Season 22 of the English Premier League – The Return of the Lion
96 days and one awesome World Cup later, the Premier League resumes tomorrow for Season 22, which is set to be even more dramatic than the last one.
I did not know why I decided to delay this review till today, but last night I discovered why: Tony Pulis coach of Crystal Palace, left the club by ‘mutual consent’ after what is thought to be disagreements over transfer policy, which usually means that he wanted to buy some players who were probably on the expensive side, and the Palace management said no.
This is significant because when Pulis arrived on November 23 last year, they were 19th, and had lost 9 of their 12 games. On their way to ending the season in 11th place, Palace left the title ambitions of Liverpool in tatters – more on them later – by refusing to lie down after shipping 3 goals, and Pulis himself was named Manager of the Year by his colleagues.
His style of football may not the cup of tea for most ‘purists’, but what is without doubt is that he knows his way around the Premiership. Fulham and Cardiff both got relegated last season, and if either had employed Pulis, they would probably have been able to stay up. Palace did and survived. Who they employ next will go a long way to determine if they stay up again, and most people are already taking bets on Palace going down.
Managers are very, very important people, but this fact is often obscured by the players who do their thing on the pitch. Manchester United found out the hard way about how one wrong appointment can turn a team of champions into a rabble overnight. Thankfully, that mistake has now been corrected with the appointment of Louis Van Gaal, but securing Champions League football will be more challenging than ever. Van Gaal has quickly set about implementing his 3-4-1-2 system, similar to what took Holland to third place in Brazil, but the exodus of defensive experience in the shape of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, and Patrice Evra means that those left behind have a steep learning curve. Luke Shaw has come in from Southampton, but will miss the first month of the season through injury, while the likes of Tyler Blackett and Reece James have done their dreams of being first team players a world of good with promising performances in pre-season.
In midfield, Ander Herrera is the only addition so far, but Darren Fletcher’s return to form is a welcome development, further highlighted by being named assistant captain to Wayne Rooney. Despite all the talk about the money available for transfers, there has not been that much activity. There is still time, however, and if rumoured targets like Vidal, Di Maria and/or Cuadrado arrive, the outlook could change significantly.
Champions last season, Manchester City have had a relatively quiet summer. Not much by way of big spending, but they have quietly addressed their personnel issues from last term. Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando have arrived from Porto to shore up in central defence and midfield respectively, and the arrival of Bacary Sagna from Arsenal will provide Zabaleta with strong competition at right back, with another demanding season in store. The key issue, in my view, will be how players like Aguero and Silva are kept fit for much of the season. Aguero played just 45% of available minutes last season, but still scored 17 goals. If that number is significantly increased this term, City will be hard to shake off top spot.
Jose Mourinho complained ad nauseam that he didn’t have any strikers last season. Now, he’s got one. Diego Cost is one of the most fearsome front men in world football, and with Furia Roja team mate Cesc Fabregas behind him – one of the kings of the through ball – opposition defences are right to fear the worst, especially those who sit back against Chelsea. Consider this: Chelsea got more points per game against the top half (2.17) than they did against the bottom half (2.15). Results like the draw against Norwich and defeats to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, and most damagingly, Sunderland at home ensured that Mourinho went a second season without any trophies for the first time in his career so far.
A lack of ideas in front of goal had a big part to play in those results, and those flaws look to have been rectified. Jose went on record a few days ago as saying that Costa was a bargain. If that turns out to be true, the title may return to Stamford Bridge for the first time since 2010.
Not if Arsenal have anything to say about it, however. A long run without trophies was ended with victory in the FA Cup last season, and there is a renewed sense of optimism around the club, especially with Arsene Wenger being a lot more liberal with his cheque book. Last season’s marquee signing was Mesut Ozil, and this season it is Alexis Sanchez, one of the most exciting forwards in the game. His high tempo style fits perfectly with Arsenal, and with additions elsewhere like David Ospina, Mathiew Debuchy and Calum Chambers, the suggestions that this is Arsenal’s strongest squad in ten years cannot be dismissed.
All this potential will mean nothing, however, if players cannot be kept fit. In 3 of the last 4 seasons, Arsenal have been first or second in the league in terms of days lost due to injury. Their form against direct rivals also needs to be addressed. A repeat of heavy defeats away to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City must be avoided.
Last season, Liverpool nearly became the first team to win the title without being in the top 4 the season before. In one year, they went from 7th, 28 points behind United, to being one Gerrard slip and one late second half collapse away from ending a wait of more than 20 years for a league title. The primary reason for this was a system from Brendan Rodgers that made the best use of the players at his disposal, the best of which was Luis Suarez.
As one half of the strike partnership that produced 52 goals, he terrorized defences and worked hard for his team when require. He has departed to Barcelona, but his partner in crime, Daniel Sturridge led the league in points won (20) and number of games in which he found the net (19).
The arrival of Southampton’s Dejan Lovren will help strengthen a defence which conceded an astounding 50 goals last season, and two other Southampton recruits, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert, will attempt to fill the void left by Suarez. Alberto Moreno is believed to be a solution to the problem left-back position, and Emre Can will bolster midfield given Liverpool’s increased commitments with Champions League football. There are as many stories of teams left short after losing their best player, as there are of teams who have gone from strength to strength. Time will tell on what side Liverpool fall.
Tottenham signed a bunch of players last summer, but Andre Villas Boas failed to get going sufficiently, and a couple of heavy defeats to Liverpool and City resulted in his sack before the second half of the season. Tim Sherwood replaced him, and fared slightly better, getting 1.91 points per game as against 1.69 points per game for AVB. He was only ever going to be a temporary solution, though, as now Mauricio Pochettino has arrived from Southampton to see if he can take the team back into the Champions League. It will be very hard, however, given the resources of the teams already ahead of them. Ben Davies and Michael Vorm have been brought in from Swansea to improve the left-back role and goalkeeping departments respectively, but the squad is bloated and they will probably need to sell before they buy.