Strongest Squad Ever?

Last updated : 13 September 2005 By Keith Allman

Much as I love Milan, there's no doubting that he has been known to let his emotions get the better of him from time to time and he does get over-excited. Personally I think that's great and it shows that he does care; sometimes it causes problems (especially in regards to transfers) but at least he's not like so many other clubs - or indeed some of our own past chairmen - who just don't give a toss.

Amongst the many claims made by Milan this summer was that he was confident that he was building his strongest squad so far. Now that the summer is over and the transfer window has slammed shut it's time to hold that idea up to scrutiny and see if it crumbles like a soggy biscuit or stands up to the challenge like a soggy biscuit... that has then been frozen in ice.

Currently we're quite well staffed in goal. When he finally settles down and gets to form, I still have faith in Westerveld to be a very good signing for us. Jamie Ashdown is an adequate back-up and we've still got young Guatelli coming up through the ranks. As for Chalky, well, surely we'd be able to rely on his in a desperate emergency? He has won the European Championship, after all.

I'd be inclined to say the goalkeeping position is stronger than ever. Whilst there is no doubt that Shaka Hislop has been our best keeper over the last few years, he's been let down by the fact that when injured or suspended we haven't really had especially reliable keepers on the bench; the likes of Wapenaar, Srnicek, and even Alan Knight on the bench at Villa. The fact we now have (at least) two goalkeepers with regular Premiership experience bodes well.

Since promotion we've always had talent in defence; Stefanovic, De Zeeuw, Primus and Griffin spring to mind. The problem has, more often than not, been strength in depth. Griff for example was our only right back last year so Linvoy and Cissé have had to step in regularly. Likewise we've had problems in the middle - who can forget last year when there were doubts we would play Dejan, De Zeeuw and Linvoy in the same team in case one of them got injured and we didn't have enough players left? In the first season after promotion we had a few more bodies in (Zivkovic, Foxe and Schemmel, for example) although there were questions over all three and whether or not they were up to the standard of the Premier League.

On first impressions we look ok at the back now. We've got cover for every position which is the crucial factor; Griffin or Priske at right back; Dejan, Andy or Linvoy in the middle; Vignal or Taylor on the left. And of course, all of the aforementioned can usually play somewhere else in the backline if suspension or injury forces a re-think. And that's without forcing Cissé into emergency duties! No shortage of bodies and no shortage of talent either - although if there was to be one concern it's that we don't have one young central defender coming through for the future, but I guess that's not an immediate problem.

Oooh, this one promises to be tricky. After all in our first season on coming up we had Stone on the right, Berger on the left, plus Smertin, Quashie, Faye, Sherwood or Hughes in the middle. Admittedly on the wings there's not much cover but you can't really argue with the quality, even if the quantity is a bit short.

We can pretty much write off the 04/05 squad in this running - the only additions between the first and second seasons being Mezague and Berkovic, neither of whom frequently (or ever, in the case of Valery) set Fratton Park alight.

So what about this season? Laurent Robert is the obvious replacement for Patrik Berger as the sulky yet supremely talented winger. Paddy played a massive part in keeping us up the first time round but failed to live up to expectations last season, so there's certainly a possibility Laurent could have an equal impact - although for now the verdict is with the Czech. Viafara, Diao and Vukic are all players with a lot of hype and who can hopefully fill the boots of those we have since lost, whilst Skopelitis is not too bad for a bit part player. Hughes and O'Neil have now come on leaps and bounds as players too, both starting to live up to their potential as Premiership footballers.

But is it better than the first year midfield? Tough one to call. Ask me again at Christmas but the one thing you would have to say is that this year's midfield certainly has the potential to be as good, if not better. You would certainly hope that some of our current crop could live up to the performances of previous players.

The big problem with this would have to be one man - Yakubu. Regardless of how lazy he was, how much he seemed to waddle around sometimes and how he just couldn't wait to get away, you can't argue with the fact he gave us goals. And the fact he's now missing means it's a tough call to say that any of our current bunch will get as many as he did.

Were it not for him, then the 03/04 squad would've been pitifully outclassed in this department. Admittedly Sheringham did more than his fair share with 10 strikes (despite a mid-season fade), the problem was strength in depth once more. Deon Burton? Lee Bradbury? JASON ROBERTS?!? Even the Yak only had two goals by Christmas! But it was his fifteen in the last few months which catches the eye. Even so, I don't think you could realistically argue that this was the best "squad" of strikers; pretty much reliant on one performer.

So that takes us to a shoot out (cunning pun eh) between this and last season. And I have to say that my vote goes to last year's squad on this one. Admittedly it's well up for debate - Collins could turn out to be a star, I have no doubt that Silva is going to bang ten or so and of course you've still got LuaLua - but that's still all to be proved. Going on what we've seen so far, it's blatantly obvious that we really really need a goalscorer, a poacher, a "fox in the box". Last season we had Yakubu and LuaLua linking together up front, the most exciting strike pairing since... er... Burchill and Crouch?!? Admittedly our Nigerian friend didn't help matters by plodding around like a speeding milkfloat but in terms of "names on paper" in the summer, you'd have to say things looked good. Hell, even Dio "Barn Door" Kamara and yes - even Ricardo Fuller - they all seemed like good prospects as the season kicked off. And, to be fair, those two did get seven goals between them.

Much like the midfield, though, this could be one to be reviewed at Christmas.

So what conclusions can we draw? Well, first of all, if you're still reading this then I congratulate you. But secondly, whilst perhaps we haven't got as much squad depth in certain positions as we have had previously, I have a very strong and sneaky suspicion that our starting XI could turn out to be one of the best we've had in recent times. Without trying to put a jinx on any of our players or trying to build them up too much, our current first choice team - if everyone was on top form - for me, would be;

GK: Westerveld
DF: Priske, O'Brien, Stefanovic, Vignal
DM: Diao
MF: Viafara, Robert
AM: Vukic
ST: LuaLua, Silva

Subs: Ashdown, Griffin, O'Neil, Mbesuma, Karadas

And that certainly looks like one of the strongest and most talented teams we've had in a while.