Chelsea are heading into the 2013/14 season as one of the favourites for the title. This is nothing new. Compared to the last few years though, this season has the potential to be one of the closest and most open for a while. The top tier of contenders contains, as usual, United, City and Chelsea. The next step down contains Arsenal and Spurs – outsiders, but have the potential to put a run together as well as acting as spoilers by taking points off the big three.
The offseason has been busy for all of the main title contenders, with new managers, new signings and players returning from loans. The main areas that will decide the destination of the Premier League trophy in May are: the managers, new signings and the squads. Injuries, form and progress in other competitions will of course play a factor, but these are tied into how well each club has handled itself over the summer.
Part One: The Manager
Mourinho Improves Chelsea From Last Season
There are now only two managers working in the Premier League who have won it before: Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. The return of the Portuguese represents upgrade at manager over both Di Matteo and Benitez from last season.
While Rafa did well to rotate his squad while dealing with playing either two or three games a week for the whole of his tenure (the aberration against Southampton notwithstanding), there were occasions when his tactical changes were ineffective, or just plain strange – Benayoun being brought on in games where we were behind or playing too slowly, for example. Mourinho has shied away from making big decisions in either his selection or substitutions. Rather than being passive or responsive, Mourinho is a much more proactive tactician, making changes to get ahead of the opposition rather than responding to their moves – his out-manoeuvring of Sir Alex Ferguson in the Champions League is a prime example. Given how close the league has the potential to be this season, picking up the extra points by either converting draws to wins or potential loses to draws through in-game adjustments will be critical.
If there is one trend that has followed Mourinho throughout his career, it is his ability to get players to raise their level of performance for him – sometimes beyond what anyone thought they were capable of. The high-points of the careers of players like Joe Cole, Damien Duff and Marco Matterazzi all came under Mourinho. He was also able to turn Samuel Eto’o (a rumoured transfer option) from an out-and-out striker to a wide forward at Inter so that he would fit the 4-3-3 formation better. This is a manger who is a highly skilled man-manager and motivator. If he is able to get the best out of the likes of Hazard, Oscar, Ramires and Lukaku, and continue the developments made by David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta last season, then Chelsea are going to be a tough proposition for anyone.
The Other Clubs
Over 3,000 days. That is how long it has been since Arsenal last won anything. While they have the only other manager with experience of winning the Premier League, that was before Mourinho turned up the first time. Quite a while ago. When Wenger arrived in English football, he changed the game. All those tiny alterations, and the fastidious level of attention paid to players preparation, nutrition and fitness were almost unheard of until the Frenchman arrived. His youth policy and development of young players was the gold standard for clubs all across Europe.
The problem is that football has moved on since then. All of the big clubs use the very best sports science, physiotherapy and nutrition available to keep their players in the best of shape. The best of the young players developed by Wenger since the title win with the Invincibles now play for other teams, lured away by higher wages and the potential to win trophies. Arsenal in the last few years have played less flowing football, been less of a force and with them Wenger has looked at times unable to change this. Unless he is able to pull a rabbit out of his hat this season, fourth place will be the only “trophy” the Gunners are in contention for at the end of the season.
Pellegrini is an excellent manager. He is the only manager to take two first-time Champions League participants to the Champions League quarter-finals (Malaga and Villareal). There was only one reason why his single season at Real Madrid was not a success: the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola at its peak. He was then unceremoniously dumped for Mourinho.
City may well have made an upgrade over Mancini with this appointment. Pellegrini’s teams are solid, hard-working, combative and skilful. He has experience working with big name stars, lesser known bargain signings and single-handedly reignited the careers of former City bust Roque Santa Cruz and Joaquin while at Malaga. He is also experienced dealing with owners who expect results, both domestically and in Europe. City will be better than last season.
“No one wants to be the guy who follows the guy”
This will be the most interesting managerial change of the upcoming season. I’ve never known another United manager other than Ferguson – seriously, he was appointed before I was born. Moyes is a quality manager, with a history of getting players to overachieve.
The question will be how he is able to adapt to the pressure of following one of the greatest ever. If he is able to get off to a good start, find a way out of the Rooney transfer saga and sort out the weakness that is the United midfield then he will be heading in the right direction.
Where the real test of the Moyes-at-United era will be tested will be against the other title contenders – especially against incredibly tactically aware managers like Mourinho and Pellegrini. Mourinho was able to match, and often better, Ferguson tactically, so it will be interesting to see how Moyes takes on the Chelsea boss. It might take a little time for Moyes to make a real impact on the style and approach of his United team, but he also needs to win. United are the defending champions, and have expectations to meet.
Villas-Boas is good. He seemed much more at home at Spurs last season than he ever did at Stamford Bridge. Whether this was down to reduced pressure, a more receptive squad or just that he learned from what happened during his time at Chelsea, he was able to demostrate much more ably the man whose success at Porto tempted Abramovich in the first place.
As usual, last season Spurs were in and around the top four until the final few weeks of the season, when the rails fell off and they dropped to fifth. There were times for much of the season when they seemed nailed on for a top four finish, and if they can start well this year (not having to adjust to AVB’s formation and tactics will help) then they will be an even stronger contender.
It will be interesting to see AVB go up against Mourinho – there will be plenty of talk about “the master and the apprentice”, and I’m sure someone will do a Star Wars mock up with Mourinho as Darth Vader and AVB as Skywalker.
However, AVB faces a few challenges heading into this season: what to do about the Bale saga, do they have enough strength up front and will the midfield be stronger than last season (though Sandro’s return will help).
If it was just down to the quality, experience and skill of the manager, then Chelsea would win the title, closely pursued by Man City, with United, Arsenal and Spurs fighting out for third. Mourinho and Pellegrini will both make their clubs better than last season, United will take a step back, with Arsenal and Spurs marginally improved.