It’s a curiosity that the coming Premier League season is seen as interesting because, for the first time in many years, the league actually looks slightly weaker than the seaon before. Several stars have been sucked into what one suspects will prove to be the Real Madrid black hole, and, curiously, Manchester City’s new-found deep pockets seem actually to have reduced transfer activity; not actually depressing the market, but somehow ossifying it. Still, the Premier League gets written about, and for all our distaste at the Rio Ferdinands, and Ashley Coles, and the diving, the play-acting, the lack of dignity, integrity, perspective or humility, and, well, Rio Ferdinand, there remains something rather compelling about the competition.
The main theme of coverage that I’ve read (and I’ve read rather a lot) is that United will struggle to adapt without Ronaldo’s goals. The preening, pouting, Portuguese prima donna did, it seems, score quite a few. I tend to think that this is not the problem facing United at all. It’s true that the mobility of Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney (and Anderson and Nani) gave United a very unusual formation with a number of players attacking at pace from deep-lying positions. And it was in this formation that Dmitar Berbatov looked really rather lazy. But with Valencia actually playing on the wing instead of Ronaldo playing as essentially an inside forward, United look likely to play a much more conventional, much more United, 4-4-2.
Michael Owen’s contribution will be that of an impact substitute, for which he is ideally suited. Being as injury prone as he is, it seems unlikely he will train for full match fitness but rather, to avoid getting injured. What’s more, we saw a couple of flashes last season of a player who looked to have all the talent of a young Rooney, a young Owen even (whisper it) a young Robbie Fowler. 2009-10 may not be the year that Federico Macheda makes his mark at United – he is only 17 – but he looks genuinely dangerous, and plays in a position where youngsters have frequently had a major impact (to the above list we might add Norman Whiteside, and even Francis Jeffers who performed very well at that age).
No, United’s problem this season will not be goals, but it will be the lack of character in the side. This team has won a lot recently, but the leadership still seems to come from the remnants of the European champions of 1999: Neville, Giggs and Scholes. Of the newer breed of United players, who really could be counted on in a crisis? It took one bad performance (or a great one, depending on your allegiance) against Liverpool for United to slip, and to slip badly. Had United not recovered against Aston Villa (thanks especially to Macheda), it seems likely that Liverpool would have taken the league last season. United without Ronaldo unquestionably have less of an aura about them – that in itself is not a problem, as there is plenty of talent to redefine United’s attack. What is questionable is how much grit they can show, now that they need to.
Once upon a time, Chelsea were the team of fancy-dan entertainers. They’re now the most workman-like in recent memory. And as the club has tried to buy entertainers, Shevchenko, Ballack, Deco, so has it been the workhorses, Drogba, Mikel, Essien, who have thrilled. And now, not even two years since Jose Mourinho left the club, Chelsea are trying their 4th replacement, and Champions League specialist to boot, Carlo Ancelotti. Of his three predecessors, not even Guus Hiddink managed to impress so much as Mourinho, and none of Grant, Scolari or Hiddink have ever been as offensive (morally, that is, not tactically).
Mourinho’s legacy remains a team that naturally grinds out the wins. Those supporters who only enjoy the sport at its most skillful, or attacking, tend to decry Chelsea as boring. But those of us who also an appreciation for calculation, professionalism and execution tend to me more admiring.
There might be a question over whether Ancelotti himself will be able to adapt. Serie A is an awful lot slower than the Premier League, and it’s been noticable that Ancelotti’s Milan were comfortable against English opposition when they managed to control the tempo, but prone to surrender 3-goal leads in Champions League finals when they were not.
What will change about Chelsea is the formation. It seems clear that Ancelotti will play a midfield diamond with Lampard at the point and two strikers, which presumably means Drogba and Anelka and time on the grass for Daniel Sturridge. Whether Ancelotti will get anything out of Deco is a tantalising, but presumably Lampard’s position is assured.
Of the “big four”, Chelsea’s squad is the only one that is unquestionably stronger this season, if only because of the absence (at the moment) of long term injuries. Chelsea spent most of last season without Michael Essien, a hugely influential and highly underrated player. On top of that, Daniel Sturridge and Yuri Zhirkov have arrived. Sturridge looks to have the role of understudy to Drogba but Zhirkov has been wanted by Chelsea for over a year and appears likely to start games on the wing. Against these developments is the marginal impact of the African Cup of Nations. Although Chelsea can expect to have more influential players in Angola than other title contenders, the tournament itself only lasts for 3 weeks.
Chelsea look like very serious contenders once again. If a weakness does manifest itself under Ancelotti, it may be Chelsea’s old one: away games against opposition prepared to scrap, of whom there are rather a lot in the Premier League.
To lose one Patrick Vieira replacement seems unfortunate, but to lose both Mathieu Flamini and Lassana Diarra (and still not to have replaced them) seems careless. Arsene Wenger’s clearly brilliant at finding talent, and selling on players at the right time, but he does seem to have a problem in keeping key talent – presumably this is also partly down to Arsenal entering the luxury end of the north London property market just as it crashed. Whatever the explanation, the problem remains: Arsenal’s midfield has no anchor and until that problem is addressed, one suspects Arsenal will be unable to establsh their rhythm every week, irrespective of opposition and are therefore not in contention to win the league.
And while the sale of the unsettled Adebayor for a massive sum was good business, Arsenal’s attack starts to look unbalanced too: Eduardo, Arshavin, Walcott and Van Persie are all excellent, excellent players. They all happen to play as inside forward, and of the four, only Walcott really has the mobility to play from a very deep position. That leaves the plainly-not-good-enough Bendtner leading the Arsenal line. I even read that Van Persie might be pressed into service as a target man, which seems like a dreadful waste. Van Persie is surely Berkgamp’s successor, and if that should seem like excessive praise, we should consider that Van Persie is the age now that Bergkamp was when he joined Arsenal following some difficult seasons at Internationale.
At the back, Vermaelen arrives with a solid (if overstated) reputation from Ajax, but one suspects that they days of a Sami Hyypia arriving unheralded from the Eredivise are over. Who was the last player to arrive from the Dutch league and genuinely impress? (And how many have not lived up to their reputations?). Touré does not seem to be such a terrible loss, but the lack of a commanding figure in their defence seems yet another glaring deficiency with the current Arsenal squad.
For all this, Arsenal have some incredible talent which is still improving, and Arsenal themselves may be better than last season – but that amounts to achieving Champions League qualification a little more comfortably, and little else.
For all my biases, and whatever the distribution of silverware looked like, I am sure it is my head that tells me that Liverpool were the best team in England last season – my heart, like that of so many Liverpool supporters, didn’t dare believe it. But it was true. When Liverpool’s dip came, it was shallow but long, and so far more costly than United’s brief but total collapse. Meanwhile Liverpool’s peaks were far higher than any other team (the humiliation of United at Old Trafford, the ending of Chelsea’s marathon unbeaten run, beating Real Madrid by 5 goals on aggregate, putting 5 past Aston Villa etc.).
The experts told us that Liverpool needed Gerrard and Torres to play every game to have a chance. Not true: had Gerrard and Torres played every game, no one else would have had a chance. Liverpool’s record in the 14 games they did start together? Won 12, drew 2.
Since Benitez found this formation, with Gerrard playing off Torres as a supporting striker, Liverpool have performed extremely well, but in order for it to work, it relied on one of the best midfield platforms in the league: the partnership of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano. Alonso, of course, has been swept up in the Madrid vortex (and Mascherano’s head was at least turned by Barcelona’s attentions). And although Liverpool moved decisively to buy the highly regarded Alberto Aquilani, it remains to be seen if he can fill an Alonso-sized hole. From what I know of Aquilani, he is much more of a box-to-box ball carrier. Liverpool really need someone who does all their best work in the centre-circle.
Alonso’s quick and tidy distribution to Gerrard was important in establishing the latter as the attacking force he was last season, but it was Alonso’s outlandish talent for seeing and delivering cross-field balls that also helped made the reputations of Kuyt and Riera as attacking wide players of substance. Both frequently received the ball to (or near) feet and in plenty of space. It remains to be seen if anyone else will be able to do the same at Liverpool.
The only obvious weakness in Liverpool’s squad last season were the fullbacks. Arbeloa is a big game player (ask Ronaldo, or Ronaldinho), but Liverpool lost their points in the small games and Arbeloa seems a good fit with Madrid. Dossena, who resembles a barrel-chested Adam Sandler, seemed uncomfortable doing the basic fullback chores, although he delighted in playing further up the pitch. Aurelio remains injury prone, Degen we didn’t see, and Matt Damon lookalike Steve Finnan was sold to Espanyol. The bright point was the emergence of Emiliano Insua to challenge Aurelio for the left-back position. And now, the acquisition of Glen Johnson leaves the defence looking very balanced and adds even more willing pace to the right side of Liverpool’s attack.
Will Liverpool press on? We will know quickly. 2008-9 was a serious challenge from Liverpool partly because they started so well (and had a fair bit of luck) , with 35 points after 14 games. Liverpool have tended to be slow starters, and if they display that tendency this year, the whole season threatens to be an anti-climax.
“Money doesn’t talk, it swears” – Bob Dylan might have been describing Citeh’s transfer policy, but so much profanity has come from the club, that in discussing the likely destination for the Premier League title we probably need to consider them too. Probably.
Mark Hughes was a manager of tremendous promise and I tend to feel sorry for him. If given the opportunity to manage a club with an unlimited budget, it might seem rather unambitious to turn the challenge down. But where Hughes impressed (me, at least) was the way he quickly made his mark at Blackburn, taking over from Souness and creating a disciplined and stiff defence at the start of the 2004-5 season.
Thanks to some rather clumsy PR, and starting from a position of not being able to offer Champions League football, Manchester City have struggled to attract players who are at the top level, and bring Chelsea’s achievement as chequebook champions into focus. Chelsea, primarily under Ranieri, built a squad to last of young, hungry and professional players. City, by contrast, appear only able to attract the dissatisfied or the avaricious senior professional and have ended up negotiating transfer fees with clubs well aware that an extra £10 million on the fee would mean a lot more to them than it would to City’s owners.
There have been experts who dismiss City on the grounds that only a handful of their burgeoning squad would make it into a first XI at one of the “big four”. It’s considerably more than a handful – cases can be made for Given, Touré, Barry, Ireland, Wright-Philips, Robinho, Adebayour, and possibly Tevez. How many Arsenal players, by contrast, would make it into a first XI at Liverpool, Chelsea or United? Fabregas, Arshavin, Van Persie, and maybe Walcott and a fit Rosicky? (A year ago I would have had Clichy, Sagna and Gallas on that list, but not after last season).
And so, while that doesn’t seem to be a bad start for City, the squad is hopelessly lopsided with forwards, and City have struggled to attract the quality of defender they need. It’s staggering to think that a fee of around £15 million is now being discussed for a solid player like Matthew Upson, who 13 years ago cost Arsenal a then astonishing £1 million from Luton’s reserves but who has never shown the ability of a Terry or a Lescott. What is so very wrong with this picture is that there are players emerging at City with genuine potential who it seems are unlikely to progress much further – Micah Richards would presumably be the greatest loser should City sign Upson. In midfield, will the talent of Michael Johnson have the chance to develop in the way that Stephen Ireland’s has? It seems unlikely.
It is hard to take Manchester City’s credentials for the league seriously. What about a top-four finish, which would at least allow them to build with more purpose, and in the immediate aftermath of the ultimate sporting shop-window, the World Cup? Arsenal might look vulnerable, but I expect they still have enough experience to get through the season ahead of City.
In fact, as serious a challenge for 4th place might come from Everton, who cannot possibly suffer so many injuries to attacking players as they did last season. Moyes committed, settled and motivated side now has a large number of attacking options (Saha, Jo, Vaughan, Cahill) and even the apparently humdrum players such as Leon Osman chip in with several goals each season. Everton have a swashbuckling fullback in Leighton Baines on one side, and perhaps the least adventurous player in the league, Tony Hibbert, on the other. Provided that Lescott has not been too unsettled by Manchester City’s offer to double his salary, I expect Everton to be Arsenal’s biggest rival for fourth place.
The odds I have seen quoted make Chelsea favourites for the title at 21/10, with United at 5/2. I dismiss Arsenal’s chances, and so 10/1 is not very interesting (similarly 14/1 for Manchester City), but I’ve seen Liverpool quoted at 4/1. Considering that this is a team that did league doubles over both United and Chelsea last season in spite of several injuries to their star striker, that seems fairly attractive.
And so, for all the many questions the new season poses, I make this one the most important: just how much will Liverpool miss this man?