By Neil Blackmon
Will United add another to the case this year?
Part I – Part II – Part 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?
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.
The man who would be Mourinho....
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.