Rumours, bids, rejections, denials, high-profile transfers and teenage sensations—the beginning of the European football season is often full of off-the-pitch and behind-the-scenes drama, much of it with serious on-field implications. As the summer break comes to an end, have clubs done enough to augment and nip and tuck their squads from last season to mount a fresh challenge?
This has been a sedate summer in terms of transfers in Europe. The stars of European football have stayed put at their respective clubs so far, though the never-ending Cesc Fàbregas saga continues, with the Spanish midfield star still oscillating between Barcelona and his current club Arsenal. What has changed is the focus of the transfers. It’s not the big-ticket player who has been the aim for most clubs this season, but the emerging star.
The English Premier League 2011-12 season begins on Saturday.
1. Gervinho, 2. Ashley Young (Reuters), 3. Jordan Henderson, 4. Oriol Romeu, 5. Sergio Aguero. Photographs by: Getty Images
Still looking to build a consistent, successful team after coming back from the brink of bankruptcy, and enduring a few terrible seasons, Liverpool have played it safe in the market. Blackpool’s 25-year-old midfielder Charlie Adam comes in after a brilliant season in 2010-11 for the relegated club. Adam is a sensational left-footed set piece taker, and is a master controller of the long ball. Championship side Sunderland’s two-time Young Player of the Year (2009-10, 2010-11) Jordan Henderson will also add much needed composure in the Liverpool midfield. The 21-year-old has already managed to make his way into the England senior squad after a fantastic season in the centre of the field for Sunderland in 2010-11. The 27-year-old Premier League veteran Stewart Downing, Aston Villa’s Player of the Season in 2010-11, will complete Liverpool’s new-look midfield.
After six trophy-less and frustrating seasons on the trot, Arsenal fans will be forgiven for feeling that a radical overhaul was needed. Given that the team’s two biggest midfield stars, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, have been on the verge of quitting the club for months now, the need for big signings was even more acute. But it has been one of the most pessimistic close seasons for Arsenal in decades, with manager Arsène Wenger sticking to his policy of unearthing raw talent instead of signing proven players. Ivory Coast international Gervinho is a typical Wenger buy—pacy, athletic, skilful and lured for a bargain. The 24-year-old was French Ligue 1 club Lille’s best player last season as the club lifted both the Ligue 1 and Coupe de France titles. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is almost a carbon copy of another famous Wenger product, Theo Walcott. Like Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain is from Championship club Southampton’s youth academy and is an extremely fast winger who likes drifting into midfield. The 17-year-old will be pushed into the attacking midfield role that has been played by Nasri.
Finally, a club that has gone and splashed money on anyone and everyone they fancied. The Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment-owned club has once again, like in the last three seasons, eclipsed all other clubs in the Premier League in the transfer market. Sergio “Kun” Agüero, Maradona’s son-in-law, and a footballer almost as electrifying and skilled as his Argentina colleague Lionel Messi, is by far the biggest summer attraction in the league. Bought for £38 million (Rs 279 crore) from Atletico Madrid, the 23-year-old striker will add serious firepower in front of the goal for City, and in combination with Edin Dzeko and Carlos Tevez, probably constitutes the most lethal strike force in the league. City also spent on two quality defenders—Gael Clichy, the fast, aggressive and skilful centre back has been lured from Arsenal, while 20-year-old Montenegrin defender Stefan Savic will have to prove that he has what it takes to make it at the biggest stage.
The club has taken a leaf out of Arsenal’s book and signed young, upcoming players to help in its English Premier League title defence. Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson likes to keep his bases covered, and 19-year-old Phil Jones, bought from Blackburn Rovers, is already touted as a man for all seasons, equally adept in defence and defensive midfield positions. Jones will be on backup for the injury-prone defender Rio Ferdinand, as well as for holding midfielder Michael Carrick, who is making a comeback after a long injury layoff. Jones will be in competition for the defender’s role with his Under-19 England teammate Chris Smalling at United, which is indicative of the club’s new focus on youth. Spanish U-21 international David de Gea steps into the rather large boots of Dutch Edwin van der Sar under the goalpost. The former Atletico Madrid keeper saved the most shots inside the penalty area in the Primera Liga last season. The 26-year-old Ashley Young, signed from Aston Villa, is Ferguson’s most talked about signing of the season. A versatile midfielder and speedy winger, Young failed to make the cut for the England squad for the 2010 World Cup, but is quickly establishing himself as one of the country’s brightest prospects.
Despite a poor season last year that imploded midway, Chelsea too have not tried to overhaul the squad. Instead they fired coach Carlo Ancelotti and brought in Portuguese André Villas-Boas from FC Porto. At 33, Villas-Boas is as old as his first choice striker Didier Drogba. Chelsea’s all-star line-up are on enormous salaries, restricting the buying of new players for this season, but Villas-Boas too has banked on relatively unknown young players with explosive potential. Belgian international Romelu Lukaku, 18, is on board—the beefy 6 ft 3 inches striker is seen as the future replacement for Drogba. The former Anderlecht player made his debut for Belgium in 2010. Chelsea’s second pick is 19-year-old Barcelona reserve Oriol Romeu, snatched from under Wenger’s formidable Gallic nose. Romeu, who has had a couple of exposure stints with the Barca first team as well, is a deep-lying midfielder well versed in Barca’s stifling, controlling game. Villas-Boas says he is the kind of player “every team needs”. If Chelsea’s relentless pursuit of Tottenham Hotspur’s playmaker Luka Modric is successful, they may have the squad to seriously threaten Manchester United for the title.
Elsewhere in Europe
The summer’s big signings in Spain and Italy
The players: Nuri Sahin, a key playmaker who helped Borussia Dortmund win the Bundesliga in 2010-11; the 23-year-old versatile fullback Fábio Coentrão from Benfica; and the sensational 18-year-old central defender Raphael Varane from Lens.
The goal: Break Barcelona’s stranglehold.
The players: The 22-year-old Chilean star Alexis Sanchez, a versatile striker coveted by major clubs in Europe, but signed by Barca from Udinese; and 17-year-old Gerard Deulofeu, yet another promising striker from Barca’s youth academy, who has been upgraded to the first team.
The goal: Improve on perfection.
The players:The 18-year-old Stephan El Shaarawy from Genoa, whose impressive control of the midfield has earned him a call-up to the Italian U-21 team; veteran French centre back Philippe Mexes from Roma; and Nigerian left-back Taye Taiwo from Marseille.
The goal: Defend the Serie A title.
The players:Chilean defensive midfielder Arturo Vidal from Bayer Leverkusen; Roma striker Mirko Vucinic; and AC Milan playmaker Andrea Pirlo—all hardened veterans.
The goal: Reverse their recent fall from grace