Blog by: TRP
Has Manchester United thrown itself out of the top 4 this season?
Now that’s a million dollar question which most of the Red Devils’ fans won’t even remotely agree to think of. But thanks to some extreme activity in the transfer window by the English clubs, barring Manchester United, one can actually fathom the reality of this particular question. This season, there are almost 6 teams in English top flight capable of challenging for those four valuable finishing spots. 3 teams from London and 3 teams from Manchester. Yes, I’ve counted Liverpool in. The very thought of Man United failing to qualify for next season’s Champions League is an absolute rarity, as they have failed to qualify only twice since the competition was reinstated with its new name, twenty one years ago.
Let’s put all the cards on the table and take it from there. It might be too early in the season to come to conclusions but we can’t rule out the possibility of such a thing happening. Man United fans themselves know that their title chances have taken a huge dent after a dismal showing in the transfer window. While a non-top 4 finish might be a bit exaggerated, Arsenal’s capture of Ozil on deadline day turns the tables in favour of the ‘title of this article’. Which obviously means that Manchester United might have to battle it out with Liverpool and Spurs for that crucial fourth spot. Here is why all this has a good chance of happening.
Undoubtedly, the clubs that finished second and third last season have made significant strides in the summer to strengthen their squads. The Premier League has acquired a new, all-round manager in Pellegrini at City and also welcomed back one of its most loved and vastly successful Jose Mourinho, at Chelsea for a second term. Both these managers have set their prime objective to dethrone the 20-time champions and claim the English crown.
Chelsea, from last season has become stronger in terms of squad depth in midfield. With a solid foundation in defense already set, Mourinho only had to make the decision of not sending Tomas Kalas on loan again. The midfield now looks strong with the return of Michael Essien and the arrival of Dutch youngster Van Ginkel, but the lack of that world-class element in the middle of the pitch still eludes the Blues fans. Much was talked about the transfer of Willian from Anzhi, but it might turn out to be the most crucial one as the season rolls by. Willian has similar traits as Hazard and could fill in as part of rotation or when the Belgian is absent. Andre Schurrle is another player who offers direct play, throw into it another Belgian in Kevin de Bruyne and Mourinho has a plethora of attacking midfielders to choose from. Samuel Eto’o was the alternative after the Rooney pursuit turned rot. The Cameroon international is just what Chelsea need at the moment, providing experience and competition in the striking department. The Super Cup match against Bayern Munich would have sent a clear signal to all the English teams of what a Mourinho’s team is capable of in terms of spirit and attitude.
Manchester City might have had a subdued start to the season, but that can be expected from a team with a new manager and four talented new signings. Pellegrini didn’t waste any time in identifying the problems Man City had last season. With four world-class strikers at his disposal now, the ex-Malaga manager has many things running to his tune. The only problem that the blue side of Manchester face is in defense. Key players in Micah Richards and Vincent Kompany are injured which forced the manager to sign Martin Demichelis from Atletico Madrid. The Argentine defender too became a victim of injury leaving Lescott and Nastasic as the only central defenders fit. On the bright side, there is now enough squad depth for Pellegrini to make long strides in Europe. Man City had the strongest team on paper last season, and Mancini can be held solely responsible for an unsuccessful defense of the title. Man City will see Chelsea as their major rivals this season, with Arsenal providing reasonable amount of competition.
Rodgers is driving Liverpool in the right direction
Winning the title is an extremely long shot for Liverpool. But Brendan Rodgers is bringing back the ‘former’ most successful club in England back to where it was. When he was appointed as the Liverpool manager, Rodgers supposedly asked the owners 3 years to make Liverpool worthy of the English title. Till now, he has done all the right things, be it getting rid of the deadwood in Carroll, Adam and Downing, handling of the Suarez antics or bringing in promising new talent. Liverpool’s brilliant start to the current campaign speaks volumes of Rodgers’ positive progress.
The major area which needed mending was the defense. Liverpool allowed 47 goals into their net last season, most of them in the away games. Some ‘real steel’ has been added to the slim back-line with the signings of Kolo Toure, Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Llori. Sakho, especially is the one to keep an eye on as he will try to stake claim against the likes of Van Persie and Sergio Aguero. Almost every area on the pitch is now strong for Liverpool and without any midweek European distractions, they will be fresh to take on teams every weekend. Coutinho and Sturridge are now proving to be blockbuster signings and add to that the return of Luis Suarez, it’s a completely different ball game. A team with quality, depth, a meticulous coach and an optimal number of matches, surely has the potential of making it to the top 4 this season, and Liverpool is just that.
Spurs might have splashed the cash, but can Andre Villas-Boas manage without Bale?
Gareth Bale was the only hope for Andre Villas-Boas and Tottenham Hotspur last season, making his mark in world football with scintillating displays. But Spurs eventually ended up in the Europa League places and lost Bale to Real Madrid. AVB is young in the manager business and is still learning the trade. His time at Chelsea would surely have taught him some good lessons on player management. While he is renowned as a manager more into the tactical side of the game, during his time at Porto, Chelsea or Spurs, he stuck to the same set of tactical principles. When the opponent got one over him, he didn’t have any strategy to counter those tactics, resulting in his team losing or drawing matches. It has been a pattern since his time at Chelsea, as the players didn’t know what to do after the 70 minute mark in most of the matches.
At Spurs, this summer has seen the arrival of seven new players adding depth to all departments. So far, it has been a drab showing in the 3 matches that have been played. AVB opted to field the 4-3-3 formation, the one which he has been using since his days at Porto. His flexibility with formations will be questioned when Spurs start falling down the table. The new signings will take time to settle in and also for the manager to make his tactics work. So one might expect Spurs to mount significant challenge in the later months for the Champions League spots. But there is the distraction of Thursday night football in the form of Europa League, which could destroy any sort of League ambitions AVB and Co. Everything else remains to be seen.
Ozil changes everything for Arsenal
Believe it or not, Arsenal’s hope for a remotely good season were in the gutter, only for Wenger to pull the rabbit out of the hat on the final day of the transfer window. That rabbit, Ozil, is a game changer and the whole footballing world knows it. Just to put things into perspective, Arsenal were finishing 5th or 6th as on September 1st. Now they have a chance to even go for the title. They have issues with defense and their striker department has become thin with injuries, which is temporary. But make no mistake, Ozil holds the key to Arsene Wenger’s football philosophy. The beautiful game Arsenal were known for back in the day will be back and the major impact of this signing will be on Jack Wilshere. It somewhat eases the creative pressure on Wilshere, allowing him to concentrate on the discipline side of his game. Having Cazorla, Ozil and Wilshere in the same team on the pitch is a dream in itself.
The defensive woes of Arsenal could be compensated in attack with more number of goals, So an Arsenal fan can expect some thrilling matches as days go by. The Gunners will be able to win tight encounters with the brilliance of Ozil and that puts them right on top with Chelsea and Man City. Arsenal couldn’t sign any striker before the window closed, but they did attempt for Demba Ba. This is what Jose Mourinho had to say, “We didn’t accept Arsenal’s offer for Demba Ba because the signing of Ozil makes them title contenders.”
Moyes needs Rooney and van Persie to be in top form
By now, it is pretty much clear at what level Manchester United need to be playing to have a chance of making it into the top 4, come the end of May, 2014. Marouane Fellaini was the only buy manager David Moyes could manage after some persuasion at Everton by the Belgian himself. There is a belief that a player moving from an average club to a top club will step up his game and become a better player. Gary Cahill can be a decent example of that. While Fellaini might have some chinks in his armour, he has the potential to become that physical influence in midfield Man United fans have been craving for the past few seasons. Even someone better than Fellaini isn’t enough for the Red Devils to compete for a top 4 spot.
The “Fergie factor” played a huge part in their title success last season, and whether Moyes can deliver such an influence this season remains to be seen. Van Persie was the difference in the title chase with his unstoppable scoring last term. This time around, Wayne Rooney needs to step up and maintain top form along with the Dutchman for Moyes to steer his team into the top 4. The Kagawa issue has been a bit repetitive as the Japanese attacker got less minutes on the pitch even during Ferguson’s reign. The infusion of Kagawa, Rooney and Van Persie will be the most important and difficult task for Moyes in coming months. The recent loss to Liverpool highlighted the midfield problems and a shaky defense. If Evans reproduces his last season’s form, that should not be a major issue.
How well Moyes uses Rooney and Kagawa remains to be seen, as the Englishman is poised to see out the two years left in his contract. The transfer window dealings have not helped Moyes either, which highlights the need for a Director of Football. Ed Woodward was at the end of immense criticism from Man United fans after the window shut on September 2nd. Still, all is not lost as there is another window in January. Some decent deals during those 30 days could prove pivotal for Manchester United and their ambitions this season.