On the day of the annual curtain raiser of the English football season, the Charity Shield was this year contested between the League champions Manchester City and the winners of the FA Cup Chelsea. We were given a first hand view of two potential winners of the upcoming Premier League. With Manchester City being the reigning champions they now have the experience of winning a title which will undoubtedly aid them in their future pursuits of glory, however, they have not managed to significantly strengthen their squad this summer much to the frustration of manager Roberto Mancini.
Manchester City’s opponents, Chelsea, have spent much of the summer riding the crest of a wave formed by the Londoner’s European cup success in Munich at the end of last season and as a result have been able to significantly strengthen their squad. They’ve added the high profile names of Oscar and Eden Hazard from Internacional and Lille respectively for sizeable transfer fees which has almost returned Chelsea to the early days of Roman Abramovic’s ownership when the club paid significant money for high profile players in order for them to challenge for Europe’s premier prize. However, unlike the Charity Shield, this season’s Premier League will not just be about Manchester City and Chelsea, with several of the top clubs all improving their squads this summer, in some cases significantly in terms of attacking options, which leaves us with the potential for the 2012-2013 Premier League campaign being the most exciting yet.
Last season, whilst it started with several of the top clubs fighting for position at the top of the table, poor results and injuries contributed to a lot of the teams, which set the early season pace falling away. The Premier League quickly turned into a three horse race between Manchester United, Manchester City and surprise title challengers, Tottenham Hotspur, who under Harry Redknapp’s stewardship were playing some scintillating football. Fully utilising the pace of Gareth Bale and the physicality of loan striker Emmanuel Adebayor, they forged a large gap between themselves and rivals Arsenal. However this North London title challenge was not to last with the Premier League becoming an all Manchester race following Spurs’ defeat away at Eastlands under rather controversial circumstances following Mario Balotelli’s stamp on Scott Parker going unpunished before the iconic Italian sunk Spurs with an injury time penalty. The title race, despite going down to the last day with Manchester City winning their first title since they became cash rich following the Abu Dhabi United Group takeover in 2008, was a season which lacked drama away from the top two clubs with third placed Arsenal finishing a mammoth nineteen points behind. Tottenham Hotspur, following their almighty collapse after the defeat to City finished fourth, twenty points behind the eventual champions but were denied the privilege of Champions League football as a direct result of Chelsea’s penalty shootout triumph in Munich. This season however will be a totally different story with there being numerous sides who now have the potential and the wherewithal to challenge Manchester City for the title and I fully expect the top four to be a lot closer this coming campaign with in my mind several clubs having the potential to challenge for the championship.
With Manchester City the team to beat this year it has come as a huge surprise that they have not endeavoured to strengthen their squad this summer when it is arguably the time when it would be most necessary in order for them to improve their high standards of the previous twelve months. It is this lack of spending that has given other teams who have strengthened, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, the belief that they have closed the gap and have every reason to believe they can challenge for the title once again.
After losing the title on the final day in the most dramatic of circumstances Manchester United will be excessively motivated to reclaim the title. With Wayne Rooney the second highest scorer in the league last season, they have now gone one better and agreed a price with Arsenal for their captain, Robin van Persie. The Dutchman scored an impressive 30 goals in 38 Premier League games last season and whilst injuries have been issue for him during his career, if United can keep him fit for the majority of the season, they will boast one of the best attacks in Europe.
The signing of Japanese international Shinji Kagawa from German champions Borussia Dortmund will greatly improve the creativity of the squad, with Kagawa operating in the ‘false nine’ role just behind the forward line, the gap in the Manchester United team from last season has been filled. A player in the ‘false nine’ mould to link the midfield and forwards has been needed at Manchester United for a number of years now following Pep Guardiola’s rejuvenation of the role with Lionel Messi at Barcelona in 2009 and this was made most evident with Manchester United’s failure in the Champions League last season. It was clear that Sir Alex Ferguson knew he needed to strengthen in this position with his pursuit of Samir Nasri last summer however when that move failed to materialise United had to go a season without a player in this position. Following the capture of Kagawa the creativity of Manchester United will be greatly improved with Kagawa’s high technical ability and nimble feet having the potential to cause defences problems and create chances for the formidable strike force of Wayne Rooney, Van Persie, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck, in much the same manner David Silva did last season for Manchester City.
As well as the addition of Shinji Kagawa, the return of captain Nemanja Vidic will have as huge an impact as any signing Sir Alex could have made with the Serbian having been out since December following his anterior cruciate ligament injury against Basel. The defensive fragility that hindered United’s title charge near the climax of last season, particularly in the matches against Wigan and Everton, wouldn’t have been present had Vidic been at the heart of the defence.
Another of the potential title contenders for this upcoming campaign are Arsenal, with the Gunners having not won a trophy in seven years. The negativity surrounding their transfer dealings over the past few seasons has been relieved this summer, with a change in Arsene Wenger’s mentality in the market. The experienced French manager has brought in Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud to reinforce the club’s attacking options, with the sensible prediction that Van Persie was about to leave the club. As well as the signings of Podolski and Giroud, Wenger has also completed the signing of 27-year-old Spanish midfielder Santi Cazorla from Malaga, in a deal that has seen Arsenal replace the creativity lost when Samir Nasri left the club. Cazorla’s pace and quick feet contributes to his ability to beat a defender and it is expected he will play in the ‘false nine’ role for Arsenal which will allow Arsenal to create considerable chances when going forward. Cazorla also has the ability to play a deeper role in midfield, with his wide range of passing which became evident during Villarreal’s time in the European cup in years gone by, and with Cazorla playing in a deeper role he would create chances for quick wingers Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain by giving them something to run on to. Arsenal also appear to now have a settled back four should Vermaelen and Koscielny stay fit, and with the young Wojciech Szczesny now with a year’s more experience in goal under his belt it is expected that the inane errors that have plagued Arsenal at the back for the past two seasons will be cut out of the Gunners’ game, especially with the players now under the guidance of Steve Bould as Arsene Wenger’s assistant manager following Pat Rice’s retirement.
Chelsea last year, had it not been for their triumph in the European Cup, would have classed last season as a disaster, with the club finishing sixth in the Premier League table. However when you look at the position the club was in when Andre Villas-Boas left the club following the European tie with Napoli in Italy there can be no complaints for Chelsea supporters. The club was in turmoil with senior members of the squad battling against the manager and it was clear the former Porto manager had to go. He was replaced by former Chelsea player Roberto Di Matteo and this proved to be one of the greatest decisions made by Roman Abramovic since he took ownership of the club in 2003, with the Italian totally reuniting the squad with the senior players, playing a sizeable part in Chelsea’s conquering of Europe. However it was recognised by Abramovic that the Chelsea squad, following the departures of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, was somewhat threadbare and the Russian owner this summer has moved to rectify this with the signings of Marko Marin, Eden Hazard and Brazilian starlet Oscar. In a £64m spending spree, Abramovic hopes Chelsea will challenge not only for the Premier League title once again but also allow the Blues to retain their continental crown. The explosive pace of Belgian superstar Eden Hazard will completely rejuvenate the Chelsea midfield with the former Lille man having the uncanny ability to make something out of nothing with him scoring twenty goals and contributing fifteen assists in the French Ligue 1 in his final year in France. The wide areas have been somewhere that Chelsea have needed to improve in over the past seasons, especially since the signing of Fernando Torres, and due to the lack of wingers the Spaniard has had to come out wide to try and make something happen which has seen the former Liverpool man struggle for goals in his time at Stamford Bridge. However, the signings of Hazard and Marin has given Chelsea an added strength in depth in midfield and specialist wingers which will allow Torres to concentrate solely on his role as the loan forward which following the departure of Drogba, Torres will have to do a lot more. The creativity of Hazard will no doubt create chances for Torres this year and I fully expect him to have his finest season at Chelsea this upcoming campaign.
Chelsea will also be buoyed by the emergence of David Luiz as the clubs top defender with the Brazilian improving his game remarkably since the Gary Neville “Playstation footballer” comment early last season. The former Benfica centre half has seemingly cut out the daft errors from his overall game, and although he still utilises his somewhat hereditary Brazilian instinct to go forward whenever possible, he has reigned it in somewhat significantly.
It is Chelsea’s London rivals Tottenham Hotspur who have seen the most wholesale change during this transfer window with Spurs bringing a familiar face back into Premier League management following the unavoidable departure of Harry Redknapp. Andre Villas-Boas returned to London this summer to take charge of Spurs and this could well be the making of him. There is absolutely no doubting the Portuguese manager’s talents, which were made evident during that miraculous season in 2010 with FC Porto where he won the quadruple, and AVB will be able to work at Spurs much in the same manner as he did at Porto without huge pressure that he was under during his time at Chelsea. This may well see Spurs put in a real title challenge this season.
The attacking football of last year will still be present at White Hart Lane with Villas-Boas long being an advocate of fluid football. He had to abandon this during his time at Stamford Bridge due to the emphasis put on getting results, whilst at Spurs it will be a different story, with the players already used to playing free flowing attacking football. The addition of Gylfi Sigurdsson will improve their team yet further following his hugely successful loan spell at Swansea last season. Should Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart manage to stay fit then it could be a hugely exciting season for Tottenham fans with the potential for goal scoring being very high as we saw last season, although arguably the most positive aspect of this summer’s transfer business for Spurs is the capture of Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen from Ajax with the experienced defender adding steel and strength to the at times last year brittle Tottenham defence. Following the retirement of long serving Ledley King, the signing of Vertonghen will certainly improve Tottenham’s resolve and will cut out the mistakes that led to their downfall in the aforementioned fixture at Eastlands last season. The situation surrounding Luka Modric has also appeared to have been handled in a much more sensible manner by Villas Boas this summer with the Croatian being made to train on his own until he leaves the club and therefore not hinder the pre season preparations of the rest of the squad which is a complete juxtaposition of how Redknapp handled the same situation this time twelve months ago.
Whilst the clubs mentioned so far are who I deem to pose a realistic title challenge there is a significant number of other teams who have improved this summer and will have closed the over the past few seasons ever widening gap between the top five and the rest of the chasing pack. In particular Newcastle United and Liverpool have made sizeable steps forward this summer, with the Magpies looking to improve on their fifth placed finish last season with the signing of Romain Amalfitano on a free transfer from Second Division club Stade de Reims, with the hope the Frenchman can have the same impact from midfield that Yohan Cabaye had over the past twelve months. With Newcastle now having a settled forward partnership in the form of Cisse and Ba whom they will not lose this season to international duty there is every reason to believe that Newcastle will improve on last season’s domestic goal tally of fifty six.
Liverpool, following the departure of club legend Kenny Dalglish from the managerial hot seat at Anfield, have undergone a summer of change with new manager Brendan Rodgers being brought in from Swansea. After his hugely impressive time at the Liberty Stadium the Welshman is looking to bring his free flowing ‘Welsh Barcelona’ style of football to Liverpool. In order to aid the completion of this Liverpool have completed the signings of striker Fabio Borini from Roma who will give Liverpool a more dynamic edge to support Luis Suarez in the final third and centre midfielder Joe Allen, in an expensive deal from Rodgers’ old club Swansea. Following last season’s less than mobile Liverpool midfield it is hoped that Allen will completely refresh the Merseysiders in the middle of the pitch with his tremendous ability to keep the ball and find a pass to a teammate which were evident at this summer’s Olympic Games and domestically during last season at Swansea. The return to fitness of Lucas Leiva, who quickly became Liverpool’s most important player at the start of last season, will also aid Rodgers’ ambition to get Liverpool back into the top four with him being able to provide a tough defensive grit to complement Joe Allen’s European style of play in the centre of midfield. Luis Suarez signing a new five-year-deal at Anfield will have a noticeable impact on the squad with Rodgers having secured the services of arguably Liverpool’s best player from the previous twelve months for the foreseeable future.
The potential for goals and free flowing attacking football is huge in the upcoming Premier League campaign with Manchester City retaining their forward firepower that led them to championship glory and all the teams around them strengthening in that area, I feel that whilst the gap between the top six or seven teams has closed significantly, the gap between the two halves of the table has opened even wider and this may well not be a bad thing in the coming season with the league essentially being split into two, with all the teams in each half slightly closer to each other than in previous years.
There can be no doubt that Manchester United and Manchester City are the teams to beat this season, much like last year, however the teams around them now have a greater chance of competing with them and the fight for European places will be fiercer than ever with a multitude of clubs having the quality throughout their squad to qualify for continental football. All of this makes for a fascinating season this year which could well see both the title and relegation battles come down to the final day yet again, and this ensures that fans will once again turn up in their numbers for what could be the best Premier League season since its inaugural campaign in 1992.