I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
– The Waste Land (1922), T.S. Eliot
What would constitute a nightmare scenario for each of the erstwhile big four clubs – Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool – in the Premier League, next season?
Jose Mourinho once mused about this possibility after celebrating his first triumph as manager of Chelsea FC. He noted the permanency of Chelsea’s entry into the record books by listing out nightmare scenarios for the next season (2005-06) that included Lampard never scoring a goal and Terry accidentally killing a spectator behind the goalposts, while the club gets relegated. None of that, he grinned, would ever erase Chelsea’s status as winners of the league in 2004-05.
So what do the – erstwhile – Big 4 clubs have most to fear this coming season? What would their biggest fears coming true mean?
They might have been derided as a one-man team, in the days of Cristiano Ronaldo, but the closest anyone has come to overshadowing the club has been the recently retired Sir Alex Ferguson. United may want to dedicate their next triumph to the Scotsman, but judging by their show in Thailand they might want to hold off on their champagne just yet. United’s biggest fear should be that David Moyes develops a Roy Hodgson complex: great with a small club and doomed to stay there.
If Moyes ever falls short of the lofty standards set by Ferguson, you can rest assured the club and fans will give him a second shot, possibly even a third. But in an age of instant gratification, even United fans will find it hard to wait for a shot at topping the Premier League. The worst thing to happen would be for Moyes to be caught out so often and so spectacularly, that United have no choice but to invite Ferguson to play a greater role. That will likely bring back some semblance of form, even if United fans would then choose to ignore the elephant in the room – perhaps some men are bigger than the club?
What if Jose Mourinho fails to live up to the expectations, this second time around? What if Villas-Boas was right all along and Chelsea really did need to clear the deadwood? Jose Mourinho was brought in especially to move Chelsea up the Premier League ladder by extracting whatever talent and skill he could from Chelsea’s old guard.
But if the old guard are really past their sell-by date, then even Mourinho will find it hard to accommodate them into the club’s future plans. With the player power lobby almost just as strong today as it was in its heyday, a brash and cutthroat approach from Mourinho could alienate those who hoped his return would cement their positions.
Or Mourinho might ally with his former wards so closely that he shuts out the newer, more attacking talent that Chelsea have amassed these past few years. With his famed inability to cultivate talent, Jose could find himself watching over an increasingly fickle squad. If Chelsea return to the dull and drab, the tried and tested, then the likes of Mata, Hazard and Oscar will find themselves competing to fill Joe Cole’s solitary spot as official on-field magician. Caught between two rival camps, Mourinho might find Chelsea’s attempts to bridge the old divide, have resulted in two very different teams sharing the same dressing room. In which case Chelsea’s nightmare scenarios would be that of Mourinho’s too – a second spell that serves only to diminish the legacy of the first.
Arsene Wenger leads a charmed life. For now, that is.
Having successfully convinced the club and its owners that a fourth spot finish in the Premier League is of prime importance, the Frenchman has been content to balance the budget and hope Arsenal cross the line into European qualification. But lately it’s become increasingly harder to coast through to a top 4 spot. With Manchester City rising in prominence, and holding down a spot for itself, the Gunners found themselves competing with the Spurs and Chelsea to round out the Premier League Top 4.
They barely made it across the line, thanks to some last minute choking that is characteristic of the Spurs in the Redknapp and Villas-Boas eras. If the Spurs hold on to Bale and their core team, they could mount a renewed challenge for a European spot. Wenger has promised fans a signing of note, but if that fails to materialize, Arsenal may find themselves trying to pass off old wine in a new bottle.
Failing to make it to Europe will spark an existential crisis in Arsenal, one that could see Wenger part ways with the club. A managerial change is unlikely to help because the Gunners have consistently made sub-par purchases in the transfer market in comparison with the other big sides. When they should’ve purchased the Kagawas and the Hazards, or held on to Fabregas and Nasri, they ended up with the likes of Gervinho and Chamakh instead. What the Gunners should fear is something that’s been in the works for a long time. The chickens could come home to roost.
Unlike their Premier League counterparts, Liverpool don’t have to fear an unforseen occurrence. They’re already staring their worst nightmare in the face – their obsolescence. Another year in the middle of the table will merely confirm what most neutral observers think of the club: a spent power desperately seeking its moment under the sun again.
Liverpool need to remind others once again that their natural opponents aren’t the likes of Swansea and Aston Villa. A 4-0 hammering of Preston North End is a good start, but it isn’t quite in the league of stamping their class on the rest of the league yet. Gerrard signing a new contract may cheer spirits in the Kop, but Liverpool need to sign a couple of big names – presuming Anfield is still an attractive destination – to actively plot their return to the summit.
Every season Liverpool fritters away far from the tussle at the top hammers another nail into the coffin of its longterm ambitions. For Brendan Rodgers to work his magic, he will require the kind of players who believe Liverpool can practically hope to hold down a place in the Europa League at the very least. That’s going to take more than a statement of faith from Steven Gerrard, and the odd upset victory over Manchester United.
What could make their current predicament worse is Luis Suarez deciding to leave, after having used Liverpool as a stepping stone for greener pastures either within the Premier League or without. It isn’t that he’s irreplaceable, but it’s that his attitude towards his current club might give other newer signings the same idea.