Premier League Preview: Changes at the Top of the Table
Real, competitive European soccer kicks off this weekend. And while Spidermayang and Germany’s Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A may still be a bit off, the Premier League starts on Saturday. We can stop pretending that things like the International Champions Cup, the Emirates Cup, or even the David Moyes Memorial Community Shield matter. So, let’s get to the preview, shall we? While we were all distracted by the World Cup this summer, the makeup of some of the top teams in England’s top division has shifted, in some cases drastically. Here’s a look at what’s changed in the upper tier of the league. I’ve ranked the sides by how I think they’ll finish.
Champions League Hopeful Division
What’s Changed: The biggest changes for Everton are contractual. Last year’s loanees, Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku, inked permanent deals with the club. Additionally, Everton brought in Muhamed Besic, who turned in a strong World Cup performance with Bosnia and Herzegovina. He’ll add depth and youth to the midfield. They’ve also replaced one young, talented, on-loan winger (Gerard Deulofeu) with another young, talented, on-loan winger (Christian Atsu).
Why It Matters: Players of Lukaku’s caliber simply don’t become available for teams like Everton. But evidently, he and his former manager at Chelsea, José Mourinho, didn’t quite see eye to eye. Lukaku sees himself as a starter, Mourinho not so much. Lukaku is only 21, he’s already scored 32 Premier League goals in three seasons of action, and his goal-scoring rate of 0.6 goals per 90 minutes over that time (all stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information) puts him in elite territory, along with names like Rooney, Suárez, and Sturridge (and, hilariously enough, slightly behind Nicklas Bendtner at 0.7 … stats ain’t everything, apparently). Getting him, even at £28 million, is a huge steal for Everton — it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of this signing.
That being said, it’s hard to escape that Everton’s major investments went into maintaining the same team they had last season. This means the team’s place in the league rests on the hopes that Lukaku, along with youngsters like Ross Barkley and John Stones, will continue to develop and improve.
Last season everything seemed to break right for Everton. The Toffees got a tremendous season from American hero Tim Howard, but his stellar work in goal obscured the fact that Everton’s underlying defensive numbers were beginning to erode. It’s tempting to take last year’s fifth-place finish as a foundation to grow from, when in fact it may have been an overachievement.
Everton’s best hope is that lightning strikes twice with Howard, while their young stars, nurtured by Martinez, develop further. If all that happens, they could nip the fourth and final Champions League spot. Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely? Not really.
What’s Changed: You’ll find Tottenham’s biggest acquisition patrolling the sidelines this season. Mauricio Pochettino takes over for Tim Sherwood, who took over for André Villas-Boas, who took over for Harry Redknapp, who took over for Juande Ramos, and the beat goes on. Other than that, the Spurs’ offseason has been relatively calm, with smart acquisitions like Ben Davies to fill a need at left back, some defensive depth with youngster Eric Dier, and a backup keeper in Michel Vorm.
Why It Matters: Maybe Tottenham haven’t actually changed managers more than the average Premier League team, but it sure has felt that way. Perhaps that has something to do with the spectacular fashion with which they depart.
Over the last decade, Spurs have shuttled from mid-table to top four, in spite of or because of all the managerial moves, depending on whom you ask.
Perhaps Pochettino will be the manager who sticks. After all, he walks into an environment that seems tailor-made for him to succeed. The former Southampton manager has a talented roster that underperformed last year, including a potential young star in Érik Lamela whom Spurs got literally nothing from last year. Not only that, the personnel already fit Pochettino’s system. Many of these players were acquired for Villas-Boas, who wanted to play an up-tempo style similar to Pochettino’s, complete with a high defensive line and manic pressure on the ball. On paper it seems like the perfect match of manager and talent. Of course, on paper, it seemed like a really good match for Villas-Boas as well, and he could never seem to get his team selection right, and always insisted on playing players out of position in weird roles they weren’t quite suited for.
Most new managers come into a situation and are faced with working with a team to build the squad they want. Pochettino has a squad he should be happy with — he just has to get more out of them than his predecessors did. It’s as clear and simple a test as any manager will ever face.
The “Finishing Outside the Top Four Is an Unmitigated Disaster” Division
What’s Changed: Arsene Wenger seems willing to spend money. He’s bought two shiny new toys (Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil) in two summers. He bought France and Newcastle’s starting right back Mathieu Debuchy. He also got in on the great Southampton sell-off of 2014, buying Calum Chambers, a versatile 19-year-old right back, who can also cover at center back or defensive midfield in a pinch. They’ll need his flexibility, what with Bacary Sagna off to Man City and Thomas Vermaelen starring in a remake of the notorious box-office flop Barcelona Buys a Defender. It also probably bears mentioning that Wenger declined to exercise his right to purchase Cesc Fàbregas, instead letting him be sold to Chelsea. Busy summer.
Why It Matters: Sánchez and Chambers are excellent purchases, while Debuchy fills in as a direct Sagna replacement. With Özil, Arsenal bought a talented player in a position where they already had five or six talented players. The first three fill real needs for Arsenal. It was blindingly apparent last year, when Theo Walcott went down injured, exactly how slow the rest of Arsenal’s squad was. Sánchez fixes that problem, and he might be a better out-and-out striker than Olivier Giroud, though that’s style dependent. Chambers will help Debuchy file the Sagna-shaped hole at right back.
What about the other holes, though? The team is desperately thin in central defense. They still haven’t added any holding midfield depth, and while Mikel Arteta continues to perform there admirably, his mobility is disappearing at alarming rates. The last few years have seen an alarming decrease in Arsenal’s ability to control the midfield and consistently outshoot their opponents. While Sánchez might help solve the second problem, the first is a glaring weakness.
What’s Changed: Everything. Luis Suárez is out. Somewhere between six and infinity players (depending on how you count loans, players returning from loans, and targets the Liverpool faithful are utterly convinced the team will acquire) are in. There’s the Southampton trio of Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, and Dejan Lovren; promising young winger Lazar Markovic; Emre Can in midfield; and, finally, after a War and Peace–length transfer saga, full-back Alberto Moreno from Sevilla. After a phenomenal season last year, Liverpool is a vastly different team.
Why It Matters: A cautionary tale for Liverpool: Two summers ago, Tottenham seemed ascendant. They barely missed out on the Champions League and had one of the best players in the world lining up for them. Then a Spanish giant came calling, Spurs reluctantly sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, bought seven new players to replace his production, and put their trust in a young coach to mold them into a competitive team. That coach was gone by Christmas, and few of the players they brought in lived up to expectations.
It’s really, really hard to replace a superstar, especially when you aren’t Real Madrid and can’t just go buy three more. But you know what? Spurs didn’t do that badly last season. They accrued just three fewer points than the season before, and dropped only a single place in the league table (though that was largely helped by a Manchester United collapse).
Liverpool should still comfortably land in the Champions League spots. Brendan Rodgers is a better coach than Villas-Boas, he won’t get fired, and Liverpool have more money than Spurs to spend if things don’t seem to be progressing by January.
Losing Suárez will force Liverpool into stylistic changes. By the end of last year, they were playing an incredibly open game — one based largely on how often Suárez could turn chances into goals, either for himself or his teammates. Without Suárez, the benefits of playing that openly are gone. Rodgers, who is a tactical tinkerer by nature, will have to find a new way to add all his parts together. He’s guided the team so well the last two years that having faith in him to figure things out seems justified. With so much change, there’s a heck of a lot to figure out, though.
3. Manchester United
What’s Changed: The summer of van Gaal has been well covered, as have the tactical changes he’ll bring with him. Manchester United brought in 19-year-old left back Luke Shaw, who’s already out with a hamstring injury, and Ander Herrera, the central midfielder from Athletic Bilbao. They’ve cleared out aging defenders Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, and Rio Ferdinand, and Michael Carrick wrecked his leg in training and is out for the year. And while they are technically still on the roster, van Gaal has made it clear that Marouane Fellaini, Rafael, Nani, Javier Hernandez, Wilfried Zaha, and Anderson can all start looking for new homes.
Why It Matters: Obviously van Gaal can manage. The system he brings with him puts an emphasis on the attacking trio of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, and Juan Mata, and heaps pressure on the back line of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Jonny Evans. Physically, Smalling and Jones both profile the right way: They’re athletic, more mobile than most center backs, and not horrible with the ball at their feet. Practically, neither of them have shown that they are particularly good enough to start on a Champions League–caliber team yet. But with the season looming, they remain they only three senior central defenders on the roster.
The midfield cupboard behind Ander Herrera is similarly bare, and van Gaal seems to be pinning a lot on Darren Fletcher returning to the form he had before illness robbed him of a couple years of his career.
Picking them third (and while I am picking them third here, the margins between the three teams in this category are exceedingly small) is basically a gamble that either van Gaal sees solutions that aren’t apparent to the rest of us yet, and will rip out a surprise like Luke Shaw playing on the left side of the back three; or Shinji Kagawa, central midfielder extraordinaire; or that United’s business isn’t done yet.
They’ve been linked so long and so heavily to Juventus’s Arturo Vidal that it’s hard not to think there’s at least a few embers behind all the smoke, even if Juventus (and Vidal) keep denying it. In effect, the plan and the pieces fit too well together for United not to add some sort of capstone, especially given how they’ve been bragging all summer about the amount of money they have to spend.
2. Manchester City
What’s Changed: Not much. Javi García is off from Moneybags West (Manchester City) to Moneybags East (Zenit Saint Petersburg), and City replaced him with Fernando. The gaping Martin Demichelis–size hole City’s opponents used to feast on is now occupied by a preposterously expensive Eliaquim Mangala, but other than that, City have made very few changes to their squad, and managed to navigate Yaya Touré birthday cake–gate in the process. It’s been a summer of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” at the Etihad. Rather than change things up, they’ve given mainstays Sergio Agüero, David Silva, and Vincent Kompany long-term extensions. Though around the edges there’s been some movement — Willy Caballero as backup keeper, Bacary Sagna as right back, and, hilariously, Frank Lampard on loan from City-owned NYCFC until the New York team starts playing games in 2015. Expensive bit players and ex-Evertonians Joleon Lescott and Jack Rodwell are gone.
What It Means: City seem perfectly happy to keep the winning formula intact, and it’s hard to blame them. Sure they needed a bit of luck down the stretch to win the title, but every team does. And in Manuel Pellegrini’s second year, the team should be more cohesive than in his first, when he integrated four new first-team players (counting Demichelis). There are still lots of injury concerns about the striker group of Agüero, Álavaro Negredo, Edin Dzeko, and Stevan Jovetic, which is particularly worrisome since Pellegrini likes to play two of them together. On top of that, getting a successive Touré season of incredible goal scoring seems unlikely, both because of his absurd conversion rate last season — 14 non-penalty goals on 58 shots for 24 percent, not to mention his six penalties converted — and because he’s now 31, which is getting up there in midfielder soccer years.
Man City should be right in the thick of the title hunt. They fixed the one hole they had and have kept everything else constant. If they don’t win the title this year, it probably won’t be because they’ve gotten markedly worse, it’ll be because they didn’t improve their title-winning squad, while the next team on this list did. Dramatically.
What’s New: If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em. After losing to Atletico Madrid in the semifinals of last year’s Champions League, Chelsea bought the Spanish club’s star striker in Diego Costa, excellent left back Filipe Luís, and recalled keeper Thibaut Courtois, who had been on loan there for the past three seasons. And, just because they can, Chelsea added Cesc Fàbregas from Barcelona. It doesn’t end there. Club legend Didier Drogba was brought back in from the pasture he had been put out to, and Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole were sent to graze in his place.
Incredibly skilled but frequently unreliable David Luiz was sold to PSG, Lukaku went off to Everton, and Demba Ba to Turkey, completing a pretty thorough roster upgrade all around.
What It Means: Chelsea have a really, really good squad, though it’s not without its concerns. Nemanja Matic is an absolute monster in the middle of the field, but Chelsea have nobody who can approximate what he does on the bench. In a season where Chelsea hope to win in all the competitions they enter, they better hope he stays healthy and logs heavy minutes. Otherwise the club will once again be stuck relying on Ramires and Mikel, or hoping that Cesc Fàbregas remembers how to play as a defensive midfielder.
In attack, José Mourinho is hoping Diego Costa is the answer to all his misanthropic bitching about about not having a striker. Is he? He’s certainly coming off of a great year, and is a strong, difficult-to-handle forward — just the way Mourinho likes them (and also the way Lukaku is built). But Costa has really had only one elite year, though it was also the first year he was handed the reins. If he disappoints, Chelsea are somehow, in the 2014-15 season, once again relying on Drogba. Though that is infinitely better than relying on Fernando Torres.
The rest of the team is incredibly well stocked and raring to go. Mourinho has stocked himself with a truly absurd amount of attacking talent to play in a band of three behind a striker. No team can compete with the talent pool of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian, André Schürrle, and Mohamed Salah. And the team will defend like all Mourinho teams defend, with a nasty streak that borders on but (except for Ramires) never veers over into self-defeating. Chelsea will be very, very good, and also very, very unpleasant to play against. Worst-case scenario, they morph into the kind of José Mourinho Chelsea team everybody hates, where they defend exceedingly well and score just enough to win. Best-case scenario, they run riot. Either way, the league is theirs to lose this season.