I had planned on making no new posts on this blog as I am switching sites and the format (more on that at the end) but then I realized that if I didn't, I couldn't be on the record with any predictions for the upcoming year and that just wouldn't be right. Last year's predictions were very accurate with the top four correct in order and six of the top seven foreseen. Newcastle in the top seven ends up looking rather garish but their fall and Everton's ascendancy were met with general surprise, so I won't feel too bad about it. At any rate, here's some details about my predictions for the top four.
Last season Chelsea looked like a team that were struggling to find out exactly what they were and how they wanted to play, yet still had a relatively easy run to third place even if the Manchester teams pulled away as things wound down. In fact, the Blues were basically in a civil war with the fans loathing Roman Abramovich's choice of interim manager Rafael Benitez, a man who famously taunted the Chelsea faithful while he was manger of Liverpool. This controversial hiring came on the heels of the firing of Roberto Di Matteo, who did nothing short of win the goddamn Champions League but was never in favor with the Russian owner. Two coaches, bitter resentment from fans, zero consistent striker play... yet Chelsea were still third. If this year is simple stable instead of violently disrupting, they should challenge for the title.
Let's not forget how talented Chelsea is. Last year they had a tremendous midfield with Ramires, Oscar, Eden Hazard, and Juan Mata. Mata at times looked like the best playing in the Premier League and Ramires impressed with charging runs and a high work rate. The defense was solid, giving up the third fewest goals in the league, and had interesting options with Branislav Ivanovic, Caesar Azpilicueta, and consistent racist John Terry. Plus Petr Chech was behind it all to clean us any potential messes (looking at you, Gary Cahill). The only thing they seriously lacked was quality play up top with neither Fernando Torres nor Demba Ba looking comfortable in front of goal. Frank Lampard, a player who I didn't even see fit to name while listing midfield highlights, led the team in goals. It is entirely possible that Torres or Ba could come back into form but if they don't, Romelu Lukaku is back from a very impressive loan spell at West Bromwich Albion and Andres Schurrle, the German international, has been brought in for even more options. This team looks like a contender already and I haven't even mentioned the biggest news of the summer, the return of beloved (and special) manager Jose Mourinho. This team will be disciplined, they will have a system, and they will be even more talented than last year. They are my preseason pick to win the title.
2. Manchester City
It's just not fair at this point. Manchester City finished second last year and while they weren't in it until the very end, they finished comfortably and had enough talent to challenge again this year with no changes. So what do they do? Fire manager Roberto Mancini and replace him with a different elite manager, Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean comes to Manchester fresh off a Champions League quarterfinal run with Malaga, done while the team was having problems paying its players due to financial conditions, and has also coached at Real Madrid and Villareal. Also incoming are goal scoring machine Alvaro Negredo (25 in La Liga last season), versatile and skilled Stevan Jovetic to replace the departed Carlos Tevez, and Jesus Navas and Fernandinho to give the midfield speed and steel respectfully. These players come into a squad that was incredibly strong to begin with, boasting stars such as Yaya Toure, David Silva, Vincent Kompany, and Sergio Aguero.
Like Chelsea, Manchester City looked out of sorts like year, just slightly off from what the team should be. Many blame that on how Roberto Mancini's defensive tactics were an ill fit for his talent and while that narrative has reached the state where it is probably overblown, it has it's base in truth. With so much creativity in the squad, there is no reason to think that they should not only be improved stylistically, but also in results on the field and challenge for the title.
3. Manchester United
This might seem like an unfair ranking for last year's champions who strolled to their 20th league title with shocking ease, but I don't feel that's the case. This was a team that often stumbled their way to going down in games only to miraculously come from behind, usually on the boot of Robin Van Persie. It is not likely that Van Persie will suddenly dip in form but it is difficult to assume that United will once again recover from all those deficits, especially when they rely so much on one man to do so. That's really a minor quibble about how last year's team performed, however. They lead the league in goals scored and goal differential so what can you really complain about? This ranking is more about the teams around them than their own team. Chelsea and Manchester City weren't that far behind already and both teams brought in proven big name players to bolster their rosters. United have signed Wilifred Zaha and while he is a true talent, it's doubtful he'll have the impact that the stars on those other contenders will.
The biggest loss for Manchester is off the pitch. The club always exuded an air of invincibility with Sir Alex Ferguson on the bench and now they will have to do without him. David Moyes is by no means a poor manager and he may turn out to be more than a worthy replacement. The fact remains, however, that United have lost something at manager while both Chelsea and City have made real improvement. Moyes has made the classic Arsenal blunder of getting involved in transfer "sagas" and I find it incredibly unlikely that main target Cesc Fabregas will come to the club. The window is not closed though and Manchester United are a big team with big goals. It is likely that they will still bring in talent and challenge for the title as returning champions.
That pretty much describes Arsenal's summer so far. The team finished strong to close out the 2012-2013 season in fourth place and, for the first time in what seemed like ages, didn't have any stars leaving the team during the transfer window. With chief executive Ivan Gazidis talking about the team's £70 million budget for offseason acquisitions, this seemed like the season Arsenal were going to step back up to the big boys' table and become a serious threat. Then... nothing. The Gunners lost out on Stevan Jovetic, Gonzolo Higuain, Luis Gustavo, and seemingly Luis Suarez (thank god), and currently have brought in no one but a young French striker who will be used more for depth than to make an impact. Now Mikel Arteta will be out four to six weeks, Nacho Monreal and Thomas Vermaelen will miss the start of the season, and both Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla have picked up minor knocks. Arsene Wenger did an excellent job of clearing out the dead weight over the summer but without anyone coming in, the team is thin and that money is freed up for nothing. There are young players on the team that can raise their level but then the team is looking like a project when it has a real chance to be a player. With everyone around them getting better, it's been frustrating to watch the Gunners sit on their hands and do nothing.
And yet... there is just something about this team. I enjoy watching them. I think there is real talent and there is also the chance for players to make improvements. I'm biased towards supporting handsome Frenchman Olivier Giroud but he's looked fantastic in preseason and his finishing should improve with a year in the league under his belt. Plus his passing and possession never let the team down even when he wasn't finding the back of the net. Aaron Ramsey has also been bossing the preseason and has continued to make his inclusion in the starting XI a foregone conclusion. Santi Cazorla was one of the best players in the league last year and if Wenger can simply bring in warm bodies so that our main playmaker doesn't look as tired this year as he did toward the end of last, the diminutive Spaniard's play should improve even more. The starting XI is top four if not higher right now, it's the depth that could end up costing the team.
What it comes down to is the assumption of transfers coming in and I just don't see Wenger standing pat, even if it takes until August 31st. He has to know that this team is on the brink of contending status and he can't think that this team is complete right now, especially with the injuries. If Arsenal does indeed do nothing before the window closes then I will regret this position for them, but I don't see that happening. Look for the Gunners to bring in players in the next two weeks, shore up the weaknesses, and be ready to compete again.
5. Tottenham (ha)
18. Stoke City
19. Cardiff City
This is the last post you will see on this blog as I will be changing it up and moving to another site (most likely Wordpress, need to finalize this over the weekend) as early as this coming Monday. This is being done not so much due to problems with Blogger but because I want to change the format and expand beyond an Arsenal blog. There will be Arsenal posts still (probably even more) but there will also be a renewed commitment to more varied and more frequent writing. I will publicize once the switch is made and I invite you to join me there. In the mean time, check out my writing on the Boston Gooners website One Club on Boylston. My first post there will be Wednesday so be on the lookout. Thanks to anyone who has read me, good luck with the season, and Come On You Gunners.