LONDON – Jose Mourinho mocks Arsene Wenger yet again; the high priest of pragmatic football accused Arsenal of being defensive as it beat Chelsea 1-0 in the Community Shield; the Hypocritical One also tells Señora Benitez she should put Rafa on a diet.
Welcome to the 2015-16 Premier League, which has hit the ground running for madness. In many ways the season does not stop and little changes — it is like David de Gea’s proposed transfer to Real Madrid, where the fat man is coach: never ending.
We already know how the next nine months will unfold. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United will dominate the race for the title. Liverpool and Tottenham will again be also-rans for Champions League places. Newcastle will under-achieve with owner Mike Ashley becoming even less popular — seemingly impossible, but which he somehow still manages to do. And 10 clubs will be delighted just to avoid relegation from the most lucrative league in the world.
With three weeks to go until the transfer window closes it is still possible for the big hitters to strengthen their already heavyweight squads. Surprisingly, apart from City, the other members of the Big Four have spent relatively little this summer. Net spending, Chelsea is £11.5 million in the black, United £1.3 million in credit, Arsenal is £8.2 million in the red and City £32 million.
Surprisingly, the biggest net spender so far is Newcastle with £37.7 million on Chancel Mbemba and Aleksandar Mitrovic (Anderlecht) and PSV’s playmaker Georginio Wijnaldum, who could be one of the best summer transfers. So much for Ashley not putting his hand in his immense pockets.
Sadly, the People’s Republic of Newcastle United FC dictates that only the Daily Mirror (who allegedly struck a deal worth £400,000) and Sky Sports — the club’s media partners —were allowed in at the unveiling of the new players plus the introduction of manager Steve McClaren. When asked why Newcastle had adopted such a restrictive media approach, managing director Lee Charnley said it was to “control and reinforce the positive messages the club wished to deliver.” Aka censorship. With a profit.
The other national and local newspapers are already sharpening their arrows.
Winning back-to-back English titles is a demanding challenge, something only two managers — Sir Alex Ferguson and Mourinho 10 years ago — have achieved since Liverpool’s Bob Paisley in 1983.
Champions usually add to their squad, but Mourinho is happy to go with last season’s players plus reserve goalkeeper Asmir Begovic from Stoke and Rademal Falcao, who had a torrid time on loan from Monaco with United last season.
One line of thought is that Mourinho brought in the Colombia striker to show he can get more from him than United did, though that would not be too demanding as he managed only four goals under Louis van Gaal.
Chelsea remains the side to beat, especially if it forces Everton’s hand to sell it John Stones, the best young English defender to emerge in years. It starts the defense of its crown Saturday against Swansea though the season gets underway earlier in the day with Man United hosting Spurs.
Despite spending £155 million since last summer, van Gaal still needs a top-class central defender and another striker. United was led down the garden path by its pursuit of Sergio Ramos who, instead of joining the Reds, was given a new contract by Real.
Bastien Schweinsteiger and Memphis Depay may have to wait for their debuts, but right-back Matteo Darmian and midfielder Morgan Schneiderlein are set to play against Spurs, with Daley Blind in the center of defense where his lack of pace may be ruthlessly exposed by Harry Kane.
A year ago Arsenal’s title challenge was effectively over by October following a poor start to the season which it trailed Chelsea by 11 points after six matches. Wenger knows there is no such room for error again and on Sunday Arsenal must beat West Ham if it is to be a contender rather than pretender.
There is an understandable air of optimism around the Emirates. With Petr Cech, a rare present from Chelsea, in goal Arsenal should have more defensive stability though its biggest opponent, as ever, will be injuries. If the Gunners can keep their top players fit, which they have failed to do in recent years — Jack Wilshere seems doomed to spend more time on the physio table than the pitch again — they will go the distance.
Brendan Rodgers, the bookmakers’ favorite to be the first manager to lose his job, knows another season of treading water will probably see the end of his Liverpool reign. The club wasted the Luis Suarez money on Mario Balotelli, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic and others — in all 17 players have been recruited since the start of last summer for a cost of £185 million.
For that, Liverpool got mostly mediocrity and will be hoping for more, which is not asking for much, from Christian Benteke, Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner and Roberto Firmino this time around when they begin their campaign at Stoke, which thumped them 6-1 in the final game of last season.
Steven Gerrard is in semi-retirement in Major League Soccer while Raheem Sterling and his agent were granted their wish when Manchester City coughed up a potential £49 million for the forward. It is brilliant business for Liverpool and pressure will be on Sterling to start repaying the huge fee against West Bromwich on Monday.
Sterling is joined at the Etihad by Fabian Delph who, a week after rebuffing City’s initial approach and pledging his future as Aston Villa, did a handbrake turn and signed with the Blues.
With Sergio Aguero and Wilfried Bony the only central strikers, Manuel Pellegrini must choose a support act from Sterling, Delph, Fernando, Fernandinho, Yaya Toura, David Silva, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas. His man-management skills will be pushed to their limit, but much will depend on how defender Eliaquim Mangala improves after a difficult first season following his £42 million move from FC Porto. For that investment, City will want the France international to be a dominant regular choice, not a replacement for Vincent Kompany or the veteran Martin Demichelis.
At the other end of the table the promoted clubs, AFC Bournemouth, Norwich and Watford, will inevitably find the gap between Championship and Premier League more like a canyon. Leicester, with Claudio Ranieri — the compensation king of European football with six dismissals in his last eight jobs — will be battling against the drop from day one while Sunderland fans will see survival as a major achievement.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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