Why The Chasing Pack Have It All To Do:

Amongst fans of all hues, it is the Manchester United fans who should be sleeping the easiest as pre-season kicks off and the new season is just a month away. 

Manchester United had one of their more average seasons in recent years, by all accounts, and yet managed to win the league by 9 points. This came with the strange mix of a near perfect home record, coupled with mid-table away form. The deficiencies and threats to the team were all too obvious. Ageing stalwarts (Scholes, Giggs), an initially misfiring Rooney, tactically significant injuries (Valencia) and the poor form of the central defensive cover (Evans) were all identified by fans and critics alike. Most importantly, though, there was the absence of a true playmaker at the highest level. There was also the prospect of a retiring Van Der Saar and fears of the post Schmeichel debacles, in goalkeeping. 

Sir Alex and David Gill have moved quickly and decisively to plug those holes. The arrivals of Young, De Gea and Jones will certainly ease many of the problems faced last year. It is the centre piece that is still a question. 3 players on the move – Nasri, Modric and Sneijder, and 5 clubs looking fighting over them – Spurs, Arsenal, Inter, Chelsea, United and Man City. It looks like Modric has set his heart on a Chelsea move. Sneijder’s wage demands are likely to be too steep for United, so Nasri seems like Sir Alex’s primary target at present. 

Yet, it’s worth remembering that it’s the other clubs that have a minimum of 9 points to make up over United. Chelsea have just made a massive change in appointing a manager, who has sorted out the back room. But impressive though AVB has been so far, he remains untested in the Premier League and he faces a number of challenges on the pitch. The overall age of the squad, the rumoured lack of team spirit, the well chronicled spectre of player power, the specific positions of weakness i.e. the lack of wide players, midfield creativity, lack of squad cover, the misfiring Torres and the disgruntled Drogba. And of course, the key task of settling the team following the summer transfers. It would be a brave man who bet on Chelsea to win the Premier League this year. 

Which leaves Arsenal and Man City as the other genuine contenders. Arsenal’s problems are largely Wenger-created. His commitment to a philosophy of prototype young, creative and often diminutive players is past it’s sell-by date and Arsenal risk becoming a caricature of Barcelona. One that shares the style but not the substance. Wenger has over-stocked the team with central midfielders (Fabregas, Nasri, Wilshere, Song, Denilson, Diaby, Ramsey) and ignored a number of other critical positions. Arshavin and Walcott are makeshift wingers, there is no credible second striker to the injury-prone Van Persie, Arsenal’s goal-keeping problem is the oldest unsolved problem in the League, and Sagna is arguably the only defender who could hold his place in any Premier League team. To make matters worse, Gooners are bracing themselves for an exodus – with Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy all looking elsewhere.

Man City’s problems are altogether different. They finally broke through to silverware last year by winning the FA Cup, but were inconsistent and infuriatingly defensive over the course of the league, especially given their spending. Man City have probably bought enough strikers in the past 5 years to make a full team out of them. City can arguably buy any player who isn’t part of the loyal core of the top 5-6 teams in the world, if they want to. And yet, when buying comes so easy, the stability of the team itself comes into question. City need a first team that plays together long enough to gel, and more importantly, to truly care – for each other, the club and the team. Unfortunately team spirit and understanding are not on the transfer market. 

I’m sure even ardent Spurs and Liverpool fans aren’t seeing their teams quite as title challengers just yet, so it’s really upto Chelsea, Man city and Arsenal to get over their respective problems and make up those 9 to 12 points that separated them from the trophy last year. Of course, it is quite conceivable that Manchester United will do better this year – the league winners usually go over 85 points for the season. That’s the real gap here. Especially if United manage to conclude the deal for Nasri as reported, before their pre-season, they will have the whole summer to bed the new look team in. Rivals beware. 

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