Monday, 30 May 2011

McCarthy's Men On The Road To Security

Mick McCarthy's Wolves side may owe a large part of their continued Premier League existence to Manchester United and Tottenham, whose victories on Survival Sunday condemned Blackpool and Birmingham to the dreaded drop, but their immediate future lies squarely in their grasp and looks remarkably promising for a side who just 8 days ago were less than 45 minutes from being relegated and seeing their 3 fierce Midlands rivals stay up at the same time.

On the recruitment side, Wolves seem unlikely to lose any of the key members of their settled and spirited squad over the summer. David Jones is one confirmed to be heading out of the club, but he has struggled with injury this season and would not be a natural starter ahead of David Edwards, Karl Henry, Nenad Milijas or Jamie O'Hara (should the latter's signature be secured as expected). Michael Mancienne's return to Chelsea, and rumoured subsequent transfer to Hamburg, should not unduly trouble McCarthy for the same reasons, although Mancienne's natural position of centre-back may nudge the Irishman to invest in that position as Jody Craddock's contract is shortly to expire. Marcus Hahnemann appears the other member of the usual matchday squad likely to depart, with his contract also up soon. His place could be swiftly filled by the likes of Tomasz Kuszczak, or perhaps Matt Gilks, who are tipped to depart their clubs shortly in search of regular Premier League starts and would provide strong competition for the current first choice stopper, Wayne Hennessey.

Of course, the funds available to capture replacements and additions may well depend on the whereabouts of recent England cap Matt Jarvis. After a fine first season in the top flight, which brought him a first international appearance in March, the former Gillingham winger has been eyed by Liverpool, possibly as a replacement for the out of form Joe Cole, and Aston Villa, should Ashley Young depart for a higher level. Wolves are generally well stocked in the wide areas, with Stephen Hunt, Michael Kightly and Adam Hammill supported by utility players Kevin Foley and Stephen Ward, but would miss the direct running and dangerous delivery of Jarvis. Moreover, given Jarvis' relative inexperience at the top level, Wolves might struggle to replace him with the funds generated by his sale, which would probably not greatly exceed those mooted in the O'Hara deal (around £5m). If Wolves can keep hold of the tricky winger, and replace David Jones with someone in the vein of Blackpool's David Vaughan, who appears Sunderland-bound, the playing staff alone should ensure a comfortable mid-table finish, particularly if Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher can stay on the pitch and in the goals.

One absolutely priceless quality that should make Wolves the envy of any top-flight outfit is their stability and honesty at management level. McCarthy himself is certainly not to everyone's tastes (just ask fellow Irishman Roy Keane for corroboration of that), but his fierce loyalty - which rarely, if ever, descends into blinkered vision - and forthrightness make him not only an engaging interviewee (like Ian Holloway, he is always good for a soundbite) but a fine motivator and man manager; in the intense final weeks of the season, I do not recall hearing a single word from any player against him or any other member of the staff, playing or otherwise. All of the noises coming out of the camp centred on team spirit and hard work, rather than on personal futures or petty feuds with teammates. McCarthy and his players are also fortunate in enjoying unwavering support from the men at the very top of the club, with owner Steve Morgan and chief executive Jez Moxey offering encouragement and solidarity rather than warnings and speculations. If we contrast this with the appalling behaviour of West Ham's board in the last weeks of their Premier League life, which seemed to predominantly concern individual performance at a time demanding togetherness, Wolves' survival and the demise of a team packed with England internationals becomes rather easier to comprehend.

Financially, Wolves are not in the straits that seem to have bogged the Hammers down for years; nor are they in the palatial domain of Europe's big hitters. Instead, they appear to inhabit a sort of happy middle ground that befits a proud community club, with investment being prudent (a phased expansion of Molineux is underway) rather than rashly spontaneous. Their promotion to the top flight at the end of the 2008/9 season naturally contributed hugely to the club's current financial stability, but Steve Morgan has never seemed unwilling to provide the cash for key players (Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher both cost the club more than £6m, while O'Hara should be around £5m); at the same time I do not recall any obvious wastefulness in terms of transfer fees. This judicious use of funds is emblematic of the sensible manner in which the club operates, and a sensible summer, featuring the retention of key players and staff and the replacement of departing squad members, should see this club well clear of the trapdoor when Survival Sunday looms into view again in about 12 months' time.

Monday, 24 January 2011

No Country For Young Dane As Van Gets In Gear

A few weeks ago I would have seriously recommended to Arsene Wenger - if I had somehow come across the opportunity to gain his ear - that he give consideration to putting mercurial forward Robin van Persie up for sale at the end of the current season. Far too prone to injury, I would have said. Incapable of providing much more than half a season of productive performances, he would have heard. And far too given to wasting the straightforward opportunities that ought to be the bread and butter for any self-respecting target man, I would have forced him to accept, while admitting myself that he remains tremendously technically gifted. The combination of his age - at 27 he can be termed experienced, yet still has five years ahead of him - and his undoubted, uncommon flair ought to result in a healthy list of willing takers and a tidy sum to be invested in the next round of youngsters.

Hindsight is a great luxury, and as a faithful lover of the beautiful game I am more than happy to admit that my judgment was somewhat premature. The Dutch forward seems newly focused on his craft and far more determined to add the end product to Arsenal's dreamy passing football, as evidenced by his return of five goals in two Premier League appearances. The fully fit van Persie on show in Saturday's easy victory over Wigan augmented the style of his more junior colleagues with steel, brushing off the setback of a woeful penalty (which failed to extend the outstanding Oman shotstopper in the besieged Wigan goal, Ali Al Habsi) by completing his hat-trick in the closing minutes of the game. The van Persie of previous seasons, or indeed the summer's World Cup, would have struggled to atone for his error in this most fitting manner.

Van Persie's decisive return to form, though welcome for his manager, teammates and Gunners fans, does however strengthen the case for the departure of the Dutch star's far more misfiring colleague, Danish international Nicklas Bendtner. At 23, Bendtner forms part of the generation carefully nurtured over the last five or so years by Wenger, but one would be hard pressed to identify another member of this group who makes less of a contribution to its success and reputation. Bendtner's mediocre goal return and often poor attitude, along with an almost incomprehensibly high opinion of his own abilities, marks him out as the black sheep of the flock. I venture that it is time for Wenger to usher him through the Emirates exit door, although the price tag of £15million quoted in a recent article on seems terribly over-inflated.

Bendtner and van Persie have very little in common, apart from their propensity to fluff a concerning number of relatively easy chances. The Dutchman does at least have an impressive collection of technically masterful strikes with which to distract his detractors from this shortcoming. More importantly, he fits rather better into Wenger's current system than the one dimensional Bendtner; as a second striker, he is more in tune with the fluid, flowing midfielders Fabregas and Nasri, the architects of the majority of Arsenal's best work in recent weeks. The return of Marouane Chamakh after a short break will also allow Arsenal to concoct a potentially devastating front three, comprising the efficient Moroccan with the creative van Persie and the lightning bolt that is Theo Walcott. Once completed by Fabregas, Nasri and Song/Wilshere, Wenger could effectively forget about his eternally underwhelming defence, as few teams would back themselves to out-create and out-score such a front six.

As a Red Devil first and a football writer second, I cannot see Arsenal overhauling United this season, though second is certainly within reach, as is an end to the endlessly-referenced trophy drought. The sale of Bendtner, in either the current transfer window or that of this summer, will create a space in the squad for a fresh and exciting young talent (for what other sort of player do Arsenal seek out these days), and the resultant funds would, one hopes, be spent rather than hoarded or frittered away on central defenders. Feyernoord's Luc Castaignos or Anderlecht's Romelu Lukaku, regularly linked with a switch to the Emirates, would fit the bill and might, just might, help to secure the long-awaited major trophy that, on paper at least, is long overdue an appearance in the red half of North London.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Defining Weeks Approach For Roy's Reds

The Premiership campaign is rightfully regarded as the ultimate long haul, particularly when compared to the relative short hops that make up some of its European counterparts (most of which enjoy the much-vaunted Christmas break). As such, any suggestion that the opening weeks of the new season, thankfully about to break upon us (depending on the location from which you are consuming this prose of course), represent an exceptionally pivotal period in the medium-term fortunes of one's chosen club could be regarded as foolhardy or ill-thought through. However, for Merseyside's much-maligned Red contingent, the next month or so really has the potential to set the scene for Liverpool's attempts to heave themselves from the dirge that was 2009/10 and back into England's elite.

Great changes are afoot at the head of the club, and their significance simply cannot go underestimated. A rare moment of bright thinking was evident in the decision to axe the cold Benitez at the beginning of June, and he was replaced by everyone's favourite gangster-impersonator, Roy Hodgson, inside a month. Hodgson's miraculous exploits as Fulham boss have received more than enough column inches, but nevertheless it is extremely difficult to begrudge the London-born adventurer his first (and most likely single) stint at one of England's most prestigious names - even for a lifelong Red Devil like yours truly. Roy's endeavours at Anfield are unlikely to be of the fantastical quality of those on the banks of the Thames, and certainly should not need to be, but some saintliness may yet be required; this will concern his patience.

Swirling around the club - if the news outlets are to be believed - at the time of writing are several consortia, all with the goal of buying out Liverpool's hated American owners (are there any other sort in English football at present). It would appear that the outfit headed by Yahya Kirdi, a Canadian-based Syrian, is in pole position and plans to tie up the deal by the start of Liverpool's domestic campaign on Sunday afternoon. This clearly leaves plenty of time for Chinese tycoon Kenny Huang, and to a lesser extent the third-placed Sahara Group of India, to jostle behind Kirdi, casting in promise and counter-promise, in the run up to the big day.

What is most important here is not the identity of the bidder, nor which succeeds; it seems moderately likely that Kirdi's consortium will win the day. No, it is the timing which fascinates most. Hodgson himself has suggested that any transfer funds potentially available to him would not manifest themselves in time for well-considered player recruitment ahead of the transfer deadline on September 1st. This would lead to the possibly damaging situation of Hodgson having a hole slowly burning in his pocket until January, while the gossip columns feed off Liverpool's increased spending power and existing squad members begin to feel the squeeze. There are plenty of players in the squad who have a great deal to prove in the coming campaign, even with some of the deadwood having been chopped away already, and the availability of resource to strengthen a squad under heavy pressure from the get-go is sure to make the likes of Babel, Aquilani and Insua look nervously over their shoulders, straight into the sage eyes of the plotting Hodgson.

Such an explosive situation could be afforded an early spark or two by the opening fixtures of the season, and the fixture computer seems to have it in for the Merseysiders this time around. The Reds face Arsenal first up, before visiting Man City eight days later and their arch-rivals United three games later. In 6 league games against these opponents last season, Liverpool secured 5 points from a possible 18, and only 1 from 9 available in 2010. Moreover, Liverpool's clash with City is sandwiched by a tricky looking Europa League play-off with Turkish side Trabzonspor. The Turks finished fifth in the Super Lig last season and won two domestic cup competitions; the tie also sees Liverpool travel to Turkey for the second leg just three days after facing City and less than 48 hours before a clash with promoted West Brom at Anfield.

Given the frenetic start to the season, Roy will be grateful that his current roster appears fairly settled and in slightly better shape than those who disappointed under Benitez in finishing seventh last time out. Troublesome Spaniard Albert Riera has been jettisoned, with Milan Jovanovic coming in on a free transfer (a deal ironically initiated by Benitez in a surprising appreciation of good value). Yossi Benayoun was sold to Chelsea, with the consistent Israeli being replaced with another free transfer in the form of the gifted playmaker Joe Cole, who has reportedly looked sharp in pre-season. These moves give Liverpool's front line a more direct aspect, although it remains to be seen if either will be able to force themselves ahead of the ever-dependable Dutch workhorse Dirk Kuyt. Roy still lacks potent youth in the most advanced positions, and neither Jovanovic nor Cole will do much to lower the team's average age. But more is expected of David N'Gog, who fired the Reds past Rabotnicki in the Europa League, and of course the infuriating Ryan Babel.

In defence Liverpool should remain solid; they claim to possess the league's top stopper in Jose Reina, although this is certainly a matter of opinion, and the centre-backs remain, with the addition of the versatile and promising Danny Wilson, who was snapped up from Rangers by Hodgson on July 21. Wilson has drawn comparisons with Alan Hansen, and at just 18 looks like a marvellous investment who could, alongside Dan Agger, form the heart of the back four for many years. In midfield, the seemingly Inter-bound Javier Mascherano may be replaced by Juve's Danish holding midfielder Christian Poulsen, while Hodgson also seems to be toying with a deeper role for the talismanic Gerrard. There is no question that Gerrard can excel in this position, in the same way that Paul Scholes does for Manchester United, but with added drive owing to his fewer years.

Most Liverpool fans, I imagine, would simply have been happy to start the season in the knowledge that Fernando Torres would be putting on the famous Nine again. With this commitment secured just last week, many minds were set at ease, and the Spanish hit-man would surely receive the largest cheer, drowning out any mutterings about his World Cup failings, of all the returning players if he made the squad for this Sunday's curtain-raiser. But this rapturous welcome will soon give way to a whole host of questions, the answers to which have barely been hinted at here. Liverpool have a daunting array of obstacles to overcome if they are even to remain ahead of Moyes' boys, and only then can they make eyes at the logjam that threatens to develop in front of them, where City's overspilling coffers, a Drogba-powered Chelsea and a fired-up United, fronted by a smiling Mexican, all stand in their path.