Football Sport

The closest Premier League yet?

Written by Leanne Lu

This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct 2015 issue of WGM.

Premier League champions Chelsea began their title defense with a defeat against Arsenal in the Community Shield, a game widely regarded as a rehearsal for the new season albeit with less significance. Standing on the touchline, José Mourinho looked very much relaxed despite his side trailing for most of the game, but the experienced manager knew he was right in identifying the upcoming season as the most difficult in history shortly before the London derby. It looms as a season in which anything can happen. We run our eye over the contenders.

Arsène Wenger got his dream man this summer when he obtained Petr Cech’s signature for just £10 million. Given the erratic and sporadic performance of his predecessors, the Czech goalkeeper will no doubt play a crucial part in the Gunners’ campaign and certainly appears to be the best Arsenal goalkeeper since Jens Lehmann. At the age of 33, Cech still has a lot to offer and from his several appearances so far – including the Community Shield defeat of his former club Chelsea – already appears to have firmed up Arsenal’s defense.

However, the Gunners have historically started the season well only for a mid-season slump to hamper their hopes of winning the title. It is a trend that has repeated again and again in recent years. The young squad’s lack of experience and resilience in the grueling long winter remains a worry but Cech could well be the man to infuse a sense of confidence into the team, while his commanding presence in the box will inevitably be worth points throughout the season.

With a good mix of youth and experience, Arsenal look to be better placed than ever to challenge for the title in 2015/16 – although they will need to splash out for a quality striker if they are to complete their squad. Pacey fullback Hector Bellerin and solid defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin were tremendous discoveries last season for Wenger with the emergence of youth freeing up some much-needed funds.

The French manager is a long time admirer of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, who could be an option, although having missed out on Gonzalo Higuaín 12 months ago Wenger can’t afford to go empty handed again. Bring in a player who can score goals week in, week out and Arsenal fans have reason to feel genuinely optimistic about their chances.

Champions Chelsea’s eye-catching plan to reconstruct Stamford Bridge was one of the few headlines they created during the summer. Surprisingly quiet during the transfer window, Radamel Falcao’s loan move from Monaco after a disastrous season with Manchester United was the only move made to improve their striking force before the season starts. José Mourinho, who observed he needed more strikers after winning the title in May, could find himself again lacking enough firepower up front.

Chelsea had the smallest squad last season with only 19 first team players registered with the league. First choice striker Diego Costa was an instant success after moving to west London from Madrid, although injuries caught up with him as the season progressed. When he was sidelined, Loïc Rémy and Didier Drogba led the line but posed far less threat. So is Falcao the answer? For a player with a lengthy injury record himself and an unconvincing season in the Premier League last year, Mourinho cannot afford to rely too heavily on the Colombian. But at least the Chelsea board got their balance right. With John Terry approaching the end of his career and Filipe Luís headed back to Spain, they seem more intent on adding depth at the back with Ghanaian left fullback Baba Rahman and Everton’s John Stones on their radar. The latter is regarded as the long-term successor to Terry.

Mourinho has claimed this season would be the most difficult in history with the title winner likely to scrape home by just a point or two. Perhaps it is this pessimistic prediction that made the Portuguese decide on a more defensive shift.

Another busy summer, another season with so much on the line. This season represents the third time under the ownership of the Fenway Group that Liverpool has splashed out on new players to improve their squad – and the second year in a row they’ve done so under Brendan Rodgers. Having signed nine players in the summer of 2014, another seven have been recruited this transfer window with Christian Benteke – the £32.5 million Belgian striker – the second most expensive acquisition in the club’s history. His purchase has been offset, however, by Raheem Sterling’s £49 million move to Manchester City which covered more than half of Rodgers’ £77.5 million summer spending.

Liverpool’s sudden willingness to spend represents a huge gamble for John Henry, the generous owner who was behind Anfield’s ongoing expansion plan to increase the Reds’ revenue. To match the American owner’s ambition, Rodgers must do far better than last year and a top four finish is a must if he wants to retain his position. A more continuous and fluent formation is required, as Rodgers switched from 4-3-3 to 3-1-4-1 last year with the three defenders system becoming a major issue for the Reds.

It looks like Rodgers will return to 4-3-3 from what we saw in the pre-season. Benteke will no doubt lead the line when fit, while Daniel Sturridge is not too far away from returning after his latest injury setback. Behind the big man, Coutinho and Firmino – the two Brazilian magicians – will run relentlessly to create chances for the team while James Milner looks to be a great pick-up from City.

On paper at least, Liverpool’s squad looks better balanced and with far more scoring ability than last season, but with so many new players flooding in they will need to gel together quickly.

Sports manufacturer Adidas’ new 10-year sponsorship deal with Manchester United, worth up to £75 million per year, indicates they believe the Red Devils are again poised to become one of the best clubs in the world. And United’s board certainly won’t accept anything less. Louis Van Gaal knows all too well the owner’s ambition and has been told a top four finish alone won’t be enough to save his job this year.

We do expect them to do better than last season, however, when they finished fourth and a full 17 points behind champions Chelsea.

The major problem for Van Gaal last year was United’s slow start which saw them take just 13 points from the first 10 games. The veteran manager has plied his trade in a number of European countries but last season was the first time he had ever coached an English club. Once he adapted to English football mid-way through the season and managed to rid his squad of the mental scars of their year under David Moyes, we witnessed a side that began to resemble the all-conquering United of old. They were, of course, still some way off their glory days but there is no doubt that by the end of the season they were a club on the rise.

Van Gaal identified his side’s midfield as the weakest link with the physical nature of English football highlighting some vulnerabilities. Bearing in mind the extraordinary game against Leicester City in which they were overwhelmed in the second half to go down 5-3, the Dutchman needs a strong holding midfielder to protect his backline and with Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger coming on board they look much more assured.

Memphis Depay, the young Dutch striker who has been on the radar of plenty of big clubs since the 2014 World Cup, also gives Van Gaal another attacking option. But the Dutch manager needs more than that – having scored only 62 goals last year, the fewest of the top four sides, the Red Devils are still lacking a proven striker up front. Wayne Rooney hasn’t led the line for three years and with Falcao and Robin Van Persie departing it remains to be seen if they pose enough attacking threat.

It was a particularly disappointing season for Manuel Pellegrini last year as Manchester City appeared to give up the title chase without a fight. With the club’s transfer ban lifted this summer, the Chilean manager has at least managed to go into the market and sign former Liverpool starlet Raheem Sterling, who at £49 million is now the most expensive English player in history.

How important a part will Sterling play in the new campaign? The English speedster will give the team speed, flair and more tactical flexibility and can play anywhere from wide on the flanks to the middle. Sterling’s fabulous performances during the pre-season also indicate the prolonged transfer saga and his obvious desire to leave the Reds prevented us seeing the best of him last season. There are, however, questions over his goal-scoring ability given he was never overly prolific at Liverpool.

Manchester City has maintained a fairly stable squad, with James Milner and Edin Džeko replaced by much younger players in Fabian Delph and Sterling. The strategy was outlined by Khaldoon al-Mubarak, the City Chairman, back in June when he said, “I can assure you this squad will be stronger and the team will be more competitive.”

With Belgian attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne also in sight, al-Mubarak looks intent on living up to that promise.

However, the uncertainty of the manager’s post at Etihad Stadium will always be an issue for this club. This season is the final year of Pellegrini’s contract and City’s admiration of Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola is well known. With Guardiola expected to join in 12 months’ time, it remains to be seen what impact the managerial merry-go-round will have on City’s season.

Tottenham will continue their battle to break into the top four in Mauricio Pochettino’s second year at the helm, having finished six points short in 2014/15. But with their rivals spending heavily, bridging that gap is unlikely to get any easier.

It has been a low-key transfer window for Spurs so far, but having conceded 53 goals last season – 16 more than fourth-placed Manchester United – it’s not surprising they focused on adding more defensive players. Toby Alderweireld is likely to feature in central defense after impressing at Southampton last season and appears to be an upgrade on Vlad Chiriches, who departed for Napoli this summer.

Spurs seem to have learned valuable lessons from their ill-fated transfer splurge in 2013 and have succeeded in offloading the likes of Paulinho and Etienne Capoue as well as keeping hold of prized asset Harry Kane. Spurs will need him to stay fit and pick up where he left off last term if they are to improve on last year’s fifth-placed finish.

There are a number of reasons we’re optimistic about Crystal Palace’s 2014/15 season. For a start, they looked a vastly improved team once Alan Pardew took over last year. The English manager steered the south Londoners from a relegation battle to their highest ever Premier League finish of 10th. With astute business and the right mentality, Pardew had previously carried Newcastle United and their small transfer budget to a fifth-place finish in the 2011/12 season so he knows how to work under limitations.

Pardew was also the major reason Yohan Cabaye made the move from Paris Saint-German in the summer. The French international excelled under Pardew during a three-year spell at St James’ Park and jumped at the chance to be reunited. Cabaye will be the commander for the south Londers in midfield, and has been joined at Selhurst Park by strikers Connor Wickham and Patrick Bamford, who is on loan from Chelsea. Goalkeeper Alex McCarthy has also arrived from QPR. Even José Mourinho has been impressed by Palace’s progress in the transfer market and singled them out as the team most likely to cause trouble to the big clubs this season. Let’s see if the Eagles can live up to their name and fly.