The Premier: Last-minute transfers make race for the top even tougher
The biggest news from transfer deadline day? Feting the wrong man on Merseyside? Good and bad Lloris? That and much more is on tap in the Week 3 edition of 'The Premier.'
The Premier Lede
Where else to start besides a wild transfer deadline day that saw Arsenal open its wallet (wide), Manchester United barely beat the clock to fill a huge need, and a number of other clubs make impressive additions to already strong cores.
Here are the five biggest storylines as the summer transfer window slammed shut yesterday afternoon:
1) Arsenal lands Mesut Ozil
So, about that pending crisis two weeks ago ...
A 5-0 aggregate thrashing of Fenerbahce in the Champions League playoff interspersed with an away whipping of Fulham and a satisfying win in the North London Derby certainly gave Arsenal an A in what could have been a club-altering stretch. Then the Gunners reinforced in a huge way on Monday, nabbing standout German international playmaker Mesut Ozil for a club-record $65 million -- or about "half a Bale."
The common wisdom was that Arsenal needed to add a stronger defensive midfielder to complement their silky skilled attacking mids, but when you can get your hands on one of the world's best string-pullers, you don't bat an eye. With Olivier Giroud getting in touch with his inner poacher, the French striker should be drowning in opportunities with some combination of Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshire and Lucas Podolski wrapped around Ozil.
As the Gunners regain full health, they should be a very dangerous team, capable of opening up a bunkering foe or killing it on the counter, as needed. Very smooth, Voyeur.
It's also fun to think about this deal as Real Madrid's revenge on David Levy for screwing around so long on the Gareth Bale deal (which we'll explore in more detail in a moment)...
2) Manchester United beats the clock for Marouane Fellaini
Right at the gun, the Red Devils nailed down a deal for Everton's tall, skilled, physical midfielder, answering a major question about their current roster composition as they look to defend their crown. New manager David Moyes obviously is familiar with Fellaini's work from his time at Everton, so this move makes a lot of sense, even at a slightly elevated price of $43 million. United needed this badly.
Relatedly, it will be interesting to continue to watch how United builds its approach under Moyes in relation to the other challengers for the league title and Champions League spots. As noted above, Arsenal is silky and skilled in their midfield. Spurs are also loaded in the midfield, but with a heavier dose of grit to go with assumed skill once guys like Eric Lamela and Christian Eriksen get introduced to the mix. Chelsea is also utterly loaded in midfield and is choosing a less physical, striker-light approach, especially after letting Romelu Lukaku go to Everton on a season-long loan. Manchester City has more skill up front and on the wings, but also has the hammer of Yaya Toure in the middle. Liverpool's two best players may be their two strikers once Luis Suarez comes back, but don't discount their midfield, either.
It should be a wild race at the top. There are a lot of loaded teams, and better for viewers, a lot of different approaches to how they want to play. Styles make fights, and this campaign should be a top-shelf brawl.
3) Tottenham's tremendous overhaul
Spurs didn't get anything more done on deadline day (they loaned out Tom Carroll and Benoit Assou-Ekotto to Queens Park Rangers), but they did more than enough in the run-up. Most people will fixate solely on the sale of Bale as soccer's version of a "Herschel Walker trade," but the roster revamp actually started last summer. Look at what Daniel Levy and Co. accomplished in the last year and change.
(All transfer fees from TransferMarkt.com, converted from Euros into U.S. dollars at the current exchange rate of $1.32/Euro)
Spurs essentially turned three very good-to-great players and a handful of other decent performers and spare parts into what should be at least 11 top-shelf first-team contributors, plus a free rental of Clint Dempsey for last season -- for a net transfer fee spend of less than $3 million. That's insane.
Thanks mostly to Real Madrid's largesse (more than $170 million for two players), Tottenham now has a much deeper club with a ton of assets that will have value to them either on the field or in future transfer windows. On paper, it's a remarkable job. Now it's up to Andre Villas-Boas to make this come together in time to finish in the top four this season.
That's even more important now because Spurs have taken a similar tack to when I go to a restaurant for the first time: they ordered a ton of different things just to see what is good. Despite the transfer fee magic, Tottenham has increased its wage bills fairly significantly with the addition of all this talent. Given the team's June 2012 annual report showed them at that point carrying $140.7 million of "staff costs" (i.e. player salary) against "turnover" (i.e. revenues) of $224.9 million, where Spurs has pushed their salary/revenue ratio with this revolution may be worrisome. If Spurs don't finish top four, you wonder if there will be some offloading next summer after AVB finishes figuring out his preferred pecking orders and combinations. Europa League money won't cover these expenses.
4) Battling Liverpool gets more robust
The only perfect team in the league after three matches, thanks to a trio of 1-0 wins, got even stauncher in the back with the import of PSG's Mamadou Sakho and Sporting Lisbon's Tiago Ilori for a bit more than $31 million combined. Add in Chelsea loanee Victor Moses to add options up front after the loan of Fabio Borini to Sunderland, and Liverpool continues to get more dangerous as a threat to crash the top four.
5) The seventh-best team (we think) is going to be very good (we think)
Everton losing Fellaini hurts, but the big Belgian wasn't exactly the style for new manager Roberto Martinez. Former Wigan mid James McCarthy, brought in for around $22 million, more than fits the bill as a replacement in the middle of Goodison Park. Adding Gareth Barry for some defensive mid presence and Lukaku as a primary goal scorer should make Everton a real handful. Now it's on Martinez to start to produce results that match the roster quality.
Bonus: At least two teams left themselves in vulnerable shape as the window closed by failing to address galling needs:
West Bromwich Albion is the only team in the league yet to score this season, and the Baggies failed in a late attempt to lure Lukaku back to The Hawthorns for a second loan campaign. Lukaku was a huge component of their attack last season, and they simply haven't filled his void. Relying on past-it Nicolas Anelka, Prem rookie loanee Matej Vydra, and OK guys like Shane Long up front isn't going to cut it. The Baggies have only mustered a total of 28 shot attempts in their three matches, and even with the import of Stephane Sessignon to help James Morrison and newly signed Scott Sinclair in the midfield, they look very limited.
Offensive thrust has also been an issue at Fulham, but the Cottagers' issue isn't attacking firepower. It's the massive, gaping hole in the center of their midfield that often makes connecting with the front four an exercise in futility. After selling Mousa Dembele to Spurs last season, Fulham gambled on a Steve Sidwell-Mahamadou Diarra combo to get them through the first half of the season. The questionable plan failed almost immediately when Diarra suffered a long-term injury, and after no purchase was made in January, the rest of the campaign was spent rotating in ancient Greek legend Giorgios Karagounis and utilityman Chris Baird.
The club let Karagounis and Baird go this summer, and Diarra still isn't healthy enough to offer a new contract. So Fulham brought in Derek Boateng on a free transfer and, re-signed Karagounis, and then spent about $6 million on Scott Parker, whose age was showing as he was shoved out of Spurs' picture. It's still a massive area of need, and every option Fulham has in that area is in his 30s.
Fulham's worst spot may be on the left flank, where the club doesn't really have a capable left back and doesn't have an outside midfielder with real pace to track back and help, but the reason the Cottagers can look so stagnant offensively is because of the subpar midfield. It's been an issue for a year now that the club hasn't addressed, and this time around, it may get them in significant trouble.
Performance over perception
The opening three weeks of the season have provided more evidence to support an ongoing theory of mine: That the wrong former Swansea manager gets all the attention.
Roberto Martinez is widely considered one of the promising younger managers in the game, deliverer of aesthetically pleasing possession-based soccer even while hamstrung by smaller-club budgets. He's made multiple studio cameos for ESPN's soccer coverage, adding to his profile in the States. He also put together the core of a Swansea City side that rolled to a League 1 title and eventually made it up to the Premier League, where it has since established itself as a mid-table side with upward aspirations.
But Martinez is rapidly earning a reputation for having teams with more style than substance. He walked out on Swansea, a club at which he made 122 appearances as a player, after finishing a respectable ninth in the Championship in 2008-09. He signed on at Wigan, where he had made 187 appearances, and subsequently led them to 16th-, 15th- and 18th-place finishes, finally getting relegated last season after two extremely near misses. In fairness, Wigan did manage to win the FA Cup at the same time, and Wigan was the smallest club in the league, so the budget wasn't exactly there to reinforce.
Now, though, as David Moyes' replacement at Everton, he has opened the season with three draws, including back-to-back 0-0s with West Brom and Cardiff City. Once again, Martinez's side has shown tantalizing potential, but much less actual product. It's Premier League Martinez in a nutshell so far. With the talent infusion described above -- talent that should fit what Martinez wants to do -- there's no excuse for him not to deliver a strong season, with some wins over the teams Everton's chasing.
Meanwhile, on the south side of Stanley Park, the successor to Martinez's successor at Swansea continues his rapid rebuild of once-mighty Liverpool, and maybe people are finally catching on to what Brendan Rodgers is doing.
Rodgers' career didn't start off nearly as well as Martinez's. He scuffled to a mid-table finish in one season at Watford, then took the Reading job and departed after just six months there. In July 2010, a year after Martinez left Swansea, Rodgers took over the Swans and led them straight to the Premier League via the promotion playoff. He then led the club to a comfortable 11th-place finish in their debut campaign in the top flight before he was tapped to take over at Anfield after a tumultuous period under Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish saw Liverpool fall out of the group of Champions League contenders.
It took half a season for Rodgers to start turning things around, but Liverpool was one of the best teams in the Premier League for the second half of last season, and now they're the only perfect side through three matches. What's more, Liverpool has showed an industriousness to go with ample amounts of young skill. And, of course, all of this has come with Luis Suarez still suspended for his biting incident from last season. Liverpool has run up a shockingly strong record in Suarez's absence dating back to last season, and has the making of a club that's going to be a real handful this season. This isn't a fluke.
The financial and roster depth strength at five other clubs may mean that this season doesn't see a ton of movement up the table for Liverpool, but make no mistake: This club is rapidly improving. The $20 million acquisition of Daniel Sturridge last season is starting to look like a significant bargain, and Liverpool added more quality this summer (notably goalkeeper Simon Mignolet) at no extra cost after the offloading of epic striker flop Andy Carroll to West Ham. Add in the reinforcements landed on Monday to go with Sturridge, Luis Alberto, Raheem Sterling, Andre Wisdom, Coutinho and others, and they also have a large core of very young talent to build around. Every guy listed there (plus Borini) is 24 or younger.
It doesn't look like it will be too much longer before Liverpool is once again fully threatening for its rightful place among the league's elite while Everton may remain stuck in its second-tier place. Neither of those trends are fully due to the managers at the respective clubs, but the correlation may be more than nothing. Even as the less-accomplished man at this level continues to get the majority of the pub.
• In Arsenal's 1-0 win over Tottenham on Sunday, Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was feted on multiple occasions by the announcing team for plays in which he came off his line to clear a ball.
It was an easy theme to hammer home (and Lloris was the reason why the winning margin for Arsenal wasn't multiple goals), but there's a difference between a good goalkeeper read and a lucky bailout play.
The latter came on a play in the first half where speedy Theo Walcott ran free behind the defense and badly beat the advancing Lloris to a through ball. To his athletic credit, Lloris was able to sharply change direction after a heavy first touch from Walcott and make a sliding toe poke to disrupt the play, but make no mistake: Lloris got caught completely in no-man's land after a bad initial read. He came sprinting out when the pass was played and Walcott beat him to it by about 10 yards:
In the second half, though, Lloris made a terrific read on a somewhat similar play, sniffing out the situation in advance and making an assertive sprint to the ball, this time beating Walcott to it and breaking up what would have been a very dangerous chance for Arsenal:
Two plays, similar end results, but very different levels of correctness in how they were played. Don't always believe what you hear from commentators. They usually don't understand goalkeeping at all.
• Sunderland imported a ton of new players this summer, but has gotten off to a stale start, losing at home to Fulham, drawing at Southampton and then losing at newly promoted Crystal Palace. The schedule-makers haven't given Paolo Di Canio's crew any breaks going forward either.
Their next seven home matches are against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham. Yes, that's the six teams expected to have a chance to finish in Champions League positions and Sunderland's arch rival. The Black Cats don't get any truly soft road games during this stretch, either, which means come Christmas-time, they could be in very bad position in the league table.
Obviously, getting what could be their seven most difficult home matches out of the way before New Year's means the home slate coming in is much more forgiving, but you never want to be in a position where you have to count on banking points to survive. With all of those difficult road fixtures in the second half of their schedule, Sunderland's survival likely will depend on their final 10 home matches.