This time last year, the Premier League was being heralded as the most competitive league in the world. Marvelling at the top six clubs in the country, with their mega wealth and their superstar managers, it felt like it was the most competitive the Premier League has even been.
When you looked around Europe, it got even better for the English league. Paris Saint-Germain were by some distance the best team in France, Germany and Italy were also supposed to be one-horse races, while Spain was the only competitive league left in Europe – and even then, it was only competitive between two teams.
It didn’t pan out that way, though. Spain, Italy and Germany were as expected, but Monaco’s surge saw them win the Ligue 1 title. More importantly for the Premier League, though, the six-way battle for the title was essentially a procession for Chelsea for much of the season. They won the league by seven points, but only Tottenham looked like putting up much of a fight, and even then it was a long shot.
This summer, though, things have been juggled around again, and perhaps that means we really will see a ding-dong battle in the title race. This time last year, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola were all new to their jobs. That’s not the case anymore – all three now know their teams, and with a big-spending transfer window under their belts, they’ll be judged much more harshly.
Three transfers stand out already: those at Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. All three clubs have spent big on strikers this summer, and that’s what will probably define their seasons.
Taking only the stats, you’d have to say that Alexandre Lacazette stands out the most. He has most goals, the best goals to game ratio, and indeed the most shots. With Arsenal having seemingly lacked a certain strength and directness for years, it’s a signing that should actually bring a fair bit of excitement.
Of the other two, Romelu Lukaku is probably the more similar. A pacey and powerful striker who knows the Premier League and has proven can score goals in it. Even in a struggling side under Roberto Martinez did Lukaku manage to score regularly.
Morata, however, might just be the most interesting of the three. The Spanish international comes to Chelsea looking like a Diego Costa replacement (‘looking like’, that is, because Costa hasn’t yet left the club). But although he has four league titles and two Champions League winner’s medals to his name – as well as a goal in the 2015 final, in which he was on the losing side – Morata is yet to actually make a regular starting berth his own as a regular, prolific goalscorer.
In his two-season spell at Juventus, Morata scored just 27 goals in 93 appearances. But there’s a caveat: Morata was still seen as a youngster in the process of development, and even at Real Madrid, last season, of his 26 appearances in La Liga, only 14 were starts, and whilst he played nine games in the Champions League, only one – a game away to Legia Warsaw – was a start.
That goes some way to explaining why Morata’s stats aren’t quite as stellar as the other two, even if his price tag was just as big.
But each have their drawbacks, too. Morata’s is that, despite the fact that he quite clearly is a very gifted footballer, who is probably more agile than the other two whilst still retaining a certain physicality, he hasn’t actually proved that he can lead the line by himself for a top club, despite playing sporadically for top clubs so far in his career. He has the pedigree, but it’s unclear if he has £60m worth of ability.
Lukaku’s drawbacks are perhaps a little better known in this country. His first touch has been criticised, as has his ability to decide big games, often going missing when it matters most – both of those things will worry Jose Mourinho, but it’s also true that the Belgian seems to know where the goal is in every other type of game, and United’s problem last season wasn’t beating the big boys anyway – it was converting enough chances to beat the teams below them, and a striker who can bully those defences will be hugely important.
Lacazette has a similar stature to Lukaku in terms of his physicality and his overall contribution to the team. The Frenchman’s ability lies in converting chances and being a physical presence to act as a hold-up player. The problem Arsenal will face is that, for years, their focal point has been Olivier Giroud, who may be as physical as his compatriot, but he certainly isn’t as explosive.
Last season, it was the more explosive Alexis Sanchez who played mostly as the central striker for Arsenal, and given that Lacazette would be most effective playing through the middle, you get the feeling that he’ll be more effective running behind defenders than he will be with his back to goal.
This is where the battle will be won and lost for each of these teams. It will be their ability to fit in with teammates and provide goals for their teams which will be the difference between a real title race and one like we had last season. And going by the stats, that’s Lacazette, who could well be the signing Arsenal have needed for years. He makes the other two look like gambles.
But his strike rate of late isn’t the only thing to think about. More than anything else, the pressure of the price tags, and the pressure to deliver goals, will be huge on all three. You get the feeling that whoever delivers the most for their team will have a great chance of lifting the Premier League trophy in May.