As Newcastle United approached the 2012-13 Premier League campaign (Now with 100% more Europa League!), there was a certain amount of trepidation regarding the increased load on an already thin squad. This feeling of foreboding was compounded for many with the closing of the summer transfer window with visible shortages in the squad yet again. On top of that, if you ruled out the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, the clubs which you could reasonably expect Newcastle to be competing with (specifically Everton, Fulham, Liverpool and perhaps extending into Tottenham and Arsenal) mostly looked to have taken a step forward.
In the CHN wrap of the transfer window, I wrote:
The prepackaged MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) version of the Newcastle transfer window is that we should be grateful that we were able to hold on to our star players. As a club with the stated ambition of qualifying for the Champions League THIS SEASON, I don't believe that we should be dislocating our shoulders as we pat ourselves on the back for keeping Yohan Cabaye, Cheik Tiote, Papiss Cisse and the like. While the Newcastle United brass were sitting around having a snicker and feeling proud "We priced them out again! Ha Ha Ha!" feelings, other clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham were making decisive and massive strides forward with their acquisitions.
In fairness, at the time of that writing, Tottenham were still looking at least 50/50 to have acquired Joao Moutinho right at the wire which didn't end up occurring and significantly reduces the opinion I would have had regarding their transfer window dealings... but the overall idea of the piece still holds. We're 12 matches into the season and unsurprisingly, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham are above the Toon in the table (although with Tottenham at 8th and Arsenal at 6th, you'd not be blamed for a lost opportunity sort of mentality). Liverpool has crept above us this past weekend with yet more dropped points at St. James' Park. There are, however, 5 other clubs above us at this point... some expected and some unexpected. Let's look back at their transfer dealings compared to my projections and, of course, the Toon:
Liverpool also splashed the cash a couple of times this summer as well with the arrival of £10m Fabio Borini from Roma being widely praised while the £15m of Joe Allen from Swansea City was met with more skepticism... until he took the pitch. The two players are certainly an upgrade for Liverpool, but there is still a hole in their squad here and there, so if there is a club that didn't potentially put a foot in front of the Toon this summer, it may have been them.
Liverpool have probably been the closest to what we expected - adding to a transfer window inactivity which (like Newcastle United's own) left some holes in the squad, they loaned out Andy Carroll to West Ham United, sent Dirk Kuyt to Turkey and were compelled to sell Craig Bellamy back home due to personal circumstances for the Welshman. An extremely thin striker position became thinner with Fabio Borini's long-term injury and the loss of Lucas Leiva yet again to injury is said to have limited the influence that Joe Allen has been able to have thus far this season.
Liverpool assessment: They are who we THOUGHT they were.
Setting the table: Swansea are a club that you would not have counted upon to be above the Toon at this point of the season based on last year's evidence, but as they say, that's why the play the games. Brendan Rodgers led the Swans to an 11th place finish in their first season in the Premier League before heading to Anfield to replace deposed King Kenny, taking Joe Allen with him.
Transfer Activity: Following the departures of Rodgers and Allen, Swansea introduced Michael Laudrup as their new manager. The Dane brought with him a tiki-taka style and the club acquired pieces for him accordingly. Their transfers in had a decidedly Spanish flavor with CB Jose Manuel Flores, winger Pablo Hernandez, and AM Michu all joining the Welsh outfit. None of these players were, in the general scheme of things, "bank busters" although Hernandez at £5.55m is Swansea's club-record signing. Their acquisitions, however, may prove that it's not how much you spend but acquiring the right parts for your system that defines a successful transfer window.
Swansea City assessment: After a rough start to their sophomore season in the PL, they have lost only once since the beginning of October (a 1-0 reverse AT Manchester City) and look to be in ascent. They may be part of the adjusted-view class of near-table rivals for Newcastle United.
Also making big noise in the market around deadline day was Fulham. Selling Clint Dempsey is a big loss for them, but the addition of Dimitar Berbatov has got to be considered a strengthening of their squad. Add in their capture of Iranian winger Ashkan Dejagah from Wolfsburg and a year older and more experienced Kerim Frei into the equation, you'd be hard pressed to make the case that they have taken a step backwards.
Fulham entered their match with the scum today with a chance to supplant Everton for 5th place in the table. As I write this, they are 3-1 down in the 82nd minute, however, so they will likely end up the day in 9th in the table. (side note: the scum have a game in hand over the Toon, so although they will end today 2 points behind us in the table today, we very well could be looking up at them soon.)
Though Ashkan Dejagah has yet to make much of an impact at Craven Cottage and Kerim Frei (who I personally rate very highly) has been farmed out to Cardiff City, Dimitar Berbatov has come in and scored goals for Martin Jol's side. He leads the team with 5 of their 24 goals on the season. While Fulham are not at all goal-shy, they are conceding quite a few as well, and as a result, they are perhaps treading water - 9th place at the end of 2011-12, 9th place now... but still within touching distance of the top 6.
Fulham assessment: A dash of naivety on my part perhaps caused me to overstate exactly where Fulham got themselves to during the transfer window... hindsight 20/20 and all, they lost their primary goal-scorer (Dempsey), brought in a goal-scorer (Berbatov) and basically tread water beyond that. They are, at least, not underachieving if not improving.
I probably should have felt very good that Spurs ended up selling Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart as (when he's healthy) he is a very very good player. Perhaps his absence would give us a bit of hope in the midfield matchups v. Spurs this year. Not so fast! In comes Clint Dempsey to take over in a similar role. You may remember his four goals against us last year, including his first ever hat-trick in the Premier League by an American performance in the 5-2 thrashing we suffered at Craven Cottage. Luka Modric was transferred to Real Madrid only to be replaced (although still unconfirmed at this time) by Joao Moutinho, who was reported to be interesting all of the Sky6 among others.
Obviously the Moutinho transfer did not materialize, and that severely affects the assessment of Spurs' transfer dealings. While the rest of their acquisitions look good on paper, they have yet to see them produce consistently. When added to the learning curve for the club in the AVB system (which seems to be... severe, shall we say), this has translated into an 8th place standing at this point of the season. While most would feel that Emmanuel Adebayor will find his scoring boots, you have to wonder if the midfield reinforcements in the form of Clint Dempsey and Gylffi Sigurdsson will come good on last year's precedent that they set for themselves. Much like Newcastle to this point, they have struggled to do so.
Tottenham Hotspur assessment: Spurs are trending downwards a bit having lost 3 consecutive Premier League matches. If Dempsey and Sigurdsson can find a way to make an impact and Adebayor can score some goals (after serving his suspension, that is), then their prospects of turning things back upward are quite good. Factor in Hugo Lloris' struggles in London and leave their other acquisitions on their current trajectory and their transfer dealings look expensive and inadequate.
West Ham United
West Ham have been the surprise package of the promotion winners of the Class of 2012. A look at their roster kind of reminds you of a fringe NHL playoff team right after the trade deadline. Some young players that generally could succeed but might not, but a couple of seasoned, traveled veterans that bring the overall quality up and steady the ship. Kevin Nolan, purchased from Newcastle United just over a year ago, is one of those. Trading Robert Green out for Jussi Jaskalainen qualifies as well. Sam Allardyce has them playing solid if not spectacular football and they have taken advantage of their opportunities to get where they currently sit (see the match at St. James' Park for instance), but you might tend to think that if other clubs near them begin to find form or play to potential, they might struggle to keep pace (although safely out of the relegation scrap).
West Ham assessment: While outmaneuvering Newcastle for Andy Carroll and bringing Modibo Maiga in might have looked designed to stick in the Toon Army's craw, neither of those players have factored much in West Ham's success. The positive acquisitions have been solid veterans such as Jaskalainen and Matt Jarvis are the story here. They positively addressed most needs and while they are still on the lookout for a striker, Kevin Nolan is capable of filling the void in the interim. Address your needs, save the cheerleader etc. etc.
When writing the transfer window wrap, I had assumed that even with the sale of Robin van Persie and Alex Song, the addition of Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla and Lucas Podolski was enough to keep them safely above Newcastle in the PL pecking order. Although the three are joint-leaders in the goal scoring department (each player has 4 goals), their overall influence is perhaps a bit under expectation.
Arsenal assessment: Much like Spurs, it feels like if each of these players is able to perform up to expectation on a consistent basis, they should see improved league position, but they still seem likely to lag behind the Manchesters and Chelsea. As it stands, the overall view of their acquisitions may be at "meh" level - (only very) slightly disappointing in the short term, but you still figure they're going to show their quality over the entirety of the season.
Notorious for slow league starts, the Toffees made an early statement with an opening day victory over Manchester United. The results have stayed on the positive side and Everton are currently 5th in the table and don't much look like fading. The 2011 sale of Steven Pienaar never really made much sense for either Everton or Spurs, and the lack of sense played itself out over last year. Pienaar was sorely missed by Everton, failed to make a mark at Tottenham and was back at Goodison Park a year later on loan. Kevin Mirallas has made a positive impression as well, although his most impressive displays have been outside the Premier League. Ultimately, Merouane Fellaini has been key to Everton's early season success to the point of attracting the interest of certain members of the Sky 6.
Everton assessment: Their transfer purchases have been impact players for the most part (Brian Oviedo aside), but the real story of the early season success for the blue half of Liverpool likely lies in this stat: 8 players on their roster have made at least 11 appearances in the league. I'm sure I don't have to point out that this is tremendous roster stability. Without European competition and with maintained health, this may be the year that Everton truly challenge for Champions League football.
West Bromwich Albion
When I wrote the transfer window wrap, West Brom were the "last club out" as it were. It seemed that, although they had quality and the ability to pull a result, the likelihood was that they would stay somewhere in mid-table to bottom half and thus not inclusive in the "near table" per se. Clearly, the season has proven me wrong. One time Newcastle assistant Steve Clarke has the Baggies flying high at 4th in the table after 12 matches.
Through purchase or loan, West Brom brought in 6 players. Only two of them could really be said to have had major impact on this season (Ben Foster* and Claudio Yacob) , and three of them (Markus Rosenberg, Goran Popov and Yassine El Ghanassy) have 2 appearances amongst them - and both of those are sub appearances for the Macedonian Popov. Romelu Lukaku on loan from Chelsea has been the "in between" for this group, chalking up 10 appearances, but 7 of those coming in a substitute role.
*Ben Foster made his loan move from Birmingham City for the 2011-12 season permanent for 2012-13, so it's hard to call him an acquisition, I suppose, but in the general scheme of things, he could always have been at Birmingham or been sold off elsewhere, so he still counts
West Bromwich assessment: Steve Clarke has got to get a lions share of the credit for the Baggies' early season success. Only one of 6 players brought in are playing appreciable time (for this purpose, Ben Foster does not count as he appeared 37 times during his loan last year) and as such you really can't ascribe their early season form to that. It's difficult to tell if this form is sustainable, but you have to think that if they can stay healthy, they're in good shape to contend for Europe in some form.
The lack of filling gaps in a fixture clogged season is always going to be a narrative for Newcastle's 2012-13 season. It does not seem to be a primary cause of Newcastle's struggles thus far this year, however (we'll talk this out more in future installments). After Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, none of the next 8 or 9 clubs has distinguished themselves, which feeds into the frustration that Toon fans are feeling. If we were playing to potential, you'd have to think that we would be in that mix from 4-6. Ultimately, however, the teams that looked to have improved greatly in the transfer window are not necessarily the teams that have passed Newcastle United in the table. That does not absolve Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias from any sort of guilt or blame for the struggles that Newcastle have faced this year. We'll get into this a little bit more when we progress to Part II. I would tease you exactly which thread in Ol' Duder's head is going to give you Part II, but... well, ok. Part II in non-clever format is most likely to deal with injuries and suspensions. Stay tuned, but I would like to eat lunch now.