EPL Season Preview: Part IV: Hardware Shopping

By Neil Blackmon

Will United add another to the case this year?

Part IPart IIPart III

Toe met stiching this past weekend in the Barclay’s Premier League, and we’ve now seen an opening weekend lacking quality, or at the very least, entertaining football and devoid of a home side claiming full points.

Do not fear: the transfer window and the end of the lengthy preseason sometimes generates dull fixtures to open the year, but in a league increasingly defined by parity, it is safe to suggest the entertainment value will increase exponentially in the weeks to come and the storylines, with as many as five or six teams on paper capable of claiming the league, will be as riveting as ever. With the competitive race at the top in mind, we conclude our TSG EPL preview with a look at the top five.

Five Who’ll Battle For Hardware

Arsene: Can't he still navigate the Prem?

ARSENAL

Last Year: A year that began with dreams of a quadruple ended with broken dreams instead.

Arsenal had their moments, including a riveting home Champions League victory over eventual champion Barcelona, but too often they followed that up with bizarre and disappointing displays of football, such as the return leg at the Camp Nou, or the mystifying Carling Cup collapse against Birmingham City.

With only the league trophy a possibility after talk of winning four, Arsenal too often couldn’t handle what we at TSG call the “moving furniture” fixtures, losing to sides such as West Brom Albion and Bolton and drawing sides such as Wigan Athletic, Sunderland and perhaps most egregiously, Newcastle United in a shocking collapse.

Those are the matches that separate hardware winners from pretenders, and although Arsenal did finish fourth and qualify for Champions League play, there are at least whispers around the Emirates that, as the great poet Yeats wrote, the center may not hold and things may fall apart.

Gervinho: From Lille with love...and temper

Summer Additions: Hot-tempered Cote D’Ivore forward Gervinho, one of the only Ivorians to play decent football at the 2010 World Cup, arrives from French champion Lille to add dynamism at forward .

Gervinho is a classic “young guy” from France Wenger signing, but the question remains why, given the recent trophy drought, the manager has gone back to this well again rather than trying to pluck a Michael Essien or proven commodity from another English club. Consummating the flirtation with Everton’s Phil Jagielka would be a good start.

Summer Losses: In a word, colossal, despite Wenger’s best efforts. Gael Clichy has departed for the Eastlands, and although the reason why he says he left is laughable to cynics, it is telling of the new world order in the EPL: Clichy wants to play for City to win trophies.

That’s a zinger Wenger can’t be accustomed to. The long-suffering Cesc Fabregas has finally (mercifully) ended one of football’s worst romantic comedies ever, departing (at some point in the next few hours?) for Barcelona where he will hope to make the eighteen from time to time. Samir Nasri also appears headed for Manchester City. He wasn’t in the side for the opener at Newcastle Saturday, and though nothing is official, it seems to be all over except for the shouting.

Strengths: Forward seems to be a position of great strength if Gervinho is anything like the player we saw in South Africa or last year in France. Certainly he is a brighter talent than Nicky Bendtner or Eduardo, who have added the depth up top of late. Robbie Van Persie will score goals, of course, when he’s fit, and even with the losses in midfield promising youngsters Theo Walcott, Alex Song and Jack Wilshere remain, and Tomas Rosicky has never been a slouch—he’s just been a glue guy amidst superstars. Now he’ll be a glue guy in the starting eleven, which isn’t a bad thing.

Weaknesses: Clichy’s loss is troubling because it means the Gunners have zero elite class defenders on the roster. Sagna is ever-reliable but not getting any younger. Kieran Gibbs will slot in for Clichy, and he’s serviceable, and Thomas Vermaelen is an above-average player who doesn’t off make mistakes,  but the fact remains Arsenal have no depth in the back and lack a player who could be classified as of high international class.

Phil Jagielka, should he depart Goodison, would immediately be the best defender on the roster. That’s a problem, because Arsene Wenger continues to seem oblivious to the idea of signing a world class keeper. The Gunners had one in the days of “The Invincibiles”, but those days seem distant. Instead, the three-headed monster of Manuel Almunia, Wojciech Szczesny and Lukas Fabianski present the old NFL-dilemma: when you have three quarterbacks, you really have none. It would be hard to list five sides in the top-flight where any of those players would start.

Rosicky: Called on to be the deep-lying playmaker in Cesc's absence...

Best Case: The midfield is fine with the steady Rosicky lying deeper and fully fit to guide them. Aaron Ramsey, Wilshere and Theo Walcott cash-in on their immense promise and make Wenger once again look like a genius who knew when the next wave was ready. Fabianski at least provides adequacy in net, and Wenger secures an established defender (Jagielka?) before the end of August. Gervinho proves two undersized, pacy forwards is better than one, and Van Persie is fit for long enough stretches for his impact to be significant. Arsenal hold off their top four challengers, advance to the final sixteen of the Champions League, and win one of the two league cups.

Worst Case: The wheels finally come off. The midfield , which would have been able to withstand the departure of one star playmaker, can’t withstand the loss of two. Aaron Ramsey and Rosicky still haven’t recovered from injuries to the extent that they are similar players. Theo Walcott has peaked.

Jagielka stays at Goodison. Sagna starts to look old. Fabianski is mediocre and his replacements are howler-prone. Arsenal lack width without Clichy and an additional signing on the flank. The ownership battle between Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov waging a Cold War in the boardroom that ultimately means no large expenditures.

Champions League group play is a disaster, ditto the early season without Cesc and Nasri, and Arsenal can’t recover, finishing sixth or (gasp) seventh. Meanwhile, Cesc wins the Champions League with Barcelona, playing three minutes in the final.

Our Guess: Fifth, thanks to the full-blown breakout season of Jack Wilshere, and an ability to grind out results after a relatively early Champions League exit makes depth concerns less pressing.

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The man who would be Mourinho....

Chelsea

Last Year: Early exits from both the Carling Cup and League Cup hinted at the larger problem—Chelsea were a good enough side, just not the kind of elite one we’ve grown accustomed to at Stamford Bridge. Still, despite a plodding beginning to the campaign, the Blues rallied and finished second in the league. They also reached the Champions League quarterfinals, which is the type of down year most clubs dream about. None of that was enough to save Carlo Ancelotti’s job, as he became the third Chelsea manager relieved of his duties under demanding Russian owner Roman Abramovich in the previous eight years.

Summer Additions: Barcelona youth product and Spanish U-20 Oriel Romeu, a defensive midfielder but not really one in the Mascherano or Nigel de Jong mold.

Instead, think more of a deeper lying, build possession from the back, dangerous aerial physical presence type, one who scouts around the Bridge think resembles Michael Essien as well, because the fragile, currently-injured, but “brilliant when healthy” Ghanian’s role this season is not particularly well-defined. A dispute over his return with his national team side magnifies the importance of the Romeu signing. Luka Modric is still very much on Chelsea’s wish list—but what’s the old adage about wishes and horses…

Summer Losses: Noting of note, although Thibaut Courtouis, brought in from Genk, was promptly loaned to Atletico Madrid upon his arrival in London. Chelsea have often loaned away or utilized the sale of youth to build the senior eighteen since the arrival of Abramovich—new manager Andre Villas-Boas has indicated five youth academy starlets in particular: Ryan Bertrand, Daniel Sturridge, Josh McEachran, Tomas Kalas and Gael Kakuta– are untouchable.

Does Ashley Cole still have the juice?

Strengths: The back four, still, of course, along with the overrated but still very good goalkeeper, Petr Cech. There isn’t a better group in the Barclay’s Premier League than John Terry, Ashley Cole, David Luiz and the brilliant Branislav Ivanovic.

They’ll need Cole and Ivanovic to menace the flanks, particularly as a midfield lacking numbers tries to sort itself out. This particular back four may also be even more strong in a 4-3-3 alignment under Villas-Boas, because David Luiz can use his calmness on the ball to ease link-up concerns with the middle and Cole, Ivanovic and even a wide-drifting Ramires give the Blues a host of distributive options on the flank to get the ball to a more advanced Malouda. All of this is still contingent on finding a reliable and calming presence in the center in the absence of Essien, of course, but Villas-Boas will at least be glad to have options to try out.

Weaknesses: The midfield, where depth is a concern and there are doubts about Mikel’s ability to play a more advanced position in Villas-Boas’ system. The striker corps and provides flexibility, with Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres (who at least your writer feels will bounce back this season), Nic Anelka and Salomon Kalou.

Daniel Sturridge, who was good enough in training to send Yuri Zhirkov packing his bags this summer, will also get a look, and can probably be slotted out right or tucked inside, giving Villas-Boas options should he utilize his preferred three forward deployment. Trouble is, of course, which group to utilize at once, where to slot them and who will provide the link up beyond veteran stalwart Frank Lampard, who, it should be noted, played much deeper than usual throughout the preseason match schedule. One could guess incumbent Yossi Benayoun, who certainly has days where he’s one of the best players on the field, is an answer, but his fate seems tied to Modric and he certainly has his share of poor days as well. It isn’t hard to see Flourent Malouda excelling on the left again either, but how much less predictable would Chelsea be and how much harder to mark would Malouda be if everyone in the stadium didn’t know that was what Chelsea was going to do. That’s why adding a midfielder becomes essential if Villas-Boas hopes to bring home trophies this season.

Will Modric eventually work the 'Bridge this year?

Best Case: Modric comes into town and pulls the strings in the midfield. Chelsea’s ownership wins a knock-down, drag out fight with Ghana over Essien’s return date. The back four hold down the fort while integration into Villas-Boas’ new tactical system sorts itself out. Abramovich is rewarded for hiring a hot prospect of a manger who is younger than his side’s captain. Chelsea, who looked old at times last year, begin to integrate the youth academy darlings like Sturridge and Kakuta into the season early on, and it pays dividends late, as they hold off both Manchester sides and win the league.

Worst Case: Chelsea can’t make the deal they need to calm the midfield concerns that have mounted. Attacking with Malouda was already predictable, but he hits a run of form that makes it ineffective too. Essien gets hurt in the Cup of Nations walking to the team bus, and misses the year. Mikel is overwhelmed in a more advanced role. Ashley Cole isn’t Leighton Baines—but we already knew that—the trouble is now he isn’t close. Cech’s howlers stop coming with 3-0 leads against Stoke. Villas-Boas isn’t ready for prime time. 5th.

Our Guess: Villas-Boas is ready for prime time. Daniel Sturridge is a household name in May. Mikel is adequate deputizing in the center before Essien returns and Villas-Boas makes tactical adjustments. Torres plays better and Chelsea find goals. They still look old from time to time, but they make a deep Champions League run, win the FA Cup and finish 2nd in the league. Not a bad first year for the young gaffer.

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Dana Carvey look-a-like John Henry is the America they want at Merseyside...

Liverpool

Last Year: A rollercoaster year that saw despair replaced by robust, attractive football and hope under legend of Anfield Kenny Dalglish, who was appointed just two months after Boston Red Sox owner John Henry and his FSG group took ownership of the club from the hated Yanks Tom Hicks and George Gillett late last October. Liverpool were in dire straits, both economically and on the pitch until Dalglish’s arrival, but the Kop was abuzz with joy in the springtime as a marvelous Dirk Kuyt, along with transfers Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, brought wins back to the red side of Merseyside in bunches. Both the FA Cup and Carling Cup were disastrous, and Europa play ended in the Round of 16, bringing a bit of disappointment, but fans of the Reds have to be pleased that from the New Year on they were the second best team in England, only two points shy of Manchester United.

Summer Additions: Several, revamping a midfield that often appeared long in the tooth and predictable in large stretches of the prior campaign.

Charlie Adam is in from Blackpool at the bargain rate of 6.5 million pounds, and he’ll be charged with being the offensive engine in the center while Dalglish awaits the return of captain Steven Gerrard.

Young starlet Jordan Henderson arrives for a whopping 16 million pounds from Sunderland—an affordable luxury, I suppose, when one sells a striker for 80 million a season before, and he’ll likely be placed on a flank if preseason fixtures are any indication—although this may not suit his skill-set or his deployment history at the Stadium of Light.

Too bad he's a winger, because "10 Downing" would be fantastic...

Also added was Aston Villa man and England international Stewart Downing, who is very quietly one of the finer players in the EPL, and will be given license to drift centrally from a wide spot to make patented late runs, but more importantly, his service will be indispensable early on with Gerrard out. Finally, the most critical signing is fullback Jose Enrique, brought in from Newcastle late last week to fill a glaring need the Reds have for width. He was limited in Saturday’s season opener, but one can probably chalk that up to a lack of training time, and his promise to offer more versatility to the Reds attack is one we at TSG think he’ll make good on.

Summer Losses:  Addition by subtraction, really. Gone is dead weight Paul Konchesky, off to Leicester City, as well as disappointing youth products Chris Mavinga and Gerardo Bruna (Rennes and Blackpool, respectively).

Strengths: Obviously, the glut of elite to world class midfielders is why many think Liverpool can’t be far off a title push.

There are significant questions elsewhere, so this writer isn’t sure those claims of a return to a glory are yet warranted, but anytime you can field a healthy unit of Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing, you are in great shape. Henderson likely becomes a bench player once Gerrard returns, mostly because as noted above he’s not really a winger by trade—rather, he is a box-to-box midfielder who is capable of getting wide and providing service if the game so dictates.

Gerrard probably takes that spot to keep Adam on the field when he returns, and there is of course an embarrassment of riches on the bench with Maxi Rodriguez, the erratic but at times brilliant Raul Meireles and the world’s most expensive substitute, Joe Cole. Forwards Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez are simply brilliant, and there’s the little matter of what will become of last year’s Kop hero Dirk Kuyt, who, to put it in the most American of terms, just makes plays. All in all, this is one of the most formidable, and once Enrique and Downing get acclimated, versatile, attacks in the Barclay’s Premier League.

Weaknesses: Defensively, the Reds won’t leak goals but there will be days when you think they might. John Flanagan showed his rosy upside throughout last year but showed he’ll still have his “Oh dear God Glen Johnson” bad days too in yesterday’s season opening draw. Signing Enrique alleviated a gaping hole at fullback, but this is still a side that is forced to start a youngster like Flanagan. To say they’d love to borrow some of the riches in the back from their rival in Merseyside is certainly not exaggerating.

Yes, Martin Skrtel is a fan favorite but he’s always seemed too highly rated to us, and Jamie Carragher may or may not walk with a cane when he’s not on the pitch. Pepe Reina is one of the top-flight’s finest goalkeepers, but he’ll have a lot of action in front of him, particularly if defensive midfield stalwart Lucas (who was brilliant yesterday, by the way), is shut out, with Dalglish succumbing to the temptation to field a blitzkrieg-attacking midfield.

Best Case: The back four is stable enough with Enrique’s addition to hold off a string of draws that should have been full points. Suarez’s fitness is such that the mild depth behind he, Kuyt and Carroll up front is not a large-scale concern. The midfield is just as good if not better than advertised. Liverpool chase down Chelsea or Manchester City and finish 3rd. An FA or Carling Cup victory is not out of the question given the midfield depth as well.

Worst Case: The back four isn’t stable, and Reina can’t stand on his head all the time when Liverpool comes under siege clinging to “the most dangerous lead in soccer”, 1-0. Hero of the Kop Steven Gerrard battles fitness issues all year and shuts it down a bit late, because “the EURO matters more.” The glut of midfielders creates chemistry issues. King Kenny can’t recreate the magic of last spring. 6th.

Our Guess: Safely 4th and back into the Champions League, on the back of Captain Fantastic and future 2012 Euro hero and keep Ashley Young on the bench guy Stewart Downing, who threatens for EPL Best 11 honors.

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Manchester City

Last Year: Won their first trophy since 1969 on a Yaya Toure goal late in the FA Cup. At times playing a somewhat cynical, Italian looking brand of football under Roberton Mancini, the Citizens were good enough to finish 3rd, and finally cashed (pun intended) on all their big-name signings by qualifying for the Champions League. This all despite the fact that Carlos Tevez appears unhappy and truly believes Manchester is the Newark of England. And that’s no knock on Newark. Newark’s great. And Manchester is apparently the greatest city in the world.

Clichy...it wasn't the funny....right....

Summer Additions: Money…it’s a crime…Gael Clichy in from Arsenal to… “win trophies.” There are no words. Stefan Savic, an extremely talented young central defender, arrives from Partizan. Carlos Tevez did not add much English to his repertoire, but all reports indicate he’s still somewhere around the Eastlands, dreaming of Argentina, and maybe….dreaming of a full campaign with an Argentine partner in crime, 62 million pound acquisition Sergio Aguero. Aguero may not be able to win an international trophy surrounded by the most talented generation of strikers in footballing history—but there certainly could be English hardware and European hardware to be had.

Summer Losses: Shay Given was justly given walking papers to Aston Villa, and likely a plaque for honorable service rendered. Jerome Boateng is off to Bayern Munich, and at the price tag of 11.8 million pounds, it seems the Citizens didn’t care too much. Enigmatic Brazilian forward Jo returns home to Internacional to try and revive a career that was believed to be promising– we think mostly because scouts appeared to look at his birthplace and not film. Patrick Viera has called it a career, and he’ll live the good life with his 1998 World Cup winner’s medal. Michael Johnson, the once promising youth product, is on loan to Leicester City because there is no room for him at the Eastlands inn.

Strengths: You mean outside of being bankrolled by the Abu Dhabi royal family? Well, they have the most talented striker team sheet of any team in the world, at least in this writer’s view, with Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Roque Santa Cruz and Hanley Ramirez Balotelli. The midfield’s ability is immense, led by jack-of-all-trades playmaker and all around beautiful footballer David Silva. Nigel de Jong may be a criminal, and he may refer to himself in the third person, but he’s one of if not the premier defensive midfielder in the world today. For fun, they like to play England internationals here and there, and that’s why Gareth Barry and James Milner make cameos. Meanwhile, the leadership heartbeat of the FA Cup holders side, Toure, Silva, goalkeeper Joe Hart and defensive fixture Vincent Kompany (despite his Community Shield fiasco) are as sound a group of leaders as anyone could ask for. Signing Aguero also means that even if Tevez behaves like a petulant child (and he will, at some point in time)—City have the cover and firepower to weather those moments—which anyone who watched them play without Tevez last season knows they struggled with.

Weaknesses: Two, really, although money means there are a host of options to deal with the latter. The first issue anyone should have with Manchester City is that they play negative and cynical football at times.

David Silva, the banner playmaker

This is a manager thing—and Mancini is too cautious and overly reliant, at least in our view, on playmaker David Silva’s ability to direct the attack. Yes, the class on the field means it often works—but City also go through spells where they struggle to find goals (which is mystifying given their quality) and where they don’t earn full points against sides they should pummel.

This is a cause for concern for a team that thinks it can steal the trophy from the other team in Manchester. The on-field problem is defense, and this despite the steady Kompany and the world class ability of Nigel de Jong to provide cover. There is simply not enough stability in the back four—too many lineup changes, not enough chemistry, and really, despite expenditures, only one (and a half?) elite class talents. Joleon Lescott’s preseason form had to be promising at the Eastlands—but can he sustain it? That will be a key to the season.

Best Case: Champions of the League on the backs of the large bankroll and a menacing and much improved attack that sees Silva hit his pinnacle and Tevez and Aguero become a happy, unstoppable Argentine attacking machine. A deep Champions League run, foiled by defensive questions late but sustained a round further than it should be—say, the semifinals—because the midfield can mix and match without losing much quality. They might be able to retain the FA Cup too. Mario Balotelli leaves for MLS, reportedly because he heard New York City was “the concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” or, at least, not Manchester Beating bogey side Everton (hasn’t happened in four plus years) would be a bonus.

Worst Case: Tevez absconds to Argentina and Boca Juniors during the Christmas Break. Mario Balotelli leaves for MLS, reportedly because he heard New York City was the concrete jungle where dreams are made of, or, at least, not Manchester. Aguero is a capable deputy but Silva is injured along the way and City find the young Argentine starved of service. The back four improves but not enough to find a stable group of four—and that lack of chemistry prevents the next step. Joe Hart does what promising English goalkeepers do with international tournaments approaching, and loses his form around January, compounding matters. Mancini is sacked for consistently finding ways to snatch draws from the jaws of victory, City finish 4th and are bounced early in the Champions League.

Our Guess: 3rd, with the aforementioned “round later than you think” Champions League run. They’ll win either the FA Cup or the Carling Cup too.

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"You're like the best thing that ever happened to me Little Pea...."

Manchester United

Last Year: League Champions for the 19th time, and relatively well clear of any formidable challenge. Lost the Champions League final to Barcelona, a side considered by many (rightly) to be one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Community Shield victors as well.

Summer Additions: Phil Jones was brought in at 16.5 million pounds from Rovers and will be the deputy for Nemanja Vidic. Pacy and at times sensational left winger Ashley Young arrives from Aston Villa. He has a propensity to disappear for large swaths of matches but is also capable of magic that when it happens will make United equally dangerous on both flanks for the first time in a few seasons. Goalkeeper David de Gea, the promising young Spain international, was brought in from Atletico Madrid. He’s been shaky in the preseason and starting him will be Sir Alex’s largest gamble in recent memory. More on him later this week on TSG.

Summer Losses: A handful, with varying degrees of impact. John O’Shea and Wes Brown both depart for Sunderland. O’Shea is a versatile role player whose loss will only be felt in cup competitions, in our view.

Wes Brown never should have been in the mix to begin with, and is much more a mid-table starter than a champion’s type role player. Edwin van der Sar calls it a career—and what a marvelous one it was, capped by a final season that really saw van der Sar perform at an extraordinarily high level. That’s how you’d like to go out, and it is the largest challenge facing Sir Alex Ferguson’s club as they enter the new campaign.

Dynamic duo no longer...

Paul Scholes called it a career too, and while his loss might be felt in the dressing room—on the pitch he was a bit of a liability in the end, too often a step slow defensively or a second too late in attack. Once promising youth product Gabriel Obertan also departs- off to Newcastle and a fresh start—at least this writer wonders why he was the product United gave up on instead of the terribly overvalued (and older) Brazilian Anderson.

Strengths: Beyond the knight in charge, who always ensures his charges avoid the types of “moving furniture” disappointments cited above that plague fellow title contenders, this is a side with tremendous forwards obviously, led by the resurgent Wayne Rooney and Mexican starlet Javier Hernandez (currently nursing a minor injury). Look- the spending spree this summer indicates United are transitioning into a new era, and today’s youthful lineup against West Brom is further evidence that we’re entering what we’ll call the Nani/Chicharito era of Manchester United football. Ryan Giggs is the last remaining holdover from the glory days gone by, and his role on this team is questionable at best. In fact, you could safely argue this team’s strength is the sense of belief it has that even in a period of massive transition, it can and should be champions. Jamie Trecker was right at Fox Soccer to say this was the key to last year’s title and Champions League final run, with one caveat: the other reason is clearly inflappable center back Nemanja Vidic, who, unlike many great players before him, brushed aside World Cup disappointment and put together the finest season of his career—perhaps one that saw him as the league’s most valuable player. He’s joined in the back by newcomer Jones, Chris Smalling, Rio Ferdinand, Patrick Evra, and the twins Fabio and Rafael. That group gives United a strong corps and a host of mix and match options to weather various competitions and ensure that things don’t get too frightening in front of the youthful De Gea.

Weaknesses: The midfield has days (and more of them than you think) where they are nothing better than a pedestrian/above-average unit. Ashley Young helps, and certainly means United is well-equipped on both flanks, but the center remains in dire need of an upgrade. A glance at today’s West Brom teamsheet indicates Sir Alex knows it too—the Reds simply can’t rely on average (and in some cases aging) for sale mids like Darron Gibson, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick to carry the water well enough this campaign. Gibson may be loaned away, which would solve that issue, but Fletcher and Michael Carrick will remain and neither are of the quality necessary to win a Champions League. Anderson is a maddening player, who looks absolutely brilliant one moment than botches a cross into the bleachers and sideways the next—but he continues to get run out after run out from Sir Alex, which at the very least demonstrates the probem. The failed pursuit of Wesley Sneijdger compounds the issue, and while young Borussia Dortmund man Mario Goetze appears to be on the radar, it would be surprising to us if Dortmund were keen to let the 19 year old German go unless the price was outrageous. At the end of the day, the goalkeeper De Gea, coupled with the ability of Sir Alex to get his midfield to perform above its quality will be the key to the season, and there are moments at least where one can’t help but be cynical.

Best Case: Barca stumbles or runs into Real Madrid and that Mourinho fellow in the Champions League. United grind out results and Mourinho plays too cynically in the final, succumbing to United 1-0 or 2-1. United manage to win the league because Nani is too brilliant, Ashley Young is a bit less erratic than the man we saw for Villa, and the back four is too difficult to break down given the limited number of challengers.

Everything "should" be alright....

De Gea is good enough to avoid dropping too many points they shouldn’t, and if he isn’t, Sir Alex convinces his owners to let him rescue Tim Howard from Goodison, who certainly would be a short-term answer. There are too many midfield questions right now to talk quadruple, but if a solution is found before the window closes, it isn’t out of the question.

Worst Case: Midfield deficiencies and goalkeeper issues are simply too much to overcome, even with the brilliant forwards, steady back four and a splendid Nani. There isn’t a goalkeeper available in January who can help solve the problem either, and United fall from grace early in the Champions League knockout stages. The league isn’t quite good enough to make 4th a possibility, but it isn’t inconceivable if things go wrong that United could end up 3rd.

Our Guess: We’re worried about the goalkeeper and the midfield problems that were exposed at times in European play last year. As such, we don’t think they’ll be the last Barclay’s Premier League team standing in the Champions League (that will be City or Chelsea). But they will raise a 20th title, and they certainly could add a Carling Cup or FA Cup to another fine trophy haul for Sir Alex Ferguson.

 

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31 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by dth on 2011/08/14 at 9:32 PM

    Arsenal should’ve bought Arturo Vidal from Bayer Leverkusen. Among other signings.

    Reply

  2. Posted by 1989 on 2011/08/14 at 10:41 PM

    You’re off on a few things about Arsenal mate. First, Clichy hasn’t been anywhere near a elite class defender since about 08. I don’t know how you wouldn’t consider Sagna elite when he makes the PFA team of the season time after time. I also rate Verm a bit higher than “above-average.” If not for his injury last year, I think he would have gave Vidic a run for his money as best in the Premiership.

    On the Gervinho vs Eduardo front, I would say Eddie would have been a world beater by now if not for his horrific assault at Birmingham (which Clichy ended up blowing away the result). Can’t wait to see what Gervinho will do for us this year.

    On GK, you’re a little behind my friend. Almunia is on the way out, and Fab is firmly in the #2 role behind the up and coming Chesney. I think his performances last year are a prelude to some big things this year.

    In the midfield, you are way more confident than I am. No way Rosicky will last at playmaker for us. I think Le Boss will make a purchase (or already has in Jadson) for that role. He was dreadful last year and I think you are overrating him a tad. I think he can work in spots but hes not first XI calibur. I also think Arsene will buy an attacker to help bolster our ranks. After seeing the lack of a killer final ball vs NUFC, we need someone to help RVP with the scoring burden.

    Interesting article, just feel you missed a few points about the Gunners

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/08/14 at 10:54 PM

      Agree on points 1 an 3, but not 2 and 4.

      Even before he got cut down Eduardo was extremely streaky and easily knocked off the ball. Remains to be seen–or may never be–if he would have been a world beater. I don’t think Wenger even viewed him as that. I think he viewed him like he does most of forwards–they’re interchangeable and one day one is on the form and one is not.

      Disagree on Rosicky. With the speed he’s lost he’ll get a look in the playmaker role and he’s got the chops for it. He see the field extremely well. I’m not saying he’s going to replace Cesc, but I think he’s going to be stopgap this year and maybe next.

      Reply

    • Posted by Neil W. Blackmon on 2011/08/15 at 3:55 AM

      Fair criticisms on Sagna, though I’m not in agreement regarding Clichy, and I don’t think Verm, or anyone outside of Craven Cottage or Goodison playing center back is giving Vidic a run for best center back in the premiership.

      You’re concerns about Rosicky are also warranted, but it’s a preview piece and what I’ve seen (limited to this preseason and yesterday) is a player who is still pretty capable. Not Fabregas of course, but capable. Keeping Nasri would have made everyone more comfy.

      Goalkeeper: You are right. Should have noted Almunia will be gone soon. Still, the overarching point I make is correct: there aren’t five top-flight sides Fabianski starts for.

      Reply

      • Posted by Neil W. Blackmon on 2011/08/15 at 3:57 AM

        Chesney may start for six or seven other sides, but I doubt it, and only because in that hypothetical they would like his youth.

        Reply

    • Posted by KickinNames... on 2011/08/15 at 11:40 AM

      Boy Arsenal real lacked danger from the midfield forward yesterday. Rosicky did OK but they just didn’t seem to really be that threatening against an OK defensive side. 1 data point isn’t a trend but trading Cesc for Rosicky may be just that drop in class that Arsene can’t account for.

      Reply

  3. Posted by dth on 2011/08/15 at 8:28 AM

    There seem to be many Arsenal fans who want to fire Arsene Wenger. While I would never suggest that Americans have more to teach about soccer than the rest of the world does, I do think this kind of situation would be perfect for an American sports mentality. It seems like the default solution for most clubs when dissatisfied with results is to go all the way to: “Let’s fire the manager.” But Arsene Wenger is still a manager with many talents; he needs a shakeup. The American solution here would be to make Wenger shake up his assistant coaching staff, and it often works. Why don’t clubs worldwide make use of this? How many famous assistant coaches are there in European club football, anyway? There are tons in American sports.

    Reply

    • That might have been the best tease for a column coming later this week without intending to be a tease for a column coming later this week ever. And I think you are right in the sense that a “shake-up” is one possible solution, and this is certainly a situation where Arsenal could learn a bit from American sport.

      Reply

    • Posted by Ufficio on 2011/08/15 at 11:26 AM

      American football and baseball are fundamentally different from soccer in that the offense and defense are completely separate entities. So in football, at least one of offensive plays or defensive schemes (and usually both) are being called by someone other than the head coach, and you’ve got a plethora of position coaches. In baseball you’ve got at least a hitting coach and pitching coach aside from the manager. If a football team’s offense is struggling, it’s at least plausible that replacing the offensive coordinator will solve the problem, and sometimes it works. Analogous remarks hold for the defensive side, and for baseball.

      In basketball, though? I’ve never heard of a shakeup of assistant coaches turning around a foundering team, or even placating the fan base. That doesn’t mean it’s never happened, but it’s certainly very rare. And the traits that separate basketball from football and baseball (seamless transitions from offense to defense, with same players having a large responsibility for both) are even more pronounced in soccer than in basketball.

      Reply

      • Posted by dth on 2011/08/15 at 11:32 AM

        It certainly happens in basketball where the choice of assistant will change the fortunes of a team. The LeBron Cavaliers were at their best when Mike Brown allowed John Kuester to mastermind their offense; famously Tex Winter brought the Triangle Offense to the Bulls.

        And while it’s harder to isolate specific elements of soccer, it’s certainly possible. Arsenal have one of the worst records on defending set pieces; could they not hire a coach specifically to deal with set pieces? Defending set pieces well doesn’t necessarily preclude excellence in other realms, either: http://defensiveminded.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/barcelonas-zonal-marking-at-corners/

        Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/15 at 5:38 PM

      Fire Wenger and who do you get who is better? And can work within the same financial constraints? Re. No.2, Pat Rice has got to be one of the most underrated, and Primorac goes about his “Steve Clarke ‘work quietly. Perhaps they haven’t replaced Wilson since he retired – tough act to follow.

      But the issue IMO is that Wenger had this restraint because of the stadium, but has now become obssessed with trying to beat the other team by spending less even though he has a healthy budget. He has been close to a few targets but always backs out when there is a 10% premium. Admiral principles and all that, but doesn’t help when Arsenal’s rivals beat him to most targets… and win silverware. They just need to inject some steel into the spine and learn to win ugly when necessary.

      Still think they will finish in the Top 4 though.

      Reply

      • Posted by Neil W. Blackmon on 2011/08/15 at 6:18 PM

        Some fine points– but I don’t see a top four finish. And the more I think about it, the more I think sixth is distinctly possible if Modric remains on the Totteringham side of London….

        Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/15 at 7:11 PM

          Obviously, replacing a player like Fabregas is almost impossible**, but I think Ramsey should be given his chance. I think Wenger would have to spend a considerable amount to get somebody better than Ramsey who hasn’t peaked yet.

          Keeping RVP fit this season is going to also be key.

          City want Nasri – I’d like to see Wenger attempt to get Johnson or Richards as part of the deal.

          Will this be the year when Wenger plays Walcott centrally? It’s going to happen, just a matter of when IMO.

          **Barcelona got an absolute bargain getting Fabregas for Eur35m if Liverpool paid GBP35m for Carroll [not taking into account he was one of their academy products]. All that effing nonsense about “net-spend”. 35m is 35m is 35m!!

          Reply

          • Posted by dth on 2011/08/15 at 7:20 PM

            Ramsey should be given his chance, I suppose…but nevertheless, it’s hard to match that production.

            As United are finding out with De Gea, it’s really hard to replace players that are among the best in the league. Obvious, I know, but people don’t take this into account. If Arsenal found it difficult to break down opponents with Fabregas, it’s hard to see how they’ll break down opponents. Even if they buy a quality young option like a Juan Mata,* it’s hard to assume he’ll plug-and-play and work immediately.

            *Yes, I know Valencia say they won’t be selling Mata. However, there are 200 million euros in debt reasons why not.

            Reply

            • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/15 at 7:37 PM

              I don’t think it was a case of not breaking down opponents last year, rather an inability to take their chances that they created. Pretty big difference.
              Oh, and not closing out games that they should have won at a canter.

  4. Posted by KickinNames... on 2011/08/15 at 9:00 AM

    Like the hopeful thoughts on Chelsea but unless Drogba has one of usual post major intl tournament bounce back years this side is danger of Tier 2 status.
    Unlike many, I don’t see the class in Ramires that most seem to see. I see a fast, hustle type guy who can’t beat the second man and far too often doesn’t involve others in his romps. Malouda is similar in the main but has stretches of sustained brilliance to offset the selfish play.
    Frank just doesn’t have the legs to deliver on his incredible soccer brain and desire and lift the squad for long stretches. I think Essien is done at top level football due to his stated fragilitiy. One of my all time faves but the writing is there on the wall. It’s been a hard 29 yrs on him….
    Terry seems to have crossed that threshold from superman to everyman and his lack of speed would be a killer.
    And David Luiz…another one who seems to get “but he’s Brazilian” points that offset his far too frequesnt brain farts. He gave up almost a half dozen goals last yr on dumb giveaways or poor positioning all by himself.
    And very astute comments on Mikel who seems to have Michael Carrick beat as most overrated midfielder by his own manager/team. Prob a nice 2nd tier DMF but to ask him to engineer distribution from the back and cover the back 4 is a big ask based on what we’ve seen so far.

    Reply

  5. Chelsea’s predictability comes from attacking at such a low tempo – one of the main issues AVB has pointed out must be improved upon.

    Mikel’s range of passing has improved but his decision making is too slow the vast majority of the time. I expect Romeu to get his fair share of minutes as the player tasked with setting a higher tempo in midfield. He did not leave Barcelona to be faced with another midfield he can’t crack. He’s young but he can and will play.

    Ramires work rate is amazing. He’s what you’d get if Dirk Kuyt played one line further back. He covers a phenomenal amount of ground, and his tendancy to move from a central position towards the right flank in the attack helps to add width, create space and threat from the right flank whenever Sturridge (or Drogba, Torres, hopefully not Kalou, etc) cuts in from outside right to support the central striker. He showed signs of more attacking threat at Stoke. I’d imagine he’s the first midfielder on the teamsheet these days.

    Lampard’s mind is quick, but he’s become a player that often needs three touches where only two were required previously. After playing deeper in preseason, it was interesting to see how frequently he got beyond Torres when he dropped deep and pop in the central striker position at Stoke. Will pushing him further forward put him back in the goals when he doesn’t quite have the legs to make the same late-arriving runs that gave him such goalscoring prowess from midfield in the first place? Can he set a better tempo playing deep? Can he make up for the goals he’s lost by providing more creative spark? Or does the high-mileage 33 year-old he start to make way with some frequency as the season wears on? This is where Modric would slot in but Josh McEachran would surely declare an interest.

    It’s in the spot currently held by Malouda on the outside left that the biggest questions are.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Alex Song on 2011/08/15 at 11:27 AM

    Sagna is MUCH better than Clichy. Not an elite class defender? He was the best RB in the prem last year and deservedly made the PFA team of the year. Very few Arsenal fans are sad to see Clichy go. The general sentiment is that Gibbs shouldn’t be a step down provided that he can stay healthy.

    Wojo is a good goalie and the clear #1.

    Other than that, no major gripes, although you did leave out two of our new faces. Ryo Miyaichi is with the first team after spending last season on loan at Feyenoord and we paid a hefty sum to get Alex Chamberlain from Southampton. Neither is a known quantity at the EPL level, but they might both figure into the team’s immediate plans.

    Reply

    • Posted by KickinNames... on 2011/08/15 at 11:35 AM

      And the head scratcher of the week…how does Joey Barton stay on that pitch yesterday and you send off Gervinho? No involvement in the play, picks him up off the ground and hauls him around. G taps him on the side of the head and boop…off he goes. If Joey’s involved you have to assume its his fault. Reminds me a bit of how that criminal, Roy Keane, could manage to cause all that ugliness and walk away clean.

      Frankly, I thought Gervinho should have been sent off much earlier just for that Cryptkeeper hairdo thing…very poor hairsmanship.

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/15 at 7:22 PM

        Ironic that Barton had a go at Gervinho for diving, then took a dive himself with the slightest contact. Kettle noir.

        Reply

  7. Posted by kaya on 2011/08/15 at 11:42 AM

    IMO, part of the reason people are really starting to question Wenger is that there seems to be a lack of fortitude with Arsenal. I watched the opener against Newcastle and despite the obvious lack of Nasri and Fabregas, 2011 Arsenal reminded me a lot of the 2010 Arsenal: dominating long stretches of the match with good chances, but only managing a draw and then having to defend to “keep the point” in the last few minutes.
    I was only able to watch maybe 5 Arsenal matches last season, but yesterday felt like they kind of started where they left off last season. Not super promising.

    Reply

  8. Posted by dth on 2011/08/15 at 12:14 PM

    Is there some way we can get rid of Mancini? He’s playing three freaking defensive midfielders against a promoted side when he has Sergio Aguero on his bench. What a coward.

    Reply

    • Posted by KickinNames... on 2011/08/15 at 2:43 PM

      Macca really gave him hell for that if you were watching on ESPN2. His halftime analysis was basically,”what the hell is Mancini doing?”
      Developing quite a man crush on Stevie McManamin.

      And forgive me but the awful person that lives inside of me absolutely loved seeing Balotelli standing on the sideline while Aguero ran rampant. Looks like he’ll be onto his next squad sooner than later.

      Reply

      • Posted by Neil W. Blackmon on 2011/08/15 at 6:06 PM

        Dreaming that my Balotelli heads to MLS in either City’s best case or worst case scenario joke becomes a reality….

        And yes, you have to love how great City looked if you’re a fan– but you have to be paranoid that starting three defensive midfielders will move past cynical to costly in the very near future. MEMO TO MANCINI: Swansea aren’t Stoke….

        Reply

  9. Posted by BernieBernier on 2011/08/15 at 6:39 PM

    I was reading Zonal Markings which had an interesting article on the differences between Chelsea’s 4-3-3 under Mourihno, Ancelotti, and AVB. The article focused on how each manager played the “wings” differently.

    It was interesting because I have been thinking about the US playing a “Ancelotti” style 4-3-3. Something like

    Bradley (Eissen/Mikel role)
    Holden (Ramires) – Donovan (Lampard)
    Dempsey (Kalou) – Shea (Moluda)
    Agudelo/Altidore (Torres)

    Especially after last game, I am convinced Donovan needs to be relieved somewhat of his defensive duties. Moving him to the middle pushes the D responsibility elsewhere.

    Bradley can play destroyer like he did in the Gold Cup and could swap back and forth with Holden allowing the fluidity that Klinsman seems to want.

    It gives Dempsey plenty of room to cut in if he wants.

    Lots of room to overlap since its a narrow formation

    It also gets 5 MFs on the field at once like the 4-2-3-1 but a little more offensive. It also removes the need to have a traditional #10 player in the hole since we don’t really have one of those.

    Lastly if you aren’t a big Shea fan you could move Donovan into his spot an insert Torres in the Lampard role.

    Reply

    • That’s a fascinating idea and I actually really like it. I don’t agree (at all) about Donovan and defensive duties– the most underrated portion of his game since about 2004 has been, and continues to be his work rate and ability to track back. If a player is consistently clocking 10,000 plus meters (which OPTA indicates LD has)– he’s tracking back and getting involved defensively. Now, no one is going to confuse him with Holden on that front (who possesses that work rate PLUS tackling ability)– but Landon takes good angles, seems to understand his tackling limitations, and is at least a decent distributor on clearances on a team that until Tim Ream grows up only has four or five capable clearance distribution options.

      Beyond that, very interesting stuff.

      Reply

  10. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/08/15 at 7:55 PM

    I agree with your sentiments regarding De Gea. He has not looked particularly reliable, and that could have a knock on effect on the back 4. United knew that VDS was retiring and this if the fruit if the scouts’ labour? I don’t think people realise the pressure and intensity that comes with playing for United and expecting to win every game. I see history repeating itself when Schmeichel left – how many keepers did United go through? Bosnich, Barthez, De Gow, Carrol, Taibi, Howard… none of they could handle it and they all made high profile errors that cost United points and silverware. Remember the howler in 2004 CL SF vs Porto?

    Reply

  11. Posted by dth on 2011/08/15 at 8:59 PM

    Might Arsenal find it difficult to advance into the Champions League? Wilshere is injured, they’ll still be trying to adapt to a Clichy-less, Nasri-less, Cesc-less existence, and Robin van Persie is suspended. That’s a lot of firepower.

    Reply

    • I actually believe that the Gunners’ only chance of qualifying for next year’s Champions League, or rather, their best chance, to be fair– is to make an early exit this year. They’ll try to avoid that to be sure, but I don’t see how they weather all competitions given the quality depth they’ve lost. As a Spurs fan might tell you, it’s not depth as much as quality depth that matters in all competitions.

      Reply

  12. Posted by Puck on 2011/08/16 at 6:48 AM

    I find your comments on the City’s Defense very curious considering they only gave up 33 goals last year in league competition, tied with Chelsea for the best EPL defense.

    Lescott’s form is not a huge concern as Kolo Toure will be returning withing the month.

    Reply

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