Cover

The best is yet to come

Suhrith Parthasarathy | Updated on January 23, 2018

All at attention Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (left) — often obdurate to a fault — lines up with his team before the match against Chelsea at the FA Community Shield   -  Reuters

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho have made their mutual contempt obvious for all to see   -  Reuters

The signing of Raheem Sterling from Liverpool should quicken the pulses ofManchester City fans   -  Reuters

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, posing for a selfie with fans, is fast becoming one of the best players in the world   -  Reuters

While Chelsea prevailed at last season’s Premier League, this time around there is plenty more to look forward to; with revamped teams and new strategies

This evening, as Manchester United host Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford, millions of Indians — possibly as many as, if not more than those watching in the UK — will glue themselves to their TVs. If we are to trust some reports, a whopping 35 million in India follow the fortunes of Manchester United alone. It’s likely that these figures are grossly exaggerated. But long-distance fandom is today a legitimate phenomenon. That the Premier League — Britain’s foremost football competition — is now a global affair is undeniable. Equally incontrovertible is the league’s rising popularity in India. To this legion of fans, today’s curtain-raiser to a new season of the Premier League will represent a renewal of an obsession. And almost all the fans, barring supporters of Chelsea, will be hoping for a tighter title race this time around.

Last season’s Premier League, in spite of the tournament’s reputation for delivering excitement, quickly turned into a damp squib. Chelsea, managed by the captivating and occasionally obnoxious Jose Mourinho, were tactically and physically far superior to each of their opponents. Their crowning as champions of England seemed inevitable as early as a few games into the 2014-15 season. Their rivals — Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United — crippled by weaknesses in one significant area or another, proved utterly incapable of mounting anything resembling a meaningful challenge. This, to Mourinho, ever the arch egotist, provided much perverse pleasure. The events of the past few months, though, perhaps portend a different kind of a season, and a more compelling battle for the championship.

Arrows in the quiver

Each of the three main competitors has made smart and, in some cases, expensive purchases in the summer’s transfer window, infusing their teams with new talent. Chelsea, on the other hand, have been surprisingly quiet in their trading, making only sparse additions to their squad. Mourinho possibly believes in the adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

But, with Chelsea’s competitors expected to make further dips into the market, which closes on August 30, it seems the gap at the top is being bridged.

Coaches at the centre

What’s more, the managers at each of the big four clubs remain unchanged going into the new season. Their distinct personalities and coaching philosophies will add vigour to the title race. Mind-games between the quartet — an occasionally overemphasised factor — have already begun. After Arsenal’s recent narrow 1-0 victory against Chelsea in the Community Shield — a supposedly friendly precursor to the Premier League — Arsenal’s manager, Arsene Wenger, conspicuously refused to shake Mourinho’s hand. Mourinho has, in the past, looked upon Wenger with veritable derision. Perhaps, this was Wenger’s idea of acknowledging mutual contempt. These dynamics between the managers can sometimes appear puerile. Fortunately, the changes in the playing squads this summer suggest that the sideshows are likely to be rightfully overshadowed by the action on the field.

Amongst the top four teams, Manchester City, champions the season before last, have made the most curious dealings. But, the signing of Raheem Sterling from Liverpool should quicken their fans’ pulses. It is recognised that City’s squad does not need substantial overhaul. After all, in the last four seasons, City have either won the league or finished runners-up.

They comprise an expensively assembled group that brims with attacking talent. These include, among others, Argentina’s Sergio Aguero, a virtuoso striker who is both a scorer of great goals and a great goal-scorer; Spain’s David Silva, a player of silken genius, capable of making the spectacular look easy; and the Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure, who can be a destructive powerhouse-of-a-player. Toure has, at times, thrown childish fits and has even harboured thoughts of leaving City. Why? The club forgot to buy him a birthday cake. But when in right spirits, Toure’s natural abilities force one to suspend disbelief, which is what we ask and expect of sport.

In spite of their obvious attacking prowess, City occasionally lacked spark in their forward play last season. It is to this end, to help Aguero, Silva and Toure rediscover their magic, that City have splashed £49 million on Sterling — a fee that represents a new transfer record for English players. Twenty-year-old Sterling is far from a finished product. But he’s a player of mercurial talent, and possesses great speed and directness in style that can prove decisive on counter-attacks. Given his age, City clearly see Sterling as a player for the future, but the price tag suggests that they also expect him to contribute to their immediate revival.

City are still to solve problems in their defence, which often appeared beleaguered last season. But issues in personnel were overshadowed by their manager Manuel Pellegrini’s belief in a tactical set-up that demanded substantial work from the team’s central midfielders. City’s lynchpin Toure, at any rate, didn’t fancy putting in the hard yards. In the pre-season friendly fixtures this summer, though, Pellegrini has adopted a more varied approach. He’s added a central midfielder to the 11 at the cost of a striker — a move which, puzzlingly, could make the team more dynamic in their forward play.

Much like Pellegrini, Arsenal manager Wenger is also often obdurate to a fault. But late last season, he showed signs of burying his inherent attitude — to win games by dazzling opponents with intricate passing and movement — and relied on greater solidity and better defensive organisation. Wenger’s signings in recent times have also been impressive. Arsenal have made steady strides, and have won the FA Cup (England’s chief domestic knockout competition) in both the last two seasons. Each of the preceding three summers has seen Arsenal sign players of exceptional attacking ability. In 2012, the club signed Spain’s Santi Cazorla, who is small in stature but capable of outlandish feats on the field — he’s one of those rare footballers who are equally adept with both feet. In the summer before last, Arsenal signed from Real Madrid Germany’s Mesut Özil, whose touch and vision can at times belie imagination. But perhaps their signing last summer of the Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez, from Barcelona, was the one that came closest to completing their squad. Sanchez, a vivacious figure, boasts an ability to finish moves with unerring accuracy, a quality of substantial premium in Europe.

Yet, even though Arsenal seemed to strengthen their squads every summer, there appeared to be a few noteworthy voids at the team’s core last year. Wenger found a solution to one within the club. In December 2014, the Frenchman Francis Coquelin was recalled from his loan spell at Charlton Athletic, and was tasked with the responsibility of anchoring Arsenal’s midfield. He hasn’t looked back since, and has often performed the role with admirable élan.

Now, Wenger has sought to cure the other issue at the heart of Arsenal’s squad: finding a goalkeeper of sturdy repute. This summer, the only first-team player that Arsenal have signed thus far is Petr Cech, who has won four league titles, including three as Chelsea’s first-choice stopper. Although one shouldn’t read too much into Arsenal’s victory in the Community Shield, it nonetheless showcased their readiness for the season ahead — Cech’s signing, if nothing else, has instilled in the team’s defence a sense of comfort.

Of all the top four teams, though, it’s possible to argue that Manchester United have made the best signings. Since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, United have massively underachieved. Last season, under the Dutchman Louis van Gaal, the club only scraped to a fourth place finish. But this summer, van Gaal has had a touch of a dictator about him. He’s been ruthless in ridding the team of its deadwood and each of the five players that he’s brought in, thus far, answers a specific necessity. His signings, especially in midfield, of the Frenchman Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton and the legendary German Bastian Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich cure a longstanding problem. They will bring cleverness, bite and assurance to United’s midfield. But it’s the signing of the young Dutch forward Memphis Depay that has had the club’s fans most excited.

Depay, after enduring a troubled childhood, shined in The Netherlands over the last two seasons. At 21, he’s already built like an ox. He’s capable of scoring and creating goals in all manner and form. Given the fear amongst United fans that the team could still come undone due to potential departures, especially that of the Argentine Angel di Maria to Paris St Germain, the club will place much reliance on Depay to provide the fireworks. If goalkeeper David de Gea, who is wanted by Real Madrid, also leaves United, the club will require further restructuring in a core area, before the end of August. How United manage this feat might prove crucial. Yet, it’s unquestionable that United are better equipped to challenge for major honours this season — indeed it would be inexcusable for them to not do so. Chelsea’s fans might view the club’s relative serenity over the summer as a sign of stability. But, given the changes at Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United — many of them positive — one might have expected Chelsea to be more active in the transfer window. There’s no denying that last season Chelsea were often imperious. Their Belgian forward Eden Hazard is fast becoming one of the best players in the world, possibly just shy of the bracket comprising Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But, as the season wore on, especially beginning March this year, Chelsea tended to waver, causing Mourinho to revert to a more conservative approach, which sits better with his general footballing philosophy.

Thus far, the only notable signing Chelsea have made is the Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, who had a wretched spell on loan at Manchester United last season, looking a pale shadow of his former self. Chelsea can do with greater variety in attack, and still lack effective back-ups to their star midfielder, Cesc Fabregas, and to the ingenious Hazard. It’s, no doubt, possible that Chelsea might yet make a few more additions to their squad, before the end of August. Their failure to do so, though, might give their competitors the perfect fillip to mount a title challenge, something their fans will relish. A closely fought Premier League will also raise the levels of enthusiasm across the globe, including amongst supporters in India, to whom the Premier League represents sporting nirvana.

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a Chennai-based lawyer and writer

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Published on August 07, 2015
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