Over the past few seasons, the Premier League title race has been a two team affair, with both Manchester United and Manchester City dominating the summit of the English top flight. But the summer’s managerial turnaround, with City, United and Chelsea all changing their head coaches, has seriously altered the landscape at the top of the table, and next term looks set to be a four horse – well, three and a half (sorry Arsenal fans) – race for the domestic title.
With that in mind, we take a look at the Premier League‘s top four, and consider their chances of usurping Manchester United’s position as reigning Champions, in what could be the most exciting, unpredictable and groundbreaking campaign for a long while in England.
Arsenal – the half horse
The Gunners camp has been making a lot of noise about how they plan on taking the Premier League by storm next season, with Theo Walcott eyeing the title, and Arsene Wenger insisting his side are capable of competing domestically with or without new recruits.
But quite frankly, the North London outfit will be dead in the water if they can’t source a new front man ahead of next season; Olivier Giroud’s 11 goal haul last season was a healthy contribution, and the Frenchman could improve after settling well at the Emirates, but overall, Arsenal are too reliant upon goals from midfield, with Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski making the Gunners the only top flight club to have four players reach double figures in the scoring charts last term.
Either way, Arsenal need much greater depth in the strikeforce, with Giroud currently the senior squad’s only established and natural centre-forward, excluding Marouane Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner. Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis are doing their best to prize away Luis Suarez from Liverpool, in what would be a ground-breaking transfer for the Emirates outfit, but the Reds are unlikely to move on their £55million valuation for the striker, who netted 23 goals and provided five assists last season in incredibly individual and talismanic displays. Furthermore, the Uruguayan’s determined attitude could change the mild-mannered mentality at the Emirates.
The natural concern however, is that the Arsenal boss will baulk at the price-tag at the last minute, and with few alternatives on the horizon, the Gunners could end up with yet another stop-gap solution rather than the real deal.
But even if Wenger breaks the habit of a life time and finally spends big this summer, as he had previously promised, there are still too many issues at the Emirates for Arsenal to claim their first domestic title since 2004. Ideally, the Frenchman will source a new goalkeeper, a new right-sided central defender and a new defensive midfielder as well this summer, but at the moment three more additions remains unlikely.
When everyone is fit, the Gunners have a strong starting XI that can compete with any other in the top flight, but the lack of depth and flexibility will be Arsenal’s undoing next term. The first team look a different and worse side without the often-absent Jack Wilshere, whilst the outgoing Bacary Sagna, Andrei Arshavin, Francis Coquellin, Gervinho and Chamakh need replacing.
None the less, Wenger is now the longest-serving manager in the top flight, as well as just one of two – along with Jose Mourinho – currently in employment in England that have previously won the Premier League title. The Gunners should reap the benefits of the French gaffer’s experience on David Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini, but Wenger’s inability to take three points off the Chelsea boss domestically in the past is a worrying statistic.
Chelsea have emerged as the bookies’ favourite, for two main reasons.
Firstly, Jose Mourinho’s return has seriously altered the landscape at the top of the table, and many expect the Special One to take the Premier League by storm, just as he did in 2004. The Portuguese and the Blues are an ideal fit, and he has an already gifted roster to work with, whilst he is still one of the psychological masters of the beautiful game in the press as well as individually, often getting the maximum out of his players.
He’s well-acquanted with what it takes to claim a Premier League title, with two under his belt already, and in comparison to recent seasons, there will be a huge impetus on the English title in West London after two consecutive years of success on the continent, coming at the expense of domestic form.
Secondly, despite Chelsea finishing up in third place in rather stale fashion last term, the West London outfit do possess a stellar cast. Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard and David Luiz emerged as real forces in the Premier League over the previous year, and many anticipate they’re finally ready to push for the title, after undergoing a rite of passage last season with an incredibly taxing campaign, on and off the pitch.
Furthermore, despite only making three official signings so far this summer – Marco Van Ginkel, Andre Schurrle and Mark Schwarzer – there is a wealth of depth at Stamford Bridge and a strong contingent of young talent. Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne return after incredibly successful loan spells at West Brom and Bayer Leverkusen respectively, whilst Michael Essien, returning from Real Madrid, in addition to John Terry, will be reinvigorated by Mourinho’s return, and could have a big impact next season. Overall, there’s great contrast and flexibility in the squad, as well as a strong starting line-up.
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But in my opinion, there is one piece of the jigsaw missing at the Stamford Bridge, and rather bizarrely, Manchester United hold the key. Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku have the potential to be a formidable strike-force, but all are unknown quantities for respective reasons. Mourinho has described Chelsea’s transfer policy as ‘Rooney or bust’ this summer, and the England man would finish off a team that is one star short of being title-worthy.
The 27-year-old is about as tried and tested as you get in the Premier League, with 197 goals in 400 career games, never totalling less than 11 league goals per season, and the Blues boss is keen to work with him. A £40million bid is reportedly in the pipeline, which despite the large price-tag could be a real coup for the West Londoners, adding world-class quality, goals and flexibility in the final third, whilst also considerably weakening the top flight’s reigning champions.
Manchester City appear to have a marmite effect on Premier League pundits and fans alike, due to the wholesale changes at Eastlands. But Citizens supporters will be hoping the appointment of Manuel Pellegrini will re-energise Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero and David Silva after lukewarm campaigns compared to their usual standards, whilst the Premier League runners-up have been by far the most proactive top four club in the transfer market so far this summer, purchasing Fernandinho for £30million, Alvaro Negredo for £20million, Jesus Navas for £15million and Stevan Jovetic for £22million, and according to Pellegrini, there could be further additions before deadline day. All are expected to have a big impact next term, as they add to an already star-studded cast at City, packed with top-draw talent and depth throughout.
But much of Pellegrini’s hopes will depend on Negredo and Navas, both Spain internationals sourced from Sevilla, who contributed 32 goals and ten assists between them last season. Navas will provide City with some much needed width that they’ve lacked in the past, whilst his team-mate will bring a new, more direct dimension in attack. However, it remains to be seen whether or not they can successfully slot into the system at Eastlands, with Pellegrini seemingly just cutting and pasting them onto the right-hand side.
There’s been a lot of change for City and as a result, a lot of unknown quantities, including Pellegrini who came up short during his only other spell at a major club – Real Madrid. Their success next season will depend on how well the manager and his new signings settle and how quickly, but they have the advantage of doing their business early this summer and including their new recruits on the pre-season tour of Asia.
However, the Skyblues could get distracted by the Champions League, after two years of failure in Europe and a greater emphasis on the competition in comparison to United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Similarly, the City owners have spent over £1billion on transfers to get the club to where it is today, and Sheik Mansour could become impatient with Pellegrini if his appointment doesn’t have an immediately positive effect.
A title defence from Manchester United?
Many have written off Manchester United already this year, which, as history would suggest, is often a bad idea. The roster by no means outweighs that of City or Chelsea in terms of talent or star quality, but the Red Devils have a constant winning mentality spawned from the Ferguson ethos, and were ruthlessly efficient against the lesser clubs last term. They’re reining champions for a reason, and they rarely let bread-and-butter three points pass them by.
But the coming campaign will certainly put the Manchester United theory to the test- the idea that the correct structure of the club, from top to bottom, the institutionalisation of accomplishment and slow pace of change providing continuity will assure prolonged success, regardless of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
David Moyes is receiving a wealth of criticism for his lack of experience, as well as his handling of the Wayne Rooney affair, but there’s little doubt the Scot is Ferguson’s natural and rightful successor, who still possesses a cast of Premier League title winners, and is surrounded by some of the oldest, wisest and established heads in the game today, including his predecessor, who is staying on at Old Trafford in an advisory role.
The club don’t seem to fear losing Wayne Rooney, and many anticipate that Shinji Kagawa will be able to fill the void in the final third. The Red Devils showed a lot of faith to invest £24million in the attacking midfielder last summer, and his inaugural campaign in England showed promise, considering he struggled with the language barrier and niggling injuries last year.
But the Japan international is yet to prove his worth in the Premier League, and on paper at least, United will be short of star quality should Rooney depart for Stamford Bridge. The Premier League champions could find themselves left behind in the transfer market if they don’t find an adequate replacement, with their pursuits of Kevin Strootman, Thiago Alcantara, Mario Gotze, Cesc Fabgregas and Luka Modric all ending in failure this summer.
That being said, United have always favoured the sum of all parts pulling together rather than individual stars, and back-up targets Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines remain patiently in the wings. Both would add stability and improvement to the roster at Old Trafford, and would fit into the system without too many problems, with the added benefit of already working closely with David Moyes. Furthermore, there’s still a month to go before deadline day, and the Scot is bound to make a big-money offer at some point this summer, with the United transfer kitty still untouched.
So who’s going to win the title?
As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, it’s very much a three-and-a-half horse race, with Arsenal likely to improve but still short on quality and depth in comparison to City, United and Chelsea. Between the remaining three however, it’s almost impossible to call. My personal feeling is that City will struggle with too many teething pains, and will want to battle it out on all fronts, whilst the Blues and the Premier League champions are more focused on the domestic title. Similarly, there are too many unknown quantities at Eastlands at this moment in time to faithfully back them, but that could change by Christmas.
Between the two it’s practically a coin toss, although Wayne Rooney’s speculated move to West London will push the odds massively in Chelsea’s favour. That being said, never write-off Manchester United, and although they may be weaker in the top of the table clashes next season upon Rooney’s departure, they are still by far the Premier League’s best in meeting expectations against clubs outside of the big four.
Either way, it will be an enormously refreshing and memorable campaign, that by all accounts, should go down to the wire.
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