English Premier League Season Preview: The title challengers
Chelsea romped to the title last season and took it at a canter, capitalising on one of the weakest league title challenges in years. All the usual suspects were ill equipped to provide a sustained challenge for a variety of reasons.
The most successful team of the Premier League era, Manchester United, still had to shake off the shock of a season in which they fell from the top four for the first time to a lowly seventh, without European football in any form. In many ways this was coming, left with a team underprepared to tackle the other giants of English football without their talismanic boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, United struggled and top four was outlined as the target in 2014/15 which they duly achieved. There were hiccups along the way and the football was more unconvincing than it was breath-taking but the foundation was laid.
Fast forward to end July and United have bolstered where they needed most, except for central defense (so far). Van Persie and Falcao are gone and Januzaj is now looking like he will be groomed into RvP 2.0. Two high profile moves have been made to introduce Bayern legend and Germany skipper, Bastian Schweingsteiger and Southampton holding man, Morgan Schneiderlin into the mix. Now, instead of having a dearth of options and being too reliant on Michael Carrick, United now have more than enough options once we consider that possibly United’s best outfield player last season Ander Herrera now faces a battle to get into the first team as does Carrick himself. Rooney has seemingly gotten his wish to lead a forward line that can expect adequate service. He knows now is the time to justify the hype and love shown to him. There are simply no excuses for United’s most complete player; it’s time to deliver and few would bet against him doing so. Ashley Young has made the departure of Angel Di Maria easier to bear. As utterly strange as that felt when writing it and when reading it once more to double check, it is true. Memphis Depay, a part of Van Gaal’s 2014 World Cup losing finalist Netherlands team is further ammo in that department in what promises to be the most interesting season for United since Cristiano Ronaldo departed.
Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal…those underachievers that refuse to accept that very description go into the season on the back of two consecutive FA Cup triumphs that broke a near decade long trophyless run. Man for man, Arsenal possess one of the strongest, if not the strongest collection of 13 to 15 players on any given day. The hope is that they see it too. Once recovered to somewhere near full collective fitness, they have proven to be worthy contenders that play mesmeric football at times. When you are able to call upon Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, and Aaron Ramsey, you should not be satisfied with the FA Cup. Add to that Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, the revelation that has been Francis Coquelin, Olivier Giroud and a defensive unit that includes Héctor Bellerín, Mathieu Debuchy, Laurent Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs then we wonder why this team’s supporters do not have more belief. Too many years of disappointment have rocked them to the core. Arsenal fans, do not despair, this just might be your year. At least the team has to be inculcated with the belief that they can win it because at their fluid, team goal conjuring best, Arsenal are on par with the best in England.
Dethroned champions Manchester City gave it up without much of a fight after injuries and poor form across the board exposed an ageing squad. Carried by the talents of Sergio Agüero and David Silva for large chunks of the season City paid the price for not having enough firepower in their absence and what was embarrassing defending on many occasions. Agüero fired in a league leading 26 goals and supplied eight assists in 30 appearances and Silva chipped in with 12 goals and seven assists in 32 appearances. This was ultimately nowhere near enough as they were perhaps two of four or five who performed with credit over the course of the season (add Joe Hart and James Milner). They floundered in central midfield and Vincent Kompany showed his mistake-ridden side. Perhaps spending too much time partnering Mangala and Demichelis finally rubbed off. City have responded in a singular but emphatic manner by bringing in the talented Raheem Sterling who burned every bridge on the Merseyside by sulking his way through the last six months. Now that he has gotten his wish, City at least look threatening up front with Agüero, Silva, and Sterling. Signing Sterling has been entrusted to be the move that will get City back on track. This will be a difficult one unless Mangala starts justifying his price tag and Agüero can manage to play a full season. If he can, with this service, beware.
Liverpool are perhaps the least likely of the title contenders but they are the ones with the most complicated and intriguing situation. They have overloaded themselves with forwards and now can call upon the likes of Christian Benteke, Danny Ings, Sturridge (if he ever makes it onto the pitch), Lambert, Firmino, Balotelli, and Borini. Liverpool have to now cope with the loss of Sterling and the manager is under as much pressure as ever as a poor start will not augur well for his post. Rodgers has considerable attacking options and Coutinho will have added responsibility with the departure of Steven Gerrard to North America. In midfield, the onus is on the core of new skipper Jordan Henderson, Coutinho, Lallana, Allen, Can, and what could be a very useful acquisition in utility player extraordinaire James Milner to carry Liverpool into the post-Gerrard era. Liverpool certainly have the numbers to withstand a title challenge. Whether they have the quality is another question altogether. More realistic is that they can unseat one of the big boys from their perch and find themselves in one of the Champions League places again. There are a few areas of vulnerability but the new signings, if they click, can pull off a surprise because although Benteke has been derided for the fee it took to bring him to Liverpool he certainly knows how to score. In a better team than Aston Villa he could silence all the doubters. Again, the mystery stems from the fitness of Sturridge, one half of the unstoppable SAS combination that nearly saw Liverpool break a 24 year English title drought. At his best there are few better or more skilful in England and Rodgers will be praying that he can be there to form another partnership with the big Belgian, Benteke.
Defending champions Chelsea won the league efficiently last season. No word more aptly describes the season as they knew how to grind out victories and won convincingly a few times for good measure. Helped by a brilliant first half performance from Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa, and Hazard, Chelsea were a machine in the league. Players who on their own aren’t world beaters in Oscar and Willian were made for this system that values defensive contribution from advanced attackers and an always fit Hazard was enough to make it a romp. Now, Chelsea have added Falcao, a flop of the highest order in Manchester but still at his best was one of the three deadliest strikers on earth alongside Suarez and Kun Agüero. He will be a gamble of some sorts but there is only an upside to come from this if he can regain form. In Diego Costa’s absence he will be the man so Chelsea will be waiting in expectant hope. The rest of the league has responded to Chelsea making putty of their challenges last season and whether the league has caught up remains to be seen. José Mourinho will hope he hasn’t simply stood still while the others have moved forward because to stand still is to step backwards. It’s a cliché for a reason.
Have any of the others really ‘bought the title’? August 8 can’t come soon enough.