Monday, August 27, 2012

The True Contenders

Early in the Premier League season, anything is possible. Before the ball is kicked, every fan thinks their team can win the whole thing and every worthwhile player probably does as well. A week in some may be crashing back to earth (sorry people of Norwich) but others are flying higher. After all, Swansea stands atop the table (discounting the absurd Chelsea scheduling, of course) and you never know who might probably sort of maybe join your favorite club during the rapidly narrowing transfer window. The dream has to end somewhere, however, and I may as well be the one to start things off.

Less than half the teams every year have a real chance to win the league. Everyone knows it but professional sports requires that we suspend belief to a degree because otherwise many people wouldn't bother. Of those teams, the majority are competing for Champions League spots while maintaining an outside chance of winning the title. This year I'd say that list includes Everton, Tottenham, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Arsenal. It's not that these teams can't win the title; it's that it will take an awful lot to go right (for some more than others) and some poor play at the top of the table. If Arsenal pick up another defender before the end of August, see Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud come into fine goal scoring form, have Santi Cazorla emerge as a true team-driving playmaker, and manage to stay healthy for the first time since broadband internet became a normal thing, they have a legitimate chance to win the title. But obviously this is a difficult situation to foresee and the Gunners will most likely be fighting for third place and focusing on winning their six point matches against the other teams on this short list. The reality is that, for better or for worse, the only real odds-on favorites to win the Premier League are Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United.


Alphabetical order has a funny way of working things out as Chelsea are actually my pick to finish third in the league. Cynics will point to the relative inexperience of Roberto Di Matteo as a head coach as well as the team's sixth place finish in the league last year, and rightfully so. However, it is also important to consider last year's team within the context of that very turbulent season as well as address the changes that they have made. For starters, they are playing under the same head coach from start to finish (one would think) and that should have a measurable impact in terms of consistency and expectations for the players. For example, we know that Daniel Sturridge is not in Di Matteo's plans, at least not as a starter, and therefore someone else gets to take his spot and can work with his teammates to get comfortable. It seems like basic stuff I know, but the difference can be vital when the team is in danger of dropping points against teams they should be able to beat (see: last Wednesday's match vs Reading). Having the team play under one system throughout the year could be huge when you consider that the difference between 6th and 3rd last year was just six points.

Chelsea also changed their squad through offseason additions, notably bringing in Marko Marin, Oscar, Victor Moses, and of course Eden Hazard. We've heard for years (especially last year) about how Chelsea needed to rebuild and how the old guard had to be phased out. If you look at this year's squad you have 12 potential starters under 26 years of age including important pieces such as Juan Mata, Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Ramires, Oscar, and Hazard. This is no longer a team that has to play cautious for fear of being outpaced by opponents. This is a team that can use pace and youth to their advantage to fly around the pitch and attack from many angles. The project is not over, but serious steps have been made along the way.

Chelsea are still not without problems though, and this is why I have them finishing in third place. Their finishing seems to depend heavily on Fernando Torres returning to form (which might actually be likely based on the season thus far) and the defense is good but not unbeatable, especially considering the defensive play in midfield. There is plenty of exciting, young talent but it still is young talent, and young talent can surprise both positively and negatively. This team has an excellent chance of coming together and competing for a title until the very end, but there are too many variables for me to pick them over either Manchester team.

Manchester City

Last year's champions are back in the hunt again with a mostly unchanged squad. After all, why mess with success? Well, Liverpool showed them some reasons why in Sunday's game at Anfield and the injury to Sergio Aguero should provide additional motivation. Now it is said that Roberto Mancini has roughly £60 million to spend before the transfer window closes in a couple of days, making everything right with the world since City are once again throwing money around like Martin Atkinson does yellow cards. Last year, however, City performed best when their backs were up against the wall and they were getting great performances from their star players. Is spending in the transfer market the way to get them rolling forward again?

It seems that bringing in a new addition or two in order to shore up weak spots is what this team needs the most. Even with Aguero out, City are fine up front with Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli, and Edin Dzeko. They also should be mostly comfortable in the creative part of midfield with Yaya Toure, David Silva, and Samir Nasri, and their defense isn't shabby in the least with Vincent Kompany anchoring a backline that includes Joleon Lescott, Aleksander Kolarov, Gael Clichy, and Pablo Zabaleta. More than anything, City are shopping for a strong defensive midfielder and depth at the wing position. In the Liverpool match, we saw Mancini make his classic substitution: bring on a defensive minded midfielder (Jack Rodwell) so that Toure can move further up the field. Toure is so successful from this position that it is a wonder Mancini doesn't have him play there all the time with Silva and Nasri on the wings and a holding midfielder in front of the defense. But between Nigel De Jong and Rodwell, it doesn't look like the Italian coach has someone he trusts to do the job. That's why we see him experimenting with 3-5-2 formations and looking to spend money before September 1st comes around.

When all is said and done, the manager may be the key to Manchester City's season. Though he won the league trophy last year and has a wealth of talent at his disposal, it seems Mancini still does not know what his best formation and starting eleven are. Does he play Nasri inside or outside? How does he allow Toure to go forward? Does he have enough cover at the back if he plays four across? Does he love Balotelli like a son or is he secretly involved in an elaborate kidnapping plot to take the Most Entertaining Person in Soccer off his hands once and for all? Mancini will continue to toy with his lineup and his roster, especially once he brings new players into the squad, but how much does he need to do with a team that is as loaded with talent as City is? The manager settling into a groove may be the most necessary adjustment that the champs make, but I fear it will fall just short of being enough.

Manchester United

Consider this: Manchester United's midfield was in such disarray last year after Tom Cleverley (a unproven but talented youngster) limped off injured against Bolton that Paul Scholes was called out of retirement, Michael Carrick became an important part of the team, and United was routinely tested in the possession battle in their remaining matches. Where did they finish? Second. Only two stoppage time goals away from being champions yet again. With that entire team returning, plus Cleverley recovering from injury, as well as the transfer signings of Robin Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, it should be fairly easy to see why Man U is my pick for Premier League champions.

United are now having that good kind of problem, the one where you have to pick which incredibly talented players you put on the field. Even with the injury to Wayne Rooney in Saturday's match against Fulham, Sir Alex Ferguson can roll out Van Persie, Danny Welbeck, or Javier Hernandez at striker, a stable of which every team but City would be jealous. Kagawa has already shown great promise as an attacking midfielder playing behind the strikers, with Cleverley and Scholes providing the control in the middle. The wings are incredibly strong as well with Patrice Evra and Ashley Young working together on the left while Rafael and Antonio Valencia combine on the right. The only real problem currently is the center of defense and that is only due to injuries. Once players like Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones come back, United is solid from the back to the front.

The biggest challenge for Man U at this point is to make it through the injuries to the backline as well as the transition period where Ferguson figures out how best to include all the talent that he has at his disposal. Rooney being out may actually help that to some degree as Welbeck and Van Persie can work on figuring out their striker pairing on a consistent basis. Teams are always a work in progress at this point in the season, but United has the core, as well as the new talent, to become champions once again.

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