This time last year, the Premier League was salivating over the prospect of so many top managers working against each other in the same league. In many ways, it hasn’t disappointed: they have improved each of the top teams and we’ve seen some great games as a result.
And yet, last summer, one of the things we thought we’d see more of never materialised: the top teams fighting it out for the signatures of the same players.
But this summer could be different.
There will be more pressure on managers next season than ever before. Two trophyless seasons at Manchester City would surely make Pep Guardiola look like a managerial flop. Something similar could be said for Jurgen Klopp, though taking Liverpool into the Champions League and keeping them there might be accepted as part of the rebuilding process. Manchester United surely won’t accept another season of dull football and tired excuses from Jose Mourinho. For Antonio Conte, the challenge is to build on what he’s already achieved, probably by strengthening his squad with European football in mind.
That means clever signings are a must.
For Chelsea, the challenge could well be to replace John Terry. Even though he didn’t play a huge part in the title victory in the end, Terry’s leadership qualities are second to none, and even just having him around the dressing room was surely a help to everyone. In more practical terms, however, they’re losing a backup centre-back.
Arsenal, too, have started to play with a back three towards the end of the season, and they will also need to be looking for centre-backs if they are to continue playing with that formation on anything like a regular basis.
Perhaps, then, both teams should be looking towards the same player: Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho, rated at £8.5m by Transfermarkt.co.uk.
It sounds strange in some respects because Liverpool’s defence has looked wobblier than Arsenal’s or Chelsea’s for most of the season, despite conceding fewer goals than the Gunners. But the Reds loaned Sakho to Crystal Palace in January and appear willing to sell the French international.
If that’s the case, others should look to test that out – if Liverpool are willing to sell, are they willing to sell to top four (perhaps even title) rivals?
If so, that could be their worst decision of the summer.
For one thing, Sakho is a left-footed centre back – something which is fairly uncommon, yet very important. Having the ability to shadow attackers and position himself on the opposite side to the player beside him is important in a back four, but it is arguably most important in a back three, where centre-backs are routinely called out to the flanks to deal with an escaped winger.
But Sakho’s skill set is perfect for that formation.
For one thing, he’s not a tackling centre-half. His 0.3 tackles per game puts Sakho well behind even Mesut Ozil and Eden Hazard. But theoretically, he shouldn’t need to tackle: the last thing you want is a player dribbling at your centre backs.
What Sakho does, however, is he gets to the ball first. This season, as a Palace player, the Frenchman has won an average of 2.4 aerial duels per game, placing him below both of Arsenal’s best pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, but ahead of Chelsea’s David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta (Gary Cahill wins 2.5). But at a bigger club than Crystal Palace, where you have to deal with teams who have less possession, that average of 2.4 would surely rise as fewer teams will try to break the team down through neat passing moves and more will resort to the long game.
More impressively, though, Sakho’s clearances per game is, at 6.3, exactly the same as Laurent Koscielny’s record, and is much better than anyone at Chelsea.
And so what Sakho has done at Palace since January is show the sort of skill-set needed at a top four standard club, but he’s been doing it in a team struggling at the bottom. Put differently, he’s one of the main reasons Palace aren’t going down. He’s been a key player for Liverpool before, but there is simply no doubting how crucial he has been for Palace this year.
Any transfer for Sakho will inevitably boil down to whether or not Liverpool are willing to sell to a rival like Chelsea or Arsenal, but it’s clear that he’s exactly the sort of left-footed centre-back that both those clubs should be aiming to sign this summer.