As the English Premier League enters the seventh month of its marathon season, the footballing cream has separated from the rest of the crop. Only the two Manchester teams, City and United, have a real shot of winning the title, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other coveted prizes to play for. Third and fourth place in the league are nearly as important as winning the whole thing, because those spots gain a team entry into the next year’s Champions League, the biggest revenue generator of all and how the “big” teams stay “big”. Even in lean years, these last two Champion’s League spots are hotly contested. And this is a year of plenty. Never before have there been so many teams with ambition of greatness. Along with the traditional “Big 4” (Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal), three upstarts have upset the natural order of the Premier League. Manchester City, borne aloft on the wings of petrodollars, has bought their way to the top of the league. Tottenham, through some shrewd business and burgeoning stars, are sitting pretty in third place. Newcastle is by far the surprise of the season, continually beating expectations and delighting the crowds with flowing, continental soccer. These last four months of the season will be defining for a number of these clubs. Missing out on the Champion’s League could well spell doom for a number of traditional powers. The balance of the Premier League hangs in the balance.
That’s exactly why the month of January was of the utmost importance. January is the only month during the season when the transfer window opens.
Ah the transfer window, known colloquially as “the silly season”. Rumors multiply like rabbits and millions are bandied about without a second thought. Player movement is a fairly complicated matter in world soccer: first, the teams must agree to a transfer fee. This can often be a sticking point in negotiations if the teams have widely varying valuations of a player. After the transfer fee is agreed upon, the buying team and the player must negotiate a personal contract. This process can also be somewhat arduous (to give you a sense of what the top players in the game are paid, Fernando Torres earns more than $300,000 a week…I’ll let that one sink in a little bit).
For all of the glamorous buildup that I’ve just bestowed upon the transfers window…this January was rather dull in comparison to past years. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t controversy and intrigue abound!
Manchester City – 1st Place in the League – 60 Pts.
Easily the deepest team in the league, if not the world. This team was built to win trophies. The only thing that could possibly stop this leviathan of a team is itself. Combustible personalities litter the squad, from the refusing-to-play Carlos Tevez (with his bulldog-like approach), to the infinitely talented and unpredictable Mario Balotelli. A locker room mutiny could derail this thus-far unstoppable force. It’s Man City’s title to lose.
There wasn’t a lot of room in the squad for reinforcements, but Man City did splurge on veteran midfielder David Pizarro from Roma. A box-to-box player with a bit of flair and playmaking skill, he’ll add to the embarrassment of riches that already clog the center of the pitch.
Manchester United – 2nd – 58 Pts.
Sir Alex has been his regular self this season, making a team in transition into a title contender. Injuries have plagued nearly every position on the depth chart for Man U, but still they hover just behind Man City, waiting for them to slip up just enough. Mexican striker Javier Hernandez hasn’t regained his form from last year, but youngster Danny Welbeck has stepped in admirably by scoring 6 goals for the Red Devils.
With the midfield seriously lacking in depth, Man U opted to pull 37 year old Paul Scholes out of retirement rather than dip into the transfer market. That may prove to be a fatal mistake. Scholes’ legs are bound to give out before the season’s end, and Premier League caliber midfielders don’t exactly grow on trees. If the injury crisis persists, Man U won’t have guns to compete with their noisy neighbors.
Tottenham Hotspur – 3rd – 53 Pts.
The London side has been entertaining crowds with its ultra-attacking style, and it’s been paying dividends in the league. The dynamic duo of Gareth Bale and Croatian playmaker Luca Modric constantly provide dizzying displays of athleticism and skill. Once known for spending millions on ineffective flops, Tottenham have now turned to their youth system and shrewd business moves. The young fullback Kyle Walker has impressed in his first full season with his imitation of a locomotive down the right wing, while veteran American goalkeeper Brad Friedel has been a serious upgrade between the sticks.
Tottenham again stayed fairly quiet during the transfer window but picked up veteran French striker Louis Saha on deadline day from Everton. Most were left scratching their heads about the move, but given the recent success of their dealings, Tottenham may have found another diamond in the rough. Look for them to stay in the top 4 come season’s end.
Arsenal – 4th – 43 Pts.
After a tumultuous summer that saw Cesc Fabregas leave for Barcelona and Samir Nasri flee to Man City, Arsenal’s quality and depth were in serious question. A spectacular 8-2 loss at the hands of Manchester United early in the season did nothing to quell fears of missing out on the Champion’s League. However, Arsene Wenger’s squad recovered nicely throughout the fall and Arsenal are battling it out for that crucial last spot. Much of the team’s recent success can be placed squarely on the back of Robin Van Persie, who leads the league in scoring with 22 goals. Go Youtube this guy. No one this side of Lionel Messi is as hot as the Dutchman and his continued form will go a long ways in determining whether Arsenal’s season is a success. Van Persie is certain to leave for greener pastures, like his former teammates, should Arsenal fail to make the Champion’s League, so these final months may be more important for Arsenal than any other team.
Arsenal has glaring weaknesses in depth at the midfield and both fullbacks, but Arsene Wenger stuck to his recent stingy ways in the winter transfer window and didn’t spend a dime (aside from bringing back club legend Thierry Henry for a 3 month loan, merely publicity stunt). They really needed to upgrade at a few positions and the failure to do so may inevitably lead to missing out on the Champion’s League for the first time in 14 seasons.
Chelsea – 5th – 43 Pts.
Chelsea has been a team in turmoil so far this year, hitting spectacular lows while still maintaining to cling onto fourth place. Their problems on the backline have been glaring and there is an obvious lack of creativity going forward. Luckily, being bankrolled by a Russian oligarch provides solutions.
Chelsea made two major buys this window. English centerback Gary Cahill may not be the most glamorous signing Chelsea’s ever made, but he should help to strengthen an aging defensive core. Chelsea addressed the offensive side of the field by signing Belgium attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne. In total, Chelsea outlaid £21 million during January, more than any other team. They desperately needed it. However, the £50 million transfer of Fernando Torres last January has proved to be a disaster thus far, and winter transfers are often a boom or bust phenomena.
Newcastle – 6th – 42 Pts.
Newcastle has been by far the surprise package of this season. Although an established and well supported Premier League side, Newcastle hit some rocky times a few seasons ago and were relegated to the second division. They popped right back up to the Premier League and have installed themselves as a fixture in the top half of the table. An infusion of talent from Europe has molded Newcastle into a team with attacking flair and pace. Striker Demba Ba has scored 16 goals thus far and is as pure a finisher as this soccer enthusiast has ever seen. The French midfield duo of Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa has been carving up defensing around the league with their vision and creativity. Newcastle has assembled a squad capable of competing with the traditional powers and won’t be intimidated easily.
Unlike the other contenders, Newcastle seized the chance to strengthen their team during the transfer window by signing Papiss Cisse from German outfit Freiburg for 10 million pounds. Similar in build and skill to his Sengalese countryman Demba Ba, Cisse should fit in comfortably up front. Look for these two strikers to combine quickly and often. The addition of more firepower up front is an encouraging sign, but another midfielder might have been a more prudent option. The Premier League season is a marathon, not a sprint. Injuries to the core of Newcastle’s midfield have already cost them quite a few points.
Liverpool – 7th – 39 Pts.
Look no farther than Liverpool to see the consequences of missing out on the Champion’s League. Since they finished a disappointing 7th place two years ago, Liverpool has been a team in turmoil. Things are rarely dull at Anfield under former legend and current manager “King” Kenny Dalglish. A massive spending spree in the summer has produced lackluster results on the field (the duo of Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing cost a whopping 40 million pounds and have produced exactly 1 goal this season). The pressure is mounting for King Kenny to produce a winner.
Liverpool desperately needed an upgrade at forward but failed to sign any new players during the transfer window. They’ve put the ball in the back of the net a scanty 29 times, the fewest among any of the top 7 and certainly not Champion’s League material.
The Best of the Rest of the Winter Transfer Window
· Tim Ream to Bolton – American defender Tim Ream is the latest to make the jump from MLS to the Premier League. Bolton will hope that his surefooted defending and crisp passing out of the back will solidify an otherwise leaky back line
· Nikica Jelavic to Everton – The Croatian striker should add some much needed punch to an otherwise bland Everton attack.
· Pavel Pogrebnyak to Fulham – This Russian striker made the jump from Germany to England and is useful in front of goal. Also useful in Scrabble.