The title race is looking like a genuine four-horse race for next season with any one of Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchesters City and United in with a shout of the title.
In this article, I look at why they fell short- or in the case of United, won the league- and what is needed this summer for a successful challenge in the forthcoming season. I have also included North London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, to acknowledge what has effectively become a ‘Big Six’ in the last two seasons.
This season, with Chelsea’s horrific run of form in the run up to Christmas and Manchester United, on paper at least, perhaps weaker than in previous years, Arsenal had their greatest opportunity in years for Premier League glory and while there were some notable highlights for Arsenal, beating the mercurial Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium and Manchester United, but ultimately, Arsene Wenger’s charges fell embarrassingly short yet again.
Arsenal’s main problem, while they do have personnel dilemmas (what side does not), is that they have a chronic inability to perform when in reach of any goal: they were outclassed at the Nou Camp when holding a one goal lead from the first leg; they infamously choked in the Carling Cup final against relative minnows Birmingham and worst of all, after that defeat at Wembley, won only two of their remaining ten league fixtures which undeniably cost them the league title. They make Cardiff look a bastion of steel at times.
It is on this basis that I have discounted them as title contenders next season. Any side that cannot win a game from 4-0 up, cannot win the title; Arsenal could be ten points clear with four games to go and I would probably put money on them being caught, such is their mental fragility.
In personnel terms, they seem to have gone a long way to solving their goalkeeping crisis with the emergence from the academy of Wojciech Szczesny, who at twenty-one, who is a great prospect, but needs time, as the Carling Cup final illustrated. However, the Gunners are crying out for at least one centre-half. This weakness was exaggerated by the absence of Thomas Vermaelen all season through injury and Johan Djourou did a decent job in his place, but one is definitely needed.
The likely targets are Bolton’s Gary Cahill and Blackburn’s Christopher Samba; there has been talk of a move for Werder Bremen’s Per Mertesacker, but the German is exactly the Koscielny and Squillaci-like defender- slight in frame and fragile in mind- that has landed the Gunners in so much trouble in the past.
Additionally, a holding midfielder to push Alex Song, who has no competition within the squad, and I would question greatly whether Song is a title winning midfielder at any rate. Back up for Robin van Persie is also vital to Arsenal’s chances. While he stayed relatively injury free this campaign, one never knows when the Dutchman’s body will give way and both Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh have shown themselves to be inadequate substitutes.
As for the manager, no one can argue that he is anything but world class- his ability to spot a young talent and then nurture it is second to none. However, he has a serious blind spot at centre-half and may consider cashing in on a Cesc Fabregas whose mind appears to be elsewhere these days.
Wenger should get rid of: Manuel Almunia, Lukasz Fabianski, Sebastien Squillaci, Laurent Koscielny, Abou Diaby, Denilson, Nicklas Bendtner.
The problems facing the new Chelsea boss, whoever that may be, will be twofold.
Firstly, they must deal with the most fickle owner in world football, who almost single-handedly cost Chelsea the title this time round. Will the new man be allowed to appoint his own staff? (In doing so, getting rid of Abramovich’s own spy, Michael Emenalo) and will he be allowed to leave out Fernando Torres and have control over transfer policy in general? Two vital issues. I suspect the answer to both is yes, so long as your name is Guus Hiddink.
Secondly, the new man will have to deal with an aging squad. It appears that many of the Chelsea squad are past their best, stalwarts from the Jose Mourinho days whose positions in the side have never been questioned, largely because of the immense player power, led by the eternally over-rated John Terry, that saw the ends of Mourinho, Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari. Moreover, they need to establish whether they are to play in a 4-3-3 or play with two out and out strikers, an indecision that crippled Carlo Ancelotti.
Of course there is the question of who the new man will be. This appointment will provide most of the answers to the queries posed. If it is Hiddink, then he will get a free rein, but is he a better manager than Ancelotti? I would say not. Hiddink has overachieved with minnows, like PSV Eindhoven and South Korea, but won nothing at big clubs like Valencia, only an Intercontinental Cup at Real Madrid and only finished third with Chelsea in his previous stint.
Other than that, Andre Villas-Boas has ruled himself out, not wanting to mirror the path of his predecessor at Porto, while the Special One himself is also staying put. All of a sudden there are few options. Grant again? Chelsea fans will pray that that curse is not placed upon them.
Who should leave Stamford Bridge: Hilario, Paulo Ferreira, John Obi Mikel, Yury Zhirkov, Yossi Benayoun, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka.
While Arsenal and Chelsea have been dogged by deep-rooted issues, Liverpool are very much a team on the up after torturous times under Rafael Benitez and then Roy Hodgson- though given time I think Hodgson would have done a good job. ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish has rejuvenated the Reds, replaced Torres, and brought through some youth teamers- a policy that is long overdue.
The likes of John Flanagan, Jack Robinson, Martin Kelly and Jay Spearing are the first youth products since the emergence of now thirty-one year-old Steven Gerrard to make the first team and have proven more than capable in the world’s most demanding division. So long as the funds are made available by new owner, John Henry, then there is no reason why Liverpool cannot push on for a title challenge given the huge reputation of the club within Europe.
Liverpool desperately needs cover at centre-half with Jamie Carragher aging rapidly and questions over the ability of Martin Skrtel. Questions also need to be asked as to whether Glen Johnson’s defensive frailties are too grave for Liverpool to launch a serious title challenge, while an extra man in the middle of the park to assist Spearing, Raul Meireles and the questionable Lucas Leiva would not go a miss.
Dalglish should get rid of: Sotiris Kyrgiakos, Fabio Aurelio, Christian Poulsen, Milan Jovanovic, David N’Gog.
The sky is not even the limit. Many have argued that had City had a more attack-minded and inspiring man at the helm this season, they may have won the title, and I agree, however, one must realise that these men are few and far between- Alex Ferguson, Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Ottmar Hitzfeld and I am out. With funds available, Roberto Mancini will further improve an already impressive squad that no matter what your opinion of the manager, will make them a formidable contender next season.
The on-going Carlos Tevez saga needs resolving and ultimately, the only long-term outcome appears to be his eventual departure from Eastlands- though who, apart from perhaps Real Madrid, could match his quarter of a million a week wages I do not know. Tevez’s departure would mean that City would need a world class striker, though Mario Balotelli has the potential to assume that role. Moreover, Gareth Barry is far from the player he was under Martin O’Neill at Aston Villa and subsequently needs replacing and City need to find a quality left-back with the signings of Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta having not been justified.
Mancini should get rid of: Shay Given (because he is too good be sat on any bench, not because he is not good enough), Pablo Zabaleta, Joleon Lescott, Aleksandar Kolarov, Wayne Bridge, Gareth Barry, Patrick Vieira, Jo, Roque Santa Cruz, Emmanuel Adebayor.
Ferguson has once again proved that he is on a level well above everyone else. Where Chelsea’s veterans have floundered, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar have been ever-present at Old Trafford this season. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic reaffirmed their status as the Premier League’s finest partnership in the heart of the defence, while Javier Hernandez proved the buy of the season, a snip at only seven million pounds.
Many have criticised this United side for not having many truly great players- I must disagree. Wayne Rooney is certainly one, and though his early season form was atrocious, he was imperious at the so-called ‘business end’ of the season to play are large role in United winning the Premier League and reaching the Champions League final.
Everyone would agree that that pattern of form is far more desirable than that displayed by Zlatan Ibrahimovic every season-great until Christmas and then afterwards one of the most ineffective players in world football- yet few question his reputation. The likes of Ferdinand, Vidic, Patrice Evra and even youngsters Hernandez and Luis Antonio Valencia are sublime players.
Ferguson does however need to strengthen. The retirement of van der Sar and Tomasz Kuszczak’s abysmal form late in the season means that the Red Devils will desperately need a keeper, with Spanish teenager David de Gea the favourite to replace the Dutchman. Scholes and Giggs will gradually be phased out of the side given their growing years and tiring legs, so United will need a creative midfielder and a holding midfielder to play in the middle of the park.
Darren Fletcher’s form this season has been indifferent, while Michael Carrick, while a fantastic passer of the ball, lacks pace at the highest level of competition, as was evident in Saturday’s Champions League final against the superb Barcelona. It looks as though Ferguson will offer to triple the wages of Spurs’ player of the season, Luka Modric, who is only on forty thousand per week at the Lane, and who, of course, will be deprived of Champions League football next year should he stay. Elsewhere, Giggs’ long-term successor looks likely to be Aston Villa’s Ashley Young, with reports suggesting that Nani may leave for the Old Lady.
Ferguson should sell: Tomasz Kuszczak, John O’Shea, Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson, Gabriel Obertan.
Spurs undoubtedly have the hardest task of keeping up with the pace at the top- they do not quite have the reputation and standing of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United- although their impressive Champions League campaign has certainly raised their profile on the continent -nor the war chest of Man City, plus they do will not have Champions League football. Spurs do have a lot of money, but Daniel Levy is reluctant to shell out on excessive wages. Harry Redknapp’s nous in the transfer market will definitely be key.
First and foremost, Spurs must make sure they keep hold of the mercurial midfielder Luka Modric; with Gareth Bale’s susceptibility to injury and Rafael van der Vaart’s dip in form towards the end of the season, Modric has emerged as Tottenham’s most valuable asset and will have to hold off serious interest from Manchester United and Chelsea this summer. To launch a challenge for Champions League qualification and potentially the championship, they need to learn to kill off games; too many draws have cost Spurs dearly this season and no doubt progress in the Europa League will only hamper any domestic aspirations.
Spurs desperately need a marquees striker and have made serious enquiries into both of Porto’s frontmen Hulk and Radamel Falcao, though it appears Hulk’s price tag of thirty-five million euros will deter Redknapp from tabling a formal bid; even so, Andre Villas-Boas’ announcement that he is staying at the Dragao for at least another season may be enough to convince the Porto squad to stick and launch what would be a strong bid for European honours next season.
Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko are all good, but they are not gamebreakers- to quote FIFA Street. How Redknapp wishes he would have accommodated the superb Darren Bent into his team. Furthermore, with William Gallas the wrong side of thirty, Michael Dawson is the only top centre-half at White Hart Lane.
Both of Birmingham’s steadfast pairing of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann have been linked with a move to North London, but again, the Blues’ asking price of fourteen million for Dann will certainly make Redknapp think twice. Meanwhile, out on the flanks, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Alan Hutton are inept at full-back, though both Danny Rose and Kyle Walker look like decent prospects. Heurelho Gomes also needs replacing; his ability to go from the sublime to the ridiculous is extraordinary- he broke the record against Blackpool, saving a penalty and then giving one away all in the space of thirty seconds.
Redknapp should sell: Heurelho Gomes, Alan Hutton, Sebastien Bassong, Jonathan Woodgate, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Jermaine Jenas, David Bentley, Robbie Keane.