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 Three: Squads
Balance and Flexibility Key to Title Push
During the first Mourinho reign, Chelsea had two quality players for every position, with the exception of Defensive Midfield (though that had more to do with the irreplaceable Claude Makelele than a lack of options.) This season, the squad has almost similar levels of cover, though that is dependent on some of the younger signings stepping up.
It is possible that Chelsea could field a second-string team comprising of Schwarzer, Aspilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic, Bertrand, Essien, van Ginkel, Moses, De Bruyne, Schurrle and Torres. That is a team that would be good enough to challenge for a Europa League position at the very least. Added to this second team there are also Mikel, McEachran, Ba, Ake, Kalas and Chalobah. That is a squad with plenty of depth at every position.
What makes this current Chelsea squad even more exciting is that so many of the squad can play in two or three positions. This means that rotation and flexibility depending on opponents can be done without a major drop off in standard. A attacking midfield trio of Oscar, Schurrle and Moses is quality, and effective, and allows Hazard and Mata to rest.
This flexibility without drop off in performance will be key going into the season, especially since some players last year played in over 60 games and at times looked incredibly tired. Having multiple options per position will give Mourinho options, give players opportunities to rest and give the team the opportunity to tackle specific challenges for particular opposition. It could also raise competition within the squad, as players know that performance will be key to game time.
The Other Clubs
The Arsenal squad is much leaner than it has been for the last few years, but the question is whether or not they have the depth of talent to sustain a title challenge – something that they have failed to do over the last few seasons.
One of the positives to take out of this summer in terms of developing the squad is that there have been no high profile departures. This has allowed more continuity of playing staff than the last few seasons, with first Fabregas then van Persie moving on and needing to be replaced. However, there is still a weakness in defence, where the only effective centre-back pairing is Mertesacker and Koscielny (neither of whom seem to be able to combine well with Vermaelen. The full-backs are also problematic, with Sagna, Monreal, Jenkinson and Gibbs all flashing quality, but also riddled by inconsistent play. The same can be said of the goalkeeping options as well.
While Arsenal’s squad hasn’t got any weaker this summer, it certainly isn’t stronger either, and with the lack of depth at key positions, they will struggle to keep up with the title challenge without further investment during this transfer window.
City’s squad is stronger than last season, with better balance and greater attacking options. The signing of Navas gives them a pace and directness that wasn’t there last season, and Fernandinho could be an excellent addition to the midfield in partnership with Yaya Toure. The attacking options, and versatility, in this City squad will cause even the best defences in the league problems, and should also be expected to perform with greater consistency than last season.
Again though, the concern area with City is in defence, where they are relying on a small pool of players to stay healthy and consistent – which have been problems for the likes of Richards and Lescott. Kompany and Nastasic will be key this season. Not just because they are the best two centre-backs in the City squad, but because there isn’t much depth behind them, and City are still missing a destructive midfield presence. Javi Garcia was brought in to offer that presence but was ineffective last season, and will need to make big strides this year.
Also, Joe Hart needs to be the player he was when City won the title, not the player he has been ever since.
Leaving aside David Moyes complaining about United’s opening few fixtures (getting excuses in early?), there are issues in the squad this year. Much like their Manchester rivals, United could use a destructive player in midfield, but they would also be helped by better options out wide. While a midfield of Carrick and one of Giggs/Anderson/Powell might be good going forward, there isn’t a lot of strength there defensively – though if Darren Fletcher is ever able to return to full fitness, he could plug a major gap.
The wing options are similarly uninspiring. Nani is incredibly inconsistent, Valencia’s level fell off dramatically last season, Kagawa isn’t really a winger, Giggs is too slow and Zaha untried at Premier League level.
The areas of strength are up front (even if Rooney leaves), with van Persie, Hernandez and Welbeck – assuming he plays as a forward and remembers how to shoot. There are goals in this team, and the defence has the potential to be stout. While Ferdinand isn’t the player he used to be, and with Vidic also ageing, this season could be the time when Phil Jones is allowed to play in defence regularly, alongside any one of Ferdinand, Vidic or Evans. Getting greater consistency from either of the Da Silva twins will help a great deal, as will discovering if Evra has anything left in the tank. De Gea seems to have put his struggles behind him and is growing into the keeper they thought they signed.
The Spurs squad looks pretty well balanced this season. Lloris is a top quality goalkeeper. Vertonghen and Dawson form a strong centre back pairing. If Kyle Walker could control himself a bit more he could be a top quality full-back. The issues in defence are left-back, where the competition between Assou-Ekotto and the returning Danny Rose could be a problem area, and once again: depth. The departure of Steven Caulker was a surprise, as Younes Kaboul is the only experienced centre-back cover – though new signing Etienne Capoue can also play there. Kyle Naughton still needs to improve to push for a regular place.
The midfield is strong. The departures of Huddlestone (complete with comedy hair) and Livermore to Hull aren’t too surprising, given that Capoue and Paulinho are clear upgrades. The return of Sandro could have a big impact on Spurs season, as he was one of their best players last season, and they were noticeably weaker without him. The question is whether or not Holtby and Sigurdsson will be able to improve on slightly disappointing first seasons.
Up front they have added a quality player in Soldado, which will take some of the goalscoring pressure off Defoe, and provide a potential match winner even if Bale doesn’t perform like he did in parts of last season, or if the Welshman leaves altogether.
Man City and Chelsea have the strongest squads. All of the top five have strengths and weaknesses, but those two have the potential to adapt to situations most effectively. Then is Man United, who did win the league with the same squad last season. The question there is how effectively Moyes uses the available players. Spurs have taken a step above Arsenal, and with the potential they have in their squad should be ahead in the North London race for the top four.
After looking at the Managers in Part One and New signings in Part Two, the top two for this season, based on these three factors, should be Chelsea and City. I believe that Chelsea are in with a really good chance of winning the league this season, though it will be close. United will finish third, and I think that Spurs finally have enough about them to push Arsenal down into fifth.