Hey, look, what do you know? The never-ending summer of soccer across the nation continues with no signs of abating. In fact, the world’s most popular league — the Barclay’s Premier League (aka EPL) — starts the 2014-15 season next Saturday when Manchester United play Swansea City live across the nation on NBCSN. Before it starts, let’s look at a few emerging storylines (in no particular order) before the transfer window slams shut at the end of the month.
* Who will lead Manchester City in scoring?
City remains a shining example of why it’s nice to be rich. If, say, the engine belt in your Rolls Royce is on the fritz, you can still drive the Ferrari or another luxury auto (which you can also afford). Manchester City’s deeeeeep striker pool is part of the reason it scored a league-high 102 goals en route to the title. Midfielder Yaya Toure led the way with 20 while Sergio Agüero notched 17 goals in a mere 23 appearances. Alvaro Negredo knocked in nine before going cold and ultimately injuring himself at the end of the season. Mostly forgotten Edin Džeko managed 16 goals — sixth in the league — despite beginning the year third or fourth on Manuel Pellegrini’s depth chart. Oh right, David Silva and Samir Nasri each had seven goals from the midfield.
Throw in a healthy Stefan Jovetic (a modestly-priced $35 million summer 2013 signing) and City have more options than everyone else in England at the top of the attack, even if it means playing a tactically unadventurous 4-4-2 to get more than one on the field.
Given City is in the Champions League again and the uncertain health of Agüero (still the bookmakers second favorite behind Robin van Persie to be the Prem’s top scorer) off the World Cup, all four strikers are going to get ample playing time. Jovetic’s ability to play as a support striker gives Pellegrini yet another dangerous option in front of goal and why City will be right up there with Chelsea again for the title since it’s not reliant on one player week-in, week-out.
* Will Louis van Gaal bring Manchester United “back”?
Surely winning the mega-prestigious Guinness International Champions Cup earlier this week vs. Liverpool means Manchester United is already back, duh.
Sarcasm aside, Manchester United should be better with the stern Dutchman in charge than it was with David Moyes. If nothing else, Manchester United will feel a little more like MANCHESTER UNITED this season than the sad-sack, punchline it devolved into as last year wore on.
Casting a judgement on United now, with the window still open, is a gamble. If the team lands a stud midfielder like Arturo Vidal, it changes the entire dynamic. As is, the overall roster is still lightweight compared to Manchester City, Chelsea or even Arsenal. You do have to like van Gaal’s ability to tinker as he did with The Netherlands at the World Cup, meaning players like Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, or even Ashley Young will be put into places to succeed on the field. Tactical flexibility out of a three or five-man defense should set United apart, even if that defense is relying heavily on Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
United missing out on both the Champions League and even the Europa League thanks to last year’s seventh-place finish will be a blessing in disguise, allowing van Gaal time to settle on a first-choice lineup without worrying about important mid-week games. With a healthy van Persie, United should be able to field a very solid XI, but after that it gets much dicier.
Winning the league is a pipe dream even the most ardent United fans would concede is unrealistic in 2014-15. Leapfrogging the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and maybe even Tottenham to finish in the Top Four to book a return to the Champions League will be hard enough for United unless a few star reinforcements arrive prior to September.
* Do the promoted teams (Leicester City, Burnley and QPR) stand a chance?
History says yes. Although the rosters of Burnley and Leicester City — our two automatically promoted teams from the Championship — don’t jump out at you with names even diehard FIFA Ultimate Team players or soccer nerds are familiar with. Recent years haven’t been so bad for the promoted teams. The last five seasons at most one of the three promoted teams went straight back down, with Cardiff City the most recent example. In 2011-12 all three promoted clubs stayed up.
The challenge is usually in the second season. A cohesive team that wins the Championship with an able manager, even one lacking “big” names tends to do okay its first year. The problems come the next year when the core gets older or sold off and replaced by new players, usually from outside England.
Of the three promoted teams, Burnley — where the biggest move so far is signing journeyman Steven Reid (?!?) — is the top favorite to be relegated. Despite it’s bevy of “name” players and the Harry Redknapp factor, QPR needed a stoppage time goal in the playoff final vs. Derby — it’s only shot of the game — to win promotion. Whether or not the Hoops retain Loic Remy could be the difference, since it’s biggest signing this summer, Rio Ferdinand, is about 90 percent past his sell-by date. Landing Steven Caulker from relegated Cardiff City is a more encouraging move.
* Is Chelsea on its way to a coronation?
Oddsmakers have it pegged that way, installing the Blues at 15-to-8 favorites over Manchester City. It’s easier to get a read on Chelsea compared to everyone else since the Blues did business quickly, selling off David Luiz for a small fortune to PSG and bringing in Cesc Fabregas right as the World Cup began. Jose Mourinho acted with surgical precision and raided Spanish champions Atletico Madrid for Felipe Luiz and Diego Costa.
Gaining Costa paved the way for Chelsea to sell Romelu Lukaku(*) to Everton permanently. For good measure Mourinho signed up Didier Drogba for a final Chelsea hurrah, too. If Costa and Drogba (or Torres, giggle) are adequate, Chelsea are two depth everywhere on the field, including keeper when Thibaut Courtois comes back to vie with Petr Cech for the No. 1 spot.
Coming off a 36-goal season at Atletico, Costa doesn’t have to do much aside from cause some trouble in the box and contribute goals from close range. It sounds easy but Chelsea haven’t had the best success importing strikers, Drogba aside, with Andriy Shevchenko as the most obvious example. Chelsea came within four points of the title last season with an aging Samuel Eto’o as the primary striker, making it hard to argue this team hasn’t radically improved with an in-prime Costa now starting.
However Costa acclimates to England, Chelsea still isn’t reliant on one particular player and knows how to grind out 1-0 results either in the league or Europe. Unless the Blues really miss Frank Lampard’s ability to chip in deflected goals or penalty kicks, the title probably runs through Stamford Bridge regardless of Manchester City’s firepower.
You also have to go back to 2008-09 when Manchester United won its third straight title to the last time the reigning league champions successfully defended their crown.
(*) Quickee on Everton: with Lukuka, yes, the Toffees should think about finishing in the Top Four, but realistically will need a team (most-likely Liverpool) to backslide in order to make up the gap. Cracking the City/Chelsea/Arsenal troika is a lot to ask of Roberto Martinez.
* Is Liverpool’s summer spending Tottenham 2.0?
Last summer Spurs(**) sold Gareth Bale off to Real Madrid for the cost of a small Caribbean island. In turn the club parlayed that windfall into an a haul of players including: Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Roberto Soldado, Paulinho, Etienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches and Nacer Chadli for a sum around $200 million.
The new-look Spurs flopped. Andre Villas-Boas was eventually fired and the club limped to a forgettable sixth-place finish with the added bonus of a Europa League playoff spot!
This summer Liverpool sold Luis Suarez and his 31 league goals to Barcelona for $125 million, flipping those profits into around $135+ million for Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Emre Can, Dejan Lovren and Lazar Markovic. Late this week it appears the Reds have added outside backs Javier Manquillo and Alberto Moreno, both coming from Spain. (All look like smart buys, despite over-paying for Lallana due to the unofficial English player premium tax.)
While the financial outlay is similar, it’s not a fair comparison. Yes, in the 2012-13 season Bale accounted for 21 of Tottenham’s 66 league goals, comparable to Suarez’s 31 of 101 for Liverpool last season — both around 31 percent. Tottenham, despite Bale’s superman heroics, finished in fifth place with 72 points whereas Liverpool placed second with 84 points. It’s fair to say the Liverpool team behind Suarez was better than the Tottenham team around Bale. Without Suarez Liverpool still had Daniel Sturridge (21 league goals) whereas Tottenham didn’t have anyone remotely near Bale’s class either as a goal scorer or overall talent.
Liverpool, mind, also qualified for the Champions League off last year’s second-place showing. With or without Suarez, Brendan Rodgers needed more depth due to the added fixture burden with or without Suarez. The better question to ask is how do the new Reds’ signings help improve a defense that allowed 50 goals — 13 more than City, 23 more than Chelsea and even seven more than Manchester United.
As great as Suarez was, planning to win games 4-3 on a consistent basis isn’t an tenable plan — outside of video games and “FIFA logic.” Lovren is a solid player, but he alone in the defense isn’t going to turn Liverpool’s frailty around. Perhaps a switch to Rodgers’ preferred 4-3-3 system creates more possession for Liverpool and less end-to-end games — which were a delight for neutrals, but much less so for fans hoping to end the over two decade long title drought.
(**) Tottenham still appear a major work-in-progress, but Mauricio Pochettino has proven to be a capable manager in the PL and has enough pieces to mold a solid starting XI, eventually. Transforming from a Harry Redknapp team to a AVB team to a Tim Sherwood “team” is a lot of changes for one club to make in a short amount of time. Some patience to allow Pochettino time to settle on a lineup is a must at White Hart Lane.
* Are Arsenal fans right to be excited in August?
A year ago at this time many Arsenal fans morphed into Chicken Little, calling for Arsene Wenger’s head as they worried about the club failing to advance to the Champions League group stages and whiffing on players like Gonzalo Higuain. Now? Wenger’s already added Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona, keeper David Ospina, proven PL right back Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle and Calum Chambers from Southampton.
So yes, Gunners fans should be excited by a surprisingly proactive, non-frugal summer at the Emirates … assuming the club doesn’t overlook Besiktas in the Champions League playoffs later this month.
Arsenal still needs another forward or two to provide an option other than Olivier Giroud (who clearly wore down as last year progressed), that is unless Sanchez or Lukas Poldolski play more centrally in front of goal as direct forwards rather than wide attackers. Gunners fans are still pining, too, for another midfield option (teenager Gedion Zelalam isn’t that player, yet) for some grit in the center of the field to cope with City and Chelsea, although the post-World Cup rumor of Sami Khedira never materialized. Last year’s Arsenal season came undone when Aaron Ramsey hurt himself around Christmas and missed over three months. With a healthy Ramsey, Arsenal were top of the league, without him they still won the FA Cup but couldn’t keep the chase with City or Chelsea.
Lately Arsenal fans have come to expect the worst, but maybe this summer dreaming a little bit about a league title isn’t as foolish as previous years. It’s unrealistic, but if you can’t get excited by this group of players in August, why waste your time being a fan?