International Series offers London clubs opportunities for growth

The first of two National Football League (NFL) International Series games has been played at Wembley this past weekend, and as usual, discussion turns to whether an NFL team could be based in London.

One issue frequently cited is the competition for fans with other sports. With the capital already hosting athletics, cricket, rugby and several football teams during the year, is there really space for another sport? And will the NFL, with it’s glitz and swagger, have a negative effect on other parts of the London sports map?

One man who doesn’t think it will be a problem is Phil Alexander, chief executive at Crystal Palace. The influence of American football is something Alexander has plenty of first hand experience with: in 1991 he led the London Monarchs in points scored as they won the inaugural World League of American Football (WLAF)

Speaking before the first of the International Series games last week, he told me that rather than causing greater competition, the addition of an NFL franchise in London could offer local teams a wider audience to target:

“There could be a lot of cross-over activities to be had. I think if you’ve got a customer who wants to go and see live events they’re happy to go to more types of events.

“I think there’s room for another sport like American football in this country. I don’t think it would have any effect.”

He also moved to dismiss concerns whether the London sports scene would be over-saturated:

“No, because I don’t think the American football fans will come just from London. They’ll come from all over the UK and Europe. They would travel for that.

“Our catchment area’s very local, we’re looking at south London primarily, where I feel the American football would pull from a lot further afield. “

And if the league can continue to attract fans from across Europe to Wembley, then the increased number of fans that might be tempted to see London-based teams could benefit teams like Palace.

Fulham are, of course, the other team who could look to benefit from the NFL foot traffic, given their links to the Jaguars.

While the likeliness of the Jags moving to London any time soon is small (they would have to pay $100 million to get out of their lease in Florida before 2030) they are certainly in prime position to try and develop a UK fan base, given their ties to Fulham through their shared owner.

Cross-promotion, special offers and the increased marketing opportunities that the Jaguars enjoy in the UK (they can market the team as they would in their local region, unlike any other NFL side) could give them a real opportunity to grow their support. Being able to promote with and through Fulham at the same time could help them to tap into that customer base that Alexander mentioned.

English football on Saturday at Craven Cottage, American football on Sunday at Wembley. Premier League and the NFL, back to back. That’s a strong combination, and could be used as a draw for fans of both the round and oval ball games.

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10 Things To Look Forward to This Season (Other Than Chelsea)

1. New Managers In The Top Four

For the first time in my life, Man United have a manager who isn’t Alex Ferguson. For the first time since they last got impatient, Man City have a manager who isn’t Roberto Mancini. And Chelsea have a new manager who isn’t even new.

How well the new managers fit into their respective clubs will most likely be the defining factor in the title race. Mourinho has the experience of winning the Premier League, Moyes spent a decade getting the most out of an Everton team on a shoestring budget, and Pellegrini should be seen as a real upgrade over Mancini.

2. Return of Holloway

No real analysis or deep thought here, he is just hugely entertaining. Especially since his team is one of the favourites for relegation.

3. Liverpool

Going into year two of the Brendan Rodgers project, Liverpool are making some interesting signings, and seem to be shaping their squad to fit the manager’s system much more effectively than last season.

If they can figure out what they are going to do about the Suarez situation (though it looks like he is staying for the time being), then they might be in a good spot to push for European qualification, and possibly even top five – though top four might be a bit too far.

4. Will Arsenal Improve?

Arsenal have had a busy summer. They’ve been active in the transfer market and made more transfers than almost any other Premier League club. The problem with all these dealings is that they are neither exciting for fans nor hugely impactful on the quality of the first team.

They’ve dumped 27 players this summer (including loans) and brought in just one. While this has been a really impressive shaving of the wage bill, the question is whether all this activity will make the team better, or just less expensive.

None of the departed players were integral members of the squad, though some of them were paid like it. This is a positive, as is the fact that the team finished last season strongly, and seemed to have figured out who their best defenders are.

The question that will be answered this season is if they will be able to perform at a higher standard, and with greater consistency. I’m not sure they will be able to, but it will be interesting to watch.

5. The London League

What a shame QPR aren’t in the Premier League any more. Crystal Palace have stepped up to fill the shoes of Harry Redknapp’s latest adventure in prudent football management, so the league of London clubs stays at six teams. Chelsea topped the table last season, and following the close race for fourth last season, results against other teams in the capital might be key to Champions League qualification again this time around.

6. European Campaigns

Will Man City be better than their pathetic showings the last two years? Quite probably, given the experience and successes that Pellegrini has had in Europe, first with Villarreal then with Malaga.

Chelsea have won European trophies the last two seasons, but even a prolonged but unsuccessful Champions League campaign would be preferable to another Europa League fixture pile-up.

Arsenal will most likely do exactly as they have the last few seasons, and make it through the group before being totally outplayed by one of the main contenders, and it is anyone’s guess how United will perform in Moyes’s second Champions League campaign.

7. Sunderland

Di Canio’s Swindon team were incredibly fit. From all the reports, it looks as if Sunderland will be in similar shape. Superior levels of conditioning ought to help them against some of the less talented squads, but they will still need their manager’s tactical ability to show itself in order to push into the top half of the table. Whether or not Di Canio has the tactical nous to go with his chest-thumping sideline antics will define how successful Sunderland are this season.

8. Swansea – Second Season Syndrome?

Swansea were fantastic last season. They improved on their first season in the league, despite losing one of their most important players, and their manager. Michael Laudrup’s debut season even netted them a trophy.  The concern will be that after the League Cup triumph, they rather went off the boil. How they will cope with the raised expectations and the added European fixtures.

9. Aston Villa’s Youth Movement

Paul Lambert’s team swung wildly from inexperienced and naïve to bright and inventive last season. If they can be more of the latter, and with less of the former then they could be quite good to watch. Having jettisoned old and unnecessary players like Bent and Dunne over the summer (replaced by the likes of Jores Okore), the squad has the building blocks of a good side, as long as they can build on the experiences of last season, and keep Benteke scoring goals.

10. WTF?

Suarez biting people, John Terry being racist, Suarez being racist, Tom Huddlestone’s ever growing hair. Every league season throws up something unexpected. What it will be this season is anyone’s guess, but trust me, there will be something strange taking place before the end of the season.

Why Chelsea Can Win The League – Part Three

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

Arsenal

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.

Man City

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.

Man United

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.

Spurs

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.

Predictions

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.

Why Chelsea Can Win The League – Part Two

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

Arsenal:

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.

Man City

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.

Man United

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.

Spurs

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.

Predictions

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.

Why Chelsea Can Win The League – Part One

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

Arsenal:

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.

Man City

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.

Man United

“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.

Spurs

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).

Predictions

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.

 

Looking Forward to the New Season?

With the new Premier League season nearly here, and the Football League season already underway, this is usually the time of year to start getting excited. This year, it feels a little different.

That isn’t to say that I’m not looking forward to the new season. I am. We have one of the best squads in the league, one of the world’s best managers and our opposition are all either going through transfer sagas (Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool), adjusting to a new manager (Man City) or both (Man United). So it isn’t fear of being uncompetitive.

It can’t be because of the change of manager. The return of Jose Mourinho is one of the main reasons to be excited about this year’s Chelsea campaign. It certainly isn’t transfer activity, either by us or other teams – if I had to rank the player movement this summer, Chelsea would be pretty much at the top of the list, although Man City have done really well too.

I also know that I’ll be going to plenty of games. Dad and I have both renewed our season tickets for another year, and having been to both Munich and Amsterdam the last two seasons, we’ve been able to witness a lot of winning. It isn’t a separation problem, or knowing that I won’t be at the Bridge 25+ times this season, because I will. And I’m sure we will win. A lot.

Last season was tough. Knowing that the elation, tears and mindless celebrations of Munich would be tough to top, we went into the year looking to do well, but without much of the purpose and swagger that we seem to have this summer. The new signings were phenomenal, and have given a real base on which to build, both in terms of quality and age.

Then there was November. The Di Matteo sacking was painful, both because his goal against Middlesborough was one of my first great Chelsea memories, and because Munich was the most recent. He was responsible for both, and now was replaced by Rafa Benitez, who while being a top quality manager wasn’t someone who I felt comfortable supporting. I was at the FA Cup game at the Riverside that prompted his (very well timed and intelligent) calls for the fans to back the team. He had a point, because some of the chants directed towards him that night were really unpleasant. While he brought it upon himself by taking a job that he knew would make him a target, there isn’t much of an excuse for some of the stuff that got shouted that night.

With all that went on that year, Amsterdam was a good way to end the season. Winning trophies (even ones we never want to compete for again) is always a positive, but it was a tiring season, for both players and fans. There were so many matches, so many dramas and so much anger that it took an emotional effort to keep getting up for the next game, for the next competition and for the next headline.

I think this might have something to do with the lack of buzz I’m feeling right now towards the 2013/14 season. I don’t want to go through another season like last year, or like 2007/8 at the end of the first Mourinho era. While it didn’t test my fandom, or my desire to go to every single game, it made the matches themselves less of a special occasion. The season went on for so long and with such intensity that it has taken longer than usual to want to go through it all again.

I’m not ready for all the drama, the controversy and the endless terrible punditry. Last season the performance art piece that was the football season became too loud, too self-important and too long. It takes time to want to get back to it. That time isn’t up yet.

All of this being said, the first game of the season, of Mourinho 2.0, I’ll be there, in my seat, East Stand Upper, 21 59 on my feet as we walk out to the Liquidator, bouncing with excitement and glad to get back to what we do best: keeping the blue flag flying high.

Chelsea Pre-Season Questions

With the Far East portion of the pre-season complete, Chelsea jet of to the US for the Guinness International Champions Cup. The chance to test the squad against a more challenging level of competition will be welcome as the players work to bed into Jose Mourinho’s system.

The eight-team tournament will see us play three matches against the likes of Juventus, Real Madrid, Valencia, Everton, LA Galaxy and both Milan clubs. Following an Asian tour which saw the club score 13 goals in just three games, the Champions Cup will be a sterner test, along with a friendly against AS Roma in Washington.

These games will not only see the return of players rested following the Confederations Cup earlier in the summer, but might also help to address the areas of concern heading into the new season. For each area of concern,

1) Midfield. Under the assumption that the main formation used will be 4-2-3-1, the real question is: which combinations will be used?

If Mikel stays, and there are no further signings to add to Marco van Ginkel, then those two, along with Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ramires look most likely to form the core of the Chelsea midfield for the upcoming season, with Kevin De Bruyne and possibly Oscar also being used in deeper-lying positions.

This group is quite well balanced, with the stamina of Ramires, power of Essien and Mikel and the passing abilities of Lampard, van Ginkel and Oscar. However, especially playing with two deeper midfielders, combining these options into a valid partnership will be key. For example, while Lampard and Oscar might combine to give the best vision and passing options, there isn’t much strength or defensive nous. Similarly, Lampard and Mikel might give you positional discipline and passing, but no speed. With the mobility and box-to-box running of Ramires and Essien, partnering them with a less mobile passer might be the best option, giving some flexibility both in attack and defence.

Who should start against Hull City? Ramires and Lampard.

Potential Transfers? Mikel out, Khedira (Real Madrid) in.

2) Defence. What role will David Luiz play in defence, and what are the best centre-back pairings?

With Mourinho having said that he feels Branislav Ivanovic’s best position is at right back, the main centre-back options in the squad are John Terry, Gary Cahill, Luiz and Tomas Kalas.

Luiz is the most mobile of these options, and offers the most as a footballer. The question will be whether he can be a centre-back in the Ricardo Carvalho style, excellent defensively as well as a threat moving out of defence.

One of the reasons for Carvalho’s success in partnership with Terry was a clear understanding of what each players responsibility was – often with Terry attacking the ball and Carvalho covering. Assuming the club captain is fully fit again after a disrupted (and below-par) season last year, then a similar combination could work effectively. Cahill can also be brought into this type of partnership, and has the flexibility to fill either role, with his strong positioning and ability to react to attacking movement quicker than Terry, whose lack of mobility could be concerning.

Who should start against Hull City? Luiz and Terry

Potential Transfers? Luiz is rumoured to be the subject of a bid from Bayern, but it is highly unlikely that any tranfser would be sanctioned.

3) Goal scoring. Who will start up front?

Torres hit the 20-goal mark last season, even though many of those goals came in the Europa League. Ba had some good games, but also went missing more often than he should have. Lukaku looked hugely impressive playing for West Brom. Andre Schurrle can play up front, but it isn’t his first choice position.

These are the current options to open the season as the main striker. While none of them have performed at a superstar level, there is talent, flexibility and a range of skills available. Lukaku has the most upside, while Torres has the scoring record, and when he is on form Ba has the potential to be a match winner, as we saw in the FA Cup against Man United last season.

Given that Torres and Ba are very much known quantities at this point in their careers, and can only offer a certain level of physicality and pace. Lukaku has the potential to be better than both, and could well outperform them in the US and make a bid to start the season as the centre forward, despite his inexperience.

Who should start against Hull City? Lukaku

Potential Transfers? The Rooney saga continues, but that seems likely to be the only movement.