With a week to go until the start of the season, experienced armchair managers will slip into the old sheepskin and start seriously thinking about compiling their teams for the 38 games ahead. Much of the summer’s frankly ludicrous spending is over, and with the media poring over every minor footballer’s minor niggles, we have a reasonable idea who will start the season for a lot of teams.
Inevitably, despite a busy summer of ins and outs, the first couple of names on the teamsheet will come from last season’s leading performers, the players who top the charts year after year. Your solid goalkeeper, big-name midfielder, ‘plays-every-game’ type, and the marquee striker, right? Well depending on the scoring system in whichever league you ply your trade in, perhaps it is right, but in the spirit of just competition, you’ll have a strict budget to buy and trade players, and perhaps a wage cap.
Interesting that we recognise the value of this limitation when playing ‘fantasy’ football, but there’s no such call for a wage cap in the real world. Football is far from immune to hubris, and the reckless spending we’ve seen this summer is rooted in the same deep morass of debt that led to the credit crisis and recession.
Alright, so if you don’t have a wallet the size of Mark Hughes’ thighs (in his playing days), your first step is to consider who to place between the sticks. Last season’s standout ‘keepers were (in most leagues) Mark Schwarzer , Petr Cech, and Pepe Reina. Other ‘solid’ number ones were Van der Sar, hardly surprising given United’s terrific defensive run, the ever-reliable Shay Given, and Tim Howard.
All look like being first-choice again this season, with the exception of Van der Sar, who injured a finger in the pre-season penalty shoot-out against Bayern, so Ben Foster will start for United. Foster is highly rated in the United camp, and excelled during his loan spell at Watford behind a wobbly defence. He’s also a bit of a bargain, and would be my pick. Fulham still look well organised and drilled under Hodgson, so Schwarzer remains a sensible choice, and with Ancellotti’s arrival I’d expect Cech to receive a lot of protection at Chelsea. Liverpool ‘s Glen Johnson, while a good attacking full back (but at what percentage of your fantasy budget?) may weaken Liverpool’s defensive line, and Everton seem likely to lose Lescott. Eyeing a ‘keeper from a promoted side? Don’t.
Defensively, you’ll probably want attacking full-backs (to rack up the odd goal, or points for assists) and, well, any one of Vidic (injured), Carragher, Lescott, and Terry. Ferdinand rarely adds goals and is costly. Titus Bramble (seriously) had a good season at Wigan last year, as did Manny Figuero, will they maintain those standards? Hangeland and Paintsil at Fulham did well, as I mentioned. My gut feeling is that Blackburn, West Ham, Portsmouth, all look shaky at the back and could ship goals, so I’ll be steering clear of their defenders, but will I be looking foolish by Christmas? Spurs have a lot of injury problems at the back but Redknapp is canny. I therefore like Assou-Ekotu at a fair price.
In midfield, you’re insane not to have either Fat Frank or Stevie G. Simply insane. Stephen Ireland, Ashley Young and Danny Murphy impressed last time out, but have all risen in price. Phil Neville captains Everton, and plays most games. He won’t score many goals though. Arteta; Cahill, you’ll get value for money. Arsenal’s midfield always deliver points, but Arsene’s likely selection is a mystery to me, will he thrust forward the youngsters? I hope so, because Vela and Wilshere in particular look to be budding superstars. Will Theo deliver a consistent season?
Realistically, in the midfield and up front is where you’ll have to squeeze in a ‘bargain basement’ player. Now you can start trawling the mid-table sides, the newly-promoted. It’s really here, and in the transfer market, that the game is won and lost. Remember Hull’s Geovanni lighting up the Premiership for the first 10 games? Who would have backed Cliff Dempsey to hit form towards the business end of the season for Fulham? Can you unearth a gem from Birmingham, Wolves, or (don’t snigger) Burnley? I’m not going to give you any tips here, you’ll have to browse the net for clues as to who stood out in the Championship last season, defensively and in attack. As a Bristol City fan I have some ideas, and lasting wounds.
Up front, then, Man City seems to have all the weapons. Can they get them firing? Rooney in a central role? Pick him. Van Persie will get starts, and goals, as will (just get up, will you?)Drogba, and (a class act if fit) Torres. Crouch back under Harry? Goal machine, or will turn Defoe back into a goalscorer again. Those two should be glued together, which may see Keane play a wider role, or miss out, fitness depending.
Wolves’ Sylvain Ebanks-Blake has a big Championship reputation, can he make the step up? Eduardo can deliver for the Gooners. Villa will create chances; do you prefer Carew or Agbonlahor to convert them? Blackburn look goal shy now, as do Pompey, Birmingham, West Ham, and, yes, Burnley.
So with the curtain raiser between Manchester United and Chelsea underway on Sunday, raise a beer to the new season, with all its beloved goals, clean sheets, bookings, derby matches and gorgeous, delightful statistics. Keep one eye on the net for last-minute injury news and transfers, and replay the various possible combinations over and over in your mind. And remember, when it all seems to be going wrong mid-season, and you’re considering playing the ‘wildcard’ and changing your entire squad, that in 2007/08 a friend of mine spent a month in a coma, and three more unable to move in hospital during the season. He still beat me. By several hundred points.