The English Premier League curtain-raiser
Once Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur set the ball rolling for the 24th edition of the English Premier League at Old Trafford on Saturday, a very intriguing season will begin. From Chelsea to Liverpool, every one of the top six teams is going through a moment of transition. For some, like Chelsea, it’s a question of building on success; for others, like Arsenal, it’s about consistency.
Southampton will again look to break into the top level on the strength of their seemingly unending production line of promising young footballers; Swansea and Everton will look to build on their past successes; Newcastle will seek to get out of their never-ending stasis; and three quite stylish, newly promoted teams, in Bournemouth, Norwich City and Watford, will try to ward off relegation and extend their Premier League lives for one more season.
Here’s a look at the priorities of the biggest teams in the league and the players we should be watching out for.
While Everton’s highly talented defender, John Stones, might yet join them, Chelsea are already a well-balanced team with quality players. But more than being just a squad of great players, they’re a team moulded in the image of manager José Mourinho. A legendary man-manager, he makes the team play for him more than for the club, and that isn’t going to change.
However, there are a couple of interesting subplots that might hinder Chelsea. The first is the lack of reliable cover for Costa in case he gets injured. The on-loan Colombian striker, Radamel Falcao, can be deadly, but he’s been off-form for a year now, and that leaves just one other injury-prone striker, Loïc Rémy. The other factor is the gift that Chelsea made to Arsenal, their bitter rivals, by selling them club legend Petr Cech, thus strengthening the Gunners. However, Chelsea remain firm favourites to retain the title.
Key player: Eden Hazard
Striker Sergio Agüero, though, had another stellar season, scoring 26 goals to emerge as the league’s top scorer. This season will be a defining one on many fronts. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has to find a way to make his stars fire consistently; already, there are rumours that Pep Guardiola will step in as manager next season. The big acquisition this summer has been the £49 million Raheem Sterling, and while the prospect of him forming a trident with Agüero and David Silva is mouthwatering, he is far from the finished article. Consistency isn’t his strong point either.
Key player: Raheem Sterling
Arsenal have always been a favourite with football purists who, even if they didn’t support the club, loved watching them play: neat passing triangles, intelligent movement, and nothing so crass as defending in numbers or hoofing the ball up the field to a big striker. But it is exactly the lack of this kind of pragmatism to back up its refined footballing philosophy that has come in the way of manager Arsène Wenger developing teams as devastating as the “Invincibles” from a decade ago.
More than anything, the back-to-back FA Cup (the main Football Association knockout tournament) wins from the previous two seasons have instilled real belief in this squad.
This season is crucial. With most of the first team players fit, for a change, Arsenal seem to be in the mood. A large part of it is due to striker Alexis Sánchez, who brings the goals—tons of them—but also the will to win, backed by a world-class midfield of Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, and emerging stars like Francis Coquelin.
The Spurs have strengthened their defence, the team’s weakest point last season, with the purchase of the highly rated Toby Alderweireld from Atlético Madrid and young Kieran Trippier from Burnley. Manager Mauricio Pochettino’s all-action pressing game often leaves the defence exposed, but without a noticeable Plan B, it’s going to be more of the same.
The big story for the Spurs last season was the explosive debut of Harry Kane. His total of 31 goals in all the league and other cup competitions made him an overnight superstar, and he will be expected to shoulder the goalscoring load this year as well. Ditto for the playmaker Christian Eriksen, who has to provide the assists on a more regular basis.
This, however, brings into focus the fact that the Spurs don’t really have a large enough squad to deal with the league as well as the Europa cup and domestic cups. But they do retain the services of one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Hugo Lloris, and that’s cause enough for optimism.
The team had sold Luis Suárez to Barcelona, and the subsequent loss of prolific striker Daniel Sturridge to injury was too much to bear. The Reds were incredibly toothless upfront, with strikers Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli managing to score just three league goals between them.
Now, both Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling are gone, so Liverpool are effectively starting from scratch. The acquisition of James Milner from Manchester City to shore up the midfield has been a shrewd move, and there is much buzz surrounding Brazilian Roberto Firmino, whom they acquired for £29 million, and striker Christian Benteke’s £32.5 million acquisition from Aston Villa.
What might prove most important for Liverpool is that they still have a gem of a playmaker in the Brazilian Philippe Coutinho, the sole high point from last season. If the likes of Emre Can, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic come good in the midfield, then Liverpool might just make the fourth Champions’ League spot.
Key player: Philippe Coutinho
However, in the last 12 months, he has spent some £230 million (or around Rs.2,300 crore) on new players, including Bastian Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich and the highly rated Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton in midfield; the Italian right-back Matteo Darmian and the exciting forward Memphis Depay from PSV Eindhoven. With a squad that also includes Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney, the team is expected to put up a challenge for the title this season.
There could be a few hiccups on the way, however. While Argentine winger Ángel Di María’s departure will leave a hole in the attack, a bigger worry is the possible transfer of star goalkeeper David de Gea to Real Madrid.
Key player: Memphis Depay