English Premier League Preview Part 2 - The Top 4
The Top 4
The second part of the series looks at last seasons top 4 and explores how they have strengthened over the summer and if they can hold onto their coveted top 4 positions. Finishing in the top 4 opens the doors to playing in the Champions League and the huge amounts of revenue available in playing with European footballs elite. The top 3 qualify automatically whereas the 4th place side face a play off over to two legs to enter the competition.
(Note - thanks to premierleague.com for transfer information throughout article).
Players In (major only): Radamel Falcao (from Monaco - Loan), Asmir Begovic (Stoke City)
Players Out (major only): Petr Cech (Arsenal), Didier Drogba (released), Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid).
Jose Mourinho's Chelsea start the season as champions and are favorites to retain their crown. So far it has been a quiet transfer window for the blues but there are still just over 3 weeks left which could change that. John Stones of Everton appears their prime target but they possess a strong first XI and have plenty of high calibre players to come off the bench. Their key players last season were Belgian Eden Hazard and Spanish striker Diego Costa. Hazard was the match winner on so many occasions last season and much will be expected from him again this season. He can change a game at the drop of a hat and any side with player of his talent has a great chance of success. At just 24, the Chelsea number 10 has scored 37 goals in 107 appearances which is a creditable effort for an attacking midfielder. Diego Costa played his first season in the Premier League last season scoring 20 goals in 26 appearances. He is temperamental and had a number of run-ins with defenders throughout last season. His physical play makes him an extremely hard opponent but the issue for Costa is his troublesome hamstring which caused him to miss parts of last season. Having lost Didier Drogba, Chelsea will rely on Falcao and Loic Remy to provide back up. Falcao could end up being a shrewd signing by Mourinho if he can rediscover his form of old. At the back, Chelsea retain the solidity of John Terry and Gary Cahill and have Nemanja Matic providing the protection in midfield. Courtois will retain his position in goal but if there is one area where I think Chelsea could be susceptible it is to pact sides and sides willing to get at them and upset them. At times they were opened up by Arsenal in the Charity Shield and it could be one of the reasons why Mourinho is looking at a defender like Stones. Spurs also exploited this last season with an impressive 5-3 win and opponents should look closely at this as a possible weakness.
Elsewhere, with players like Oscar, Willian, Zouma, Fabregas, Ramires and Cuadrado they will still be hard to beat. The key to stopping Chelsea will be stopping Hazard but he only needs a second to punish you so that is easier said then done as Manchester United found out last season. They also developed an ability towards the end of the last season to grind out results which led to criticism in some quarters. However, their attacking play in the first half of last season really helped them become worthy champions and much will be expected again. Chelsea opened with a match against Swansea City which appeared straight forward. However, Chelsea were coming off the back of two defeats and last season the Swans earned surprise victory at Old Trafford on opening day last season. Never the less few expected them to hold Chelsea to a draw (2-2) and with Chelsea's next opponents being title rivals Manchester City, they will quickly need to rediscover their form of last year. It was perhaps an early reminder to Mourinho that you need to be prepared for opponents who will dramatically raise their game for matches against the champions.
Chelsea Manager Jose Mourinho
Players In (major only) - Raheem Sterling (Liverpool), Fabian Delph (Aston Villa), Patrick Roberts (Fulham)
Players Out (major only) - James Milner (Liverpool), Stevan Jovetic (Inter Milan), Edin Dzeko (Roma).
Many expected wholesale purchases at the City of Manchester Stadium but so far only Raheem Sterling would appear to be a contender for the starting XI. Paul Pogba of Juventus and Kevin De Bruyne are still linked but Pogba seems unlikely to leave for the Premier League and I would expect a move to Spain would be more tempting should he choose to leave Juventus. At the time of writing De Bruyne appears to be close to signing next week and that means that he could make his debut on week 2 against his old club Chelsea. Having signed a contract extension, it seems clear that the owners have confidence in manager Manuel Pellegrini despite persistent rumors about him being replaced by Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola.
Of his signings so far, Pellegrini spent GBP49 million on Sterling who finally made the move from Liverpool to Man City. Ultimately however it will be the form and fitness of Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany that will determine the success of Manchester City. They along with goalkeeper Joe Hart form the strong spine of the Manchester City side. With Aguero being supplied by the pace of Sterling and David Silva, I expect a substantial goal tally for the Argentinian. I also expect the much criticized Eliaquim Mangala to have a better season. It is often hard for foreign players to adapt to the Premier League so Mangala should not be written off just yet as he starts his second season.
The key to Manchester City's success will be the ability to recreate the form from the 2013/14 season when they destroyed many teams at the City of Manchester stadium as well as keeping Aguero fit. If he gets injured they are lacking a quality centre forward replacement having lost Dzeko and Jovetic. Last season they lost too many silly games that in previous season's they would not have done. They open up with a tricky encounter away at West Bromwich Albion managed by Tony Pulis. Pulis sides are notoriously hard to beat and this will be a good test for City to see if they have banished some of their poor traits from last season. That match is quickly followed by a game against last seasons champions, Chelsea. In those two games we will have a good idea as to what type of City side we will see this season.
Players In (major only): Petr Cech (from Chelsea)
Players Out (major only): Lukas Podolski (Galatasaray), Abou Diaby (released), Wojciech Szcesny (Roma - Loan), Carl Jenkinson (West Ham - Loan)
Arsenal have had a relatively quiet summer in the transfer market only adding goalkeeper Petr Cech at the time of writing. Goalkeeper was an area where Arsenal really needed to strengthen and that they have with Cech being the best keeper they have had since the days of David Seaman and Jens Lehman. They are blessed with pace having Chamberlain, Welbeck, Sanchez and Walcott in their side and a strong defense coupled with this pace will be the key to their success this season. Sanchez was outstanding for Arsenal last season but with him having played in the World cup last summer and then the Copa America this, it will be interesting to see if he suffers a dip in form due to the lack of rest. Much will be expected of Theo Walcott with the 26 year old having just signed a new contract. There has been talk of him being used through the middle this season which I have always thought is his best position and an area where Arsenal are lacking depth having lost Podolski. If Giroud gets injured they do not really have a ready made replacement since Welbeck continues to find goalscoring a struggle. It is a big season for Walcott with the European Championship taking place next summer he will be keen to cement his England place. He will need to stay injury free and if he does he could be set for an excellent season. It is clear that Arsene Wenger feels he has good group of players and his lack of signings indicates that he thinks the squad does not need much doing do it. Wenger has never been one to spend money unless the right player is available and it seems that this summer will be no exception.
In the second half of last season Arsenal appeared to have turned the corner. They beat Manchester City, beat United (in the FA Cup) and defeated Liverpool and held United and Chelsea to draws. In recent years their record against the top sides has not been good and after beating Chelsea in last weeks Charity Shield it seemed that they were going into the new season in good form and were touted by many as Chelsea's main challengers. Opening up with a game against West Ham, it was surprising therefore that they fell to a 2-0 home defeat. With another London derby against Crystal Palace next week, they face an early challenge to their title credentials. These are the games that they have to win if they are to be challengers for the title at the end of the season and if there is anything less then a win next week watch for the knives to be out for Wenger and his continued failure to add to the side in key areas.
Players In (major only) - Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich), Matteo Darmian (Torino), Memphis Depay (PSV), Sergio Romero (Free Transfer)
Players Out (major only) - Robin Van Persie (Fenerbahce), Rafael (Lyon), Falcao (Monaco - loan period ended), Angel Di Maria (PSG)
Before the transfer window opened the midfield engine room was the area United needed to strengthen providing back up for the influential Michael Carrick. Carrick is the key to a stable Manchester United side. Last season United lost just 1 of the 16 games he started in the League and his assured performances brought calmness and stability. The midfield cover arrived in the shape of Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin. It has been suggested that Van Gaal is well aware that he cannot get a full season out of Carrick but feels that if he can get 25 to 30 games out of both he and new signing Schweinsteiger, then that will be sufficient. Schneiderlin is much younger and likely will feature more regularly possibly allowing Carrick a little more freedom offensivley. United also needed a right back and have solved that issue in signing Italian international Matteo Darmian. Up front they have added Memphis Depay and it appears likely that he will partner Wayne Rooney up front but in a more withdrawn role. Januzaj, Herrera, Mata and Young will provide the creativity with Fellaini the power and unorthodox approach when required. Inadvertently they have also given themselves back another pacy powerful forward with Darmian freeing up Antonio Valencia and it will be interesting to see if Van Gaal will give him a license to play the more attacking right wing role that he was originally signed to do. At the back there are still question marks and with United still linked with Sergio Ramos and John Stones it appears clear that Van Gaal is not quite set on his two centre backs.
As the season starts, manager Louis Van Gaal's hard early work in the transfer window is in danger of being undone. Just last week they lost Angel Di Maria which leaves them extremely short upfront should Wayne Rooney get injured. They will rely on young James Wilson, Depay and Javier Hernandez. Hernandez was out on loan last season and it will be curious to see if the Mexican can re-establish himself in the squad and with a goal scoring record of 37 in 102 appearances it would be hard to find an available player out out there who could boast a similar record. It seems United are in the market for another forward with Pedro and Harry Kane continuing to be linked. The former is more likely then Kane who it would be doubtful would want to leave Tottenham just yet. However, Kane is a man who appears made for United and if his fine form continues you would not back against it happening next summer particularly if he has another strong season. In goal Van Gaal also has issues with De Gea, last season's stand out performer, seemingly keen to join Real Madrid. De Gea has so far declined to sign the contract on offer at Manchester United and it seems hard to think he will be allowed to leave for free next summer. Sergio Romero, the Argentinian number 1 who had an impressive Copa America, was recently signed as a back up and found himself playing in the league opener against Tottenham on Saturday. United won the match 1-0 thanks to an own goal but were tepid going forward and only managed one shot on goal. The fact that they took 3 points is nothing to be sneered at particularly against a very good Tottenham side, but they will need to be much better offensively in the coming weeks. In midfield and at the back United looked solid and Romero had a good match making 2 excellent saves late on. I am not sure he is the answer on a permanent basis however. In the last 3 weeks of the window, it is clear and Van Gaal must sign at least 1 forward and certainly needs to resolve the goalkeeping issue quickly. A challenging match away at Aston Villa is next up and they have work to do before that game kicks off on Friday evening.