Top Four Watch: A Reality Check for Manchester United
Manchester United won the Premier League at a canter last season, but 2013/14 won’t be so easy for them, especially with Sir Alex Ferguson having retired in the close season. So it’s a dilemma for David Moyes: Does he want the SAF effect to wear out, or can it keep papering over the cracks? Regardless, this is not a strong United squad—Robin van Persie is arguably the only world-class player in the team, and there should be upgrades to the defence and midfield at the very least. Both of which haven’t happened.
Across town, the noisy neighbors are about to crank the volume and heat up. Manchester City ruthlessly dispensed of Roberto Mancini, and brought in Manuel Pellegrini with eyes on bigger prizes. And they’ve provided the financial backing to ensure it happens. It might not sit well with some, but the splurging done on the likes of Fernandinho, Jesus Navas, Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo has ensured that City start the season with a formidable squad. They’ll take some beating—and might still bring in more players before September.
But there’s Chelsea to deal with, and Jose Mourinho has been building an encouraging team. Contrast their buying policy this summer with his first year in 2004, and it’s clear that there’s a much stronger emphasis on youth this time around. There’s been plenty of movement in the forward lines, but like United, not as much in the middle and at the back. Can Mourinho reestablish Stamford Bridge as a fortress with a less convincing backline? If he does—and adds Wayne Rooney and/or Samuel Eto’o—Chelsea would take the fight right down to the wire.
Every year, Arsenal get written off as the team to drop out of the top four, but this year, Tottenham Hotspur look the real deal. Regardless of Gareth Bale’s destination, Andre Villas-Boas has already ushered in a new forward line: Roberto Soldado, Paulinho and Nacer Chadli are hugely impressive additions that will ensure goals and excitement up top. This is a squad that could well finish third—and if Bale stays and carries his form from last season, might be dark horses for the title outright.
As it stands, my top four picks (in order from 1st): City, Chelsea, Spurs, United.
Relegation Watch: Underachievers and Disappointments
As in any early-season relegation predictions, let’s look first at the promoted clubs. Cardiff City, backed by an ambitious Malaysian owner, have been the most aggressive, and their big-money signings Andreas Cornelius, Steven Caulker and Gary Medel bode well. Hull City and Crystal Palace don’t look as confident on paper though. Steve Bruce has added a contingent of Premier League players who he’ll be hoping can contribute something more than just experience, but Crystal Palace in particular look in trouble. Their biggest summer signing? Dwight Gayle from Peterborough. For £8.5 million.
Newcastle United have had a worryingly weak summer window, especially when compared to other sides around them. Only Loic Remy has arrived as a first-team player, and with the backroom turmoil involving Joe Kinnear’s appointment as Director of Football, they look more likely to underachieve further than to get back to mid-table mediocrity. Sunderland, despite their busy summer, also look shaky. Their summer activity seems more quantity than quality, although the same was said last year, of course, of Aston Villa (more on them later).
Southampton and Villa move from relegation candidates to top-half contenders in my book, so we’ll finish this list with Stoke City, who managed to finish six points clear of the relegation zone last season. After a few years of stagnant progress and luxurious spending, Stoke have replaced Tony Pulis with Mark Hughes, but while he hasn’t gone on a ridiculous QPR-style splurge, he’s only signed two players. Decent players, Marc Muniesa and Erik Pieters, but the overall squad may not have the quality to sustain their Premier League status for another year.
As it stands, my relegation picks (no particular order): Crystal Palace, Hull, Stoke.
Teams to Watch: It’s All Happening in Wales—and Maybe the Midlands?
We touched on Cardiff a bit in the previous section, so let’s start with that. Here is a team led by an ambitious owner and a young and talented manager, Malky Mackay, and with the exception of three big-name signings, a squad that they’ve taken largely from the Championship up to the Premier League with them. But further additions look likely before the transfer window shuts, and in Kim Bo-Kyung, Cardiff might just possess one of the unsung heroes of the season. And—he’s 34 now—but we can’t afford to forget about Craig Bellamy.
But Cardiff will be no match for the slick and classy unit that will take to the field at the Liberty Stadium this season. In their third year in the Premier League, Swansea City look closer to European qualification via league finish than ever dropping out, such is the success that they’ve enjoyed. Michael Laudrup has strengthened brilliantly this summer, with Wilfried Bony, Jonathan De Guzman and Jonjo Shelvey his most high-profile signings. The challenge for them now is to push on—and balance their Europa League campaign while they’re at it.
Southampton are a curious case. They finished just five points above the relegation zone last season, but the mood at St. Mary’s is optimistic, as well it should be. Mauricio Pochettino has fashioned a young, energetic side specializing in pressing and counterattacking football. That there’s not been much transfer activity this summer suggests that he has confidence in his squad rather than the lack of player availability: After all, their two additions, Dejan Lovren and Victor Wanyama, provide enough pedigree and suggest that they too will be looking at the top half.
Let’s round this off with Aston Villa, who went through a dangerous slump midway through last season. Paul Lambert’s gamble with his young signings paid off in the end—we all know how Christian Benteke turned out, but Ashley Westwood and Matthew Lowton were inspired signings as well. This summer he’s added another contingent of young prospects, but as Villa march on comfortable in this new philosophy and system, the likes of Jores Okore and Antonio Luna could have just as big an impact.
Players to Watch: AKA Fantasy Picks
Now that we’re done with our team to watch, here are some players that are either very interesting signings or ones to pay attention to this season. Fantasy picks? You’ll be sure these aren’t your Robin van Persies or Gareth Bales, so there might just be a bargain or two to be considered here.
First, a trio wearing Liverpool red. You’ve probably heard enough of Philippe Coutinho by now, but the rave reviews are worth the while and do him justice. He’ll be looking to turn that productive and exhilarating half-season partnership with Daniel Sturridge into a prolific one over the course of the season. And helping them do that will be Iago Aspas, signed from Celta in the summer. He’s had an encouraging preseason for Brendan Rodgers, and his brand of football, mixing technique and aggression, reminds of a certain wantaway No. 7.
If you’re new to this column and missed out on last season’s episodes, you’ll come to realize my admiration for Swansea and Michael Laudrup. Michu was the unquestionable bargain buy of last summer, and this year he’ll be back in his support striker role he started in, following the exciting acquisition of Wilfried Bony. Michu enjoyed his most prolific spell in a Swans shirt when he played behind a strike last season, and Bony blew Malmo FF away with a competitive debut double after a thrilling 31-goal season with Vitesse Arnhem. Watch this space.
What about that most maligned, big-money, ex-Liverpool duo now at West Ham United? Well, soon to be at West Ham anyway, given that Stewart Downing’s move hasn’t been officially confirmed yet, but for a combined sum of Downing’s Liverpool transfer (£20 million), Sam Allardyce will be bringing in Downing and Andy Carroll. That’s a crossing and heading partnership that Kenny Dalglish failed spectacularly to harness at Anfield, but could be right up Big Sam’s alley. And they’ll be looking to impress in a World Cup year.
Our final pick belongs to the team that might gatecrash the top three in spectacular fashion: Tottenham Hotspur. Bale’s contribution may be sizeable as always, or the signings that his transfer fee brings in could well take the squad’s overall quality up a notch. Where am I going with this? Well, Villas-Boas has chosen Roberto Soldado to spearhead his attack as a lone striker. With Chadli, Aaron Lennon, Paulinho and Mousa Dembele supporting him already, Soldado looks to enjoy a Premier League goals feast.
This piece was my first instalment of English Football Weekly for the season for SoccerWithoutLimits.com.