Thursday, August 14, 2014

The big new season predictions post

Despite the distraction of the best World Cup in living memory, a summer without club football is never easy. From an Arsenal point of view, those days of waiting were so much more bearable knowing a trophy was finally in the cabinet at the Emirates Stadium. Yet it has reached that time again were predictions are made, previews are written and everyone’s life can go back to the crazy world of club football. A world so crazy that, even as I write this, a Premier League manager has left his job because of his club’s transfer policy. It’s like we’ve never been away.

Pundits and journalists attempt to hype up every season as ‘the greatest ever’ before it begins, but there is a genuine feeling that the coming 2014-2015 season has the potential to be one of the most exciting in Premier League history. There are five clubs who can legitimately go into the new campaign with optimism, and dream of their captain lifting the trophy in May.

Having read the predictions of numerous pundits, and got annoyed at most of them, Chelsea are expected by many to provide Jose Mourinho with a first trophy in two years. With the additions of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa over the summer, the Blues have added some proven performers. But, for me, doubts should still persist. While he was good in La Liga for Atletico Madrid, Diego Costa absolutely stunk the place out in Brazil for the World Cup, and a return to that form would present Chelsea with a real problem. Fernando Torres is still inconsistent, and in a slight act of desperation, Mourinho brought back an ageing Didier Drogba to provide cover for his front line. Drogba can still bully lesser opposition, but may struggle against the top defenders.

Having lost Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, and with rumours about Petr Cech leaving for Chelsea to fulfil the quota for overseas players in a squad, Mourinho has lost experienced men who could be missed if the going gets tough during the middle of the season. There should be an improvement on last season, but Chelsea need their new striker to hit the ground running to be positioned well for the sharp end of the season.

The other popular prediction as winners among pundits is the reigning champions, Manchester City. There has been a total disregard for City being outplayed by Arsenal on Sunday in the Community Shield, which is understandable given the defenders that City were missing. But they still looked pretty toothless in attack, so should Sergio Aguero be unavailable at any point during the season, City fans should be concerned. Questions should still be asked about Yaya Toure’s state of mind. Does he want a cake or not?

Having won two trophies last season, Manchester City do have the experience, and Pellegrini brought a much more exciting style of play to the club than the one often implemented by Roberto Mancini. With most other teams that were chasing Manchester City last season all improving over the summer, it will be a tough fight for Pellegrini, but with the resources at that club, it’s hard to not see them being involved in the title race right up until May.

Despite the improvements of others, the team that were closest to Manchester City in the table last season, Liverpool, are the only title chasers that are arguably weaker than they were in 2013-2014. The inevitable loss of Luis Suarez was always going to be a problem for Brendon Rodgers to solve, and there are many, myself included, who doubt if the Tottenham-style supermarket sweep is the right answer. They’ve added depth to the squad, but have they added quality to improve the starting XI? Not really.

The added pressures and extra fixtures of Champions League football could stretch the squad, as the reinforcements may prove to not be good enough to keep Liverpool strong in all the competitions they’ll enter this season. Steven Gerrard isn’t getting any younger, Daniel Sturridge has a lot of pressure to perform without Suarez, and both gave some very poor performances at the World Cup for England. The capitulation at the end of last season when it seemed harder to not win the league could play on the team’s mind in pressure situations this season. There is a real sense that 2013-2014 was the opportunity for Liverpool to finally win the league again. After blowing it and selling their best player, questions remain about whether that season was the start of a prolonged period of title challenges, or just a one-off season where most things, until May, went right.

Liverpool’s place in the top four could be taken by the team they’ve replaced in Europe’s main competition, Manchester United. The David Moyes experiment was, let’s face it, pretty dreadful in every single way for United fans. Some key players did get injured, but his tactics were na├»ve and those of a manager who didn’t know how to manage a top club.

There is understandable renewed optimism at Old Trafford, because in Louis van Gaal, they have a manager who can deal with the pressure that comes with managing Manchester United. He’ll have the respect of the players after leading an unfancied Dutch side to the World Cup semi-finals, and has the medals from previous jobs to prove his methods work.

However, it may too soon for a title challenge. Even though the players won’t have European distractions, the lack of Champions League football has made it harder for van Gaal to secure the signings he wants. There are still significant holes at centre-backs and central midfield to be filled, while Luke Shaw’s injury means the left wing back position could be filled by Ashley Young at the start of the season. Bigger players are reluctant to move, despite the size of Manchester United, because they know it’ll be at least a year until they’re back in the Champions League. In modern football, that is too long to wait for some.

Of the expected top five, that just leaves the Arsenal. Can the summer dealings really make a Premier League title possible? Has a corner really been turned by winning the FA Cup? Is Aaron Ramsey the best player in the world and the true Welsh messiah? Is Per Mertesacker the person we should all be learning dance moves from? Well the answer to all of those questions, I think, is yes.

Arsene Wenger hasn’t messed about trying to get bargain deals in the transfer window, he’s known who he’s needed to replace those who left along with adding some star quality, and he’s got the deals done. The extra centre-back is still a concern, but otherwise, the Arsenal squad is looking strong. The core is still the same as the one that lost so embarrassingly at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea last season, but having got over the mental hurdle of winning a trophy, there is more trust in this group of players.

Alexis Sanchez is the most exciting addition to the Premier League this season, and offers Arsenal versatility in the front three positions. With Theo Walcott unavailable for the first few weeks of the season, Sanchez also offers the pace in behind that the Gunners missed so badly without Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain for much of last season. The prospect of him linking up with Mesut Ozil, a world champion who’ll be better prepared for a season in the Premier League, is an extremely tasty one.

Questions will always be asked about the Gunners’ staying power, the performances in the big away games and the team’s supposed soft centre, but I’m confident that this set of Arsenal players are better set up to answer those questions this season. Arsenal were only seven points off the top last season, and the new players combined with the confidence and winning mentality created by securing the FA Cup and Community Shield, that is a bridgeable gap in the coming months.

If you can’t be optimistic in August, then you’ll have no faith for the rest of the season. More out of blind, excited, hope rather than expectation, I believe Arsene Wenger could pull it off this season.

As for the rest, Everton have made some good additions, but with others strengthening, li
ke Liverpool, last year could have been their best chance of reaching their main aim. The top four ultimately eluded them, and I expect it to do so again. Tottenham are putting faith in another manager to try and pull together something out of the individuals that make up that squad. In reality, with Michael Dawson at centre-back, barring a miracle, the top four is extremely unlikely. At the bottom, I think Burnley will struggle, QPR won’t manage to bring another randomly assembled squad together and West Brom will continue a gradual slide over the last year and a half that will end in the Championship.

2014-2015 season prediction:

*Dons tin hat despite most readers being Arsenal fans*

1. Arsenal
2. Manchester City
3. Chelsea
4. Manchester United
5. Liverpool
6. Everton
7. Tottenham Hotspur
8. Newcastle United
9. Stoke City
10. Aston Villa
11. Swansea City
12. West Ham United
13. Leicester City
14. Southampton
15. Hull City
16. Sunderland
17. Crystal Palace
18. West Bromwich Albion
19. Queens Park Rangers
20. Burnley

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