Who Will Deliver the Red Devils from Purgatory?
Perhaps drawn from the team’s unparalleled polarizing quality, but expectations for United’s upcoming season appear to alternative sharply between the perception that there will be an unrelenting return to top four prominence in the wake of the Moyes fiasco and the belief that last season simply signaled the team’s deep-lying roster problems, for which there will not be an immediate turnaround.
While Phil Jones could develop into one of the league’s better center half backs within the next few seasons, Chris Smalling has shown few signs of similar potential and shaded closer to (Kolo) Toure than Terry last season. The center back position has not improved, nor has the situation directly in front of the defense. Signing Fellaini to supplant Fletcher and Carrick in center midfield was like spending $10 on a $5 scratch-off, multiplied by 3 million or so.
For the time being, any combination of Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, and Darren Fletcher will probably cover the three man center midfield of Van Gaal’s preferred 3-5-2 formation, but the squad still needs a No.6 to protect the defense from the countless charges through the middle that opposing teams enjoyed all last season.
The additions of Herrera and Luke Shaw will certainly help the skeletal structure of Manchester’s roster to the extent that gauze remedies a severed limb. Now that Ferdinand and Vidic have limbed away into the sunset, the need for defensive reinforcements is particularly urgent.
Signing the likes of Vidal and Thomas Vermaelen would automatically make United a odds on favorite to return to the Champions League after next season, but a failure to sign at least one will place an immense amount of pressure on United to finish among the top three in goals scored next season
…which shouldn’t be a problem. Even if Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson do not take a step forth in their development this season, the team has no lack of scoring options, so long as the Moyes favorite – Operation: Deepcrossapalooza – is disregarded as a viable attacking strategy. Mata and Herrera project as a furious duo at the head of midfield; Rooney and Welback should score around 30-35 goals combined (across all competitions).
With that said, Robin van Persie’s health following the lengthy post-World Cup layoff will be key in dictating the manner of United’s return from 7th place indignity. Two seasons ago, RvP accounted for 18 points when only considering the goals he scored that either brought United level or ahead in league matches. Last year, he missed long stretches of matches, periods which coincided with the worst epochs of Man United’s season.
United will still score plenty of goals if van Persie suffers from further injury episodes, but his ability to consistently tog out at the pinnacle of United’s attack will make the side among the most formidable in the league. In the team’s current state, defensive vulnerability will give the team a Europa League ceiling. With Vidal and another center back signed before the deadline, and only domestic competitions to focus on, 3rd or 4th place becomes a strong possibility.
Two Steps Forward and…
Simply by the loss of Luis Suarez, Liverpool will almost certainly take a step back this season after a rather surprising second place league finish this past May. With all the additions in mind, Daniel Sturridge remains the most equipped player on the roster to fill the massive void created by the Uruguayan’s departure. In a limited sample size, Sturridge was sublime at the focal point of Liverpool’s attack. Stretched to a full season, it’s near impossible to imagine him enjoying a similar rate of success.
Like the Tottenham board, Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool’s chairmen also diversified their transfer targets by design of variety in position and developmental stage. Players like Adam Lallana and Emre Can bolster the midfield considerably. Although mild reaches in terms of price for the pair, the former fits a need as one of last season’s best bridges between the midfield and strikers; the latter as a space clogger in front of the defense.
Lazar Markovic, one has to imagine, was a player that Brendan Rodgers had his eye on for a while. As a primary right winger, he will push Raheem Sterling for playing time, set up on the opposite side of Philippe Coutinho or Sterling, or even play directly behind Sturridge or Ricky Lambert on occasion.
These new options, however, will still quake in the face of the immediate challenge to replace Suarez’s 31 goals and 12 assists. While Can provides improved protection for the defense, it is difficult to determine how Liverpool’s defense significantly improved. Dejan Lovren (who was probably acquired for closer to market value than Adam Lallana) will strengthen the heart of Liverpool’s defense, but the defensive unit as a whole has likely not improved enough to offset the imminent offensive regression.
Rodgers is an excellent coach and, in turn, will maintain the passing philosophy that has served his side so well in his first two seasons in command. His ability to build the team’s depth, particularly in midfield, will prove to be a necessity for Liverpool as it deals with the rigors of Champions League football. The added dimension that it brings, however, combined with the loss of Suarez will make a return to the top four extremely difficult as Everton and Manchester United bang on the door. The time to deliver is now for Sturridge.
The Two Rich Blue Teams
Two of the favorites. Manchester City, the reigning champions, improved one of its strongest position – right fullback – by signing Bacary Sagna. Chelsea signed Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, essentially in place of Ba/Lukaku and Frank Lampard. It also acquired Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid and brought Didier Drogba back after his two year pilgrimage in China and Turkey (not a religious statement).
Which team improved more?
The loss of David Luiz should hardly be felt with Matic and Mikel providing cover in front of the defense. The biggest worry for both teams is a common one: an over-reliance on the health of each team’s respective captain: Vincent Kompany for City and John Terry for Chelsea. Looking beyond the two center backs, Chelsea has better depth at most positions, save for right fullback, striker, and center midfield.
If there was another place to look, it has to be at the goalkeeper position. Chelsea arguably has two of the best ten goalkeepers in the world under contract and City has Manuel Almun…I mean Joe Hart.
City will almost certainly remain in the top four simply by virtue of its formidable attacking force and the central players directly behind (David Silva, Yaya Toure, and Fernandinho), but I do not expect Etihad F.C. to repeat. 2nd or 3rd will be the probable final place. If they do, it will be thanks to another great and injury-free season for Sergio Aguero; 30 goals scored between Stevan Jovetic, Negredo, and Edin Dzeko in the league; good health for Kompany, Martín Demichelis, Fernandinho and Toure; a return to top form for Joe Hart.
As for Chelsea, I consider it to be the favorite to win the league this upcoming season. Even if Diego Costa/undead Didier do not adequately remedy Chelsea’s underachievement at the striker position, Andre Schurrle, Willian, Eden Hazard, and Oscar will supply service and goals. If Costa nets at least 15-18 goals in the league, it should be enough to sufficiently complement the other scoring sources on the roster and possibly even appease Mourinho’s expectations.