Manchester United’s 3-0 win against Aston Villa on 22nd April this year, the victory which secured the club’s 20th English title, heralded the onset of the annual guessing game played by all football pundits – both amateur and professional.
In keeping with the ever rising pace of the modern wider world, no sooner is a trophy won, than the focus turns to the contestants who will be fighting to lift the next edition. The winners of each May’s Championship play-off final barely have the time to wash the smell of champagne off their match-worn shirts, before they are confronted with their long survival odds for the following campaign.
The current version of the transfer window, – in place in England since 2002 – however, has engendered a situation whereby any attempt, before trading is concluded, to forecast how events might unfold over the course of a season has become a perilous business.
It is noticeable that the panoply of Premier League previews available to digest each year, both in print and via broadcast media, are now delivered with caveats attached regarding any impending in-comings and out-goings at each club.
Every team’s opening clutch of fixtures are considered to offer no more than a hint as to how the ensuing nine months will play out. The starting eleven fielded for an August contest, can conceivably have undergone major surgery by the time September is upon us. It is only when autumn a month old, that any patterns develop. Managers are likely to have decided on preferred personnel and tactics and, correspondingly, it is possible to read more into the form book.
Regardless of that bedding-in period having yet to elapse, a combination of the arrival of this always untimely international break, and the end to player movement for 2013, makes this an opportune moment to assess what has been a whirlwind start to this most open of Premier League seasons.
Anybody rushing out to back Manchester United to win successive titles in the wake of Robin Van Persie’s hat-trick against a hapless Villa will have been reckoning without the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. David Moyes’ first two months at Old Trafford have provided, as feared by a support flush with the silverware laden Ferguson reign, a detectable erosion of the Red Devil’s perceived power.
Troublingly, clubs aspiring to United’s undoubted eminent status in the English game are able to detect weakness in both the on-field and off-field operation at Old Trafford. A strangely low-key and stodgy pre-season for the team appeared to have been shaken off with a convincing victory at Swansea City when the real action kicked-off. Matched against the raised quality, and greater intensity, that came with fixtures against Chelsea and Liverpool, though, Moyes’ side came up well-short.
Most glaringly, United are suffering from an absence of on-pitch imagination and guile. It is a damning fact, that the bright spot of those two clashes was Wayne Rooney’s hard-running performance against Chelsea. Notably, the attributes for which a player, who Ferguson was ready to discard, was most lauded after that game, were his application and industry. Surely, these are a given?
Nevertheless, if Moyes is to enjoy a profitable first term in his new job, he will need Rooney focused and at his impudent best. The Scot’s borderline embarrassing endeavours to strengthen his squad since he took the Old Trafford helm will have considerably vexed the Old Trafford faithful. For Manchester United to so publicly miss out on a host of targets is unprecedented in this Premier League era. The identity of the men Moyes most coveted – Cesc Fabregas, Luka Modric, and Thiago Alcantara – left no doubt that the manager had a creative midfield player at the top of his list of targets.
That the summer window for signings passed with only the last minute addition of Marouane Fellaini, – at £4m above the sum for which Moyes could have purchased the player 33 days previously – and a failure to push through deals for Ander Herrera and Fabio Coentrao was entirely congruous, then, with a period at Old Trafford completely out-of-keeping with anything we have seen before.
There is no doubting Fellaini’s considerable ability, but the Belgian alone is plainly not the answer to the expanding list of questions about the potential of this United team. If he is used as a holding midfielder, – a position in which the 25 year-old is vastly underrated – Tom Cleverley could be freed to operate higher up the pitch. If Fellaini adopts that ‘Number 10’ role, in which he excelled at Everton, it will require a minor shift to the swashbuckling approach for which Manchester United teams are renowned.
If Moyes cannot inspire his side out of their inertia, this just passed transfer window will continue to dog him. Sir Alex Ferguson rarely sought to add more than two or three individuals in one go. The 13 time English Champion never stood still however – fully conversant of the fact that to do so would see his clubs’ rivals of the day race by in the outside lane. If United wanted a player, more often than not, they got their man.
Any indication that Manchester City or Chelsea will disappear into the distance before Christmas is sure to cause a furrowing of brows in the Stretford End. When Moyes’ predecessor had command, calm would have prevailed. Now, there is no guarantee that valuable reinforcements will be forthcoming to resolve any flaws.
A prosecutor asked to provide evidence of the burdensome task that is recognising and, in turn, buying appropriate talent for an elite football club, would not hesitate in proffering Arsenal as ‘Exhibit A’. Having been subject to a caustic review, from inside and outside the Emirates, of their opening day defeat to Aston Villa, the Gunners have responded in some style.
Sunday’s terrific and thoroughly deserved North London derby victory, against Tottenham Hotspur, was Arsenal’s fourth victory on the bounce. The standout element of that contest was the midfield dominance of the re-vitalised Aaron Ramsay, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, and Wilshere’s replacement Mathieu Flamini, over Spurs’ much trumpeted trio of Paulinho, Etienne Capoue, and Mousa Dembele.
Despite their control of the game, Arsene Wenger’s side ended the 90 minutes making a string of saving tackles and clearances. A thin squad is being severely stretched by early-season injuries, and the acquisitions all Gooners have been crying out for were vital if the team were to pose any threat whatsoever to the established top-three of Manchesters United and City, and Chelsea.
There can be no downside to recruiting the magnificently blessed Mesut Ozil, but while the German will add his vision and guile to that of Cazorla and Wilshere, a string of deficiencies remain. The same defence which crumbled against Villa’s pace and enterprise is in place. Olivier Giroud has no competition – or plausible partner – in attack, and an imposing defensive midfielder is sorely lacking from the Gunners ranks.
In common with Arsenal, Chelsea have left themselves short of numbers up top. Unlike their London counterparts, that specific scarcity is an exception in a Stamford Bridge squad that has taken on a formidable hue.
The raft of bright and buzzing attackers – chief among them Eden Hazard and the simply excellent Oscar – will benefit from the platform that Ramires, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, and John Mikel Obi are all capable of laying.
David Luiz and Gary Cahill were superb in their efforts to repel Bayern Munich’s attacking artillery during the European Super Cup clash in Prague. John Terry was back to his resilient and reliable self in the Old Trafford stalemate, while Ashley Cole has, thus far this term, served up a reminder of his imperious defensive virtues to the growing numbers who believe that Leighton Baines is now his country’s eminent left-back.
With the return of Jose Mourinho completing a total about turn in the atmosphere in West London, Chelsea look best placed at this nascent stage of the campaign to be crowned champions come May.
When Manchester City opened their new era by tearing Newcastle United to shreds, it was tempting to be sucked into believing that this team was ready to hit the heights that were reached under Roberto Mancini two years ago. Just six days later, and familiar failings at the back were horribly exposed by a tenacious, but limited, Cardiff City outfit.