Well … well … well … the 2013-14 English Premier League season is upon us and if tasked to sum it up in a word it will be: different. For one, the league’s broadcast rights shift to NBCSN beginning with Saturday morning’s telecast of Liverpool vs. Stoke City (7:45 a.m.). That’s merely a cosmetic difference. In a week or two Fox Soccer and its Pizza Hut-sponsored hot takes will be nothing but a distant memory.
The tangible difference for this upcoming Premier League season, one which should be felt from August to next May, is the absence of Sir Alex Ferguson. The Scot announced his retirement in May, handing over the keys to Manchester United to countryman David Moyes. Last weekend when United won the Community Shield and the deferential Moyes said the trophy belonged to Ferguson.
Consider this briefly. When England’s top clubs broke away from the old First Division and formed the modern-day Premier League in 1992, no figure (perhaps in all of sports) singularly dominated a league quite like Ferguson. United won the league in 1992-1993 — its first of 13 Premier League titles. Under Ferguson United never finished worse than third and its longest spell without a title was four seasons. Along the way were “Mind Games” and “Fergie Time” as it felt like Ferguson’s sheer force of will was as much responsible for United’s winning as anything actually on the field itself.
Over the last couple weeks I’ve been trying to come up with one person having so much of an impact over an entire league or sport as Ferguson did over the Premier League. Michael Jordan and his retirements, at least the first two, changed the NBA landscape radically. When Bill Belichick eventually retires from the Patriots sideline — assuming his brain isn’t surgically placed into a hoodie-wearing cyborg — the NFL will have a different feel. Baseball will certainly look different next year when Mariano Rivera takes the No. 42 out of circulation, although the impact of a guy registering three outs in the ninth-inning doesn’t change the face of the entire sport.
The looming shadow cast by Ferguson across the league is one certainty. Previewing the Premier League in mid-August, with the transfer window still open and so many high-profile players still unsettled like Gareth Bale, it always feels foolish to make declarative statements one way or the other.
The irony is that for however different the Premier League feels going into the season minus Ferguson’s presence, expect the usual four or five teams — as ever — to vie for the title and Champions League places.
That said, here are a couple of the questions on my radar before we kick it all off Saturday morning:
Question 1: Is it Manchester City or Chelsea’s title to lose?
Yes. City were in need of an enema and out went Roberto Mancini (and Carlos Tevez, preceded by Mario Balotelli) and in came Manuel Pellegrini, an accomplished winner in La Liga. City didn’t go crazy in the transfer market, instead making savvy pickups in the forms of Fernandinho, Stefan Jovetic, Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo. There’s not the splashy moves, like signing Edison Cavani would have represented, but should prove to solidify a team, for whatever reason, never clicked last term (but still finished in second place, mind). City have the feel of a team that might not have a ton of outward personality or compelling characters, but will grind out tidy results week-in, week-out from August until May.
Heading into the season City’s biggest worries are the dips in form from keeper Joe Hart and defender Vincent Kompany. Based on their track records, those are good problems to have. The only thing that could stop City is if the club again is unable to juggle Premier League play with the Champions League.
As the season wore down last year, Chelsea looked like the most dangerous squad with the attacking trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar running roughshod through opponents. The Blues won the Europa League and ditched the hated Rafa Benitez and replaced him with former manager Jose Mourinho — maybe you’ve heard of him. The Special One has a abundance of riches with the additions of Andre Schurrle, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, who will be important since Mourinho doesn’t appear to favor either Demba Ba or Fernando Torres at forward leading the line. Perhaps Chelsea will play like Spain and eschew a traditional forward. (Torres would be used to it, anyway.)
Mourinho isn’t a tactically radical manager, but he does tend to get the most out of the players at his disposal. A lot of words will be written about Mourinho’s relationship with Frank Lampard and John Terry, but the key man from the Blues’ old guard remains keeper Petr Cech, as he’s back in the form he displayed when he helped Mourinho and Chelsea win the league back-to-back in 2005 and 2006.
Unfortunately for Blues haters like myself, Chelsea has the potential to be good, scary good so long as all the egos involved accept there’s only one ball to play with over the course of 90 minutes.
Question 2: Is it fair to write off Arsenal and Manchester United as title challengers?
Arsenal might not have done anything tangible in the summer to close the gap between the Gunners and the top, but manager Arsene Wenger must think the club didn’t need to do much after it finished the season 12-1-3 following back-to-back losses to City and Chelsea in January. Arsenal took 39 of 48 points available over that time and allowed more than one goal only once, a 2-2 draw with Liverpool. There feels to be cohesion in this side, with last year’s summer signings Lukas Poldolski and Olivier Giroud improving, forming a solid front three with Theo Walcott. The Gunners might not have enough depth to mount a challenge on the title (losing Mikel Arteta on the eve of the season for six weeks is a big loss), but so long as they avoid another slow start to the season Wenger’s team shouldn’t sweat out a place in the Top Four until the final day again.
Is the trophy-less streak going to end this season? Probably not and that’s, justifiably, all Gunners fans care about after nearly fallow stretch that’s lasted over eight years. (There’s always the Capital One Cup.)
As for United? Here’s a team coming off winning the league by 11 points and a +43 goal differential and yet nobody expects a repeat. It’s not all Ferguson. A sulking, unhappy and declining Wayne Rooney doesn’t help matters. If you’re a United fan hoping for a repeat your big hope is Robin van Persie again carrying a team with his goals. The oft-injured Dutchman scored 26 league goals in his first season at Old Trafford after scoring 30 the year before for Arsenal. More important, van Persie played in all 38 games each season following a previous career-best of 26.
Moyes might be wise to keep some horse placenta on reserve, or whatever midfielder Michael Carrick was drinking during last year’s title run.
Question 3: Liverpool, Spurs, Everton … surely somebody else has a shot at the Top Four?
Could you tell me who’ll be signing the paychecks of Luis Suarez, Bale, Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines on Sept. 3 before we do? No, okay. Moving on.
This year, save for Suarez committing a homicide on the field don’t seem to have an excuse for not contending for a Champions League spot. If Brendan Rodgers could sneak another defender into the first team before the window closes, it would surely help their cause. An attack with Suarez (if retained and after his ongoing 10-game suspension is complete), Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge will be strong. Anything from Steven Gerrard at this point is a bonus. Bottom line with Liverpool, Suarez is one of the handful of game-changing match winners left in the league. So long as he’s wearing all-red, Liverpool is a threat.
Spurs? They might turn out to be a better team 1-11 after the sale of Bale than they were with him. Realistically Bale put together one of the best one-man displays in recent Prem history and all it was worth was a fifth place finish. If Tottenham move toward Andre Villas-Boas preferred 4-3-3 formation, with Brazilians Paulinho and Sandro as anchors, Spurs could evolve into a more consistent team that doesn’t always need one man to, ahem, bale them out of trouble each and every week. At the very least Spurs should be more consistent in front of goal with Roberto Solado getting the majority of minutes instead of Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor.
As for Everton? New boss Roberto Martinez wants to play three at the back and convert Baines into a wingback. Good luck with all that. On the plus side, Aroune Kone’s bleached blond hair is a sharp look at Goodison Park.
Question 4: Is parity here for good in the Premier League?
The Premier League isn’t quite the NFL with its ‘on any given Sunday’ mantra, but it’s getting closer. Gone are the days of out-and-out disaster clubs like Derby County or Sunderland circa the mid-2000s. Granted all this means is a lot more teams fighting viably for a place in the 5th-15th spots and you know what that means: excitement!
Even better, NBC is airing or streaming every match each weekend so if you want to devote two hours of your life to West Ham vs. Cardiff City you’re in luck, my friend. Nothing captures the glitz and glamour of the self-proclaimed “best league in the world” quite like that.
Duffy – Manchester City, Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool
Relegated: Stoke City, Crystal Palace, Hull City Tigers.
Duffy – Crystal Palace, Stoke City, those imposters playing in red in Cardiff
Top Scorer: Christian Benteke, Aston Villa (24).
Duffy – Robin Van Persie, Manchester United (28). /sheds tear
First manager fired: Martin Jol, Fulham. New owner Shahid Khan says he likes the club’s current management but this is a club that’s stagnated in recent seasons and needs a fresh approach if it wants to remain in the top flight, instead of Jol’s current modus operandi of signing older, proven players at reasonable rates. Snaring the mercurial Adel Taarabt is a low-risk, high-reward move however.
Duffy – Mark Hughes, Stoke City. Rough start with three of the first five against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal. Not sure they build on that.
Surprise team: Norwich City. Move over Swansea, “soccer hipsters” have a new favorite team and it wears canary yellow.
Duffy – West Ham. Big Sam may be odious, but he has an ethos, he gets the most out of his squads and some teams that finished in front of them last season look primed to take a dip.
Best summer signings: 1. Jesus Navas (Man City); 2. Paulinho (Spurs); 3. Wilfried Bony (Swansea City).
Duffy – Yaya Sano…just kidding. 1. Emanuele Giaccherini (Sunderland) 2. Jesus Navas (Man City), 3. Paulinho (Spurs)
How many goals will Jozy Altidore score for Sunderland: 15
Duffy – (6) He has improved since his last loan spell at Hull. That said, he’s going to get far less time on the ball than he has in Holland or Concacaf of late. I’m not completely sold Jozy’s first touch, second touch and economy of movement are quite at EPL level yet.