With the new EPL season kicking off on August 17th, here’s a look at five predictions before a ball has been kicked.
1) Manchester United will not win the Premier League
Starting with something a little straightforward – even the stoutest hearted fan of the reigning Premier League champions will have a nagging doubt at the back of their mind about Manchester United retaining the trophy this season. Sure, they cantered to a routine 2-0 win over Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield with the usual suspect Robin van Persie bagging both goals, however, this performance, while workmanlike, was against a mid table side at best. Sterner tests await David Moyes and his men with tough games to contend with at the start of the season.
The New System
The victory against Wigan gave a few clues as to how United will line up under Moyes. The wingers weren’t positioned as wide as we have seen them in the past. In a 4-2-3-1 formation with Danny Welbeck and Wilfried Zaha playing more infield than traditional wingers, it was left to the wingbacks to make attacking runs. It looks like the formation is designed to encourage possession passing play where the midfield would need to control the game, and the wide attackers will get involved in the build – up more often. What hasn’t changed however is their reliance on Robin van Persie. The 30 year old Dutchman showed his class with a brilliant header that had the right power and accuracy to beat the keeper and followed up with an instinctive, albeit lucky strike for the second goal.
Over-Reliance on van Persie
Herein lays United’s biggest weakness. Van Persie scored 26 league goals last season for United and 30 goals for Arsenal the season before that. His importance in both these teams cannot be stressed enough. However, there is one aspect that has not been discussed much – Robin van Persie’s injury track record. Van Persie played 3123 minutes of Premier League football last season for United and 3331 minutes in his last season with Arsenal, which is almost the entirety of the season. This however papers over the fact that in three of the four post – Theirry Henry seasons at Arsenal, when he took over the main striker mantle, he could manage only 1770, 1252 and 1073 minutes respectively.
Van Persie is injury prone and at 30, is pushing past his fittest best in terms of age. This means that if one of his 3-4 month absences due to injury crop up this season, United would be seriously short of reliable goalscorers. Wayne Rooney looks set to move after learning that he is to play second fiddle to van Persie this season and Danny Welbeck scored a grand total of 1 goal in the league last season. This leaves Javier Hernandez as the only striker to fill in for van Persie and while Chicharito has stepped up with crucial goals for United in the past, he is more suited to the Solskjaer-esque super substitute role. United’s lack of transfer activity means that Moyes might not be able to find a reliable striker to fill in for a knackered van Persie. The key for Moyes would be to keep Rooney on as a fill-in striker since the England international has the ability to lead the attack with the same effectiveness as van Persie in the Dutchman’s absence. This looks to be a tough ask for Moyes though.
Lack of depth in Squad
United’s first five fixtures are Swansea (A), Chelsea (H), Liverpool (A), Crystal Palace(H) and Man City (A). With Crystal Palace looking as the only sure win, United could end up with just 7 points from the first 5 games, assuming the other four are draws. This would push United back at the start of the title race and while United have in the past won the league by relying on excellent results in the second half of the season, the depth in squad that Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City have is far superior than Moyes does at Old Trafford. This means that such a slip up early on might be punished come the end of the season. United won the league last season because of the inconsistency of the other top teams and this kind of generosity should not be expected from the others this season.
2) Chelsea will pip the Manchester Clubs to the Title
Rejoice Chelsea fans, for your club will be the Premier League champions come the end of the 2013/14 Premier League season. Jose Mourinho has at his disposal a strong squad with the right mix of wily experience and youthful exuberance. The average age of the Chelsea squad stands at 26 years with exactly half the members of the squad below 25 years in age. Talented youngsters like Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Oscar, Cesar Azpilicueta, Victor Moses and Kevin de Bruyne will be balanced out in terms of experience by veterans like John Terry, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Branisalv Ivanovic. Mourinho has indicated his desire to give importance to youth with retaining Lukaku this season at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea’s new signings for the season also have a strong undercurrent of youth – Marco van Ginkel (20) and Andre Schurrle (22) have been valuable additions to the squad and will provide good competition for the starting line-up.
Welcome Selection Headaches
Mourinho has declared his interest in bringing Wayne Rooney over from Manchester United and if he manages to pull this off, Chelsea would be definite favourites to lift the trophy in Mourinho’s first season in charge in his second spell at the Bridge. A striker is the only position in this squad that needs addressing and Chelsea have been reported to go after Samuel Eto’o should their interest in Rooney remains fruitless. The striker problem addressed, Chelsea will have 3 international strikers (Torres, Rooney/Eto’o and Schurrle) competing for a single place, they will have Oscar, Mata, de Bruyne and Lampard competing for 2 creative places in midfield and John Obi Mikel will face stiff competition from the returning Michael Essien for the defensive midfield role as Eden Hazard, Victor Moses and Ramires go rampant on the wings. Mourinho also has welcome selection headaches in defence. David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and club captain John Terry all have pedigree and ability as world class central defenders and Petr Cech has the experienced Mark Schwarzer to push him for the starting berth.
Add to this the technical genius of Jose Mourinho and you have a winning formula ready. Mourinho has won trophies wherever he has managed and nowhere was he more popular amongst the players than at Chelsea. Frank Lampard and John Terry were the backbone of his title winning Chelsea squads in the mid-2000s and the two Chelsea legends speak highly of Mourinho’s methods. This respect for the manager is sure to rub off on the youngsters in the dressing room. Mourinho has famously inspired the best out of player in terms of passion and commitment in the past and this new season should be no different.
He is also loved by the Stamford Bridge crowd who did not take to keenly to his predecessor Rafa Benitez, to put it mildly. Chelsea will prevail over the two Manchester clubs based on quality and depth of the squad. Manchester United have fallen behind a touch in terms of overall quality of the squad and while Manchester City have a similar depth in squad as Chelsea, what they lack is a manager extremely comfortable with the Premier League who can galvanize his squad to hit the ground running. For this we give the edge to Chelsea to life the Premier League crown this season.
3) Arsenal will finish higher than Spurs
This one is a little trickier to predict quite simply due to the fact that there are a lot of moving pieces still in play in the transfer window that might have a direct bearing on this outcome. Arsenal could be in for Liverpool’s Luis Suarez but if Gareth Bale moves to Real Madrid, Spurs are understood to hijack that move and bring the mercurial Uruguayan forward to White Hart Lane with the pot full of Bale transfer money. However if Spurs were to lose Gareth Bale, it would weaken their team tremendously and that void may not be filled completely by Suarez’s addition. For this reason we have gone with Arsenal to finish fourth and Spurs to miss out on Champions League football again this season.
Wenger has kept his Stars
For the first time in many a season, Arsenal have not lost out on their key players to the bigger clubs in the summer transfer window. Robin van Persie had departed for Old Trafford a year ago, while midfield men Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas departed the season before that. Losing key players in the transfer window, who were instrumental in the team’s performances the previous season, always has a negative bearing on the squad. Heads fall and the confidence goes for a toss. Luckily for Arsenal this hasn’t bene the case this season. The core of the team last season is still there. Santi Cazorla is still a Gunner, so is Mikel Arteta, and Theo Walcott has gone from strength to strength and is starting to finally look like the player we were all promised he would develop into. Even Olivier Giroud, labeled as a disappointment by the media during the first half of the season came back strongly in the second. Of the 19 goals he scored for Arsenal last season, 15 were scored in or after November. His strong finish last season must be a promising sign and could be the reason why Arsene Wenger doesn’t look too desperate to add more strike force to his squad.
Add to this the return of Jack Wilshere, and Arsenal’s midfield looks formidable to say the least. Per Mertesacker excelled towards the end of last season and should he continue from where he left of last season, Arsenal have a real chance of climbing into the top 3 in the table. Arsenal fans must have taken heart from their team’s 3-1 win over Manchester City in pre-season and although it was a friendly, a lot of positives can be taken from the win.
The Gareth Bale conundrum
Gareth Bale holds the key to where Spurs finish this season. With Real Madrid pulling all stops to land the Welshman at the Bernabeu this season, Spurs could be looking at losing their star man. If that happens, the squad will take a real hit. Bale scored 26 goals for Spurs last season, the next highest being striker Jermain Defoe with 15. If Spurs are to lose Bale, it would be very difficult to replace him like for like. Having bought Roberto Soldado this season, Spurs are already looking to find goals elsewhere should Bale move on, but they would still fall short on quality that is Bale.
If Bale stays however, the fight for fourth place could be extremely tight. In that case, Spurs are unlikely to add to their current firepower and that would mean a possible move for Suarez to the Emirates. Suarez could fit into the Arsenal left wing with ease, a position where Lukas Podolski hasn’t really reveled. Suarez scored 23 goals last season, 3 short of Bale, and if he joins Arsenal, he will be joining a squad that is overall higher in quality than Spurs, which could give Arsenal that push towards fourth place that they need.
4) Michael Laudrup will move to a bigger club
Among the young managers in the Premier League, nobody has been seen as more promising than Michael Laudrup at Swansea. The Swans won silverware last season when they defeated Bradford City to win the Capital One Cup. It was seen as a great achievement for a financially modest club, the high point coming in the semi final when they defeated Chelsea over two legs to storm into the final. Laudrup also led Swansea to a 9th place finish in the Premier League, which was seen as a major achievement for the club given that their previous manager Brendan Rodgers had left for Liverpool in the beginning of the season along with key midfielder Joe Allen. In this time of turmoil, Laudrup stepped in and made some astute signings that helped the club finish only 2 places behind Liverpool last season.
Having had managerial experience in Spain’s La Liga with Getafe and Real Mallorca, Laudrup signed Michu from Rayo Vallecano for £2.5 million who banged in 14 goals last season. His other recruits performed well too with Chico, Jonathan de Guzman and Pablo Hernandez improving the Swansea squad greatly. But perhaps one of his best signings was Ki Sung-Yueng to replace Joe Allen in midfield. Michu might come into limelight more given his goals, but Ki has been equally effective in the Swans’s white as any other player. Laudrup has continued in this vein this season by adding the likes of Jordi Amat, Jose Canas and Wilfried Bony to the squad.
Clubs who sack their managers this season will therefore look to Michael Laudrup as a replacement. With Alan Pardew restless at Newcastle following Joe Kinnear’s appointment as director of football, Tyneside could have the first managerial casualty of the season. Newcastle finished a disappointing 16th last season and should Pardew be let go, Michael Laudrup’s name is going to be in contention as a replacement. Laudrup has so far pledged his loyalty to Swansea till 2015, but there is a release clause in his contract worth £5 million that Newcastle could exercise if need be. Laudrup would definitely like to be at a club where the purse strings are a little looser.
5) Crystal Palace and Hull City to go down, Cardiff will survive
The three new entrants to the Premier League would find life in the top flight hard. That being said, Cardiff City look to be the most prepared for the challenge, having already signed players of quality in Danish striker Andreas Cornelius from FC Copenhangen for £7.5 million and defensive midfielder Gary Medel from Sevilla for £11 million. Malky Mackay has looked to fill quality in the Cardiff squad which should see them escape relegation.
Crystal Palace and Hull City however seem to have limited options in players and it doesn’t look like either has the squad to survive the drop. Palace have lost Wilfried Zaha, who has gone back to Manchester United, from their Championship squad last season and this is going to have a huge bearing on their survival.
Hull City too have a brittle squad with little Premier League experience and it would take Steve Bruce every ounce of discipline and inspiration to keep them in the Premier League. This looks unlikely though with the quality of the Premier League and the Tigers would be relegated come the end of season. The Premier League is a cruel league for the weaker sides, and Crystal Palace and Hull City are set to face the music.