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 Two: New Signings
Signings Add Depth and Flexibility
In: Andre Schurrle (Bayer Leverkusen – £18m), Marco Van Ginkel (Vitesse Arnhem – £8m), Mark Schwarzer (Fulham – free), Christian Cuevas (O’Higgins – £3m), Stipe Perica (NK Zadar – Undisc.), Wallace (Fluminense – £4.4m)
Out: Ross Turnbull (released), Paulo Ferreira (released), Florent Malouda (released), Yossi Benayoun (released), Jeffrey Bruma (PSV – Undisc.) Thibault Courtois (Athetico Madrid – Loan), Marko Marin (Sevilla – loan), Oriol Romeu (Valencia – loan), Christian Cuevas (Vitesse Arnhem – loan), Wallace (Inter Milan – loan)
Over the last few seasons, there has been a noticeable change in Chelsea’s approach to signing new players. Young, high quality, high potential players with plenty of positional versatility have been preferred in the main over established stars at the peak of their value.
This approach has seen the arrivals of talents like Mata, Oscar, Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku. While none of these players were exactly what you would call cheap, they were signed at good value for their potential. Imagine how much signing Oscar would cost if we tried to bring him in at age 24 rather than last summer.
This approach has continued this season. The big-name arrivals, Schurrle and Van Ginkel, continue this trend. Both are young, but have experience playing at international level. They are also flexible in terms of the positions that they can play. Schurrle, while usually a left-winger, can play through the middle and potentially on the right hand side, cutting in onto his left foot. Van Ginkel can fill the full range of central midfield positions – going box-to-box, central playmaker or in a more advanced position.
While it is quite possible that neither of these two will be immediate starters, they will be regular contributors and will get their fair share of game time. Where the signings will show their real value this season is that the second-tier players in the squad will be of much higher quality than last season. Now behind the first choice attackers of Mata, Oscar and Hazard there sits Schurrle, Moses and the returning De Bruyne, where last season there were Moses, Marin and Benayoun. This improved depth offers more opportunities to rest the first string players without such a drop in standard, and hopefully without dropping points.
The other signings, with the exception of Mark Schwarzer, are all young players with potential. Wallace and Cuevas are both heading out on loan, and it remains to be seen what the plans for Perica are this season, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the young Croatian striker sent out on loan as well.
The Schwarzer signing was a smart one. Ross Turnbull, the previous back-up to Petr Cech, has moved on following his contract expiring, and the veteran Hilario has signed a one-year extension, but is very much a third string player, and good locker room presence. Jamal Blackman is raw, and needs more experience (another loan candidate), so we needed a quality second choice keeper, something that we haven’t had since Carlo Cudicini left the club. The Australian is hugely experienced, Premier League standard keeper. Ideally, he won’t see the field all season, except possibly the occasional game in the League Cup, but if he does, he is much less of a drop off in standard from Cech – and will inspire a good deal more confidence than Turnbull.
The Other Clubs
In: Yaya Sanogo (Auxerre – free),
Out: Andrei Arshavin (released), Sebastien Squillaci (released), Denilson (Sao Paulo – free), Vito Mannone (Sunderland – Undisc), Johan Djourou (Hamburg – loan), Francis Coquelin (Freiburg – loan), Andre Santos (Flamengo – Undisc), Gervinho (Roma – £8m), Marouane Chamakh (Crystal Palace – Undisc.),
While they haven’t made a big splash in terms of signings (yet), what Arsenal have done so far this summer is jettison overplayed, overpriced squad players who weren’t up to standard. None of the players they have parted with this summer are first choice, which is different from the last few years. Instead, there is a sense that Arsenal are making pro-active decisions on transfers, rather than having to react to other clubs interest in their players. The questions that they need to answer before the end of the transfer window are: 1) Do they have the squad depth to compete late into the season? 2) Given they haven’t improved the first XI, is it good enough to compete for the title? Right now, the answer to both of these is no, but having dumped so much wasted salary, they are in a good position to make moves before the window closes – with the signing of Luis Gustavo from Bayern Munich looking likely.
In: Fernandinho (Shakhtar Donetsk – £30m), Jesus Navas (Sevilla – £14.9m), Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla – £20m), Stefan Jovetic (Fiorentina – £22m)
Out: Wayne Bridge (released), Roque Santa Cruz (released), Kolo Toure (Liverpool – free), Carlos Tevez (Juventus – £12m), Maicon (Roma – Undisc.)
City have made real moves in the transfer market – an outlay of almost £87m on just four players. They’ve strengthened up front, but there are still questions about their defence. In an almost reverse of the way Chelsea have worked, City have signed players at the peak of their performance – and peak value. It is possible that all of their summer signings will go straight into the first XI, which will increase squad depth in midfield and up front.
However, in defence they have lost Toure and Maicon (neither of whom were exactly stars last year), and this means that they are very thin at the back. With Nastasic out for the first month of the season, the only centre-back options available are Kompany, Lescott and Boyata – and possibly Richards if he can stay healthy. Not a lot of depth, and a real drop-off in quality from Kompany to the rest. Given the money spent this summer, it’s surprising that City haven’t strengthened their defence, though there is certainly time and money to bring in extra players – and rumours linking them with Pepe and Martin Demichelis would suggest they are planning to do just that.
In: Guillermo Varela (Athletico Penarol – Undisc.), Wilfred Zaha (Crystal Palace – Undisc.)
Out: Paul Scholes (retired)
Talk about a team who have done very little business – or at least very little successful business. A failed pursuit of Cesc Fabregas, a failed pursuit of Thiago and the potential departure of Wayne Rooney have dominated United’s summer.
There are holes in this United squad. Midfield is a problem, and with Scholes retiring (again), it is even weaker than last season, and hasn’t yet been addressed – though there are rumours of a bid for Marouane Fellaini. There are times when you can carry over the same squad from the previous season and be ok, but with the managerial change and the improvements made by other teams, United should have built from a position of strength. Instead, their lack of activity will bring them back to the pack this year.
In: Paulinho (Corinthians – £17m), Nacer Chadli (Twente – £7m), Roberto Soldado (Valencia – £26m),
Out: William Gallas (released), Steven Caulker (Cardiff – £8m), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders – £6m),
Last season, Spurs had three main areas of concern: quality up front, central midfield once Sandro was injured, and width whenever Lennon or Bale were not fit. They’ve addressed all three of these areas, with quality players. Paulinho is a quality addition, and the midfield options of him, Sandro and Dembele will fit Villas-Boas’s system very well. Soldado is a goal scorer, and will offer a better all-round option than Defoe, while being a more advanced forward than Adebayor (and a much better penalty taker).
Gallas being released isn’t a surprise, given how poorly he performed last season and his age. Selling Caulker and Dempsey was slightly more surprising. Caulker is a decent young player, and offered Spurs good depth in defence, and Dempsey is a consistent performer, though may have been expendable following Chadli’s arrival. Spurs have improved from last season, and are in with a real chance of catching Arsenal, assuming there is no further movement by either club.
Of course, all of this could be blown out of the water if Bale leaves. We can only hope.
Chelsea and Man City have both made the greatest strides forward with their new signings, moving them ahead of United on squad depth and quality – they now have the best two squads in the league, and if City can sign a couple more defenders, they may have edged ahead of Chelsea. Arsenal have made smart moves in terms of cutting dead weight but haven’t improved their first team, and they may well fall behind Spurs in the race for the top four.