The World Cup was magnificent and the pre season friendly circuit a barrel of laughs, but the English season is back up and running and after the Football League has kicked off, we now have another wide open renewal of the Premier League. While the debate over the quality of the top flight in Europe is a question that has become far more prevalent in recent seasons, one thing that can’t be denied is the competitiveness of the title race – it has gone to the last day in two of the last three seasons, and last year there were 4 teams within 7 points.
Taking matters at face value – that is the bookmakers predictions, last season’s performances, and the quality of new additions – this looks set to be another extremely close title race with 5 teams having an entirely realistic shot in Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool.
Last season Manchester City took advantage of the now infamous Steven Gerrard slip – which saw the Blues on their way to handing them the title – but Jose Mourinhio’s men could consider it a title that they lost and with the Portugese thriving in his second season they look well set to move past the transitional phrase they seemed stuck in last season to a first title win in 4 years.
Before last season Jose had kept expectation down – he believed he was at least a season away from landing the title – and during the season he notably kept a lid on any expectations, making pains to label Manchester City as favourites at every occasion – but after a 4-0 thumping of Tottenham they were top of the table and in control of the title with 9 games to go; they then lost to Aston Villa, Sunderland and Crystal Palace in those 9 games and ended up just 4 points behind City.
David Luiz seemed to clutter the starting eleven while Azpilicueta was forced to play on his opposite side, while Ramires was frequently erratic and Oscar could not maintain his blistering start to the season, leaving Eden Hazard all too short of support upfront in a magical season.
Last year while Liverpool and City scored over 101 and 012 goals respectively, Chelsea managed just 71 in their third place finish, but major steps have been taken to repair this and they look worthy title favourites.
The marquee signing to combat this is Diego Costa, whose goals fired Atletico Madrid to a first title since 1996. Of his 27 goals last season 26 came from within the box – the kind of finishing Chelsea were desperately missing with none of their established strikers actually going into double figures last season and Eden Hazard leading the way with 14 – and only Cristiano Ronaldo and Zaltan Ibrahimovic scored more than his eight in Europe, proving his ability against the biggest and best rear-guards.
While he can prove to be the finishing point for midfield attacks, his giant frame should see him bringing attacking midfielders into the game whenever he isn’t scoring and he carries an extremely strong aerial presence to ad to the riches Chelsea have from set pieces; If staying fit, he should be able to spearhead a title challenge.
Several highly touted strikers have come and proven to be a failure, but few have actually suited the style of football that Chelsea have endeavoured to play and Costa’s physical presence should be a perfect fit; Dider Drogba’s return as a player coach is also a positive move given the success Samuel Eto’o had in patches last season.
In midfield, Cesc Fabregas arrives after a spell at Barcelona that may not have been as successful as he’d hoped, but he brings even more dynamism and creativity to a midfield already stacked with talent and should slot in straight away as a replacement for the outgoing Frank Lampard, helping to speed up passing play from midfield while also taking the direct approach favoured by Mournihio’s sides. His partnership with Nemanja Matic, one of the Premier League’s most impressive midfielders last year – just ask Manchester City how they feel about him – should prove to be one of the most robust and effective midfield partnerships in the league
At left back, Flipe Luis looks to be an excellent addition to make up for the departure of Ashley Cole; The Brazilian brings the same tireless workrate, and defensive solidity that Cole held for so long at the Bridge and as a bonus, he moves Cesar Azpilicueta onto his preferred position at the right, a massive bonus considering how well he performed on the wrong flank in his first season.
In bringing back Thibaut Courtois, who was outstanding for Atletico last season – he had 26 league clean sheets to his name last year – Chelsea arguably have the world’s best goalkeeper on their books although with Peter Cech undiminished by age they have riches to choose from between the sticks. The Gary Chaill and John Terry centre partnership is the league’s best, and should injury befall one of those two then Branislav Ivanovic can fill in.
Of the established midfielders, if Hazard can repeat half of his form from last year then he will be a threat to all while the promise of improvement from Willian and especially Andre Schurrle is a scary one for Premier League defences to deal with; All this cover should hopefully cover for Oscar if he suffers burnout at any time like he did in the second half of last season.
The only side to win at Manchester City last year, they won at home and away to both the front two with deep defensive performances and have a beautifully balanced and experienced squad that has depth from top to bottom and the physicality to win ugly and the creativity to cut through deeper sitting defences on the road then they did last season; And if the depth of their squad needs underlining, then consider how they deservedly held a Liverpool side gunning for the title before killing them off on the break after making seventh changes from their midweek Champions League draw; Just three of that side were considered first teamers.
Manchester City didn’t handle their first title defence well at all but they can be expected to make a far better first of things this time around. They “stood still” in the transfer market after their dramatic title – a flurry of ill planned singings failed to make a real impact apart from Matia Nastasic – and were brutally caught out but they are in far better shape this season even if facing a much tougher task.
Roberto Mancini had reached his peak with the club and in 2012/13 his rigid formation that worked at home time was not so effective on their travels, with his man management also crumbling as City imploded badly against the biggest teams on their travels and David Silva and Yaya Toure played below their best with Gareth Barry being consistently exposed in midfield while Joe Hart suffered the longest barren period in his career.
While their title win last season was a tight one arguably given to them by Liverpool’s failings, that takes no gloss off it especially considering the spine of their team – generally considered to be Hart, Kompany, Toure, and Aguero – started just 7 games – that they all won, scoring 23 goals in the process.
There is genuine potential for them to improve and the deepest attacking frontline in the land will keep them close, although the long term absence of Alvaro Negredo is a blow and there’s a worry about Sergio Augero’s fitness, having missed 23 games in the last two seasons and also missed the rest of the World Cup through injury. That said, Stefan Jovetic’s first full season is likely to be of huge benefit to the club and Edin Dezko – somehow still underrated by many following three seasons with at least 14 goals – can fill in ably should injury befall the Argentinian.
In midfield the arrival of Fernando, another anchor to protect the back 5 from Porto, should allow Yaya Toure to keep pushing forward as cover for Fernandiniho, while a summer without football for Samir Nasri should see him raring to hit the heights of last season, and David Silva starts this campaign a fit man; Frank Lampard’s arrival is much heralded but do City need him?
Out wide they have arguably the best attacking fullbacks in the division with Kolarov and Zabaleta at left and right fullback respectively although Bacary Sagna will still have a great deal to offer them having moved from Arsenal and Gael Clichy, even if a below par defender, brings plenty of pace.
Yesterday saw the arrival of Elaquim Mangala from Porto for a terrifying fee – thanks to the third party ownership of the player – but on paper he should prove to be an ideal match for Vincent Kompany, with his pace, power and passing ability all worthy of playing at such a level; Matia Nastasic provides able backup and Martin DeMechelis quickly found his feet after a poor start last season.
While Chelsea are our clear pick for the title, the unmistakable fact is that since the 2011-12 season Manchester City have finished no worse than second in the leag and the dual forecast between the teams with the strongest first elevens and squads in the league makes great appeal, along with the straight forecast on Chelsea beating Manchester City in a 1-2.
Arsenal were seven points off City’s total but that doesn’t come close to telling the whole story of their season and they should be feeling confident of building on their most sustained challenge since 2008-09. Arsene Wenger’s men were the most impressive side for the first half of the season, and on the 3rd of February led the table, but injuries to Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey derailed their attacking momentum and they again succumbed in their traditional stutter periods of February and March to leave them too far back to contend in the latter stages.
It was a disappointing end to a campaign that had promised so much for them but crucial factors look to be different this season and it maybe that this year isn’t such a cliché ending. Arsene Wenger’s men ‘s strong finish to the season – they won their last 5 games – coincided with a successful bid to win the FA Cup, their first trophy in 9 years. They struggled and stumbled through the competition and especially the latter stages, but showed enough resilience and class against Wigan and Hull to get over a line that they had failed to do so on so many occasions since they last won a title. The manner of those wins – come from behind successes with strong fightbacks – showed a mentality that had been lacking at times during the league season and they come into this league campaign with their most significant mental demon lifted over them.
Their transfer business has also been steadily improving, with the outgoing Bacary Sagna compensated for in part with the arrival of Matieu Debuchy from Newcastle as a solid like for like, and David Ospina’s arrival from Nice is an excellent option to create the kind of competition for the No.1 goalkeeping spot that exists at City and Chelsea.
While much vaunted defender Calum Chambers looks to be an excellent addition to the squad long term, the real marquee singing is Alexis Sanchez, fresh from a standout World Cup for Chile after a strong season for Barcelona. Outstanding for Chile, Sanchez brings a whole range of talents to the Gunners but his raw pace is a huge asset and so is his finishing – his 19 goals were the second most any Barcelona player scored in La Liga last season.
Of course he’s more than just a poaching and speed merchant, with a huge passing range and tireless work ethic – something learned to great effect under Jorge Sampoli – both qualities Arsenal are now adding to their squad with each and every season. He can compliment and assists Oliver Giroud, who had a disappointing ending to the season after starting so well.
Mezut Ozil disappointed badly last season after a rapid start but he should come on a lot for his first campaign in England and if he has Walcott and Sanchez to aim at, should have an especially productive second season alongside the reams of talent they have in the middle of the park – step forward Santi Cazorla and Jack Whilshere (if over his attitude problems).
If the main players stay fit then they should feel confident of a challenge that can go all the way but Per Metersacker’s lack of pace was a huge issue last year and at this moment of time no replacement has been found for Thomas Vermalen while in midfield there is a feeling that Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini need to find another gear based on last season.
Last season they conceded 21 goals in defeats at Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton while also wining just two games away to the top 10 and the feeling is that another elite centreback, defensive midfielder or striker needs to arrive for them to go towards fixing those issues and there may be better ways to support them throughought the season.
Manchester United’s first season without Sir Alex was a spectacular failure as Moyes combusted and spluttered to a seventh placed finish but they should now feel emboldened with the team in far better shape and the much more capable hands of Louis Van Gaal.
Moyes looked overwhelmed on all fronts from the very start last season but in the limited opportunities we have had to see him at United Van Gaal’s presence has bought the best out of the squad and instilled much of the self confidence that was clearly missing from an early stage last season as clubs such as West Brom, Newcastle and Sunderland walked away from Old Trafford with all three points.
His tactical flexibility is also vital, with Moyes having struggled desperately for in this area – their 81 crosses against Fulham a textbook example – although a general lack of movement in most games could be seen – but that will not be the case with Van Gaal, who is comfortable using the 3-4-1-2 and 4-3-3. Another massive boost for them is having no European commitments throughought the season, much like Liverpool did last year when jumping from seventh to second.
In Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney they have the potential for 40 goals at least between the two and Juan Mata playing in behind them makes for a fearsome attacking force, but barring the arrival of Ander Herrera – one of many targets missed in a chaotic transfer window last season – in midfield and Luke Shaw at centreback this is the same squad that was at times woefully exposed man for man and improvements are still needed.
Ander Herrera’s touch and forward penetration are a much-needed change in midfield and Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa can also play a big part, but apart from Luke Shaw there have been no new arrivals in defence and with Nemaja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand all gone a likely back three of Smalling Jones and Evans looks well behind the other title contenders and much like Arsenal, they will be at the mercy of injury through the season and many find themselves just one season short.
Liverpool are widely expected to struggle without Luis Suarez but, to borrow a phrase, reports of their death may be exaggerated. So close last season, with a defeat to Chelsea and a draw at Crystal Palace costing them a first ever title in the Premier League era.
As many had suspected, Suarez’s 31 goals and 12 assists have jumped ship to Catalonia but that being for the considerable fee of £75m. Inevitable comparisons with Tottenham have been made as the fee has been reinvested with interest, but while Tottenham found a great deal many of the players failing to fit in with their system of football – while their record buy suffered with injuries and personal issues – Liverpool’s additions may be far more suitable and while the Uruguayan may be gone the squad as a whole looks to have moved forward.
Adam Lallana – one of three additions from Southampton – is one of the major additions who should all fit in seamlessly to the high energy quick passing style Rogers’s sides thrive on – while Lazar Markovic adds yet more pace and trickery to the wings. Divock
In the midfield, if Emre Can’s promise can be bought out then he can become an asset quickly based on previous reports and all evidence although in the vastly improved Jordan Henderson, lightning quick Philippe Coutinhio and evergreen Steven Gerrard they have a midfield three of the highest quality; Gerrard may need to be managed more now but there is at least sufficient cover to be doing so with Joe Allen also in the fold for selection.
The most important addition may be in defence however – where Liverpool lost out on the title last season. Brendan Rogers’ men conceded more goals last year than in his last two seasons at the club (50 compared to 40, and 43) with only Spurs conceding more out of the top eight (51 goals) so Southampton’s Dejan Lovren a vital addition to a Centre back line that was consistently exposed on many occasions last year. The Croatian was excellent for Southampton last season and should really bolster up Liverpool’s defence and hopefully Mamadou Sakho improves following a rickety first season although Martin Skrtel or Daniel Agger could be better foil.
Equally as important is the arrival of Alberto Moreno, an extremely promising left back that crucially is a vast defensive improvement on Glen Johnson and no less able in attack (if anything he is more capable), and he should provide an exciting attacking outlet.
Upfront, while Divock Origi is at Lille despite now being the property of Liverpool Daniel Sturridge, second in the golden boot race with 21 goals last season, is more than capable of leading the line on his own – like he had to on multiple occasions last season – and with the attacking quarters boosted so heavily, will now have all the service anyone could ask for and Raheem Sterling, having made the majority of his appearances after Christmas last year, still has frightening potential.
All things considered, Rogers looks to have a squad with more options overall this year then last and despite the likely extended pressure of European football, he should feel confident about battling for a top 4 place with United and maybe Arsenal.
Tottenham’s season last year saw two manager changes, one solitary win against the rest of the top 6, a pair of losses to their hated rivals, and was the subject of much derision, but it’s worth remembering that they were just three points below their tally of 2012/13 at the end of it all and if anything they have reason to improve.
The seven foreign players bought in the absence of Bale last season were a mismatch, with Erik Lamela in particular being a writeoff (although for reasons beyond his control) and many of the others struggling to adapt to the Premier League or the two different styles of football that Andre Villas Boas (for whom man management was supposedly the problem although a defensive high line may not have helped) and Tim Sherwood (who didn’t lack for motivation or honesty, but may have missed out on tactical acumen), but with a first full season under their belts significant improvement could be coming from the likes of Sergio Paulinhio, Etienne Capoue and especially Roberto Solado following debut campaigns in England that were below par to say the least.
The arrival of Mauricio Pochettino from Southampton looks to be an astute move given his clear philosophy and excellent man management – according to his exploits with Southampton last season – and a style of football that’s likely to suit Tottenham’s attacking midfielders, a much needed change given that they scored just 55 goals last year.
Roberto Soldado should have a better time of things this season if improving like many players do – especially forwards – for his first season in England (it should be noted he had a huge off field issue in December) and while last season’s new crop didn’t impress Erik Lamela is essentially likely to have his first real crack at English football. Last year he struggled to learn the language, saw only 921 minutes of football in the first half of the season, and had a thigh strain turn into a back problem all while having another serious off field issue, but this time around he should be happier under Pochettino – a fellow Argentinian – in a system that should see the best from forwards like the impressive Christian Eriksen and Andros Townsend, and Spurs should be aiming to significantly better their performance last year – the issue is other teams improving.
That too is likely to be the crux for Everton, who have had their most impressive summer in some time purely by making their best loan deals permanent. Robert Martinez filled in for, and eventually improved upon, David Moyes’s performance last season with Everton playing a smart, attractive, clinical brand of football that won admiration and onlookers from all areas and bought big results – the biggest being a first win at Old Trafford in 21 years.
Much of that was down to the performances of Gareth Barry, Ross Barkley, and Romelu Luaku, and not only have all three not been tempted elsewhere, but Barkey has signed on for an extended contract and Barry and Lukaku – for a record fee – have been signed on permanent deals.
The same faces that performed so well last year are all there and John Stones should be a bigger presence in the coming season, and Muhamed Besic’ arrival off an impressive World Cup from Bosnia is the icing on what’s a pretty tasty cake, but whether there’ll be much of it to go around through the season.
Everton’s fifth placed finish has earned themselves Europa League football which has proven to be a significant drag for it’s competitors and even though they are better placed in terms of talent than the likes of Swansea and Stoke, there is a worry that a small squad could begin to suffer through the season.
Romelu Lukaku is the only striker at the club and Everton had the fortune for Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman to play 32 and 36 league games respectively; Gareth Barry made 32.
They will be fortunate to have had the same again and while they will be a challenge for all at home, they had a rough ending to last season when tired and may have to settle for seventh again.
10 pts Chelsea/Manchester City dual forecast (11/5 Paddy Power)
3 pts Chelsea/Manchester City straight forecast (5/1 general)