The Prem's quick-fix saviors?
Now that we've turned off the spigot of hope and delusion that is the close of the transfer window -- along with the mind-numbing drudgery of the international break -- where should we focus our mania?
Oh yes, the soccer. For several clubs, this weekend either kick-starts their season or deepens the Wenger-shaped hole in which to sink a team's EPL relevance and dreams. Fortunately for the front-runners, this weekend spares them another titanic TV-friendly six-pointer, like a certain game at Old Trafford two Sundays ago, of which the less said the better. Rather, the schedule offers up plenty of newly promoted or mid-level roadkill for consumption, with the possible exception of Liverpool's visit to Fortress Britannia, the tibia-snapping home of Stoke City.
But thanks to that awkwardly timed international break -- a period that couldn't possibly pass without two more Arsenal injuries to arguably its most important players not wearing Barca and Man City colors, Thomas Vermaelen and Jack Wilshere -- clubs had to wait until Saturday to kick the tires of their shiny new panic buys. Regardless of whether the recruits were shipped in from the Russian League, La Liga or, in the case of Yossi Benayoun, a quick tube ride across town, there's an adjustment period that affords fans enough time to either flaunt their new heroes' shirts with pride or burn the old ones in effigy. (See Chelsea's Torres, F, and Liverpool's Carroll, A). It might be tough for some no-name Argie striker to land in the EPL and flourish -- best of luck at Everton to Denis Stracqualursi, by the way --but as El Nino and El Drunko can attest, an intra-league transition can be equally fraught.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
This season, with its unprecedented flurry of borderline desperate last-minute buying during the transfer window, one thing became abundantly clear: That adjustment period for the new arrivals will last until they take their first touch. With so much money spent earlier in the summer for the rich (United and City) to get even richer, there's a different kind of urgency attached to many of the 11th-hour buys that suggests the first butchered goal-scoring opportunity or ill-timed slip at the back will be greeted with a confetti shower of ripped-up season tickets.
With that in mind, it's worth looking at some of the more intriguing debutantes who will strut their stuff this weekend and demonstrate their instant value or resounding lack thereof.
Craig Bellamy, F, Liverpool
Upside: Huge pace and a prior stint at Anfield mean he should adapt quickly to the Liverpool Way, and as he noted at his unveiling, he idolizes King Kenny -- "To be signed by him is a massive honor." He's even familiar with the assistant coaches, Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen from his time at West Ham. Supported the Reds as a boy and is full of two-pronged determination to atone for a dismal 2006-07 with the club and to stick one to Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager who exiled him to Cardiff City on loan last season. Has an abundance of EPL and Champions League experience and can play several positions across the front line, whether tucked in behind Luis Suarez, drifting in from the left wing, or serving as a fill-in striker, which makes him a useful version of the departed dud David N'Gog. But there is one element of Bellamy's return that trumps all others: Now that John Arne Riise is back in the Prem with Fulham, we have a very real chance for a repeat performance from "the nutter with the putter." Circle Jan. 14, 2012, on your calendar, kids. Fulham versus Liverpool. The divots will be flying!
Downside: We have a very real chance of Bellamy losing it again and seeing whether any of his new teammates are a par 2. With Bellamy, you take the good crazy with the bad crazy. Consider the managerial sidebar to his EPL rap sheet. He famously went on strike at West Ham and refused to train when Gianfranco Zola blocked a move to Spurs. He fell out with Rafa Benitez at Anfield where he scored just seven goals in 27 appearances. He incited a "furious row" after a training-ground disagreement that convinced Mancini to exile him across the border. At 32, Bellamy no longer has the same level of game-changing speed and stamina that radiates from Dalglish's new posse, although Stevie G's return makes the Welshman look sprightly. Bellamy's expensive at $150,000 a week and is known to possess a Nani-esque selfishness around goal.
Biggest adjustments: If Bellamy wants to make it work at Anfield this time, he'll have to channel his feisty energy into scoring goals and setting up teammates instead of teeing up the tabloids. He'll also have to keep from spontaneously combusting if he ultimately finds himself as a fringe player on a youthful, upwardly mobile squad. Despite being the high-risk/high-reward transfer of the summer, just imagine if he gets a last-minute game-winner at Eastlands and the opportunity to give Mancini the old Welsh two-fingered salute. The sheer poetry of the scene is enough to make me misty.
Peter Crouch, F, Stoke City
Upside: A legitimate goal scorer -- 22 in 42 games for the national team, which makes him the most prolific England forward of his generation, a strike rate that eclipses even that of Wayne Rooney (28 in 72). Crouch's hat trick a few years back for Liverpool against Arsenal was an astonishing display of skill and agility for a 6-foot-7 praying mantis. It included a jaw-dropping bicycle kick that won over many skeptics who saw him as an ungainly, robotic circus freak. Never one to complain, he always plays with a smile on his face, likely borne out of his amazement that he's a millionaire soccer star with a smoking wife. When asked what he would have been if he wasn't a soccer player, Crouch deadpanned "a virgin." Though he never really showed it at White Hart Lane, he's surprisingly good at holding the ball up and linking with his onrushing teammates. He'll be an inviting target for Rory DeLap's exocet throw-ins and should cause even more havoc in the box.
Downside: His aerial threat is illusory -- the EPL's worst-kept secret is that Crouchie is much better with his feet. Was exceptionally spotty with Spurs, with just four league goals in 34 appearances last season (somewhere, Fernando Torres is envious), and his head never seems to be in the right place when the ball is launched into the mixer. Given that any team daring enough to sign him tends to resort to knee-jerk "Find The Big Man" tactics, Crouchaldinho spends most games hurling his bony frame in search of the ball, always either stooping or rising up on his tippy-toes to get on the end of a punt or cross but rarely connecting with any power or precision. He's also too often penalized by the referee for trying to springboard off opponents' shoulders. Stoke manager Tony Pulis will have to hope that he can succeed where Harry Redknapp failed in explaining the offside rule to Crouch.
Biggest adjustment: Will have to bulk up and get a few tattoos to fit Stoke's signature brawny style. While twice as tall as Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon, he may have been the lightest player on Tottenham's squad. Pulis is no doubt encouraged by the way he manhandled the Potters' brutish Ryan Shawcross at White Hart Lane last season, scoring twice with his head! Must come to terms with no longer receiving a steady supply of seeing-eye crosses from Gareth Bale to shank high or wide.
Scott Parker, MF, Tottenham Hotspur
Upside: Hands down, the Greatest English Midfielder To Rarely Play For England. Universally revered for his lionhearted spirit, badge-kissing joy and old-school hair, he's the spit-and-blood foil to the silky conjurer Luka Modric, an acquisition designed to settle the Croat's wanderlust after his failed Chelsea escape plot. Redknapp has made no secret of his man crush on Parker over the years -- "He's a big player," "He's a driving force" and "combative, relentless, professional, modest and unbendingly committed" are just three of the bouquets 'Arry tossed at the midfielder, which explains why the old wheeler-dealer batted his orange eyelashes at the West Ham captain with such alarming frequency.
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Downside: There really isn't one when you think of Parker the player. Ultimately, his biggest negative is that his selflessness and Englishness make him a coveted commodity. That, and the fact that his price tag is consistently reasonable -- Spurs got him for $9.5 million -- in a post-Carlos Tevez universe. And don't forget that this is a player whom Chelsea let get away after two underwhelming seasons in the reserves. Once Spurs plummet to their traditional sixth spot (or, glancing at the current table, rise to it), look for bigger clubs to come knocking, and who's to say Parker won't cock an ear, like Modric did, toward the jingling of Russian rubles at Stamford Bridge? After all, he's been a pawn in agent shenanigans and tapping-up in the past; just ask Alan Curbishley, the Charlton boss who blooded him into the top flight in the early 2000s only to see him wooed away by West Ham for $16 million. Then, after working tirelessly to try to keep the Hammers in the Prem, Parker's head was turned again by a move to a glitzier neighborhood across town. If you want to nitpick, Parker's got some miles on him (he turns 31 in October), but this is a player who simply deserves a better address than White Hart Lane.
Biggest adjustment: From being the center of West Ham's universe to just another shooting star in Tottenham's cosmos. He'll still bring the same gut-busting dynamism to the Spurs midfield, but as a decidedly subjugated role to the more inventive Modric. The Croat will rely on Parker's work rate and ball-winning menace to keep Messrs. Defoe and Adebayor -- I couldn't be more delighted to see his lazy butt in a Spurs uniform -- amply stocked with goal-scoring chances they fail to convert.
Upside: At the time of typing this, they're all healthy. (Although knowing the Gooners, one of them probably just pulled a hamstring reaching for his Chablis.) They're all of legal drinking age -- way over it, in fact -- and instantly serve as a stabilizing influence for the callow, featherweight squad. Chu-Young has Bellamy-esque versatility across the frontline without the Welshman's volcanic temper, and provides excellent cover for the porcelain-fragile striker Robin van Persie. The 6-foot-6 Mertesacker is a proven, defensive commodity at both domestic and international levels, while Benayoun and Arteta are two of the EPL's longest-serving midfield schemers. And Santos brings the kind of attacking panache that defined legendary Brazilian fullbacks like Nilton Santos and Roberto Carlos. It doesn't matter that they were purchased with all the thoughtful care of a frantic Christmas Eve shopper; the fact that they're physically able to play is the important thing. If not for these guys, I'd be next on the Arsenal fullback depth chart.
Downside: Their names aren't Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata or Yann M'Vila, all of whom rebuffed Wenger in the waning hours of the transfer window. In other words, just because you're healthy enough to play for Arsenal doesn't mean you're good enough to play for Arsenal. The biggest problem among the new recruits is consistency: All of Chu-Young's goals (a career-high 12 in 33 Ligue 1 games) couldn't mask a Bendtner-esque profligacy in front of net that contributed to Monaco's relegation last season. As for the replacements for The-Midfielders-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, Arteta and Benayoun are solid, established pros but come cursed with the same kind of injury-prone history (Arteta's knee, Benayoun's Achilles) that bedevil half the current Gunners crop. Mertesacker looks imposing at first glance -- and has 76 caps for Germany -- but his Werder Bremen side leaked 61 goals last season and his recent form is similarly worrisome. A wobbly effort in a dispiriting 2-2 draw with Poland last week had the German press calling him "disoriented and lacking dynamism" and labeling him as one of the "losers of the week." As for Santos, he may be Brazilian but that storied DNA isn't always synonymous with greatness. Anyone remember the clueless Denilson?
Biggest adjustment: Handling the whiplash pace of the Prem and the ridiculous expectations of the demanding Gunners fan base. Given that Arsenal spends money about as frequently as Justin Bieber shaves, the new arrivals will need to be resilient when faced with the burdensome expectations heaped on quick-fix saviors for a struggling club. It's the kind of coals-to-diamonds pressure put upon new recruits at the Emirates that reduced Andrei Arshavin from a "can't-miss" after Euro 2008 to a "can't-unload" after Aug. 30, 2011.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."