Money talks but what it says about the title destination is still unclear, says Andrew Warshaw
Until the transfer window slams shuts at the end of this month and we have a better idea of where the entire summer cash has been splashed, even the most knowledgeable expert would be hard-pressed to predict for certain who will lift the English Premier League trophy come next May.
A stern taskmaster, Van Gaal won’t settle for second best
In all likelihood, the contenders will be pretty much the same, but before a ball has even been kicked, the mind games have already started, with Jose Mourinho playing his full part. Surprise, surprise.
Today’s Community Shield may not tell us much we don’t already know about the respective attributes of Chelsea and Arsenal, but the recent verbal spat between Mourinho and Gunners boss Arsene Wenger – between whom there is famously no love lost – has given the traditional pre-season warm-up a juicy build-up.
Mourinho claimed with typical cheekiness that, with Arsenal’s resources, they should be challenging for top honours, knowing full well that Wenger’s side have not finished in the top two for a decade. To which the Frenchman pointedly replied that he doesn’t listen to what other managers say.
With Petr Cech facing his old side at Wembley today after a £10 million switch from west to north London, the occasion certainly has more spice about it than usual. But of course the real business begins next weekend.
Just about the only thing anyone can reliably assume is that the top four names will probably remain the same though perhaps not in the same order… and that Chelsea, who won their fifth title in a canter, will not have it quite so easy.
Mourinho clearly believes the addition of Radamel Falcao, out on loan again from Monaco after failing spectacularly at Manchester United, was simply at the wrong English club and represents an astute piece of business. He may be right, especially with the mercurial Eden Hazard, now among the half-dozen best players in the world, alongside the Colombian. But Diego Costa’s fitness – or lack of it – will provide optimism to Chelsea’s rivals who have all spent big to improve on the last campaign.
The standout transfer so far, of course, is Raheem Sterling’s £49m move from Liverpool to Manchester City, a record fee for an English player. Will Sterling improve City? Undoubtedly. Is he tried and trusted enough to command such a whopping fee at such a young age? The jury is out.
Having slipped up in both the Premier League and Champions League to finish trophyless, many observers were surprised that Manuel Pellegrini hung on to his job. It is to City’s credit that they gave the Chilean another crack but you get the feeling that this time he has to deliver, with Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola apparently in the wings to take over though possibly not until next summer.
Arsenal have had an impressive pre-season and the purchase of Cech at last solves a gaping problem in goal where someone of stature and presence has been sorely needed. It could prove to be Wenger’s most astute signing for years and if they can start as well as they usually finish, there is a quiet confidence the Gunners could improve on third last time out.
No one needs to hit the ground running more than Louis van Gaal who may only be in his second season at Old Trafford but was brought to Manchester United to win titles. With British record signing Angel Di Maria on the verge of joining Paris St Germain at the time of writing, having failed dismally to adapt, the task facing Van Gaal is to make sure he has a settled squad who want to wear the shirt.
It is clear where the Dutchman’s priorities lay after last season. Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger will add strength and creativity to his midfield while £31m Memphis Depay showed at PSV Eindhoven what an exciting forward he can be.
Having restored red pride following the brief David Moyes tenure by steering United back into the Champions League places, Van Gaal has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal and will now be expected to go one better and launch a genuine title challenge. A stern taskmaster, he won’t settle for second best.
His United start with a mouth-watering home lunchtime clash on Saturday against Tottenham, always one of the showpiece fixtures of the season. On the subject of Spurs, building from the back for once appears to be their transfer strategy, a sensible move by Mauricio Pochettino whose chairman Daniel Levy has learned his lesson about taking a scattergun approach and is getting rid of a large supply of dead wood while shrewdly targeting replacements. Credit to Levy too for hanging on to Harry Kane, though England’s new kid on the block now faces the challenge of second season syndrome. As the top four becomes increasingly hard to crack, Spurs will do well to finish fifth again and perhaps pick up a trophy.
That could also be the maximum Liverpool can expect but tell that to their fans. Having lost Sterling to Manchester City in somewhat acrimonious circumstances, Brendon Rodgers has no time to feel sorry for himself. Money has been spent wisely on Christian Benteke to gobble up goals, Brazilian Roberto Firmino, Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner who looks a canny purchase and should minimise any damage caused by the departure of the legend that is Steven Gerrard.
Ever since finishing runners-up two seasons ago, however, Rodgers has been under increasing pressure and simply must show improvement – and quickly – on last season’s relative disaster by Liverpool standards, or else quite possibly find himself surplus to requirements. That Liverpool haven’t managed to clinch the title in the Premier League era is a massive statement of under-achievement. With another fortune shed, they now look to have far more depth but, like their arch-enemies at Old Trafford, their rearguard looks most vulnerable, that final-day 6-1 thumping at Stoke being a case in point.
After another top-ten finish under Mark Hughes, the Potteries club could well be a surprise package once again while much interest surrounds the return of The Tinkerman, aka Claudio Ranieri, at Leicester. It is a bold move bringing the Italian back to the top flight but he will have his work cut out winning over the fans. The unsavoury way in which Ranieri’s predecessor, Nigel Pearson, left after masterminding the Foxes’ miraculous survival continues to leave a sour taste.
Newcastle fans, as loyal as they come, will hope former England manager Steve McClaren is the right man to orchestrate the revival of their massive, success-starved club while Everton need to improve big-time on last term, or else Roberto Martinez will be looking over his shoulder.
Of the promoted clubs, surprise newcomers Bournemouth seem bound to entertain, both at their tiny 12,000-capacity ground and away from home, and will savour a couple of south-coast derbies with Southampton while Norwich and Watford, having been there before, will want more than just to enjoy the experience this time round.