Each year, the gap between the end of the Premiership season in May and the start of the new one in August seems to be much longer than the three months it actually is, especially in years – such as this one – where there is no major international tournament taking place over the summer. Football fans have to make do with following transfer sagas; analyzing the new fixture list when it is released; and watching lesser competitions like the Confederations Cup – which was won this year by Brazil, though their success was marred by riots in the country as part of the population protested against them hosting the World Cup next year at great expense, when the economy is struggling. Nevertheless, the wait is over this weekend as the Premiership kicks off for a brand new campaign and one that is perhaps the least predictable of any of recent years, with three of last season’s top four finishers having new men in their dugouts.
Chelsea replaced the much maligned Rafa Benitez – who helped the club finish third and led them to a Europa League victory, but was never accepted by the Blues fans – with their former boss, Jose Mourinho, who is back for a second stint at Stamford Bridge. In his first spell at the club, he won the league in his first two seasons and also added two League Cups and an FA Cup to their trophy cabinet before he was fired/left by mutual consent. During Mourinho’s time away from the Premiership, he has enjoyed success at Internazionale, with whom he won the Champions League and Serie A titles; and Real Madrid, where he interrupted Barcelona’s run of topping La Liga and racked up a record points tally in the process (okay the other two campaigns ended up with Real finishing below their rivals, but this is Barca we are talking about, they’re no mugs). While Chelsea have been linked with a deal for Wayne Rooney this summer, their two major signings have strengthened an already good midfield, with Andre Schurrle (bought from Bayer Leverkusen for £18m) and Marco van Ginkel (Vitesse Arnhem, £8m) being added to Mourinho’s squad alongside the likes of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Oscar and the veteran, Frank Lampard.
Manchester City decided that winning the club their first title in 44 years did not make up for the fact that Roberto Mancini could only guide them to second place the year after that success, so he was fired and Manuel Pelligrini has been recruited from Malaga to replace him. The Chilean also previously managed Villarreal and had a season in charge of Real Madrid, but since moving to Europe, he has failed to guide his teams to any trophy victories. What he will have access to is almost unlimited funds at Manchester City and the board have already backed him with the signings of the midfielders Fernandinho (who cost £30m from Shaktar Donetsk) and Jesus Navas (£22m, Sevilla), alongside the arrival of strikers Steven Jovetic (£22m, Fiorentina) and Alvaro Negredo (£20m, Sevilla), who come in to replace the outgoing Carlos Tevez (Juventus) and Mario Baloteli (A.C. Milan).
The biggest of all the managerial changes came of course at Old Trafford and this will be the first ever Premiership season that does not see SIr Alex Ferguson in charge of Manchester United following his retirement in May. David Moyes – who, with 11 years at Everton, had ranked as the third longest-serving manager in the top flight behind Sir Alex and Arsene Wenger – has been brought in to take over the reigns from his fellow Scot, but the one time Preston North End boss will have a hard time to fill the shoes of the man who brought so much success to Old Trafford. While his summer has been spent trying to keep Wayne Rooney from leaving – and the club have insisted that he is not for sale at any price – Moyes has also been targeting players who could strengthen United in the centre of midfield, with both Cesc Fabregas and Marounae Fellaini attracting interest from the Red Devils, but neither of whom look close to being signed. To date, the only players who have arrived at Old Trafford this summer are young winger, Wilfred Zaha, from Palace and the 20-year-old Uruguayan right-back Guillermo Varela. With an aging squad that looked far from its best despite an easy title victory last season, Moyes will need to bring in more new recruits before the end of the summer if he is to have any realistic chance of helping United retain the Premiership crown. Two other clubs have brought in new managers this summer, as Roberto Martinez steps in to the hot-seat at Goodison Park, after he departed Wigan following their relegation to the Championship; and Tony Pulis was shown the door by Stoke, who then appointed Mark Hughes as their new boss.
As seems to be the case every year, there have been several high-profile players being linked with moves to other clubs in sagas that have become protracted and – quite frankly – boring. Wayne Rooney has been courted by both Chelsea and Arsenal, while the North London side have also shown interested in recruiting striker Luis Suarez from Liverpool. The Uruguayan striker has been supported at Anfield throughout a 2.5 year spell during which he has received lengthy suspensions for racially abusing Patrice Evra and biting Branislav Ivanovic; but Suarez stated in an interview to the Guardian that the club should abide by his wishes to play in the Champions League. Arsenal believed that any bid of £40m would automatically trigger a clause in the player’s contract that meant Liverpool were required to disclose it to Suarez, so they offered £40,000,001 – gamesmanship that has seen the board at Anfield take a position of holding firm and insisting that their prized asset is not going anywhere and the Uruguayan is now believed to have accepted that fate, until next summer at least.
Perhaps the biggest story of the close season has once again come at White Hart Lane – this time last year, Daniel Levy was holding out on Real Madrid to prevent them from acquiring Luka Modric, only for the deal to be done on the final day of the transfer window. This year, the same club are interested in buying Gareth Bale, the Player of the Year for 2012/13 and the man who won so many games for Spurs with his late, great strikes. Unsurprisingly, Bale’s head has been turned and he now appears to have his heart set on a deal – a stance which leads me, as a Tottenham fan, to just want him to go: if a player no longer wants to wear the shirt and represent the club, then it does not matter how good they are, I no longer want to cheer for them. Levy is once again attempting to get the transfer fee as high as possible and the supposed bid of £86m Madrid have made so far – which would be a world record, beating the £80m they paid Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo – but the Spurs chairman believes they should get £100m for the talented Welshman and has requested that the young Spanish striker Alvaro Morata be part of the deal. We all know where this is heading, there will be a standoff until September 2nd (which is when the summer transfer window closes this year, as August 31st is a Saturday and it always shuts on a weekday) at which point Bale will be sold for an extraordinary sum of money, Tottenham will only have time to by a cursory replacement and in mid-October we will be cursing Levy for prolonging his transfer dealings once more.
Spurs have already strengthened their squad by releasing William Gallas and bringing in midfielder Paulinho – part of Brazil’s Confederation Cup winning team – for £17m; striker Roberto Soldado from Valencia for £26m; and the Belgian winger, Nacer Chadli for £7m. Meanwhile, defender Steven Caulker was sold to Premiership newboys Cardiff City for £8m, a move that was considered questionable by many of my fellow Tottenham supporters, but one that I completely understood. Caulker could be dominant in the air and also posed a threat in the opposition’s penalty area, but he was wasteful in possession and was not the best positionally. He might mature into a great centre back, but for the money Cardiff were willing to pay, it was a great deal for Spurs to make, especially since Caulker would be fourth choice at best when Michael Dawson, Jan Vertonghen and Younes Kaboul are all fit. Clint Dempsey also departed after less than a year at the club, moving to MLS side Seattle Sounders for £6m, and many other players are also expected to exit White Hart Lane in the next month, including Scott Parker, Tom Huddlestone (set to join Hull for £5m), Emmanuel Adebayor and potentially Jermain Defoe, who has been linked with a transfer to both QPR (which would mean linking up with Harry Redknapp once again) or West Bromwich Albion.
The other half of North London have been surprisingly quiet on the transfer front – at least in terms of actually making new signings – as they have only brought in 20-year-old French striker, Yaya Sanogo from Auxerre. For a long time, it did appear as though Gonzalo Higuain was going to swap the Bernabeu for the Emirates, but the Gunners could not get the deal done and the Argentinian striker ended up joining Napoli instead – a move that I was glad did not materialize, as Higuain’s ruthless finishing combined with Arsenal’s usual dominance of possession would have been a frightening combination. Wenger will still hold hopes of concluding the transfer of either Suarez or Rooney, but even if he does not bring in anyone new, the Gunners have a settled squad with no major player leaving this year and, if pre-season form is anything to go by (it isn’t really, but still) the likes of Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud appear set to improve on their impressive debut Premiership campaigns. With all of the other sides in the top four having changed their manager, any stumbling from them could open the door for the consistency at the Emirates to pay off and Wenger bring the club their first trophy since 2005, maybe even their first title in 10 years. (And I just threw up in my mouth even thinking about that prospect, so let’s move on).
With Queens Park Rangers, Reading and Wigan all adjusting to life back in the second tier of English football following their relegation in May (or April, in the case of Harry Redknapp’s QPR) the Premiership welcomes back two clubs who have played at the level before, Crystal Palace and Hull; while Cardiff make their first appearance in the top flight since 1961/62 (when Spurs were reigning champions and should have repeated their success, but missed out to Ipswich…I digress). The Bluebirds’ – who since last year, now play in red after they were “rebranded” by their Malaysian owner – presence in the Premiership means that there are now two Welsh sides in the division, as they join their rivals Swansea, who have had two good years since their promotion in 2010/11. Crystal Palace will be playing in the Premiership for the fifth time, but on all four other occasions they have been relegated, including in 1994/5 when they finished fourth from bottom, but the division was being reduced to 20 teams from 22, so they still ended up being demoted to the second tier.
Cardiff are not the only side who have been rebranded; Hull have now taken on the moniker of “Hull City Tigers” as an effort to
make them sound like they are a baseball team from the biggest city in the United States to have gone bankrupt attract more fans….I guess. I am not quite sure what the logic was behind this decision – perhaps they thought that people enjoyed the Life of Pi book and movie, therefore they were in favor of Tigers and thus having a team named that would encourage more supporters. I think I may have just given that more thought that the person who suggested Hull’s name – but maybe there is a future in this Americanization of (my spelling and) English football. Maybe other sides should try it: I suggest that going forward, as a way of paying tribute to their three Belgian players (Vertonghen, Dembele, Chadli) Spurs should now be called the Tottenham Hotspur Waffles. I can hear the fans now, “I want to be in that number, oh when the Waffles go marching in”.
One club who have significantly strengthened their squad over the summer are Norwich City, who have brought in RIcky von Wolfswinkel, Gary Hooper, Javier Garrido, Leroy Fey and Martin Olsson during the close season. Former Waffles manager, Martin Jol has been active in the transfer window, with his highest profile acquisition being Adel Taraabt (who he coached at Spurs) on loan from QPR and whose mercurial talent could lead to either the most sublime partnership with Dimitar Berbatov, or they could make the most frustrating combination in the history of the Premiership. Newcastle took another Queens Park Rangers striker on loan, in the shape of Loic Remy, but the biggest arrival at the club was the return of former manager, Joe Kinnear, as their Director of Football. The outspoken Kinnear already upset fans and players alike when, in an interview with Talk Sport, he made false claims about his record and mispronounced the names of several key players, including Yohan Cabaye and Hartem Ben Arfa.
West Ham have been big spenders in the transfer window, sending Liverpool £15m to secure Andy Carroll on a permanent basis, having had him on loan last term, and another £6m for Stewart Downing. Brendan Rodgers has used that money to sign young Spanish strikers Iago Aspas (£7m from Celta Vigo) and Luis Alberto (£6.8m from Sevilla); while they have also replaced their first choice goalkeeper, Pepe Reina – who has gone on loan to join Rafa Benitez at Napoli – with Simon Mignolet, whom they signed from Sunderland for £9m. Southampton also spent in excess of £20m to consolidate their position in the Premiership, as they added Croatian defender Dejan Lovren for £8.5m and paid Celtic £12.5m for midfielder Victor Wanyama, who scored for the Scottish club in their 2-1 victory over Barcelona in the Champions League group stage last November.
As well as new players and managers going into this Premiership season, the other big change will be the use of goal line technology by the officials – at last. No longer will there be any doubt about whether or not the ball has crossed the line – now, cameras and sensors will trigger a signal to a device on the referee’s wrist signaling that a goal has been scored. This should end the issue of goals not being awarded when they should be (cough, Pedro Mendes, cough) or phantom goals being awarded, unless the technology works as badly as cricket’s Decision Review System has in the Ashes this summer – where controversial decisions by the umpires have been upheld despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Click here for Part II with my predictions (and a few other people’s) for the season and the first weekend of Premiership action.