Friday, 16 August 2013

The Three Horse Race

By Shane Thomas

NOTE: Please bear in mind, that the predictions in this piece may change, and are based on the squads on the respective teams as of 13th August.

The Premier League season begins, and there's no Sir Alex Ferguson in sight. For many journalists, pundits, and even a few fans, I imagine they're put in mind of how the late comic, Spike Milligan used to end many of his comedy sketches, by staring at the camera and uttering, "What are we going to do now?"

Well, Ferguson may be gone, but the juggernaut that is the Premier League continues. And it appears that the race for the 2013/14 title will be a race between three clubs; Manchester United, Chelsea, and Manchester City.

United are used to approaching a season under intense scrutiny, but the attention - while no less severe - is a contrasting type of pressure. Much like when the death of El Cid gave the Almoravids the belief that Valencia was ripe for the plundering, clubs will now look at Manchester United as a kingdom without a strong leader.[1]

With David Moyes now in charge at Old Trafford, many have looked at his record as Everton manager, and surmised that he's not the man to continue the success that seemed to be amaranthine under Sir Alex Ferguson.

However, while I view that as somewhat unfair - and from an objective viewpoint, I want to see Moyes succeed[2] - I still agree with the bulk of the punditocracy who expect United to finish third in the league come the season's end. This has less to do with Moyes, and more with the current personnel.

While United have a number of senior professionals who can be relied on to ensure that the winning mentality remains, there are question marks around all of them. Can United count on Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to play on a regular basis, as both are ageing and have ongoing fitness issues. The days when Ryan Giggs could play three times a week passed a few years ago. Patrice Evra had an impressive outing in the Community Shield win over Wigan, but he has been on a downward spiral since 2010.

And while Robin Van Persie remains the division's best centre-forward, asking him to drag United to the title again is a huge ask, especially as one wonders how long he can go on before the injury problems that blighted his earlier career make a return.

This leaves a United core of players like Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. Bar Van Persie, Michael Carrick may be the closest thing United have to an experienced regular in the first XI. And it's those aforementioned reasons why I suspect United will be well in the title race for most of the season, before dropping a few too many points with roughly 5 or 6 games to go.

It seems that the safe bet on the 2013/14 champions are Chelsea. That largely seems to be based around the return of Jose Mourinho. The man who established one of the most formidable teams in the history of British football appears to have made a timely return to England. His Chelsea side, circa 2006 would romp the current Premier League, but what chance does the current incarnation have?

While Mourinho's success in England was based on physicality, athleticism, discipline and ruthlessness, this Chelsea appear to have a more fluid, cavalier approach. The high energy of the Lampard/Essien/Drogba era has been swapped for a more impish, pass & move strategy embodied by the likes of Oscar and Juan Mata.

However, the focus on "the three amigos" (Oscar, Mata & Eden Hazard) overlooks Chelsea's main two problems; they (currently) lack a reliable centre-forward - although Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku are more than capable of getting 30 goals between them.

The centre of their defence also looks vulnerable. John Terry has passed his peak, and can't be relied upon to play every week. Which means that a lot will depend on David Luiz continuing his maturation as a defender.

This leaves us with Manchester City. While they gave the second-most moribund defence of the Premier League in recent memory[3], it shouldn't be forgotten the already-imposing strength of their squad, bolstered further by some of the best transfer business in pre-season.

Fernandinho is a player made for the Premier League, and a potential centre-midfield partnership of the Brazilian and Yaya Toure should fill the rest of the division with dread, Stevan Jovetic will take the creative burden off David Silva, while Alvaro Negredo will ease the goalscoring strain on Sergio Aguero.

And in Jesus Navas, City have one of the world's premier wingers. Not a wide-midfielder. A winger. Navas is something of a throwback in the age of "between the lines" type players. The Spaniard simply wants to get the ball, beat the full-back, and get a dangerous cross into the box. While his propensity to go to ground easily will irk many, he's likely to be a reservoir of assists for his teammates[4].

Combine these new signings with the addition of Manuel Pelligrini as head coach, who will be a uniting and genial presence, in contrast to the choleric and intense disposition of Roberto Mancini, and I make City as favourites to lift the Premier League trophy next May.

We shouldn't forget that the standard of defending in England has dipped alarmingly since 2010. Goals are easier to come by, which means that the destination of the title will likely come down to firepower. And more than any other club, it's Manchester City who have come tooled up.

P.S. While I haven't the time to do a detailed club-by-club preview for the new Premier League season, I'll give you something to throw back at me come next May. Here's how I see the final league table ending up:

1)  Manchester City
2)  Chelsea
3)  Manchester United
4)  Tottenham
5)  Arsenal
6)  Liverpool
7)  West Ham
8)  Norwich
9)  Everton
10)West Brom
11) Fulham
12) Sunderland
13) Aston Villa
14) Newcastle
15) Southampton
16) Swansea
17) Cardiff
18) Stoke
19) Hull City
20) Crystal Palace

[1] Chelsea's confidence in signing Wayne Rooney, for example. The Daily Mail's, Martin Samuel touched on this.

[2] If Moyes' reign ends in ignominy, what chance does any up-and-coming British manager have of getting a high-profile Premier League job in the foreseeable future?

[3] Blackburn in 1995/96. Now that was a shambolic title defence.

[4] Just to show I'm not jumping on a bandwagon, I've thought highly of Navas for a while.

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