Dembele should form the central midfield, with Lennon and Lamela on the wings, and Eriksen behind Soldado.
A 4-3-3 with three central midfielders seems to cater to Tottenham’s current roster, in which case Holtby/Paulinho, Eriksen, and Dembele/Sandro would appear to be the most worthy candidates of early playing time in midfield to start the season.
Whichever way the team eventually lines out, the fact remains that Lamela and Soldado were brought to London last year to be the stars. Even if the team’s current defensive frailties and uncertainty (not to mention staunch league opposition) makes a Champions League berth almost impossible, marked improvement by the two beleaguered attackers may be enough to keep Spurs in the hunt for much of the season.